Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Review: 'Tryst' at the Chiswick Playhouse, 10th February 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Maybe I'm just getting cynical, but the standard of fringe theatre feels like it's pretty damn low at the moment. There's a couple of gems out there, but it seems like every time I open my inbox I'm faced with a deluge of invitations to autobiographical productions about playwrights' personal struggle against various types of adversity. And if they're not that, they're some self-consciously random bullshit about unicorns or some other twee bullshit.

So thank god for Karoline Leach's Trysta narratively straightforward two-hander that takes place in two relatively normal locations. The play was first staged in 1997 under the title The Mysterious Mr Love, and now it's the final show in the Chiswick Playhouse's inaugural season.

Set in 1910, we follow conman George Love (Fred Perry) and milliner Adelaide Pinchin (Scarlett Brookes). Love's modus operandi is to seduce rich, desperate and unmarried women and then abscond with their money at the earliest opportunity. He introduces himself to us as a predator, dehumanising his targets by describing them as "it" and claiming that the one night of good sex he'll provide will more than help them through the misery of being conned.

Adelaide Pinchin appears to be his ideal victim. She's a depressed, dowdy woman approaching middle-age eking out a miserable existence behind the scenes of a hat shop. She also has a diamond brooch, a pearl hairpin and a large inheritance that she doesn't know what to do with. After a chance encounter, Love sniffs this out almost immediately, and the stage is set for the big con.

Though based on an easily searchable true story, I would recommend you save your internet search until after you've seen the play. Leach provides a purposeful yet winding narrative in which your assumptions about who these people are are repeatedly challenged. Though one is predator and the other prey, they are both products of the same system and ultimately cannot help but empathise with one another.

Without going into too much spoilerrific detail, the true monster of the piece proves to be the patriarchal society that underpins the era. Love has moulded himself into what he perceives as the ideal man: stylish, charming and devoid of any real emotion. But what's left of the real person under all this, and where is he ultimately going? 

He doesn't realise any of this, so it's a surprise when Adelaide opens up about her home life and he begins to feel increasingly powerful twinges of empathy. And, as every good con man knows, once you start down that road the jig is up.

We cannot help but analyse the characters' predicaments through a contemporary lens. In fact, though the play was first performed in '97, contemporary audiences are probably likely to get more out of the psychology of Adelaide than the original audiences would have.

And man, it's a hell of a story, underpinned by two fantastic performances. Both communicate volumes through their body language alone. Brookes does a great job of draining Adelaide of confidence and then building her back up. She's clearly a beautiful woman in real life, but as Adelaide her drawn features and strained expressions belie decades of being ground under someone else's thumb. 

Meanwhile, Perry manages an onion-like performance in which his character pretends to be someone who is pretending to be someone. That he can do that while clearly delineating each layer is an impressive feat.

On top of all that the attention to period detail in dialogue and set design is basically perfect. Everything from brewing a cup of tea, to running a bath, to outside toilets, to the jobs of ancillary characters have clearly been carefully researched. You know you're in good hands when the characters can casually reference Gibson Girls.

I had a great time, and I honestly wish there were more plays staged like this. Tryst doesn't deal in writing tricks, complex feats of staging or didactic messaging - it's just a straightforward story of two characters in opposition to one another. Those 90 minutes positively flew by for me and judging by the audiences' reaction, they will for you too.

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