Friday, June 8, 2012

'The Shadow Formula' written and directed by David R. Roberts, 7th June 2012

This play stinks.  Getting a bad review, especially one as negative as this one is going to be can't be much fun to read at all, and if David R. Roberts ever finds his way to this page I hope he understands that the wounds I am about to inflict upon him are my honest opinion and made entirely without malice.

'The Shadow Formula' is a play set in London, 1938.  It concerns the machinations of various intelligence services and mad scientists who are trying to get hold of the titular Shadow Formula.  Dragged into their web of intrigue is Cary Donat (Edwin Flay), a veteran of the Great War who is haunted by the memories of his dead comrades.  He teams up with the mysterious Raz Peel (Fiona Nivalis) to try and work his way through the tangled spy games and save the day.

I should briefly cover the good points of this production before I start the post-mortem.  The costuming is consistently of a high standard, and mostly fits the period well.  There are a few anachronisms, but overall, it's a fairly impressive feat of costuming.  A small production like this can't have an enormous budget, and whoever was in charge of costuming has acquitted themselves very well.  The female lead, Raz Peel's costume in particular is a nice mix of practicality and style, it complements the character well with the fur collar adding a nice touch of luxury to the somewhat bare and austere set.  

That is about the only unqualified praise I can give to the show.  The descent begins here.

What this production desperately wants to be is 'The 39 Steps'.  The somewhat screwball, freeform, MacGuffin centred nature of the plot, as well as the setting is instantly reminiscent of both the Hitchcock film and the stage production.  The lead character is even named 'Cary Donat', after Cary Grant and Robert Donat (star of the film The 39 Steps).  'The 39 Steps' is a great film and a brilliant West End production, so if you're trying to tread on the same ground as it does then you'd better do a damn good job.  In trying to understand why 'The Shadow Formula' fails, it's important to have an understanding of what makes the stage production of 'The 39 Steps' succeed.

'The 39 Steps' is a comic adaptation of the Hitchcock film that uses minimal stage techniques to comic effect.  It is performed by a charismatic cast of four, who using a couple of chairs and some small props manage to execute a complicated multi-character plot involving car chases, fights in and around moving trains and desperate dashes across rainy moors.  In terms of tone it doesn't take itself seriously at all, poking fun at the far-fetched premise, the uptight nature of the characters and how ridiculous it is to try and stage action sequences using a few chairs.  'The Shadow Formula' tries to do a lot of these things, but stumbles at almost every hurdle.

The critical flaw that stops 'The Shadow Formula' working in the same way as 'The 39 Steps' is its tonal inconsistency.  This manifests itself in many, many ways throughout the production and effectively nullifies any comedy as well as simultaneously spoiling the half-hearted stabs at pathos that the play attempts.  The promotional material for this play describes it as a "noir comedy-thriller".  This is a tricky (but not impossible) tightrope to walk down, as to serve each of these aspects well requires that different techniques be used to keep the audience engaged. 

First, and most obviously, to be comedic, the play needs to be funny.  You need a well-polished script and funny actors to be able to pull this off.  'The 39 Steps' gets a lot of comedy mileage from tacitly acknowledging that the cast as well as the audience understands how ridiculous it is. 'The Shadow Formula' attempts this sort of thing with some weak nudges at the fourth wall ("We're not characters in a stage play you know.").  Conversely, to pull off a noir thriller, we need characters that the audience can sympathise with, genuine stakes, suspense, danger and events with real consequences.  It's damn hard to keep both of these plates spinning at the same time, and if you fail (as this play does) you ruin the comedic elements by introducing too much pathos, and undermine any dramatic potential with the constant attempts at light-hearted humour.

For example, early on in the play the lead character heads to a bar to propose to his girlfriend.  He seems genuine, and has seemingly borrowed money from a loan shark to pay for a ring.  As far as the audience can tell, the lead is sincere in his emotions.  Soon afterwards the corpse of his would-be wife is thrown through his front door.  Our lead is shocked and distressed for maybe a minute or two, then it's back to lighthearted humour and half-jokes.  In a straight comedy it'd be possible to relegate the dead girlfriend to some kind of a motivation for the character, but we can't here. Our hero's character arc is him getting over his survivor's guilt from World War I.  In a straightforwardly dramatic scene  we see him wracked with guilt ("I can still see their faces Claude, hear them talking").  So we have a character who is seemingly defined by not being able to get over the deaths of his friends, but is also barely affected by the body of his girlfriend being dumped in his house.  

Another example of massive tonal inconsistency is the dialogue and actions of Diana Unity Fox (Jodyanne Richardson).  Her character is one of the primary antagonists, a British Union of Fascists member and obsessed with meeting Hitler (she's pretty much a paper thin caricature of Unity Mitford).  At one point she captures our two heroes and ties them up to a chair.  It turns out the female lead, Raz, is Jewish.  Her lackeys spread petrol around them and she begins gloating that "Jews are only good for burning!".  This is a tremendously bad line for a number of reasons.  Firstly, you'd better be a damn good writer to bring up holocaust imagery in your light-hearted comedy thriller and keep the audience laughing.  The audience isn't laughing.  You've got a pretty big comedy hill to climb if you're going to have the villain making gleeful references to the holocaust.  But, what compounds the badness of this lane is that the events of the play are set in 1938, before the ovens of the death camps. So you have a line that not only completely torpedoes any comedy, it's also anachronistic!

This, and other elements give the script the feeling of a first draft.  Tiny mistakes and things that don't make sense pepper the script.  These examples are somewhat nitpicky, but they illustrate a lack of care and attention to dialogue and consistency.  Lines like "he's taking the night ferry from Victoria!" (Victoria is a train station in central London with no water near it), "3 papers for 5p!" (Why would you want to buy more than one newspaper at a time?) and "She was smothered, we suspect foul play" (well the fact that she was smothered would seem to suggest that).  These, and other lines so obviously don't make sense that it's a bit mysterious that someone, anyone didn't pipe up in rehearsals and point this out.  It's not like they're plot critical lines, just minor alterations would fix it.

I am not the kind of person to dwell on these sorts of minor logical inconsistencies, but the play is peppered with them, and they become hard to ignore.  If the play had a strong, propulsive narrative then it'd be a little easier to overlook them but the over-arching plot is so badly conceived that you find your mind wandering and dwelling on the minutia.  The titular 'Shadow Formula' that the plot revolves around is an utterly ridiculous sounding chemical that, as describes "brings the shadows to life".  The way that it's described makes it unclear as to whether they're speaking literally or not, and the play has been so tonally inconsistent that the audience is right to be confused as to whether the mad scientist is talking about conjuring monsters from the occult. It turns out he's not, but the fact that we are even wondering this is itself a failing.  This chemical is so dangerous that apparently "two or three drops could drive an entire country mad".  Our lead later gets dosed with it (admittedly this is described as a sample), and seems to be pretty much fine after about 10 minutes. Other plot-related inconsistencies are a laboriously set up "Chekhov's bullet proof vest" which in the end proves bizarrely irrelevant, and a chemistry-free romance that springs between our leads (who are both recently bereaved of their significant others by the end of the play) for no apparent reason other than narrative convention states that these two should kiss at the end.

All of my criticisms would be null and void if this play made the audience laugh.  It doesn't, the most that the audience I was sitting in managed was the occasional polite titter.  Most of the burden of this rests with the script, there is no delineation between "take this seriously" drama and the comedy.  Part of the blame though, is with the cast.

It feels a bit cruel to criticise the cast (as far as I can tell they're all amateurs) and there are no truly awful performances.  But, with one exception, none of them have any comic timing, and even though the script is pretty poor nothing they do salvages it.  There is one exception, and that is the character of Claude Lockhart (Gabriel Keogh) who runs a bar (and I really, really hope that his surname isn't a reference to what I think it is).  He has timing, and is actually funny.  Every time he's on stage my interest perks up a little bit, and he's got an easygoing humour that makes me wish that this character was our hero.  Sadly he later gets unceremoniously shot in the back.  Oh well.  

Our two leads are obviously able to act on some level, but have absolutely no chemistry or comic timing with each other.  It's almost frustrating in the case of Edwin Flay, he can clearly pull off drama, there's a scene early on in the play where he's remembering his dead war buddies, and Flay sells this really well, mixing just the right amount of drunken melancholy and pragmatism.  It's a good, well-acted scene, and sure it's completely tonally inconsistent, but it's nice to see something that is categorically good in this play.  But while he'd fit well into a straight drama, he seems almost supernaturally incapable of raising any laughs from the audience.

Fiona Nivilis seems off altogether though.  Admittedly, her character has somewhat conflicting motivations, she makes an impassioned speech against Nazism "all that's needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing!", but then her motivation later shifts to wanting to rescue a man she's known for about two weeks to the extent of handing over part of the sinister formula that the Nazis want.  She neither convinces the audience of her hatred for fascism, or for her love of this man.  To be fair to her she doesn't have much to work with scriptwise, but she seems quite dispassionate for someone with so much to lose.

There are other, minor annoyances unconnected to cast, script or direction.  The smoke machine next to the stage seems to be on its last legs, and wheezes loudly throughout the production.  The first half concludes with a character breaking a plate over another character's head.  I was a bit dismayed to watch one of the actors crawling around on stage with a dust pan and brush cleaning this up during the interval.  It seems quite disrespectful  to the actor to ask him to demean himself crawling around in front of the audience. Sure, he may not have the biggest part, but that doesn't mean he should have to do this.  Send someone out with a broom and then clear it up off-stage.  The scenery looks somewhat ruined and bombed out, with iron rebar poking through concrete. This would make sense for a play set during the Blitz or in post WW2 London, but what are they trying to say by using this in a pre WW2 setting?  They're charging £10 on the door for this, and there is a distinct sense of sloppiness to proceedings.

It's a bit depressing really, the play is not even a fun, interesting failure.  I was sitting in an almost empty huge auditorium, in pretty much a silent, unresponsive audience.  It's got to be pretty depressing to look out from the stage during this comedy to see bored looking faces staring back at you.  I want to offer constructive criticism, but it's hard in this case as the flaws are buried deep in the foundations of the play and at this point there's not much you can do to fix it.  

This is a play that tries to do too much and fails at almost everything it tries to do.  

(as a postscript, I should add that all quotes from the play are from memory, but I wrote them down in the interval and afterwards so should be mostly accurate)

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