B-Play has been reviewed in London.
The Evening Standard
Robert William Sherwood's plays are commissioned for productions in the States in places such as Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Over here, he's confined to the back room of a Kennington pub, where you would more expect to find a bare-knuckle fight than a work of dramatic art.
Still, this is his long-time laboratory, where he conducts theatrical experiments - in this case a genetically modified "B-play" roguishly toying with the possibilities of film noir.
The story is that of an exhausted private dick who is launched into a paranoid, criminal underworld of professorial misogynists and mobster lesbians after being dumped by his cop wife.
David Mamet would be proud of the craftsmanship that has gone into this tightly wrought dramatic nugget, told in six neatly turned scenes. It's like a card game of sex, death and intrigue crackling with what the author calls the "baroque language" of the noir genre.
Few playwrights working in this country can match Sherwood's ear for a finely bored verbal missile and Ned Cox's direction equals this with a sharp-shooting show.
It's a nightmarish world where shady figures in up-turned collars lurk in dark alleys, Venetian blinds block out the sun and inscrutable villains puff menacingly on cigars.
There's more than a hint of comic-book absurdism, but Cox eschews easy laughs and lends a Kafkaesque edge.
Barbara Barnes and Imogen Walker play cat and mouse with Kerry Shale as the exhausted detective - Barnes as a bitter wife and a Sapphic mobster, Walker as a long, elegant glamour-puss.
Shale, meanwhile, is a shabby rodent of a slippery dick, but the most fun is had by Robert Ashe as his corpulent Svengali, who is as thick round the middle as he is bloated with verbosity.
"Live a little, kill a little," he advises Shale. It's just one tadpole of a thought in a play teeming with many such amusing ideas.
Film noir has been regularly plundered for homages, satires, and as a basis for explorations of human relationships and moral codes, however amoral they seem on first encounter. Robert William Sherwood's absorbing, tightly written if ever so slightly unfulfilling new play does all of the above. Noir's circumlocutory, wise-cracking, neo-Jacobean dialogue and stylised atmospheres, lend themselves readily to theatre. Michael Taylor's elegant design incorporates the ubiquitous Venetialn blinds of the idiom, and Adam Crosthwaite's excellent lighting utilises a lot of smoky blues and overhead spots. But the characters here are more than the cardboard cut out ciphers who often populate the films. They are given full lives by the uniformly superb cast, directed with inventive economy by Ned Cox for Shot and Chaser Theatre Company.
Jack would be played by Steve Buscemi in the movie, but here Kerry Shale gives him the compelling aura of a man uncomfortable in his own skin. Nominally he is an undercover cop; symbolically this stands for the deceit, self-deceit and uncontrollable slippage of identity which is part and parcel of the human condition.
He is cheating on his wife, Carol, a fellow cop, played lean and slightly mean by Barbara Barnes. She has undercover ambitions of her own. Jack is trying to nail beefy and bullying gangster Vince, portrayed by Robert Ashe with the delicacy of an underworld Oliver Hardy. Naturally, Jack has to live the crim's life. A fact which further distorts his own personality. Or perhaps this is his true psychic home. Imogen Walker's Janice -- Vince's put upon moll -- completes the quartet and vibrates with a sense that she's better than this.
The plot moves forward by a series of sexually driven twists -- La Ronde and Huis Clos meets The Big Sleep. Sherwood is strong on the dynamics of power as the characters circle and stab and grab at one another while never managing -- or generally even trying -- to establish equal relationships. Jack is finally punished for a central act of moral cowardice in which he betrays the one potentially loving liason of the piece. But this conclusion still seems a rather absolute way to end a drama which, on the whole, shifts its shape so beguilingly.
There are many London Fringe Theatres in rooms above pubs. The White Bear is not one. It's a room behind a pub, in Kennington Park Road, a couple of sixes from the Oval cricket ground. Its reputation is part built on promoting London-based Canadian playwright Robert William Sherwood.
B-Play, as it's called for short, visits old noir B-movie crime and passion land, mixing in a shot of John Fowles' novel The Magus where a character sets out on firm ground only to end up finding his whole world's in a conspiracy against him.
Jack, an undercover cop given sputtering conviction by Kerry Shale, finds his wife Carol, an assured Barbara Barnes, walking out on him because of his infidelity with Imogen Walker's Janice. It's all in the line of business, as Janice is moll to the criminal Vince (Robert Ashe). Except he really loves her, though not when guns get pointed. Which is the point; of the four B-words in the full title, it's the last this play's really about.
Pastiching noir plots is tough enough. Doing so to some purpose and making it stick's a truly tricky business, one which Sherwood brings off with panache. When Carol turns up as a lesbian Ms Big of the drugs world, with Janice on her knee, the opening marital relationship is recreated in business terms, while her making Jack sharpen pencils during a meeting with Vince not only prevents him overhearing her deals, but reinforces his humiliation, with a Freudian kick thrown in.
Ashe is the cheery enforcer, a big smile and a hug thrown in with his threats and warnings. Walker provides the human vulnerability, though she's able to switch in a moment to the tough exterior needed to survive in this world. The noir world, that is, or indeed, our world.
Director Ned Cox keeps the balance of probability hanging between comedy and tension. Do your paranoia a favour; check out the back room at the White Bear.