Friday, April 10, 2009

Parlour Song - Almeida Theatre

At a time when shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Weeds" are in high demand, there is hardly a lack of suburban intrigue and scandal. In fact, we seem to be obsessed with it: that dirty little secret lurking below the surface of an otherwise pleasant facade until it hits a breaking point and proper hell breaks loose all over the white picket fences. Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song may unfold in just that myopic landscape (where all of the houses are exactly the same on the outside and structural mirror images on the inside), but his sense of narrative owes little to the pop culture phenomenon of that which is hidden in the little boxes on the hillside and is all the better for it.

Set in rural England, Dale and Ned are neighbors who, on the surface have little in common: The brilliant Toby Jones' Ned is short and stout (sporting a pair of "tits" which he works naively to rid himself of) and works in demolition, obliterating constructions much larger than he could ever be and is married to Joy (Amanda Drew). Dale (Andrew Lincoln) is the macho but sympathetic and human regular Joe who owns a chain of car washes and completely outdoes Ned in the charm department. Despite their differences, the two men share a bond of trust. In their own suburban susperia, the despair is not lying anywhere under the surface. Ned is paranoid: he believes that somebody is stealing all of his possessions, his marriage with his wife has very clearly lost its spark long ago. Dale is discontent: he sees his work as worthless and emasculating in comparison to Ned's, his children are barely a blip on his radar screen, his wife is hardly home when he is. The power of this piece comes not from it's exposition of a seedy underbelly, but an exploration of the humanity of these "dark" thoughts and events.

The piece is brilliantly designed by Jeremy Herbert with a rotating stage that seems to literally unfold, illuminate and cloak itself in darkness just as seamlessly as Butterworth's native dialogue flows from one scene into the next. Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln respectively do great justice to these two very different men, Jones single-handedly stealing the entire show in a five minute sequence during which he attempts to tone himself up in the privacy of his living room. Amanda Drew's Joy is not quite as striking, but perhaps that is appropriate in a character for whom mediocrity has begrudgingly become a norm. The writing is witty, the staging is full of surprises and (if you must draw comparisons) the dashing Andrew Lincoln could give both Mary Louise Parker and Eva Longoria a run for their money.

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