Preview: Riverside Drive

Arjun Sajip 29 April 2013

The core crew behind the upcoming adaptation of Woody Allen’s play Riverside Drive, a relatively recent work in the auteur’s oeuvre, is a small one. Essentially a two-hander, featuring the talents of Saul Boyer and Seb Sutcliffe, the play is directed by second-year historian David Rattigan and 27-year-old Maths PhD-student Matthew Lee. All four are Allen aficionados with a great sense of humour, practically prerequisites for bringing one of the man’s lesser-known plays to the Corpus Playroom. Even if you are an Allen fan, you could be forgiven for this play slipping under your radar: the New York comedian is renowned for his films and, to a lesser extent, for his hilarious prose, but he has authored fewer than ten plays, several of which have not been endowed with Wikipedia hyperlinks.

Walking into the Corpus Playroom to interview Rattigan, Lee, Boyer and Sutcliffe, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of set design. Perhaps not a lavish 3D reconstruction of downstate New York, but not a bench and a bin either. Well, a bench and a bin was what I was faced with; unlike in many of Allen’s films, the architecture and topography of the Big Apple play little part in this production. Acting and script have been pushed even more into the foreground, and, from the sneak-preview I was granted, acting and script alike are wonderful.

It was a relief to hear that each person seems to prefer a different facet of Allen’s work; this will likely render the production more full-bodied and complex. On the particular facets of Allen he’s attempting to capture, Lee replies: “A mixture of the films with depth of character, like Annie Hall, and the slapstick ones, like Take the Money and Run.” When asked about their favourite Allen films, Rattigan responds with Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979); Seb concurs, expressing a fondness for Play It Again Sam (1972) and Allen’s darker, more serious films. Saul’s are Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and the more obscure Small Time Crooks (2000), while Lee opts for the manic 1969 film Take the Money and Run.

I ask Boyer what it’s like to deliver lines written by a man often defined by his New York nature, and by his idiosyncratic vocal quiddities. He responds, “This script is very stream-of-consciousness; words and themes recur in a very natural way. The writing is very idiosyncratic, but it’s still easy to inhabit the characters and put your own spin on the words.” According to Rattigan, the directors and actors incorporated their own senses of humour into the play, rather than simply letting Allen’s words speak for themselves. Seb talks humorously of the difficulties of saying “the” in a New York accent. A small debate ensues, with “thee” and “thuh” being bandied about mercilessly, until Seb opines that “it doesn’t really matter for anyone except the actors”. This is a fair assessment; their accents are pretty accurate.

Lee – who is currently set to produce several plays in the coming weeks, including Heart of Darkness – comments on the play itself: ” there are very few stage directions, and there’s a huge amount of room for interpretation… it has to be judged on its own merits as a play, rather than as a stage version of one of his films.” Seb adds, “Many Woody Allen fans will be surprised, but you wouldn’t be disappointed by it… it’s not like anything he’s done before.”

The team’s background research has been pretty exhaustive, considering that the play is under an hour long and features very limited set-design. A friend by the name of Clara, who hails from a locale near the real-life Riverside Drive, was invaluable in compiling PowerPoint presentations of the place itself to give the four a better understanding of the environment they were dealing with. “It was fascinating,” says Boyer. “We just assumed a park bench somewhere, probably by a river or something. Then we saw the pictures, and it’s like Brighton Beach… as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Ah! I can see exactly where we are now.'” Rattigan expands: “Looking at the photos, you can see it’s very narrow and small, and that’s perfect for a small, intense space like the Corpus.”

The group dynamic is definitely conducive to comic success; all four are intelligent and funny. As the light on my voice-recorder switches from red to blue, Seb instantly interjects: “Kind of like Nick Clegg…” From the small preview I saw of the play, it looks like such wit will make its way onto the Corpus stage. Allen fan or not, you should see this; look forward to energetic performances, a sharp script, sure-footed direction and a cracking TCS review.

Arjun Sajip