If You Please
ADC Theatre, 11pm, until Sat 24 Nov
Attempting to review Surrealist theatre is a perilous affair. There are many traps for the unwary reporter: for example, when someone swaggers into the seat next to you with a hiking pack, a mop and a bike helmet, it’s easy to assume they’re part of the show. (They weren’t.) Or, less embarrassingly, you might just be trying to keep track of the plot.
That would also be a mistake. If You Please doesn’t have a story; it is written in detours, infinite loops and quantum leaps, and its confusion is delightful. This is only exaggerated by the excellent translation, which keeps the effortlessly syncopated rhythms of the original French.
This production lets the audience fill in the gaps in meaning for ourselves: we are presented with a bare stage and harsh white light, with only the minimum of furniture for each scene. On either side, two strange drapes hang down which reminded me of sheets of ice. Perhaps they were to emphasise how each act represents one frozen moment in a more complicated story. Or, as one of the characters put it, ‘the drops of rain, which are all moments of my life, fall down the windowpanes’.
The action opens with a dramatic kiss – but unfortunately, the first scene didn’t quite keep the thrills going, and the actors seemed ever so slightly awkward. The delicate balance of the poetic lover versus the petulant, banal adulteress wasn’t quite right, although the lines were very well-spoken.
The second act was enormous fun, as the sheer silliness of the play got into its stride. The stage was dominated by Jon Porter playing – well, playing who? At various times he seemed to be a psychiatrist, a detective, a reporter or a pimp; the best description my companion came up with was ‘everybody’s get-out clause’. Faced with a bizarre series of stock characters – the anxious husband, the over-dramatic charity advocate – he turned our expectations upside down without breaking a sweat. The occasional silences on stage were played naturally, and left room for beautiful comic touches such as the unplugged phone which still kept ringing. Less exciting was Juliet Griffin’s performance, whose self-conscious comedy spoiled the sense of innocent upheaval.
The whole play seemed to depend on pitting romance against necessity, and high-flown language against everyday chatter. This was brilliantly executed in the third act, where a charmingly nervous Fergus Blair attempted conversation with the elegantly cynical Katie Polglase. The characters took turns to be poetic or dull, and their carefully negotiated romance was brought down to earth with a bump by (of course) a completely surreal market-seller.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but If You Please also has the best closing line I’ve ever heard – and playing the cast out with the Marsellaise was an inspired touch. This play ends as it began: with flair. Go and see it.