The eagle takes off

9 February 2008

American Eagle, Corpus Playroom, 5-9 February, 19:00

5 Stars

Reviewer Tom Ovens

I am aware that the main purpose of a theatre critic is to churn out opinionated hogwash. But I shall come onto that bit in a minute; in the meantime, dearest reader, you are simply required to wallow in the following simple sentence: “American Eagle is VERY GOOD, and you should really GO AND SEE IT.” I don’t want to imply that this is the greatest play in the entire universe. Nor do I want to give the impression that this production is perfectly polished. My central point is simply that American Eagle consistently left me cackling helplessly in my seat. It’s a cast of natural comic actors, and Edward Rowett, as the eponymous All-American comic book hero, has a sense of timing so sharp that the audience was left not just laughing but also bleeding profusely.

Perhaps I should offer the reassurance that American Eagle is very much supposed to be funny, although given its fairly weighty themes – politics, the media, ‘America’ – maybe that’s unexpected. But Chris Amos’s play knows exactly what it’s doing, and this production captures it all marvellously. The cheap gag is embraced gleefully and the rather cunning set shows a firm understanding of the comic potential of a man appearing suddenly in a silly costume. But if that sounds belittling, that’s not what I mean…

The straightforward belly-laughs elicited at every turn mean that whenever the play drops into pitch-black satire or painful pathos the impact is heightened tenfold.

It’s a fine balance, and enormous credit to director Edward Kiely for not letting it slip. Despite laughing so hard, we still feel, for example, the sinister undercurrent of the hilarious scene where a sing-song fifties advert is played out, which advises kiddies to ‘drop and cower’ in the event of a nuclear holocaust; we feel strangely chilled, too, by the prophetic final lines of American Eagle‘s last issue: “the knights are dead, the dragons roar…”

But the triumph of the whole thing is that it never feels pretentious. There is clearly naked anger, even, at times, despair at the absurdity of society, which simmers beneath the surface and occasionally lashes out through the veil, but the play still refuses to get carried away. It throws up its arms at gung-ho patriotism and the relationship of the state to the media, and ultimately presents a bleak vision of history as totally out of control.

But the emphasis remains very firmly on being funny, and for me that just makes American Eagle all the more powerful. So do go and see it.