Monday, 9 April 2012

Theatre review: Blue Heart Afternoon

Nigel Gearing's Blue Heart Afternoon is set in 1951 Hollywood, and he populates it with four archetypes of the period: Ernie (Stephen Noonan,) an Oscar-winning songwriter who wasn't particularly supportive of his colleagues accused of Communist activity, and is worried this will affect his future career; an ageing, sexually-ambiguous German Diva (Sian Thomas,) whose star is on the wane; Harry (Peter Marinker,) a dying studio mogul; and the not-as-naïve-as-she-looks Ingenue (Ruby Bentall,) freshly arrived from Texas. Overlooked by the Hollywood sign they try to make deals with each other that might launch or save their careers.

The dialogue in Gearing's script is pretty solid, there's a few gorgeous one-liners - my favourite being when Ernie starts to recite everything he's unearthed about the Diva's past and she replies "one of us must be drowning because my life is flashing before your eyes." What's more problematic is the storytelling: The play seems a rather formless collection of encounters, and it's not until near the end that it becomes apparent exactly what story is being told. The characters are being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the script puts the witch-hunts on such a back burner that for the longest time they seem like background information, not the crux of the story. So much so that by the interval Jan hadn't realised yet that this was what the Act I cliffhanger had been about. (The play also presupposes quite detailed knowledge of HUAC's history. I think I know enough about McCarthyism to get by, but until spotting the relevant line in the programme notes I couldn't have told you that the trials came in waves, with 1951 seeing their unexpected return. This turns out to be crucial as the events are initially spoken of as being in the past, only for the anti-Communist witch-hunts to return to the play later.)

Thomas is appealingly decadent as the Diva but with hers and the Songwriter's lines largely consisting of snappy one-liners, both their deliveries could do with being faster as the effect is sometimes lost. Tamara Harvey's production is still in early performances so maybe this at least can be sharpened up a bit (the Hampstead Downstairs season doesn't have a Press Night, instead asking the audience to comment on the show online, so the usual preview disclaimer doesn't apply.)

With copies of the playtext onsale afterwards this clearly isn't considered to be a work-in-progress but a lot about Gearing's play does in fact feel that way. As mentioned before the story doesn't satisfactorily gel but there's also a lot of little niggles. Marinker's studio executive may have been mellowed a bit by knowing he's near death, but we don't see even a hint of the vicious bastard everyone else describes him as. Why is a composer pitching a film? The characters' occasional breaks from naturalism to give monologues to the audience don't fit with the rest of the play either. There's some nice moments and Bentall has some funny lines, and Jan said the show had been worth seeing, but the whole thing feels frustratingly underdeveloped.

Blue Heart Afternoon by Nigel Gearing is booking until the 12th of May at Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn Space.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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