Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Theatre review: The Late Henry Moss

Sam Shepard delivers another dose of a particularly American kind of masculinity crisis, at Southwark Playhouse this time with The Late Henry Moss. Ray (Joseph Arkley) receives a call from his older brother Earl (Jack Sandle) to let him know their father has died. He goes down to the New Mexico shack the titular Henry lived and died in, to find that the body is still in its deathbed, and nobody's alerted the authorities. Earl says that he went to New Mexico when a neighbour told him Henry was ill, but got there too late. His naturally suspicious brother doubts his story and, convinced Earl actually arrived before their father died, starts to investigate what really happened. After he pays and bullies a taxi driver (Joe Evans,) who was one of the last people to see him alive, for information, we see flashbacks to Henry's (Harry Ditson) final days.

Cecilia Carey's set has a grubby authenticity you can feel the desert heat in (or maybe it's the fact the air conditioning was turned off,) but neither set nor costumes really suggest when this is happening - the play premiered in 2000 and from some of the context I think it's set in the 1970s, but couldn't really swear to it.

And there's a lot in Mel Hillyard's production that feels a bit too blurry like that. In an after-show Q&A, the director talked about the play's blend of naturalism, hyperrealism and magic realism, a balance which I'm not sure has come off. But I think my problems with the evening are largely with the play itself: I've not seen a lot of Shepard but so far I haven't warmed to his work. It revolves around a kind of male psyche that's terribly repressed but at the same time very verbose; by contrast the only woman, Henry's sort-of lover Conchalla (Carolina Valdés) is a mysterious figure with few lines, who's largely there to provide a SEVERE VADGE WARNING!

The play's rambling nature is at times a strength, at others a weakness; the best scenes feature the sweet neighbour Esteban (Chris Jared,) who's kept an eye on Henry for years and gets bullied by both him and his sons for his trouble. These are the moments when the play's attempts at dark comedy work best, but Ray's aggressive interrogation of the taxi driver is just nasty and goes on too long. Jan enjoyed the play, and I can't fault the committed and slick performances; but I found The Late Henry Moss to be too much about the problems of deeply unlikeable, aggressive people1 for me to care. Apparently Shepard called the two brothers different parts of his own personality; as this suggests his personality is a mix of "violently unpredictable" and "even more violently unpredictable," I wouldn't want to meet him.

The Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepard is booking until the 26th of September at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

1to the woman in the audience who got into a conversation with Arkley about Ray being bipolar: I didn't want to start an argument in a Q&A that had already run way too long but NO. "Bipolar" ≠ "violent sociopath."

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