Friday, 24 March 2017

Theatre review: The Bear / The Proposal

In response to the battle lines that have been drawn around the world's public bathrooms with regard to transgender people in recent years, the Young Vic was one of the first London theatres to put up signs making clear visitors there can use whichever loo they feel more comfortable in. So it's not too surprising to see this inclusive attitude extend to the programming, and the latest Genesis Award winner in the Clare has a cast made up of a trans man, a trans woman, and the bearded drag cabaret star better known as Le Gateau Chocolat. And it is, of all things, an Anton Chekhov double bill that director Lucy J Skilbeck uses to look at fluid gender identities. The Bear / The Proposal is a pair of one-act comedies, and in the first half things are played, no pun intended, straight.

In The Proposal Ivan (Rebecca Root) wishes to propose to his neighbour Natalia (Kamari Romeo,) but keeps getting derailed by arguments over who owns a meadow on the borders of their land, and which family has the best dog.

It's an amusing but not amazing piece, which George Ikediashi steals as Natalia's bored father. Once the first story is over, Rimsky-Korsakov mixes with Cyndi Lauper on the soundtrack, Ben Stones' stuffy set turns into a cabaret space, Ikediashi changes into a corset and, in The Bear, plays a wealthy widow who's kept herself isolated in mourning. Romeo arrives as an abrasive young man who claims her late husband owed him money, and he needs it back urgently.

There's echoes of the gender-bending Twelfth Night in the mourning woman receiving an unexpected young man with a message, which together with the man's rants about the differences between men and women give a clue as to why this piece suggested itself to Skilbeck for this treatment, in which the three actors intermittently swap roles. Again Ikediashi is the comic standout, the amount of ways he finds to fiddle impatiently with the widow's veil are worth the admission by themselves, while in a running gag he objects when it's his turn to play a servant, and deliberately under-acts.

Chekhov's playlets, here using a Michael Frayn translation, are both essentially one-joke comic sketches extended a bit too long, but Skilbeck throws everything from farce to karaoke at them, making for a mixed but never dull evening. And though for the most part London theatre's got over its tendency of a few years ago to handle Chekhov only with kid gloves and period productions, it's still fun to see him treated with so much irreverence.

The Bear / The Proposal by Anton Chekhov in a version by Michael Frayn is booking until the 25th of March at the Young Vic's Clare (returns only.) 

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

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