Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Theatre review: Grimly Handsome

In a week at the theatre that’s fast developing a theme of dreamlike oddity – and I haven’t even seen The Twilight Zone yet - Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome plays out like a Christmas comedy nightmare. The Royal Court’s old rehearsal space above Sloane Square station has been used as an actual performance venue so often by now that they’ve given it a name – The Site – and that’s where designer Chloe Lamford and director Sam Pritchard – credited as co-creators – have set their particular vision for the play. This sees the whole building decked out as an art installation, with the audience invited to turn up twenty minutes early and explore the various rooms Lamford has decorated with a kitsch aesthetic: A gym with walls covered in magazine cuttings of bodybuilders, a room filled with artsy photos on the theme of infidelity and, on the balcony, a crime scene tent.

The latter, and the sinister touches in other rooms, are an early clue that the seemingly charming Eastern European men we meet in the play’s first section might not just be the comic characters they seem.

Jarcho’s play is divided into three parts, each performed by the same three actors. In the first, Gregor (Alex Beckett,) who’s been selling Christmas trees on the same lot in an American city for several years, has brought Alesh (Alex Austin) to help him this year. As we get to know them, though, and hear rumours of a Christmas Ripper who’s been striking in the city for the last few years, it becomes clear that their interest in Natalia (Amaka Okafor) is more sinister than it seems. Her flirtation with Alesh does in fact work out badly for her, and in the second section Okafor is Mr Nally, a witness who might be able to help the detectives played by the other two actors. She also doubles as Nelly, wife of Austin’s Alpert, and having an affair with Beckett’s Greggins.

All of each actor’s character names start with the same letter, an early clue to Jarcho’s theme of her story going round in endless cycles, with the characters as different versions of each other, playing out variations on the same basic story and relationships. How exactly everything interconnects remains cryptic, but then this is a play where the final act sees the actors play feral red pandas, so it’s probably best not to try and analyse it too literally. I did question Jarcho’s rather unnecessary choice to make the serial killers immigrants, but otherwise largely enjoyed the quirkiness of her writing.

Lamford and Pritchard’s staging accentuates the surreal atmosphere while also feeling innovative: Having explored the various rooms before arriving in the performance space, we get to see them show up on TV screens, indicating where each scene is taking place; sometimes we watch the actors in one of the sets, or through the windows to the Christmas tree lot. Lamford has emphasised the seasonal setting – mulled wine on the way in, the sole technician also serving as a stage hand in a onesie – giving the feeling of a family Christmas show that’s gone down a horribly dark wrong turn.

Apart from the time of year though things are more vague: The story feels roughly contemporary but the crime thriller has a noir feel, while the Pop-Art aesthetic suggests the 1960s and the detectives’ clothes the ‘70s; the city where the story takes place remains unnamed. Grimly Handsome’s meaning remains elusive, but it’s an entertainingly offbeat ride.

Grimly Handsome by Julia Jarcho is booking until the 23rd of December at the Royal Court’s Site.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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