Sunday, 29 April 2018

Theatre review: Masterpieces

Anger can be a spur to some powerful writing, but while anger over the relationship between pornography and misogyny is more than justifiable, I’ve yet to see it be the basis of a coherent piece of theatre. The Finborough proves that #MeToo isn’t the first time theatre has fought back against the oppression of women by dusting off Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces, which tries to trace a line from misogynistic jokes all the way to the murder of women. It starts promisingly enough with the standard dinner party from hell: Olivia Darnley and Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don’t Know How To Act (Yeah!) play Rowena and Trevor, whose dinner with friends and family degenerates into a series of sexist jokes. This scene actually contains some really good moments about the way men silence women, that could have come straight out of the Q&A scene in The Writer – like Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) being asked why she hasn’t said much, and having Trevor jump in to answer for her that she hasn’t been able to get a word in edgeways.

There’s also a painfully awkward scene where Rowena’s stepfather Clive (Nicholas Cass-Beggs) sabotages her mother Jennifer’s (Sophie Doherty) attempt to tell a joke by constantly interrupting to tell her she’s taking too long over it.

There are moments in this opening scene where Daniels’ dialogue is shown up as contrived and awkward, but enough knowing jokes land for the cast to be able to carry off lines that don’t really sound like something anyone would really say. But as the story goes on to follow Rowena in her job as a social worker, the energy in Melissa Dunne’s production dissipates, leaving the script exposed. In a production that feels unusually unpolished for the Finborough, the cast fight against the stilted dialogue and lose.

Verity Quinn’s design papers the walls with 1980s porn magazines like Penthouse, Hustler, Ample Flapjack and Knave, but pornography is only one link in a chain the playwright is interested in here: The play also sees Rowena get a prostitute (Orange-Turner) off the game and into an office job, only to have her new boss (Rob “first death in Game of Thrones” Ostlere) demand sex from her; while we sometimes flash forward to see Rowena herself on trial for murdering a man, for reasons that are gradually teased out. The disjointed storytelling could really use a production that ploughs confidently through it, but on top of the cast’s difficulty making the script seem like human speech, there’s also honking great pauses during scene changes that kill any impetus it might have built up.

The play’s climax is a brutal description of a snuff movie, a development that is in keeping with Daniels’ idea of how far one can extrapolate the effects of everyday sexism; but in reality it feels like it comes out of nowhere (as for the fact that apparently Rowena went to a cinema in Finsbury Park that was showing a snuff movie, I don't even know where to start on what's wrong with that.) The power and fury behind Masterpieces is undeniable, and perhaps a more focused production could harness it, but it doesn’t feel like the resources were in place here to crack the script’s problems.

Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels is booking until the 19th of May at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Bill Prentice.

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