Saturday, 14 January 2017

Night fever... The Wild Party, Hope Theatre

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
She danced twice a day in vaudeville…

A jazz-age upgrade of Ms B Spears’ Toxic gets this party started in style and another special evening at the Hope starts to unfold.

Shamefully for a silent film buff my only familiarity with Joseph Moncure March’s classic is through the Merchant Ivory film which blew it out of all proportion including elements of poor Roscoe Arbuckle’s story for good measure (in real life this most talented of comedians was found innocent but lost his career). March worked in films and wrote the script with which Howard Hughes turned Hells Angels into a talkie but before that, he composed this thoroughly-modern morality play about the perils of too much jazzing!

Anna Clarke and Joey Akubeze (AFPhotography)
Rafaella Marcus’ whip-smart direction is full of fruity invention – literally, you won’t believe how many bananas, apples and peaches play key roles not to mention strawberry jam (although it could have been raspberry!?) – and rips along with breath-taking verve.

Books? Books? My God! You don’t understand.
They were far too busy living first-hand, for Books. Books!

The language is rich and punchy enough to have inspired William Burroughs and here it provides the perfect script for over a dozen characters played by just two actors.

Anna Clarke and Joey Akubeze quickly become submerged in a dizzying array of flappers, gangsters, boxers, molls and floozies with gender, sexual orientation and citrus predilections all played with consummate ease. Clarke is so convincing as Eddie the drink-addled boxer that you’d cross the street to avoid her whilst Akubeze’s performance of Lorde’s Royals whilst perched in a bath will live long in the memory.

A very versatile vamp! (AFPhotography)
Clarke in particular is the most protean performer you’ll find this side of Alec Guinness, variously playing Delores – a singer without a voice who still rides a Rolls Royce – the brassy Katie, Phil the fragrant pianist and Queenie – our exotic, dancer of a heroine: she really is the most versatile of vamps!

Not to be outdone – and this is very much a performance of equals – Akubeze acts with nobility and strength as Queenie’s potential saviour, Mr Black, whilst clinging fiercely on as the sad, angry clown she shares her life and apartment with, Mr Burr.

It is a joy to watch two such committed and talented performers rip through these verses and characters without missing a beat. Lines are hard at the best of times but you really have to be on your game with verse which is harder to act than you would credit. Crossing so many moods and characters whilst expertly dancing and singing is the theatrical equivalent of rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head.

We don't care, we're driving Cadillacs in our dreams... (AFPhotography)
And both actors do so with such sweet, jazzy verve as if Clara Bow and John Gilbert had rematerialized in Upper Street… and could anyone really be surprised: where better to return to Earth? These two certainly have It!

Long story short, Queenie and Burr have seen much better days and time is running out fast on their relationship. She works as a dancer and he as a clown always in ludicrous support of her more exotic stage. One angry Sunday morning there’s “tense, silence, foreboding sudden violence…” and the two fight like Charleston Cats as if it’s all they can think to do.

They decide to inject some life and plan a party for all their pals: time to cut a rug and play fast and lose!

Christ, what a crew! Take a look at Madelaine True…
Her mouth was cruel: a scar, in red, that had recently opened and bled.

The night arrives and so do their guests… The “ambisextrous” dancer Jackie, Eddie the boxer who when mixing gin and rum- a man to keep well away from and his girl, Mae “a passionate flirt, so dumb that it hurt…” Then Dolores, a singer without a voice, but she rode in a Rolls Royce”
The characters are portrayed so vividly in the prose and the cast do them full justice in the flesh.
Now comes the drama as Queenie’s friend Kate arrives with a charming new escort, Mr Black… 

Queenie has no doubt what she is about to do to Burr…

She had planned this party to put him on the rack;
And she’d do it by making a play for Black!

And so the dance begins – literally – as Queenie woos Black dancing close, “with just a sword between them” and the jealousy grows in Burr even as he finds comfort with Kate…

The tensions mounts and again the words work so well with the performance as a neighbour threatens to call the cops, a fight breaks out amongst the “brother” pianists and an underage girl is manhandled.

And a crowd of shadows hovered, waiting…

It’s all building up to the wildest of finishes!

This was my second visit to the Hope and as with the first – Her Aching Heart – I saw truly surprising and elegantly-committed show that left me smiling all the way home.

The Wild Party is a genuine sockdollager! – a consummately-produced joy, showcasing two exceptional talents and all their shadowy pals. Grab a ticket and knock yerself out: it’s later than you think!

 IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** Use of fruit in a dramatic context: *****

If music be the fruit of love... (AFPhotography)
PS I can also recommend Art Spiegelman’s illustrated version which uses the original text as first composed in 1926 by a young man clearly imagining himself a good time...

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