Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Becky Shaw

Becky Shaw, a play by Gina Gionfriddo that explores love and the role power and manipulation play in them, is one of the funniest plays I've watched in a while. That, in itself, may not sound like the most ringing endorsement, given that the last play I watched was in some time early last year, but I really did enjoy myself, with the first half of the play just flying back amidst all the clever, sharply funny lines.

Becky Shaw is built around lifelong friends and adoptive siblings Suzanna and Max. In the first half of the show, we see Suzanna still grieving for the death of her father four months prior, spoiling for a fight with her mother Susan who has brought her seriously younger lover to the discussion of her husband's estate. Max, a hard-nosed investment manager, is there, trying to fix the financial problems the family is experiencing, as best as he can. After Susan has left the room, Suzanna reminisces about how Max entered their lives, and, let's just say, one thing leads to another...

In the second half, Suzanna is now married to kind and gentle Andrew and they are now in the process of setting 'short-timer' Max up with 'delicate' Becky on a blind date, a blind date which starts off rather uncertainly, with visibly nervous and somewhat pathetic Becky (dressed up like "a birthday cake", in a withering pronouncement from Max) and a distinctly unamused Max getting held up at gun point. The fallout of which involves some incredibly desperate behaviour on the part of Becky, some typically caddish behaviour on the part of Max, emotional blackmail all around, and, ultimately, ends up threatening to detail the relationship between the matchmakers, as well as the lifelong friends.

Max, you might think, sounds distinctly unlikeable. He's, for the most part, driven by money. But, as played by the excellent David Wilson Barnes (who originated the role in the US), he comes across as someone who's, on the surface, a hardnosed, repellent shark who attacks people for their weaknesses, but, who's someone who still has remnants of the damaged, abandoned orphaned boy he was all those many years ago deep down inside. Someone, who, in his own way, very much loves and cares for his foster family.

Suzanna, I'm sorry to say, I didn't like all that much, although she certainly was played very well by Anna Madeley. A thirty-something studying for her PhD in psychology, she's self-absorbed, a bit of a drama queen, unlikely or unable to make decisions and rather needy. "I cannot be the decider in this relationship!" she says more than once. And that's why she's so dependent on Max. He's always there to offer a listening ear, or more, if she needs it, even if he lacks "empathy".

Susan, Suzanna's acerbic and toxic mother as played bt Haydn Gwynne, is archly funny. Haydn Gwynne) is Suzanna’s toxic mother. She's the mother everyone would hate to have, but is a definite hoot to watch.

The titular character Becky (Daisy Haggard) is, in short, desperate and obsessive. Cut off by her family, a college drop-out, no money... she's definitely not a catch I'd wish on anyone. But, after we think we've got her number, she surprisingly reveals thorns lying beneath her delicate exterior, and, man, from then on, Becky treads the fine line between con-artist and lunatic (I use the term loosely) very well.

Rounding up the cast is Vincent Montuel who plays Andrew, Susan's husband. The most kind-hearted of the lot, he's definitely every inch the indie rocker hipster boy that Max proclaims him to be. He's also got a knight-in-shining-armour compex with a vulnerability for damaged women requiring rescuing. I didn't think very much of him, to be honest, but the scene in which he walks in topless was definitely welcomed.

Witty lines aplenty abound. Max equates marriage to prostitution, calling love a "a happy by-product of use". In another brilliant line, Susan declares that  "absolute honesty in a relationship is a prescription for misery. IIt’s like those television commercials where they take a microscope into your kitchen and show you a lot of germs the naked eye can’t see."

Now for my favourite exchange of the play:
SUZANNA: Iraq is not your problem, Becky is not your problem...
MAX: That's right. They're not. And I make no apologies. Unless you're Ghandi or Jesus, you have a limited sphere of responsibility. You have a plot of land and the definition of a moral life is tending that plot of land--
SUZANNA: You need new material. I've heard the "plot of land" speech.
MAX: Becky Shaw is not on my plot of land! You are. And I tend my plot. I will always tend my plot.
SUZANNA: You make me sound like an obligation. Am I more than that to you?
MAX: Yes! If I didn't want you on my plot, I would rip you out and compost you. I want you on my plot.

That's as close to a declaration of love anyone's ever going to get from Max. And, you know what, it made me go all "aww" and gooey inside.

It isn't just the lines and the actors which are effective. Ms Gianfriddo's choice of songs (including tunes from Feist and The Kaiser Chiefs) which cover the transitions from scene to scene also work quite well. It definitely appealed to the indie Britpop loving chick in me!

The ending of the play doesn't offer us any resolution. And that's the perfect way in which to end it. My friend and I ended up discussing the play for more than an hour after the show ended, and, that, to me, is the mark of a most excellent play.

Becky Shaw is currently playing at The Almeida and runs until March 5th. 

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