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STOP! The Play Trafalgar 2, SW1

In a tatty rehearsal-room, the title reflects the director’s frequent cry, stopping for new stage directions or rewrites from the unseen playwright, “Hildred McCann”. I admit I am a sucker for plays about plays: some are works of genius like Frayn’s NOISES OFF, some physically adept larks like THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. But on the whole they parody traditional, creaky, Mousetrappy drama: it was time somebody took the mick out of grandiosely ‘edgy’ modern work, and I was glad to see David Spicer having a go.
The first act shows a cast of five, under Ben Starr as an unjustifiably self-confident director, struggling with Hildred’s constant revisions; the shorter second act puts the result on stage. During this process it morphs from an earnest drama about a teacher who wants to be an artist (“How was your day, teaching at that school you teach at?” enquires the wife.) The anxious SM reads out overwritten stage directions involving a fountain, spiral staircase and pet monkey. But rewrite by rewrite the lead becomes a silent cipher, and has to be pacified by directorial flattery about how silence “makes him a stronger presence”. Stage directions alarm the ingenue with instructions to be “pinkly naked”, throwing off clothes like “the peelings of her sexual fruit”. A lesbian subplot causes her to shriek at her script “Holy shit! I’m not doing that!”.
An entirely new character, a millionaire American rapper, is introduced; in the background the veteran Wilfred forgets his lines, demonstrates that he can still orate most of Murder In The Cathedral, and reminisces about doing a Stoppard in Reading in 1982 and not understanding a word. Eventually it becomes a pan-sexual psychodrama about Banksy and the metaphor of “a man with a spray can painting a picture of a man with a spray can painting a picture” . The director in a beret becomes a narrative chorus (“I am Art”) and the male leads resist directions to kiss.

Promising, then, and certainly the first half is stuffed with good jokes, not least about flowery stage-directions (“they laugh like cut glass baubles tinkling on a mountain stream… as soft as an elf on butter…art strikes like a cobra in a babygro” etc). The author writes a lot for stand-ups, and it shows, sometimes in a good way. Adam Riches is fun as the miffed leading man and Hatty Preston as the ingenue; there is a spirited turn by Tosin Cole as the rapper, conveying the mystification of a straight black actor forced into a streetwise stereotype while the others try not to be racist while questioning what the hell he is there for. Like Riches, Cole walks out at one point and has to be lured back: it did the show’s pre-publicity no harm that Peter Bowles really did quit at the start of rehearsals, to be replaced by James Woolley.
Who, it turns out, walks away with all the best laughs. White-haired and amiably vague, Woolley rises above the standuppy jokes to give real heart and humour to the part of Wilfred, who no longer remembers lines but is a fund of long experience (“I stripped off once in Leatherhead, in Equus. I was only an usher, mind, but it got me noticed”).
So far, so good. But there are problems for director John Schwab to tackle before this romp finds its way. The first half is all on one note – shouting – with no calms to give it bite and contrast; we could also do with a line of explanation as to why the hell Hildred gets away with all these rewrites. The second part, the Banksy play itself, is too broadly nuts to hit its target properly. Which is a shame, because the target deserves it: as anyone who has survived a few experimental fringe festivals can tell you.
box office 0844 871 7632 http://www.atgtickets.com to 27 June
rating three (just)    3 Meece Rating


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