With its imaginative direction and competent cast, this modest adaptation has the charm to see past its lack of Hollywood gloss
Patrick Marber’s Closer was written in 1997, his third play in a loose trilogy. It is a cleverly structured melodrama wherein the four characters: Anna, a stripper, Dan, a wannabe writer and obituarist, Anna, a photographer and Larry, a doctor, meet, fall in with one another and fall out with one another.
In the end one of them dies. It’s clear from the very outset which one it will be. There is a formal elegance to the play’s structure: we see the first meetings of each one of the characters and their last meeting. It is a very satisfying feeling: you don’t need closure with Closer. But the play feels disjointed to me, out of time.
Written at the summit of Britpop’s pomp, there is a macho, 'Loaded', alcopops and pills swagger to the writing, but it also harks back a decade before – Larry's (Lee Thomas) flash suited, moneyed up working class doctor is very much an '80s style physician-as-city-boy, particularly in the pivotal scene in which he confronts Anna at work, throwing his bunce about in the strip club.
Ultimately we might be back Jimmy Porter's bed-sit, for this is a play where the men are young and angry and railing against the injustices of the world in a quixotic search for love and truth, and generally being appalling to the women around them.
There is something of the classical about it too: men can only be emotionally complex if they become these stomping titans, bellyaching at the expense of women. Women are the spur here, they are props, and they are scientific objects used to measure men’s suffering.
Left to their own devices, when the men are away, Anna (Gemma Leader) and Alice (Katriona Perrett) are quieter, cleverer. They act, in fact, like human beings might. The men, bouncing off each other like rutting stags, are only interested in one another; there are repeated exchanges where they enquire about each other's sexual prowess, including specific numbers of orgasms. This is the hunter-gatherer as trainspotter.
Dramatic moments rise and fall like a see-saw and relationships are predicated on a series of coincidences that would give a Whitehall farceur pause. It's neatly put together by director Lee Thomas, with no props other than four chairs, and the direction is imaginative. But the play is set in a primordial world of head-butting alpha males being 'emotionally complex', which translates to just being selfish and stupid.
Wisely, the play remains set in the 90s - its sexual politics have dated badly. It's not just Alice's bangin’ drum ‘n’ bass or the Rozalla hits in the strip club. Its entire ethos: the certainties, its understanding of what makes men tick and what women are prepared to put up with seems antiquated. Or you'd like to hope so at least.
The actors are often lucky not to trip over the dialogue as it clunks all over the stage: 'What does she have that I don't have?' 'She doesn't need me.' 'You're leaving me because you think you don't deserve happiness - but you do!' 'I love your scar. I love everything about you that hurts!' All from the soap opera school of 'You have no right to say that to me!'
All four cast member acquit themselves well. Katriona Perrett as Alice is particularly good as the mystery stripper with a lot of love to give. It is a rounded, conflicted, and believable performance, which could so easily have been the apotheosis of a manic pixie dream girl role, but she lends the role weight and style.
Gemma Leader too, as the pacific Anna, is excellent. She is the photographer who sees all but the mechanisms of her own heart, and who spends long hours at the aquarium staring at the distant, passive fish; they are separated from the world by a sheet of glass, just as she is.
Lee Thomas’ Larry has the hardest job to do: he is by turn, a clown, a victor, a sadist, a morally upright man, and a wealthy working class professional with a chip on his shoulder. He is a seeker of truth which he fails to recognise when he actually finds it. This is a hugely demanding and energetic role and Thomas gives his all.
Jonathan Blakely’s Dan is educated, idealistic but ultimately selfish and cowardly. This role is the centre of the play, for better or worse, and sadly Blakely’s portrayal of the character as a stuttering, puffed up, head wobbling fool seems an odd fit. Dan is an off-putting character, but you never feel that there is enough charm or sexiness in him to set off the mechanics of the plot. He is the pivot of all the action and yet he doesn't seem to be worth all the emotional upheaval.
This is a fine production and everybody at London Irish, a laudable and welcome independent production company bridging the divide between the London and Belfast theatrical scenes, have much to be proud of. The direction is solid, if not flashy, and the performances good. I look forward to seeing many more productions from them in the future. I just wish they hadn’t chosen this play as their first production!
Closer continues at the Crescent Arts Centre until Saturday, August 13. To book tickets visit www.crescentarts.org. Please note the images used above are rehearsal shots.