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Review: Next Fall (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A beautifully sardonic and heart-shattering piece, written from a place of love, humanity, and anguish.

Overview

Adam and Luke have been together for five years. Adam is in his 40s and an aetheists, whilst Luke, much younger, is a Christian and still in the closet to his parents. Their life has always been one of compromise where they’ve failed to reach an understanding, but tenderness in the close affinity that they can. But when an accident happens to Luke, Adam Is forced to face and rely upon a family who are less than accepting of homosexuality, and have no idea who he is and what he means to Luke.

Writing

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play was nominated for “Best Play” at the Tony Awards 2010, and now see’s it transfer to London four years later. One of the reasons for its success is it’s incredibly satisfying dry wit which permeates the entire piece. However, for those who are well versed in gay plays and other LGBT arts productions, especially issues surrounding religion vs. sexuality, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in the themes and arguments that many will have heard before. So whilst the humour is certainly entertaining and extremely sharp, the first act just feels a little too familiar.

However, it’s in Act II that the play really comes into it’s own. Whilst Nauffts might not be offering much with regards to new point and counterpoint to the subject, it’s how he uses the characters to frame the issues discussed that is the real triumph of the play. For starters, Nauffts’ characters are all substantially flawed. You can never quite get behind Adam as a protagonist as, although long suffering, he’s more unlikeable than likeable. Likewise, Butch, the Bible-thumping alpha heterosexual patriarch, is not all he seems, causing us to think and rethink what prejudices we ourselves are judging him by.

What this results in is, rather than a greying of the arguments’ clarities, Nauffts’ blurs the emotional lines on the subject. There is no distinct binary of how we should be feeling and thinking here that would otherwise serve as an simple catharsis or a shallow rally-call for an established campaign. But instead we get a difficult and challenging walkthrough of the issues where there aren’t any easy hero or villain figures. Because of this, the show, as well as being marvellously humorous, is also achingly moving. The characters feel very real and, despite their faults, you still deeply care for them. But also, the show is frustratingly realistic. You just want the characters to scream and kick-off, leaving Adam and Luke to emerge victors and live their happily-ever-after. Nauffts, however, settles for a reality. Though painful and despondent as it is, it ultimately leaves you with as much poignancy and anger as it does sore sides and wet cheeks.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Direction & Production

The production sits very cosily in the smaller theatre space at the Southwark Playhouse but loses nothing despite the fact that it could probably have just as easily filled the main space. David Woodhead’s set wonderfully feels homely enough to be a minimalistic and sleek New York apartment, but just clinical enough to double as an unforgiving and soulless hospital waiting area: a wonderfully agile duality.

The most interesting aspect of the production, however, is how Director Luke Sheppard and lighting designer Howard Hudson work together to bring out some nice little touches. When it comes to scene changes, whilst the other cast start to move and replace props, there’s a spot that lingers on the central character of the scene, just as they do. This  creates an omnipresent feeling of lingering and detachment from what’s going on, and really augments the strife that the characters go through both past and present within the story. This marks Sheppard out as a director who clearly empathises with the piece, endeavouring to give the issues and the feelings involved prominence and justice.

Cast

Charlie Condou, most famous for his role in Coronation Street, is the main draw here, especially as an openly gay actor and parent. But whilst he handles himself well, it’s the rest of the cast that really deserve the praise. Condou’s on-stage counterpart, Luke, played by Martin Delaney, is adorably charismatic and carefree, playing up to his character’s youthful naivety with a wonderful sense of grace. Indeed, he’s the perfect antidote to Condou’s fretful and self-absorbed Adam, and the pair’s chemistry is the most electric when their relationships is most strained. However, they’re still still able to conjure a sweet cuteness for their happier and more intimate times together that is comfortably numbing, making all the more for a heart-wrenching tragedy.

Mitchell Mullen as Butch also deserves a mention as he superbly growls and spits as Luke’s close-minded and zealot father, but letting the audience peep through chinks into something that is more scared and vulnerable rather than completely proud and despotic. Likewise, Nancy Crane’s Southern charm as Butch’s wife, Arlene, slowly cracks in a majestic and tender fashion, as a warm and repentant woman trying hard to atone and keep it together for all her past faults.

Verdict

Whilst the writing is of a familiar set of ideas and arguments, Nauffts’ characters and emotional framing makes for a crushing and human play. With wonderful directional flourishes, and a stunning cast, you’ll be hard pressed to fight back both laughter and tears.

[youtube http://youtu.be/9M-ANbinLd4]

Next Fall plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 25 October 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.

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