Many years ago, I employed Fay Ripley to do a voiceover for a TV ad. She was fun, chatty, and had a keen ear for the subtleties of language delivery: a joy to work with.
When the basic foundations of a play’s idea are weak, it is hard to make anything good of it
I say this not to name drop, but to give a review that includes positive and negative elements. Having watched Ripley play the eponymous role in April De Angelis’ new play, Kerry Jackson, this historic compliment was the only positive thing I could say with any honesty.
Kerry Jackson starts from a weak idea which has been badly written, then hammily acted, loosely directed, and thoughtlessly designed.
But as I say, I really liked Ripley when we did that ad.
A weak idea
Harsh words, so let me break it down, starting with the idea.
Proud Essex girl Kerry Jackson has just opened a tapas restaurant near up-and-coming Walthamstow Village. She is in her early 50s, has no husband, no children, and no regrets. Forthright in her views, confident with her sexuality, she is aware her tendency to be ‘loud’ makes her difficult to like.
Naturally, she is right-wing in both the political and ideological sense.
Middle-class Stephen is a Professor of Philosophy who lives locally with his pre-University daughter, Alice. He is important on the residents’ committee, writes the occasional piece for the Village News freesheet, and wears cardigans. Passing the time since the recent death of his wife, he and his daughter discuss etymology.
Unsurprisingly he is a typical leftie do-gooder. Alice lives to be even more woke than him.
Throw in a homeless man who uses the area behind the restaurant as his toilet. He reads books: a good man to whom bad things happened. He is also a drug user and can be threatening: a bad man who deserves to be homeless. Maybe.
Add a black chef: a not-quite legal immigrant. Have the reason for the illegal status due to the intellectualism of her father. That’ll shock ya.
Finally throw in an Alpha male. A bloke for whom sexism is idle banter, opinions are just words, and self-awareness is psychobabble. Make him an ex-copper with an ex-wife and an ex-drinking problem. Give him ‘proper lads’ as mates: include a guy able to fix the restaurant’s fridge.
If they sound like a group of thinly drawn characters with the most basic of weak, cliched back stories, I have described them perfectly.
What happens when you throw these unreal people together? Well, nothing much. Certainly, nothing you couldn’t already predict.
Polarised views are stated, but not debated. Gaps between ideology and behaviour are shown, but not acted upon. Characters air histories without invitation or context, and without being listened to. And Kerry and Stephen fuck.
And that’s it. Imagine an episode of Miranda that was rejected for being too unsubtle. Cross it with an episode of Steptoe and Son that forgot to contextualise the uncomfortable comment. What you’re left with is two hours of shouty predictability that lacks reality, humanity, or anything of any interest.
April De Angelis seems to have forgone the idea of dialogue or interaction in her script. Instead she has a list of strong opinions that she wants to include. She packs them into cumbersome paragraphs and forces them out of characters’ mouths.
Speeches appear from nowhere and then disappear without comment. We are told how people feel but never shown. Emotional truth is disregarded in favour of character summaries.
Into this hollow pastiche of conversation, controversial statements are thrown, in an attempt to prove the comedy of the play’s billing. Lines about a three inch clitoris aren’t not funny because they’re shocking, they’re just not funny.
Alarm bells should really ring when the play opens with Kerry telling the story of how she employed the chef. She is telling the story to the chef she employed. The chef listens. It bears no sense of conversational reality. And it sets the style used throughout the play.
Later, Stephen tells his daughter how much he misses his wife. They compete over who is grieving more. She says it must be her because he has his yoga. He says he only does yoga because his wife suggested it might help. The conversation moves on to another topic.
When Stephen tells Kerry she makes him feel alive again, it comes out of the blue. There has been no chemistry between them. Their relationship has not developed. But it is not unexpected.
They are two characters of the same age who are both single. Forget truth, dramatic structure means the two must become one. Though they repeatedly tell us that their arguments get them off to the wrong foot, they have never argued. They have just said some stuff. And so some other stuff just happens.
With such little substance to work from, it’s unsurprising the actors don’t fare well. I doubt anyone could do better.
Ripley’s Essex drawl is affected and makes some of her lines inaudible. When reaction does come from the audience, she talks over it, perhaps just dying to get to the end.
There is no spark between her and Michael Gould. His Stephen is wooden and unemotional. His passionate views are delivered without passion. His grief displayed without sadness.
The others fare slightly better. Alice whines with idealism, unaware of the privileged position from which she views the unfairness of the surrounding world. In her first professional role, Kitty Hawthorne just about manages to make us not hate her.
As chef Athena, Madeline Appiah seems the only one aware of others on stage. Instead of just speaking, she listens. Instead of just acting, she reacts. That such basic acting technique stands out, says much about the low benchmark set.
I will be brief, as befits the nature of the direction.
As a drama student, you get tasked with performing many scenes in a range of styles. Generally these are done with one or two other student actors. You help each other learn the lines and agree the technicalities of staging and blocking.
Aware of the fragility of an actor’s ego – especially a student actor’s – and with no outside director, making any comment on the actual performance of the others in your group is done only when imperative. Even then, it is wrapped in cotton wall and walked over a bed of eggshells.
Anything that is just acceptable and that doesn’t ruin the scene goes unmentioned. It will do.
This appears to be the approach to direction taken here.
The action splits between Kerry’s restaurant and Stephen’s kitchen; both sharing a revolve that turns between scenes. The restaurant is a small space that seems cramped though it is empty aside from three tables for two. The kitchen is cliché nouveau riche, representing character with SMEG fridge and oak table.
These are sitcom sets that might have been quickly thrown together from basic mood boards. Little if any of the action is site-specific. The revolve quickly becomes distracting. Though as it signifies getting ever closer to the play’s end, there is some pleasure to be taken from its movement.
When the basic foundations of a play’s idea are weak, it is hard to make anything good of it. When the writing, acting, and directing matches the standard set by these foundations, there is no hope.
This is a play – and a production – that would struggle for a high mark as a student piece. It is incredulous it has been given a run at the National Theatre – even if it is the smaller Dorfman. Closing the space over the Christmas period would do more for theatre than running this play does.
Fay Ripley recently spoke about the stage fright that has stopped her performing in the theatre for 30 years. Sadly, I don’t think this choice of play – and the reaction it is likely to have – will do anything to appease that anxiety in the future.