Camden Fringe 2018
Magus Theatre Productions
Festival: Camden Fringe
There’s a line in ‘The Godfather’ where Vito Corleone, the Mafia Don, tells someone – “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”
Not only steal more, but the stealing will seem somehow less … criminal.
Not just lawyers, bankers too. Victoria Davids is a banker, and she’s got herself involved in some complicated financial dealings that have gone terribly wrong, and she’s the one who’s become the fall-guy. Now she’s hiding out in her flat and not answering any phone calls from the newspaper reporters. Louise Denyer played her on a roller-coaster of emotions, swinging between anger and frustration, never still for more than a few moments, puffing on a cigarette and reaching for a bottle from the drinks cabinet. She’s dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, a professional look, but it was the red braces that defined her as someone working in finance.
A small but very significant touch, those red braces. Minimal. Giving us information without overloading us. Anton Bonicci’s production has that stripped-down quality – just a few pieces of white furniture set in the black acting space at The Emrys Johns Studio, with simple unfussy lighting. That was enough for us to construct Victoria’s living room for ourselves; and the staging was able to relocate to another room, in a different house, simply by moving a cabinet and a chair around the stage. Elegant.
Suddenly – into the room bursts a man in a heavy coat and a mask … with a gun. Jesus! Is he going to shoot her? To rape her? The gun and the mask immediately classify this intruder as a criminal – a real criminal this time – and we forget that Victoria is herself under investigation for criminal activity.
For me, that’s the power of this production. Ana-Maria Bamburger’s writing makes us question the assumptions that we constantly make about what constitutes crime, and guilt. For it soon turns out that beneath the mask is Igor Davidoff, a Russian blini-chef whose business has collapsed, and who’s in dire straits financially. He – “normally doesn’t do this kind of thing”, but he’s desperate, and he’s hoping that he can persuade Victoria to get him a bank loan to bail him out.
Armen Georgian presumably has Russian family ancestry somewhere, but he produced a wonderfully over-the-top eastern European accent for Igor. Georgian’s body-language portrayed Igor’s embarrassment beautifully, as the man struggled to behave in a way that’s alien to his real nature. Actually Igor calls himself ‘Chuck’, as he’d watched a number of Charles Bronson films (where the honest man gets even). He’s carrying a gun and threatening Victoria, but he’s been forced into this position because his insurance company refused to pay out after his restaurant burned down. “Sorry – it’s not covered in the policy” – more lawyers with briefcases …
So they’ve both been screwed by the system, and as the play progresses the pair become unlikely allies in a bid to get even. I’ve probably made it sound rather political or philosophical, but ‘Criminals!’ is a comedy, with a lot of very funny lines and also a fair amount of physicality, almost slapstick. Actually it’s a rom-com, a charming romantic comedy. Maybe any play featuring just a woman and a man will have an undercurrent of romance, but here it’s really just an undercurrent. If you want to know how the couple end up, though, you’ll have to go and see the show.
‘Criminals!’ is very much a play of its time. We’re still reeling from the effects of the financial crash a decade ago, although of course the bankers themselves (and their lawyers) wear suits and so it’s seen as ‘white-collar crime’. As Victoria says – “Working in finance you can’t avoid blurring the lines between what’s strictly legal, and what’s not. That line doesn’t really exist at all”. But it’s also the era of Brexit, and the rise all across Europe of prejudice against immigrants, especially those from ‘the east’. It’s good to be reminded that behind the stereotype of the masked gunman there may well be a struggling family man with impossible debts and children to feed.
There was sustained applause from the enthusiastic audience on the night I saw ‘Criminals!’, and as I write this two days later I’m still pondering the issues the production raised.
Still caring about Victoria and Chuck, too. Isn’t that the mark of good theatre?