FringeReview UK 2019
Mark Lester makes his debut as director in James McLure’s linked on-act plays Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star. Simon Glazier’s set constructed with George Walter and five scene-painters uses the simple reversible backyard of house, with the grey-scaled backyard of a bar later. Dawson’s lighting enjoys satisfying nuances in the second play. Ian Black’s sound bounces the melancholy twang of the period. Pat Boxall’s costume design digs at the accidental replication of two dresses, all run up by Sue Salt.
NVT have done it again with American theatre. Mark Lester here debuting as director has landed a pair of linked one-actors from nearly 40 years ago. It’s an assured debut too.
I didn’t know James McLure (1951-2011) though his final acclaimed play Iago (produced 2016) ends far from his normal territory, focusing on the Laurence Olivier/Vivienne Leigh/Albert Finney triangle.
McLure’s real Midwest territory got flickering notice on Broadway for Lone Star, but he never made it back there. Like the very different Robert Holman, he has a following for making noise quietly.
These one-acters are quiet shouters: naturalist slices of hamburger life, riven with aspiration, desperation and an end to trauma. It’s post-Vietnam. Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star pass an hour each in real time across the lives of three women, then three men, variously struggling people in Maynard, Texas.
The first sets up the second, since Elizabeth the central character from Laundry and Bourbon is married to Roy, the protagonist of Lone Star. Lone Star in fact came first in 1979, paired with another short about injured Vietnam Vets that McLure then extended. McLure then retrospectively added Laundry and Bourbon in 1981 to play before Lone Star. Set in a backyard, it takes place hours before and during the latter’s timescale in a downtown bar.
Simon Glazier and his team (George Walter and five scene-painters) use the simple reversible backyard of house, flat and naturalistic as a brown Hopper homestead, with the grey-scaled grotty backyard of a bar later, with a full moon up – appropriate since there’s a real full blood moon at the outset of this run. Keith Dawson’s lighting enjoys satisfying nuances in the second play, where night draws on.
Ian Black’s sound bounces the melancholy twang of the period wherever country and western meet bluegrass and pop. Pat Boxall’s costume design wickedly digs at the accidental replication of two dresses, green with yellow sunflowers, and mid-seventies period dress, all run up by Sue Salt.
At a time David Mamet and Sam Shepard exploded onto the America theatre scene, McLure’s naturalism closer in mood to Shepard, was crowded into a shade. Lauded for its truthfulness it lacked the zany darkness Shepard found in similar scenarios, and indeed Shepard’s refactory, complex scope and vestigially believable denouements. Nor of course would McLure even attempt the adrenalin-rush hassle of Mamet in his own ironic twists. There’s a Chekhovian patience to McLure that’s winning on its own terms and his writing will endure.
Laundry and Bourbon
Sarah Drew’s Elizabeth waits for her ‘wild’ husband Roy. We don’t know for how long, nor does her friend Hattie, played to the hilt by Kate McGann as a noisy but well-meaning best-friend. To Elizabeth’s patient stand-by-your-man (even to accepting his flings) Hattie, dumped by her exciting lover Wayne both admires Elizabeth for keeping up with the wildest (ad sexist) man round, and cajoles her for accepting his infidelities. But more important there’s that pink 1959 Thunderbird that exists as his freedom. Elizabeth frankly revels in recalling sex in the back seat beating any bed. after ten years her own passion’s undimmed. but she harbours as we discover through each of the plays, two secrets.
Drew’s capacity to draw in an audience to her small-scale ambitions, to hold on to and expand just a little of what she has, is heart-warming, truthful portrayal. McGann’s acetylene-blasting voice modulates to tenderness and reverie on occasion, lending this vibrant shadow of a role real chiaroscuro.
This interaction is a slow patient reveal between both actors. Drew allows us to see Elizabeth’s capacity for patience, empathy, lack of material ambition is admirable whilst exposing her vulnerability: doormat status. It’s not – as we find out – that Roy in fact takes Elizabeth’s love entirely for granted. McLure’s gift is to portray the dilemmas of a couple still vibrantly in love after ten years. But there’s unspoken conditions attached. They don’t have children. And the car is one of Roy’s lodestars, his ‘pussy wagon’ as he later terms it. Every engine cough for miles brings Elizabeth anxiously out, but she knows that engine: it’s never the one.
That’s to anticipate. The similarly unspoken alliances between Elizabeth and Hattie are threaten when someone Hattie loathes – Amy Lee – arrives. Prosperously married if for money, and wearing the same dress as Hattie, she makes everything in that straight-talking woman bristle like static up a nylon dress. To this Bridge-playing enclave she’s introduced the new game that will supplant it: Mah-jong. And she’s brought it to Elizabeth without Hattie’s knowing. The fall-out’s explosive, and though things are just about patched up it opens a new space where Elizabeth reveals something after Amy-Lee’s departure.
Isabella McCarthy-Sommerville’s catalyst Amy Lee is beautifully coiffeured and this describes her performance. Normally famed for front-and centre intensity McCarthy-Sommerville proves she’s similarly adept at scratching comic roles such as here, and lends a little inwardness to a queasy character.
It’s a play whose patience occasionally seems to hang fire, but that’s when you need to be on guard. It certainly enriches what follows.
Cal Jones’ Vietnam Vet Roy has done a bunk for several days. It’s not that he’s really run out on Elizabeth. We’re here introduced to the full tragi-comic gamut of a man two years back (so this is all 1975) and still not reconciled to a world where as he wakes, men’s heads aren’t being blown off in front of him. Jones’ expression seems even throughout, shell-shocked slightly, dazed but capable of unnerving re-enactments. Jones manages the leatherneck uprightness and sudden leather cracks with a rivetingly fazed nonchalance.
That’s mostly at the expense of his slightly dopey brother Ray, who wasn’t fit enough to join up. In Matthew Wyn Davies’ wincingly fine portrayal, we’re introduced to someone not quite savant-like, though he understands engines, as hopelessly naïve, somehow slow to take up life. Until we find he isn’t. Not quite. Never one to even rival his roistering brother’s sexual conquests, he protests he’s not quite a virgin. You might think this face-saving.
Chaffing though is nothing to the mirror-situation we’ve just witnessed in Laundry and Bourbon. Roy can’t stand Cletis, here gawkily, embarrassingly well portrayed by Neil Drew. He wants heroic Roy’s approval. Roy can’t stand him at all, is prone to hit him more than hit his brother with a 2 x 4 when mock-stalking Marine-style.
As Roy stumbles off briefly Cletis makes a terrible confession. It’s up to Ray to deliver this though. The consequences are terrible. Faced with Roy again Cletis flees. It’s up to Ray to do his dirty work, but not before he makes one of his own. This is so astonishing it might be designed to ensure Cletis’ misdemeanours fall in their shadow. He fears Roy might kill him. Roy claims he loves his wife, his country and his car. He’ll need to make some adjustments before and after he stumbles home to the most remarkable truth of all.
McLure proves here over his two plays he can command symbolism and naturalism in a compellingly believable way. It’s more than good to have got to know this quiet master. Yet again NVT deliver small shrouded gems of Americana. See it.