FringeReview UK 2018
This UK debut’s directed by Bethany Pitts in the Finborough’s diminutive space. It features Isabella Van Breakel’s ward set of shocking pink with white doors and the ubiquitous mint-green curtains. Doug Mackie’s lighting touches the exact sense of hospital glare. Jon McLeod’s sound comes in blasts of radio and a sensitively sparse aural palate.
Sondheim it isn’t. Stand-up it is, just for a moment. So… Halley Feiffer’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City (draw breath) flirts with and floats laughter and death, sex and reconciling: to everything, including your past selves. It (and this) is occasionally adult content so you’ve been warned!
Feiffer’s is not a play in the recognizably super-naturalist traditions of late (like Annie Baker, Emily Schwend et al), but does come in the square realism of the New York Public Theater.
This UK debut’s directed by Bethany Pitts in the Finborough’s diminutive space. It features Isabella Van Breakel’s ward set of shocking pink with white doors and the ubiquitous mint-green curtains swept across to beds at strategic moments. Doug Mackie’s lighting touches the exact sense of hospital glare. Jon McLeod’s sound comes in blasts of radio and a sensitively sparse aural palate.
In that ward two women with ovarian cancer – Geena (Cara Chase) and Marcie (Kristin Milward) – lie asleep on hospital beds hooked up on morphine cocktails. Geena wakes just once. She’s dying. Marcie has Stage One only but with ovarian it’s tricky.
Marcie’s daughter, Cariad Lloyd’s Karla, reads out to her recumbent mother a question loaded with #MeToo edginess. ‘Should I fantasize about the well-oiled hunk who breaks down the door and rapes me or have a wet dream and see my vibrator standing quietly in a halo of moonlight waiting to fuck me all through the night?…. Sex dream or wet dream Mom?’ The terminally frustrated Karla is being deadly serious: she’s an aspiring stand-up in her late twenties and she needs to make it, channelling her comical obsessions. Her mother declares she sees the worst side of everything. Later we see where she gets it from. Then there’s Erika. Karla’s sister who OD’d.
That’s not even a reveal. It comes early on as Rob Crouch’s unseen Don on the other side tending to his dying mother (Geena) violently objects to Karla’s warm-ups. Karla’s rapid-defence psycho-projections blasts back at Don’s more primal rage. It ends with wet shirts. Unerotically.
But Don’s reading the Shouts and Murmurs column in the New Yorker; a condom story Karla later wants to hear (it exists, the programme prints it!). Gradually this hobo-dressed man reveals a very different character. A wife who’s left him having set up a marriage website with his help, an adopted son brought up with just the right kind of care (that is intelligently avoiding all the contradictory advice) who seems to turn out horrendously, stealing $3000 from his father by hacking, and texting him to tell him so. For drugs.
What happens in this middle-aged-middling-millionaire-meets-struggling-stand-up is infinitely terraced, touching, and very very touchy. Sex death and reconcilement mix in this choreography of tears and reveals the extraordinary way the apparently sleeping Marcie hears far more than anyone thinks she has, including those early interrogatives.
Chase’s contribution is the most-beautifully timed entrance of all. It’s an otherwise rather ungrateful part for so experienced an actor, but she manages it as consummately as you’d expect. Crouch as the crusty heart (and as it transpires crock) of gold exudes emotional and other intelligence.
All’s slowly, painfully revealed when each younger protagonist peels off their hurt. In him it makes an old-style new man seem both believable and attractive. In Lloyd, a mouthy, prickly young woman who reveals sheer terror is absorbing. Still traumatised by her sister’s death, Karla can hardly express her love nor will Marcie allow her to.
There is a way through, and part of this is sexual. The actual moment Karla admits to having been a virgin till twenty-four then exploding is in fact during probably the wildest and most inappropriate sex scene you’ll ever see. Except it isn’t wrong at all, and in case takes place mostly in the disabled bathroom. Shouts aren’t the only thing. Karla can just never shut up.
But there’s Don and Marcie’s scene too. And Karla’s one scene briefly outside the hospital, a kind of subway epiphany. Don’s gestures, Karla’s and Marcie’s responses are magically dovetailed. Wit such residual feeling and wisdom, you wonder what life, even more than Feiffer will do with them afterwards.
Much else you can imagine, though billed at seventy-five minutes you won’t imagine it stretches for ninety-five. Lloyd is the most exposed and rises superbly, crouch wholly believable in sloughing off his own vulnerability. Chase enjoys her brilliant flicker, and Milward’s raspy, punchy, super-prickly persona is a tour-de-force delivered from a bedside. Milward is all voice, with just her jokey way of dying in a spasm to make any other point. She ensures there’s not an ounce of self-pity, nor saccharine to afflict her daughter with.
As so often with the Finborough, a completely absorbing experience packed into a pulsing interior. Don’t miss it.