Good Canary Harry Lloyd and Freya Mavor in Good Canary. Photo by Mark Douet

Good Canary
By Zach Helm
Directed by John Malkovich
Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Tickets: www.rosetheatrekingston.org

There he was Being John Malkovich at the Rose Theatre in Kingston no less.

The theatre, initially set up by Sir Peter Hall, proudly nabbed the UK premiere of this new play by American screen writer Zach Helm (Stranger than Fiction) and helming it, as they say in Variety, was movie legend Malkovich.

But how and why? Lucy Liu was dating Helm and so in that Hollywood village way it found its way to Malkovich who loved it, but for some reason thought it would work better in French. It was therefore premiered in Paris in 2007 (where it won Moliére awards) and then in Spanish in Mexico City and now it has finally made it into the English language. In whatever language, it disappoints.

Set in one of New York's trendier enclaves we meet Jack (Harry Lloyd) who is basking in the glow of rave reviews for his dark, literary, novel. His slippery agent Charlie, an oddly cast Steve John Shepherd, is on a roll because this flush means they're on the cusp of signing a multi-million dollar deal with a leading publishing house. That's led by the brash Stuart (Michael Simkins having fun) and his ditzy wife Sylvia (Sally Rogers having even more fun).

Meanwhile Harry's own wife Annie (Freya Mavor) is ordering home deliveries of industrial quantities of speed from a lovestruck local drug dealer Jeff (a witty Ilan Goodman), who is horrified to be considered a criminal. The drugs help Annie greatly speed up the house cleaning and Malkovich and designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch immerse us in her daily chemical rush with clever use of projections and a speeded up soundtrack of 'Whistle While You Work'. Annie is struggling with her own demons: drug addiction, bulimia and surviving childhood abuse. The couple try and cope with the public scrutiny that comes with their instant fame.

For Charlie she is trouble but he can't stop Jack bringing her to a crucial schmoozing cocktail party at the home of the fancy publisher. When a rather arch critic opines on the inability of contemporary female novelists to write male characters, this sets Annie off. She unleashes a wonderfully entertaining stream of invective about the phonies present which, needless to say, is not career enhancing for Jack. Act One ends with a startling revelation which sets the play on a spin.

Freya Mavor, from Channel Four's Skins, triumphs in making the often irritating Annie sympathetic, perfectly capturing the rampaging highs and aching lows of drug addiction. It's a performance of great intelligence that matches Denise Gough's in People, Places and Things but it reminds you how infinitely superior that play was in ploughing this same terrain.

Here, Helm falls into clichés about standing up to the phonies and puncturing pretence which would make Holden Caulfield blush or cloyingly sentimental guff about how addiction and genius are closely allied. Tell that to the collateral damage of friends and family which surrounds most addicts.

Limbosch's designs use three tall mobile screens on which are projected the settings, often painterly evocations of Manhattan cafes and streetscapes. These filmic effects fill in the blanks in the viewers' imagination but sap it as theatre. They remind one of how CGI often looks phonier, the more expensive it is. Here they distract rather than enhance and the advantage they would bring, of lending the production some fluidity, is fatally undermined by slowly rolling in clunky seats on revolves. Nicolas Errèra's insistent but schmaltzy music score also reminds us that this might be more at home on the big screen.

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