by Steven Berkoff
May 4th - 11th, 2002
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Review by Marion Cotter
Marion is a publisher and theatre reviewer for www.coventgardenlife.com
Billed by author Stephen Berkoff as "a play about anxiety", Kvetch examines the inner demons that gnaw away inside us all - whether it's fear of impotence, fear of holding a dinner party or fear of telling jokes.
"This play is dedicated to the afraid," says Berkoff. And his needle-sharp script sets out to show that the dialogue going on in the back of our head (the nagging "kvetch" that keeps us awake at night) is in fact truer than the one at the front.
Berkoff believes we are all like icebergs - seldom, if ever, showing what lies beneath the surface as we move through life. Kvetch lifts the lid and demonstrates in graphic detail just what goes on beneath the waterline. He brutally bares the souls of his characters with an inside/outside dialogue that shows the often glaring conflict between our angst-ridden inner self and our seemingly polished public persona.
Berkoff has always been more cult than mainstream. His plays crackle with pent-up energy while his dialogue - rife with sexual allusions - bristles with the kind of language you wouldn't expect to hear before TV's 9pm watershed. His highly stylised work is also big on mime, masks and body movement.
Berkoff is not, however, big on stage directions. On the upside, this provides immense artistic freedom - and a good director will rise to the challenge and leave their own artistic footprint on the production. Those not up to the task will simply flounder.
Pat Grosse's highly intuitive direction was both skilful and assured, strong on pace and punch, while showing an impeccable grasp of the play's theme. Actors need to have total confidence in their director to convincingly carry off the often uninhibited language and action in a work of this kind, and the result was spot-on. The production showed both creativity and discipline, eliciting raucous laughter from a lively audience which included a large school party of teenagers who giggled furiously at every ribald reference.
Berkoff's "freeze-frame" style - whereby the action is frozen in mid-air while individual characters bare their inner thoughts - was perfectly captured throughout. Two scenes were particularly well directed: Hal's dinner party piece, when he debates endlessly whether his guests should dine in the kitchen or the living room (the torment is soon so great that he cannot contemplate either) and the scene in the second half when each of the characters dons a mask, then speaks to camera, voicing their innermost fears.
Kvetch probes the lives of a suburban Jewish married couple who eventually come to see that their life together is a shallow sham. In an ironic twist, the play ends as they both agree to stop kvetching and start their lives over again - with the husband now in a gay relationship. The script is steeped in Jewish references, so much that the programme even had a Yiddish glossary.
Each of the three main characters was impeccably cast. Frank - the cloth salesman husband who is desperate to impress - was brilliantly played by Colin Dent. Perfect in looks and gait, he had just the right style and bullish upfront delivery for Berkoff's outspoken dialogue, spitting out expletives and cursing his vapid mother-in-law with venom while revealing one of his life's biggest fears - telling jokes. I was particularly impressed with his speech at the opening of Act 2.
Meryl Griffiths was excellent as Frank's wife Donna, bringing to mind the formidable Alison Steadman in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Her fears and frustrations - sad, and yet howlingly funny - set the tone for the play in Act 1, while her graphic sexual fantasy with the dustmen as she dreams about the sex life she doesn't have, was a show-stopper.
My only gripe was that such a seemingly attractive woman's day apparently revolves around getting her husband's dinner on the table on time - a curiously dated facet of this play, written in the 80s.
Hal, the interloper, was captured to a T by Iain Dootson. Hal is a bit of a nerd; a nondescript whose presence serves to highlight what is going on between the other characters. Here was an actor who used his whole body and face to marvellous effect, with just the right mix of braying laugh and berk-ish remarks for the part.
His long speech about the imaginary dinner party (which we all know he will never hold) showcased his comic talents brilliantly. He followed this up with a terrific cameo as an Italian waiter who is itching to go home as two lovebirds come into the restaurant late at night and can't decide what to order.
Frank's down-at-heel mother in law was nicely played by Annette Michaels. This was not an easy part, as she is much talked about on stage while actually speaking little. Roger Beaumont played George - the businessman who is key to exposing the shortcomings of Frank and Donna's marriage - to good effect, mulling over not only his own unhappy marriage but misgivings about his virility.
The play's lack of scenery and visual distractions was another Berkoff hallmark. John McSpadyen's set was simple yet effective, and I particularly liked the large Lowry-style painting on the rear wall. Lighting was by Dave Beattie and sound by Simon Humphries. Costumes by Lea Tunesi were excellent.