Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Detroit at The National Theatre - Review

When a nice young couple move into your neighbourhood, how are you to know they're not what they seem, even when they do tell you that they are a pair of ex-junkies who met in rehab? That's the premise behind Lisa D'Amour's new play Detroit, which opened at The Cottesloe Theatre last week, and laments the destruction of the American suburbs and the way that we just don't communicate with our neighbours anymore.

The play was originally written for Steppenwolf Theatre, and follows the hugely successful August Osage County onto the National. In comparison to the grand scale of that play (13 cast, three-acts and over three hourslong, an entire house for a stage set, and a theme of the decline of all America) this is far smaller in its ambitions (5 cast, one-act at just under two hours, a back garden for a stage set, and a theme that is the decline of a smaller part of America over a shorter period of time) but there are still many things it does share with Tracy Letts muti-award winning play.

As with AOC, there's some excellent dialogue and sharp observation in D'Amour's script as the respectable suburbanites Ben and Mary (Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell) meet their new neighbours Kenny and Sharon (Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne). Over a series of barbecues and late night meetings our perceptions of both couples alter as we find out more about them. Ben and Mary are homeowners, Kenny and Sharon are renting the property that belonged to their dead aunt. Ben left his job, and is using his severance pay to set up a website that will help people rebuild their credit ratings. Kenny is trying to hold down a job for 12 months so that he and Sharon can start to move up the social ladder. And of course, none of this would be complete without drugs and alcohol coming in somewhere, and Kenny and Sharon's initial refusal of alcohol at the first barbecue turns out to be the result of a battle to stay clean and beat their addictions, while the never addicted Ben and Mary can drink to excess without any consideration of the consequences. In drip feeding information about both couples, and confounding and subverting expectations, D'Amour makes this far more than just a story of neighbours with different backgrounds trying to get to on. Our alliegances switch between the four characters and our perceptions are challenged, but it's all done within the context of a great script that avoids heavy handed and earnest characters.

The cast are all superb. McQuarrie creates a convincing mixture of John Goodman style dumb suburbanite and doomed entrepeneur, Mitchell effortlessly and believably switches from respectable to histrionic via alcohol, and Dunne delivers the wild monologues that sound like the result of years of substance abuse and a few months of battling to stay clean, with a wide-eyed un-hinged intensity that brings her lines and character to life. Adamsdale has less in the way of dialogue, but still uses what he has, and the spaces where he isn't speaking, to create a naive, optimist who lives for the moment and feels rather than thinks. He is at his most effective in the long party scene where abstinence has come to an end, hedonism is the name of the day, and the world's of the characters are about to change for good.

It is after that point, that the play suffers however, as we get a final scene where Christian Rodska appears as Frank, the great-uncle who is renting the apartment to Kenny and Sharon. Rodska is very good, but for me, his character is unnecessary. As well as explaining who Kenny and Sharon really are (which could have been done some other way), his purpose it to deliver a sober reflection on what  the suburbs were when they were built, the hopes and fears of everyone who lived in them, and how their dreams have been subverted with re-builds and extensions, and no-one talking to anyone anymore. This puts Mary's early remarks bemoaning the lack of real communication about real things into a historical context, attempting to draw wider inferences from them, but the problem is that it doesn't work. It is tacked on, rather than in any way integrated into the plot.

Likewise Ben's desire to be British, which appears at different points, seems to serve no purpose other than to contrast between suburban living here and in the States. It doesn't naturally arise from his character or any point in the conversations, and it also suggests D'Amour has a misguided notion of what living in British suburbs is like, if it is something she can romanticise about.

It's interesting that the same observations were levelled at August Osage County, where dollops of American history, and the inclusion of a token Native American character to show the contrast to modern day america, were used to illustrate a theme that did not emerge naturally from the story. That was probably the main weakness of what remained an excellent play, and the same is the case here. If a grand statement can't be made without it feeling tacked on it's probably better to accept that what you've written is something that is very good without quite fully achieving your ambitions, rather than attempting to shoe-horn it in. At it's heart, Detroit is a great story, well written and well acted, about suburban living today. It does not need to pretend to be anything more than that, and doesn't succeed when it tries to.

Go and see it if you can, as the failings of the play are more than outweighed by its strengths, but be prepared to be a little disappointed when you leave the theatre.