This Is How It Goes, King's Head Theatre, London
Friday 10 September 2010
Seb Billings's revival of this 2005 play by Neil LaBute opens and closes to the sound of Dean Martin slurring out "Everybody Loves Somebody". On both occasions, the recording gets stuck on the word "now" and is then replaced by a harsh contemporary techno-beat. It's a telling, witty touch – and not just because Martin's warm, easy-going manner and message feel peculiarly alien in the ruthless LaBute world of manipulation and misogyny. The snatch of song also underlines the fact that love did once exist between high-school sweethearts Cody and Belinda, whose 12-year marriage starts to unravel terminally when a long-lost fellow pupil returns to their Midwest town and rents the spare room. As a fat misfit teenager, this figure (generically named Man) had fancied Belinda. Slimmed down and claiming to be an ex-lawyer, he has the opportunity to turn his dream to reality.
There are two twists to the scenario that give the play its discomfiting, blasphemously humorous power. The triangular relationship that LaBute dramatises is an interracial one. Cody is a macho black businessman, and is guilty, according to the Man, of regularly playing "the spade card" to get his way. The additional teaser is that the white guy nurses ambitions to be a playwright and keeps stepping out of the action, which he stage-manages, to address the audience directly. "Jeez," he muses early on, "I think I might end up being an unreliable narrator here..." The effect is to turn the proceedings into a treacherous, quasi-Pirandellian compound of memory-play and warped fantasy in which the rug is continually swiped from under our feet.
It's intriguing that in a period that has seen the US elect its first black President, there's been a crop of new plays by white American dramatists that challenge the dishonesties in our thinking about race relations. This Is How It Goes got in on the act early, bringing audiences up short against their unexamined prejudices with its tricksily discrepant and untrustworthy versions of the decline of an interracial marriage. The excellent Gemma Atkinson gives lovely, subtle shading to the sadness of the disillusioned trophy wife in Billings's nicely needling and edgy, if somewhat underpowered, revival, and Okezie Morro seethes compellingly as the touchy, charismatic Cody. The hollow instability of the alleged happy-ever-after ending is splendidly conveyed in an atmosphere of mounting, nightmare anxiety. But the too-youthful, gangling Tom Greaves struggles to find the sinister Iago-like insidiousness of the manipulative Man. It's a terrifically difficult role since, as with Shakespeare's villain, there's a disturbing void at the character's centre. Greaves, though, overdoes the goofily squirming L-plate-wearer's awkwardness and self-deprecation, as Man plays deceptively guileless impresario. The result is that the teasing plunges in and out of overt racism sometimes feel here like the equivalent of children hammering on a front door and then running away.
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