Last year, in The Age of Consent, Peter Morris drew bitter laughs from the not especially hilarious topics of child molesting and child murder. In A&R, an earlier, slighter work, he sets his sights on the more obviously risible subject of foolish youngsters who want to be celebrities and the cynics who exploit them. ("A&R" stands for "artists and repertoire" – in other words, singers and songs – and is the division of a record company concerned with discovering and developing performers.)
Despite his up-to-the-minute concerns, Morris strikes me as writing in the vein of traditional American satire. Those last three words may sound strange to the people who tell me that my countrymen have no irony but, for nearly as long as the US has been in existence, its writers have lampooned pretension and philistinism. The broad, robust mockery of Mark Twain may sound particularly American, but we have a long line of mordant urban satirists, too.
With such characters as the tin-eared simpleton who imagines himself a future pop star and the bossy, whiny girlfriend who is constantly congratulating herself for being mature and sensitive, Morris reminds me of the great Ring Lardner, who vivisected similar types in his short stories.
You have to accept a pretty unlikely premise at the start of A&R – that the Mephistophelian executive, Damian, has sufficient time and inclination to destroy a nobody's life for kicks. When you do, though, there's plenty of nasty fun in Damian's epigrammatic viciousness ("Ambition is nature's way of keeping meat fresh") and in the wannabe star Ricky's imperviousness to reality as he happily strums his guitar and warbles a song of mournful passion: "Love will wear you down, like a cheese grater."
The third side of the triangle, to name an instrument better suited to Ricky's talent, is Anna, his "fiancée" – ie, optimistic flat-mate. With her vapid prattle about current affairs, her crying fits when Ricky puts his "career" before her "needs", Anna sadly illustrates Damian's contention that most women "run at two speeds – coma and hysteria".
Neat production by Alan Cox and Hugh O'Conor emphasises the drama Morris gets out of this essentially static scenario: the scenes between Ricky and one of the others slide forward or backward in time; Damian steps out of character to tell us what he's thinking. The acting is first rate, especially James Wallace's Damian, who varies his steel-cold patter with disturbing little pauses and louche little purrs.
At the time we start to feel uncomfortable for taking Damian's side against the dumb-but-harmless Ricky and Anna, Morris changes tack. Unfortunately, the play here goes into a tailspin. Anna suddenly becomes genuinely mature and righteous, Damian starts talking in a way that's all message and no sense, and the sexual element of the seduction becomes overt in a way both dated and distasteful. On balance, though, A&R is a wickedly amusing piece by a writer who's not afraid to let the Devil call the tune.
To 19 Oct (020-7978 7040)
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