SHE'S A middle-aged, once famous, now out-of-work actress, who has mislaid her giro cheque and a fair proportion of her marbles. The product of a broken home (her father walked out when she was a girl), she thinks there's a Bogey Man in the cupboard and also believes that she's having a sexual affair with her ex-psychiatrist. She knows a lot of poems about death, too.
As luck and the laws of middlebrow drama would have it, though, there's a handy, housewifely homosexual in a flat upstairs who can help her through the lonely watches of the night and is even prepared to take a feather duster to her bits and bobs. He's older than she is, but he, too, has personal, on-going experience of pain and the tenacious grip of illusions. I think we can make a wild, impetuous stab in the dark and predict that, before the final curtain, these two are going to be Facing the Truth together.
This is the set up in Bernard Kops's Who Shall I Be Tomorrow?, premiered now by Matthew Francis at the Greenwich Theatre in a production which suggests that there is nothing wrong with this two-hander that couldn't be put right, were the protagonists to enter into a successful suicide pact after the first quarter of an hour. No, make that 10 minutes.
Giving mental distress a nice candy-coating, it's one of those synthetic, bitter-sweet comedies that allow an audience to snuggle up and have a comfy mope and a sympathetic chuckle over the loneliness and pain of suitably kooky despairers. Despite some upfront talk about sex, the palatability of it all makes you want to gag, a reaction also triggered by the programme with its notes on Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith and Marilyn Monroe, and the insulting implication that the suffering of the cardboard creation at the centre of this drama is comparable to theirs.
The impression that the play is sealed off from contact with reality (and that its view of the world is derived from other formula-ridden pieces of the same kind) is reinforced by a bizarre moment when the gay man, Gerald (Harry Landis), says he is almost nostalgic for the bad old persecution days when homosexuals were all in the closet. There was, he claims, more of a sense of belonging then. Is it possible that he's never heard of Aids, and the spirit of community this has generated among gays? It would seem not, from a story he tells about joking in bed with a pick-up that he suffers from a rare disease that can only be cured by a life-saving injection of male sperm. Or did I miss something and it's all supposed to be taking place in the Seventies?
Whether dancing with his duster to 'The Way You Look Tonight' or camping up Brecht 'Oh, show me the way to the next pretty boy. . . ', Mr Landis as Gerald fleshes out a crude cliche amiably enough. He has established a good rapport with Joanna Lumley's Rosalind, who is all daffy desperation as she tears off to auditions, or jaunty willed bravery in the awful, clipped monologues where she fills us in on her psychic history. But how can either of them win with lines like: 'In life, you know, you can't play God; all you can do is cling to the parapet.'
The one moment of genuinely revealing black comedy comes when a weepy Gerald knocks, seeking comfort, the very second a suicidal Rosalind (after quoting The Tempest and an Emily Dickinson poem on death) has filled her mouth with pills and whisky. He's so wrapped up in his own misery, he takes some time to notice what he has just accidentally prevented. By this stage, though, you feel like making your own cry for help.
Who Shall I Be Tonight? continues at the Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London SE10 until 24 October (Box office: 081- 858 7755 / 081-853 3800)
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