Saturday, 3 January 2009


19/12/08, Finborough Theatre

A sprawling William Saroyan play with a huge cast (I counted 18 or 19 in the first half, and there may have been more in the second) set in a bar on Pacific St, San Francisco in 1940. There was a drunken sailor; a sad and sodden streetwalker; a cop; a longshoreman (very erudite); the proprietor; a profoundly unfunny would-be “comedian” with a bizarre line in surreal monologues; and Joe, at the table in the centre, a drunk (presumably) with a love for all humanity, an apparently bottomless source of funds, a generous spirit, the gift of foresight (or at any rate the capacity to pick long-shot winners in horse races) and a reluctance to participate (he tells one woman he can’t dance; asks another to dance then tells her too he can’t).

It reminded me of Altman’s Nashville – lots of interwoven stories, some poignant, some comic, some puzzling. It worked as a film and might work on a larger stage in a better production which found a way to capture the air of dream-like unreality. But here it was all too literal, the cast at tables and on bar stools in the Finborough’s tiny upstairs, often close enough to touch, literally “in your face”. You were conscious all the time of actors pausing mid-scene, waiting for another scene to play out so they could resume theirs. And it needed better acting. Joe was OK, and one or two of the others – though the way it was written gives most of the characters precious little time to establish themselves.

The final straw was the last character introduced in the first half, an ageing cowboy with a line in tall stories, delivered at a meaningless gabble at full tilt. It may have been the writing to blame as well, but I literally couldn’t follow a word of it: a complete failure on the part of the actor to inhabit the text.

So we jumped ship at half-time and sat downstairs and had a gossip and a couple of glasses of red wine and some nuts and olives. The last play we left at the interval was also set in a bar in California in the mid-century, Tennessee Williams at the Arcola. That was better done than this, but at the end we resolved never to go to the Arcola again (a resolve I’m sure we shall break, if only because it’s just round the corner). We have now resolved never to go to the Finborough either (a resolve easier to keep, despite its admirable policy of resurrecting interesting old plays – they just don’t do them well enough. I like my theatre living, not archaeological).

I think we’ve resolved never to go to another American play set in a bar, as well.

Memo to self: find out who William Saroyan was, anyway.

The only embarrassment: we were still in the (real) bar when it finished and the cast came down and got stuck into their pints. “Joe” looked daggers at me as we left…

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