Hot on the heels of one play that lifts the lid on actors when they are not actually on stage (yesterday’s Masks And Faces) comes another, though this is rather more contemporary. It takes as its theme the whole business of cancel culture though, fortunately, not in any sort of po faced way that such a subject might imply. The Cancellation Of Crispin Cox is a deliciously acerbic confection from Michael Conley, a performer I have rapidly grown to admire after seeing him in The Fabulist Fox Sister and The Sorrows Of Satan over the last year.
Here he plays the titular Cox sitting at a dressing room mirror applying make up as he prepares to go on stage in a one man musical based on Les Liaison Dangereuses watched over, appropriately, by a photo of Glenn Close. He’s been called on suddenly to step into the shoes of his “very best friend” Giles Freedman who was due to appear up until the moment that he was outed, and social media caught up with his false claim that he was Jewish. Thus, he has fallen victim to the mass outrage about cultural appropriation which followed resulting in his cancellation. Freedman’s loss is Cox’s gain and he has spent the last week getting himself back up to speed with a role he originated in the preliminary workshops which developed the piece but was subsequently passed over for the perceived more bankable Freedman. So, it would seem that there is some justice in the turn of events, so much so that we begin to wonder just what Cox’s role has been in precipitating the current situation. The final outcome is totally predictable – just read the title for heaven’s sake – but the fun is mostly in how we get there.
Those of us who recall Nigel Planer’s Nicholas Craig may find some similarities in the self-deluded character (the critics have damned Cox with faint praise as “reliable”) though Conley’s glorious creation is infinitely more spiteful and, at bottom, so much more scared. This camply preening second-rater knows in his heart exactly what he is but cannot bring himself to admit it. As Cox/Conley applies the stage make up which will mask his face, so he reveals more of his inner soul and we begin to understand his motivation and his bitterness towards those who have superseded him or let him down; his agent (listed on his phone as “Crappy”), the stage manager (“the Idiot SM”), the writer (“my very best friend”, Trevor), his parents (who unthinkingly landed him with the name Isaac – “say it slowly”) all come in for a bruising though never, of course, to their faces. For Cox is so desperate for approval that he can only ever share his real feelings with himself in the mirror. Yes, this is all a bit of a cliché, but Conley gives him a vulnerable centre and a great turn of phrase. So, I found myself forgiving any tendency to take the easy option and just enjoying a performance which, while it rang true at many points, has all the makings of a classic comic characterisation of narcissistic proportions.
It might have been intriguing to have caught a glimpse of Les Liaisons Dangereuses The Musical. As it is we only get to hear a bit of one song from it as Cox practices the finale as part of his warm up process. Long-time Conley collaborator Luke Bateman provides the music and the voice of Freedman. The film has been created as a one shot live take with videography by Luke Rayner and sound by Richard Rayner. Although it is in one sense completely static – the camera points over Conley’s shoulder and what we see, tellingly, is his reflection – it is also an animated whirl as Cox’s mind dances around and eventually across the main issue – just why has he never made it to the big time? While it may not be evident to the character, it is certainly evident to us, but I do hope that Crispin Cox gets to fight another day and entertain us all once more as he continues to bid for fame. So, although it’s a cry which Cox has probably never actually heard, to Conley I say “Encore!”
Production photos by Jane Hobson
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