A couple of nights ago I watched an interesting two part TV documentary about moral crusader Mary Whitehouse and her fight against a rising tide of degradation typified by what she saw as bad language, pornography, blasphemy and what is now regularly referred to as “scenes of a sexual nature”. Interestingly some of the talking heads who appeared on the programme suggested that in some ways Whitehouse was ahead of her time and that, in particular, the treatment of women and children was something which she championed long before current concerns manifested themselves. Famously, she brought a private prosecution against Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain, so the stage was certainly not immune from her basilisk stare. Heaven knows what she would have made of A Good Time Was Had By All currently playing at Hope Theatre in Islington. With its heady mix of sex, drugs, violence, mind games, cannibalism and musical chairs I think she might well have been apoplectic.
I hope that regular readers of my reviews would say that I do try to be positive about most of the work I see but I’m afraid that writer/director Sam Smithson’s play has left me in something of a quandary as far as that is concerned. The play starts promisingly enough as an account of a dinner party reuniting a group of university friends. The pre-meal chatter is reasonably convincing and takes some satirical swipes at the various bastions of society which the participants represent – the law, broadcast media, the press. Outsider Georgia (Holly McComish) is set up as an object of ridicule with her petty concerns about her forthcoming wedding arrangements. And there’s an effective and well delivered speech about the war in Syria from which host and journalist Liz (Bethany Monk Lane) has recently returned. Given the current Ukrainian crisis, this is both timely and revealing about conflict and its repercussions.
All this is quite dark enough as it stands but Smithson and his cast then start a plunge into what can only be described as pitch black territory and which seems to be taking its stylistic cue from early 1970s cause celebre film La Grande Bouffe (a film, incidentally, which Mary Whitehouse and her followers vocally deplored). A fifth member of the group has so far failed to materialise. Except that he does, though not quite in the way one might expect; he certainly becomes the centre of everyone’s attention. The next five minutes are a well choreographed but nauseating orgy of animalistic consumption meant to horrify. Well, it did that alright but only because I couldn’t believe just how ridiculous it was. I recently saw Fiji at the Omnibus which dealt with a similar theme with style and wit; this just seemed to me crass and overblown. I had assumed we had reached some sort of climax at that point but no, the piece continued. There were further scenes which rubbed the same point in repeatedly without taking the piece anywhere much – except it did provide an opportunity for further shock tactics surrounding sex and drug abuse. And this culminated in a vision of absurdist excess which I found completely risible as the trio rounded on the outsider. Frankly, I was glad to leave – though to be fair the rest of the audience decided that a standing ovation was required (A Good Time Was Had By Most??) so I’m quite prepared to admit that it was me who was off kilter.
I understand that the show changes every night, though in what way(s) I’m not sure; something to do with certain scenes being fluid, I think. While this might help to keep things fresh and edgy it’s probably something that works better for the actors than the audience who, after all, are only ever going to see just the one version; certainly, I wouldn’t care to repeat the experience. The quartet of actors definitely don’t hold back and are to be admired for their tenacity in keeping straight faces while the piece unfolds. I found myself feeling sorry for them having to deal with such nonsense more akin to a piece of unpolished student improvisation than anything considered and cogent. I note the production company is called Not Quite Ready Productions – hmmmm, I think I’ll just leave that there and move quietly on.