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Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune

by on 6 May 2019

Peeling Back the Big Apple

Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune

by Terrence McNally

Teddington Theatre Club at the Noel Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre until 11th May

Review by Eugene Broad

The idea behind Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is, as veteran director Harry Medawar says in his introductory note, how tragic it would be for two star-crossed lovers to never give each other a chance, and thereby never become star-crossed lovers in the first place. A brief outline of the plot is that two unsatisfied and troubled co-workers go out on a date, and end up passionately making love in Frankie’s Manhattan apartment before discussing their various troubled pasts and future hopes. Frankie, however, is unwilling for various reasons to allow Johnny into her life, whereas Johnny is convinced they have the potential to make their relationship more than a simple one off liaison.

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Johnny, played by Peter Easterbrook, flits between casual light-hearted banter with Frankie, and jarring forceful passion that she is truly his soulmate. Frankie, played by Susan Gerlach, initially rejects his advances, torn between her physical insecurities and her past. But Johnny is persistent, won’t take no for an answer, and spends most of the first act working out how to stay in her apartment longer despite her protestations for him to leave. At times I wasn’t sure whether the play wanted to simply be a light-hearted exploration of middle-aged love – once the rose-tinted glasses are trampled underfoot by the ravages of crushed dreams – or whether there was a deeper psychological aspect of Johnny emotionally manipulating Frankie for his own enjoyment and emotional security. The crude objectification Johnny revels in (asking to see her “pussy”, a word Frankie finds abhorrent; to generally bask in her nudity, making her uncomfortable; and the love-bombing he engages in with her shortly before asking for a blowjob), points towards someone whose words ultimately seem to be, as Johnny himself says “just words” and “empty” when compared to his actions. I couldn’t help but feel, that given Frankie’s past, she feels trapped in her apartment and chooses to go along with Johnny’s suggestions, viewing it as the path of least resistance.

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Partly because of this dissonance between playful banter, sudden intensity, and the vulgar and objectifying nature of Johnny’s actions, the play occasionally seems loose and disjointed, as if a number of different visions and interpretations were vying for consideration, but at times it feels like it lacks a rudder without having any kind of unifying theme. This isn’t any disservice to Gerlach and Easterbrook, both of whom are entirely convincing in their respective roles – Easterbrook impressively keeping up an American accent throughout the entire show (Gerlach originally being American, has the advantage here). Rather, the constraints of the script and play-writing in general could very well have contributed to this issue, as well as the lack of movement implied by only having one set, and could all have ultimately constrained the concepts Medawar had in mind.

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That being said, the set and general ambience are excellently conceived by designer Francesca Stone. As the play is performed in Hampton Hill Theatre’s Noel Coward Room, the more intimate atmosphere make one feel as if you are actually sitting in the living-room with the cast. Wall decorations, and small flourishes make the apartment feel more authentically American – such as Johnny drinking a Coors light lager, and Frankie providing cold meatloaf. This is boosted by the ambient sound effects. John Pyle’s sound design includes the sorts of sounds one could expect from night-time New York in a high rise apartment – the muffled and muted sounds of late night traffic. The Noel Coward room is undoubtedly challenging from a lighting design perspective. Nevertheless, Emma Burton creates a lighting design that cleverly weaves in table and floor lamps to provide the realistic and soft lighting that you would expect from a late-night tête-à-tête (and corps-à-corps, judging from the sounds at the start of the play…).

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Consequently, whereas the play could occasionally feel disruptive and pull you out from the narrative being woven, the set and soundscape was entirely immersive, and our actors took us right into the intimate spaces that can exist even in the a crowded metropolis like New York.

Eugene Broad
May 2019

Photography by Simone Sutton

From → Drama, Reviews

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