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Loveplay

by on 27 March 2022

Come Again

Loveplay

by Moira Buffini

Questors Theatre at The Studio, Ealing until 2nd April

Review by Daniel Wain

Love, as the old song says, is a many-splendoured thing.  Moira Buffini explores this multi-faceted subject in her 2001 piece Loveplay.  Originally written to complement the RSS’s tumultuous Shakespeare history cycle, it formed part of a short season of new plays generically entitled This Other Eden.  Unlike Buffini’s best work, such as Dinner (her breakout hit two years later) and Handbagged, this piece has a distinctly commissioned feel.  Given the passionate subject matter, it too often feels a little formulaic, written to order, and by the head and not the heart.

It’s a portmanteau play: a series of short vignettes providing a showcase for a small ensemble cast, and so a very sensible choice by director Richard Gallagher for his Questors Student Group, who are celebrating 75 years since the course’s foundation.  The form and structure echo the likes of Michael Frayn’s The Two of Us, Neil Simon’s hotel suite compendiums or Alan Ayckbourn’s pentalogy Confusions.  Incidentally, the ninth scene of Loveplay, about 1960s free love, has a distinctly Ayckbourn-like air.

This play could just as pertinently be called Transactions, and not just because of its commissioned nature.  It starts in AD79, with a British businesswoman conning a Roman soldier out of both coin and coitus, and ends with a 21st century dating agency charging premium rates for champagne-fuelled introductions.  Along the way, via ten scenes set in the same location but spanning 2,000 years, sex is exchanged not just for money, but for more intangible bargaining chips.

It’s a tangled trail of seductions and sexual encounters, showing how, throughout history, the search for love and physical pleasure, while often volatile, has always had some immutabilities.  We’re pretty much the same creatures, regardless of era, and share the same issues, wants and desires.  In the third scene, The New Millennium, one of the three sexually frustrated nuns sums up the core quest of the play’s protagonists pretty well: “find something that endures before it’s too late”.

Right at the start, there’s a rape.  The girl screams and the ghost of that sound, as Gallagher says in his programme note, “echoes down the centuries”.  Loveplay also, almost certainly intentionally, echoes Schnitzler’s La Ronde.  However, while Buffini’s scenes aren’t linked by the same characters, they are connected by that haunting scream.

There are 31 characters in total, brought to life by a strong and committed cast of seven.  All make the most of their time in the spotlight, although I would have liked to have seen that time allocated a little more evenly.  Brendan Conlan is gifted six roles, compared to the mean and mode of four, but relishes them all, displaying an admirable range.  He’s a charismatic actor, whether playing a chippy Dark Age rapist, a shallow, egotistical Elizabethan ham actor, or a stoned hippie channelling Neil from The Young Ones.

Just as notable is Marie Maillot, who brings much needed energy and passion to each of her four roles, most demonstrably as the Elizabethan actress torn between two male egos, and the Romantic Age’s Miss Tilly, lustily declaiming from her novel, as her married lover has his wicked way.  Her standout performance though is as the desperate dating agency client, or saddo, floundering through an excruciating self-tape: this is the play’s delicate balance between comedy and desperation at its best.  When neither Conlan nor Maillot are on, energy does tend to sag, and the production overall could have benefited from more spirited pace and fewer longueurs.

Aleksandra Cedro, while not having as much to do as some of her cast-mates, seizes the opportunities that she’s given, most notably as the 1930s prostitute in arguably the most memorable scene of the entire play.  Likewise, Joshua Perry delivers a subtly differentiated quartet of characters, including a pragmatic heathen from The Dark Age and a nicely closeted, slightly camp cleric from The Age of Empire.  He and Katherine Armstrong also provide a very funny couple of comedy Scousers in The Age of Innocence.  Armstrong also gets proceedings off to a feisty start with her shrewd Dorcas in the first scene, and gives a very touching, if fleeting, performance as the cheated but devoted wife Millie from The Romantic Age.

The production is a fine showcase for the versatility of the whole company, although, given the small cast and the large number of roles, it would have been good to see some of the actors stretched beyond their comfort zones a little more; for example, the exuberant Conlan and more low-key Perry swapping the roles of the dissolute De Vere and buttoned-up Buttermere.  Likewise, I would have liked to see River Apparicio given some more extroverted, scene-stealing opportunities.  That said, he is very moving as the sexually naive “Boy” and as the loveably hangdog recovering alcoholic Dieter.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason in the doubling, or rather quadrupling, of roles, apart from those played by a very impressive Lily Baker.  It is the scream of her Dark Ages’ “Woman” that echoes down the ages, and it seems to be only the characters that she plays who later hear it.  All of Baker’s roles are haunted in one way or another: from the Enlightenment female rationalist Roxanne, exuding melancholy and missed opportunities, to the 1960s Flynn, desperately churning out excuses to avoid that aforementioned free love.

The standard of the acting is high, although not always best served by the writing.  Loveplay is perfectly entertaining, but little more than a series of revue sketches: a mixture of Schnitzler and 1066 and All That.  Indeed, some scenes veer into parody, whether intentionally or not.  The Elizabethan play-acting scene is second-rate Stoppard, the encounter between two late Victorian gentlemen weakly Wildean, while, as already mentioned, the 1960s-set comedy is all-right Ayckbourn.

Buffini can be an insightful, incredibly witty writer, and some of Loveplay displays this ability, such as the arresting scene in which the haughty 18th century Roxanne hires a labourer so that she can explore his body.  This reveals so much of the tension between emotional restraint and intellectual expansion.  However, the fragmented nature of Loveplay doesn’t do Buffini’s talent any favours.  She’s not able to delve and probe, but only skim across too many surfaces.  In his programme note, Gallagher says that, “as the company have progressed through rehearsal we have all seen more and more in the text that is far more profound and wise than we first comprehended”.  Sadly, on one sitting, much of this profundity and wisdom passed me by.

A few of the scenes outstay their welcome or don’t seem to add too much to the debate.  Indeed, the most memorable is probably the shortest: in which a prostitute, the ironically named “Joy”, offers the “Boy” a second attempt at consummation, only for them both to break down weeping.  The dialogue is sparse, the movement minimal, and the scene all the better for it.  It’s also probably the one scene where we feel genuine empathy for any of the characters.  In each scene, the characters names rhyme (Eric, Herek and Deric; Miss Tilly, Mr Quilley and Millie).  It’s fun, but only serves to further distance us from them.  They aren’t real people, just devices, archetypes, passing shadows.

The simple traverse staging helps traffic us from one scene to the next.  The minimal set allows for speedy transitions, aided by some very effective graphic design projections by Amani Alshaya and Kornelija Kelpsaite, which get more creative and colourful as they go on.  John Green and Martin Choules, helming lighting and sound respectively, aren’t given many opportunities to make their mark, but the very simplicity of both is effective.  The costumes certainly evoke each period, although the earlier ones do look far too clean.

Indeed, the whole production probably isn’t grubby enough.  For a play all about sex, it seems rather too chaste and tasteful, even, or rather particularly, in the few-and-far-between kisses and clinches.  Ultimately Buffini’s play is mostly talk, with very little action.  But maybe that’s the point…

Daniel Wain, March 2022

Photography by Jamie Gould

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Very much enjoyed reading this review: insightful and wide ranging

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