Salient.Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 17 July 23, 1969
Drama — Contradictory Dynamism
The White Liars and Black Comedy are two one-acters now running at Downstage's Star Boating Club Hall. Peter Shaffer has been recognised since Five Finger Exercise in 1958 and certainly since his The Private Ear and The Public Eye in 1962 as an effective playright who uses crisp, rather intellectual dialogue and economical plots which can survive even a mediocre performance (Hurt Rep's recent attempt at Five Finger Exercise for example). Black Comedy had a good run at the Old Vic 1966-7 and his latest, Royal Hunt of the Sun (an excursion into the Spanish conquest of Peru) has had excellent reviews. Downstage may well keep up its record of presenting the latest and give us that before long.
The White Liars has dialogue of sympathetic wit and clarity, but is a kind of theme and variations on a rather lightweight piece of amateur psychology which wanes as a source of dramatic action long before the plot very predictably rounds off. The situation is dynamically developed by a series of contradictions of evidence which reveals character in the most direct way. After Tom's outburst the technique is dropped in favour of propounding theory and developing character detail. However helpful this is, it has the unfortunate effect of anti-climax and tediously reworking Familiar material.
Baroness Lemberg (really Sophie Weinberg), fake fortune teller, fake aristocrat and in a sense fake mistress, waits tor customers in her isolated pier-booth a perfectly realistic use of the Star's harbour window here). She plays patience with her divining cards and very oddly talks to the disembodied voice of her former lover Vassi whose cynical corrections tell a great deal about them. Paul Holmes as Vassi produced an effective timbre of mocking sensuality. Pat Evison filled out Sophie with sympathy and brought a gentle pathos to a recognisable brand of self-depreciating Jewish humour 'sit down and tell me about it, do you think I'm clairvoyant or something; That's my one joke, I say it all the time'). Sophie states the theme: there are two types in the world, the Givers and the Takers. The Givers are the aristocrats of sensitivity and the Takers are the peasants.
Two customers invade this cosily occult scene to demonstrate the theory. David Williams, grotesquely tall and dislocated in blond wig and lambswool jerkin is the pop singer Tom (read Taker). Matt O'sullivan plays Frank, a nervous little homosexual (read Giver). The costumes help point their roles too: symbolic white for Tom: indeterminate brown for Frank who is hopelessly lost somewhere between black and white; and green chiffon on Sophie indicates [unclear: nausea].
Sophie (and the audience) are caught in the cross glare of willing delusion and cynical revelation. Tom has a laughing fit, drops his lower class dialect and tells the truth (and somewhat like Vassi there is nobody reliable enough to qualify his evidence). But the surprises are over. Tom launches into anti middle class propaganda, Sophie rambles distractedly and Variation I is delivered by Tom: the Givers, though passive, define the roles of the active Takers. Variation II is even more dubious: Society will recognise only the fulfillment of certain preconceived images e.g. successful pop singers are working class and never sons of accountants.
From the time Tom finds his middle class voice the drama is over. The rest is just tidying up which, in contrast to the first half's dynamic revelations, is a process of taking longer to say less while waiting for the plot to catch up. Consequently, towards the end there is the sense of material being overworked. This is not to fault the production but just explains why a feeling of dissatisfaction lingers in spite of the actors' execllence and [unclear: Dick] Johnstone's clear sighted direction.
In the [unclear: can] be accused of letting its pretensions slip, Black Comedy has none to risk. The blackness is quite literal. Normal action starts on-stage in complete darkness, the "fuse blows", the lights come up and We see the characters groping about and falling over the furniture. It's a wonderful idea—a farce in the dark with almost every conceivable bit of slapstick by-play short of cream pies: mistaken identities, talking into space, mixed drinks, an attempt to exchange every stick of furniture borrowed from the next flat because the owner has returned. The possibilities are endless and most of them were realised by the cast who gave an expertly sustained performance.
One associates Feydeau with classic farce but this one is very English and pure situation comedy: almost plotless in the Feydeaun sense and there are very few jokes in the dialogue. Almost anything that looked desperate and helpless was cripplingly funny (one wonders how much the licensed first night helped here). Heather Eggleton's frilly orange knickers for the stair climbing bit was a master touch. That and David Williams's prolonged hysteria in shifting the furniture were not memorable.
Snappy action would seem to be essential to farce. But here the darkness slows everything down; the characters more as if they were treading water in a tank; the turns of fortune are seen to develop; imminent catastrophe becomes excruiating.
All this makes the play almost actor-proof but in fact the acting was exceptional too. Matt O'sullivan deserves spread mention for his effusively effeminate Harold Gorringe. All the others too must be applauded for their consistent inventiveness.
Grant Tilly's set, with a kind of mezzanine bedroom, was fully exploited. Did I imagine Rex Gilfillon's lighting become stronger everytime a match was blown out? All this is ultimately praise for the directo eye for detail and sound professionalism: another success for Dick Johnstone.