Pros: Entertaining and charming in parts.
Cons: Slow and clunky in other parts, and some unconvincing American accents.
My first victory of the evening was actually finding the venue, as Above The Stag is no longer above the pub that gave it its name but in the railway arches of a bridge near Vauxhall. I was so pleased to end up at the theatre by following signs to a roller disco that I rewarded myself with a rather large glass of wine.
Sharp readers will no doubt be wondering what effect the railway arch setting has on the acoustics of the performance. Since The Bus is set on a garage forecourt on the side of a busy American highway, the rumbling of the passing trains blended well with the ambient sounds of passing cars. Plus, if it’s worked for the Royal Court for a hundred years, London audiences can jolly well deal with it.
Aided by a simple but effective design of dirtied highway signs advertising McDonalds and other such thoroughly American things, the sound (both design and ambient) works to create a strong sense of place – although the accents on display in this piece make valiant efforts to dismantle this. Some of the cast are using Midwest tones, others Southern and one actor has an interesting mishmash of Mississippi via the Midlands and Milton Keynes. With the amount of material available online to tutor accents these days, there’s no excuse really for getting it so wrong.
The premise of the play is two teenage boys in the Bible Belt of America, who rendezvous for intimacy at an abandoned church bus on a garage lot. The two boys, Ian and Jordan (William Ross-Fawcett and Kane John Scott), display both an adorable goofiness and teenage stroppiness; you totally buy them as much younger than Ian’s parents who are very clearly of similar age to their son. The illusion is aided by an impressive turn by Katherine Jee as Ian’s bible thumper mother.
The frustrating thing about the play isn’t the performances, though they are a bit of a mixed bag, but the pace of the thing. It is slow and reflective, and you spend most of the time ahead of the characters. Where they get to at the end of the play is where you want them to get to at the interval. They only get to the incident mentioned in the blurb about three-quarters of the way through, and jam the remaining plot until the last five or so minutes. The ending just made me feel a bit flat and I couldn’t help thinking, “Yes. And?”
There is also an increasing dependence on the self-loathing side of things, which feels a bit too clichéd. Ross-Fawcett and Scott lose their engaging energy and play the anguished gay teen we’ve all seen before. Yes, it may be truthful but we all want to be surprised and this seems a little too obvious a route and the acting ends up feeling a little forced in these moments.
Especially given its emergence from the homeland of the Westboro Baptist Church in the States (the play was performed near their church in Kansas), this play and its message are important and relevant. Sadly, it doesn’t get anywhere near as far down the road it starts driving down, and much like the eponymous bus stays pretty much where it is.
Writer: James Lantz
Director: Robert McWhir
Producer: Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre Company
Set Design: David Shields
Booking Until: 22 November 2014
Booking Link: http://www.abovethestag.com/shows/