Pros: Promising actors, an efficient use of space, and several stand-out poetic lines of dialogue.
Cons: Painfully drawn out action, including an offensive portrayal of mental illness.
I don’t know about you, but a ‘neo-noir’ thriller sounds to me like the perfect moody escape from a sticky London heatwave. Forcing an anguished private investigator to confront an obsessive loner should result in some seriously edgy drama, so I was excited to see what Chummy would bring to the White Bear Theatre.
The plot is textbook crime thriller stuff. Jackie Straker, a former police officer, has a lot of baggage: PTSD, a family tragedy, and a drinking problem. Now a private investigator holed up in an anonymous-looking office, she is tasked with an unusual case: to prevent a would-be killer from striking, by receiving his constant phone calls and trying to talk him down before his crime spree begins, all the while battling her own demons, Bombay Sapphire in hand. It’s surely an interesting premise, especially considering the writer’s pedigree in TV crime dramas, from Z Cars to The Bill, so an audience could assume they’d be in safe hands with John Foster’s script.
However, this is not the case. Some of the casually mentioned back-story elements of the script feel redundant or half-finished; we are told that one character, Karen, is “always the victim”, and that becoming a police officer was her chance to prove everybody wrong, yet we never find out why she was a victim in her earlier life. Besides this, the main characters’ verbal tics are irritating: Straker’s habit of incessantly calling Chummy “friend”, then later reverting to “Mr Chummy”, even when she identifies him; and innocent victim Lucy saying “fudging” to avoid swearing, even as she’s dying (would you really be afraid to drop the f-bomb as you breathe your last?!). This all sits uncomfortably alongside Foster’s more poetic lines, such as “a quiet sort of anger comes off him like steam”, and even some of these descend into awkwardness, like “the yellow pus of recollection”.
At two hours long, with a 15-minute interval (when the audience was made to leave the space for scenery changes – seemingly just placing rose petals and hanging up some clothing), Chummy needed a heavy edit. Characters often needlessly explained what they were doing as they did it. Despite this, the cast did an excellent job maintaining the flow of such a challenging script (particularly Megan Pemberton as Straker), and their actions were heightened by Alex Burnett’s tense musical score.
By far the most frustrating part of the play is its fundamental twist, which centres on mental health – a topical issue that Foster, writing in the programme, says is “so pertinent right now”. This play has been two years in the making, but it’s unclear how much research the producers and writer conducted into mental illness, because the result is utterly insensitive and sensationalised. I watched the play with a close friend, who I know through a mental health support group; we both left feeling deeply offended.
In spite of the clever set design and atmospheric music, Chummy is memorable for all the wrong reasons, and unfortunately doesn’t live up to its potential.