There is a fine line between being clever and being a little too clever for your own good. The Last Will and Testament of Henry Van Dyke is a play that tiptoes precariously along that line, spending time on either side through its 50-minute duration.
Without doubt writer Karrim Jalali manages to create two well rounded characters, simply called Person 1 and Person 2. Both are beautifully brought to life by the chemistry between actors Nathan Wright and Niall Murphy. They feel real as they sit about on their sofa discussing the mundane, skipping through topics from the fear of flying to who they lost their virginity to. It’s very enjoyable as a short opening scene, leaving you to ponder where the story is really going. It’s very blokey, reminiscent of Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football days as they invited us into their living room to watch them talk blokey things. For that Jalali should be praised, allowing such a natural feel.
But as we enter the second scene, it begins to totter over that line. Because now the play’s intentions are laid bare. It becomes a play about two people discussing writing a play based on – yes, you’ve guessed it – themselves discussing the writing of a play. It’s a familiar theme, although in its defence, it’s usually a musical about writing a musical based on the characters discussing writing a musical; The Problem With Fletcher Mott and [Title of Show] being two examples from this reviewer alone. At least we don’t have singing tonight.
Where The Last Will and Testament then falls headlong over that clever line is in allowing itself to show the audience just how clever it is. Person 1 and Person 2 begin to discuss play structure and how they could subvert that structure to keep the audience guessing about where the story is going. It is all quite frankly a little at risk of losing itself deep up its own backside. It’s not helped by its many references to how the play might be perceived, almost as if it’s pre-empting any criticism. Rather than being charming, it is challenging its audience to dare to criticise it; this feels rather alienating, almost saying “if you don’t like me, you simply aren’t clever enough to appreciate me”.
There is hope, though, because when the play isn’t being so clever, there are moments of real clarity. As a story about being a dreamer versus being a realist it could flourish. Here we have two characters at either end of that scale, Person 1 having given up his dreams of being a musician as he realised he would never be as good as others he admired, whilst Person 2 is still dreaming, still believing he has something to say that the world wants to hear. The play’s title is there to further emphasise this. Henry Van Dyke, an American writer, whose quote “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best” sums it up: not everyone can be the best, but that shouldn’t stop us singing.
The Last Will and Testament Of Henry Van Dyke is Jalali’s debut play, and there is enough to promise future works might be worth catching, provided he stops trying to be quite so clever. I’d watch a play with characters that feel this real, but I wouldn’t rush back to see them talking themselves in such circles.
Written by: Karrim Jalali
Directed by: Joy Harrison
Booking Link: http://tabardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-last-will-and-testament-of-henry-van-dyke/
Booking until: 27th April 2019