Venue: Theatre Royal
Rating: * * *
“We have become obsessed with fame, and in ways which seem to be making skill or talent unimportant. Celebrity has become a major life-plan, and many seem to think that nothing is required on their CVs.” So writes Mary Luckhurst, head of Modern Drama here at the University of York, in the programme notes to her new play Celebrity. If the title wasn’t a giveaway as to the thematic content, this comment (piquant enough) provided any necessary illumination for the audience before the lights had lifted.
I was filled with anticipation. ‘Out of the Blue’ productions, co-founded by Luckhurst and her colleague Michael Cordner, had scored a hit with Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest at the Theatre Royal last year, and the cast-list numbered seven of DramaSoc’s most talented actors. In the light of this, it is a shame that I left the theatre with a niggling sense of disappointment. It would be unfair to label Celebrity a failure; rather, it was a promising opportunity lacking in forensic enough exploitation.
The play is composed of a disparate series of vignettes, introducing the audience to a rogue’s gallery of crooks and tarts. We become intimately acquainted with a psychotic serial killer as he confesses to murders from the isolation of his prison cell; we are immersed into the toadying coterie of an ego-driven pop sensation; we are witnesses to a police press conference and are implicated in the nightmare of a couple who have had their daughter snatched. The somewhat obscure notion of ‘celebrity’ is exhibited in myriad forms, each one serving to expose the perverse scale of a very modern obsession. To its credit, like any scrap of worth while art, the play is not didactic. Its fragmentary structure and lack of a single, driving narrative are illustrative of a piece that seeks to elucidate and satirize, rather than reduce the society it portrays (and we inhabit) to the level of arbitrarily metaphorical profundity. Luckhurst begs us to enjoy, but also to take note. The performances were superb, with each actor labouring skilfully and fruitfully under the weight of a variety of roles. In many ways, this was a highly creditable effort.
Celebrity’s problems, however, amount to a handful of genuine concerns. The play’s intermittent score, to which Ian McCluskey sang comic songs of hubris and excess, was incongruously slow and with a tinny, midi quality that was less than appropriately lavish. Overall though, it was the writing that made for such a frustrating evening. The ‘cult of celebrity’ is a fairly well-ploughed furrow in the realm of popular culture, and any further literary foray into this thematic world should, reasonably, be immaculately handled. The play’s satirical eye alighted on some fairly self-evident targets: Big Brother and the X Factor to name two obvious examples.
Whilst Luckhurst is to be commended for not condescending to conservative realism, some of the play’s vignettes were so much better scripted than others that one couldn’t help but think that there were grander narratives that could have been teased out at the expense of the weaker sketches. Two bungling grave robbers intent on skulduggery, and Dom Allen and Jamie Wilkes as a pair of cynical, corrupt yet erudite government communications men, left the audience enraptured and I was desperate for a little more continuity. In short, there was an awful lot of potential on display at the Theatre Royal. It is pity that such potential was not fully realised with this particular production.