Set in 1930’s London, King’s Coward-inspired offering conjures a world on the brink of collapse. The shabby drawing room of actor Charlie Williams provides a microcosm of the wider socio-political turmoil, wherein a stagnant Charlie struggles to retain his apathy against the unfathomable forces rallied against him. A natural choice for the intimately proportioned Drama Barn, this play works to retain an essentially ‘Noellian’ flair, however it suffers from an excess of dialogue which is both convoluted and tiresome. This is a script sadly in need of an editor. That said, King’s writing displays true moments of brilliance; an instinct for comic nuance and artful wordplay.
The play opens onto a squalid space of dusty decanters, stale chips and brimming ashtrays. This shabby hauteur extends to Charlie himself, rather as if he had sprang, fully formed, from the ash and brocade of his own front room. Charlie (Alec Burt) is an engaging lead, however Burt’s performance would certainly benefit from greater nuance of tone and gesture. That said, Burt does embody Charlie, and his playful interactions with various characters do work to lift the dialogue somewhat. Peter Fisher’s Euan is a revelation, with his welcome interjection of Scottish stoicism providing the perfect foil to Charlie’s histrionics. Periodic interruptions by the charmingly chipper Miss Drew (Anjali Vjas-Brannick) also provide moments of delight.
However, despite a number of commendable performances, the narrative remains garbled. The repartee between the characters struggles to maintain itself as the minutes roll on, and there is a sense of dissonance – as though the characters aren’t listening to each other. The slow pace, enforced by the lumpen dialogue, gives way to sudden, unexplained bursts of emotion which sit uncomfortably within the action. The character of Charlotte (Fiona Kingwill) seems oddly placed within the narrative; she is believable neither as Euan’s wife nor Charlie’s lover. Charlie’s diatribe against her provides a neat metaphor for his disdain of this cold new age of modernity, but as a gesture it simply does not work. Fortunately the second act bring with it a gust of fresh air, with a number of new characters working to lift the drama. Most notable of these is Mark Starling, who tackles his role as loud-mouthed industrialist Mr. Hewitt with ease. There is also a haunting moment of intimacy between Charlie and Melissa (Leigh Douglas) which increases the pathos as the play stumbles towards its conclusion.
A Slap in the Face is impressive on so many levels, but not once does it realize its full potential. The concept is clever but the execution is lacking, and much of the pathos, humour, and poignancy are simply washed away by the rolling tide of uncut speech.