Luna Park is a largely-forgotten play by Donald Margulies brought to life with wit, charm and inventive staging, under the direction of Hattie Coupe.
Coupe injects imagination and depth into a text which at times feels a little flat and lacking in real substance. The relatively simple story revolves around Rose (Eugina Caruso,) a second-generation Jewish migrant living in New York during the Great Depression. The play starts on the eve of her son’s twenty-first birthday. She is the almost-archetypal Jewish mother, fussing over him and rattling on about food. She’s trying to make an effort, but there’s clearly a dispirited atmosphere to the proceedings. They’re poor and things are a little strained. Delmore (Jesse Rutherford) fusses over his mother in turn and insists that she sew up a rip in her jumper which she’s left uncharacteristically undone.
The sparse and slightly higgledy set reflects this feel of make-do-and-mend; the creative way it’s manipulated and utilised throughout helps to develop a sense of economy and resourcefulness, but also an inkling of real magic. Clothes-pegs are used as cigars, stepladders turn into funfair rides.
We journey back in time by a couple of decades. Rose is being picked up by her date, Harry Schwartz (Tom Slatter). He’s an interesting character who at first seems a likeable, slightly sappy sort (a bit Mitch from Streetcar.) But as the play progresses he has these moments of anger, and a real need for control. His actions towards Rose are often manipulative, even down to the small stuff like his telling her not to bring a jacket, and then trying to force his own coat round her shoulders. We watch as their relationship blossoms from rather lacklustre courting to a loveless marriage they surrender to, and from the first scene we know that in the future Harry’s out of the picture. It’s a very real and complex presentation of a relationship. There’s room for it to be pinpointed further and more fully explored within the show, but it’s interesting to watch nonetheless.
Rose’s part in the relationship and play is problematic. At home her father and Harry comment on her appearance and both agree that she doesn’t need a jacket – and even though she wants to bring one, she concedes. Harry seems to take the place of her father; patronising, controlling and crushing her throughout. And even in the plays final image – back in the kitchen with Delmore – her son hands her a sewing kit and forces her to mend her clothes. This could be understood as an image of hope, of pushing on through hard times, but it speaks louder of how completely Rose is controlled by the men in her life, even her own son. This is problematic because it doesn’t seem like the issue of sexism is dealt with in the text or in this particular staging. Instead it remains as a troubling but contextual background presence. The trouble is that if you want to perform plays which are inherently sexist and archaic in their depiction of women, you need to address these issues head on; there’s no excuse to ignore them, or to sweep them under the rug.
Despite my misgivings in that respect, Luna Park is a lovely piece of theatre, full of striking images and strong directorial decisions. Its subject matter is balanced out with a good deal of humour, and framed by the dream-like movement pieces, which are powerful and could be even stronger if more fully integrated with the scenes. The performances are also great; Caruso delivers an empathetic Rose, Slatter is fantastically funny and multifaceted as Harry, and Jesse Rutherford slips cunningly and convincingly between a plethora of characters. Yes, sometimes the accents are a little dodgy. And sometimes you wonder what the relevance or importance of this piece might be today. But on the whole this is a bright and talented young company with a good deal of potential.