This ‘contemporary Restoration comedy’, a commission for the RSC by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a play full of colour and noise and excess and yet for much of the time it is an oddly flat experience. At its best it has the sass and playfulness of McCraney’s earlier play, Wig Out!, at its worst it’s like a particularly lacklustre episode of Ugly Betty.
Pharus, a New York hustler, first glimpsed sporting hot pink Calvins, has just escaped the attentions of hip-hop mogul Jules when he receives an out of the blue call from his, before now unbeknownst to him, great aunt Marian who, while knocking back a 7am gin, invites him to London come and work for her PR company, Move.
That’s all the excuse Pharus needs to hop on a plane and high-tail it to the UK, but he can’t shake off his old habits, and even manages to mile-high a diplomat’s wife en route to Heathrow. Once installed at Move, he’s charged with recruiting models for the agency but ends up attracting a multicultural assortment of fellow hustlers and hookers, his presence triggering suspicion and jealousy in his jump-suited cousin, Valentina.
McCraney clearly has much affection for London’s multiplicity, for the sexual and cultural collision of the city. There are natty Haitian immigrants, volatile cabbies, towering ‘Prussian’ sex workers and closeted airport jobsworths, not to mention a generous scattering of turquoise posing pouches, PVC shorts and men in killer stilettos. The fondness and amusement elicited by a particular brand of English officiousness is also evident, with Debbie Korley’s Girl Wonder assuming the role of various uptight uniformed types: flight attendant, London Underground announcer and hotel receptionist. (“Do you work everywhere?” Pharus eventually asks her).
Though it apes the wit and artifice of Restoration comedy, it lacks bite and is somewhat one-note in its gaudy excess. The lyricism of the Brother/Sister plays is only occasionally glimpsed and even when it is in evidence the performers don’t always rise to the challenge of mining the most from the rhythms and rapidity of the writing. Tunji Kasim, as Pharus, is the only one who really nails it; he seems comfortable with the language and manages to convey a sense of a man well accustomed to living off his wits beneath a varnish of surface charm. But then as the protagonist, he’s required to play it cool, while everyone else in Jamie Lloyd’s production dials their performance up to eye-rolling levels. This works better in some cases than others; Sheila Reid plays aunt Miriam like a cross between Anna Wintour and Mindy Sterling’s villainous sidekick from the Austin Powers movies but elsewhere people just resort to yelling and mugging.
Soutra Gilmour’s neon night club of a set looks a bit like some someone has set about the stage with a collection of highlighter pens, but this visual insistence – the hot pinks and acid yellows, the glitterball shimmer – seems to be intended to underline something that isn’t actually there in the text. The plot is slender as a stiletto heel, but the narrative arc is tried and tested; bracketed by McCraney as one of his Identity Plays, it seems to be saying that a man can move cities, move countries, but he can’t escape himself. The bitter circularity, that the city will get you in the end – no matter which city it happens to be – is delivered almost as an aside.
As a whole, the production looks like it should be a lot of fun, like it wants to be a lot of fun, but while it intermittently raises a smile, the not inconsiderable energy of the thing quickly dissipates; it’s a lipstick kiss, easily wiped away.