Adam and Damien, with a trio of backing singers, narrate their doomed-to-fail relationship from beginning to end. Magnus and Sophie, a high flying city couple and the epitome of pop culture, also use narration to tell the audience about their perfect relationship and their perfect lives that really aren’t so perfect. Fine Mess Theatre present these couples with two comedic short plays, Divas and Islands to remind us that we are all flawed creatures searching through the mess that is modern life to find that one person whose flaws fit ours. Also, city workers do their reputations no favours.
Divas follows a format similar to Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years. Adam (Joel Samuels) tells their story backwards, starting with their breakup. Damien (Daniel Ward) starts at the beginning. They address the audience, but rarely directly to each other. Three women in sequined black dresses sing stereotypical diva anthems a cappella, but also step in to take on the role of the other partner and friends as a mini-chorus. Things aren’t right, though. Adam is middle class and works in the corporate world. He desperately seeks out culture: book groups, art galleries, opera, fine food and wine. Damien is a working class barista who believes Adam is completely above him. Feeling the need to impress on one of their first few dates, he creates a new biography: he works in the music industry, he lives with hipster housemates, his parents are dead, the works. Lies are never infinitely sustainable, and in this case, all does not end well. As the story unravels, what is true and what is fabrication becomes increasingly unclear, but it works well by showing the two sides to every relationship.
Though the two men are desperately in love with each other, Samuels and Ward haven’t fully captured that chemistry. The staging is that of a cabaret, with a shiny red backdrop and the men using handheld microphones. The singers are not amplified, so the sporadically used microphones seem unnecessary and an obstacle to the characters’ relationship. There is little physical contact, though it is often discussed. Not that they need to be all over each other, but it may have helped create a stronger sense of their relationship. The cabaret format is a lovely idea to frame a couple that loves the genre, but it further distances the characters from each other. More direct interaction would certainly support their relationship, though it would have to be carefully placed and in order not to muddy the contrasting chronologies.
Islands is the stronger, more polished play, but with less likeable characters and a more conventional format. Magnus (Kyle Ross) and Sophie (Eva Tausig) are performed well, and hilariously embody aspects of corporate and pop culture that everyone loves to hate. From workplace affairs to text speak, they lead fabulously comfortable lives that look perfect from the outside. A quick pace generates some great comedic moments, but they are still two people desperately seeking the perfect compliment to themselves. There is also a heavy dose of narration, but the two regularly interact so their relationship seems genuine. Though this is a two-hander, the performances and the script are good enough to keep attention throughout, but there is perhaps one subplot too many. The puzzling element is the costume design – both characters are just in underwear. The stripped back costume contrasts their carefully constructed lives, but it doesn’t really add anything to their relationship and feels gratuitous.
Fine Mess Theatre are a new company of actor-writers that focus on new writing and clearly have the courage to experiment with form and structure. Their strengths are their characters and story ideas, but the structure doesn’t always support their characters’ relationships with each other. Narration and direct address is often ignored in character-driven work, but exploring it as a storytelling device is a worthy experiment. They are certainly a company to watch as they develop and refine their style.
The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.