BWW Review: THE PAPER MAN, Soho Theatre
There's a telling moment early in the show I saw (all shows will be slightly different) in which Improbable Theatre's Lee Simpson, the (so far) leader of the cast, asks the audience for a show of hands. In response to the question "Who really doesn't like football?" very few were raised (and most of those were from a group of friends of one of the performers). But the scripted line (and permission to veer far away from the show's ostensible subject) was delivered and off we went.
Which was a shame really as, on the very day that seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party (at least partly) over anti-Semitism, The Paper Man of the title, Austria's Matthias Sindelar, got lost in the narrative about narratives. We gleaned about as much information about this authentic hero as one would get from reading his Wikipedia entry.
If I (and presumably some of my fellow audience members who kept their hands down in that poll) were disappointed in that, my reaction to the direction of the rest of the show was possibly more personal - so I'll lay my cards on the table. In theatres, the two subjects in which I am least interested are: (i) men having midlife crises; and (ii) actors talking about how they devised the show instead of showing us the show.
So... Lee had a midlife crisis after screaming at the radio and then his wife as a result of the commentary on a Cristiano Ronaldo goal. That prompted him (some years later) to cast four women from a range of ethnicities in his show about Sindelar. But the production did not go where he intended - and this show explores how it went where it goes.
Which is a shame really because we have the cosmopolitan Vienna of the inter-war years beautifully evoked by shadows on paper and we glimpse Sindelar as a cultural and not just a sporting figure, morphing into a political icon after the Anschluss. But we're immediately whisked away to stories about dancing in rehearsals and wholly unremarkable tales about growing up amongst football obsessed lads that were delivered with infinitely more charm and wit in Gregory's Girl 40 years ago.
It's not that Vera Chok, Jess Mabel Jones, Keziah Joseph and Adrienne Quartly lack talent or have nothing to say, it's just it's exactly what we hear is precisely what I would expect to hear from four actors given such licence - indeed there are times when the improvisational nature of the show almost brings it to a halt. There's also an excruciatingly awkward random question exercise that led to the cast apologised for the blandness of the answers.
Now a riposte to that charge would be that (as was claimed) the world doesn't need another story about a dead white male - and that may be true. But it does need the story of this dead white male more than it has at any point in my lifetime And it needs it right here, right now.