BWW Review: WORTH A FLUTTER, The Hope Theatre
We're in a greasy spoon in London which doesn't do lattes - "This is a caff not a coffee shop, love!" when Matt's eye wanders to the waitress, Helen. But we're also in a theatre too, because Matt's already busted the fourth wall and is talking to us as an audience and as individuals. It's the first of many structural unorthodoxies which require leaps of faith that are sometimes made, and sometimes not.
Matt is someone you might find in a Stephen Berkoff play - East End, a bit dodgy, working class and white. But Matt's bravado is skin-deep (if that) and more than a touch of Alan Bennettish self-deprecation and insecurity bubbles to the surface, especially around his Jack-the-Lad sorta pal, Paul, who's touch with the ladies extends to Matt's own gf, the glamourpuss Paige. There's a bit of Nick Love's guilty pleasure, The Business, going on in the background too.
But, just as this ménage-à-quatre gets going, we get a fade to dark and an interval, and when we return, the focus turns to Helen's relationship with another man, unhappily married Sam. That abrupt volte face feels a bit of a cheat, because we've built an emotional investment in our awkward narrator, Matt, and, in Paul, there's a man we love to hate and in Paige, a woman who might be a bit more than the Essex Girl stereotype. We see little of them again.
The play is, of course, a comedy, occasionally politically a little incorrect, with plenty of jokes that land (and some that don't) and a sketch-based format used to illustrate episodes in Matt's life. Though some of these vignettes are delivered too quickly, there are plenty of laughs along the way (some scenes reminding me a little of setpieces like the snail racing, in Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell).
Lucy Pinder (yes, that Lucy Pinder; on her stage debut) loosens up well when hamming it up as a Scottish cock (not a penis, definitely a cock) and there's a version of Whose Line Is It Anyway's "World's Worst Step" game for "Worst things to hear on a date", presented as pell-mell horse race. Pinder has some work to do on stage presence and movement, but she's got the comic chops for panto at the very least.
Writer, Michael Head plays Matt (or is it Michael himself in younger days?) with a hard-edged charm and Paul Danan has great fun with the oily Paul and the borderline sex pest Mr Edwards - we'd have enjoyed more of both of them.
The emotional punch of the production lies in the hands of Clare McNamara, whose Helen has been hurt enough to construct a carapace of thick skin around her, but is vulnerable enough to need the comfort affection and sex brings. It's a nicely judged performance, the pursed lips and uptight waitress giving way to the sensual, if insecure, woman.
Jack Harding does what he can with Sam, but the part feels a bit generic until a reveal comes too late for us to reassess his personality. He's the one middle-class character in an otherwise avowedly working class mise-en-scène - and that makes for a nice change!
Though this was the first play written by Head (who has a few more writing credits on his CV), it feels like something of a work-in-progress, unsure whether to follow the loser who isn't quite a loser, Matt or the tart-with-a-(broken)-heart, Helen. Either would work, but their character arcs veer so far away from each other so quickly, that it's moot whether both can be explored fully in the narrative as it stands.
Despite this unorthodox structure and the characters' comings and goings, there are plenty of laughs and a couple of poignant performances to bring Helen and Sam home. The feeling persists that two fine plays will one day be excavated from the one, somewhat confusing, production in which they currently lie.