The Actor’s Nightmare at Park Theatre
Although this is the first time that this version of The Actor’s Nightmare has been staged, it is actually made up of six short parodies written by Tony award-winning playwright Christopher Durang, culminating in the titular nightmare.
Staged in the round, an ensemble of five actors play a series of characters, some recognisable from famous work from the likes of Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Noel Coward, and others showing us some stereotyped versions of the people you might associate with the industry – from pushy agents and Hollywood executives through to luvvie actors and a comedian struggling with more than tough crowds.
The ensemble cast is strong, with each actor given a chance to shine. For me, stand out performances came from Kate Sumpter, whose strong physical presence and expressive delivery never failed to hold the audience’s attention, and Adrian Richards who effortlessly switched between a hugely contrasting variety of roles, moving from earnest writer through angst-ridden aggressor to foppish actor, all with great conviction.
Director Lydia Parker made good use of the space, staging the production in the round on a simple square, with footlights at each corner. The intimacy of the space meant that the cast could easily interact with the audience – a useful technique for drawing us into a piece that started by asking why people choose to leave the comfort of their homes to go to the theatre – and also that dialogue was clear, with very few lines missed, even when cast members were occasionally performing with their backs to you.
The content of the various scenes/short plays falls into two styles – there is very specific parody of high-profile writers as well as more generalised situations that take a mostly humorous look at the problems facing creative talent. I found the latter to be more successful. The scene focusing on the work of Tennesee Williams, in particular, needed the audience to have a decent knowledge of his work for the jokes to hit the spot, and even then I’m not sure how funny they really were. With a lot of repetition of the main themes of this section the pace, which up until now had been very well pitched, began to drag.
The final scene, playing out the traditional actor’s nightmare of finding yourself on stage with no idea what the play is and what your role is, (or even whether you are an actor at all!), also felt at times like it was stuck in a loop of in-jokes that were a bit too subtle for their own good.
The most successful use of the full cast was undoubtedly during the “Medea” section, the most effective parody. The excellent Kate Sumpter took on the famous title role, after having humorously decried the lack of opportunities for women in professional acting. The asides from the Greek chorus (who let us know that they HATED having to speak in unison!) gave a laugh out loud modern twist to this most classic of theatrical styles.
Although this piece is definitely rooted in comedy, for me the strongest scene was much darker. Meaghan Martin gave us a comedian taking on the tough New York club scene, complete with laughter track and a massive lack of self-worth. In an excruciating stand up slot, her jokes failed to raise a (non-electronic) laugh and she slowly revealed her fear, lack of confidence and general sense of self-loathing which grew as the artificial laughs came more and more frequently from the unseen sound man in the corner. This was perfectly acted, her despair and awkwardness tangible and a huge contrast to the shallow studio executive we had seen from Martin a couple of scenes earlier.
Credit should also go to Layo-Christina Akinlude, whose Blanche DuBois prowled around the space with seductive charm, and Stefan Menaul, whose unravelling as the actor caught in his worst nightmare provided some comic highlights.
Scheduled to run at 90 minutes without an interval, but overrunning by a little over 10 minutes, the play would benefit from being cut down, particularly in the later stories, as it currently feels too long and a little bit self-indulgent. It is definitely written more for the serious theatre buff than for a casual audience member. There is, however, enough good content to save this from being an audience’s nightmare, although it does fall short of being a dream night out.
Review by Penny Walshe
The Actor’s Nightmare is running at Park Theatre until 10th August. More information can be found on their website.