EmptyAlmeida Theatre, London
Through Dec. 8
Caryl Churchill's 1978 play of two acts contrasting British sexual mores from the Victorian era with those of the post-1960s seems like a tired relic today. Why the Almeida, given to cutting-edge productions, is bothering with it is a puzzle.
The play's laughs derive mostly from the stunt of having men play women and vice versa and adults play children. Perhaps it was provocative 30 years ago, but now it seems tiresome and self-indulgent.
The longer first half of the play is set in colonial Africa, with a family exhibiting all the hypocrisy, racism and suffocating sexual repression of the era. It contains some lively dialogue, but the period has been lampooned so often that Churchill's lines sound familiar.
James Fleet plays the patriarch with suitable bluster, while the strapping Bo Poraj is all coy poses cross-dressing as his wife. The man's domination of his spouse goes hand in hand with a desire to bed every woman who crosses his path. Tobias Menzies breezes on as a noted explorer whose bravado hides tendencies that lean more toward the young men of the household.
The second act is set in 1979, but bizarrely the characters have aged just 25 years. The actors pull a switcheroo, with Fleet now playing a small girl and Poraj a handsome fellow who thinks he's gay but isn't sure.
Mark Letheren, who plays a recalcitrant African houseboy in the first act, is now a rampant gay man on the prowl in London. Nicola Walker goes from being a callow youth to a frustrated wife, with Menzies as a manipulative husband. Churchill's point appears to be that while the characters now enjoy flamboyant sexual freedom, they are no happier than when repressed, but it's not well made.
Thea Sharrock, a director also known for more substantial productions, seems content to draw laughs from the incongruous characters while the play sinks into unlamented history.
Presented by the Almeida Theatre
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Thea Sharrock
Set designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin
Clive/Cathy: James Fleet
Joshua/Gerry: Mark Letheren
Harry Bagley/Martin: Tobias Menzies
Betty/Edward: Bo Poraj
Maud/Victoria: Joanna Scanlan
Ellen/Mrs. Saunders/Lin: Sophie Stanton
Edward/Betty: Nicola Walker