Friday 4 June 2010

Ingredient X - Royal Court

[Written for CultureWars]

First things first: Nick Grosso’s new play Ingredient X is terrible.

How and why it is terrible are more interesting questions.

The back of the printed script claims: “Full of piercing dark humour, Ingredient X veils uncompromising truths behind quick-fire banter. This tough, abrasive comedy explores different types of addiction in modern life, from reality television to Class A drugs.”

The main problem with Deborah “Scarborough” Bruce’s production, then, is that it doesn’t seem to realise the play is a comedy. A fair enough oversight: the script isn’t terribly funny. But the extent by which this rag-bag of performances miss the mark suggests there are far deeper problems with both script and production.

The main problems of the production seem to stem from the setting and [God forgive me] casting. Ben Stone’s detailed naturalistic set depicts a fairly desirable open-plan loft-style flat. It could be pretty much anywhere. Meanwhile, “recovering drug-addict writer”, Frank (TV sketch-show stalwart James Lance), his “co-dependent” wife Katie (Indira Varma) and their, what? friends? neighbours? Rosanna (Lesley Sharp) and Deanne (Lisa Palfrey), don’t make any sense as a collection of people whatsoever. You don’t get any idea of where any of them met, how any of them come to be friends and, most damningly, you get absolutely no inkling of why any of them would ever want to speak to each other.

Is the play meant to be a social comedy? If so Grosso has totally failed to indentify a recognisable social milieu, or, if this is a demographic well-known to everyone else, then either he or Bruce has managed to make something real seem like a lazy invention. And yet all this work has gone into the creation of this detailed set. All the characters seem to be wearing very specific costumes and talking with very specific accents. But none of this naturalism adds up to anything natural. Perhaps is a brave theatrical attempt to create a kind of everyBritain, but when clothed in this much naturalism it simply fails to register as such.

But then the tone of the script can’t be asking for naturalistic treatment, anyway. After all, it’d be a misunderstanding of almost farcical proportions to treat a script with such godawful schlocky stock figures seriously. Isn’t what Grosso has written meant to be a kind of live cartoon? That’s surely the only possible explanation for the way that each character seems to keep bursting into a new aria of addiction exposition. There’s Deanne’s alcoholism speech, Rosanna’s one-dimensional anti-addict stance on account of her coke-addict ex-husband, there’s Katie’s apparent addiction to the mantras and buzzwords of therapy and 12-step programme groupspeak, her ability to view both her own and everyone else’s behaviour as somehow pathological, and then there’s Frank’s own recovering-addictspeak.

Playing this as naturalism, even as half-naturalism, just makes it look like the most badly written play imaginable. It might be just about plausible to envisage the play on stage if it had lot of jokes that everyone in the audience were laughing at, but it doesn’t. And, my God, does the silence on our side of the fourth wall (behind the big imaginary telly that the cast spend most of the play watching) leave it looking horribly exposed.

It’s worth looking back to that programme blurb. The claim that …X “explores different types of addiction in modern life, from reality television to Class A drugs” would be true if the word “explore” were substituted for the word “mentions”. For a start, half these “modern addictions” aren’t even painted convincingly as addictions. Saying “Ooh, Rose, your Dan don’t ‘alf watch a lot of telly these days. Blimey, I’m pissed” hardly constitutes a searing indictment of Broken Britain™. And that’s about the level of “exploration” offered.

More worrying is the claim that there are “uncompromising truths... behind [the alledgedly] quick-fire banter”. From where I was sitting it looked much more like several Daily Mail editorials had been made to scream histrionically at each other in a nice loft apartment. On one hand is this hysterical configuring everything that any of the characters do as part of a pathology of addiction, on the other there’s either a pointed satire of the Mail’s bête noir – “therapy-speak” – or else two of the least sympathetically drawn proponents of its ideals and the ideals of 12-step programmes. As a result, Grosso seems to be satirising a tendency for modern Britain to label everything an addiction – while allowing actual addictions to run for years unchallenged – at the same time, taking the piss out of the ways in which some people take steps to deal with their addictions. Granted both tendencies can be incredibly irritating, and the play only depicts a sample of four, but as such it seems a somewhat forlorn hope that the play was ever going to be able to shed much light on the perceived range of “addiction in modern life”.

A further key to the failure of Ingredient X is provided by a quotation from the late Sheridan Morley on the back of the text (no comment on the fact that one has to look so far back to find an approving quote about Grosso’s work, that the critic who wrote it is now dead, or that Morley is using just about the laziest formulation available in critical writing). He suggests “[Grosso’s] style is that of a latter-day Oscar Wilde on speed”. If, to the minds of those who assembled this blurb, that provides the most ready insight into what this play is also meant to be like, it further underlines how both script and production fail it.

If Grosso’s early work was like Wilde on speed, then this is its come-down in rehab.

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