I had high hopes, on two levels. One - it's my favourite director Jamie Lloyd and two - it stars Tamsin Greig. I wasn't disappointed but I wasn't elated either. Somewhere in between. It was funny, sometimes clever, interesting story and generally fine performances but it didn't catch fire nor did I get emotionally involved. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
There are four characters - a Hollywood 'boy next door' actor/star who is repressing his homosexual urges, his agent, a witty, slightly condescending woman, a hustler who sleeps with men for money and then goes home to his girlfriend and the girlfriend. The hustler and the actor end up in a relationship of sorts which threatens the actors career if it ever gets out and threatens the relationship of the hustler and his girlfriend. Basically, the story is about maintaining a lifestyle and/or a career and the perils and pitfalls that come along with that.
I think the story on a whole is interesting because in this day and age of living in a celebrity obsessed culture, we hear loads of speculation about who is gay. This is something that I can't recall being delt with on stage in this way, exploring the reasons why it's not safe to come out and what is done behind the scenes to ensure that it doesn't. What gives this story a more human aspect is that the agent is a lesbian so that shuts out the 'you don't understand me' argument which thatnkfully never crops up.
There are many wonderful things here - Tasmin Greig's agent Diane (God of Carnage, Olivier award for RSC's Much Ado About Nothing, TV's Green Wing, Black Books, Love Soup) is a delight. She handles her scenes with expert comic timing and provides a much need anchor. Rupert Friend as Mitchell, the actor (films The Young VIctoria, Pride and Prejudice) is making his stage debut and is very good in conveying the indecision and paranoia of the character. The girlfriend Ellen is played by Gemma Arterton (Love's Labours Lost at the Globe, Films Quantum of Solace, St Trinian's and TVs Lost in Austen) is very likeable and Harry Lloyd (A View from the Bridge in the West End, TV's Dr Who and Robin Hood) is Alex, the Hustler - another good performance. In fact, everyone was good. The problem weren't the performances (with the exception of some dodgy American accents - especially Tamsin Grieg's. I couldn't figure out where whe was supposed to be from), I think the play itself is the problem.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (the film To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and the hit Broadway musical of Xanadu) is known as a funny man (I've heard him interviewed) and there are some really funny moments in The Little Dog Laughed, well, more funny asides. The humour comes out of funny lines as opposed to situations. He obviously has seen and experienced the Hollywood game first hand as the ridiculousness of certain situations ring true. It's difficult to know exactly what his Hollywood experiences have been but I suspect they weren't good. I get the sense that this play came from a place of frustration and the ideas and situations came first. From there it was a matter of filling in the the blanks.
I find it interesting that he named the four characters. I think it could have worked better if they were just called The Actor,The Agent, The Hustler and The Girlfriend, because they all seemed to be more archetypes than real people. We never find out much about any of the them, and what we do discover is ultimately inconsequential. There is a moment when the agents deep seated desire is revealed and that does help but unfortunately that moment spotlights what we don't know and will never find out.
There is one moment that gives the game away. The agent and the actor meet a playwright in a restaurant to discuss the possibility of getting the actor a job in the playwrights new hit play. The entire conversation is told and re-enacted by the actor and the agent and no one else is given a name - the playwright is basically called the guy who wrote the play, or something to that effect. This device is carried through the whole play making all ofstage characters archetypes. Perhaps it was to make tthe plays characters more human, but if that was the case it didn't really work. Another device used is having characters, most notably the agent, directly address the audience - to get across more story background information than is revealed in dialogue (For me this is never a good sign). This device gives the evening a storytelling feel.
The set by Soutra Gilmour (Three Days of Rain and Piaf in the West End, The Pride at the Royal Court) is a stage within a stage. There is an additional proscenium placed onstage with an additional playing area in front of it. The stage itself is pretty bare - a white wall at the back defines a generic room that with the placement of a table or bed is a flat, a hotel room or a restaurant. All these elements to me seem to suggest that this is a story not of specific people but of ideas.
I've seen most of Jamie Lloyd's productions (The Caretaker, Piaf, The Lover/The Collection, A House Not Meant to Stand, his piece at the 24 Hour Plays, The Pride, Three Days of Rain and soon to see his forthcoming production of Polar Bears at the Donmar) and I haven't ever been let down. I read in interviews that he takes alot of time exploring the characters before they start rehearsals proper so with this production I have to chalk it up to the play itself. Enjoyable, diverting, somehwhat thought provoking but unfocussed. A bit of a two and a half hour rant set to dialogue that pretty much says all it needs to say in the final moments. For those of us who aren't aware of the trials of being gay in Hollywood, this could open your eyes, for the rest of us there's Tasmin Greig.