Serenading Louie (Donmar 20/2/10) 25 February 2010

Considering all that I've blogged about recently I have begun wondering if the main point for enjoying a play is memory - memory of people you've known or come across, memory of places you've been and times gone by. What I never realise is how much memory I've got stored up in my grey matter, memories of little things that come racing back when I come across a similar situation or person. Sometimes being reminded of incidents and people can be such a powerful thing that one tends to ignore everything else surrounding it.

Memory can also be a dangerous thing for artists when without realising it you have injected your art with bits and pieces of someone else's art - many times called 'being influenced'. There were many times during Serenading Louie when, for me, memories came flooding back and I was prepared to ignore everything else in favour of being thankful for a good time.

Serenading Louie takes place in the early, early 1970's Chicago, where we meet two couples, the men friends since college are now married and living out the lives they were expected to. Unfortunately things aren't going so well and it's not only their marriages that are falling apart.

On the surface this would seem to be a typical 'look at how our lives have run away with us' play but if you look closer it's about much more.

What makes this play a bit of a curio is that it's, like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, a play written in the era in which it takes place. As a result it never comments but just exists . To an extent, if you are not familiar with those times socially, some detail might escape you but that's a minor note as having that knowledge only enriches the experience not define it. Here's one example that come to mind. The two couples go to the cinema to see the film Deep Throat - which for those who aren't familiar, was the first main stream hardcore porn film, a huge sensation in its time that almost single handedly heralded a new sort of sexual revolution. This in itself is almost inconsequential as it doesn't have a direct impact on the story but it does colour it a bit. It's great having that knowledge but not having it doesn't change the dynamics of the characters lives as their issues are not solely based on what was happening around them.

Generally, there isn't a great deal that happens in this play, it's a slight story. The enjoyment comes form the fine tuned performances and the attention to period detail. Designer Peter McKintosh (Be Near Me, Chalk Garden - both Donmar, The 39 Steps - all productions, Prick Up Your Ears at the Comedy) has, I think, taken a leaf out of the Mad Men notebook and created a picture perfect replication of an American middle class home in the early 1970's. It's not the sort of design that one would immediately conjur in their mind when asked what a 1970's home looked like (if you were around then) as those memories tend to get jumbled with what you remember and what you think you remember. What he has done, at least for me, is bring back the actual memory.

Mr Mackintosh and director Simon Curtis (Otherwise Engaged - Criterion, Road and A Lie of the Mind - Royal Court) have worked some magic on the Donmar stage. There are two very specific moments in the staging tapped into memories long since forgotten. First, one of the female characters opens her bags and takes out her house keys. She gets a little impatient and begins jingling them. Sounds inconsequential, right? Not to me. One thing that I had forgotten is that American keys have a different sound to UK keys. You would never find chubb keys on US key rings so all the keys are smaller and lighter, which when jingled together make a noise, slightly higher in pitch. I hadn't heard that in years. Second - after the two couples have finished their post cinema outing at one of their houses one couple readies to leave. Now this will be difficult to explain but the way it's written is that the two couples are at the front door and have split into two groups - male and female. Each group carries on its own discussion which in itself is just idle banter, which happens simultaneously. While they are conversing coats are being put on along with all the accoutrements that go along with the party exit. Again, it was really strange seeing and hearing that exchange, it reminded me of the many times my parents entertained and as the evening started to come to an end everyone gathered at the front door with various last minute conversations. Memories.

What is also very interesting is wondering how many plays or playwrights author Lanford Wilson (Burn This, Talley's Folly, 5th of July, The Hot L Baltimore) has influenced. There are times when the characters directly address the audience - asides and brief inner thoughts. It works really well and although it breaks the fourth wall which is probably the intention, it's never jarring. This same sort of device is used in Six Degrees of Separation written almost two decades later. I wonder if John Guare saw an early production and that device somehow seeped into his memory banks? I also thought about who Lanford WIlson was influenced by. My first thought was Tennessee Williams. The opening scene between Alex (Jason Butler Harner in his UK theatre debut, numerous plays in New York and the films Changeling, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, TV's John Adams ) and his wife Gabrielle (Charlotte Emmerson - Therese Raquin, The Coast of Utopia and Baby Doll - all National Theatre) reminded me of the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Alex returns home from work and is besieged by Gabrielle, talking almost non stop trying her best to reach out to the indifferent Alex, in effect digging for for the truth. It's almost a monologue and very reminiscent of the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Maggie trying to reach her husband Brick, also digging for the truth. Is this a chicken or egg situation? One could argue that John Guare was influenced by Lanford Wilson who was influenced by Tennessee Williams. I wonder if it was an obvious choice or if the memories of the influential plays were so deep that unknown to the authors, they were unleashed in their own writing. Who can really say? I also wonder how the fashion world tends to all have the same idea season after season - stripes, long, short - is it cosmic of just stealing?

This is a great production to see if you enjoy great acting. Not the sort that screams acting but the sort that fully realises an actual human being. The two standouts for me were Jason Butler Harner and Geraldine Somerville (Power and Blue Remembered Hills at the National Theatre; Lily Potter in all the Harry Potter films) as Mary, the wife in the second couple. Both command the stage with a naturalness and ease as well as bringing the characters off the page with a simple gesture. Wonderful.

Also in the cast - Jason O'Mara (The Homecoming - National Theatre, Jew of Malta - Almeida Theatre; The John Simm role in the American version of Life on Mars) as Carl - Mary's husband. He plays the bruised sensitive male very well although I wasn't entirely convinced by the turn of events at the end as he portrayed them. Charlotte Emmerson came into her own with her final big moment. Like with Jason O'Mara I wasn't entirely convinced of her opening scene. Where it seems that the audience should at once find her a little irritating but also pity her, I found the scene primarily irritating. This still worked because it sets up the couple's lives and makes her husband's description of her a few scenes later all the more interesting.

I'm not sure if this is a play that everyone will enjoy. I loved it for it's subtlety and the way it built. It seems to be going nowhere in the beginning but as it progresses more layers are uncovered. It's a slow burner that provided great conversation after and allot to ponder in the days following.But, saying that, I also don't think the production would stand up as well without the team involved in this one.

My favourite from the play that says allot about memory - 'I didn't love him then, but I loved him then now'. Ponder that.