Woody Allen's Riverside Drive

Tue 30th April – Sat 4th May 2013

reviews

Benjamin Taylor

at 01:07 on 1st May 2013

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With a small cast and minimal set, Woody Allen’s play lives or dies by its performances- luckily for David Rattigan and Matthew Lee’s production, their cast have the chemistry to pull off both the comedy and the tragedy of the piece.

Woody Allen’s Riverside Drive is one of his lesser-known works, a darkly comic one-act (almost-) two-hander about the relationship between screenwriter Jim Swain (Seb Sutcliffe) and Fred Savage (Saul Boyer), the homeless man whose life story he accuses Jim of having stolen for a successful story. Ellen Robertson appears briefly, but competently, as Jim’s icy mistress Barbara.

Sutcliffe does an excellent job of aping Allen as Jim: an awkward and neurotic nebbish, he looks uncomfortable in his own skin, especially once Fred enters the scene. Right down to individual nervous mannerisms, Sutcliffe has obviously studied Allen’s performances well, and even makes a decent attempt at his voice. It would be easy to decry the performance as unoriginal, but the character and the background are such that it would be almost impossible not to have Allen in mind while performing, and as such the production benefits from the fact that no attempt is made to hide it.

Boyer as Fred is less consistent, but the quality of his performance improves as the script becomes gradually more unhinged. Initially there seems to be some difficulty making the audience believe in the character: Boyer seems too calm in between outbursts of mania to entirely make us forget that he is acting, and the first quarter of the play felt slightly unsatisfying as a result. Boyer’s restraint is laudable, because it would be so much easier (and no less detrimental to the play’s verisimilitude) to overplay the character’s grotesquery, but ultimately Fred is a grotesque character. As the play becomes more manic, though, both actors looked increasingly comfortable in their roles, and I suspect that later performances will find them hitting their stride earlier- and when Boyer does hit his stride, he is exceptional. His raw, manic energy conveys perfectly, whether he is seemingly feigning a heart attack or growling to himself, braced against the wall. A stand-out moment involved Fred moving Jim like a marionette, just one of many times when Boyer and Sutcliffe produced exceptional physical comedy in tandem. The audience’s laughter on a relatively empty opening night was testament to the quality of the chemistry between the two actors.

When I earlier described Riverside Drive as ‘darkly comic’, readers would have been forgiven for producing a groan in reaction; amateur comedy is notoriously drawn to that genre and rarely pulls it off as well as it could. Thankfully, Rattigan and Lee’s production is subtler than most, inserting a palpable sense of tragedy as we learn more about Fred’s past. The contrast between the character’s apparent dementia and his occasional moments of clarity is improved by the fact that nobody appears to have felt the need to hang a lampshade off them, so to speak- Allen’s script, though not always as clever as it thinks it is, is strong enough to be allowed to speak for itself. Boyer transitions smoothly between his character’s tragic and comic sides, while Sutcliffe does well to portray Jim as a flawed but sympathetic man.

Hen Hammant’s stage is simple, as it should be in such a character-driven piece. The actors make impressive use of a bench and a bin for physical comedy: a moment where Jim scurries around the set with his body in the latter seemed to be particularly enjoyed by the opening night’s audience.

Much love has clearly been put into Rattigan and Lee’s production, evidenced both in small touches (such as an impressively well-designed program) and in the detail paid to developing the characters’ relationship and their physical presence. After a slightly slow start, the rapport between Sutcliffe and Boyer reaches critical mass and from then on the play’s pacing is relentless. Rattigan and Lee have done much with the script’s limited stage directions to enliven what could have been a static play, and in doing so have created a very welcome antidote to the impending sense of malaise typical of exam term.

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