9 December 2022
KERRY JACKSON (National Theatre, Dorfman) Review

Three years ago I saw the first instalment of April De Angelis’ adaptation of My Brilliant Friend.  The acting was good, but the writing didn’t feel tight and left a lot of gaps to imagination (at least for someone who hadn’t read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels).  “Kerry Jackson” is a brand new original play from De Angelis that’s, in a word, weak.  The play hops from one thing to the next without providing any depth or detail, as if painting by numbers.

Kerry Jackson, a working-class person trying to improve her circumstances, opened up a Spanish restaurant in Walthamstow.  Why Spanish?  We don’t know (although there are some hints toward the end of the play that maybe the choice of cuisine actually came from the chef).  How did Kerry end up in Walthamstow of all places?  We don’t know.  Kerry was attacked in the park as a young woman; what impact did it have on her?  We don’t know (we are told her take on the situation, but that’s not the same thing).  The list goes on an on more or less for every character in the play.  The text is trite, and the jokes fall flat.

The entire plot revolves around Kerry trying to deal with a homeless man outside, a local councillor who she claims to like either because he’s just someone to have a toss in the hay with or because he could do something about the homeless situation or because he can afford to spot her restaurant a fridge.  There is also on old suitor, the councillor’s daughter, and a feisty chef, to all of whom Kerry has something nasty to say.

Fay Ripley pretty much carries the play, though I found her “Kerry” accent a little distracting.  She does a lot of physical comedy, and it works a treat most of the time (presumably credit to Indhu Rubasingham’s direction), but there are plenty of times where the comedy is too far-fetched, and the joke dies mid-flight.  My problem, be that with the acting or writing or both, is that Kerry/Ripley is the least genuine of all characters.  For the rest of them, their language and actions and outbursts all feel genuine.  With Kerry, however, it seems fake:  not like she’s putting on a persona in front of them, but like she’s mocking them in front of us so we, the audience, could see her disdain for them.

A fantastic surprise of the evening was Michael Fox, who plays a homeless guy camped out on the bench in front of Kerry’s restaurant and using the area behind her rubbish bins as a toilet.  Fox managed to create not just sympathy, but genuine sadness for his character.

The rest of the cast try to elevate the play, but it isn’t really possible.  Madeline Appiah as Kerry’s chef gives an inspired performance in the second half, but is generally underutilised in the first.  Michael Gould as the bumbling council person is one-dimensional and not a very interesting character.  Gavin Spokes as Kerry’s suitor is very funny but is also not very interesting despite having the most coherent back story of them all.  Kitty Hawthorne is a moody teenager who’s there to say politically correct things and move the plot forward a little, but the play would be no different if this character wasn’t in it.

The first act has a couple of chuckles, but is largely incredibly boring.  The second act is much better, with the first two scenes (out of three) being the most vibrant and well-written in the play.  The second scene is marred slightly by being “inspired by” (to put it generously) by John Waters.  It’s very funny and effective, but it’s accounted for 50 years ago.  Kudos to Richard Kent though for a terrific set ’cause there was almost more for an eye to explore there than in the play’s text.

I am both surprised and not surprised by National Theatre picking this for a run at Dorfman.  Yes, it’s the more funky and experiment of its three stages, and both De Angelis and Rubasingham are a known quantity.  But seriously?  A mouthy rude and politically incorrect restaurant owner clashes with everyone around her?  There must have been better scripts up for consideration…

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £0.

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