views from the gods

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Happy Birthday Wanda June
The Old Red Lion Theatre
4th November 2012

★★★★☆

Prolific US writer Kurt Vonnegut only wrote one play in his life, and it's a crying shame - especially if any other pieces would have turned out as polished and entertaining as Act Up's take on this one. Although probably the most obvious soapbox for Vonnegut's treatise on the state of the nation, the humanity is never lost and the laughs are frequent.

Dr Woodly with Paul

Photography supplied by Act Up

As the opening says, this is a play about men who like killing and men who don't. With the home of Harold Ryan (Vincent Jerome) delightfully dressed in animal print, complete with dead animals adoring the floor and walls, it's clear which side the missing war hero falls on. After an eight-year absence in the jungle, his wife Penelope (Alix Dunmore) is moving on, dating two men, while his 12-year-old son Paul (Fiona Drummond) is desperate for his return.

He does arrive, alongside simple-minded Looseleaf Harper (Marcus Powell), and unsurprisingly takes issue with the two men trying to win his wife's hand. These are vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Emma-Jane Martin) and pacifist doctor Norbert Woodley (Katy Slater). As the ex-soldier tries to get his house in order, tempers fray.

As a satire of the old guard and their violent ways, Vonnegut's script still sparkles with cutting wit. A war veteran himself, he knows more than any the price of violence and it's clear, especially in the final line - as if the whole piece were some long, rambling joke leading up to the death blow. The scenes on earth are set alongside snippets in Heaven where Wanda June (Martin), a little girl killed by an ice-cream truck, plays shuffleboard with one of Harold's most famous kills, Major von Koningswald, the Beast of Yugoslavia (Dunmore). The idea that they are overjoyed to be dead and that heaven is happy with men like Harold for killing so many is beautifully acerbic and could only come from Vonnegut.

Major von Koningswald and Wanda June

Photography supplied by Act Up

The cast all do superbly with their lot. Jerome cuts an imposing figure, fists clenched, back straight, a perfectly mannered monster with unflinchingly neanderthal views. He's a forceful brute and, particularly during the final scenes, Jerome is note-perfect. Drummond is just as believable as his son, who could have been just another petulant teenager. But her subtle mannerisms and shift from idolising his father to fearing him, are a joy to behold. Her eyes do a lot of the work, seeming to brim with tears, fit to burst at any moment.

Martin's Shuttle is perfectly slimy (and perhaps a tad too gawky) and both she and Dunmore have a brilliant talent for improvisation. This shines during an ingenious idea, presumably by director Ant Stones of having Wanda and Koningswald play a game of shuffleboard during the interval. This led to a lot of unscripted laugh-out-loud moments as the pair bounced off each other and interacted with the audience.

Slater's Woodly (essentially Vonnegut's voice) is at first rather unsympathetic but she holds her own when the power struggle with Jerome's Ryan does finally come, hands at her sides, ready to pull the metaphorical gun from her holster. Powell's Looseleaf, the big-hearted but small-brained pilot - who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki - is initially painted as the comic relief, which he carries off with aplomb. But when he delivers his final speech, each word is a sledgehammer to the soul and genuinely moving.

Stones knows how to get the best from the actors and very much knows how to block a scene. There's not an inch of flab on any of the movements - they are purposeful, direct, and hit their target constantly. In the second half, the sense of dread is palpable and each animal-noise doorbell sound rings out like a shot. The music too is excellent, with light, fairground tunes warping and giving way to military beats.

With a clear grasp of the material, strong and firm direction that produces a breathlessly (but effortlessly) tense finale, Act Up have succeeded in doing Vonnegut's masterful script incredible justice. It's a shame we will probably have to wait decades to see it staged again, but at least we have Act Up in the meantime.

Happy Birthday Wanda June ran from 30th October to 24th November 2012 at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)



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