Three Actors, 73 Characters, One Wild Satire Reviewed
Three men in moustaches, vaudeville boaters and blazers, a tiny stage and a tattered American flag are all that Vanguard Theatre have at their disposal. Fortunately, it is all the actors need to summon up a remarkable parade of Depression-era rogues, killers, visionaries, ingénues and victims. Apparently 73 characters appear in total — although it is impossible to keep count — all played by Matthew Ashcroft, Robert Durbin and James Macnaughton regardless of age, sex or size. The spirit and versatility of these excellent performers drive a manic assault on the American Dream.
Nathanael West, best known for his sardonic Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust, wrote his novel A Cool Million in 1934. The late Joss Bennathan adapted the book for Vanguard to perform in a mock-vaudeville style, the performers constantly switching identity and location as they career across the States. All three are very funny and exceptionally watchable, and it is a major technical achievement to pull off such absurd complexity on what must be the world's littlest stage, much smaller than the Jack Studio's actual performance space.
West and Bennathan pack perennial victim Lemuel Pitkin off on a journey to the big city in search of his fortune, putting him through an outrageous series of misfortunes in which he loses various body parts and is the victim of robberies, assaults, frauds and general exploitation. The manic pace rarely flags, leaving little room for the audience to draw breath. A Cool Million is both deadly funny and dead serious. Themes covered at breakneck speed include the rise of fascism and anti-semitism, rape and child abuse, corrupt politicians and cops (“But I'm innocent!” “So was Jesus Christ, but they nailed him”) and every sort of crime. The land of opportunity is an illusion, unless you grab your chance by fleecing, robbing and killing.
Occasionally the attitudes of the 1930s jar with a 21st century audience, but the play delivers a picaresque satire on naivety and villainy reminiscent of Candide. This production, directed with panache by Kate Bannister, is inventive, surprising and impressive. Audiences would be well-advised to catch it before it departs on tour, where it deserves to win many fans.
A Cool Million runs at the Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road SE4 2DH, until 14 November. Tickets £14/£12. Londonist saw the production on a complementary ticket.
Last Updated 02 November 2015