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June 9, 2011 5:37 pm

American Trade, Hampstead Theatre, London

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american trading
 Gruffudd Glyn and Sheila Reid in ‘American Trade’

The young American writer Tarell Alvin McCraney made an astounding debut in London with The Brothers Size, a lyrical and profound piece of theatre about two siblings in Louisiana. It remains among my favourite first nights. But this latest work, created during McCraney’s period as playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, disappoints. It has energy, stylistic daring and verbal fizz, but none of these can make up for its dismaying lack of substance.

The play offers a modern spin on the Restoration comedy, or a 21st-century Rake’s Progress. A newcomer arrives in town, tries to navigate city life, and through his eyes we see the wicked ways of the world. It is a nice idea.

The newcomer is Pharus, a handsome hustler from New York City who has got himself into a bit of bother with a powerful rap artist. When weird old Great Aunt Marian contacts him out of the blue and invites him to head-up a modelling agency that she is launching in London, he needs no second invitation and is on the next plane.

But even on the flight Pharus finds himself helping out a nervous fellow passenger by popping under a blanket and, er, taking her mind off her fears. Once in town, he sets about assembling an eclectic line-up of “models”, as cover for a prostitution racket.

However, he has reckoned without the vengeful attentions of Valentina, daughter to Marian and, in her eyes, rightful inheritor of her mother’s public relations empire. A standoff ensues, as each tries to outwit the other, while around them whirls a carousel of scantily clad characters embroiled in sex, scandal, intrigue and duplicity.

In Jamie Lloyd’s production, delivered at breakneck speed, the play comes over as a wild, dayglo satire of celebrity culture, in which everybody is grubbing for a piece of the pie. The trouble is that once that is established, there is not much else to say. The pace soon begins to feel frantic, the drama threadbare and the comedy strained. Some actors slip into thongs and leather, but to no avail. There are flashes of McCraney’s verbal dexterity and wit and some droll observations about English officialdom. And Tunji Kasim puts in a great turn as the charismatic Pharus, who must live on his wits.

Everyone on stage seems to be working very hard to suggest that it is fun. Sadly, the harder they try, the less like fun it feels. 

 

www.rsc.org.uk

www.hampsteadtheatre.co.uk

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