Sometimes an individual audience response cuts right to the heart of a theatregoing experience. At the final preview of Zach Braff’s play, it was “Oh, you’re kidding!” My neighbour’s whisper, at once incredulous and contemptuous, was a response to what I think had been intended to be the climactic plot twist, just when one thought things couldn’t get any more crass. But, in a 90-minute evening that makes The Breakfast Club look like Ingmar Bergman, anything – alas – is possible.
Braff or his producers evidently realised that his name as author alone would not be as bankable for a full West End production as it was for the off-Broadway premiere, and so the Scrubs star now also appears as his own central character, 35-year-old Charlie, who is discovered about to hang himself in a friend’s summer house on a deserted New Jersey island in midwinter. For no very good reasons, a neurotic druggie English estate agent, her fireman (and ex-drama teacher) dealer and a high-class dumb-blonde escort all turn up in short order to make Charlie realise what he is missing in this world. Each of them, inevitably, has A Dark Secret alluded to in cutaway film sequences (David Bradley, Joseph Millson and Amanda Redman escape without having to appear in person).
Braff has little to do beyond seethe quietly, but still does less than enough. Eve Myles witters a lot in an unfamiliar English accent; Braff’s remark in the programme that Myles is “playing a British woman (though she is, in fact, Welsh!)” is typical of a handful of glaring errors of characterisation or plotting in his script. Paul Hilton is the designated Judd Nelson: the Mephistophelean figure who goads the others until disintegrating himself. Susannah Fielding nobly pretends she has no problem with the breathtakingly unsophisticated gags at her character’s expense. Peter DuBois directs, apparently.
This is the sort of wild misjudgment that a couple of years ago would have been presented at the Arts Theatre in its days as one of the West End’s “cursed” venues. It has been marketed with extreme lackadaisicality, as if on the assumption that critics and punters alike will jump through hoops to accommodate Braff. Some may do so. But as for going to see this production on its own merits … oh, you’re kidding!