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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs


  Jennifer Tilly and Wallace Shawn/Ph: John Haynes

You know the type, especially as he (or she) crosses the footlights in the generally warped, always provocative theatrical sphere of Wallace Shawn: the seemingly kindly narrator who appears before us, smiling, inviting our confidences, usually then to lock our heads in a vise that sends liberal assumptions flying before throwing away the key. (This one begins by buttering up his spectators as so many "chocolates" - of a distinctly dark variety.)  

Shawn has effected variations on the trope of the unreliable - or, at least, unexpected - narrator in The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon, both of which have been (very well) revived this spring at the Royal Court, and this ongoing interest of his reaches its most sartorially splendid apogee in the actor-playwright's new play, Grasses of A Thousand Colours, in the Sloane Square venue's studio-sized Theatre Upstairs. Say what you will about a work that is exhilarating and exasperating in turn: you'll find yourself coveting the dressing gown in which the author himself is attired, whether or not you make it through three acts and three-and-a-quarter hours. Many, I should report, have not been staying the course as the (sold-out) run has continued, though I will also add that I found neither the play nor Andre Gregory's apt phantasmagoria of a production boring in the least.   

With Shawn once again the subversive, this play on several occasions dares its audience to walk out, catering to the bourgeoisie hardly the aim of a writer who likes to send poison darts into the very realm of comfort into which, of course, this son of the late, much-vaunted editor of The New Yorker  magazine was born. That one very happily stays the course owes much to the increasing disconnect between the self-evidently nebbishy, high-pitched persona long ago perfected by Shawn himself and the extended hymn to the priapic tendencies of the male species that is a play in which Shawn's Ben, a memoirist of a highly peculiar nature, surrounds himself with a fairly extraordinary female harem. I mean, to find Jennifer Tilly in your sexual orbit would for most ordinary mortals be enough in and of itself.  

Tilly, in an astonishing London stage debut, plays Robin, a bisexual voluptuary who appears as if by magic from behind the sofa that dominates Eugene Lee's elegant set. And although the actress does a mean "miaow," she pretty well remains within the parameters of humankind- that's more than can be said for Miranda Richardson's entrancingly named Cerise, who moves in and out of the feline kingdom like some mad refugee from Lewis Carroll, if Carroll's output had extended as far as the devouring social/sexual realm of George Orwell and Philip Roth, to cite just two of the literary notables who come to mind during the dreamy course of a production that - a first in my experience - required five directorial assistants as well as a "directing consultant," whatever that is.  

It's not often that you encounter lines like "I stained the sheets with cat and champagne," but then again, Grasses contains an extended account of sex with a cat on an order to make comparable divagations in Edward Albee's The Goat look positively banal. (Incidentally, could it be a sly nod in the direction of Shawn's longtime friend and sometime collaborator that the cat is called Blanche, which is the same name as the dog named by David Hare in Via Dolorosa?) This play will strike some as epically masturbatory, an accusation it all but invites in Shawn/Ben's casual use of the verb form of that very action,a sort of prolonged wish-fulfillment fantasy better suited to the therapist's couch. Myself, I find Grasses of an utterly absorbing piece with the canon of an author whose output walks a stylishly non-naturalistic tightrope between dream and nightmare in which desire and deviance are forever fluid and fairy tales -a genre to which this newest play is self-avowedly indebted - hit closer to home than we like to allow. Go with it, and you may leave grinning like a, you guessed it, cat.  


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