Written twenty years ago and reprised for an anniversary outing, Barry Lowe’s ‘Relative Merits’, directed by Les Solomon, falls straight into the trap of overplaying every moment. It tries so hard that the play is engulfed by a melodramatic desperation to make sure the point of homophobia and HIV is hammered home.
I think Lowe’s material already lends itself to ham acting 101. The script does have a way of telling you something that happened or about a relationship past and then has to act out that scene or deliver a monologue that goes over all of it again. What it needs is a good edit. Instead it draws out the confusion, the disappointment, the loss, the anger by overstating it in every scene.
Maybe the script wouldn’t seem so bad had the directorial choices been more subtle. The choice to make younger brother Clay (James Wright) break in through the actual window of the foyer making more noise than a cat on heat, start to pick up everything on stage and give us his attitude towards each item, answer the phone with obvious antagonism and then make himself at home with a whole lot of face acting to boot meant that from the start, this is sledgehammer drama. Don’t bother signposting. Take the sign and choke me with it.
Jeff Teale, as older brother Adam, had a little more to offer on stage but in some ways, his role at least called for more subtlety so he was probably let off Solomon’s hook whereas Wright was cast into the ocean.
Nick Ferranti’s design, complete with posters from 1985 of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Back to the Future (OK- only four years off when the play was set but still smacked of trying too hard) was another example of offering no credit to your audience that we are smart enough to deal with the issue instead of ‘painting the whole set in the shade of obvious’. But the set was at least functional and built out in the foyer. I will give the play credit that it used every corner of the area, although it did mean that watching the action or pre-recorded segments was difficult at times.
I’m not arguing that the content matter is irrelevant. I am saying that the art of presenting it was juvenile. I’m sure a number of people will appreciate that the minority voice is represented but perhaps invest in going to see Angels in America, showing right now at the Theatre Royal, and watch a sophisticated way of presenting the same idea at almost exactly the same time period.
‘Relative Merits’ has very little merit indeed.