Other People’s Teeth was performed for six shows back in late May at the Brighton Fringe.
It has recently finished a nine-performance run dotted across the north London fringe theatre scene – of which I caught the last performance before their even longer run in Edinburgh. It is therefore bizarre that I left with the unshakeable feeling that I had watched the first run of the first draft of a script of what could have been a decent play if it had maybe been given a bit more time.
At its core, there is an interesting concept. The play sets out to examine the conflict of work-life balance through the lens of a contract killer, for whom the two are increasingly incompatible. However, on any level of closer examination, things begin to fall apart. The script brims with lazy clichés; much of it feels like a hastily assembled collage of random pages ripped from straight from whatever the theatre equivalent of TVTropes is. This is never worse than when it is self-aware; like that ‘friend’ who admits he’s an arsehole and thinks that simply admitting makes it all okay, it doesn’t.
Three characters make up the bulk of the action of the play, and for all the supposed closeness of the two key relationships, they seem to spend most of it locked in heated argument. Frustrating – not least because if you ignore a few peripheral aspects like contract killing and/or taste in dogs, these three characters are basically the same: each varying parts patronising jerk; insecure, defensive wreck; and punchable philosophy kook. They flip inanely through these three channels, occasionally lucking out and landing on all three at once – perhaps fending off an insightful personal question by launching into a tangent about god or dogs or maths or maybe all three. A huge chunk of the dialogue could probably be switched to an entirely different character without anyone noticing, and the result is a play that sounds more like an internal monologue than a set of conversations.
If the script is overwritten, the performance is under-directed. Actors wander about the stage with a total lack of purpose and the fidgety uncertainty of a director who won’t let the scene be still and the dialogue take focus – although perhaps given the above, that’s not a total mistake. Guns are brandished like water pistols, lighting cues fade when they should snap, and the whole thing moves along at an unfaltering amble – rarely urgent, rarely quiet or pensive, just ticking along.
Navigating all this are the actors who are, for the most part, fine. Becky Downing takes on our protagonist, Joss: an odd splice of Rosie the Riveter and Krombopulos Michael. Her performance starts hammy but builds admirably given the context, eventually hitting her stride as the play draws to a close; ultimately stronger when she relaxes into the role and has the confidence play it more subtly. Her literal partner in crime, Sol, is perhaps burdened with the most obnoxious of the three characters, yet Tom Claxton struggles on and even elicits moments of genuine threat. Then there’s Simon, effete love interest and general Nice Guy, played by writer/co-director/actor Dan Sareen. He seems overstretched and lacking the necessary external input to be successful in any of his three team roles. And finally, there’s a couple of brief victim cameos from producer Ellen Harris, who briefly introduces a level of danger the scenes are begging for until fading into the background.
Despite all the above, the ultimate frustration of this play was that there were moments where it was actually very good. There are three or four such blips: the moment the two lovers (briefly) created genuine chemistry; the glimpse of real, unnerving menace from Sol; the sudden first stab of the sudden first on-stage murder. There are these few instants when the characters have motivations and the stakes are real and the writing and directing and acting all come together and everything about the play makes sense and then as quickly as it comes, it goes. And instead of lifting the rest of the play and buoying my enthusiasm, it illuminates the surrounding inadequacies. It is this aspect which leads me to believe that in spite of the other 600-odd words I have written, every single creative in this production is genuinely talented. And it is the final nail in this coffin of a review. This play could have been very, very good.
But it isn’t.
Image: Want the Moon