Friday, July 13, 2018

Theatre: Improvement Club

The Last Great Hunt
Written and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler
Performed by Gita Bezard, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs, Frieda Lee and Mararo Wangai
Set and costume designer Sally Phipps
Sound and Lighting designer Joe Lui
22 June – 7 July

Groucho Marx swore that he would refuse to join any club that would have him.
The protagonist (perhaps not quite the perfect description) of Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s Improvement Club has an antonymic problem; he wants to be in a club and has a gift for starting them – he just struggles to stay in them.
Adam’s (Chris Isaacs) error is constitutional; the stated purpose, or at least the marketing pitch, of the clubs he founds is Improvement. The catch is that he has no real interest in that purpose. He just wants a way to get to hang out with people who would otherwise shun him.
They – Cameron (Gita Bezard), Dylan (Frieda Lee) and Blake (Mararo Wangai) – discover soon enough that improvement, to Adam, is measured in quantity, not quality, and reject, first, his leadership, and then him.
He tries again and again, searching for ways to ensure his primacy and survival, each time failing in the face of his own shortcomings and the ambition of others.
If you’re detecting the odour of allegory, you’re on the money.

It could hardly be otherwise. Played out on Sally Phipps’s brutalist set of bold, blank horizontal flats under Joe Lui’s surgical lighting, the action is staccato, the dialogue spare and procedural (the visual effect is like Escher on Rothko).
The only relief from this rapid-fire metronome is Adam’s scenes with his girlfriend, M, his mother and his therapist (all Arielle Gray); they more closely resemble real life, but none of them offer any relief for Adam as he spirals down the circles of a private hell.
Ah, Hell. Maybe that’s Fowler is saying awaits us Adams at the end of all our Improvement. Certainly his Adam doesn’t appear among those waiting in the golden bowers of the play’s final scene for something otherworldly and rapturous that’s descending down to them.
It’s an enigmatic conclusion, to put it mildly, and a (quite literal) deus ex machina. It’s also mischievous, provocative and, perhaps, a little lazy.
That’s a misgiving I have about Fowler’s work. For all his great talent – I think he has a wonderful gift for genuine, hilarious, razor-sharp dialogue, coupled with a fine theatrical imagination – his dramatic devices are too often, to me at least, an easy way out of the sheer hard graft of putting real characters in real situations on stage and working them through to insight and catharsis.
And the closer he gets to it (in, for example, The One and the Fag/Stag series), the better he is.
Which is not to say that Improvement Club isn’t engrossing entertainment. The cast have a great rapport (perhaps not surprisingly – it’s the same as performed last year’s The Advisors, with only Fowler and Bezard swapping roles from performer to writer/director, and the two “guest Hunters”, Lee and, especially, Wangai, have grown in confidence and charisma in this outing).
The gifted Gray, as always, can stop butter melting in her mouth or curdle it in an instant, and Isaacs’ ability to transform from top to hang dog is just as athletic; when he suffers his inevitable come-uppances, you can feel the air escaping from his tyres.
Precision staging is a Last Great Hunt brand, and Improvement Club fits together like a Huf Haus; you can almost hear those Germanic joints clicking seamlessly into place. It’s as impressive as all get-out, and the wind beneath the show’s wings.  
The Last Great Hunt is coming up to its 5th Anniversary, and their work, and the repertoire they’ve built in that time, is as marketable as it is artistically impressive.
Improvement Club is a world-ready product to add to their shop window display, but there are better in there already, and better yet to come.

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