sat 23/03/2019

Keith? A Comedy, Arcola Theatre review - Molière mined for Brexit-era laughs | reviews, news & interviews

Keith? A Comedy, Arcola Theatre review - Molière mined for Brexit-era laughs

Keith? A Comedy, Arcola Theatre review - Molière mined for Brexit-era laughs

Canny update of a 17th-century classic locates real laughs in today's censorious landscape

Idil Sukan

Breathe in the love and breathe out the bullshit. After the Arcola Theatre's founder and artistic director Mehmet Ergen read Keith? A Comedy, a wild spin on the quasi-ubiquitous (these days, anyway) Tartuffe by the critic and writer Patrick Marmion, the theatre moved to cast and stage the play in a matter of weeks. Fresh and timely is the result. 

Marmion's central couple Morgan and Veena are your archetypally idiosyncratic North London family in the age of Corbyn. Morgan is a reformed hedonist who made a fortune from a start-up pocket-money app; Veena, an Anglo-Asian Professor of Comparative Misanthropy at the London School of Economics, is a veteran feminist with no patience for gender-neutral toilets. 

The two are well and truly divorced but both apt to forget they're an ex. Each treats the other with a possessive mix of familiarity and contempt, particularly when it comes to their daughter, Roxy. She, for her part, has been working with Médecins sans Frontières in Syria and breaks into Veena's preparations for her spot at Hay-on-Wye desperate to introduce her pristine Muslim boyfriend, who has been wounded in battle. Into this particular portrait of contemporary family values steps Marmion's title character, Keith, an updated Tartuffe. He introduces himself to us as a "gender-bending, multi-cultural shape-shifter", spawn of the god Dionysus.

Sara Powell and Natalie Klamar in 'Keith? A Comedy'A former South African gun-runner now masquerading as a Buddhist monk and with a bit of West Country about him, Keith (Joseph Millson) has seduced and reduced the gullible Morgan (Mark Jax) to his quivering disciple. Desperate to shower his money on this de facto guru, Morgan is a kind of cross between King Lear and the clawless Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. 

Quickfire is the word that comes to mind for Marmion's writing, though he would doubtless coin something vastly better: the language comes off the stage fast and clever in a play that owes its architecture to a French satire penned in 1664 (and due to open any minute in a National Theatre production starring Denis O'Hare). This is Molière in the age of hard Brexit, playing on what Marmion calls a "highly censorious puritanism" where no one can say anything anymore, except in agreement that white South Africans are the scapegoat of humanity. While neither as dangerous nor as offensive as it might pretend, Keith? is still a sharp, witty, enjoyable confection. If there were cheap laughs, well, I enjoyed them. 

Lizzie Winkler in 'Keith? A Comedy'Marmion's director, Oscar Pearce, has a separate career as an actor and collaborated with Marmion on the dramatist's last Arcola outing, Great Apes, an adaptation of the Will Self novel. This play's demands aren't nearly so exacting  – there are no crouching chimp psychiatrists scaling the walls  – but he's drawn the very best from this cast with the help of a fireman's pole (more of which later). 

Jax's Morgan and particularly Sara Powell's Veena are wonderful anchoring characters: "I am in charge of me, not my hormones," she makes clear even as she orders a hit on her daughter's fiancé. Morgan has to clean up his act with a Global Warming Awareness course, while Beena is being trolled as a TERF, a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, à la Germaine Greer. And Natalie Klamar (with Sara Powell, pictured above top) is particularly to relish as their wide-mouthed, bandy-legged, attention-seeking daughter. 

Millson plays Keith as a statuesque sprite with Glastonbury-style bearded locks and a honed midriff. Lizzie Winkler (pictured above) is Anna, the bra-busting Brazilian maid allergic to dust and disarmingly straightforward compared to the others in her midst, and Aki Omoshaybi is the suspiciously straight Muslim fiancé, Mo. Finally, to add to the mayhem enter Zeljko (Millson, in quick changes), a pastiche Serbian gangster in lengthy leather coat, ready to supply a gun for hire. He righteously rules out any improper relations with clients, has mysteriously matching tattoos, and makes his several exits via that handy fireman’s pole, one of the few gimmicks in a straightforward but slick staging.  

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