fri 21/06/2024

Steve, Seven Dials Playhouse review - everything’s charming, except the script | reviews, news & interviews

Steve, Seven Dials Playhouse review - everything’s charming, except the script

Steve, Seven Dials Playhouse review - everything’s charming, except the script

Award-winning hymn to Stephen Sondheim leans too heavily on in-jokes

Always threatening to turn into a musical: the cast of 'Steve'Images - The Other Richard

Steven (David Ames) is having a birthday party. He’s invited his closest friends – two of whom have recently started dating their personal trainer, Steve – and his partner, of course: Stephen (Joe Aaron Reid). Their eight-year-old son, Stevie, is being babysat by his grandma. Even the handsome Argentine waiter (Nico Conde) is called Esteban.

As homages to Stephen Sondheim go, Steve, a play by Mark Gerrard previously seen Off Broadway and now inaugurating the Seven Dials Playhouse, is pretty obvious.

Andrew Keates’ direction and Lee Newby’s set design make great use of the theatre’s compact space. A surprise revolve gives a cinematic feel, especially in the first scene, where Steven confronts Stephen (bear with me) over the sexts he’s discovered on his partner’s phone. The videos projected onto the panels on the walls, designed by Dick Straker and Barbora Šenoltová, are charming. Everything is charming, actually, except the script.

Stephen’s sort-of infidelity prompts a breakdown in Steven’s sense of self – he’s 43, a stay-at-home dad, with no idea who he is if he and Stephen split up. His best friend, Carrie (Jenna Russell, pictured below, with Ames and Reid), is dying of cancer, but Steven doesn’t want to think about it. To make matters worse, he has a complicated relationship with sex, and he keeps running into that damn Argentine waiter.
(L-R) David Ames, Jenna Russell, and Joe Aaron Reid in 'Steve' at the Seven Dials PlayhouseThat’s a whistle-stop tour through Steven’s psyche, but so is Steve. Its spare 90 minutes don’t grant enough time to the things that deserve it, like Steven’s feelings around intimacy. They’re surely connected with living through the AIDS crisis; maybe Gerrard just didn’t want to get into it, understandably. Sondheim expert Russell is brilliant, walking a tightrope between humour as a coping mechanism and real existential despair. But Carrie’s storyline feels tacked on, perhaps to lend the play a female character.

Matt (Michael Walters, pictured below, with Ames) and Brian (Giles Cooper), the aforementioned couple bringing trainer Steve into the fold, aren’t fully fleshed out either. Brian is a cartoon villain with “a great ass”, and Gerrard doesn’t let Matt and Steven have an interesting enough conversation about Matt and Brian’s polyamorous relationship. The fact that everybody is called Steve doesn’t help matters.
Michael Walters (L) and David Ames in 'Steve' at the Seven Dials PlayhouseAt its worst, Steve feels like being sat next to a group of theatre kids in a student bar. References to Sondheim are all well and good, but when they happen every other line, you get a bit tired. (Maybe I’m just grumpy because I didn’t understand most of them.) In a play that’s always threatening to turn into a musical, the fact that it doesn’t is almost a disappointment. 

Carrie asks Steven if he ever wonders if their conversations are “just noise”: a moment of startling self-awareness from Gerrard. There are some pithy lines: “Lisa hasn’t abandoned me,” Carrie protests at one point, talking about her ex-partner. “She’s just… moved out.” But a lot of them get lost in the barrage of one-liners and frankly bizarre remarks. “God, I’m shocked,” says Matt, instead of being allowed to show that he’s shocked.

Theatre should be inclusive; Steve nonetheless feels like walking into a party full of people you don’t know, who are all talking about something you’ve never heard of. It seems like a play that Gerrard needed to write, and that Keates needed to direct. But it’s probably a much better experience if you’re a gay man of a certain age.

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