THEATRE REVIEW: Good Canary, Rose Theatre Kingston

running until 8 October

good-canary Freya Mavor
Freya Mavor as Annie

Having premiered in French in 2007, before being translated into a myriad of other languages, Zach Helm’s Good Canary finally receives its English language premiere at the Rose Theatre in Kingston directed by John Malkovich. It’s a punchy piece – visceral at times – with strong performances, although not all elements of the script ring true.

As author Jack’s (Harry Lloyd) career rises, his wife Annie’s (Freya Mavor) life is in freefall: addicted to amphetamines (when even your drug dealer thinks you’re over-doing it, you know you’re in trouble), she spends her days manically and repeatedly cleaning her house, barely eating and hiding her creative talents. When her self-destructive actions threaten Jack’s new potential publishing deal, he decides enough is enough.

At its heart this is a story of addiction, and Mavor’s performance could well draw inspiration from Denise Gough’s award-winning turn in People, Places and Things as she storms through manic episodes and moments of reflective calm, before succumbing again. Mavor’s performance is impressive: moving and entrancing by turn, her climactic scene is almost unwatchable as each moment is painfully drawn out, Mavor eking out every second of horror. In contrast Jack is calmer throughout, with flashes of frustration; yet I couldn’t help feel that his dialogue is underpowered and his reactions not sufficient. While it’s important not to judge the characters in this context, you’d think that if he loved Annie as much as he claims, his efforts to help her could be rather more effective than paying off one drug dealer and forcing her to go cold turkey. It’s clear from his anecdotes and the on-stage evidence that Annie needs psychological help, and it’s incongruous that Jack wouldn’t acknowledge and act on this.

After a slow-ish start, the downward spiral accelerates and the plot twist at the end of the Act I is the jolt the script needs. Act II leads us further through the pain as the comedy of Act I disappears, and there’s little let-up in Mavor’s performance. There is strong support from Steve John Shepherd as frustrated publisher Charlie and Sally Rogers as bemused trophy wife Sylvia, while Ilan Goodman is wonderful as bumbling drug dealer Jeff.

Harry Lloyd as Jack and Steve John Shepherd as Charlie

Malkovich’s direction is bold and stylised, complemented by Pierre-François Limbosch’s design; digital projections replace traditional sets, with bold washes of colour in strong reds, oranges and greens. While the street scenes and cafés don’t add anything extra, but when the drugs take over, Annie’s surroundings effectively warp and distort, while cartoonish pills fall from the sky as she seeks the next hit. Nicolas Errèra’s original score repeats a haunting piano melody, building and falling with the peaks and troughs of Jack and Annie’s struggle.

Despite some wobbles in the script, Good Canary remains a captivating portrait of a marriage in decline and the heart-breaking grip of addiction. After a range of relatively light TV and film, Freya Mavor proves herself adept at this meatier role and I’m looking forward to where she goes next.

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