John Malkovich directed Good Canary opens at Rose Theatre, Kingston - review

Harry Lloyd & Freya Mavor (Photo by Mark Douet)

Harry Lloyd & Freya Mavor (Photo by Mark Douet) - Credit: Photo by Mark Douet

Great excitement at the Rose Theatre, Kingston as Good Canary, written by Zach Helm and directed by John Malkovich, begins its UK run

As the lights dimmed on the first night, Malkovich slipped into a seat in the back row of the stalls. How incredibly nerve wracking it must be as the director, or indeed the writer, to finally see your production go ‘live’.

And full of life this production is - it is a full on, jaw dropping, impeccably acted, smartly directed, visual feast of a play with a truly fabulous cast. Freya Mavor (who was in Skins) is on top form as the angst ridden, intelligent, compulsive Annie whose drug addiction has got so out of control that her life hangs in the balance. Mavor is totally mesmerising in the role - frenetic, wild and ultra-confident when she is high on speed, and clawing, helpless and desperate when she can’t get her hands on the stuff.

The play begins with some rather heavy information on a screen about the plight of canaries in coal mines and other grim stats about death before Annie appears sitting in a cubicle; she retches into a bin then stuffs more pills into her mouth. The stage then smoothly transforms into a cafe scene where Annie studies the inside of her boot until her husband Jack, appears. A fast exchange of banter follows and immediately we see how sharp Helm’s dialogue is - within 5 minutes we have a really good insight into the couple’s relationship, or so we think.

Jack, (played by the brilliant Harry Lloyd), appears the ever-patient husband to his complex wife. He tries to coax her to eat a little, calms her fears, and makes attempts to slow her down when he realises she is high. As he excitedly clutches a rave New York Times review for the debut novel that might make his name, things become tense as Annie strangely, almost cruelly, seems dismissive of the critic’s positive comments.

The action then unfurls in fabulous, unabated technicolour, with gorgeous, ever-changing sets created by designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch. Onto three large moveable screens he projects exteriors and interiors of New York scenes in a mix of photographs and illustrations. It is vibrant and realistic and great washes of ever changing, dazzling colour seem to mimic the uncontrollable mishmash of fireworks in Annie’s addled mind. In the scene where she cleans the apartment in a state of drug-induced hyper-activity, the windows miraculously change shape as she tries to clean them. Eventually they fill to the brim with tumbling pills as Annie’s hallucinations take hold of her.

The whole first act whips along like a runaway train and characterisation is brilliant, perhaps most fabulously in the party scene at the home of a top publisher where Jack is desperate to secure a new contract. Annie, however, is having none of the bullsh**. She entertains herself with copious amounts of booze, engages in some challenging but revealing conversation with the publisher’s wife, and finally annihilates the males present in a torrent of abuse which is amazingly lucid for someone off their face on narcotics.

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The second act, as is often the case, cannot quite keep pace with the brilliance of the first. Scrap the interval, I sometimes want to shout, as a play’s second half’s inevitably needs to explain things or drive home a moral message and can often slow the pace. Having said that, the second act in Good Canary is intensely moving and, without giving too much away, Mavor pulls another stunning performance out of the hat. Just when we think she must have drawn used every ounce of energy, she digs deep and conveys with utter conviction the desperation of an addict.

A fabulous play with fine acting and possibly some of the best set designs I have ever seen. Unmissable too due to the inventive, gripping direction by John Malkovich. As the audience rose for a standing ovation, he had modestly slipped away. Having seen the play receive great acclaim in previous runs in Paris and Mexico, he can surely now rest assured that it will also go down a storm in the UK.

Until October 8 at the Rose Theatre, Kingston; 020 8174 0090;