July 01, 1999

Pulp Theatre

Criminal Genius
George F. Walker

Bakehouse Theatre
Angas Street

Jez Butterworth

Brink Productions

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Bakehouse Theatre’s Peter Green is to be commended for bringing us Criminal Genius , a recent work from Canadian playwright George F. Walker. It is a bleakly comic little piece about crime and more crime and the rippling effect of retribution. In its mix of hostility and farce it owes much, as many works now seem to, to the bravura writing about colour-coded crims and philosophising villains in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Plenty of crime novelists such as Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard prefigure the over-celebrated Quentin Tarantino but he seems to have a strong claim on the patent nevertheless.

Set generically in a motel on the edge of a large city Criminal Genius is ironically titled since the central characters, father Rolly and son Stevie, are as thick as two short planks. As well as that, they have a relationship so dysfunctional that they make Dr Evil and Scott look downright normal. So, when they are given the job of torching a rival gangster’s restaurant, they create considerable consternation by not only failing the job but by kidnapping the boss’s daughter instead. This only triggers her own, as yet, undiscovered gifts for mayhem and leads to further vendetta.

Walker’s text provides director Andrew Garsden and the ensemble with ample opportunities for comic schtick. The business between Peter Green as Rollie and Rory Walker as his obtuse son has them squabbling over shoes, watches and the motel bill while Phillie the boozy manager waits at the door. The mix of anxiety and dumb-and- dumber comedy works best with restraint and at times Walker mugs too much and Green goes bigger than necessary. As Phillie, hazy with bourbon and free falling into the chaos, Matthew Bartsch has some nice moves and plenty of shading.

In the more difficult role as Shirley the gangsteress, supervisng orders from above, Bronwen James is too often shrill with a script that is already hypermanic. Marlo Grocke as Amanda, taking over the family firm, also plays crucial sections with too much octane.

Criminal Genius has elements of TV sitcom in its comedy but the grim reaper conclusion takes it into darker territory. The program notes tell us that the play is part of a suite of six plays entitled Suburban Motel. Maybe Bakehouse will revisit the whole work next time. Using only one section deprives us of the effect of the Ayckbournish unities of place as well as other likely restatements of theme. Criminal Genius is an engaging snippet of theatre but it is a bit like getting the single when we could have had the album.

Brink Productions are restaging their1998 Fringe hit, Mojo by English playwright Jez Butterworth. As a firm believer in the value of return seasons for successful local productions, I hope that the stint in the Space is well supported.

It has already been remarked of Mojo that it is methedrine Pinter. The same sense of predatory menace, of pecking order bickering and paranoid anxiety about what lies outside the door that characterises The Caretaker and The Birthday Party is what makes Butterworth’s smart take on Fifties Soho so accomplished.

In what might be seen as a whacked out parody ofHamlet, a psychopathic spiv named Baby, played with quiffy angularity by Justin Ractliffe, is revenging the death of his father Ezra, found at the back of his nightclub, bissected in a pair of endgame bins. Meanwhile, Mickey the manager (Paul Moore) is working the odds by switching sides to the mysterious Mr Ross who also has had a hand in the abduction of Silver Johnny, a changeling boy of rock and roll. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters, Sweets and Potts, supplied with pace and deadpan flair by David Mealor and Richard Kelly, are forever imagining- as they put it- that the fish are jumping and the cotton is high. They play whatever angles they can find, especially if it means closing down Mickey’s whingey and dimwitted henchman, Skinny Luke (John Molloy).

It’s all dog eat chihuahua in Mojo, despite mawkish protestations of abiding loyalty. As these characters stalk one another, all popping pep pills, their urine goes as black as their prospects. Drawing on East End London jive, Butterworth creates a patois of slang and style which provide Mealor and Kelly, in particular, with rich opportunities which, even in preview, look as lively as the production did the first time round.

There are some adjustments to make though, from the claustrophobic dimensions of the Red Shed season to the rather too ample dimensions of the Space. Designer Imogen Thomas’s set has a more finished look than the zany woodgrain in the original run and director Benedict Andrews has a lot more movement to solve in the wide open maroon and chrome space of Act Two.

Mojo is a fizzy display of theatrics which is fractionally less than the sum of its parts. But Jez Butterworth can’t really expect to have his pastiche and his gravity too. Played fast and sharp the way the Brink company does, though, this text spins like a top with its macabre humour and grim symmetries. And its relentless reminder that boys will be teddy boys.

The Adelaide Review, July, 1999.

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