nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
January 15, 2005
After their inaugural production of Phillip Ridley’s London Fringe play The Pitchfork Disney, Stiff Upper Lip’s sophomore effort is Dirty Works, a new play by the New York-based British expatriate Jamie Linley. The play is a dark slice of life from a working class neighborhood in London and concerns itself with drug addicts exploiting themselves and others as they try get out or get ahead. But in the play’s intermissionless 90 minutes, they remain trapped right where they are.
The program notes that this is Linley’s first full-length play and that is somewhat evident in the progress of the plot from scene to scene; the clarity of events and the sense of building towards a resolution may not be as tight as one would expect from a more experienced playwright. And the play is divided into many, often short scenes in a variety of locations, which sometimes makes it feel more like a screenplay. These criticisms aside, it is very clear from this first effort that Linley has a bold voice, memorable characterization, and a great ear for dialogue, particularly for the profanity that is so ubiquitous that it becomes musical—underscoring the play as a coarse poetic meter. Like a cockney David Mamet, Linley could make an HBO executive blush. And it makes for entertaining listening, especially as so sharply and ably performed by the authentic British and Irish cast. Here is an exchange between the play’s main character, Darren and his friend Gary as they plot to rob the post office where they cash their unemployment checks. Put simply, they are not criminal masterminds:
GARY: How you gonna get behind that glass fing she hides behind?
DARREN: She’ll fucking shit herself if we got a shooter.
GARY: But we ain’t.
DARREN: Your old man has.
GARY: That’s a fucking starter pistol for the ‘orses.
DARREN: She aint gonna fucking know is she.
GARY: ‘Sa bit fucking mickey mouse innit?
DARREN: Whatsisname. That fat cunt? He done one wiv a paper folded over a bread knife.
GARY: E’s still banged up.
DARREN: E dint get away wiv it but they give him the money.
GARY: They got alarms and that ya know.
DARREN: You get that shooter stuffed in her boat tell her not to touch fuck all or.......
GARY: You’ll start the race?
The play is filled with scenes like this—characters making terrible decisions and going from bad to worse—but Linley makes it compelling and darkly funny. I was left unclear on what the larger ideas behind the play are. None of the characters seem to change or come to any great realizations in the course of the play. Things are done to them, they prostitute themselves or victimize others, but these are not character arcs, they are downward spirals. As the play does not provide a point of view on the events, the experience eventually verges on voyeurism—watching these characters implode, detail by sordid detail, like rubbernecking past a road accident.
Stiff Upper Lip has a great resource in the actors it has assembled for this production. Not only are they a talented and experienced ensemble with no weak links, they are also all originally from the British Isles, which adds an authentic weight to their portrayals (and eliminates any of the dialect concerns that are often connected with cross-cultural casting). As Darren, Victor Villar-Hauser is able to make us care about this charming loser—a flawed man who seems to bring trouble to everyone around him. It is hard to avoid a comparison with Ewan McGregor’s breakout role in Trainspotting—both McGregor’s Renton and Villar-Hauser’s Darren are people you would not want in your life, but they are engaging and charismatic all the same. Polly Lee does excellent and brave work as Tracey, Darren’s former lover who has left him to make a clean start, but in the course of the play returns to heroin. Needing new ways to afford her addiction, we see her first learn to make money as an exotic dancer and later as a prostitute. Of all the lives in decline in the play, hers is the hardest fall to watch, which is a compliment to Lee’s committed work. Martin Hillier is effectively menacing and unpredictable as Tommo, a pimp and drug dealer who still tries to care for his alcoholic mother. Playwright Jamie Linley is also part of the cast as Lanky—a far-gone junkie and friend of Darren’s. Linley, and Micky Campbell who plays two roles, succeed at some of the best kind of character acting. Both are not only interesting types to look at, but they also embody their roles so fully, that I could have believed they were not professional actors, but rather unusual private citizens whom the producers talked into playing characters much like themselves. They are that convincing.
It is a credit to director Kevin Kittle, one of the the companies “American collaborators,” and set designer Mark Symczak, that they are able to carve out the many locations of play from the Greenwich Street Theatre’s small black box stage. Kittle should also be credited for the performances he has created with these actors, and he keeps the scenes dynamic and fast-paced. I do wish he had not chosen to use blackouts for all of the play's frequent scene transitions. The drive and momentum of the scene drops away and we are left watching the actors shift around in semi-darkness, accompanied by distant-sounding music. I would have preferred if Kittle had found another, perhaps more theatrical way to quickly bridge or overlap the scenes. As the set is all black, the color in the production is provided by Tina Nigro’s costumes. From Tommo’s skeezy brown track suit to the sad, cheap-looking underwear that the women have bought to dance in, it is an excellent design which helps establish not only these characters but their environment as well.
Stiff Upper Lip is a talented company of artists that deserves watching, and while this play has some rough edges, it is a strong premiere for a new writer and an adventurous night of theatre for all but the faint-hearted.