“I don’t even know what you are speaking of but I sense it’s dirty, underhanded and plain illegal”
And so to complete the set… Having initially declared that I was fine with not seeing any of the RSC new commissions at the Hampstead Theatre when they were announced, I’ve now seen all three of them, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s American Trade following on from Little Eagles and Silence in what has been, to be completely honest, a rather underwhelming season. Billed as a contemporary Restoration comedy, this is an ultra-modern, breakneck 90 minutes of multi-coloured, multi-racial, multi-sexual shenanigans, which also happens to mark Jamie Lloyd’s RSC directorial debut. This was a preview performance on the evening of Saturday 4th June.
Insofar as the plot is concerned, young New York hustler Pharus is offered a golden chance to escape his increasingly tricky situation when an unexpected offer from his unknown English Great-Aunt Marian to run a new modelling agency as part of her PR firm comes through. So he crosses the ocean and make a good impression but ends up finding he is best at what he knows and so the model agency becomes a cover for a prostitution racket. But his cousin Valentina, heir presumptive to the business, is not happy with the new arrival and the threat he poses, so she sets about trying to uncover his murky past whilst trying to work her PR spin on a children’s film star who has gone seriously off the rails.
The whirl around Pharus and Valentina involves a whole raft of characters as they each try to secure their own position whilst trying to shaft the other and whilst there’s much that is funny about the weird and wacky sorts that appear, there’s something overly studious and contrived about the ‘diversity’ on display – the desire to capture the multi-culturalism of modern-day London taken to ridiculous extremes. And though the sexual games on play and boy there’s lots of them with no holds barred – Geoffrey Freshwater in a blue thong, Gruffydd Glyn in S+M gear and some mighty stilettos, Sheila Reid in a basque, Tunji Kasim in his Calvin Kleins for an unreasonable length of time, there’s really something for everyone here – are often raucous fun, there’s just too much of it which unbalances the play. So the rare moments of introspection, like when Marian sees Pharus for the first time and seeing the ghost of her nephew in his face or Sophie Russell’s statuesque Valentina trying to tell her lesbian lover how much she means to her, fail to convince or gel within the fast-paced structure.
Soutra Gilmour’s graffiti-covered and day-glo coloured set with its multiple doors is the perfect playing space for this brash piece and McCraney displays some nice flashes of humour, especially in the constantly recurring role of Girl Wonder, a brilliant performance from Debbie Korley who variously pops up on Pharus’ journey as a dancer, flight attendant, TfL worker, hotel receptionist, always bolshy and always funny. Ultimately as a piece of entertainment, American Trade certainly delivers and often in the most unexpected of ways. And once again, it serves the purpose of showing off the Ensemble in a completely different light, oozing with modernity here and in several cases revealing more than can ever have been reasonably expected. But as a piece of new writing, it is hard to see how this passed muster as there is just so little substance to it: the promotional speak talks of how it challenges assumptions about racial and sexual identity but all it really challenges is who is making the decision about these new plays for the RSC.