“The truth is just so damn…elusive”
Taking its title from the Aimee Mann song, This Is How It Goes is a Neil LaBute three-hander presented here by Rooster Productions at Islington’s King Head Theatre Pub. In the words of the playwright himself, it’s ‘a story about three people who ultimately take care of their own needs with a breathtaking ruthlessness’ but as with so many of LaBute’s plays, it is much much more as well.
Set in the US in a small Midwestern town, ‘Man’ has returned to his old home town and bumps into an old flame from school, Belinda. As it turns out she is married with children now to Cody the African-American high-school track champion from back then, but they have a room for rental and so ‘Man’ moves in and the three of them set about reminiscing about old times. The story is narrated throughout by ‘Man’, but from the word go he informs us that there is every chance that he is not the most reliable of narrators and what follows is an intriguing study of the nebulous nature of truth as scenes are played out to us from one perspective, then given explanations or qualifications to guide us closer to what is really happening, in some cases the scenes are even played again.
So we see everyone playing with truth in order to achieve what they want and to satisfy their own agendas. But figuring out quite what those agendas are is part of the pleasure of this play, as LaBute constantly pulls the rug on us, forcing the audience to question what we have seen and are thinking. LaBute is also such a pleasingly complex playwright, there’s a series of hints threaded throughout here, allusions to Othello, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, all suggesting subtle hints and clues as to how we should be interpreting what we’re witnessing.
There’s his trademark misogynism in here for sure, but there’s more insight when the race card is played. The discomfort around interracial relationships is cleverly played up and the spectre of racism is never far away, but what LaBute is astute enough to do is to show that not all black people are victims, indeed Cody takes advantage of and plays up his status of ‘the only black in the village’. But as our narrator begins to reveal himself as a shocking bigot, we’re also forced to look at ourselves and whether we have used the same language, the same justifications to get away with the unpalatable.
As Man, Tom Greaves is just outstanding, clearly determined to erase the mis-step of Henry V from my mind. From the opening scene, he fills the theatre with his affability and warmth so that we’re willing to go along with the conceit and his witty asides, vindications and rationalisations are perfectly played as we never quite get to find out whether the prejudices that begin to leak out of him are genuine or just part of his jokey character that he’s playing. Gemma Atkinson was a revelation as the quietly graceful Belinda, And last but no means least Okezie Morro did well with Cody, a difficult, rather unlikeable character full of contempt and coiled power.
Rhiannon Newman-Brown’s design makes the most of the limited space at the King’s Head, evoking a wide range of locations with just a few props and Aaron J Dootson’s suggestive lighting, which really comes into its own during Man’s asides to the audience, there’s the necessary clear delineation between his two roles. The only issue I had is what felt like a missed opportunity with the music. What has been chosen was sufficient, but as the special programme note tells us, LaBute was inspired by the music of Aimee Mann when writing this play and it would have been brilliant to use her songs to soundtrack the show (especially as I’m a bit of a fan, but I’m sure there would have been licensing issues etc)
Clever, exciting, thought-provoking, challenging yet ultimately very satisfying. This Is How It Goes gets the balance just right between eliciting dark humour from the tricky subject of race and exposing just how devious and self-serving people can be and whether you agree with his message or not, one has to admire the sheer skill on display here and admit that truly no-one is entirely good or bad. And delivered extremely proficiently by this cracking cast of 20-somethings, this production demonstrates the best of London fringe theatre: highly recommended.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)