You know how we feel here at NOT BAd about reciting the plot when you can read the blurb here. Our time is valuable, your time is valuable; let’s show each other a bit of mutual respect. We promise to turn full focus on the complaints received about the play’s nudity later.
After The Tideline Runners burst on to the scene with the critically acclaimed Human Interest Stories last year, their second production at The Maltings Theatre has been eagerly anticipated. As an antidote to the shredding intensity of Human Interest Stories, Rob Wilkinson’s new play Love or Money directed by Mark Pentecost is billed as a romantic comedy. You’d do well to take a pinch of salt with that. Jokes appeared in Human Interest Stories, but then so did miscarriage and decapitation.
Audiences were delighted by the refreshing modernity of Human Interest Stories — the innovative use of multimedia, a compelling soundtrack, the sharpness of the dialogue, the unrelenting pace — and how it delivered something akin to a Sorkin morality tale.
And there are similarities between the two plays; the parentage is clear. Some genes have been passed on complete, others have mutated. This being a play set in the fickle world of film, deft multimedia works as an integral part of Love or Money rather than a technical scatter cushion. Opening credits roll, there’s back-projected scenery, on-stage action is interspersed with filmed sequences — the boundary between theatre and film blur, echoing one of the play’s themes: the subjectivity of truth.
Hugo Hughes plays mild-mannered film editor Spencer Goldwyn caught in a struggle between the money-grabbing imperative of the film studio and his ‘art’. Hughes puts in a marvellous turn as this Allen-esque beta-male and some of the best laughs in the play are found in the re-imagining of himself as suave male lead. Spencer is the everyman; breaking the fourth wall, he speaks to us directly, reminding us that in real life there is no second take, no edit, yet reality is altered by perception.
Prozac junky Maurice Cain is the unlikely moral touchstone of Love or Money, and Gary Robson does a terrific job of realising a character who seems weak and disempowered but who possesses the constancy of character and purpose absent from his peers. Robson delivers his lines on a timed delay as Maurice fumbles through the veil of his dependency to find the words that eventually prick the conscience of those around him. Certainly one of the stand-out performances of the night.
Byron Stanley, Bruce Hanson’s agent, is the type of man who would boil babies and roll them in salt if there was a deal to be had. An unholy splicing of Steve Buscemi, James Woods and Joe Pesci, Daniel Lee Cox chews up the stage as Stanley, hosing everyone down with a torrent of blistering invective. The exchange between Stanley and 17-year-old stalker Gayle (Sarah Rooney on super glaikit form) is particularly horrific in its viciousness. It would be easy for this character to tip into caricature, but Cox never oversteps the line. He creates a believable and utterly compelling monster.
And so we’re almost ready to talk nudity. But first let’s talk about sex because sex is compelling while nudity is just like a bad night out in a butcher’s shop. Louise Wood with excellent timing plays laconic actress Emma Whitely who, if the studio gets their way, will be consigned to the cutting room floor. Emma’s sex scenes with former teen-idol Bruce Hanson (David ‘Dimples’ Simpson) are preventing the film from getting the rating needed to reach Hanson’s typical demographic. We view the before and after-edit sex scenes between Hanson and Whitely and while they’re deliciously funny, well — Berwick is a small town. Wood is old enough to be Simpson’s mother. So, yes, goosebumps and small shudders of disturbed admiration.
Love or Money shows a rapid evolution of Wilkinson’s talent as a playwright. He’s now exerting more control over his material; each character has a separate voice rather than being an extension of Wilkinson’s own wit and ideals. This sets Love or Money firmly above Human Interest Stories. The script hurtles along, an enraged beast of a thing coming at the audience as if wounded. Wilkinson, a walking encyclopaedia of pop culture, brings in something smart and knowing by way of a steady stream of laughs. However, Love or Money never allows the audience to get complacent — some lines are so savage in their cruelty that you can almost see the audience recoil.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the script. On occasion character development is disappointingly patchy. We didn’t believe in young heart-throb actor Bruce Hanson’s transformation from truculent narcissist to serious actor nobly motivated by high ideals. Further, we didn’t buy into Karen Herd (another assured performance from Tamsin Davidson) having an equally Damascene conversion from ball-breaking film producer into purring upholder of truth and justice. This wasn’t a fault of the actors — more the characters’ motivation lacked roots of any real depth. It felt like a contrivance in order to wrap up the play with a happy ending; a convenience rather than a truth.
Now, finally. Those inevitable complaints of nudity.
There wasn’t enough. While Simpson gamely threw his trolleys to the four winds as Bruce Hanson in the filmed sex scene, there was a certain amount of … cuppage. Yet a man about to indulge in some vertical hard and fast shagging generally speaking isn’t shy about his tackle hanging out. It would have been better to either shoot this from a different angle or leave this shot out altogether. We also heard grumblings about a lack of boob. Yes, we like our diet rich in meat up here in the North of England. It helps keep the cold out.
So, a strong script, a strong cast, strong production values. How hard could Love & Money be to direct? Mark Pentecost is a director not lacking in hubris. There’s not so much as a whiff of self-doubt, a flicker of regret for a scene not working quite how he’d envisaged. When asked if there was anything he would have done differently he replied, “No, because I had already changed what needed to be changed.”
Wow. This isn’t how it normally works. Normally there’s a tremulous smile hiding a soul consumed with self-loathing.
And how were the cast to work with? Pentecost did pause for a fraction of a second, realising possibly something more was required than “I made sure they were all outstanding.” “They were brilliant.” So far so good then. “You know, professionals come with their characters fully formed. You have to tell them less, less, less. With amateurs it’s the other way around. They’re waiting for you to add to their characters. It’s been a really interesting process. Great fun.” And with that he continued to double-kiss his way around the room, clearly a man with character to spare.
Love or Money — an optimistic feel-good black comedy with nudity. Rob Wilkinson and The Tideline Runners are firmly on their way up.