A number of big names have coincidentally been attracted to venues in Battersea during the past year: Vanessa and Corin Redgrave attempted to make a going concern of the underused Bridge Lane space, Susan Hampshire appeared at BAC in January, and now Susannah York treads the decidedly intimate boards of the Grace Theatre, above The Latchmere pub, in a fizzily-written one-woman piece.
Mark Davies Markham's play follows Patti O'Brien, a London-Irish country music fan whose life is as unfortunate a tale as you'll hear this side of a George Jones song and who, once widowed of her cheatin' man, goes to Nashville to seek her destiny, and darkly finds it – when the gods really want to destroy someone, they grant their wishes.
Liverpudlian Markham has that Gaelic-once-removed facility with linguistic tricks and flourishes, and imbues his protagonist with the same ease. Patti's narrative jumps backward and forward between the recent past in Nashville, the excitement of courting as a teenager on the music club circuit of '60s London and the terrors of her subsequent marriage. She recounts conversations on three levels at once – the words actually spoken, her imagined (but never uttered) acerbic witticisms and her more ethereal dream scenario – without bewildering her audience. Periodically, as commentary upon her story, she delivers a verse or two of a C&W standard (accompanied by Sam Park on authentically bright but sometimes a little too jaunty guitar).
The script's looping structure, although adroitly executed, must be a devil to learn, and no doubt contributed to York's occasional uneasiness on the press night. In all candour, too, York is not the most consummate singer. Often she doesn't have to be – she expertly conveys the embarrassment of Patti, rigid with fear on a Nashville stage, spewing out a number with clockwork jerks and painted smile – but the supposedly impressive songs fall sadly short. At her best York sounds (and even looks) a little like recent Marianne Faithfull; at her worst... well, she also sounds like Marianne Faithfull.
Almost all these musical shortcomings, however, can be forgiven for one marvellous moment at which York, astride a chair backwards in her black spangly country-mutton-dressed-as-lamb mini, enacts Patti predatorily bedding a younger man to the relentless upbeat thud of "Delta Dawn" – the devil may not have all the best tunes, but he knows best what to do with them.
Throughout the show as a whole, York rides the audience like the pro she is: appealing directly to them in the (deliberately) bewildering opening minutes, thereafter addressing them as sympathetic confessors and friends whose complicity is in no doubt. She gets on with the daunting business of driving a 100-minute solo show that would reduce lesser performers to the glassy-eyed puppets she occasionally parodies.
Independent State isn't the kind of play that could, or is even intended to, transfer to a more sizeable house. It is a fine studio piece, is done justice by York's determined performance, and should go a long way towards re-establishing the Grace Theatre, after several years adrift, as a venue with a recognisable and coherent artistic policy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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