There’s much to admire in the ambition behind hot American scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new play. As the Royal Shakespeare Company’s international writer in residence, McCraney wrote this “contemporary restoration comedy” for and alongside members of the RSC long ensemble, who are working together for 30 months. His story of an American hustler in London attempts to channel the city’s multicultural vibrancy in a bawdy, energetic form that emulates his historical model. But Jamie Lloyd’s labored and noisy production is not as fun to watch as everyone involved is trying (too) hard to make it be.
The titular trade (that is to say, gay prostitute) is Pharus (Tunji Kasim), a gorgeous mixed-race American who escapes trouble with a powerful New York record mogul (Clarence Smith) by landing a job (via a single Skype call) at a top London PR firm, Move, run by his great-aunt Marian (Sheila Reid). By the time he arrives in central London from Heathrow, he’s performed cunnilingus on his high-strung airline seatmate (Hannah Young); been perplexed by the uncanny resemblance between his pole-dancing best friend, an air hostess, and a London Transport employee (all played by Debbie Korley); and assembled an improbable, multiracial cohort of immigrants and refugees who he sells to Aunt Marian as Move’s inaugural modeling company.
Pitted against him is his cousin Valentina (the fabulously funny Sophie Russell), who is her mother Marian’s ambitious deputy (“I offer people a way to live publicly decently”). She quickly deduces that she must undermine Pharus to keep control of Move.
The language is colloquial and enjoyably filthy, the pop culture references come thick and fast (Lady Gaga is quoted and Tyra Banks name-checked), and the attempt is made to blast through political correctness with a no-holds-barred engagement with ethnic and racial stereotypes, and the possible realities that lie behind them. But McCraney’s insights — the rap world is built on the objectification of women; illegal immigrants are desperate to better their lives in the West; reality TV and the culture of PR are shallow and venal — are not original and therefore do not fully justify the recirculation of stereotype.
Soutra Gilmour’s set of boldly graffiti’d walls and Neil Austin’s varied array of dangling light fixtures create a lively, trendy mood, and as the action moves rapidly between locations, the necessity for a bare-stage approach becomes apparent. But this adds to an overall feeling of barrage: The mood is relentlessly frenetic, and scene after scene is played with the actors shouting unnecessarily.
The principal pleasures here are great comic turns from the well-oiled ensemble. Reid’s perennially sozzled matriarch, Geoffrey Freshwater as a licentious old toff in a aquamarine thong, Smith’s impeccable timing as the rap kingpin Jules, Dharmesh Patel as Pharus’ sidekick and perhaps-love interest Rajiv and particularly Russell as the incresasingly strung-out Val are highlights, and Kasim’s charisma and versatility bode well for a bright future on screen as well as stage.
But the uncertain combination here of attempted frothy fun and too-obvious social commentary exhausts auds’ attempts to play along.