The plight of the straight play in the West End is something of a hot topic at the moment. Musicals are suddenly everywhere and even the presence of Alan Cumming and Rosamund Pike respectively couldn’t stop Bent and Summer and Smoke from closing early.
What Love Song – John Kolvenbach’s quirky, comic four-hander – adds to that equation depends very much on your tolerance for self-conciously kooky romantic comedies. Originally produced by the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre company, the play focuses on Beane, an introverted loner, who begins to re-engage with the world through a relationship with Molly, a self-styled urban ‘liberator’ a kind of cat-burgular on a dubious moral mission who introduces herself by stealing Beane’s only spoon.
Up until now Beane’s only support in life has been his bolshie businesswoman sister and her patient husband. When Beane suddenly starts finding new pleasure in life in its foods, sounds and smells (he takes to sniffing his sister in restaurants), this couple too find new light and excitement seeping into their lives.
Kolvenbach can do dialogue there’s some sharp, smart exchanges between the characters unfortunately he’s also prone to whimsy and the play never escapes its own cutesy premise. As well as this, John Crowley’s production is subject to some real problems with pacing. It runs for only ninety minutes and yet it still manages to drag in places.
The play redeeems itself through its performances. Cillian Murphy (the sharply cheek-boned star of 28 Days Later) is excellent as the bedraggled Beane, mingling pathos with a genuinely on the edge quality. Kirsten Johnston and Michael McKean make a great comic pairing as Beane’s sister and brother-in-law, even though many of their scenes are overlong and in need of a good trim. The only weak link is Neve Campbell’s Molly (though to be fair she is saddled with a fairly impossible character). She’s meant to be the catalyst in improving all these people’s lives, this fizzy, magical individual, but she doesn’t seem quite comfortable in the part yet.
Love Song has a significant narrative twist, which I won’t reveal here, but suffice it to say that the boy Beane has some serious issues with reality and Molly isn’t all she seems. I’m not sure they quite pull it off though and, while the play’s opening scenes are sparky and promising, it loses heat fast, the last half hour veering dramatically between the corny and the endearing. This isn’t the play to revitalise the supposedly ailing state of the straight play in the West End (though to be honest the current trend for all things musical seems more like a temporary fever than anything terminal) but it at least has more life in it then Peter Hall’s staid revival of Amy’s View, it’s just a shame it descends all too quickly into schmaltz.