The music that’s playing as the audience file into the Lyric’s small studio is by The Streets, a spot on selection, since this fast-paced two hander shares Mike Skinner’s fondness for murky urban tales and sharply observed character studies.
The creation of Sophie Woolley, whose previous show When To Run was very well received indeed, Fight Face is set in and around a Hammersmith kebab shop run by the mild mannered Jenghiz, a man who spends his days watching Hollywood movies and longing for both for a bit of romance in his life and a job where his customers don’t come in stinking of booze before vomiting the contents of their beer-sodden stomachs on the pavement outside.
The play features a collage of characters including two tea-guzzling builders, a depressed drunk, a lecherous old geezer, an inebriated artist type who doesn’t ‘do’ west London, a young mum whose baby won’t stop crying and a mouthy Essex girl who’s out to start trouble.
These characters are divided up between Woolley and her co-performer David Rubin and the play requires both to give incredibly physical performances. The pair is on stage at the start, dancing away to The Streets as the audience take their seats, and they spend the one-and-a-half hour show hopping from character to character at times forced to have conversations with themselves – and vaulting over the kebab shop counter as the pace of the piece gets increasingly frantic. By the end they are both breathless and dripping with sweat.
Throughout Gemma Fairlie’s production, every line of dialogue they speak is projected on the wall behind them (along with a series of cartoons and other graphics). This serves a number of purposes. It makes the production more accessible to someone whose hearing may make follow this rapidly paced piece a problem and allows everyone to better appreciate the wonderful manglings of the language that many of the characters employ. It also allows the audience to appreciate the fine line that the performers tread in a piece like this. By being able to both hear what the characters say and read what they were supposed to say at the same time, any dropped and fumbled line is brightly highlighted. A missed word that one wouldn’t ordinarily notice is brought sharply into focus. As the performers become increasingly tired, this distance between what is and what should be also grows and the act of acting becomes part of the drama of the piece.
Fight Face is funny and inventive and energetic, though the tone sometimes veers too closely towards Little Britain style caricature. With the exception of Jenghiz none of the characters feel like little more than sketches and some parts are very much less successful than others: a recurring story about a Polish couple and a kidnapped cat goes on forever and wasn’t all that funny to begin with, and the piece gets increasingly silly as it lurches towards the final kebab shop conflagration.
But when the humour is subtler it is stronger for it: witness the hoodie who wants to take his beloved Staffie to Crufts, the young mum’s story of getting knocked up by a paramedic after a tumble off her moped (it was hard to ask for his number, what with the blood bubbling from her mouth), and the heartbroken artist’s tale of sexual shenanigans in the toilets at a Damien Hirst after-party.
The world depicted is a recognizable, if grubby one, a world permeated by pissed on dreams and the stink of fried chicken. And while the piece has a bit of a cocky edge to it a gobby quality the energy on display, both creative and physical, more than makes up for it.