Hot on the heels of Kim Cattrall, one of the stars of the hit TV series ‘Sex and the City’ who recently starred in ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway’, David Schwimmer (Ross from the similarly successful series ‘Friends’), has braved the unpredictable British weather to take the lead role in the new play by Neil Labute, ‘Some Girl(s)’.
I must confess that I never got into ‘Friends’. I found the humour rather contrived and ordinary - more the kind of thing one might have on in the background while snoozing after an over-large dinner, rather than something to rush home from the pub for. But since ‘Friends’ had (and still has) a massive following, it was not surprising that there was a huge round of applause from admiring devotees as soon as Schwimmer appeared on stage.
Neil Labute’s fascinating play is about a man (called simply ‘Man’ in the programme and never referred to by his actual name at any time during the play) who is about to get married, and decides to revisit some of his former girlfriends and lovers in various cities where his romances took place. Although the programme notes say Man’s motivation is ‘to make amends for the hurt he’s caused in the past’, there’s much more to this ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ than that. And anyway, his view of past events does not match those of his former lovers, as the encounters reveal.
The action takes place entirely in hotel bedrooms that more or less look the same. The setting could therefore be ‘Anywhere, USA’. All that really changes in the four encounters is the ex-partner who Man meets. But Jonathan Fensome’s stylish but bleak design has just the right kind of impersonal background to capture the essence of the play succinctly.
Schwimmer is on stage for almost the entire duration of the play – apart from a few moments when he has to get his pants and shirt back on (yes, we do get to see his boxers!). As my guest remarked at the end of the performance, one can only admire the skill and work required to learn a part that lasts for one hour and 40 minutes (with no interval). But as Kenneth Williams used to say, it is the actor’s job after all. Still, it’s impressive – I think I made a similar comment when reviewing Corin Redgrave’s performance in ‘Tynan’ which was even more demanding since that was a one-man show.
Schwimmer’s performance started a little shakily because his vocal projection was rather quiet. I almost felt like shouting ‘you’re in a theatre not a TV studio’ (but I didn’t think that would go down too well with the assembled fans). However, it seemed to pick up, though I still found myself straining a little to hear him, even though we were only sitting in the middle of the stalls. And perhaps this, or the lengthy duration of the piece, caused the audience to be rather more unsettled than usual for this time of year. One American woman behind me was continually yawning or unzipping her handbag, and said to her friend at one point “Do you like this show?” And there were numerous visits to the loo and more people than usual fiddling with sweet wrappers or squashing their plastic glasses, which caused some “shushing” from those in the audience trying to concentrate. And this is a play that requires concentration, because the dialogue is full of surprises, twists and turns (as well as considerable humour) as the relationships between Man and his ex lovers are revealed.
Essentially, Man is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. With ‘boy next door’ charm and good looks, he seems ‘nice’. But he’s exploited his relationships by writing about them (for money), and though he acknowledges (or feigns) guilt, he seems oblivious of the hurt he’s re-inflicting by revisiting his lovers – “When is hurting someone OK?” asks the last of his lovers to be ‘visited’. And what’s more surprising in a way is that the women agree to meet him. But Man doesn’t get off lightly in this play. In fact, it’s quite an indictment of the modern (American?) male and his ego (for example, just consider what the punctuation in the play’s title implies). In many ways, it’s an unsettling and shocking play which, at almost the same instant, makes one both cringe and snigger.
Apart from the volume of his projection, Schwimmer acquits himself well, delivering a highly competent, professional performance. But I’m not sure that the slightly shy, somewhat self-conscious portrayal is totally apt for the character. A sharper and more devious persona would have made the character more convincing. But Schwimmer’s portrayal still works when set against the sheer excellence of the playing from the four female leads - Catherine Tate (Sam); Sara Powell (Tyler); Lesley Manville (Lindsay); Saffron Burrows (Bobbi). Each with highly distinct roles and well-defined characters, these four actors rose magnificently to the occasion (undaunted by Schwimmer’s obvious ‘crowd pulling power’) and gave 4 outstanding performances. Lesley Manville has the best role, but only because it allows her to be more vitriolic, and enables her to get revenge on Man (even though it’s tinged with some regret). So her performance provided a kind of high point in the drama. But with playing quality of such an excellent standard from all the female leads, it’s almost churlish to single one actor out for extra praise.
Some Girl(s) is light years away from ‘Friends’ in almost every conceivable way. So don’t expect to see Schwimmer in a familiar role. But if you’re looking for a thought-provoking play, look no further than this. It’s not exactly pleasant to sit through, and it might strike chords that you would prefer to leave ‘un-struck’, but it certainly has an intriguing and singular theme that might just mean it becomes a minor classic of our era.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Schwimmer...does not look natural casting as the homme fatale, an academic around whom women have fluttered like dazzled moths to an eversmouldering flame. Yet Schwimmer's nerdy, wimpish persona, his bashful, tentative air, as if he suffered from masculine deficiency syndrome and his selfesteem count had fallen to high anxiety level, nicely suits his character." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "I was only mildly enthralled by Neil LaBute's new play: it's wry, clever, psychologically astute but, as with so many 100-minute plays, left me feeling hungry afterwards." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH "Some Girl(s) is undoubtedly funny at times, and LaBute analyses the sexual relationships with a searching accuracy that might be described as wise. But gentle? Never. This is a play where the gloves keep coming off and characters inflict real damage on each other." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "While never bland, could sometimes be tenser. Yet there’s plenty of subtle, telling, funny writing in a play which is far more than an excuse for a TV star to parade his skills in London." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "David Schwimmer..is not called upon to extend his range nearly as far as one might have expected in Some Girl(s), the new LaBute play that receives its world premiere in a taut production by David Grindley." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL Times says, "As a whole, it is flawed and unbelievable."