THEATRE | GOOD CANARY STARRING HARRY LLOYD & FREYA MAVOR
"John Malkovich is directing a play at Rose Theatre!" My friend excitedly told me one day, and though admittedly that name didn't seem to strike as much within me as it seemed to her (perhaps I'm too young), I was nevertheless intrigued as to why such a well known and established American actor was directing a play, not only on the other side of the pond, but in little ol' Kingston of all places. Now don't get me wrong, I adore Kingston, but you've got to agree, the situation seemed out of the ordinary. Anyhow, I was more than happy to be offered tickets* to watch the play by the lovely people at Rose Theatre and then even further enthused when they cast Harry Lloyd in the lead role. Harry's been one of my favourite actors since his all too brief yet memorable turn in Game of Thrones and it's definitely been a while since I've seen him on stage. Good Canary was written by American writer Zach Helm, but this is actually its first English language production (having previously been adapted in French and Spanish).
An intoxicating tale of love and destruction, read the posters plastered along the Underground as I made my way from London to Kingston. Perhaps that is what Good Canary was in its simplest reading, but I can't help but feel like this description barely scratched its surface. The story tells of a young American couple, Jack and Annie Parker (Harry Lloyd and Freya Mavor respectively). Jack is a writer, who's recently finished book is on the verge of commercial success whilst Annie is a stay at home wife, though not for reasons you would expect. Annie is deeply troubled and suffers from a numerous amount of mental illnesses. She's bulimic and on top of constantly purging, she relies on drugs to suppress her appetite. These drugs in turn make her anxious and often amplifies her irrational fear that Jack will abandon her. Unfortunately she feels like she can no longer function without them and her addiction starts to mess with Jack's career and their relationship.
It's quite touching to witness just how much Jack loves Annie. It seems like everything single thing he does is ultimately for her and he really tries his hardest to take care of her. Now Annie loves Jack too but communicating with someone who is suffering from addiction can be difficult and perhaps to a lot of the audience, as it first did to me (I've never experienced drug addiction or been affected by someone close to me having it), Annie can come across as just plain selfish. This is where it really gets eye-opening for me: how can we judge someone if we've never stepped in their shoes? It becomes clear that Annie only wants what's best for Jack despite her riddled actions that often result in opposing consequences and the truest test between the two has nothing to do with any form of substance abuse. It all comes down to trust.
For Good Canary, the humble Rose Theatre stage is once again completely transformed. The stage design and overall production is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. The backdrop is digital so it's able to change with each scene or moment and the actors can also appear to interact with it, which gave an extra element of entertainment. Personally, I'm usually not one for flashy staging, sometimes to me it distracts from the actors' performances instead of enhancing it but with this particular production, it works rather well to set the tone of the glitzy New York facade. Tracks on the floor serve for motorised props to wheel themselves on and off stage, which I thought was a fun and unique touch. A haunting piano track played in the background of many of the more emotional scenes, cut across the silence of the audience and attempted to slice my heart in two, over and over. The entire production design is just A+ in my opinion, major props (no pun intended) to everyone behind it. There was one particular scene that really stood out to me in terms of execution: the actors were completely silent and didn't utter a single word to each other whilst acting, and the dialogue was instead written on the screen as it unfolded. It made for an astonishingly powerful sequence.
In my opinion, Harry Lloyd does some of his best acting to date. He's been great at portraying all manner of psychotic or sociopathic villains but with Jack, there's a fine line that he easily flips between his vulnerability and guilt, to his ambitions and dreams. You can literally feel the constant struggle that he's under and that ticking time bomb. That being said, I think the standout performance is that of Skins alumna Freya Mavor. I thought she definitely gave this year's Olivier's Best Actress winner Denise Gough a run for her money. I never thought I'd see the day where I'd feel sympathy for a drug addict and I was sort of right, but even more wrong: she made me feel empathy. Halfway through the play, suddenly I was in Annie's shoes and I felt as if I understood completely where she was coming from, how much she wanted to be the person Jack wished her to be yet how impossible it actually was for her, and it was heartbreaking. I felt that sense of helplessness and impending black hole. I felt her fear. Freya took me on the biggest emotional rollercoaster of my life and I truly hope she gets recognised for this amazing performance. Not least the audience gave a standing ovation and my hands were red from clapping at the end of the show. An honourable mention to Ilan Goodman who was so great as Annie's drug dealer, a welcome bit of comic relief in an otherwise dark couple of hours.
Just before the intermission, the audience was thrown with a complete game changer of a plot twist that further proved that you just never know what is going on behind closed doors, and as the play continued to unfold, Jack and Annie's relationship grew more turbulent through all the trials and tribulations. Piece by piece, pill by pill, until time ran out and the caged canary that Jack gifted Annie at the beginning becomes a very clear and sad metaphor indeed. Good Canary was quite a difficult and uncomfortable watch, but an excellent exploration of what it means to be human and free. Intense and amazing, you won't be able to tear your eyes away from the stage for the entire duration of the play and it leaves you with plenty of food for thought long after it's ended. One of my favourite plays of the year, I'd highly recommend catching this particular bird before it takes flight.
Good Canary is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 8th October. Tickets and more information can be found here.
PS. Thought I'd also include my annual selfie with Harry because a) he's awesome, b) it's fun to document our ageing process and c) why not?
*Complimentary press tickets to watch this play were given to me courtesy of Rose Theatre but all thoughts and opinions voiced are my own.