Watching Isobel was much like meeting the kind of aristocratic poseur it parodies. Prepare for a play straining for effect; proud of its insincerity; and vacuous at its core. As with the self-styled toff, the ‘irony’ is obvious, advertised, and a little painful to watch.
Like much new writing, Isobel has a simple conceptual premise: take the Brideshead stereotype of Oxford to an absurd extreme. When you first meet Jack (Frederick Bowerman) – oozing aristocratic finesse as he lolls about in red corduroys – you might not take his oh-so-casual nihilism all that seriously. But there is in fact nothing metaphorical about the back-stabbing in his blue-blooded clique. Jack turns out to be the cold-blooded reptile he claims to be – a serial, unapologetic murderer with a disturbing fetish for grey-hounds. Until the end, the play taunts us with the prospect of peeling back the mask. And in a sense the final act does – only to reveal that there is no face beneath the mask: horror of horrors – ‘Jack’s face is the mask’. What a coup (not least metatheatrically) – until you realise how boring that mask is – as you realise you have been watching a soulless caricature for the whole of the play.
Interest is sustained by Jack’s marvellous voice (think purr not plumb), though unfortunately there rather too much time to enjoy its modulation between caressing sibilants and plosive relish, in what becomes Jack’s audio-book autobiography. Except for the arbitrary flash-back of the second scene (acted out seemingly only because it involves a small number of characters) – the whole of the action of the play is relived through Jack’s myrrh-lifluous tones, as he lounges around an uninteresting set.
It’s a tribute to Frederick that he can sustain the endless monologue – given the story he has to tell. The leaden-footed references to Agatha Christie only go to show up how boring this play’s murder is. Sorry – but this isn’t the kind of plot I need to spoil. The unsatisfying conclusion – symmetrical as it might be – left the audience unsure when (and perhaps whether) to clap.
But the play’s one-dimensionality may actually be for the best. For dialogue comes out all contrived – albeit with the odd flash of brilliance (Oxford politics – the ‘petri-dish of rich and mediocre’!). Quick and slick witted as the characters are – they need to at least make a show of listening to each other if their exchanges are not to sound rehearsed. There’s a problem with the script too – which pedantically points its own wit out to the audience rather than allowing conversation to flow.
Clever as parodying a parody might seem – it turns out that blowing up the already rather boring toff stereotype to ludicrous proportions makes for dull and unsympathetic theatre.
** (2 STARS)
Isobel plays at the Burton-Taylor Studio at 9:30pm until October 27th. Tickets £5.00
IMAGE/Red Herring Productions