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Impressively, The Planxtonic Players manage to accomplish the feat of drawing you into a seedy nest of tedium and frustration and compelling you to want desperately to stay in that pit of despair and see it to its bitter end. Such is the spellbinding night of theatre that is their production of Savage in Limbo at The Camden Eye as part of the Camden Fringe, now in its 7th season.
The play, written by John Patrick Shanley in 1984, takes place in a Bronx dive realised with vision and authority in red brick, baseball and American football posters in the intimate upstairs space of The Camden Eye pub in an ‘immersive’ style of theatre that allows the audience to become silent participants in the tragedy that unfolds. The narrative consists of the interaction, rapid exchanges of tears, affection, proclamations of love and insults between five jaded New Yorkers all desperate for an unnameable something more out of life, leading to an intense collective exploration of meaning and fulfilment that is at points painfully funny and at times simply and resonantly painful.
Grace Kennedy plays the eponymous Denise Savage, a brash, loud-mouthed, acerbic and yet philosophical 32 year old virgin, with mesmerising conviction, styled a la Adriana La Cerva, all leopard print assertiveness and capturing perfectly an individual’s intense inner struggle to break out of the tedium of her life in the same place where she was born and has spent all her life, night after night in a bar, day after day with her mother.
Gabriella Curtis plays her former high school classmate, local woman-of-loose-morals Linda Rotunda, a girl with man troubles that lead to existential searches for the elusive meaningful relationships in her life instead of the transient lust-based tryst. Curtis is enthralling in her ability to engender pity, derived from her broken confusion and inability to understand in any way, shape or form why her beau, local stud Tony Aronica, played by Robert Bellissimo, suddenly wants to be with ‘ugly girls’ who can converse fluently on the state of the world economy and The Soviet Union. Coupled with a brilliantly jittery performance by Melissa Palleschi as the unhinged good girl April White, known by Linda and Denise at school as the girl who was always destined to become a nun and ended up a basketcase always near the border of a breakdown and the barman Murk, a bastion of stability and the unflappable antithesis to Denise’s chaos, played with intelligence and subtlety by Oliver Hewett, the stage becomes a kind of Beckettian nowhere space in which five individuals rage against the frustrations of their lives and their relationships with each other, attempt to come to terms with and offer alternatives to those frustrated existences and end up in similar places to where they might have started, had nothing introduced the hope of change into their minds.
My own minor frustrations lie, alas, with Bellisimo’s performance, which, as scripted, had the potential to steal the show as a sort of struggling, philandering, working class, Bronx anti-hero, especially as his character enters the scene en medias res, mid-life-changing-epiphany about who he is and who he wants to be, attempting to shake off one existence and enter into another. One gets the sense that Bellisimo just isn’t able to tap into the mind of an inarticulate man bent on finding a new language in which to articulate his identity and repeatedly frustrated in the attempt. There is a jarring nervous energy about him that seems to throw him over important pauses and to miss the potency and humour at certain key points, one that I sense will fade as the run progresses, and as it does when the actor seems to ease himself into the role, but that too is only when Tony, on realising how much more complicated it is to change who he is than he at first thought, shrinks back into a caricature of himself.
That in itself does not mar the soul-wrenching pathos of this tragicomedy, most effectively driven home in Savage’s beautifully delivered final lines, conveying a stark and haunting sense of isolation that stays with you well after you’ve left the theatre and re-entered the dark streets of Camden.
Savage in Limbo runs until 26th August in The Camden Eye. Performances begin at 8.50. 1 hour 10 minutes.
2 Kentish Town Road