Originally posted on my livejournal 4th April, 2010.
We recently went to see Six Degrees of Separation (front row centre complimentary seats, courtesy of saharacook) which was wonderful.
Paul is a young black conman who takes in Flan and Ouisa, a pair of upwardly mobile New Yorkers. I think that it is set during the 80s - certainly the prevailing zeitgeist was very 80s in flavour - although I suppose that it is equally applicable today, especially in terms of the racial politics at play. Paul more or less gatecrashes Flan and Ouisa’s business dinner, mugged and injured. He presents himself as a friend of their children’s and - more importantly - the son of Sydney Poitier. It is this last that gets him the unreserved interest of Flan and Ouisa, who quickly decide to assist him by putting him up for the night. A few hours later, they walk in on him - and the male one-night-stand he had picked up - and throw them both out.
They then meet up with another couple, who tell them excitedly of being able to rescue Sydney Poitier’s son from muggers and look after him for the night. Flan and Ouisa are outraged at being taken in, and try to go to the police. The problem is, Paul didn’t steal anything, or break anything, or do anything they didn’t invite him to. Little by little, the couple unpick Paul’s life, and we see bits and pieces, never enough to get the full picture. The ending of it all is tragic and somewhat inevitable.
Obi Abili is excellent as the young Paul, investing him with a charm and a pathos I am not sure the script had on its own. He seems almost psychopathic in his zeal to create a life for himself that will allow him to ingratiate himself into this social circle - and to remain there. His single-mindedness claims at least one life, but Paul is only partly culpable. He is just so good at convincing people of this person that he has invented that they can’t help but be taken in and want to give him everything.
Technically, Paul never steals, never hits anyone, never does anything wrong. His only problem is, he doesn’t really exist. ‘He’ is actually a person created by someone with an address book and a list of stories designed to help him fit in. Abili is in turns charming and almost insubstantial as Paul fades in and out of view, and we are never quite sure who he is. We are left feeling that he was never quite sure either.
Ouisa is played ably by Lesley Manville (last seen - but sadly not reviewed - in the Old Vic’s All About My Mother). She starts off brittle, a mirror of her husband, and gradually her outrage fades to uncertainty until, at last, she thaws completely. She seems to be the sort of person who looked to others to help define her, and when they were not able to do so, she simply modelled herself on what she thought she should be. Seeing someone genuinely needing her allows her to step forward and formulate her own opinions and experiences - sadly, a half hour too late.
Anthony Head is Flan, and is truly wonderful. You start off empathising with him because Flan seems so invested in his life, in securing backing for the purchase of a painting that would otherwise result in ruin for himself and his wife. He is living hand-to-mouth, as the play says, just on a different sort of level. One wrong deal and his whole world could come crashing down. As the play progresses, however, Flan’s character remains unchanged. Fundamentally, this is who he is - someone who is actually doing something he likes, however shallow and vapid this might seem to others - and a threat to that is viewed with hostility. He doesn’t have time for Ouisa’s sudden interest in Paul, any more than he has time for Paul’s attempts to inveigle his way back into their life. Flan has his life, thank you very much, and it pains him to have other people intruding on it. Ultimately, Flan loses the audience’s sympathy by the end because he is so fixed and unyielding.
Overall, I thought the direction and actors were superb. Our seats were right on the cusp of the stage, which meant that several of the monologues were delivered straight to me, with Abili and Head looking straight into my eyes. (I didn’t mind. Sadly, Manville faced the other way for her monologues.) It did mean that I got an inadvertent close-up of the full-frontal nudity that suddenly appeared half-way through (I didn’t notice the warning on the playbill!), although it did make a nice mirroring of Flan and Ouisa’s outrage and the shaking-up of the audience’s complacency. I guess the only thing that let the play down on occasion was - well - the play. That is, the script. At times it just seemed a little lacklustre in places, although the cast plowed on with aplomb and frequently managed to rise above it. I think that in the end, they managed to make it into something that was very enjoyable, and bring it to the cusp of something that had profound things to say. Sadly, that last extra step was not quite taken by the script.
A very fun time out, just the same!