The sound of a crackling record and a sleazy tune seductively sung by red-head Anna Clarke form the prelude to The Wild Party – that is, Rafaella Marcus’ production of it at The Hope Theatre. The Wild Party itself is a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, described as ‘the classic Jazz Age tale of sex, sweat and sin’. Written in 1926, it was regarded too risqué until 1928, when it was eventually published in the US, and even then it was banned in some states.
It conjures up an image that is full of clinking glasses, tightly locked bodies rocking to jazzy rhythms and piano keys hit hard. However it’s not the jolly, but the wild party, so there’s also a darker side fuelled by alcohol, jealousy and violence.
Anna Clarke and Joey Akubeze share the rhyming lines, alternating between describing the scene and slipping into one of the many characters: Mainly host and hostess Burrs and Queenie, and their lovers Kate and Black, but also their guests, including writers, singers and dancers. One of them is portrayed by March as: Women adored her. / Less often, a man: / And the more fool he— / She was Lesbian. The quirky way in which Joey Akubeze pronounces ‘lesbian’ cleverly ensures it doesn’t slip under the radar.
There’s a great dynamic between the two performers and they have a feast playing with the lines, dancing on them like piano keys. Clarke and Akubeze also nicely render songs like Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen, which are interspersed and provide a welcome break from the skilful, but demanding text.
Marcus adds a clever twist to the production by having both characters wear top hat and tails at the beginning of the show, when the scene is set, making clear that the female character is a modern woman. For part two, the party, she sheds her formal wear to reveal a skimpy golden dress that represents the Roaring Twenties. The great surprise is to see Akubeze appear in the same dress, only in silver. His make up and rouged cheeks underline the play with gender, which not only perfectly fits the period but also the production, since both actors pick up characters of both genders.
Part of the staging is the questionable use of fruit. Yes, they metaphorically get the idea of sex across, and yes, half-eaten apples, bananas, pears and peaches leave a frightful mess on the floor, which one would expect after a wild party. But could the attraction, the tension between characters, not be more effectively expressed through dance or music?
Despite the actors’ admirable performances and their dynamic, they sadly lack any chemistry. The Wild Party is a deeply atmospheric piece, so for coming evenings one hopes that the performance will also generate some electricity, some buzz that might actually captivate the audience, making them feel a part of it, not just bystanders in the doorway. Until then, at least, the show is a joy to watch.
The Wild Party runs at The Hope Theatre until 28 January 2017.
By Sabine Schereck