REVIEW: Liars’ Market, Union Theatre, 28.04.2010

“I wanted the play to be about lying. Four people constantly lying to each other. The point where lying becomes fantasy and where it becomes dangerous and eventually destructive.” Ernest Hall

Alan Dossor’s directorial interpretation of Ernest Hall’s “Liars’ Market” successfully juxtaposes comedy (albeit dark in tone) and tragedy, which makes the play simultaneously laugh out loud funny and profoundly thought-provoking. Set in economically depressed post WW2 Bradford, the talented cast of four vividly brought to life flawed characters desperately trying to escape from their bleak world.

Easily influenced Susan (Lucy Beaumont) is a prostitute who takes to the streets to support herself and her boyfriend/pimp Max (Jamie Kenna). The play opens with Susan and her favourite client “Stanley” in bed together. As the first act unravels, the audience learn that Stanley is actually called Eric (Howard Teale) and despite his claims to be a relatively affluent book shop owner, is paid a pittance as a sales assistant in a fur coat store. The only carer for his disabled and calculating sister Sonia (Anny Tobin), Eric regularly steals money from the till to fund his encounters with Susan. This deception sets the tone for the rest the play, as each individual character spins a web of lies in a bid to break out of the drudgery of the poverty that envelopes them, with devastating consequences.

Although themes of dishonesty, manipulation, lust and greed run throughout the piece, it is delicately balanced with comedy, predominantly in the first act. There are some genuinely hilarious moments, particularly when the hot-tempted thuggish Max ends up spearing Eric with a bayonet and dumping his lifeless body into the on-stage wardrobe. Although it is brutal, the delivery of the lines and superb comedic timing of Beaumont, Kenna and Teale turned the killing into a farce, where I found myself in the strange position of feeling guilty for laughing at the action unfolding onstage. The strength of Hall’s writing really comes to light in these comic moments that permeate the play, where the humour actually makes the tragedy more poignant.

Beaumont was particularly skilled in bringing out the humorous moments in the script whilst portraying Susan as an incredibly vulnerable character blindly loyal to the cruel Max. I found her journey to be the most tragic and moving, particularly when her spirit starts to fragment as a result of taking on a niche group of clients who have a preference for violent sexual encounters in order to be able to meet Sonia’s financial demands. When Max is manipulated by Sonia into eventually killing Susan, this has no trace of the comedy of Eric’s demise and the stark contrast between the two murders heightens the empathy and sorrow the audience feel for Susan. Eric’s infatuation with Susan and the “Stanley” persona he adopts to impress her is excellently expressed by Teale, as I found myself sympathising with a character that escapes into a self-conjured fantasy land as a means of coping with his reality. Kenna brought volatility to the role of Max that was unnerving and at times quite terrifying to watch, compounded further by his large physical presence which was more obvious against the fragility of Susan. Tobin’s characterisation of Sonia succeeded in making my skin crawl, as her manipulative behaviour directly resulted in Susan’s death and also ironically sealed her own fate as a victim of Max’s rage. The cast were a convincing ensemble, collectively succeeding in engaging the audience in the piece, helped by the intimacy of the space and thrust style staging.

Although the play did hold my attention throughout, I felt the first act was stronger that the second. I found myself confused by Max allowing himself to be manipulated into killing Susan by Sonia out of a fear his parents would discover he was a cold-blooded killer. It seemed like a plot device rather than an organic part of his brutish character (particularly as we learn he deserted the army in WW2, an act that I presume would have brought shame on his family in any case). Perhaps to make this more believable, Max’s attachment to his parents could be made even more evident in the first act.

Overall, “Liars’ Market” was a strong production that exposed the acute misfortune of four characters unable to fulfil their dreams and ambitions, stifled by their oppressive social environment. It also provides perspective on the dangers of self-deception and how far people will go to get what they want.

Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Katie Meehan

Liars’ Market by Ernest Hall
Directed by:
Alan Dossor
The Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 0LX
Until: 15th May 2010

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