Californian Lives at the King’s Head Theatre
Californian Lives shows the unglamourous and rather dreary side of the sunshine state. These three self contained monologues are naturally written and well acted, but the stories aren’t particularly gripping or original and there’s not a dramatic payoff. At the King’s Head.
Californian Lives comprises three monologues; stories which have been lifted from Martin Foreman’s First and Fiftieth and other stories, and dramatised accordingly.
The first is entitled “Los Feliz” (named after a neighbourhood in Los Angeles) – where we see a man finishing off a sandwich the size of his face in an American diner whilst mulling over romantic endeavours and failed relationships.
Robin Holden’s performance demands attention. The actor has a strong sense of stage presence and practically radiates energy. Holden carries the monologue well: the pace doesn’t slack and he remains committed to the text throughout. There’s a clear sense of character too – thanks to the seamless combination of natural writing and strong acting.
Saying that, the monologue itself – as in the words on the page – doesn’t really consist of anything special or new; it all sounds quite familiar and, although it might be a story that resonates, it isn’t particularly thought-provoking.
Under Emma King-Farlow’s direction, it’s unclear who this man (Robin Holden) is addressing. As the piece kicks off, Holden appears to direct speech towards the audience. However, it soon becomes clear that we are not to interact and test this “man” on road routes across the States (I came close to shouting out a suggestion; thank goodness I didn’t – could have been awkward). So then, we probably guess he’s talking to the other customers in the diner. If this is the case, it’s a somewhat limited artistic choice because it’s perhaps unrealistic to suggest that so many customers (the character’s eyes dart around suggesting there are multiple fellow diners actively listening to the tale) would listen to a half hour’s worth of self-indulgent chat. It’s not clear and we don’t get a good sense of time or place. Aside from the accent and unlimited coffee, I wouldn’t be able to guess we were in California.
A better unity of time and place is communicated in the second piece: “Ben and Joe’s” (no need for a translation). As Man In Bar (John Vernon) slides his sunglasses across a table and begins speaking in a charming American drawl, we can tell we’re in the States – we can also sense the sun and feel the heat.
There’s no doubt that John Vernon is a brilliant actor. He is a very natural and confident performer possessing a great command of language. Vernon manages to make every character depicted in the story distinct, even though there are so many of them to build and convey.
This is a backhanded compliment to the piece as a whole, but Vernon also manages to make a boring story as interesting as it possibly could be. Essentially, it’s about a load of friends in a gay bar and how their relationships change over time. Nothing much happens. When you commit to following a story, you want it to satisfy your investment and there’s not a dramatic payoff.
Finally, we witness a doughy eyed housewife talking to her husband. There’s an early hint that something may be amiss, but it all unfolds rather predicatbly. It is quite a touching story, but one I feel I’ve heard before; unsatisfied housewife, affairs, loveless marriage, tired hearts, the reality of grief, and so on.
Once again, the acting is formidable. Carolyn Lyster carries the material well; her performance is poignant and her character well crafted. Saying that, I didn’t connect to the piece or feel particularly moved by the end. That was not the case for all members of the audience – one lady in particular was crying her eyes out by the curtain call, so perhaps the story resonates with some and not with others.
Although the writing feels organic, and despite the pieces being very well acted, the monologues aren’t particularly gripping or original. Californian Lives didn’t particularly float my boat, but I can appreciate strong production values when I see them and the writing – aside from the dreary content – is reflective of real life and builds a vivid picture of the minds we find our way into.