We witness love and abuse from the position of the canary in this new play written by Zach Helm and directed by John Malkovich
When a canary is brought into the flat of a New York couple living on the brink of both disaster and ultimate success, its significance is elusive. In fact, it remains so throughout this new play written by Zach Helm that is enjoying its first outing in an English performance at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. Although the play has been previously performed in French, Spanish, Portuguese and German, Helm acceded to director John Malkovich’s request that the play be performed in French rather than Helm’s native English as it was originally written. Now back in English-speaking Kingston, it transfers beautifully back into the mother tongue. Set in the Rose’s intimate auditorium, the audience is quickly captivated.
Good Canary is a rollercoaster of energy and melancholia, as it journeys us through the mind of a woman who suffered enormous abuse in early life. Her remedy comes out in drugs, writing and keeping the house spotlessly clean. The dialogue is dynamic and real, which is unsurprising as Zach Helm says he wrote from the words of people he once lived with and loved, “self-destructive quasi savants”, meddling with and wrecking the possibilities often posed in one’s youth.
It is a play about youth, idiocy, love, abuse at an early age and all its consequences. As the plot thickens, the relationship between Annie (Freya Mevor) and Jack (Harry Lloyd) also fragments. However, a deep undercurrent of love ensures its continuum. The brilliantly acted dialogue, particularly by the two protagonists, under the direction of Malkovich (yes, the John Malkovich, who in more recent years has directed several theatrical productions) sees Good Canary providing a relief from the often stodgy traditional performances of English theatre you can easily be subjected to, outside the usual venues of the big cultural cities. Instead, Good Canary, and indeed a good many of the recent stagings at the Rose, seem to give this theatre on the edge of London the type of boost to surrounding venues, that a stiff drink might inject to a game of bowls on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.
As the facts of the plot unravel, the audience’s sympathy for Annie and her husband also evolves and alters in balance, but our underlying sympathy for the humanity of the situation that they find themselves in never wavers. To add to the excellent performances and directing, the audience is also treated to some innovative staging where a minimalist set obliges us to focus on the quick fire happenings and rapid changes of mood that ensue.
At the end we are left with much food for thought, analysing so many of the characters’ psychologies and piecing together what made them behave as such. It is only the place of the canary (who never seems to sing) that could have been better indicated as its intermittent positioning is never really exploited or thought through. Another drawback is that we are not presented with any solutions to the near impossible existence of Annie and Jack. Everybody around them is exploiting them and they are willingly giving way to this. At the same time, they are exploiting their own lives and pain, while also being victims to it.
Although Good Canary gives us a slice of this life and offers a window into a web of secrets and lies, steered by the distinctly observational and mostly non-judgemental voice of Malkovich, the production offers no relief or resolutions, only musings that things turned out the only way they could have been. All said, Good Canary provides for an intense experience and one for which you will definitely need a strong drink afterwards.
Good Canary is currently playing at the Rose Theatre until 8th October 2016.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet
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