4.5 Stunning performances are too close for comfort
There is no room for love in this apartment. A tiny room in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, cluttered with photographs of its inhabitants: laid-back, sardonic doctor Zack (Jamie Sayers) and keyed-up, fragilely cheerful Abby (Kay Benson). They are the Americans in Paris, seeking a new start after the death of Abby’s mother. Yet there is no peace to be found here, in Amy Herzog’s Belleville, performed by the Fletcher Players.
It could have been opening night nerves, but the first scenes did not reassure me. Lines seemed to be shouted at each-other because they should, not because the characters wanted to say them and Zack and Abby’s American accents seemed to be sliding every-which state (or continent). I would like to break off here and point out how hard it is for non-Americans to actually act through an American accent, it’s an immense talent and luckily one which Benson and Sayers turn out to possess in spades.
Whilst the set was accomplished – I loved the effort that had gone into adorning it with actual photos of the cast – the tech left something to be desired, with the random blackouts and water noises adding very little to the plot and even distorting it in places.
However, with the introduction of Anand Joshi’s superb Aliane, things began to pick up. As Zack and Abby’s landlord he excels: the French-Algerian accent is wonderfully realised (it should be noted I don’t know any French Algerians, so I have no idea about accuracy, but it sounded perfectly convincing) and he acts as a perfectly rational and calm foil to two very irrational people. Even from the outset he appears a totally decent, normal human being, with no hint of overacting. He is also the most likeable character, highlighting in one pivotal scene the arrogance and entitlement of the expats. Imane Bou Sabon's reaction is also excellent when his wife Amina (Imane Bou-Saboun) reveals that-despite Zack’s patronising assumption that she cannot possibly bilingual- she can in fact speak English and has only spoken French because it is Zack who “needs to practice”.
The production is interesting in that there are multiple small scenes conducted entirely in French, which to my – again, untrained- ears sounded so convincing that Bou Sabon and Joshi must have French backgrounds. One of the things which can really take an audience out of a play set abroad is that suddenly everyone speaks English even when they’re alone with their fellow non-speakers. The fact that the audience wasn’t condescended to and Aliane and Amina spoke in French to each-other was refreshingly bold.
This felt like a very real play – almost as if we, too, were crushed into that tiny apartment in which all scenes take place, claustrophobically unable to swerve the sense of impending doom and violence which hangs throughout the play.
It is in these scenes which Benson and Sayers come into their own. Their chemistry is undeniable, so much so that even as they tear each other to pieces you will them to touch. Yet there is a sense, which becomes apparent to them as the play progresses, that these are two people who should never have set up home together. Sayers does an absolutely wonderful job of humanising a character who could otherwise be deeply unlikeable, his calm demeanour distorted to a tic-like pattern of pulling up his jeans and adjusting his shirt. He exudes so much mania in later scenes that it’s almost toxic. Benson has an equally hard job of skating between a woman who deserves better and a whining child who calls her father at all hours of the day and night, often to the detriment of the man who, from the day they met, has “never done anything without thinking of you first.”
Perhaps that is the problem. In this space there is no room to breathe, no room to be independent of each other, no way to stop hurting the other with their jagged edges. Not just on stage – in the last scenes the whole audience breathed in and did not seem to breathe out again until the final blackout, the room tense with fear, almost as if we were as much to blame as these two broken, selfish people.