Unlike people, art is best loved conditionally. That’s because the average person is confusing but ultimately redeemable; the average play, not so much. Brian Heap, who loves theatre, applies his own conditions—if the writer has stood the test of time, and if the script has gathered acclaim, and if the actors are experienced (and if they’ll work for free), he’ll make a go of it.
This has led to a number of entertaining, edifying productions—Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play, before that A R Gurney’s Love Letters, before that Yasmina Reza’s Art, and so on. All famous writers, all celebrated works, all with established local actors (often the same ones). Mr Heap’s latest endeavour, Appropriate Behaviour, seems to fit his pattern. The scribe is Barbara Gloudon, whose deteriorating National Pantomimes nevertheless make her our most prominent living playwright. The stage is stuffed full of talent, old and new. What’s missing from Mr Heap’s criteria? Oh, right. The acclaim.
There are two reasons Appropriate Behaviour remains unburdened by recognition—one financial, one functional. The script has eleven characters, making it unproduceable in the Jamaican market. No one can afford to pay eleven actors, so no one has staged the play for two decades. Now that Mr Heap has tried, he has come up against Ms Gloudon’s jellyfish script, with strands of plot and character floating about everywhere.
Brian Heap attracts talent, but is unwilling to display the extent of his own
Appropriate Behaviour is set in a typical Jamaican office. If you work in an office, you will recognize the narcoleptic environment, where management is overstaffed, the ledgers matter less than the lunch menu, and no one does any work (anyone who does is either promoted or ostracized). But Ms Gloudon overpopulates her script—four grunts, two janitors, two consultants, a secretary, a manager and whatever Miss Patience is—without turning them into people or throwing them into a sustained conflict.
As a result, the characters talk a lot but the story goes nowhere. Two co-workers get involved (against company policy), get spotted, but do not get uncovered. Another two spend their time baiting a third about his sexuality, with no lasting consequence. This might be chalked up to the playwright’s relative inexperience at the time, except Ms Gloudon’s last pantomime, Pirate Jack, was even more inchoate.
But the actors overcome the flawed writing. Mr Heap gifted himself an embarrassment of riches (and a few embarrassments) in Appropriate Behaviour. Here’s a quick rundown. Nadean Rawlins, a Heap favourite, is so consistently compelling she should steal Nadia Khan’s Actor Boy statue as a public service. Christopher McFarlane is the dramatic equivalent of a can of Red Bull—his explosive energy lifts the entire show, if only temporarily. Marsha-Ann Hay, Maurice Bryan, Marguerite Newland and Melward Morris are all competent.
Rishille Bellamy-Pelicie and Jean-Paul Menou are good actors that choose inappropriate behaviours—she should walk more naturally and he should talk more naturally. Althea Gordon-Clennon is the reverse—authentic, but not theatrical enough. The cast lacks a unified tone; in truth, the whole show smells a bit under-rehearsed.
Which brings us to the main reason Appropriate Behaviour falls short—Brian Heap’s maddening unwillingness to extend himself. His productions should be subtitled “Just Enough”—just enough set, just enough costumes, just enough rehearsal, just enough resources to make it through. He seems more fussy about which play he directs than which direction the play takes. The man is knowledgeable, tasteful, trusted and talented. All he needs is Christopher McFarlane’s boundless energy.
Granted, he operates without grants on a shoestring budget. All the more reason, then, to obsess over the particular shoestring. There’s little excuse for a character anachronistically referring to using shillings thirty years ago. All of the missteps in Appropriate Behaviour could have been reduced or eliminated with additional time and care. Brian Heap, who loves theatre, knows that better than anyone. The empty seats at the Philip Sherlock Centre must hurt him. So, as the paying public, let’s lay out our own conditional love—if the writer has taken her time, and if the script has gathered followers, and if the actors are excited, and if the director has tried his hardest, we’ll make a go of it.
Appropriate Behaviour runs until May 16.