Friday, 17 July 2015

Theatre Review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

Sometimes the weirdest things motivate you to see a show.

Case in point: I decided I wanted to see The Motherfucker with the Hat the moment that the National Theatre released the rehearsal photos and I noticed that Carlos Solis from Desperate Housewives was playing the lead. Not because I fancy him (although…), not because I thought he was a great actor but just because he was from Desperate Housewives and that show WAS MY LIFE when I was at university. Also I like plays with funny names. And swearing; I love swearing. So this one was an all round win for me, all things considered.

Image source.

Motherfucker, as I shall henceforth refer to it (because yay swearing!), tells the story of Jackie, ex-con recovering alcoholic, who discovers that his girl Veronica is having an affair when he comes home one day to find a stranger’s hat in their apartment. Sent into a spiral of jealousy, he enlists the help of his AA Sponsor Ralph and sexually ambiguous Cousin Julio to help him deal with the emotional chaos that ensues.

Provocative title aside, this is actually a play about honour. Everyone in Motherfucker is flawed but everyone has their own deeply held moral code. Despite the fact that Jackie is a bit of a shit by all accounts including his own, he respects the bro code. Cheating on his own girlfriend with a former sponsor? Allowed. Fooling around with his current sponsor/best friend’s wife? Not allowed. Hashtag bro code. Similarly, despite being summarily abused and mocked by Jackie for most of his life, Cousin Julio stands by him whenever Jackie needs help - be that hiding the gun Jackie’s recklessly borrowed from a maniacal friend or offering his “Van Damme” skills to beat up Ralph when *spoiler alert!* it transpires that he is in fact the motherfucker with the hat who’s sleeping with Veronica - because they’re family and Jackie was once kind to Julio when they were children. Ralph for his part also has a moral code, albeit a somewhat more nihilistic one that allows sleeping around and telling people that his wife has just died. Whatever floats your boat I guess.

It’s the contradiction between these characters’ massive flaws and their professed morality that provides both the funniest and most touching moments in this really enjoyable show. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ writing is quick-fire, very funny and deeply touching. There are some straight up fantastic lines - Jackie to Ralph’s wife Victoria as he rebuffs her advances: “What are we, Europeans or some shit?!” - that deliver both huge laughs and deep silences, often in quick succession. I loved the play’s ability to sandwich a joke in the middle of a really serious piece of dialogue (and vice versa) as a way of keeping the audience on their toes and making the action feel authentic and genuine.

The cast, too, are great. Leading a tiny ensemble of just five Ricardo Chavira (GUYS, CARLOS SOLIS!) is a pleasingly baffled Jackie, all good intentions and gentle physicality conflated with righteous indignation at being betrayed by two of the most important people in his life. For someone who, by National Theatre standards, has done a pretty small amount of theatre (this is his London d├ębut, hopefully the start of a long and happy relationship with the British stage) he is really impressive. (Also, he is ageing well y’know? Book a front stalls seat and enjoy the view in the opening almost-sex scene.) Alec Newman and Nathalie Armin (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite NT company actors) are fantastic as slimy Ralph and bitter Victoria whose marriage seems to be based entirely on mutual hatred. Victoria in particular gets some of the plays best ‘serious’ dialogue and is really effective delivering it. Flor De Liz Perez is frankly kind of terrifying most of the time as cokehead Veronica, until her barriers are breached and she is revealed to be hurt and fragile. Rounding out an A+ ensemble, Yul Vazquez is perfect as the ambiguous and deadpan Cousin Julio, doing his best to steal every scene he’s in and usually succeeding.

The show’s production is sprightly (100odd minutes, no interval) and so evocative of New York in such a subtle way - it’s amazing how much they achieve with a few floating fire escapes, a gentle backing track of traffic noise and three moving micro-sets. With different apartment sets that move on and off the stage as the scene dictates, the contrasts and similarities between the characters - as well as the NY boroughs they live in - is highlighted very effectively without interrupting the action for more than seconds at a time. It’s technically and dramatically impressive.

Overall, then, Motherfucker is a great play on all fronts and yet another thing I highly recommend (I promise I’ll try and see something I don’t like soon, honest). Brilliant writing, brilliant cast AND CARLOS SOLIS.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is playing in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre until 20th August.

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