It’s possible I’ve made this observation before, but the Menier Chocolate Factory is one of my favourite theatres in London.
The space is so cool - I love brutalism and concrete so even if it were empty I’d love it - and so adaptable; the programming is so interesting and so consistently well delivered; the restaurant and wine selection - IMPORTANT - is great (and their large wine glass measure is basically a half pint which also helps).
I’ve so far managed to avoid seeing a straight play there though, having up until now only seen a hattrick of musicals. And when I tell you that the latest thing I’ve seen there is Kiss of the Spider Woman you might think that trend was continuing. You’d be wrong, soz.
Based on the classic story by Manuel Puig, in a new dramatic (ie not musical) adaptation by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker, Kiss of the Spider Women (henceforth KOTSW), tells the story of Molina and Valentin, two prisoners in Peronist Argentina. Molina is locked up for his sexuality, Valentin for his politics and they are very much camp chalk and alpha cheese. What follows is a sort of serious Odd Couple, taking in meditations on fantasy, loneliness, oppression and friendship.
Rivera and Baker’s writing has an admirable stab at all of these big old topics and delivers something that is touching, funny and, surprisingly to me at least, enjoyably catty. The humour in what is otherwise a fairly bleak play is really well done and effectively used, both to punctuate and to amplify the otherwise all consuming grimness. There are some great one liners - I would like Molina’s observation that “If I’m not the leading lady I don’t want to be in the play” on a t shirt immediately please. The writing, and indeed the whole production, is at its best during the moments of sheer escapism and fantasy in which Molina describes his favourite films to Valentin. These are beautifully and evocatively written. It’s entirely possible to lose yourself in them.
There was something missing for me though and I’m not honestly sure what it was. If I were to try and describe it, I think momentum is probably the best word. Particularly in the early part of the play, the writing does seem to meander a bit and takes a mite too long to establish where it’s going. Some of the political pronouncements, also largely front loaded in the text, are a bit heavy handed too; a bit David Hare on an off day. It’s by no means a bad piece of writing, at times it’s a really really good one, but I never found it entirely compelling overall.
However, any issue I had with some of the writing was completely overshadowed by how beautifully this production is staged. The use of the space is unbelievable, in that it seems entirely impossible that this is the same theatre that housed Barnum or Into the Woods or Assassins. The transformation is incredible; the American tourists sat next to me were briefly but genuinely concerned that the theatre was structurally unsound because it had been roughed up so convincingly (I promise that’s true).
Jon Bausor’s design is the absolute star of the show, gorgeously bleak. Paul Anderson’s lighting is stark but sympathetic. Philip Pinsky’s music and soundscape is so effective, it’s amazing how much sound can make the same space feel incredibly claustrophobic and utterly free so well. The real gem here, though, is Andrzej Goulding’s incredible projections which are not only technically impressive and visually stunning, they’re genuinely memorable in a way that so much theatre design isn’t. They’re also fully integrated into the production in a way which is so rarely the case when projection is used. Director Laurie Sansom deserves kudos for managing all of this in a way which isn’t overwhelming and keeps the show feeling like a coherent whole. His pacing is good too - and gets better as the show goes on.
KOTSW has three characters - Molina, Valentin and a prison guard - but really it’s Molina’s show and so this production belongs to Samuel Barnett. He’s on top form; wry, sprightly and full of both sassy fun and heartfelt sadness. In particular, his storytelling in the fantasy sections is gorgeous and his scenes with the prison guard where his conflicting motivations (no spoilers) are laid bare are really effectively done. You miss him when he’s not the centre of the action, which fortunately is not that often. As Valentin, Declan Bennett has a tougher time. It’s a less good part, with fewer and less good lines, and he has a hard job keeping up with the sparkling Barnett. The physicality he brings to the role, though, is excellent. The occasional fits he’s required to have are genuinely uncomfortable (and sometimes frightening) to watch. He really effectively, silently, communicates an only just controlled violence and rage which the part definitely requires.
KOTSW isn’t my favourite thing that I’ve ever seen at the Menier, it doesn’t quite have the same all around wow factor of other things I’ve seen there. But for all that it’s still an extremely competent production and the incredible design is 100% worth seeing in the flesh. Well, in the concrete. And if you’re a Samuel Barnett fan, this one’s definitely for you.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th May.
My seat was A4. It cost £32.50 and I paid for it. I saw a preview.