>lonely planet by luna-id

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 7 nov 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some indefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Two very different gay men are oddly friends at the height of the US AIDS epidemic. One (Carl, played by Daniel Jenkins) tells lies but lives in the world and faces its trials head-on; the other (Jody, played by Michael Corbidge) tells the truth but avoids the world, choosing to see it only through the maps in his cartographer's shop.

Concerned about his friend's self-imposed exile, and possibly also about his own state of mind, Carl brings chairs to Jody's shop, day after day, more and more each time, until Jody is forced to choose between his agoraphobia and the increasing claustrophobia of his over-furnished shop.

LONELY PLANET by Steven Dietz sounds like it should be an "AIDS play", a "gay play", and possibly even a "mental illness play" - it sounds like it should be in inverted commas and deal with serious issues. I suppose in its own way it does, but the serious issue is unexpectedly friendship, and Dietz's approach, far from being heavy-handed agitprop, is low-key, elegant and human.

This is why it took me a couple of uncomfortable minutes at the start of the play, and again after the interval, to get used to the "bigness" of the actors' performances. They were not particularly over the top, but the intimate space of the Guinness Theatre, the representational set and the naturalistic dialogue were just slightly at odds with Corbidge and Jenkins' mode of delivery, which feels British, sounds trained and smells ever so slightly of Shakespeare. All this, coupled with what seems to be a predisposition on director Christian Huber's part to aim for a laugh as often as possible made for a dislocating experience at first, with the eyes and ears at odds with each other. Nor did it help that Corbidge, who had a lot of monologues, had his nose pressed to the fourth wall (actually the third and fourth walls: the set was a diamond shape pointed at the audience) every time he addressed us and I kept worrying that his character would hurt his face. Nevertheless, good acting will out in the end, and after a short while, my brain had got used to the conflicting input, and I was able to enjoy the show unquestioningly.

>>'A refreshingly subtle and genuine portrayal of a gay friendship, which does credit to all involved.'

The chemistry shared by Corbidge and Jenkins was probably the main reason the play was such an easy ride. And I don't mean chemistry in a kind of Bogart/Bacall can't wait to get each other's clothes off way: yes, these two were supposed to be gay, but they were supposed to be friends, not lovers, and the acting never countermanded that intention. The two actors managed to balance a respectful physical distance (despite the characters' being gay) with an obvious emotional affinity (despite the characters' being totally unlike each other). The result was a refreshingly subtle and genuine portrayal of a gay friendship, which does credit to all involved.

I suppose I shouldn't go on about it, but it's rare to see a gay relationship portrayed so completely and with such restraint (for contrast, think Toy Factory's 'Beautiful Thing' or any of the innumerable plays where queens put in hilarious cameo appearances, like luna-id's own 'Joined at the Head' from last November). Corbidge played gay only in that a touch of campness rode shotgun with his other emotions, so that a roll of the eyes crept in alongside a mood of mischief or a slightly fey gesture played stowaway on a nostalgic moment; and Jenkins played gay like it was straight. Both were wholly believable.

Other examples of sensitive and sensible direction showed up in tiny little areas that I had begun to think no one else but I cared about. For example, when Jody and Carl ate, they ate real food. And when they used the phone, they managed both to dial properly - even though it was an old-fashioned disc dial phone - and to leave enough time for the other person to speak. Oddly, such behaviour is rare in theatre to the point of extinction, but I am glad to see that Mr Huber agrees with me that in a naturalistic play it is essential to maintaining the suspension of disbelief.

Such touches should come as no surprise. One of Huber's strengths has always been that he is unafraid of silences or of slowing down when required. In an indulgent director, this can be disastrous and lead to a lot of coughing and shuffling about, but here it provoked no such reaction, instead bespeaking confidence and, once again, making the play more real. It helped that both actors were very comfortable moving around Sebastian Zheng's practical and pleasing set, even when it was so packed with chairs there was hardly space to breathe.

Also deserving of credit was Yak Aik Wee's intelligent sound design that touched the feelings rather than intruding on the ears. Unlike Michael Corbidge's accent. This is unfair, I shall rephrase: unlike one phoneme of Michael Corbidge's accent. You see, both actors are British and both played in their native British accents despite the American setting. So far this doesn't bother me one jot, but then for some reason, every time Corbidge said "Carl", he said it with a post-vocalic "r" so strong you could use it as a lawnmower engine ("Carrrrrrrl") and this is very definitely a feature of American speech, not British*. In most plays this wouldn't matter, but Dietz likes the characters to say each other's names a lot, so it was a constant - though admittedly trifling - irritation.

Am I to let this spoil my enjoyment? Of course not. The only thing that came close to doing so was a fault not of the production but of the script, wherein the last scene, which abruptly turned the tables on the characters' situations, seemed like an artificial imposition included only to sate Dietz's hunger for dramatic symmetry. But, like the rest of the play, it was well-handled. And what more can one ask?

*Or at least not the dialect he was speaking - pedantic linguistics majors, leave me alone.