Review: Testimony, Etcetera Theatre

If Testimony has a point, it might be that supercharged masculinity and empathy don’t sit well together. It could well be a critique of the kind of savage entitlement displayed by wealthy and powerful men. It’s probably got something to say about the American class system, but it’s hard to say, because Loretta Monaco’s script is a somewhat confused affair.

On the night of the 1987 Wall Street crash, we meet two inmates in a holding pen and the police guard who is supposed to watch over them. Why this night, why these men, and what exactly their bleak existentialist interactions are intended to signify, is never quite clear.

A smartly-dressed professional man, known only as ‘Sir’ (Chris Anderson) scorns a ‘bum’ named ‘Punt’ (George Johnston), ridiculing his filthy clothes and – wait for it – mocking him with an imaginative rhyming version of his name.

Their exchanges follow a strict pattern; ‘Sir’ is all rage and hostility (my heart goes out to Anderson for being required to keep up this fever-pitch of aggression for so much of the play) while ‘Punt’ is musing, playful and provocative. He plays the wise fool, showering ‘Sir’ with sharp insights in a snappy, eloquent register. It’s a nice conceit, requiring us to look beyond his stained vest and drug-addled mannerisms. It requires us to recognise our own prejudices, flipping the script that says the homeless man is less insightful than the wealthy Wall Street broker, but just as we’re buying into this notion, Testimony undermines it. The play’s ‘twist’ when it comes is dark, daring, but not dramatically credible. More on that later…

The interactions between Sir and Punt are simultaneously dynamic and monotonous. The contrast between a furious, shout-y suit and a quiet, eccentric vagrant arouses interest, but they so rarely shift out of these roles that the overall effect is samey. Monaco’s script offers a few sudden gear changes. Half way in, Sir slumps against the cell wall and begins to soften in his attitude to Punt. Did he get tired, feel willing to treat Punt as a person? Maybe, but it doesn’t play as a plausible response after a whole evening of rage and hostility. Something similar happens when Punt and Sir are squaring up for a spot of serious violence, and the Guard (Steve Mace) interrupts. After dozens of rancorous accusations, every kind of slander against each man and his mother, a word from the Guard is all it takes to simmer down.

Anderson’s and Johnston’s acting is not the problem. They’re skillful, assured actors with a feel for just the right kind of manic laugh or well-timed tic to flesh out their characters’ mannerisms. It’s more that Monaco’s script pits them against each other in a superhero-simplistic battle. It’s Sir versus Punt, angry versus peaceable, supercharged masculinity versus cautious whimsy, and the dialogue doesn’t give room for either character to grow, listen, or respond to one another.

So Punt and Sir keep circling one another, in a bleak Beckettian box, waiting for something to happen. With the exception of two interludes – Punt and the Guard doing some bravely weird dancing to Bruce Springsteen, and a Rocky-style training montage in which Punt skips intently under a spotlight – the play’s finale can’t come too soon. Yet when the murderous moment arrives, it’s a climax too dramatic for the play to support. The fight choreography is magnificent (hats off to talented fight director Tim Klotz) but a physical struggle can’t entirely substitute for a credible verbal altercation.

The best plot twists build upon established narrative arcs and character traits, exposing possibilities that we hadn’t quite realised were there. But Testimony goes further. It makes us witness to two murders – a confession in the past and another in the present –  which come totally out of left field. If the point is to make us question everything, to wonder how little we can judge character, then it works. But as a believable dramatic dénouement, it feels like Testimony is at pains to shock rather than to convince.   

Testimony is playing the Etcetera Theatre until 14 August. For more information and tickets, see The Camden Fringe website. Photo by The Camden Fringe.