In Joshua Conkel’s UK debut at the Finborough Theatre, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, the somewhat insignificant life of Stephanie Schwartz (played by the superb Georgia Buchanan) is given a dose of the surreal and unexpected. A widow with a son, her life of working at the grocery store in a suburban American town is taking its toll: she’s addicted to Kablammo, a bright-blue cleaning liquid; is turned off by her boyfriend; can barely pay the mortgage on her home. It’s basically game over. Conkel’s two act play goes on a rollercoaster ride, with poor Stephanie Schwartz and friends destined to be derailed. Featuring a rapist, two grotesque murders, a dance to Kate Bush, hell unleashing itself and some fantastically laugh-out-loud and jaw dropping dialogue, The Sluts of Sutton Drive is a hoot and a half.
Conkel’s deliciously dark and comic play, with direction from Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, is every bit the crude, hilarious and shocking play to rustle up an evening’s worth of pure entertainment bliss. This laugh-a-minute American-set play offers an excellent tale of the suburban American woman caught between the desperation to better her life and the compression of the men who force themselves upon her. Whether it’s struggling to be a good mother to her son, forging relations with her limp-wristed mailman or failing to sexually deliver to her Harley Davidson-driving boyfriend, poor Stephanie Schwartz just can’t win. Leading the tremendous cast of five is Buchanan who conjures up the perfect American woman desperate to become the woman she wants to be. Adding to Buchanan’s excellent performance is Kelly Burke as best girlfriend Sharice Hildebrand. Burke’s down-and-out minx of a wife is fantastic, and in the heat of Conkel’s play Burke is the perfect match to the hysteria of Buchanan’s character.
With wit and comedy a-plenty, Conkel’s play is greatly helped by the creative team, who add artistic flair in their work. Lighting by Tom Cooper and sound by Edward Lewis become an element within their own right throughout The Sluts of Sutton Drive, often injecting themselves between or during scenes as interventions to the action. Equally, Atkinson-Lord’s direction adds power to the already punchy dialogue with a cheeky direction or two. There’s no denying the intimacy of the Finborough’s stage and Atkinson-Lord makes great use of this, the cast seemingly oblivious to the audience as they rub against them or fling bloody body parts in close proximity. Couple this with the continual directional surprise, and it’s difficult not to hold your mouth from shock or cross your legs for fear of being thrown into the production itself (although audience participation only comes in our continuous laughter). It’s a playful production, that pushes all the right buttons, and I challenge you not to leave with aching cheeks from laughing so hard.
Whilst clearly a production with comedy merits there are a few pacing issues that make you want to spur the cast onwards, a combination of Conkel’s demands in his text and some slippery acting moments that could use the snip. These, however, are easily forgotten when you’re lost in Conkel’s twisting narrative and witty dialogue. Any play that features two crazy women in wedding dresses reenacting the music video of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill gets my thumbs up. It’s not all laughs though; underneath Conkel’s narrative is a clear, saddening note on how some women can bb treated by a dominant male (or as shown, how some women have to protect themselves violently). We might laugh as Stephanie Schwartz tackles her son Jayden (played by the fantastic Eric Kofi Abrefa) in a wrestling match, but out of this laughter comes a great sadness that is almost brought to the surface of The Sluts of Sutton Drive. Where does a woman turn to when she needs help? To the cleaning fluid she’s expected to use to keep her house in order? Or to her friends and the wildness of sex and the great outdoors? Beneath this hilarious play is a message worth considering, but as we get caught in this farcial tale, perhaps it’s best not to feel dampened by it.
The Sluts of Sutton Drive is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 9 July. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website. Photography by Richard Davenport.