Robin (Margaret McAuliffe) and Alan’s (Peter Daly) sex life has become dull and they’re looking to reinvigorate it. After trying every trick in the book (though determinedly unwilling to venture into the realms of S&M) it seems the only logical solution is to have a threesome. Enter Jezebel (Valerie O’Connor), the unlucky in love, ‘kooky’ artist, who Robin and Alan select for their venture. When Alan, against the odds, manages to get both women pregnant on the same night, what follows is a farcical play about relationship entanglements, full of cross purposes and misunderstandings, and culminating in a double birth.
Indeed the formula for Jezebel, currently playing at the Soho Theatre Upstairs in this co-production with Irish company, Rough Magic, offers fertile ground for being a quick and contemporary comedy. If only it was. Instead, the play is slow-moving, taking an age to even reach the obvious and inevitable point where the three characters meet. The narrative-heavy style of the writing is no doubt the main hampering factor, with the characters frequently explaining to the audience what we could already infer. And while, yes, the Irish theatre tradition has long relied on monologue and oral storytelling, in this supposedly cutting-edge comedy the emphasis on telling not showing felt cumbersome and unnecessary, undermining the audience’s intelligence and imaginative journey.
Indeed, though Jezebel proclaims itself to be a comedy, few jokes seemed to land with its London audience; and while appearing forward-thinking in its open discussion of sex and relationships, instead the play felt laced with inequality and gender stereotyping – with more than one rape-related joke going down like a lead balloon. This kind of lazy, trite comedy was only bolstered by unclear and imprecise direction which never quite created a cohesive world of the play, nor on stage rules for how it was played. Moreover, Jezebel centres around characters who are hard to care for as a result of the two-dimensional writing and declamatory, demonstrative style of the acting.
The play’s conceit and some of Cantan’s ideas are undeniably clever, but it is unfortunate that both in the latent misogyny in the text, as well as the delivery of the production, these ideas just can’t keep the piece afloat. The culmination of the play in the double birth, with the sudden denouement where both women are thoroughly thrilled with sharing a father (who never at any point seems to be reprimanded for his duplicity) is thoroughly unsatisfying, particularly to see that Jezebel has now managed to find meaning in her life because (even if she hasn’t got a boyfriend) she now has a son to devote herself to, thank God.
Jezebel is no doubt a pleasant and fun evening at the theatre if that is what you’re looking for: a superficial offering of silly laughs and characters wangling their way out of awkward scenarios using bad mime. It’s a shame that this import doesn’t dig deeper to offer more by the way of an insight into the Irish culture and psyche, or even some more universal themes about love and relationships; hopefully Cantan’s future works will have less eye-roll inducing sex puns and more heart.
Jezebel is playing at the Soho Theatre until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.