Originally published on Whats On Stage
Reading publicity material before a show can be a dangerous thing, it can make you expect something vastly different to what is actually served up. So it’s probably best to clear up some misconceptions right out the gate, Marius von Mayenburg’s Plastic is not ‘one of the funniest plays to come out of Europe in the last decade’, unless of course our cousins across the Channel have had a particularly tough ten years of it in the stalls.
There are certainly some laughs to be had in the play but they are of the awkward, toe-curling, skewering its audience to a cross-type, not a Noises Off zinger-fest. So don’t go with the expectation of roaring with laughter for a couple of hours.
What we have instead is another of Mayenburg’s forensic investigations into the foibles of modern society and the fallibility of human nature. Having previously taken pops at society’s desire for conformity in The Ugly One and looked at a nation’s ability to move on from its scarred past in The Stone, he here takes a scalpel to the hypocrisies of the middle classes, whose desire to stay the right side of politically correct can’t always disguise their real belief system underneath.
So Michael (a terrific Jonathan Slinger – all beaten down middle aged disappointment) , a doctor, is planning on a trip to Africa as part of Doctors Without Borders to help those most in need, but his reasons for doing this may be less generosity and more heroic grandeur. His wife Ulrike – Charlotte Randle glides around the forensic Euro apartment with high style and low blows-snipes and goads at him, is prone to hoisting awkward conversations on those around her but has a chink of love hidden beneath her armour. She is the assistant to conceptual artist Haulupa, played by former EastEnder Steve John Shepherd who has cultivated his own Russell Brand messiah look, a man who aims to be better than ‘Damian, and Dinos and Martin… OK maybe not Martin’. His own delusions of grandeur, sprouted in almost impenetrable guff about the meaning of art in the world, is still in many ways more truthful and clear sighted then the family whose kitchen he invades to create his new installation. It’s the cleaner, soon turned into Muse, Madonna and Confidante by those around her and played with deadpan precision by Ria Zmitrowicz that the truth mostly prevails in.
It’s a play rich in ideas yet feels strangely leaden footed on the stage. Scene changes are achingly slow, the pace throughout sluggish. Even the promised food fight is a bit of a non-starter. Director Matthew Dunster is normally a terrific visionary but he doesn’t appear to have got fully on top of the material here.
The work’s final twist at the time left me wanting to scream. It is the worst of Emin or Hirst on display on stage, and brings up feelings of vacuousness and having wasted one’s time on material that has very little to say. Yet writing this up the morning after the night before, my feelings have shifted a little, its ideas penetrate more than at first glance, just like conceptual art its long game can gradually work on you and make you reconsider what at initially seems little more than a toilet.
Plastic runs at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath until 25 March.