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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 1st June 2002

Up For Grabs / This Is Our Youth / Homebody/Kabul / A Carpet, a Pony and a Monkey / The Farm

The Spectator - 1st June 2002

I was sorry to see that Madonna has been almost universally panned for her performance in Up For Grabs. The danger is that she may now turn her back on the British stage and it can ill afford to lose such a glamorous patron. In addition to appearing in the spotlight herself, she's the co-producer of Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train, one of the few West End plays that's actually worth seeing. We really should be grateful that a star of Madonna's magnitude has chosen to make London her home and is playing such an active role in the city's cultural life. If Madonna had decided to do something similar in Paris I have no doubt that the French critics would be outdoing each other with their encomiums to her talent.

However, much as I'd love to attribute the bad reviews to the chippy provincialism of the British critics, the truth is she deserves them. Her performance as Loren, an ambitious New York art dealer, is strangely flat and cold-blooded. Her voice, for instance, is almost inaudible and she has no stage presence whatsoever--the last faults you'd expect from her. On the other hand, she never lets her guard down; you never lose sight of the fact that it's Madonna up there on stage. It's as though, in trying to give a convincing performance, she's made exactly the wrong decisions about which aspects of her persona to discard and which to keep.

Madonna's lacklustre central performance is a great shame because in other respects Up For Grabs is a highly entertaining play. As a satire of the American art scene, it's too broad to be very effective, but it works well enough as a modern comedy of manners, like an extended episode of Sex and the City. Madonna isn't one of the credited producers, but her sure hand is detectable in all the details, from the costumes to the set design. I don't think I've seen another play this year with such high production values. The other performances, particularly Michael Lerner as the 12th richest man in New York, are uniformly excellent. Don't be put off by the fact that it's sold out at the box office, either. Dozens of tickets are still available on ebay. When I last checked, you could still get three seats in your own box for £100.

Madonna could at least remember all her lines which is more than can be said for Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in This Is Our Youth. When I saw this play with its original cast a few months ago I thought it was just about the best thing in the West End, but in its current incarnation I'm not sure it even makes the top 10. It's still a brilliantly-written comedy about the shortcomings--and the saving graces--of a group of young, Jewish New Yorkers, but I hadn't realised how much Hayden Christensen and Jake Gyllenhaal brought to their roles. Gyllenhaal, in particular, gave a performance that Affleck can't hold a candle to. Only Summer Phoenix manages to withstand comparison to the cast member she's replaced.

Homebody/Kabul, the new play from Tony Kushner, is bitterly disappointing. I say this not because I'm a fan of his last play--I've read Angels In America, but never seen it--but because it clearly possesses so much potential. It contains scene after scene of mesmerising power, as well as passages of extraordinary eloquence, yet it never really comes together as a play. Kushner is a Jewish intellectual, as well as a gay socialist, and he has a great deal to say about what he considers the most important issues of the day. The central focus of Homebody/Kabul is the clash between the militant fundamentalism of the East and the moribund humanism of the West, yet it also touches on other, equally big subjects, such as the limits of scientific knowledge and the roles played by language and history in exacerbating international conflicts.

Unfortunately, it asks too much of an audience. It opens with a 55-minute monologue delivered by a middle-aged, British housewife--a meandering meditation on Life, the Universe and Everything--and then turns into a cryptic murder-mystery set in Kabul. It's never very clear how the two parts fit together and the play manages to last three hours and 40 minutes without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Has the housewife been murdered? And if so, who by? I daresay it's rather middlebrow of me to care so much about the plot, but the intellectual content of the play is equally cryptic. I emerged at the end without any clear idea of what Kushner believes in apart from some amorphous concept of humanity. Homebody/Kabul struck me as a work in progress rather than a finished play. Inside its shapeless, baggy structure there's a masterpiece struggling to get out.

I've been woefully neglectful of the fringe in the past and I'd like to rectify that by recommending two excellent new plays: A Carpet, a Pony and a Monkey at the Bush and The Farm at the Southwark Playhouse. The former is a very funny comedy about two petty crooks trying to offload tickets to England games at Euro 2000 while the latter is a beautifully-acted tragedy about the foot and mouth epidemic. Neither will be around for very long so catch them while you can.

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