I emerged from the press night of Heroes last week to find Will Self uncharacteristically lost for words. "Why...what...I mean...I don't understand," he said, shaking his head in bafflement. A few yards up the street, three of my fellow theatre critics were congregated by the exit, all staring at each other in shell-shocked disbelief. "Oh my God," said one of them, grabbing me by the lapels as I walked past. "What the fuck was that?" Heroes is one of those plays that is so breathtakingly feeble it leaves you amazed that it ever got produced. What on earth are John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and Ken Stott doing in this drek? And how in God's name did the producers manage to persuade Tom Stoppard, of all people, to translate it from the French? I hope they paid him at least a million pounds because the alternative explanation--that his judgment has completely deserted him--is too awful to contemplate.
Heroes is set in a French retirement home for veterans of the First World War and concerns the efforts of three old boys to escape their fairly miserable predicament. Written by Gerald Sibleyras, it's aiming to be a rueful, elegiac comedy, but it's so poorly written--the jokes are so bad--that it's next to impossible to sustain any interest in it after about 15 minutes. For instance, the character played by Ken Stott suffers from a head injury that causes him to pass out momentarily and then come round, screaming, "Take them from the rear, Captain, take them from the rear." This was, at best, mildly funny the first time it happened. Five minutes later, it happened again and I thought, "Are there really so few good jokes in this play that they're having to repeat this one already?" When it had happened for a fifth time I wanted to kill myself.
Clearly, the producers of Heroes are hoping to replicate the success of Art, another French three-hander that was also translated by a distinguished British playwright. Their excuse, then, is that they're just trying to make a bit of money. But, really, are there no limits to their cynicism? Why not hire Paris Hilton and get her to strip down to her underwear and stand in a cage for six weeks? I'd be happier to watch that than endure another performance of Heroes.
I'm such a huge fan of Tom Stoppard's I'm tempted to describe Heroes as the biggest disappointment of the year, but that accolade must go to Ducktastic, Sean Foley and Hamish McColl's follow-up to The Play What I wrote. It's by no means as bad as Heroes, but it falls so far short of the bar set by their previous play that it is, ultimately, more painful to watch.
It starts out as a kind of send-up of Siegfried and Roy's Las Vegas magic show, with a real life duck standing in for the famous tigers, but it quickly loses sight of its target and degenerates into a loosely connected series of sight gags and double entendres. The director, Kenneth Branagh, keeps things rattling along at a frenetic pace in the hope that you won't notice just how threadbare the plot is, but there's no disguising the absence of any proper architecture. Comedy, more than any other theatrical genre, depends upon a well-designed structure, something Foley and McColl are clearly aware of since The Play What I Wrote had a beautiful, Swiss watch of a plot. One of the credited writers on that play was Eddie Braben, who worked with Morecambe and Wise for 14 years, and on the strength of this follow up I can only conclude that he was the comic genius behind that minor masterpiece. Either that, or Foley and McColl were simply too lazy to do any proper work this time round.
By far the best play I've seen recently is Bottle Universe, a three-hander written by Simon Burt. Set in a bog standard comprehensive somewhere oop North, it's about an unlikely friendship that blossoms between Lauren, a bright, but lonely 14-year-old, and Dave, the school's most delinquent pupil. It's occasionally a bit didactic--the writer is clearly wagging his finger at the audience for writing off people like Dave--but most of the time it's extremely touching. All three cast members are excellent, but Mikey North who plays Dave is outstanding. His intense, wholehearted performance, full of weird tics and mannerisms, reminded me of Robert de Niro in Mean Streets. Bottle Universe is playing at the Bush until November 12 and if you're looking for a satisfying theatrical experience it knocks spots off both Heroes and Ducktastic.