Theatre reviews: #71 | The Real Thing | Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet story is sketchy, but it's bursting with life
Million Dollar Quartet story is sketchy, but it's bursting with life
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CHRISSY is on the sofa in her new conservatory, looking strangely happy with the world. At 71, she is crippled by fibromyalgia, and – oddly – is wearing a very unconvincing brown wig; but something in her e-cigarette is cheering her up no end.

#71, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

Laurence Fox gives a fine performance as Henry in The Real Thing, a bourgeoise drama of its time

Laurence Fox gives a fine performance as Henry in The Real Thing, a bourgeoise drama of its time

The Real Thing, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Million Dollar Quartet, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Cue the entrance first of her best friend Jean – a small, bustling, kindly type famed for her Catholic piety – and then of her other best friend Coco, a glamorous figure in sunglasses. And as the three banter their way through the afternoon, it gradually becomes clear that Chrissy has invited her two chums – who cordially detest each other – for a reason; and it’s not only to announce that she has started vaping the medicinal wacky baccy.

Plays about ageing and death are thick on the ground at the moment, and when it comes to that central theme, it’s not entirely clear that the multi-talented Karen Dunbar – who both wrote this latest Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime show, and stars in it as Chrissy – has much to add to the common wisdom; her own elderly-acting is cliched, and over-dependent on the supposed comic incongruity of a 71-year-old being able to get on the internet, along with similar 21st century feats.

In the margins, though, #71 creates some brilliantly surreal chat, not least when Jean, brilliantly played by Maureen Carr, reveals that she has lost her faith and become a secret rapper. And with Clare Waugh adding some late-life glamour as Coco, the play goes some way to capturing the sheer oddness of being 71, in a world where threescore years and ten is somehow no longer considered quite enough.

When we do finally reach our death-beds, I suppose it will be our supreme moments of love and joy that will linger most strongly in our memories; and at least Henry, the hero of Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical 1982 play The Real Thing, will have plenty of those to dwell on. Stoppard’s wildly over-praised play is the bourgeois drama par excellence, in which a quartet of hugely privileged 1970s London people switch partners and mess with each other’s emotions in pursuit of perfect sexual and romantic fulfilment, while – in the person of Henry – sneering comprehensively at the working classes, and at anyone at all who doesn’t share their accent, culture and assumptions.

Steve Unwin’s fine, pacey touring production worries away at the texture of the play until it finds its vulnerable human heart in Henry’s chronic sexual romanticism; and it features not only a fine central performance from Laurence Fox, but a delightful playlist of 1960s and 70s hits.

The theory behind The Real Thing, of course, is that its invincible class perspective is somehow excused by Tom Stoppard’s wit and intelligence, and the fact that he is perfectly aware of his own position. Yet while some call this play a perfectly-constructed modern comedy of love and sex, to me it looks more like one of those gate-keeping devices designed to remind 90 per cent of the UK population that theatre is not really for them; or that if they do turn up, they will certainly never be the heroes of the plays they have paid to see.

Or, as the legendary Memphis record producer Sam Phillips once put it, “I ain’t never heard a rich man make a record worth a damn.”

Million Dollar Quartet, at the Playhouse, is a brief and brilliant musical tribute show about the legendary day in December 1956 when all four of Phillips’s greatest Sixties stars – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash – came together in Phillips’s shack-like Sun Studios and recorded the jam session of all time, featuring hits from It’s All Right Momma and Blue Suede Shoes to Great Balls Of Fire and I Walk The Line.

And if the storyline that holds the show together is sketchy, everything else about it just smokes and thunders with life: as Rhys Whitfield, Matthew Wycliffe, Martin Kaye and Robbie Durham turn in a series of superb musical performances as the four young giants of rock’n’roll, and Martin Kemp holds the ring as Sam Phillips, who believes that un-Christian or not, the kind of music that was made that day is “where a man’s soul really lives”.

* #71 at Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, next week. The Real Thing and Million Dollar Quartet, final performances today.