When 15 million TV viewers tuned in to see Tracy Shaw's alter ego, hairdresser Maxine Peacock, bludgeoned to death in Coronation Street, little did they realise that Shaw would soon be returning to her roots in David Hare's The Blue Room, the play in which Nicole Kidman famously overdosed London critics with her 'theatrical Viagra' in 1998.
Hare's play is an updated reworking of Arthur Schnitzler's erotic La Ronde (originally entitled Reigen), which premiered in Berlin in 1921 to anti-Semitic riots. While this handsomely mounted new production of the sexual merry-go-round may not have ticket touts queuing around the block, it nevertheless marks out Shaw as a potential theatrical leading lady of the first calibre.
A candid reflection of contemporary sexual mores, and the depressing shallowness of casual relationships, The Blue Room presents the audience with ten playlets or vignettes in which two characters converse before and after an intimate liaison. Starting with a cabby and a prostitute, one character from each then emerges with a new partner in the next section, with the prostitute reappearing in the final sketch to complete the circle.
In the two-hander, Shaw portrays, variously, the prostitute, a flirtatiously sexy French au pair, a flighty and insecure 17-year-old model and a matronly wife with suppressed desires. In all these guises, she convinces, most particularly as the au pair and the model, but also as a theatrical grande-dame. Opposite her, Jason Connery is less assured. With him, one persona is almost indistinguishable from another and so, whether playing an aristocrat, a student or a self-obsessed playwright, there's very little sense of character.
This is in part due to the writing - Hare seems to have much more empathy with his ladies. Even in ten-minute segments, he manages to achieve a remarkable depth of feeling in each of his female characters, illustrating wells of longing, desire and the insufficiency of casual sex, with devastating economy and precision. His men, on the other hand are merely shallow, egotistical and confused.
Joe Harmston's production has other problems. Shaw has yet to fully master voice projection and yet she delivers the majority of her lines upstage. Robin Carter's lighting is unflattering and, when not stark, is muddy. On the plus side, Simon Scullion's semi-abstract design is impressive, despite a lot of busy scene changes.
I suspect that with some tweaking and firmer direction, this production may have a future, perhaps back in the West End again. Don't be put off by the well-hyped nudity (of which there is much) - Tracy Shaw, dressed or undressed, is a theatre star in the making.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Richmond Theatre)