I’ve never fully understood why Tarell Alvin McCraney, an acclaimed black American playwright best known for The Brothers Size, is a resident dramatist at the RSC. His latest, American Trade, provides no answers.
It’s a gaudily produced and flashily directed — by RSC debutant and Donmar associate Jamie Lloyd — picaresque tale of vice and corruption in the music and public relations industries on both sides of the Atlantic. How shocking or surprising is that?
The question would be superfluous if American Trade were a vivid Brechtian morality fable with sustained contemporary application. That’s the idea, and it remains just that: an idea. McCraney pretentiously sub-titles his play “a contemporary restoration comedy,” as if to validate his RSC connection.
But this meretricious piece becomes embarrassing to watch after about five minutes, and that’s when Tunji Kasim’s stripped down, outrageously fit-looking hustler, Pharus, falls foul of a hip-swivelling hip-hop record producer (Clarence Smith) and gets sucked into a public relations world through family connections on either side of the Atlantic.
There follows some badly under-written sub-plot developments with a Rihanna-style singer (Simone Saunders) and some fitfully amusing encounters with Pharus’s cousin Valentina (Sophie Russell) and her mother, Pharus’s Aunt Marian, played by the wondrous Sheila Reid as a midget monster in a pink trouser suit, who has cleaned up genocide and is now moving into celebrity vomit.
Pharus services a snooty lady (Kirsty Woodward) under her blanket on the flight over – she comes as they land, so to speak — sets up a modelling group of oddballs for a cat walk show that is a painful reminder of McCraney’s dire Wig Out! at the Royal Court, and ends up fully exploited from behind all over again.
Kasam plays this not-so-innocent abroad with a good deal of muscle-rippling charm and surplus energy, but once the gangsta rapper side of the language melts away, the writing is thin and colourless, hence the compensatory gaudiness of some feebly debauched party scenes and Soutra Gilmour’s tacky design of coloured neon strips, light bulbs and doorways in a large shiny box. A box of tricks, in fact.