You can’t help but suspect that Rebecca Gilman must have been deeply wounded once by a review. Although The Sweetest Swing in Baseball concerns a painter rather than a playwright, it appears to tap into some very personal feelings about critical, and other forms of professional, rejection.
The sense of semi-autobiography in Ian Rickson’s premiere production is heightened by the casting of Gillian Anderson as depressive artist Dana Fielding, who attempts suicide after the media’s mauling of her latest exhibition. Anderson’s 2002 West End debut in What the Night Is For proved popular with audiences - who voted her Best Actress in last year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards – but it didn’t go down well with the critics.
While that experience hardly drove the former X Files star into a mental asylum, as happens to Fielding, it’s easy to imagine how it could fill her with the extra venom here to really spit out lines about not being “a player until you play”. Certainly, the final moment on opening night – when her character, assuming the questionable persona of Afro-American baseball star and bad boy Darryl Strawberry, glares defiantly at the press-packed audience and dismisses them as ‘fuckers!’ – takes on an added acerbity.
It would be all the sweeter then if I could report that Anderson’s return to the London stage will silence any detractors. However, her vindication is only partially realised with Sweetest Swing. Undoubtedly, this is a striking performer and, in the opening scenes in particular, face gaunt, eyes shimmering on the verge of tears, she makes a strong impression as an artist in the grip of self-doubt.
But the subsequent proceedings of Gilman’s script – in which Fielding, finding solace in the psychiatric ward, cooks up a multiple personality disorder to fool her insurance company into paying for a longer stay - lets Anderson down. Aside from some group room banter with a recovering alcoholic (a chirpy Demetri Goritsas) and a tranquillised but still cranky celebrity-stalking sociopath (played amusingly deadpan by John Sharian), it’s never clear how Anderson’s sensitive creative soul benefits from being institutionalised.
Even less clear, especially to baseball ignorant London audiences, is why the unseen Strawberry becomes such a beacon for her. And, when she’s inspired to paint a series of bat-wielding chickens and those paintings (which we’re only ever able to see the blank canvas backs of on Hildegard Bechtler’s minimal workshop-style set) are hailed by the establishment as masterpieces, the unclear skids quickly into the unbelievable.
Perhaps Gilman is aiming for satire. There are some wry lines and the supporting cast’s attempts to inject energetic humour into their deliveries would suggest so, but it never quite comes together.
I’d hate to mangle metaphors but here goes: Sweetest Swing isn’t exactly a strike-out for either Gilman or Anderson, but it’s far from a home run. Foul ball then?