Six actors are holed up in a remote hotel, waiting for an exasperating director to call them before the cameras. Bit-part players sidelined in favour of the film’s anonymous ‘star’, they whine and they bicker, question their lives and their profession and what could possibly motivate them to continue to work in an industry where you’re “paid to wait” but “act for free”.
Steven Berkoff has returned to the same stylised world he last visited in Dahling You Were Marvellous, but here the laughs are thin on the ground and the satire entirely insipid. Berkoff has decades of experience in the film industry, but you wouldn’t know it from watching 6 Actors.
Stocked with well-worn anecdotes and riven with bland observations and clichés, it lacks humour, insight and originality. The characters are thin and underdeveloped, spouting platitudes at every turn, and the observational humour is cringe-worthy. An extended pop at the ubiquity of Apple products sets the bar for cutting-edge satire depressingly low.
Problems are compounded by Berkoff’s decision to direct the action at such a heightened pitch. Characters shriek and groan a hair’s breadth from hysteria, the tone is relentlessly stagey and quickly becomes grating. Berkoff directs as if he has written a breakneck farce, but in reality he merely exposes us to a room of screeching, raving bores.
One scene in which the cast describe an encounter taking place outside of a window in immaculate detail would shame a first-time writer, and it’s hard to believe that the man who wrote East and Sink the Belgrano! could make so many elementary mistakes or attach his name (let alone his face, which adorns the posters in what now looks like vaunting hubris) to such a shambolic script.
The cast suffer badly under this misdirection, with Neil Stuke coming off particularly poorly as cynic Brian. Stomping around the stage with great, quavering vowels, he is entirely unreal and utterly uninteresting. Andrée Bernard finds a few scattered laughs as a fragile and deluded diva, but it is only Philip Voss as elderly actor Charles that pins some humanity on proceedings. He got the best reception from a decidedly frosty opening night audience, with a performance that displays some of the nuance sorely lacking elsewhere.
The non-action is played out against a well-judged and attractive set by designer Nigel Hook, and though there are some strange inconsistencies in the level of naturalism (real mugs, plates and cutlery versus imagined food and mimed wine glasses) the production is slick and polished. The buck stops with Berkoff, however, who must shoulder the blame for a production unworthy of his skill and reputation. At times it almost feels like self-parody, and perhaps it is, but either way the joke is firmly on the audience.