'Is it how we prepare for death that really governs the way we live?' poses the dramatic question at the heart of Nigel Planer's richly researched but poorly structured new play.
Two cultural giants of the late 19th century - writer Robert Louis Stevenson and artist Paul Gauguin - both face death on the Polynesian islands of, respectively, Samoa and Tahiti. Stevenson is preparing the perfect ritualistic send-off, but finds his final days punctuated by arguments with his neurotic older wife Fanny and stilted attempts to woo his serving girl Java (Nicole Dayes). Gauguin, the focus of the Act Two, is less colonial and more bohemian than Stevenson, mixing potent cocktails and nibbling arsenic as he flirts with suicide, but eventually resigns himself to the “disgrace” of being a man unable to commit it.
Sean Murray does a fine job of portraying both men - capturing the empathetic and politically astute aspect of Stevenson and the shambolic chutzpah of Gauguin - but he, along with his fellow cast members, is wading through a dense text lacking in satisfying exposition and weighed down with longueurs.
In the limited confines of the Finborough, Alex Marker's fine design transforms the space into a Victorian colonial retreat, and the atmosphere therein, aided by the stifling heat, is involving. But the evening grows increasingly frustrating as the purpose of the play fails to show itself and the dramatic tension gets diffused through series of narrative dead-ends (Stevenson's stepson loiters without intent, while Gauguin's native wife - 'Mrs Penis' - is little more than a sounding board).
Amanda Boxer does her best to evoke sympathy for the annoying Fanny, but in the Act Two she inexplicably shows up as Gauguin's (presumably black) stepmother. And Colm Gormley struggles to get much purchase on Stevenson's son-in-law Joe, but then to be fair he's fighting an uphill battle with an under-used and faintly sketched character.
Planer has apparently spent six years researching and writing Death of Long Pig, but while his passion for Polynesia and detailed knowledge of the subject shines through, one senses that somewhere along the way he has rather lost sight of the dramatic potential inherent in the parallel fates of Stevenson and Gauguin.