Review: Good Canary (Rose Theatre Kingston)

John Malkovich directs a cast including Harry Lloyd and Freya Mavor

This is the third time actor John Malkovich has directed Good Canary, by American screenwriter Zach Helm – though the first time it’s been performed in the language in which it was written. That he is following productions in French and Spanish with this British staging seems to indicate that he likes the play very much, and thinks it worthy of attention and care. Yet it is only intermittently obvious why.

What is undoubtedly true is that he directs this story of a successful first time novelist and his love for his amphetamine-popping, bulimic wife absolutely beautifully. On Pierre-François Limbosch’s set, sumptuous, vividly coloured projections create New York scenes that slide easily into view, changing with dreamlike ease.

The simultaneous reality and unreality of the setting is mirrored by the boldness of the production; at once real and surreal. When Annie the speed freak gets high and goes on a housework jag, the windows she is cleaning morph into different shapes; later pills pour from the sky outside. When her husband Jack is trying to make her go cold turkey at the same time as his publisher is trying to make him sign a huge book deal on the back of the revelatory first novel, the characters on stage move in a synchronised dance as the conversation unfolds. One crucial scene is played in silence, the lines spoken projected onto the backdrop.

It is all very effective and it yields sensational performances from the cast, headed by Freya Mavor who makes Annie’s anguish as she tries to become invisible, to hide from a world where she is out of step, almost unwatchable. Harry Lloyd, familiar from Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall, is equally effective as Jack, striving to save her by the sheer force of love. But not a single cast member puts a foot wrong; they are exceptional.

The only problem is the play itself. It is fluently written and, in its early stages, often very funny. There are some brilliant scenes between Annie and her drug dealer Jeff (Ilan Goodman, wonderfully bumbling) who becomes concerned at the sheer quantities she is ingesting. "It’s the closest I come to having a corporate policy," he says, as he demands money up front. A party where a publisher who hasn’t read the novel (Michael Simkins, blustering) and the odious critic (Simon Wilson) who has provoke Annie’s wrath, is beautifully observed. Her tentative alliance with Sally Rogers’ unhappy wife is both funny and convincing. And former EastEnder Steve John Shepherd has a terrific time as the novel’s first publisher, longing for the big-time in order to leave behind him books that cover "all the major institutions of lust."

But the problem for me, as the play swerves into darker territory, is that we simply don’t know enough about why Annie is so wounded. She talks in passing about being raped, and has great speeches about why she needs drugs to exist, but her inner life is never examined. She is a cipher for the purposes of the plot. The metaphor of her and the canary – the harbinger of doom, the bird trapped in its cage – is laboured and then dropped. It’s disappointing to see so much talent lavished on a work that never fulfils its promise; Malkovich should direct something different next.

Good Canary runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 8 October 2016.