Review: The Motherf**ker with the Hat (Sherman Theatre)

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ urban drama arrives in Cardiff following a run at Tron Theatre

After a three-week run at Tron Theatre, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ urban drama begins its residence at Sherman Theatre. Though quintessentially American, The Motherf**ker with the Hat does resonate tonally across the pond, a tone that director Andy Arnold attempts to capture to varying success.

Touching quite astutely on themes of addiction, violence and love the play is, at its heart, a snapshot of broken people. Childhood sweethearts Jackie (Francois Pandolfo) and Veronica (Alexandria Riley) are the most broken – one recently out of prison, the other probably close to going in. Their attempts at a fresh start are ended when Jackie finds an unidentified hat in their apartment, and things quickly spiral out of control.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat is emotionally charged but consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Guirgis' naturalistic dialogue is full of grit and filth, the beauty of his words coming from a harsher place. It’s clear to see that the actors are revelling in the text, but Arnold misjudges his process. He seems to have directed a comedy, complete with caricature and racial archetype to draw out laughs, when the script demands something much angrier. Following that approach in 2018 comes across as overtly insensitive, with the audience torn between laughing at racial stereotypes and being offended by them. Having the attractive black man get completely naked in an utterly pointless moment is one such example.

It’s the actors who, arguably, keep the play from falling under the weight of that major flaw. There is so much to mine from Guirgis’ text, and that allows them to rise above the archetypes they’ve been boxed in to. It’s a shame that Kyle Lima plays what is by the far the most offensively portrayed character, as he arguably has the show-stealing performance of the night. Renee Williams is probably the least archetypal and, frustratingly, the one with the least stage time. It’s Riley, Pandolfo and Jermaine Dominique who really shine, however. Their love triangle is very believable, and chemistry between the three characters is electric. Pandolfo seems to get cast often as zany characters so it's refreshing to see him play one with a lot more depth and play it well. Riley follows up her revelatory performance in the Sherman's The Cherry Orchard with another outstanding turn here. She is a palpable presence on stage, and the clarity with which she delivers a line makes her one of the best vocal performers in Wales.

Arnold’s characterisation is deeply flawed, but he has a wonderful sense of aesthetics. Kenny Miller’s set is cleverly done, with three different apartments sitting atop each other on different platforms. Sam Jones’ sound design echoes the frenetic pace of the play, but lighting designer Simon Hayes is perhaps under-utilised.

However, despite showing great technical nous, there’s no hiding the fact that Arnold’s vision for this play is outdated and insensitive. There is a lot to really love about it, though – like the characters in Guirgis’ text – it’s a case of good intentions and misguided decisions.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat runs at Sherman Theatre until 31 March.