Old Fashioned, the very first offering from new Oxford-based theatre company Half Rhyme Productions, places its scathing critique of wealth front and centre. Performed within the intimate space of the Burton Taylor Studio, the set consisted of a lone bar with two stools in front of an array of painted wine glasses and bottles. As the audience shuffled in, smooth jazz transported us out of the theatre and into the main room of a ritzy hotel bar.
Jim (Liyang Han), an insufferably ambitious workaholic, finds his way to his hotel’s bar following yet another humdrum business trip. He wastes no time in relaying his rags-to-riches story to the Bartender (Jaya Rana), without comprehending that she has also done her best to work her way up from nothing. As Jim launches into yet another self-indulgent monologue regarding his successful transition from impoverished child to hot-shot Wallstreet broker, there is a dramatic interruption. In bursts young Oliver, a spoiled nihilistic teenager with obvious substance-abuse issues, played to perfection by Keir Maclean. What follows is a heartfelt, if somewhat clumsy, examination of the inability of money to create happiness.
While the first half of the performance was slow, the energy and pacing improved tremendously in the second act. Old Fashioned gives its actors an extra challenge by having them manipulate their stage as they perform, dismantling and rearranging the scenery into pedestals and stairs. The play is described as a fusion of harsh realism and physical theatre, which was evident in how the actors broke out of their scenes into monologues filled with carefully choreographed movement. During these moments, the lighting and sound design truly shone, quickly transforming the quiet hotel bar into a throbbing nightclub dancefloor.
Writer and director Felix Westcott filled his script with pointed, arsenic-laced jokes. These mostly came to life through Keir Maclean’s outrageous performance but also added a complex subtlety to interactions between Jim and the Bartender. Their characterisation of the two male characters was outlandishly egotistical and almost unbearable to watch, which helps the audience realise that the overworked stockbroker and underworked heir to a fortune have more in common than they believe. The Bartender was understated to the point where we wonder whether she is only there to mediate the clash of these two highly entitled men. However, she is a stand-in for the ordinary people among us, who must stoically serve her patrons without disagreement – lest they use their privilege to take away her job.
Although Old Fashioned was enjoyable, its commentary on wealth-disparity lacked complexity. While this reviewer enjoyed the play’s attempts to create parallels between its characters, it would benefit from additional subtlety. This reviewer would particularly like to see further development of the nameless Bartender, whose role is somewhat drowned out by the two men arguing in front of her. However, perhaps this is the entire point of her being there.
Smart, probing and earnest, Old Fashioned signals a lot of potential for this new Oxford-based theatre company.