Straight Flush is an ambitious new play by George Rushton – who also happens to have directed the production, and stars as the titular role – which follows the life of screenwriter Charlie Cooper (Oz Myerson) as he attempts to navigate grief, existentialism and writer’s block, grasping to keep hold of his own life as well as his hit superhero TV series. It is certainly an intriguing concept, and Rushton does well in his metatheatric layering of realities, but too often this is a play that tries to say too much and does too little.
At 9:30PM in the Burton Taylor Studio, I was met with a delightful pre-show performance by Ben Barrett (playing the Bond-villain-esque Shasser) waltzing about the stage and asking the audience whether they had seen Straight Flush yet. This was certainly effective in building anticipation for the show, and I was equally intrigued by Ela Ludlam’s busy, domestic set which was sadly underused in the performance. Alongside Barrett, I must mention Lorelei Piper who offered the play’s stand-out acting performance as Anna Brightly, a struggling dancer trying to get Charlie back on his feet. She was perhaps the only character I was truly invested in, and I was impressed by her beautiful moments of monologuing (in my opinion the strongest examples of Rushton’s writing) along with her short, funny quips at Charlie in the many scenes between the two actors. In fact, at times I felt like I was more interested in following her story than the main plot. I must, however, commend Oz Myerson as Charlie for valiantly carrying said central narrative; he did well oscillating between moments of intense grief and unbearable frustration. This being said, I was thankful when comic relief came in the form of George Rushton and Ben Barrett’s superhero scenes of philosophical realisation; whilst these were clumsy, they were also the most entertaining parts of the play.
Unfortunately, what makes this show so unique is also what problematises it. Whilst Straight Flush begins as a farcical comedy, its opening scene laden with boyish sexual innuendo, Rushton strives to write something far more complex. Yet, the production is unable to sustain this successfully and suffers for it. Constantly flicking between the real world and the TV show realm, the writing offers the opportunity for something really dynamic to be done in terms of both direction and design but very little happens, in fact the two are barely even distinguished. Stylistically, naturalism works well for the Charlie/Anna scenes but even the exaggerated, melodramatic performances of Barrett and Rushton (as Shassar and Straight Flush) aren’t enough to transport the audience between worlds.
Sam Brookes’ lighting design somewhat assists, using a simple wash of coloured light to differentiate between realities and moods, but this is inconsistent and feels like a missed chance. I was equally frustrated by the constant use of blackouts as a replacement for smooth transitions. Additionally, though moments of strong direction were occasionally reached, such as the use of the video projection or the almost-escape through the window, they were rarely sustained. Bella Cooper-Brown’s sound design, however, was generally great. This was a tough job, with pre-recorded sound included in almost every scene, but it did offer some variety to the format and I enjoyed Charlie’s phone call exchanges. I have to mention, though, that the incessant ringtone did become headache-inducing after a while.
Straight Flush is a good play: the themes explored are pertinent and thought provoking, the clever interaction between different realities is inspired, and the characters are interesting and well-formed. However, the translation between the text and the stage is not wholly successful – the tone of the play is disjointed and the pace is slow. With a little polish, I think it has real potential, but a finished product was not on display tonight.