EFR - Reviews of 21A

21A

Sun 19th – Sat 25th August 2012

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Ella Griffiths

at 11:07 on 20th Aug 2012

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In amidst the numerous ensembles battling for attention at the Fringe, one-man monologues have the power to stand out as a unique and exciting genre. However, as this strained production of Kevin Kling’s ‘21A’ reveals, their intimate and concentrated nature requires a truly excellent script if feeble soliloquys are to be avoided. Despite the bravery and versatility of Neal Beckman in the starring role, Kling’s overly long sketches and underwhelming humour turn a potentially magnetic piece of theatre into a disappointing show.

Featuring eight quirky characters threatened at gunpoint on the Minneapolis 21A bus, the production promises to be a witty examination of jarring social interactions between the different passengers. Unfortunately, many of the humorous allusions expected to raise a laugh from an American audience seemed culturally off-target judging by the restless reaction of the largely British crowd. Indeed, deciding on the appropriate reaction for the play was a challenge in itself; whether director Sandy Thomas is ironically embracing the uncomfortable tragedy of the situation or rather creating a satiric mockery of mundane mid-Western life is unclear. Certainly, a sketch featuring the provocative invisible friend of a mentally unstable teenager veers between edgy wit and awkward insensitivity, while including a neurotic gunman feels slightly uneasy in light of America’s track-record with firearms.

Nonetheless, the performance is saved by Beckman’s remarkable characterisation, as he melts into diverse and vibrant characters vivified by amusingly panto-esque costumes. From a raunchy, cat-loving grandma to a zealously rhetorical missionary, Beckman glides smoothly and confidently between roles. Even if the individual sketches lose momentum as the jokes wear clumsily thin, his energetic physicality and verbal dexterity constantly shine, most noticeably when imagining perturbed fellow passengers as an extravagantly drunken tramp. Leaving aside the transitional voiceovers, which aim for a parody of trifling conversation but rather descend into actual dullness, Beckman emerges as an actor of immense and flexible comic potential.

Especially considering the tiny venue and muted audience reactions, the production should be seen as a bold and inventive attempt to create a different and wacky one-person sketch show. Sadly, confusion about the overall tone and the overly absurd attempts at comedy could leave you craving the next stop rather than enjoying the bizarre ride.

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Sukhmani Khatkar

at 11:07 on 20th Aug 2012

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21A is, without doubt, superbly acted. However, the script could well do with being considerably shorter, sharper and more to the point.

Writer Kevin Kling offers a wry take on the trappings of the pedestrian elements of Midwestern life, whilst the driving force behind this one man production (Neal Beckman) sparkles as a multitude of characters in this intriguing one man act.

21A is a one man show that attempts to knit together the six minutes experienced by a cohort of Minnesotan bus travellers that precede a fateful series of gunshots. A series of emphatic monologues, one for each of the passengers on board, documents the moments approaching the aforementioned explosions. Neal Beckman’s sheer versatility, whether it involves portraying a staggering, slurring drunkard, a clipped, cloistered midwestern housewife or even an earnest, Boston missionary is spectacular. His vivacious style captures the nuances and accentuates the dramatic character clashes that are truly at the centre of the performance. His perfected Minnesotan drawl only enhances the authenticity of the piece; one cannot help but feel as though they have been transported right to the heart of Midwestern America.

Despite the impressive energy of Beckman’s performance the play itself delivers humour with a subtlety; a quiet and yet pervasive dry irony that emerges as the characters deliver each of their personal outpourings. Whether it is a sexually deprived cat lady remonstrating about her erstwhile husband or a drunk former city worker recounting tales of his new life as a homeless beggar, each monologue is rich with ironies that capture the almost tragicomic nature of the passengers’ stories. It is the awkward simplicity of their speeches that highlight the painful banality and drudgery of everyday living.

The underlying humour is tinged with a sadness, a reflectiveness that draws specifically on the play’s geography. 21A is a meditation on Midwestern living and it is from this that some of its problems arise. Each individual monologue is far too heavily drawn out. Despite the theatrics, nuances in humour and pauses for reflection it feels, at times, that they are simply there for the sake of being there. Indeed, 21A drags at times, as though a poignant theme had been explored or a sly joke had been made and we wanted to urge Beckman to move forward to the next character. Instead, I left with the feeling that each of the characters had been far too overdone, doing little to maintain my attention throughout.

21A is an intriguing concept with some excellent acting. However, the smartness of its content could certainly benefit from slightly more slick delivery.

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