DDF Review: ‘Kay and Rex’

By Alex Davies and Rachel E Tavaler

Set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the action of Madeline Horton’s Kay and Rex takes place over an evening at the home of married actors Rex Harrison (Tom Jacobs) and Kay Kendall (Francesca Davies-Cáceres) as the couple drink and talk after attending a party.

Neither of us were aware of the context of the play before seeing it and we felt that the play was overly ambitious in the breadth of the themes that Horton attempted to cover, given the play’s approximate 20-minute running time. In our defence, we’re guessing many Durham students have not heard of Rex Harrison or Kay Kendall either, so here is the context: Kay was a comedienne whose tragic diagnosis of leukaemia was partially obscured from her by her husband, Rex, who made Kay believe she only had anaemia. Rex, upon learning of Kay’s diagnosis, left his then wife, Lilli Palmer, to marry his mistress Kay and care for her until her untimely death at age thirty-two. Whilst Horton’s script refers to Kay’s illness, the rosy-cheeked Davies-Cáceres does not look the part. Given the effort that went into Davies-Cáceres perfectly styled 1950’s hair, perhaps more could be done with makeup to make Davies-Cáceres look “gaunt”, as she is described within the play.

The two actors have palpable chemistry

In her writer’s note, Horton states that she keeps the exact nature of Kay’s illness deliberately opaque within the script. However, with Rex’s repeated misogynistic accusations of Kay’s behaviour as hysteric, it becomes difficult to discern whether the nature of her illness is physical or mental. For audience members who are not aware of the historical context, this provides a confusing distraction from the play itself.

The onstage relationship between Jacobs and Davies-Cáceres is very believable. The two actors have palpable chemistry and play off each other’s energy very well, particularly during the delivery of Horton’s witty dialogue. However, Jacobs’ hesitates on his lines, indicating that he perhaps does not fully know them. Whilst Jacobs’ RP accent is convincing and comedic, it does at times appear to get in his way of delivering his lines. Davies-Cáceres seems at times to anticipate Jacobs’ words, reacting almost before he has delivered them. Another particularly jarring moment worth noting is Davies-Cáceres laughter: three consecutive lines begin with Kay laughing at Rex, and each time it is difficult to discern whether the laugh is intentionally fake in order to convey sarcasm, or whether Davies-Cáceres is not fully comfortable within the role. Being at ease with the characters is an essential element to a slice-of-life play such as Horton’s, where characterisation takes centre stage above all else, and neither actor seems fully comfortable within their role. Kay and Rex never fully succeeds in making us forget that we are watching a play.

neither actor seems fully comfortable within their role

Throughout the entire play, both characters are rarely seen without a drink in their hand. However, whilst the script repeatedly refers to the characters’ – particularly Kay’s – increasing intoxication, neither Jacobs nor Davies-Cáceres act particularly drunk. Furthermore, the logic of the play does not match the seriousness of Kay’s condition: Rex is continuously pouring Kay drinks and is frustrated that she keeps her coat on because she is cold when surely Rex, who supposedly knows full-well the extent of her illness, would want to keep her warm and away from alcohol.

Kay and Rex appears to be more of a concept piece than a play

As it stands, Kay and Rex appears to be more of a concept piece than a play: many themes are touched upon, such as aging, infidelity, and fame, without being fully fleshed out. The play could perhaps benefit from being extended in order to fully explore what Horton has begun to explore in its current incarnation. However, Horton’s dialogue comes across as very natural onstage and, along with the fantastic chemistry between Jacobs and Davies Cáceres, carries the piece beautifully.

‘Kay and Rex’ runs on the 8th and 9th February at 7.30pm at Caedmon Hall, Hild Bede.

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