By Joseph Battuello
Larry Shue’s The Foreigner gives itself the seemingly difficult task of delivering humour amidst the dark background of a close-minded and bigoted rural Georgia. Oook! Productions’ presentation of the play, however, is a charming and light take on the comedy. The endearing performances of the cast and the stylistic choices of the directors make for a fun and light-hearted evening of theatre.
Dan Hodgkinson stars as the titular foreigner, Englishman Charlie Baker. Charlie is visiting Georgia with his cockney friend Froggy LeSeur, as portrayed by David Fairbairn. Hodgkinson and Fairbairn share a few minutes of stage time alone before the remainder of the cast is introduced. It is in these opening moments where their chemistry is on its clearest display.
In one of the few scenes where Charlie is allowed to speak freely, Hodgkinson portrays a painfully shy and submissive proofreader in Charlie, while Fairbairn brings the charismatic and animated Froggy to life. The two actors are portraying men of significantly older age, and when a marriage or career that spans several decades is brought up, it is entirely believable to the audience despite the obviously young appearance of the men.
Fairbairn utilises every inch of the one-room set to punctuate his bombastic speeches and schemes, while Hodgkinson expertly disappears into the sofa where he remains for much of the production. His use of body language to punctuate a mostly mute character is to be praised.
Hodgkinson is soon joined by the remainder of the cast, who each – intentionally or otherwise – share a host of secrets with their foreign guest who they are led to believe does not understand English.
Many of the laughs in the Assembly Room Theatre’s crowd came from Zoe Lawton’s (portraying Betty Meeks) childlike wonder and interactions with Hodgkinson. As an American myself, I can indeed confirm that I personally know people like Lawton’s Betty, who upon learning that Charlie neither speaks nor understands English, proceeds to raise her voice and speak slowly as if he will somehow comprehend her better. The joke is used several times throughout the play, but it garnered glee from the audience every time.
Isobel Clarke and Marcus Dell are cast as the sibling pair of Catherine and Ellard Simms. The interactions between the two are believable, as Clarke walks the line between frustrated and caring with her dim-witted brother. Dell’s performance is simply endearing, and the audience finds themselves rooting for the simple character to achieve his proportionally simple goals (such as bringing a wheelbarrow full of items from the outdoors inside in order to teach Charlie some English nouns). Clarke and Dell are both given a handful of scenes where they are alone with Hodgkinson, and their ability to play off a mostly mute and stationary Hodgkinson is entertaining.
Rounding out the cast are the villainous duo of David Lee and Owen Musser, played by Max Lindon and Uday Duggal. Lindon and Duggal are opposites, united only in their desire for a white, Christian America. Everything from their wardrobe to manner of speech indicate that the two should not be compatriots, and it is great to see their different approaches to their plot.
Lindon plays David as a friendly, cool man of the church when around the rest of the cast, and a sinister mastermind when left to his own devices. His ability to essentially play two roles is impressive. Duggal, alternatively, is brash and open about his bigotry from beginning to end, and while his introduction is almost cartoonish and played for laughs, by the end of the play, I was genuinely uncomfortable with the vitriolic lines he was delivering. The two antagonists play off each other well, and are just dark enough to bring conflict into the story without dampening the comedy.
Technically speaking, the set is a timely recreation of a rural Georgian lodge. The sole room of the lodge we are shown feels lived in and suitably captures the insulated nature of some of the remote parts of the American South. The lighting and sound are lovely, from the changes in daylight throughout the day, to the thunderstorm harassing the characters on their first night.
The directing duo of Talor Hanson and Anna Haines, along with their production team, should be lauded for their use of race-blind casting in such a racially motivated character as Owen, as Duggal originally hails from Singapore. Their ability to make the Klan both threatening and laughable is impressive and ensures the play remains a cheerful comedy.
The clash of culture between Americans and Britons is very funny, and the put-on accents were very nice and never distracted from the story (particular credit to Lawton and Dell, though all the ‘Americans’ did a good job in preparing for their roles).
Oook! Productions’ presentation of The Foreigner is a light and enjoyable performance. The cast of varied characters each elicit laughs in their own ways, and there is rarely a lull for the audience. It is a fun study in open-mindedness and acceptance, without being too heavy with conflict or taking its dark background too seriously. Anyone who seeks out the weekend performances should be leaving the theatre with a big smile on their face.
Photograph: Ooook! Productions