If, like me, you know nothing of this play, do not be misled by the somewhat innocuous plot description online. The birthday party premise, coupled with a list of whimsical character names (Foxtrot Darling sounds cheery right?) formed the basis of my vague expectation for some kind of light-hearted satire. Instead I endured over 2 hours of a macabre pyscho-thriller interspersed with flashes of a twisted, fairytale-like narrative. Think Dorian Gray meetsthe longest Alfred Hitchcock ever and you’re along the right lines.
‘Endure’ is not inapposite given the sheer length and frustratingly slow pace of the first half. Whilst it painstakingly establishes the perverse dynamic between the manipulative and narcissistic title character, Cougar Glass (Jack Morris) and his benignly subservient disciple, Captain Tock (Max Reynolds) in terms of plot development the first hour is positively glacial.
Such a slow-moving storyline plus minimal use of visual and audio stimulation meant that strong characterisation was critical and luckily an impressive cast did not disappoint. Morris’s poise was excellent and overall he struck the perfect balance between the sexual charisma and pure malice that makes his depraved character so arresting. Reynolds’s performance as Captain took longer to convince me (initially the skullcap of duct tape creating the impression of baldness proved too distracting); however he quickly warmed up and his response to some of the more sinister emotional manipulation inflicted by Cougar was truly engaging.
The appearance of Cheetah Bee, the geriatric landlady oddly reminiscent of Catherine Tate’s notorious ‘Nan’ character, freshened an atmosphere which by the end of the first half was bordering on tedium. Whilst Alexandra Ackland-Snow did a laudable job and her eccentric presence onstage provided some much-needed relief, it was a struggle to develop her character into anything beyond caricature.
Thankfully some bolder directorial decisions were taken to enliven the shorter second half and the drama was at its strongest with the four main characters onstage together, participating in an increasingly unsettling birthday party ritual. Emily Smith delivered an expert performance as Foxtrot Darling, whose pathetic eagerness was pitched at just the right level to convey the teenager’s total infatuation with Cougar, and later boiled over into bitter resentment at the domineering antics of his brother’s ex-girlfriend, Sherbet Gravel (India Opzoomer). Although Opzoomer took a little longer to settle into the hardness of her character she commanded the later scenes – there was collective tensing in the audience as Sherbet cavorted around stage, palpably enraging the volatile Cougar.
Overall, the ill-judged pace of the first half was a real let-down and although the second half was more engaging in every way, for me it never quite redeemed itself. Doubtlessly this production as a whole would have benefited enormously from some ruthless script editing at an earlier stage. That said, if a drawn-out display of In-yer-face theatre particularly appeals, or if you’ve got a desire to marvel at some deeply disturbed characters, then The Fastest Clock in the Universe would certainly be worth an evening of your time.