It is rare that I begin a show literally on the edge of my seat, but this is one of the few occasions I can confidently assert it to be true. On this occasion it would be because I’m stuck next to a particularly unruly elderly lady in a shawl who keeps peering at the stage, sniffing, and at one point almost hits me round the head with a wicker bag. When she starts harassing an actor about the Bridge club and sidles past me to get up on stage, I’m hardly surprised.
‘Sylvia’ is one of just a few quirky characters surreptitiously planted in the audience before the performance starts (the intimacy of the venue captured well by the BT Studio). Billed as an ‘immersive comedy’, Q&A is staged as – you guessed it – a live Q&A after a performance of Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye – a book most famous for a) being entirely narrated by a nihilistic teenager, b) including no action, and c) being vetoed from being performed live. Not the most auspicious start – although this is of course the intention. I’m impressed by the poster-homage (designed by Olya Makarova, who also plays the ditzy Niamh), which bears a striking resemblance to the original book cover, although a sign for a Travelodge is present along with other details I don’t remember being there. I’m assured all will become clear as the performance unravels.
At its most naturalistic and impromptu, the play is hilarious. As the shambolic reimagining of The Catcher in the Rye draws to a close to polite applause (bearing in mind this is within the first three minutes), a muttered “Jesus” from nearby critic Clive Edwards (Jack Blowers) has me laughing more than anything. The voice of reason in a cold, cold am-dram world, he creates a startling impression despite never leaving his seat. There’s a strange sexual tension in the rivalry between himself and ex-Emmerdale star Sebastian (Tom Saer) which I’m not sure is supposed to be there, and which seems to be rooted in something involving a BBC party and cocktail sausages. The details are lost on me.
Isaac Troughton (holding a dual role along with playwright) is similarly fantastic as the 17-year-old drama student Jesse, replete with deadpan snark. Again, there’s a Holden Caulfield joke to be made there – the teenager, out of all of them, comes closest to understanding the protagonist – but unfortunately it’s never quite made explicit. Nevertheless, a scene where the young actor is taught to declaim a line comes close, as the group of actors squabble over whether to step forth on the dramatic word ‘war’ or ‘hell’ for best effect. The moment is a highlight particularly for the ‘veteran’ Jasper (played with aplomb by Stepan Mysko von Schultze), who is vaguely reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ parodic turn in Hail Caesar!.
There are some very witty lines, ranging from the misquoting of Robert Frost (“Two paths converged in a yellow wood”), to mysterious allusions to a lawnmower accident, to the downright alarming “Can you sign my coccyx?” from the sweet old lady next to me (masterfully characterised by Fifi Zanabi). Theatre manager Sam (El Wood) rushes around trying to keep the whole thing in line with admirable verve. If there’s a fault, it’s that sometimes the whole thing feels a little too knowing, which unfortunately detracts from the intended spontaneity. The dialogue doesn’t quite flow smoothly enough to seem fully natural – a hard enough task on stage at the best of times, but needed here to make the back-and-forth fully believable.
It’s a script and show at its best when it takes a turn into the chaotic and absurd; and, as it confidently veers into a spectacular car crash in the last quarter, I can’t help but think that it certainly had not come too soon. Standing at a confident 45 minutes, it’s a short and sweet one-act play which doesn’t beat around the bush. It may not quite reach complete naturalism, but it’s certainly entertaining. Just make sure you check who you’re sitting next to first.