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Argyle Gargoyle Productions

at the Synergy Center

I once saw an English actress’s one-woman show about Dorothy Parker marred by her inability to keep her American accents straight. Much of the time she spoke in a passable imitation of New Yorkese, but every once in a while a pronounced drawl sneaked in, and for a surrealistic second or two the sharp-tongued Algonquin wit turned into Scarlett O’Hara.

Watching Argyle Gargoyle’s production of British playwright Nigel Williams’s Class Enemy, I realized that there are worse sins than failing to keep one’s accent in line. There’s failing to build a convincing character. And failing to adjust one’s performance to complement the other performances in the show. There’s forgetting that even if the accent is inherently difficult to understand, you still have to give the audience some idea of what’s going on–or at the very least, what the characters are feeling. All failures made in this production, with the result that a powerful but difficult script becomes so tedious it’s nearly impossible to sit through.

Set in one of the poorest parts of south London in a “state comprehensive [high] school,” the play concerns six punks going nowhere. The dregs of the dregs, they have so frustrated the school authorities that they’ve been exiled to a ramshackle, graffiti-filled schoolroom distant from everyone else. There the six spend their time talking, arguing, fighting, and teaching each other street lessons while waiting for a teacher who never arrives.

With virtually no story, Class Enemy depends entirely on the vividness of its characters, who are–or should be–as intriguing as their nicknames: Sweetheart, Skylight, Snatch, Iron, Nipper, Racks. Snatch breaks windows. Skylight hopes against hope that things will get better. Iron lashes out at everyone and everything. Racks follows the example of his passive and accepting father and tends to his flower boxes.

Unfortunately, it is at the level of character building that this production falls flat. True, director Kelly Loudon’s actors are convincingly cockney, from the bottom of their larynxes to the tips of their tongues–a fact that ought to make Belinda Bremner, credited as the dialect coach, proud. But something’s wrong when the accent is correctly rendered yet we have no idea of the emotion behind the talk.

All the lines in this show–the comic ones, the bitter ones, the sad ones–are delivered in the same tone of forced and at times fake anger. Williams’s funny, impassioned, powerful play is reduced to a single note repeated again and again over two acts: I’m poor and I’m angry. Even when the mush-mouthed cast deliver their lines clearly, which happens only about half the time, it’s still difficult to understand their meaning.

To make matters worse, when the Argyle Gargoyle actors express anger–and this play is very much about long-festering frustrations and resentments–they never seem anything more than six inexperienced performers acting angry in a play that demands anger.

In particular, the ever-seething ringleader Iron should seem at every moment clever and dangerous, capable of anything. But even in his most out-of-control moments–for example when he smashes a chair against the desk–Nicholas Wodtke seems about a year’s worth of therapy away from being in touch with any real emotion.

I shouldn’t single out Wodtke, however. No one in the cast is very convincing, with exception of Michael Grant as the arrogant schoolmaster. But since he’s onstage for only a few minutes in each act, he doesn’t count for much. Andrew Michell, with his angelic fine features and gentle gestures, seems more like a prep-school student than a street punk. And Patrick Causgrove as Nipper is thoroughly unconvincing when he explains his bitter theory that the blacks have stolen all the jobs in London. You’d think that a theater company founded in Marquette Park, as Argyle Gargoyle was, would be able to imitate racists onstage. But no such luck.

Instead of six time bombs ready to go off at any moment, six punk volcanoes about to erupt, Kelly Loudon has given us six mischievous adolescent boys who horse around for two acts but never supply any reason to care about them or their predicaments. And that’s a failing the best accents in the world can’t disguise.