Thursday, 9 September 2021

REVIEW: Leopards at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

It is always exciting to see a premiere of a new play especially one that promises to be a "highly charged thriller” and carries a pre-show warning to not reveal the ending as to not spoil it for anyone yet to see it. It also carries a warning that it contains some themes that audience members may find distressing and although many shows now carry this generic warning, this one does contain language that many people do find uncomfortable and offensive. The writer Alys Metcalf clearly feels she has a lot to say about some of the high-profile issues of today and gives her leading protagonist Niala speeches about feminism, green environment and global sustainability, racism, mental health, Celebrity status, grief and sexual consent. In fact, she packs so many issues, wildly swinging from one to another, into the ninety-minute play that it rather detracts from the central storyline and makes it hard to believe the characters at all.

Fundamentally this two-hander seeks to be a thriller where the outcome and motivation of the characters are uncertain until the ending. Yet when Niala meets Ben at a London hotel and he immediately says she looks familiar to him, as does the room they are in, you don’t have to be Poirot to work out what the secret may be. Although there are one or two twists in the story as their evening progresses, the 'mystery' of why they are meeting and what each hopes to achieve from the meeting never quite lives up to the promotional promise. It might have felt more real if he had been a high-profile politician or celebrity film star and she a rising investigative media journalist who starts each interview with “how do you feel?”, at least we are familiar with the sort.

Saffron Coomber is the highly charged 28-year-old Niala, a PR consultant for a travel company, who has planned the meeting and pursued Ben through emails to set it up. She brings an intensity and passion to the role that requires her to flirt, worry, rage and get drunk to the point of breakdown and then recover calmness and self-control in the course of one evening.

Martin Marquez is the fifty-something chief Executive, Ben, of a Green Charity with a wife and two boys at home and an international and internet campaigning profile, full of his own self-importance, “peacocking” at every opportunity and revelling in the idea that he is an environmental crusader

Their verbal fencing early on at a poser table is awkward and the initial meeting feels artificial, and you are really asked to suspend disbelief as the revelations drop. There are some funny lines like when Ben says his wife “likes to laminate the instructions for the babysitter” or Niala espouses that “if women had to sleep their way to the top, would there not be more women there?”.

Designer, Lily Arnold cleverly creates the feel of the two rooms in the luxury hotel that the play is set in with a slick change between them as the storm rages, but It was not clear whether the cables spread across the forestage had any purpose or had been left by the lighting crew before the show opened. The storm outside is effectively created by Colin Grenfell (Lighting) and Gareth Fry (Sound) with fluorescents and rainfall effect. Though Niala’s last exit across the forestage breaking the fourth wall is an odd choice by Director Christopher Haydon.

I assume the title refers to the saying “Leopards never change their spots”, that the two characters behaviours are innate and ingrained. In her programme notes the author says, “the concept of goodness has fascinated her” and wanted to explore “social progress whilst allowing people to make mistakes”. If she had stuck to that central theme, it would have been more engaging, but the message gets lost in the exposition and raging on wider social themes. Despite the best efforts of the cast, I never believed the situation and therefore never cared about the outcome. It never lived up to its publicity promise but I hope in reviewing it I have not revealed too much, so those who are seeing it at the social distanced Rose Theatre until 25th September can work it out themselves.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row C | Price of Ticket: £40

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