The Union Theatre
Thursday 28 July 2016
A tiny British theatre has turned its attentions to a much greater land in this production of The Fix, John Dempsey’s star-spangled political musical that premiered at the Donmar in 1997. That is to say, The Union’s Artistic Director, Sasha Regan, has got her creative powerhouse remeasured and relocated to a roomer space just over the road – and here, like the subject of a Gok Wan documentary who’s been wearing the same M&S undies since 1998, the overachieving venue is pulling its bangers into roomier, more fitting surroundings.
But, with the current political climate as it is, the USA feels less at home as the subject of this jaunty musical that first made its mark when some other Clinton was buzzing around. Way back when the husband of the current Democratic Presidential nominee was recounting the sexual relations he did naat have, the premiere of Dempsey’s piece covered an even more fictional extramarital affair. “Surely there’s another Chandler, waiting in the wings”, cry spectators, after Mr. Chandler Sr. comes to his sticky end below his mistress. “Surely there’s another Chandler, waiting in the wings”, they echo in reprise, as Mr. Chandler Jr. falls to a similar fate.
Lucy Williamson is fab as Violet Chandler, the scheming matriarch who pulls the puppet strings of this political family. “If I can’t be the wife of the president, you can bet your ass I’ll be his mother”, she trills with scheming delight – her mastery always within one degree of separation from her vagina, as she forgets to add her own name to the waiting list for the White House. True, women didn’t expect such power in 1997 – but it’s a shame to see Director Michael Strassen missing the optimistic irony that’s playing out right here.
From the disco pants to the whitewashed Gospel, the redneck country to Iain Dennis’s unapologetic red, white and blue Lighting Design, there’s a certain ditzy joy to this production’s cartoonish bite of Americana – but, despite all of this, The Fix‘s political digs work best when digested in isolation of its host country. Children, jobs and taxes are the three generic buzzwords for success as Violet teams up with her brother-in-law to groom her son for a political life. In this satire, there’s no time for #BlackLivesMatter, Islamic State terrorism and divisions over immigration – and the absence of such subjects is felt with an increasing severity as the musical delves into over-elaborate and strikingly unnecessary prince metaphors. The Fix brings US cultural and political life into the same room, but it sure as hell does not bring them to the same bed.
Does stylistic nostalgia work in a political play? Not here. The Fix aims for biting administrative satire and stifled family drama and, held back by all its over-earnestness, only gets around halfway to each. Ken Christiansen, however, brings a Tom Waits level of bourbon-infused remorse to Grahame Chandler, the reluctant advisor, shoe-horned into action by his sister-in-law Violet. His convulsing Biblical cry for mercy, backed by Kate Bush-inspired choreography under smoky light, brings a departure from the production’s defining sickly-sweet saturation in fizzy pop culture. Grahame’s is on journey towards failure in a story defined by its drive for success. There’s something artful in this tragedy, and a timelessness that the rest of Strassen’s production fails to carry.