The Fringe is almost snuffed out, but C Nova is still battling on as a solitary outpost against the encroaching nothingness. Gone Rogue Productions’ “Strawberries in January” gives me a horrible shock and it leaves me feeling strangely discombobulated. After three minutes of watching this play, I had assumed that it was new student writing. It looks and feels like the stereotypical student play: there is unrequited love between flatmates; a character who fills in at a coffee shop whilst working on his so-obviously undistinguished screenplay; another character who is an English literature professor; and a feeling that the play is just reshuffling the nearest autobiographical materials that a have-a-go student playwright has to hand. I was determined to find something agreeable and encouraging to write about this play, because it came across as so immature. It was evidently an amateur foray and I didn’t want to be unnecessarily unkind to the writer.
You can imagine my discomfort when I learned that this was the third play from the award-winning Canadian playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière. It is like realising that what you thought was only the sound of some violinists tuning up is actually meant to be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” “Strawberries in January” was first published in French in 1999. So who is to blame for this mess? If the writer is at fault, then why do the cast persist in trying to resurrect her play? If the cast are a terrible cast, however, then even surely they cannot have trampled competent writing into such a condition.
“Strawberries in January” is a dippy rom com, ostensibly set in London, but really set in a caricature of small café Paris. François (Will Hankey) is initially a likeable character, who displays some impressive Jim Carey-ish zaniness, but he gradually becomes a smug and tyrannical presence. He is still half-entangled in a complicated but somehow oddly chaste relationship with Sophie (Caithlin Hobbs), an ex-fiancé. There is a kind of spaghetti of different storylines, which all eventually get wrapped around the same fork.
The fundamental problem with this play is that it doesn’t appear to have any sense of its audience. Rather than being performed for us and remaining conscious of our need, as an audience, to be kept entertained, the play is devoted to reciting all of its interminable dialogue. There are occasionally good jokes and unusual ideas within “Strawberries in January,” and maybe enough to construct a small, satisfying story around. But the play ran on for over an hour and I had the impression that the cast were hurrying through it, garbling passages of dialogue which, in fairness, deserved nothing less. Once Hankey even appeared to give up on a speech in exasperation.
Yep, it’s definitely the writer.