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Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - brilliantly performed and imaginatively staged | reviews, news & interviews

Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - brilliantly performed and imaginatively staged

Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - brilliantly performed and imaginatively staged

A familiar title transcends the schematic to land with renewed force

Cell mates: Declan Bennett and Samuel Barnett in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'All images © Bill Knight for theartsdesk

No, this isn't the large-scale Kander and Ebb musical, which opened in 1992 in London before transferring for a sizeable run on Broadway. Laurie Sansom's expert production instead both revisits and revises the lesser-known source of that song-and-dance adaptation: an intimate two-hander (with a prison guard thrown in for good measure) between a gay window-dresser and an ardent revolutionary who find themselves sharing a prison cell in 1975 Argentina. William Hurt won an Oscar for the showier of the two roles, but the Menier Chocolate Factory revival boasts two ideal interpreters in Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett: Catch them while you can. 

I dimly recall first encountering the late Manuel Puig's original novel of the same name on the stage of the (old) Bush, with Simon Callow and Mark Rylance as the two opposites who over time more than attract. And no matter who inherits these roles, there's no denying the fundamentally schematic set-up, which does require a suspension or two of disbelief. 

But Sansom's approach to the material leaves its predecessors in the dust as a piece of total theater in which his actors and an incredibly strong design team conjoin to enliven the Menier space in ways I hadn't thought possible. Jon Bausor's remarkable (and surprising) set keeps revealing itself pretty well up until the final moments, while Paul Anderson's lighting captures both the shadowy seductions of the film narratives that the window-dresser Molina (Barnett) can spin seemingly effortlessly on command alongside the piercing isolation of a soul or two in torment.Andrzej Goulding's projections and composer Philip Pinsky's sound design contribute to as satisfying an exercise in total theatre as the Menier has hosted since their revival of Travesties, which opens next month on Broadway. 

Allan Baker's text in this new version from the Puerto Rican playwright (and erstwhile Oscar nominee) José Rivera ups the emotional and sexual ante on the dynamics between the two men. Otherwise make the 100-minute sit (no interval) might feel like fairly heavy going.

At the start, you clock the exasperation directed by the scarred and "cause"-orientated Valentin (Bennett, the musical theatre regular making a rare and welcome foray into the realm of plays) towards the extravagantly emotional Molina, who cites Rigoletto one minute and brings to technicolour life various yarns involving panther women and Nazis the next. (The films are cleverly played out around the sides of the theatre, until such time as the focus narrows toward the men themselves who find a sort of dreamscape in one another.)

And Bennett and Barnett, their names in themselves neatly commingling, elegantly communicate the shifting landscape of wariness and betrayal, affection and need that lead these two unlikely soulmates towards sharing a bed. Grace Cookey-Gam completes the cast as the lone representative of officialdom and the outside world: she's the one who takes Molina's grocery orders while placing this delicate flower in an impossible position not to be revealed here. One might wish to know more about Valentin's actual beliefs (here, as before, they remain comparatively pro forma), and certain questions don't get asked by the characters for the sake of dramatic convenience. But as a vehicle for two actors at the top of their game, this production is blessed. Or, even, one might say kissed.

Bennett and Barnett, their names in themselves neatly commingling, elegantly communicate the shifting landscape if wariness and betrayal, affection and need

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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