In recent years the RSC's new writing commissions have had a tendency to cram in an overt Shakespeare reference in the plays' themes. This year's offerings seem to have gone the other way, with shows whose relevance to the company have been rather unclear to me (I'm judging this on two-thirds of the current Hampstead season, having skipped the Filter collaboration, funnily enough.) The concluding play in the season is Tarrell Alvin McCraney's American Trade, subtitled "A Contemporary Restoration Comedy" (which is a bit pretentious, but I can see the structural and thematic similarities with something like School for Scandal so I'll let it pass.) For the most part it's a big silly romp, and given that it's the final new production for The EnsembleTM it does feel like an end-of-term party with lots of dressing-up. Pharus (Tunji Kasim) is a New York hustler who's got into trouble with a dodgy hip-hop producer. Sheila Reid is a new addition to The EnsembleTM (perhaps replacing the AWOL Kathryn Hunter?) as his English great-aunt Marian, a PR company boss who inexplicably offers him a job running her new model agency. A move to London seems the ideal solution to Pharus' problems, but within minutes of landing he's back to his old ways, the oddball bunch of "models" he assembles being just a front for a gang of prostitutes male and female.
There's not a hell of a lot of male EnsembleTM members you'd particularly want to see in a state of undress; it's fortunate that Tunji Kasim's at the top of the list as he spends the first 15 minutes dressed only in a revealing pair of briefs. He's quite ridiculously fit and gives a likeable central performance that goes some way to making up for his horribly misjudged Edmund in Lear. Elsewhere the shedding of clothes is done mainly for laughs - I'm not sure any amount of mind-bleach will erase the image of Geoffrey Freshwater in a thong from my mind, while Gruffudd Glyn's dog-collar-and-stilettoes bondage getup is perhaps not quite as embarrassing for him as the outfits he ends up with when he is allowed clothes. Sophie Russell's pantsuits are another unfortunate costuming choice but the whole of Soutra Gilmour's design is an exercise in the garishly OTT, to match the tone of the piece. There's some lovely comic turns from Dharmesh Patel, Larrington Walker, Kirsty Woodward (her walking-in-heels was my biggest laugh of the show) and Debbie Korley whose multiple small roles are a gag at the expense of theatrical doubling, Pharus being taken aback by how many incidental characters he meets who look exactly the same.
In fact writing this I've found so many aspects of the performance to like, but it doesn't change the fact that the play itself is all over the place. With themes varying from prostitution, gender identity and celebrity PR to hate lyrics in rap music, and a cast of characters whose size seems to have been designed to accomodate The EnsembleTM's numbers rather than to tell the story, American Trade is really all over the place. It makes the common mistake of trying to say too much and ending up saying nothing, and the jokes themselves are only intermittently funny (the best being the dig at how Pharus will only be considered mixed-race in America as long as Obama's President, after which he'll go back to being black) with the cast largely elevating the material's comic potential. It also helps that one of my favourite directors, Jamie Lloyd makes his RSC debut with the show, injecting his usual breakneck speed into proceedings which keep them furiously ticking along and the whole thing coming in at just under 90 minutes. Never quite truly shocking enough though, the show is overall a bit of an oddity, and maybe seeing it as The EnsembleTM's end-of-term blowout is the best way to approach it.
American Trade by Tarrell Alvin McCraney is booking until the 18th of June at Hampstead Theatre.