CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS. Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Sylvaine Strike. With Neil McCarthy, Leila Henriques, Rob van Vuuren, Antony Coleman, Roberto Pombo, Inge Crafford-Lazarus and Damon Berry. Set design: Chen Nakar and Andrea van der Kuil. Lighting design: Mannie Manim. Costumes: Andrea van der Kuil and Sue Steele. Baxter.
PICTURES: Jeremeo de Cordeur
KAREN RUTTER reviews
Just over 40 years old, and just as relevant as when it first premiered, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class is bitterly tragic but darkly funny. Originally set in semi-rural California during the 1970s, the play could as easily be taking place right now while Trump is busy trying to make America great again. Shepard’s tale is of a dysfunctional family who’re probably going to lose the farm – literally. And ten years after he wrote the play, the New York Times ran a story about how “180 times a day, another American farm disappears, another victim of consolidation, changing economics, poor management, bad luck, high interest rates, low crop prices, emotional and financial despair, or some of each”. It hasn’t really got much better.
So Shepard’s acerbic take on finance, families, fraud and freedom remains fresh and upfront. And, in the hands of director Sylvaine Strike, a superbly engaging production.
All in the family
The action all takes place in the run-down kitchen belonging to the Tate family – parents Weston (Neil McCarthy) and Ella (Leila Henriques), son Wesley (Roberto Pombo) and daughter Emma (Inge-Crafford Lazarus). The fridge – a hulking symbol of all that’s wrong in the state of Tate – is basically empty all the time, the outside door is missing, and at some point a maggot-riddled lamb is placed on the floor. Oh, the same floor where Wesley also makes a pee. It’s not such a clean space, you understand.
And it’s a complicated space. For Wesley, and ultimately Weston, it’s home. A broken, dirty, empty sort of home, but still. It provides some space for identity. However, for Ella and Emma it’s a space to escape, the former to Yoo-rope to see “high art”, the latter to Mexico to become a mechanic. The four circle each other like wary dogs, not much love here but a lot of broken hopes and disappointed growls. Small wonder, then, that when the shit hits the fan, there’s no unified response, no girding of familial loins. Just a lot of scattered dung.
Basically, alcoholic Weston has to sell the farm to pay back some hard core debtors. He’s not happy about it, but is not exactly wise to the ways of property (having been scammed previously). Meanwhile Ella has her own plan to sell via a wily lawyer. Wesley and Emma are caught in the middle.
The plot keeps the attention, and Shepard’s wry commentary on capitalism and the captured nuclear unit is shockingly comic. But it’s also this very fine cast that has one glued to the stage.
All star cast
What a pleasure it is to see Neil McCarthy here at the Baxter (yes, I know he was in Tartuffe but I missed it). May there please be more appearances in the future. His dumb, drunk, but strangely dignified Weston is a captivating presence throughout.
As is Leila Henriques, as a stylised but kind of shell-shocked Ella, pretending that things are not falling apart and that her good lawyer friend Taylor (Antony Coleman) is there to help. Coleman meanwhile takes a show-stealing turn as her creepy, weirdly-gaited attorney.
In the role of teenage Emma, Inge-Crafford Lazarus is yet another character whom one is drawn to watch, feisty and creepily offbeat. Her brother Wesley equally steals the eye, Roberto Pombo’s performance veering from assertive to dreamy to disturbed.
Meanwhile Rob van Vuuren as the evil Ellis, would-be buyer of the farm, dominates the second act that he appears in. Gold-toothed, snake-hipped, platform-heeled, he comes across as a baddie from Fargo – slightly crazy, certainly dangerous. It’s a dream turn.
Damon Berry does just fine with his smaller roles, while Chen Nakar and Andrea van der Kuil have designed a wonderfully evocative but minimalist set. Costumes by Andrea van der Kuil and Sue Steele range from the wonderfully appropriate to the wonderfully bizarre.
Strike has nailed it, once again – and this all-star Curse of the Starving Class cast can proudly take a bow. Really, if you value good theatre, don’t give this a miss. You’ll be sorry to lose this farm.
What: Curse of the Starving Class
Where and when: Baxter Flipside from 15 to 27 October 2018