A bold new play premiering at Rose Theatre asks what it means to be ‘good’. Tina Lofthouse reviews…
The clue to this play’s theme is in the name. Can a leopard ever change its spots? This dark tale sets to find out, looking at the image we construct, convincing ourselves of our own goodness even when our moral compass has been utterly screwed, and whether we can atone for sins of the past.
Written by Alys Metcalf and directed by Rose Theatre’s artistic director Christopher Haydon, the play opens in a hotel on a stormy night. Niala (Saffron Coomber – Emilia, Small Axe: Lover’s Rock) has arranged to meet charity bigwig Ben (Martin Marquez – Hotel Babylon, Les Misérables) for career advice.
It’s clear this is no ordinary business meeting and in no time at all, Niala is plying him with Champagne and dropping sledgehammer-style hints at trying out the bed springs in her hotel room. She is young, glamorous, confident, he is smug, arrogant and self-assured. You can tell where this is heading. The weather is getting worse, so why doesn’t he just stay? Phone the wife and kids, make his excuses.
Clever abstract lightning flashes signifying the storm ahead – in every sense – and the stage plunges into darkness for a rapid scene change. Ben and Niala are now in the bedroom. But something is definitely amiss. The atmosphere is tense. They’re not urgently ripping each others’ clothes off – it seems Niala has other things on her mind first. And the story starts to unfold
The tale may be dark – but the script is witty, and often downright funny with some incredible one-liners. Metcalf is an astute observer of life and her writing portrays the conflict, vulnerability, and absurdities perfectly.
Marquez is brilliant as the self-satisfied middle-aged CEO and Coomber practically purrs across the stage as the young seductress who later reveals her wild and unstable side.
There are countless posters around the theatre begging the audience (and press!) not to spoil the ending. So I won’t. There’s a twist. It won’t have you falling off your seat in surprise as you will likely sleuth it together quite quickly – but it is a good one.
It’s all very powerful stuff. At times, the play does feel rather breathless – there’s almost a checklist of all the issues we are dealing with today – climate change, greenwashing, cancel culture, consent, the MeToo movement, female empowerment, race, class…
And there’s simply no room to do it all justice, nor could you without exhausting your audience and coming across as overly didactic.
But this modern-day morality tale raises deep and unsettling questions. It doesn’t set out to answer them, leaving audiences to ponder what it really means to be good. Does a past wrongdoing taint you forever? And can being bad be compensated with doing good – as the play puts it – think of it as carbon offsetting, except for morals.
This is the first Rose-produced play since lockdown, and the opener in Christopher Haydon’s first season as artistic director. It is a bold move, with a controversial theme and a feisty and forthright script smattered with c-bombs… I loved it and can’t wait to see what else is in store.
- Runs until 25 September 2021. Seating is socially distanced.
Rose Theatre, Kingston.
Image: Martin Marquez & Saffron Coomber in Leopards – photo by Iona Firouzabadi