It’s a truism that understanding the provenance of anything, particularly works of art, greatly enhances one’s appreciation. That Zach Helm’s play, written in 2004, was based on personal experiences – via a roommate and girlfriend – might hardly seem revelatory. But what may come as a surprise is that when John Malkovich got hold of it, his first instinct was to put it on in Paris, in French. It then went to Mexico, and was subsequently translated into Portuguese, then German. Now, some nine years after its inaugural production, it’s given its first outing in English, and that for a three-week run in a London suburb.
That’s quite the departure for a Hollywood screenwriter. And quite the incentive to see the play.
The canary in the title comes from the old mining practice, when the caged birds provided the warning signs of toxic gases, and it’s a multi-layered metaphor in this instance; the trappings of a relationship, the fragility of the human mind, the impact of narcotics, amid much else. We are also warned at the outset that this won’t be a comfortable ride.
Jack and Annie are a young, new York-based couple, on the cusp of literary success with the publication of Jack’s debut novel. Simmering surface tensions are in evidence from the outset, as Annie pops pills, throws up, and is maniacally high and overly sensitive as Jack reads out New York’s most ardent critic’s review of his book over breakfast in a local cafe. Something’s not right. Her drug use is clearly out of control – she buys in bulk – but it is clearly symptomatic of some profound insecurities and discomfort.
As Jack attempts to ride out Annie’s binges while mapping the next steps of literary stardom, our own discomfort comes less from the worrying set pieces showing Annie’s alarming excesses, but rather from the impending crash that this particular train is hurtling towards.
It is, however, more than simply a cautionary tale for drug use, more than a perceptive, poignant exposure of mental disorder, of fragility, of social anxiety. It points to a more subtle undertone, that of the tortured artist and the accompanying fear not, however, of failure, but of success.
Given the pedigree of the writer and director, it’s scripted and delivered in a stylistically filmic manner, with some clever – some might say gimmicky – use of back projection, placing it tonally amid contemporary pop culture, but there’s far more weight to it as a discourse on the human psyche and soul.
Helm balances the weight of drama and impending tragedy with some deft comic relief, too, notably with the supporting cast grabbing some wonderfully-timed lines amid the backdrop of tragedy. But what makes Good Canary as searingly good as it is, are its terrific performances, particularly by the leads Harry Lloyd and an incendiary Freya Mavor, garnering, justifiably, a standing ovation at the curtain.
Good Canary has already had one offer to transfer to the West End. Let’s hope there are several more. It’s not that it needs a bigger stage – like the discovery of a new band, there’s a certain cache of having seen it first and in humbler, local surrounds – but it’s a bird that is deserving of a wider appreciation were it given the chance to spread its wings.
Good Canary runs until Saturday 8th October at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. For more information, and to book tickets, visit www.rosetheatrekingston.org.