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 The Theatreguide.London Review

American Trade
RSC at Hampstead Theatre Summer 2011

There's a lot of flash and high energy to this last show in the Royal Shakespeare Company's current London season, and if you turn your brain off and just let it wash over you, the razzmatazz may carry you through the evening.

It's more likely, though, that you'll sooner or later realise that all the energy is in the presentation, and that there really isn't much to the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney at its core. 

McCraney presents us with a New York City rent boy hanging around the fringes of the hip hop music scene until things get a little too hot. 

He accepts an improbable offer to fly to London and head a model agency and, picking up a few other hustlers of various sexual persuasions along the way, sets out to transform the agency into an escort service. But there are new rivals and old foes there as well, and things don't turn out as he imagines.

Impossible to accept as realism, McCraney's story works a little better as a cautionary fable about American presumption and British resistance, but even on that level it's slim and unconvincing, and too unfocussed I've left out all sorts of subplots and subsidiary characters to have much bite as satire. 

Evidently aware of the material's thinness, director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour do what they can to give the impression that something is happening. 

Hip hop music blares, neon lights flash in various colours, and everyone has been directed to shout all their lines, preferably facing front with their legs braced like Liza Minelli about to belt out a song. And yes, for a while that's fun, but only for a while.

Given characters who only occasionally rise to the level of one-dimensional cartoons and usually make no sense at all, Tunji Kasim as the hustler, Sheila Reid as his unlikely British benefactor and Sophie Russell as his British nemesis manage to achieve some moments of dignity and near-believability.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - American Trade - RSC at Hampstead 2011  

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