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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Love Horse
White Bear Theatre December 2009

A leading light of the Chicago theatre community, Bryn Magnus has more than 23 plays to his credit, two commissioned by the prestigious Steppenwolf Company, the remainder mostly premiered by Curious Theatre Branch for which he has been an ensemble member since its inception in 1988.

This revival by Max Jerschke of his surreal comedy about love and thuggery, written in 2001 for the Curious company, is Magnus's first introduction to UK audiences and should have been a cause for celebration, especially as it features the talented young Chicago actress Martha O'Toole in a leading role.

But seen near the start of the White Bear run the production lacked pace and conviction, while uneven performing styles and vocal delivery combined high decibels with sotto voce inaudibility. Stage lighting also seemed arbitrary as it jumped from light to dark and back.

Coded praise from Chicago critics has suggested that the author's 'thrilling messes' are both sprawling and discordant. Here for example, the key opening scene of Love Horse introduces a trio of macho debt-collectors who use butch choreography and gay trouser-dropping to convince their hard-up victims they mean business.

But gang rape is not on the menu. Instead the real subject seems to be the dislocating impact of stem cell genetic modification, when carried out on both animals and humans. In an absurdist sequence we watch a couple of loopy scientists in weird costumes crouching over a trout in a tank, wielding corkscrews in an attempt to implant butterfly wings and give the creature aeronautic abilities, apparently unaware that nature has already created flying fish.

The central figure of Tanner, leader of the team, is played with still composure by Simon Desborough who suffers the disadvantage of delivering his long opening speech in darkness when a glimmer of light on his face could have lent the passage more impact. But the scene ends with a terrifying fight, well directed by Australian actor Lewis Carmichael (who also plays the hoodlum member of the trio) leaving Tanner minus a tooth.

Cue a visit to the dentist, played with nervous enthusiasm by Francis J Exell, where the curious discovery is made that Tanner's jaw and teeth match equine DNA - in other words, he was born a horse, origin unknown.

But perhaps all this farcical knockabout and pseudo science is just intended as a comic diversion from an intense central love affair between Desborough's taciturn Tanner and Miss O'Toole as Rita, a caring young waitress in a Chicago greasy-spoon. The three boys, including Grant Ibbs playing the conciliatory member of the crew, are her only customers while she gently serves them food, drink and good advice between moments of entangling sexual passion with Tanner in her sparsely furnished apartment.

Indeed, this must be the true object of the play since, as Magnus tells us in a programme note, Love Horse jumped out of him when he met his wife. Meanwhile I think it would be fairer for London audiences to reserve judgement on the quality of his work as a playwright and hope for better to come.

John Thaxter

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Review - Love Horse - White Bear 2009