Autobahn, now playing at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington (if you’ve never been, you should – it’s easily one of the best pub theatres in town) is a series of seven Neil LaBute monologues and duologues revolving around the same theme – they all take place in cars.
It’s hard to get too carried away by the over-rated and over-performed LaBute, but this is the most impressed we have ever been by a performance of one of his works. The excellent cast of Autobahn bring the words to life, and there is little of the artifice that usually blights LaBute’s dialogue. Autobahn even presents some characters who aren’t entirely neurotic the whole time, another hallmark of the playwright.
Backhanded compliments out of the way with, the quality of the seven pieces varies, and it’s usually the duologues that succeed in gaining the most impact. The evening opens with a teenage girl being driven by her silent mother, and the subject matter is fairly unremarkable; yet actor Zoë Swenson-Graham creates a character you want to listen to. She remains for the second piece, a duologue between a boyfriend and girlfriend, and by this time Swenson-Graham’s superb comic timing and ability to extract humour truthfully from words on the page is strongly in evidence. We were laughing out loud as Swenson-Graham ran rings around Tom Slatter’s hapless boyfriend.
Sometimes asking actors to play multiple parts in the same production can backfire, but the changing situations and constant presentation of new story worlds in Autobahn works to the actors’ advantage, allowing all four performers to create a wide variety of personas. As well as Zoë Swenson-Graham, we were impressed by Henry Everett, who goes from an archetypal LaBute neurotic to a cuckolded and ineffectual husband to a creepy sex pest seamlessly, playing all with complete conviction. Sharon Maughan is memorable as the seemingly refined wife who enjoys the occasional drunken orgy, whilst Tom Slatter is the perfect foil to Zoë Swenson-Graham as the boyfriend who slowly realises what he’s let himself in for.
The nature of the piece means that the direction is necessarily static, with all of the action taking place within a prop car, but the rapidly changing stories and scenarios, and the mix of character voices ensure that the audience’s interest and attention is, for the most part, retained. Projections of American roads bridge the gaps between scenes.
We’re only rating this three stars because some of the monologues are self-indulgent and leaden (the playwright is at fault in these instances); yet when it works, it’s very good indeed; and you would have to go a long way to find a better cast in control of the material and bringing the most out of it.