Freaks in the Fitz: Review of Red Line Productions’ Freak Winds
Marshal Napier’s Freak Winds (1999) is a masterstroke. Equal parts comedy, thriller and horror, it delivers on all fronts.
On a dark and stormy day, insurance salesman Henry Crumb knocks on the door of reclusive and crippled Earnest. He’s got an insurance policy to sell that is going to knock his socks off and the slick talking rep wastes no time launching into his spiel. But Earnest isn’t what he seems. Suddenly, a tree falls on Henry’s Mercedes, and he realizes that he’s locked in, with no way out. Things quickly take a turn when Henry stumbles on a scrapbook filled with stories of abducted and murdered girls.
The plot has more twists than a triple axel, and part of the fun is not knowing a thing about it and just enjoying the ride. Done this way, the piece keeps you transfixed as each new element comes to light. From the start, you’re right there with Henry, trying to guess where events are going to take you.
Ben O’Toole plays Henry Crumb, the fresh faced, fast talking, success driven insurance salesman who winds up in a situation even he can’t talk his way out of. O’Toole is instantly a solid presence, representative of the regular viewer. He finds a comfortable rhythm as the play goes on, only occasionally succumbing to easy acting choices such as the ‘random outburst’. It takes a little while to settle into O’Toole’s patterns, largely because he speaks at great speeds, though this was largely revealing of an actor with great energy and drive. O’Toole skilfully mapped Henry’s descent into sheer hell, where everything was sufficiently motivated and nothing was arrived at prematurely. This is certainly to his credit, especially since other inexperienced actors tend to fall down here.
Marshall Napier, the author of the play, takes on the role of Ernest, an aged infirm who is hiding some pretty dark secrets. Napier exudes a quiet authority on stage, and is encompassing of the phrase ‘less is more’. Well, sort of. But to say anything more would be to ruin the show. What Napier does especially well is make his audience comfortable. We follow his lead at every turn, and even at its darkest, we trust Napier with the story. And this is a very important thing. It’s worth noting that in the run up to opening night, Napier injured his leg and even considered subbing in another actor. Instead, he re-worked the text to allow for this change. It is a credit to Napier as both a writer and performer that he made his handicap work, both in performance and in the script. A crippled Earnest adds an extra dynamic, where the opening sees him as all the more vulnerable (making for a dramatic and interesting shift when the tables turn).
Bringing up the rear (you’ll see what we mean) is Anna Bamford playing Myra, the wheelchair bound femme fatale with an oddly militant, Stepford wife-esque feel about her. Bamford is quirkily restrained in a role that seems to ooze with strangeness. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice on her part, by way of contrast to Napier, and her calmness arguably adds a psychotic dimension to the character. The trio work wickedly well together and their electrifying chemistry is a testament to their fluidity as an ensemble.
Freak Winds is very much a homage to Harold Pinter, and his influence can be seen in many aspects of the play. There is an undercurrent of menace that runs through the piece; there is a fluid and dynamic power struggle, especially early on; the dialogue also has that very distinct Pinteresque flavour: rapid-fire exchanges with rhetorical power plays; on top of which even the confined and isolated space into which an outsider intrudes is also typical in Pinter’s writing. The play does flounder a little towards the end, but for the most part Napier has pulled all of this together to create a very tense, frightening and captivating play that gradually descends into the surreal and nightmarish. At its heart there is a rumination on the true nature of humanity: are we basically good or bad, or are we equal parts of both? Is it only our decisions that define us? But don’t see the play for that: see it for the thrills.
Thus far, all signs look good for Red Line Productions, as it is well on the way to reviving the Old Fitz Theatre space after SITCO’s lack-luster tenure. We are keen to see what’s to come, especially once they start to move away from the former success of plays past.
Freak Winds is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until the 11th of April. For more information see: http://www.oldfitztheatre.com/freakwinds/