Film and theatre far from rival arts, have long gone hand-in-hand. It’s not just the movement of actors and directors between the two genres that allows audiences to get closer to the stars they love, but both forms look to the other for story inspiration. Countless movies are about the theatre, from the sublime All About Eve to the recent Birdman, films love to focus on the demands and dramas of the stage. And in turn, occasionally the theatre looks right back, not least in a stage adaptation of the quintessential film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard.
The latest play to pay tribute to its artistic cousin is The Flick which is showing at the National Theatre until mid-June. Set in a run-down single screen cinema in small-town America, The Flick is at once a tiny yet epic story of three cinema employees whose lives tangle and collide in the minutes between showings. Over the course of a few weeks, we meet multi-tasking cinema staff members Andy and newbie Avery whose job it is to clear the room of litter, man the box office and sell tickets. It is a permanent job for 35 year old Andy who seeks to impart his picture-house wisdom to his 20 year old sidekick who’s taken a summer job between College terms. But this equanimity is soon disturbed by Rose the projectionist whose presence complicates their burgeoning friendship.
It’s safe to say that this is a play where nothing happens; there is no plot as such, no major events and no revelations, but at the same time The Flick is a character driven piece that gets to the heart of human interaction, suburban life and a particular form of modern self-loathing that each character exhibits at various points. There is an ebb and flow to conversation that is brilliantly realised in Annie Baker’s text which seems to perfectly capture the social awkwardness of colleagues in semi-manual jobs with little in common. The dialogue is surprisingly sparse, almost staccato at times, and you may have heard much about the substantial pauses, yet it manages to convey so much about these people and their likely future.
It is a play full of contrasts and self-contradictions, being both small and substantial, about nothing at all and everything at the same time, utterly hopeless and yet still hopeful. It is a testament to Baker’s creation of character that in the course of more than 3 hours you become so involved in this world-in-microcosm that these vast contradictions can co-exist and, though vastly different and steeped in their own unique set of problems and views, you have invested considerably in each individual to actually care what happens to them next.
Leading the cast is Matthew Maher as Sam (transferring from its original off-Broadway run) whose relationship with Avery is really the heart of the piece. Initially Sam is in the more senior role who at 35 is both the longest serving member of the team, and the person nominated to induct the new recruit outlining the particular techniques for sweeping the auditorium or cleaning the drinks machines. Sam is not an intellectual and his early reticence hides a warm nature and difficult family situation that slowly emerges as the two men converse, but we learn enough to know that this cinema reflects the confines of Sam’s life and whether he knows it or not, this is all he will ever be – something which in Maher’s hands creates enormous pathos. And it is right that these are never explored in detail, partly because the writing and Maher’s engaging performance mean they don’t need to be, but also because they reflect the snippets of information you only ever learn about your colleagues – no one ever really has a heart-to-heart about their broken lives during their coffee break except in films. At work we only ever know what people let us see.
Jaygann Ayeh as Avery is his opposite and equal in many ways (a play of fascinating contradictions as I explained above). Unlike the others Avery is working at the cinema to pay his way through College, fulfilling a temporary and eventually forgotten role in his life which gives an interesting dynamic to the relationship with the permanent staff. And Avery is incredibly, almost geekishly, knowledgeable about film which leads to some of The Flick’s best scenes as the characters play 6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon or discuss the technical projection of film itself. As in so many of this play’s discussion it is about something else entirely beneath the surface hinting at a gentle rivalry between the protagonists, a warm and trusting friendship, as well as later the feeling of betrayal that sits between them. Ayeh perfectly mixes Avery’s apparent innocence with a growing desire to defy Sam until he eventually outgrows his tutelage – and it’s all so subtle you hardly know it’s happening.
Coming between them is projectionist Rose (Louise Krause – another veteran of the original production) who appears appropriately like a thorn between the two men after their friendship has been established. Sam secretly yearns for her and spreads rumours that she’s a lesbian, while Rose is attracted to Avery. Krause is as seemingly dysfunctional as the rest, having awkward conversations with both men while using her grungy appearance and surly attitude as a barrier. Again we never really learn why but we don’t need to as so much loneliness and emptiness is conveyed in every carefully constructed moment. And through her also we get a sense of the petty jealousies that compound working life, where being taught to use the projector implies a hierarchy among the staff that reflects their romantic entanglements and is a source of much of the tension.
David Zinn’s incredible set is a perfect run down shabby cinema where you can see, and practically feel, the stained seats. Only later as it changes hands do we see it transformed, by Jane Cox’s excellent lighting design, into a nicer-looking but soulless chain cinema. The only gripe about this production is the decision to perform it in a proscenium arch arrangement – the Dorfman is the National Theatre’s most flexible space, can be arranged in a number of configurations and itself has seating on three sides of the auditorium. Yet throughout the play characters sit at the stage’s extremes and are entirely invisible to at least one third of the audience. You are advised about restricted views in advance but it seems a shame to have so many when the theatre space is transformable – so perhaps having an apron at the front so the actors are not obscured by the walls or changing the blocking to have them sit more centrally would help.
A true love of film is reflected throughout The Flick not just with Avery’s encyclopaedic knowledge of movies but in the affection for the technical look and experience of watching, something Baker clearly feels is under threat from the proliferation of digital film-making and the strangle-hold of corporate cinema chains. A culture of meaningless consumption is what she shows us and one that loses a variety of skills right from the work of the director and cinematography, through to the no longer necessary projectionist. Great plays have been transformed on screen while NT Live and its bevy of equivalents have taken live theatre into cinemas around the world. They borrow from each other, share artists and technicians and reflect, absorb and repurpose each other’s innovations. It was once believed that the advent of cinema would kill the theatre but more than 100 years on its clear the two have become integral to one another. The Flick is about so many things, but essentially it is a theatrical love letter to film.
The Flick is at the National Theatre until 15 June and tickets start at £15, it is also part of the National’s Friday Rush initiative offering tickets for £20.