First published in The Times, Friday March 27 2015
The playwright Stef Smith, who wrote the multi-award-winning Roadkill, knows how to grab an audience’s attention. In the opening scene of her bizarre new play And the Beat Goes On we watch a couple (Julie Brown and Johnny McKnight), decked out in flower power regalia, performing the classic Sonny & Cher anthem of the title against a backdrop of stacked boxes in their suburban garage.
It might be elaborate karaoke or a rehearsal for a tribute act. What becomes clear, however, is that something dark lurks beneath the sequins, feathers and Paisley pattern shirts. When the music stops, McKnight’s Peter slumps into dejection while Brown’s Lily moves between obsessive cleaning and blank somnambulism. When perky new neighbour Joan (Julie Wilson Nimmo) arrives bearing apple pie, she’s not permitted beyond the garage door.
In outline, the play’s depiction of a troubled married couple taking refuge in fantasy recalls that ultimate portrait of marital blisslessness, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet, unlike Albee’s Martha and George, whose tragedy is made poignant by their inability to face reality, Smith’s recourse to the camp fashions and corny repartee of Sonny & Cher has the effect of cheapening the terrible backstory that bleeds out in the course of the play.
The production, directed and designed by Kenny Miller for Perth’s Horsecross Arts and Random Accomplice Theatre Company, veers between believable human suffering and the grotesque. The strange scenario raises more questions than it answers. There are no compelling reasons for Peter and Lily, a pair of Scots, to be living in the United States and no dramatic consequences hang on their encounter with Joan (who appears to have wandered in from a parody of 1950s suburban America).
It’s a pity because Brown and McKnight, best known for comic performances, are excellent in the lower-key dramatic passages. But in the end they can’t come to the aid of a play that is suffering from a serious identity crisis.