Review – Buyer and Cellar, Menier Chocolate Factory, 22nd March 2015

Buyer and CellarFor the second time in six months, Mrs Chrisparkle and I attended the Menier Chocolate Factory to see a one-man one-act (no interval) American comedy play about a chap working in an unusual environment. Fully Committed centred on the guy who handled the reservations for an upmarket restaurant, and whilst it was a splendid performance by Kevin Bishop, at the end of the day, the play itself was a little bit of candy-floss lasting 70 minutes, which you’d largely forgotten about by the time you got on the tube home. Buyer and Cellar, however, lasts a full hour and three quarters, and has plenty to make you think about the nature of friendship, the value of celebrity, human eccentricity, loyalty, and the Games People Play.

Alex More gets offered a rather wacky job. In the basement of her Los Angeles home, Barbra Streisand has recreated a real-life shopping mall. Not the type with massive chain stores (I doubt you’ll find a Poundland or a Primark there) but with individual boutiques, doll shops, stationers, gift shops, and – more importantly – olde worlde gifte shoppes. She owns all the stock of course, because she had the mall built to showcase all her collectables. The trouble with having shops though is that you need a retail manager to look after them and serve the customers. Customer. Thus Alex is recruited to man the tills, operate the frozen yogurt stand and generally keep everything squeaky clean, and fit for VIP celebrity visits.

Michael UrieThis is not a documentary. This is pure fantasy. Yes, Miss Streisand has indeed built a shopping mall under her home. We know that, because she wrote all about it in her book My Passion for Design. But whether it’s got a retail manager, and whether she goes shopping there, and whether there are any fiscal transactions taking place, that’s all in the imagination of the writer Jonathan Tolins. This is made clear in a very warmly written and performed personal introduction at the beginning of the play, where you can’t tell if the actor (Michael Urie), hovering at the side of the stage, is addressing us as himself or if it’s part of the play per se. Indeed, I suspect it is both, as the one almost imperceptibly drifts into the other. Mr Urie reads from the book, shows us some of the pictures, and tells us that, as far as he is aware, Miss Streisand has never seen the play, and perhaps hardly knows anything about it. You sense that he and Mr Tolins are probably quite happy with that arrangement.

For this production the Menier has shrunk its stage area to a very small and shallow proscenium arch. When you enter the auditorium all you see on stage is some very minimalist furniture. What you don’t expect is that the back wall of the stage will become the focus of very effective projections, suggesting the various locations at which the story takes place. Simple, and it works incredibly well. The whole story plays on your imagination anyway, so keeping the props to a minimum is fine. This would actually work very well as a radio play or an audiobook.

Mr Michael UrieI wonder if it’s lonely being in a one-man show. You’re not going to have the camaraderie of a bigger cast or backstage company in your dressing room. Neither is there the buzz of working off what your colleagues say to you on stage. I guess you must get all your adrenaline from the audience reaction. Certainly Michael Urie has a brilliant relationship with the audience. He appears charming, witty and self-deprecating both as himself and as Alex; he knows he is performing in a play with a preposterous premise and tells us as much, which all increases a sense of honesty about the performance. If we, the audience, are his co-performers in this experience, then I hope we came up to scratch for him (I think we probably did).

You might get more out of this play if a) you are a devotee of Barbra Streisand or b) if you’ve been to Los Angeles. Neither Mrs C nor I fall into either of these categories. All I know about Barbra Streisand is that she was in Yentl and she recorded The Way We Were (which gets nicely deconstructed early on). Oh, and Second Hand Rose. There are a number of references about her career, and LA life in general, which went sailing over the top of our heads; but it didn’t bother us too much. Occasionally some members of the audience would react with recognition to one of the references, and Mr Urie took time to look very pleased to see that his comment had hit home.

M UrieIn a splendid performance, Mr Urie takes us into this imaginary/real world, where Alex has to park his filthy Jetta away from the other posh cars, engages in mock bartering with the customer when she wants to knock down his prices (they’re clearly non-negotiable, much to her annoyance), has difficulty ascertaining where he is in the pecking order of the household (quite low), stays late so that he can serve a fro-yo to James Brolin, gets ridiculed by his boyfriend Barry for believing that he and Barb are friends, and things come to a conclusion when he is finally invited in to the Main House. For an hour and three quarters Mr Urie doesn’t put a foot wrong, absolutely convincing you that he is wandering around that empty mall, playing at shops, side-stepping the watchful eye of Household Manager Sharon, encouraging Barbra to star in a new production of Gypsy (his idea). His characterisations are excellent, and whilst he admits he’s no impressionist, you get a very good impression, not only of Miss Streisand, but also of the other characters that inhabit this story. Both the play and his performance are very funny and surprisingly moving. And yes, I came out of this play with a stronger impression of what Miss Streisand might be like in real life, and also how you can basically Never Trust A Celebrity. This is an excellent opportunity to see both an Off-Broadway award-winning show and award-winning actor; it’s on until 2nd May, and I recommend it whole-heartedly!

Reclining at the MenierP.S. We forgot the golden rule, never arrive late at the Menier. By the time we arrived, nearly everyone else had taken their seats which meant that some middle aged ladies had spread themselves out very comfortably at the end of our bench (Row B) so that our two seats really only had enough space for one buttock each. Fortunately Mrs C is a mere slip of a thing; I, however, am a different kettle of fish. We found a solution – her right shoulder and the left shoulder of the lady to my right both nestled beneath my two shoulders so that my upper torso spent an hour and three quarters bent forward, adrift from the soft furnishings. Judging by the number of tut-tuts arising from the middle-aged-lady party, we don’t think they appreciated much of the humour. If a play is offending someone, it must be doing its job right.

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