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All New People – Duke of York’s Theatre (Review)

All New People

Review by Rob Carnevale

ZACH Braff’s All New People arrives at the Duke of York Theatre off the back of rave US reviews and a positive welcome from brief stops in Glasgow and Manchester and it’s easy to see why.

A deft blend of razor sharp comedy and emotional drama, it builds on the template Braff established with the similarly excellent Garden State, while providing four great roles for its leading actors.

Set in the dead of winter at a luxury Long Beach Island apartment, the production opens with the startling sight of Charlie (Braff) with his neck around a noose. Within seconds of that opening gasp, however, we’re laughing as he attempts to comically put out his last cigarette without making a mess while still balancing precariously on his stool in the type of physical comedy reminiscent of a Mr Bean sketch.

A few seconds further on still and Charlie is disturbed by Emma (Eve Myles), a ‘Brit trapped in an American’s body’, who is hopeful of selling the apartment to an elderly Jewish couple. Her arrival prompts Charlie to desperately take the plunge, prompting more gasps as Braff hangs in the air while Myles grapples to try and prevent him.

It’s an unsettling blend of trauma and comedy underlined by a statement in which the hapless Emma suddenly finds Charlie’s balls in her face and promptly swings him round once more.

But it expertly lays the template for the way in which Braff’s play, currently directed by Peter DeBois, swings from laugh out loud comedy to pitch-black drama, often in a split second.

Thereafter, Emma and Charlie are joined by two other misfits in the form of Paul Hilton’s dodgy fireman Myron and Susannah Fielding’s blonde escort Kim who, over the course of the evening, attempt to get to the bottom of Charlie’s depression while uncovering their own secrets in the process.

This is, in part, achieved by occasional breaks from the room during which a giant screen drops down and shows pivotal pre-recorded footage (or flashbacks) from each of their lives… a nice touch that prevents the need for unnecessary exposition within the moment that the play exists.

The ensuing revelations are, by turns, humorous and shocking and underline the absurdity of life in often ruthless fashion. Several of Braff’s observations are brutally blunt – whether it’s taking pot-shots at the bankers who have swindled the working man out of his earnings while blowing $15,000 a night on high-class whores (a fact revealed in financial documentary The Inside Job) or the anomalies of a justice system that seldom enables the punishment to fit the crime.

And yet under-pinning this is the basic need to find love, companionship and understanding… of growing up and taking responsibility while still having some fun.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Braff’s Charlie is a fidgety mix of rage and frustration who eventually mellows and warms to his unexpected companions. But it’s by no means the star turn, generously allowing his co-stars to enjoy equal amounts of time in the spotlight.

Myles, in particular, shines as the seemingly ‘neurotic’ Brit with a dark reason for being in the States, gradually falling apart at the seams as the revelations are made and winning you over in the process; Hilton combines edgy charisma with borderline sociopathic tendencies in the way that he clearly enjoys screwing with people (both literally and figuratively), and Fielding is clearly having a blast as the ditsy hooker with a heart of gold.

Not all of the comedy sits comfortably alongside some of the play’s darkest recesses and audiences will occasionally find themselves squirming in their seats. There are times, too, when the momentum sags.

But in the main, All New People is a bold piece of work from Braff that successfully pulls off all that it’s trying to achieve: to make you laugh, to make you care, to make you reflect on life and to have a great time into the bargain.