Superficial Skin Deep only saved by its stars

Review by Paul Nelson

THE new offering at the Warehouse Theatre Croydon is a world premiere by Richard Vincent.

Skin Deep, is the name of the play and lo and behold we are back in recent familiar territory.

Not that Richard Vincent could have known of the late production of Have I Got Muse For You, which is just as well, because unlike the play at the Old Red Lion, he has treated the same subject of trans-sexualism entirely differently, preferring to use it as the source of a thriller.

Throughout the first act, thriller it is.

A beautiful woman, Chloe Smith, is preparing for a night out at a party with the handsome boyfriend Michael, who has brought the champagne. They are both dressed to the nines, they are in love, and looking forward to a divine evening.

Suddenly we are thrown into a police station in the north of England where Chloe, now a screaming maniac is being apprehended by the police, put into a cell, and because of her unruly behaviour is handcuffed and physically abused.

The female doctor called in to examine her has all the cynicism possible about Chloe's bruising. She is less impressed by the fact that Police Sergeant Cowgate has been bitten and thrashed during the arrest, and that his duty PC has also suffered bruising and wounding.

Eventually, she herself, by working to the liberal rulebook, finds herself attacked, which at last opens her eyes (the attack could have closed both so vicious was it).

Aha! I hear you say. It's a play revealing police brutality that happens in the cells where no-one can see.

Well indeed a part of that is explored then dropped, because it is not the purpose of the play.

By the end of the first act the more astute thriller addicted audiences will have sussed out at least the main thrust of the plot.

In the second act it is revealed that Chloe is Sean, a transsexual, hence the strength which afflicted so much damage on her captors.

What could be then described as the nucleus of a Greek tragedy, is the revelation that Sean/Chloe is the son of Cowgate the Police Sergeant, and the father of little Jamie now being brought up by this coarse man, whose every other word begins with the letter 'f' he being that coarse. Sarge has never understood his own boy and it seems that is why Sean had the big one and was so disturbed.

At this point, what could have been a really interesting play turns first to melodrama and then to bathos.

Not happy with revealing that Sean/Chloe is the cop's son, and that (s)he is also the father of the child the cop is bringing up, it transpires the cop has now married the mother, Stef.

Things are further turned to ludicrous heights when it turns out that when Sean/Chloe was a jack-the-lad he was a rapist and killer, a body is found on the moors, and the gang he belonged to, most of them now in prison, are after him because he grassed them up and he is being sought by Cairns, a gang member designated to rub him out.

At this point I actually missed the one prospect of the plot that would have slain me. Little Jamie, Stef and Sean's son, actually isn't dying of TB in the attic. Shame really.

If you think things couldn't get worse, and where this plot, rather than mine, really goes off the rails is when handsome Michael, remember him? is discovered to be the Mr Big of the gang.

Well, I don't think I'm going to be castigated when I tell you that Mr Big seems to be a sensational walking pharmacist that would make James Bond's back up staff gnash their teeth with rage.

On his person, apart from his revolver, he has a substance similar to Puck's in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which transforms Sean/Chloe back to the original Chloe we all loved; another substance which puts the police sergeant and his wife out for the count; and yet another soaked handkerchief that puts the now seriously wounded Cairns out of his misery.

Michael, and the now drugged and brainwashed Chloe, wend their way into the sunset and a future in which we are apprised, though poor Chloe knows nothing of it, she will be conveniently removed.

I can't help feeling that I have missed a whole act of the play. For which I am grateful.

I am also amazed that the play was a Warehouse Production. Didn't anyone attend rehearsals and have a quiet word?

To add to my gobsmacking amazement, the director of this piece is the Artistic Director of the Warehouse. His last excursion to my knowledge was Blood Royal at the King's Head and you can read all about that in the archives of this website.

On the credit side, and I really do mean credit, faced with this incredible evening, the actors to a man do not put a foot wrong.

The amazing Rae Baker, I last saw her at BAC in Around the World In Eighty Days, tackles the part of Chloe with a stunning amount of virtuosity, lapsing every now and then into Sean's male vocal timbre.

Another recipient of past admiration from me is Natasha Gordon, seen here as Dr Amanda Holland. This is another actress who is seriously worthy of that epithet 'big time'.

Simon Greiff is a performer to note, along with Penelope Woodman and Colin Wells, whose part is absolutely preposterous.

However, I remain convinced that the play would have collapsed much earlier than it did were it not for the performance of the foul-mouthed Police Sergeant Bill Cowgate as given to us with a lot of relish by Frank Ellis.

God Bless and long live excellent actors. They deserve canonisation when faced with material like this.

Skin Deep by Richard Vincent. Directed by Ted Craig. Designed by Isla Shaw, Lighting by James Whiteside, Sound by Sev Lewkowicz, WITH: Rae Baker (Chloe Smith), Colin Wells (Michael), Simon Greiff (PC Gibbons/Simon Cairns), Frank Ellis (Sergeant Bill Cowgate), Natasha Gordon (Dr Amanda Holland), Penelope Woodman (Stef Cowgate). Produced by Warehouse Theatre Company, at The Croydon Warehouse Theatre, Dingwall Road, Croydon. 020 8680 4060. Until June 16 2002.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Croydon Warehouse Theatre website...