Flux Theatre’s production of Chutney is slick, stylish and self-aware – with assured direction and promising performances. I just wasn’t mad about the play itself.
The sanguinary premise of Reece Connolly’s Chutney is rich, both in dramatic possibility and comic potential. Director Georgie Staight’s preset sees audiences enter to a foreboding empty knife block, a singing fish suspended from the ceiling and Sophie Ellis-Bextor Murder on the Dancefloor accompaniment. There’s a sense of ‘campy horror’, self-awareness and fun to proceedings before the actors even step on stage, and you ready yourself for the sex, gore and provocation of a John Waters film, sexy but slippery aesthetic of Riverdale and shrewd knowingness of an American Horror Story episode.
What follows is undoubtedly an accomplished production from Flux Theatre. Rightfully Offie-nominated, Jasmine Swan’s set and Matt Cater’s lighting design are wholly effective at establishing the slick but lifeless, ‘pretty but empty’ world our protagonists inhibit. We’re introduced to a white, cis, heterosexual, Tropicana-drinking couple who live dull existences by their own admission – until a shared and lascivious passion for barbarically slaughtering their neighbours’ pets comes to light. Direction is assured, performances are promising – and that, paired with the deliciously macabre set-up, should ensure plain sailing.
For me though, the efforts of the cast and creative team reveal themselves to be superior to the play itself. You want – and expect – the writing to have a satisfying bite, for the super-objective underpinning the one-liners and (albeit impressive) bloody simulations of hedgehog executions to reveal itself and stand proud. The target of this satire, you assume, will be the banality of being middle-class, suburbia-living, 9-to-5 working, Thai-Green-Curry-eating, and therefore – by proxy – painfully ‘unremarkable’. And it appears, particularly after an unsubtle intervention from the fish, that Chutney‘s underlying objective is to make a larger, more profound comment on the world.
The problem is that Connolly’s play just doesn’t seem to critique or unpack much beyond the obvious – certainly not enough which’d allow me to describe it as particularly politicised. There are twists in the narrative but no ‘rug-pull moment’ that would imbue it with new meaning (particularly in relation to the experiences of people beyond the deranged couple presented onstage) or supply it with the bite you crave.
Perhaps Connolly touches on an interesting point towards the end, but if it’s deliberate, it seems too fleeting. One could argue what you watch unfold is essentially an intensified and parodied version of what the middle-classes already do (and get away with) when hunting: countering their own boredom and unremarkableness by setting their dogs on foxes, or posing with the lioness they’ve paid thousands to fly out and spear. If this is the intended root of Chutney‘s commentary, it’s a shame it comes across as a bit of a throwaway or seems to be not quite as interrogated as it ought to. Equally – if I’ve read it as an allegory which was never particularly the intention, and this is a black comedy purely about millennial solitude – I craved more clarity from the text about how we’re supposed to exit the auditorium thinking and feeling.
So don’t get me wrong – I think Flux’s production of Chutney is a really strong one: stylish, confident and well-handled. But it just suffers from Connolly’s text perhaps not entirely knowing what it wants to be. Of course it’s possible to be both a black comedy and a thriller – but I’m not sure either are quite achieved in its current form. Proceedings bounce between the two genres (a bit like a squash match that the couple mentions satisfies their friends…), but it’d benefit the play – in my opinion, at least – for the writer to have the same certainty about what the intended audience effect is – as the protagonists have for the fact their bloody hobby is the best way to restore passion to their fragile relationship. If Connolly wants people to howl with laughter, I’d dial up the comedy – allowing the situation to become more ludicrous, and tightening some of the wit of the one-liners so they consistently send the house into hysterics. Or if the intention, as I feel it may be, is that the comedy transitions into something darker and more profound – it’d be worth tweaking language so it’s crystal clear what he’s trying to say.