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Review: Frankie and Johnny at the New Wolsey, Ipswich

Kelly McGillis

Kelly McGillis puts in a 'deeply moving' performance

By Wilf Arasaratnam
Ipswich resident

It's not every day that you get two Hollywood stars descending on the New Wolsey Theatre so I entered the theatre with anticipation.

However, rather than this being some post-Hollywood gimmick, the casting of Americans Kelly McGillis and Rolf Saxon suits Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune as it is very much an American export.

Written by the American playwright Terrence McNally, the play is exclusively set in the cramped apartment of Frankie, a waitress in a New York café, and the plot concerns her post-date verbal joustings with her date, Johnny, a chef who works in the same café.

The play opens with Bach's Goldberg Variations. However, this is ironically contrasted with the opening dialogue which consists of both Johnny and Frankie's coital grunts which are shrouded in darkness.

Eventually, the lights are raised and we see Kelly McGillis's Frankie and Rolf Saxon's Johnny burst into laughter after a scantily clad McGillis tumbles out of bed.

This play is like the dramatic equivalent of one of Johnny's peppery western omelettes. We are introduced to the lives of this pair through moving dialogue spiced with with humorous anecdotes.

Contrasting characters

The main theme of the play is the contrast in what the two characters want.

Rolf Saxon and Kelly McGillis in Frankie and Johnny
Rolf Saxon and Kelly McGillis share an intimate moment

Johnny is convinced that due to the strength of his feeling and the coincidences that they both share in their lives that both Frankie and him are destined to be together for the rest of their lives.

Frankie on the other hand is emotionally cautious and thinks he's some kind of mad man that she was foolish enough to invite into her apartment.

I think it is a reflection of the quality of the acting and the painstakingly authentic set that I felt that I had gone back in time to the late 1980s and that I was really in Frankie's apartment.

All sorts of beautiful touches supported the well delivered dialogue: from authentic props such as the record player to the subtle lighting design that evocatively suggested the rising daylight that beamed into Frankie's apartment.

After the strong first act, I feared the production would lose its way in the second half.

However, this fear was quickly dispelled as the verbal sword play that occurred in the first act mellowed and we were finally let into psyches of both characters.

We finally see McGillis's vulnerable Frankie open up to Saxon's Johnny and both performances are quite powerful and raw as the traumas that have proceeded their middle aged years are laid bare and shared with all of us.

The evening that I spent with McGillis and Saxon's Frankie and Johnny I felt was deeply moving and funny at the same time.

Their gritty and well depicted portrayals of their characters meant that the audience was not dazzled by the glamour of Hollywood but was gently bathed in the afterglow of a well rounded and satisfying performance.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from 22-27 March, 2010.

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