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Stage Review: Almost, Maine

Try as you might, East West's production of John Cariani's romantic comedy is hard not to fall for. Frances Arnold on why...
Feb 19, 2014 | 12:10 Wed

East West Theatre on dangerous ground here. A play about romance — opened on Valentine’s Day, no less — and so chock-full of quips and one-liners to demand genuine chemistry between a precariously bare bones cast… I won’t deny it; I had my doubts.

The Shanghai-based troupe’s latest production turns a spotlight on the romantic pairings of 19 all-too human individuals in the town of Almost, Maine. It comprises nine vignettes, all performed by a watchable, versatile cast of just six actors. Cute, quaint and generally very, very funny, at the heart of each of these short episodes is love in all its toe-curling awkwardness.

Fortunately, any doubts I had about this play quickly proved unfounded. Almost, Maine, while veering dangerously close to the saccharine, is utterly charming, surprisingly heart-warming and at points, laugh-out-loud funny. The action takes place in a fictional faraway Maine hamlet of Almost. It's peopled by a motley crew of characters whose respective paths are carved by chance meetings, misunderstandings and personal revelations.

Amid the hodgepodge of personalities to be found in Almost, Steve, played by Tom Szyszko in the drama’s fourth sketch, This Hurts, is a standout. Downright jumpy and almost debilitated by an irrational paranoia, Steve’s revelation comes courtesy of passionate, enigmatic Marvalyn, played by the engaging Fern Lim.

Continuing the duo’s play on the very language of love (is the hurt emotional or physical?) much of the work’s comedy centers around romantic puns, teased out to their absurd, literal conclusions. Think "falling in love", "broken hearts", that kind of thing. Overly simplistic? Perhaps, but it’s also these moments of ludicrousness that get the laughs and stop the play descending into the syrupy, mushy love-fest that it mercifully isn’t.

Case in point: Lim, again, and Owen Keats Bell in the fifth scene of the evening, Getting It Back. Superbly-cast as long-term partners on the brink of separation, one rejects the other’s love, returning the emotion in overtly symbolic big red suitcases.

Inevitably with a performance of this kind, some scenes work better than others. Likewise, not all pairings share the same levels of rapport: eminently blokey Randy (Bell) opposite BFF Chad (Aaron Garcia) are particularly charismatic together; while the latter’s romancing of Glory (Awesta Zarif) in Her Heart lacks the same credibility. These inconsistencies aside, it is overall a solid performance that manages to dodge the many, many cheesy pitfalls of John Cariani’s scripting.

Perhaps in an effort to pull at any resistant heartstrings, the icing on the cake comes courtesy of resident songstress, Emily Clark accompanied by Max Dreyer on guitar. Her musical preludes are totally captivating and a nice touch in an unashamedly festive performance.

This is one of those productions that, try as you might, is hard not to fall for. There’s nothing hard-hitting about it, no shocking disclosures and relatively few twists and turns. It is what it is. It gives you a glow and a warmth that, much like watching a Richard Curtis movie, may feel a little bit silly. That’s fair, but it will most likely also make you smile. And by our book, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

A wintry performance to warm the cockles, Almost, Maine resumes its two-week run tomorrow night at Strictly Designers United’s new space (grandly opening this weekend, incidentally).

Tickets cost 150rmb presale with a percentage of ticket sales going to children’s charity, Olivia’s Place Foundation. More details right here.