Rob Hayes is about to conquer the West End with his debut play 9 Out of 12 Steps, but for now his short play Excellent Choice showcases a wry wit and penchant for the surreal – even stranger when placed in the Old Vic Tunnels for the VAULT festival (and set in an antique wine shop), this impresses but suffers a little from just being so bizarre. Well performed and subtly directed, it’s not a bad piece, but these ideas needed a full-length play to be developed fully.
Jeff Rawle and Ben Dilloway star (respectively) as an unusual wine shop owner and a customer, but little is as it seems. The wine shop owner seems more interested in the stories surrounding his many bottles of rare wine, while the customer is calmly hell-bent on spending an extraordinary sum of money – but what exactly is he looking for? I won’t reveal the numerous twists and turns that dot the piece; suffice it to say that the plot shifts angles at a rather impressive tangent multiple times, jumping from absurdist farce, to adventure story, to religious myth.
And there is the main criticism to be levelled at the piece – it seems unsure as to what it is. At first, it is enjoyably obtuse, an almost Beckettian comedy of consumerist sales politics, but then it suddenly shifts into an adventure story/thriller à la the recent Liam-Neeson-vehicle Unknown before becoming the next book in a Dan Brown saga. It’s not as if any of these sections or moments don’t make sense (amazingly); they just don’t seem to have any relation to each other. If the piece is a thriller, why the long, absurdist opening? If it’s a religious epic, why the strange thriller elements? And so on.
If taken as a whole, the story that is being developed is interesting and gripping, but needs a far longer play to be given the space to breathe – in whatever form it finally ends up. The dialogue is funny, gripping and insightful, and Hayes writes well for both bizarre characters; it is to his credit that, despite the difficulty I had linking the entire narrative logically, I was emotionally invested in the characters and their plights. Both performers give very strong and insightful performances, and it is a pleasure to see the subtlety in their work – let’s put it this way, in a play this odd neither character seemed contrived, which just shows the quality of both performers.
Ned Bennett has directed this with great attention to detail, building very subtle staging into a two-hander that gives his actors space to move as needed. Having walls denoted by lines of empty wine bottles is a pleasant touch, and the constant background tick of a clock adds tension.
However, in its entirety it needs to decide what it is. Is this a short play with too many plots, or a fragment of a large, complex beast of a play we have yet to see? Either way, it took too long to get to the reveal that this is actually a thriller – or maybe it didn’t take long enough to be the post-dramatic comedy about luxury shopping it could have been. I don’t know! What is clear from the piece is that the actors can act, the director can direct, the writer can write, but why Eye Saw wanted to stage it in its current form I simply don’t know. Their literature talks a lot about wanting to stage pieces that are entertaining, which this certainly is (the discussion it has generated certainly is!), but there’s something incomplete about it that needs addressing.