'Can money really buy you happiness?' is the question posed by writer/director Felix Westcott in this début outing by Half Rhyme Productions. We're at a hotel bar furnished with a couple of red/chrome stools, as smooth investment banker (boo!) Jim (Liyang Han, nicely relaxed from the start) toys with an Old Fashioned cocktail - or four - and chats with the bartender. Or, more accurately, intones at length on the extent (unparallelled) of his own work ethic and the merits (alpha plus plus) of his rise from Nowheresville to Platinum Card holder at the Hotel Fantastic. Self-absorbed as he is, he fails signally to notice he's talking wholly in clichés from a self-improvement manual. After 10 minutes or so of smug and superficial blather, he pauses for just long enough for the bartender to give us a snippet of her home life before resuming the monologue and then – surprise development – breaking into rhyming couplets in a kind of ersatz-rap précis of his irresistible rise to wealth and status.
When a youngster (Kier MacLean) bursts in on the lounge with an irruption of braying laughter and bounce, the needle on the energy dial zips to maximum as he flails about him, heckling the bartender and threatening, almost blackmailing our city type:
'For just £5 a month you can help this poor investment banker!'
I laughed out loud at this sally, but otherwise, once we'd adjusted to the shock of the new, I thought the character never quite developed beyond the formulaic. So in place of the alcohol and cocaine and anger against his father and generic bluster, I wanted behaviour individualised in its manifestation; and were there indications of cause underlying the effect, then for those causes to be colourful and fresh. In this respect, Felix's use of verse as a coda to the repartee showed the way, since it was cleverly judged: a touch of zaniness but plausibly grounded in character, and backed by music that added to the effect without drowning it.
Jaya Rana plays our bartender dressed in black-and-white with white gloves. No cocktail I've ever seen poured comes straight out of a single spirits bottle to be served naked in a brandy glass. I'm told an Old Fashioned requires a minimum of Bourbon, Angostura Bitters, a sugar cube, topped by a slice of orange and a cocktail cherry, and this was surely an omission of research as well as a missed opportunity for a little mixing-and-shaking stage business. Jaya fares pretty well in a rather underwritten part, mostly reacting to her two customers rather than managing to initiate dialogue. Par for the course for a barista, one might say. Sure, but a dash of heightened reality would not have come amiss, and the dramatic possibilities in her character were rather left unexplored by the writer, even allowing for the short (c. 50 minutes) running time.
Kier managed the aggressive aspects of his lad with plenty of bite, though I might just have liked something more sotto voce for contrast in the rare quieter moments of his outbursts. Liyang Han was effective both in his early narcissism and expressed insensitivity towards other people, and also later when riled and pushing back against the anarchic nihilism of his adversary.
I'll look out with interest for the next venture from Felix Westcott; he already has his contribution to a terrific Chicago on his CV, and with a little more originality of subject matter and distinctiveness of voice, I believe he will build on that assurance of talent.