Saturday 30 August 2014

Autobahn @ The King's Head Theatre

Inside a car there's no escape.  Driving down the highway there's nowhere to go but speed on ahead.  It's inside cars that we're forced, however reluctantly, into conversation, a place where honesty and truth bubble to the surface.  And, like the titular autobahn where there's no speed limit, the words just come flowing out at full throttle.

Driving is also a deeply American ritual, so Neil LaBute's black comedy Autobahn (presented by American theatre company Savio(u)r) really is a darker look under the hood of the American Dream.  Structured as seven duologues all taking place within the same car setting, the characters range from the comic, to the absurd and the frightening.  What's striking, though, is the underlying realism - there's truth to these characters and their situations, from a silent mother picking up her rebellious daughter from rehab, to a wife cheating on her husband with multiple partners.  Humour underlines much of LaBute's witty script, largely focusing on grammar and wordplay, alongside a constant sense of foreboding.

Two duologues stood out in particular, reflecting the two extremes of the production: 'Bench Seat' and 'Road Trip'.  The former involves a young couple see-sawing between young love ("wanna make out?") and breaking up.  ZoĆ« Swenson-Graham plays a psychotic, high maintenance girlfriend; Tom Slatter the hapless victim of her endless chatter.  It's a fun skit, but with an amusing youthful awkwardness that's highly relatable.

'Road Trip', however, is a total contrast, focusing on a young girl and her manipulative, paedophilic schoolteacher.  Where the other scenes have the audience awaiting a punchline, this scene has tension from the start: the outcome is easily predicted making the young girl's ignorance all the more horrifying.  A sinister subject, here sensitively portrayed by Swenson-Graham and Henry Everett.

In fact, it's no coincidence that both of these scenes involve Swenson-Graham, also artistic director of the company.  Her ability to transform from character to character is mesmerising, perfectly balancing comedy with truth.  She is the star amongst a very skilled, four-strong cast.

The images of endless highways projected behind the actors and the classic country-rock soundtrack make for a very American production.  Yet the universal themes of Autobahn ensure this play is relevant on both sides of the Atlantic.


Watch: Autobahn runs at the Kings Head Theatre until 20th September.

Many thanks to the kind folk at Official Theatre for the ticket. Follow #LDNTheatreBloggers on Twitter for more reviews.