Simon Ward reviews Indecent Proposal at Southwark Playhouse
Jack Engelhard’s bestselling novel was published 33 years ago. The movie version came out 28 years ago. So it is a curious decision to return to the notorious moral dilemma at the heart of this piece now, in 2021, in particular post #MeToo. However, the moral intrigue of the central premise remains as powerful as ever. As well as the sexual politics and sexual tension, there also emerges a critique of the American Dream – why should this couple, who are both working, be so poor and desperate that they are susceptible when temptation is placed in their way? College fees, medical bills, nothing comes for free or even cheap. People come to Atlantic City as literally a last resort, a desperate attempt at escape. And it often seems as if there is no way out, until an offer falls from the sky…
I suspect that for most people, the Adrian Lyne movie starring Demi Moore, Woody Harelson and Robert Redford may be their first reference point for this show, but it is best to forget all that as much as possible. Beyond the bare bones of the setup, they couldn’t be more different. For a start this is a musical and this is its world premiere, so forget most of what you think you know.
We are thrown straight in as the audience in the Ruckus Room of the Oasis Casino Hotel Resort, where resident (but fading) star Annie (powerfully and poignantly played by Jacqeline Dankworth) is our MC. She is joined on stage by Jonny (Norman Bowman), whose singing career still leaves him struggling to make the rent on a literally crumbling apartment. He in turn drags his wife Rebecca (a stand-out performance by Lizzy Connolly) up to join him in a duet, even though her day-job is working in marketing for the Casino.
Into this world of small-time hustlers enters, somewhat incongruously perhaps, a high roller, Larry (Ako Mitchell) betting and losing millions of dollars. Jonny watches somewhere between awe and horror at this, before Larry invites him to join him and suggest a bet. Whereupon, Larry finally wins his money back and credits Jonny as his good luck charm. Jonny has been lured into Larry’s world and it’s only a matter of time before THAT proposal will be made – one night with Becky in return for a million dollars.
Anna Kelsey’s ingenious set manages to incorporate a bed that slides out from under the stage floor, and provide the battleground for Jonny and Becky’s anguished debates. When Becky lets Jonny know of the million dollar offer, to be redeemed in two weeks when Larry returns, they travel the road from furious denunciation and rejection, through to rationalising away the cost and imagining how liberating all that money could be. The question of the money will never go away – it has eaten into their relationship, whatever they do. In the end, Becky makes a decision as Jonny falls to pieces. The first half of the show climaxes with Becky emerging in the dress that we know means she is going through with it.
Jonny’s life becomes a nightmare, quite literally as the second half begins, and he imagines all too luridly what is taking place between his wife and Larry, as they reprise the opening duet that Jonny and Becky had shared. Becky emerges and is ready to carry on their life, using the money as they had planned, but Jonny is unable to accept it. He is still being eaten up by it, not helped by Larry returning to rub more salt into the wound. As Becky grows in confidence and strength, Jonny feels diminished and ashamed. He needs time and space to come to terms with what has happened, and to find his way back to Becky.
As a musical it works brilliantly – Michael Conley’s lyrics and Dylan Schlosberg’s music add depth and nuance to the emotional journeys of the characters, and music can offer hope in the most seemingly hopeless situations. This is a triumph which breathes new life into the exploration of an age-old dilemma.
Indecent Proposal is running at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD until 27th November
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