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Theatre revew: Kiss of the Spiderwoman

Do we really need yet another version of the Argentinian prison drama?

Menier Chocolate Factory

    Declan Bennett (Valentin) and Samuel Barnett (Molina)
    Declan Bennett (Valentin) and Samuel Barnett (Molina) (Phioto: Nobby Clark)

    There have been more versions of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel than any one person could possibly wish to see. The book was followed by a play, a musical (by Cabaret and Chicago creators Kander and Ebb) and most famously the movie, for which William Hurt won an Oscar. It was well deserved. But then, Hurt’s role of Molina, the extravagantly camp window dresser (“which practically makes me an interior designer”), who has been arrested because he is gay and shares an Argentinian prison cell with the equally extravagantly macho Valentin, is a peach of a part.

    In this new (and yet another) adaptation by José Rivera and Allan Baker, Molina is played by Samuel Barnett. Declan Bennett is Valentin, the revolutionary who views his cellmate’s sexuality with almost as much suspicion as he does the junta who torture him.

    You could, if you could be bothered, view the characters as the yin and yang of the male id. It might freshen what is otherwise the rather stale dramatic device of confining two opposite character types in one small space.

    As with the film, Barnett’s role is the more interesting. His Molina soothes Valentin’s torments with vivid descriptions of plots of his favourite romantic films. And it is here that Laurie Sansom’s production inventively breaks free of the airless underground prison in which all the action is set by illustrating Molina’s lovingly performed scenes with animated silhouettes projected on to the stark, concrete walls.

    Barnett, who came first came to notice as the Jewish schoolboy, Posner, in the original production of The History Boys, and is now co-starring with Elijah Wood in the Netflix crime comedy Dr Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, is a delight. He wears every emotion on the ragged sleeve of his prison togs, from pained sensitivity caused by Valentin’s disdain, via the cautious love he feels for his cellmate, and guilt for something that those who are new to the work should discover by watching it, rather than reading about it here.

    By comparison, Bennett’s brooding and bloke-ish Valentin is a one-note portrayal of masculinity.

    And although we learn that this fighting socialist is steeped in Marx and revolutionary thinking, there’s no intellectual intensity here. This all rather denudes the production of its point.

    Yet another version would make much more sense if it provided a vehicle for two outstanding performances. But, with just one, you’re left wondering quite what motivated everyone involved to add to the long list of Kisses.

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