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October 6, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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Mr. Marmalade

A four-year-old girl whose imaginary friend pitches up with a suitcase full of dildos and pornography and then snorts cocaine and throws rubber penises around the room? Disturbing. I like the fact that this particular show is sponsored by D.Vice (they of marketing genius and designer sex gear for adventurous folk). But I’ll reluctantly suggest that there might be a sniff of irony here (reluctant because I’d hate to suggest that D.Vice at all sanctions the particular kinds of ‘social ills’ this show hammers). Noah Haidle (he of Julliard and Princeton) is touted as this particularly talent-heavy young New York playwright and his script is certainly challenging and thick with confrontation.

The premise is that the central character – four year old Lucy – filters adult material through her imaginary friend Mr Marmalade. At first her failure to imagine a more suitable playmate strikes as a quaint and amusing conceit – he can only schedule her in between meetings, for example, and he has a personal assistant to “pencil in” their tea parties. But as things progress the show draws a disturbing friction between Lucy’s innocence and the darker things surrounding her, and Mr Marmalade starts to embody the kinds of social issues perhaps better left to a political imagination. “With friends like these…” runs the tagline, and absolutely Mr Marmalade stands out as, at best, a failure of imagination.

It’s a difficult show to pull off. The central challenge for the actors, especially the lead Brooke Williams (as Lucy) is staying in character – striking that slight balance between adult content and the voice it’s delivered in. For the most part the cast succeeds, and Williams demonstrates a great ability to deal with shifts in tone, using her physicality and body to evoke the presence of a fouryear- old while her voice comes across as mimicking and filtering various adult voices. The innocence/underbelly tension often tips into the absurd, provoking laughter and sometimes general uncomfortable giggling from an audience set up to be discomforted rather than strictly entertained. Technically it’s a proficient staging, though stronger distinctions in lighting or sound might have been used to relieve the dramatic burden on the actors.

There’s a particularly awkward humour in the script and the cast does well to find it, but the sheer mass of issues (single mums, sex, suicides, absent fathers, drug addiction, domestic abuse, single mums, divorces, absent fathers…) clouds the comedy and makes laughing feel uneasy – perverse even. Though Haidle’s social comment is interesting and probably worth his exploration, the show lacks a subtlety that might come as his writing matures and finds ways to work with more discrete narratives. I felt myself desperately searching for optimism and when it came I was unconvinced. Sometimes a dildo on stage is hard to swallow. I mean…(and I guess herein lies the point) there’ s a definite loss of childhood naivety that can’t be regained even as the lights are turned up, the coke vacuumed up, and the plastic penises cleaned and put away.

Mr. Marmalade
Written by Noah Haidle
Directed by Sophie Roberts
At Bats
Sep 30 – Oct 11

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