Review: Red Speedo (ATC Waterfront)
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Having only just arrived in New Zealand, one might assume that the first show I got to see would be distinctly kiwi, and provide me with a fresh example of theatre in this new and strange land. The local offering at the ATC Waterfront Theatre however, was from American writer Lucas Hnath; set in American, and about openly advertising about the parable to The American Dream. Though I am not always a massive fan of being told what themes to look for, I was intrigued by the focus on the idea that “The Winner Takes All” in a show about an Olympic swimmer the night before his big race as he is caught in a spider web of love, betrayal, and ambition. Trying to properly analyse such a multifaceted concept with a cast of 4 and a run time of 90 minutes is ambitious in itself, but with the right attitude and motivation, anything is possible.
From the moment the curtain is raised, it is clear that Hnath is the main attraction of the production. His writing is incredibly sharp, well-paced, and delivers his critique without feeling overly aggressive. The dialogue is almost melodic, with the rhythm and tension rising and dropping so precisely is sends shivers down the spine. The play poses critical commentary on the selfish brutality of the American Dream, while effectively constructing the surprisingly complex plot and keeping the audience hanging on the next line. The sprinkling of dark comedy and irony (“they take their kids to the theatre…they get all this culture that makes them smarter and shit”) helps along the way. Towards the end however the performance seemed to run out of steam, with a slightly indulgent (if amusing) slippery and exhausted fight scene immediately following a gripping and tense scuffle.
Making the most of Hnath’s script, Benjamin Henson’s direction never misses a beat. Relentlessly fast, the tone and atmosphere made the most of the script and the cast. Given the tempo and timing of some scenes the rehearsal process seems to have been intense, and it pays off in how flawless the performances are in their timing and delivery. Ryan Carter stars as Ray, who acts as the perfect model for the American Dream; not much talent, not much intelligence, but plenty of determination and desperation. Carter’s performance portrays a character who wants success not because of his own ambition, but because of the ambition of others; believing it is what he wants because it is what he is expected to want. Ironically, his simple desires and nature add great complexity to a character that would have been very easy to over play.
It does not stop Wesley Dowell from stealing the stage though. Playing Peter, Ray’s brother and representative, he opens the performance with a six-minute sales pitch monologue of his silent and daydreaming sibling, and maintains the endless energy of a man risking and losing everything every other minute only to win it back with a quick tongue and a talent for manipulation the next. Of the cast Chelsie Preston Crayford, who plays Ray’s long-suffering ex Lydia, unfortunately does not leave much of an impression. She ticks all the necessary boxes; edgy, damaged and ultimately smitten and lonely, but I never sympathised with her, or felt the pain she was going through. She was far too cold to be likeable, which was a pity as out of the characters she is the closest thing to morality in the play.
Despite a largely superb cast, script, and direction, the performance wasn’t much to look at. Put in the very uncommon position in theatre where too high a budget meets too little visual creativity, the set consists of a high wall (the side of a pool, at the edge of which Ray is almost always perched) that is rather difficult to see over from the stalls, a bench, and a poolside walkway no bigger than a subway platform, all, inexplicably, bright red. Given the limited demands of the script, it almost feels that the play would be more at home in a fringe venue, or at least a much less grand theatre. However, given the means the creatives in design had to hand, the over stylised and uninspired design couldn’t help but feel like a massive waste of space and opportunity. It won’t ruin the experience of watching “Red Speedo”, but for me at least it got in the way of properly enjoying the brilliance of the script and performance.
“Red Speedo” is not the dramatic stab at the American Dream it hopes to be, but in terms of performances, direction and script, its strengths overcome its flaws, and it delivers an entertaining play and a dark critique of what it means to be successful in modern times. Three stars.