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The Trials of Harvey Matusow
Published on Friday, 31 May 2013
5

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5 stars

Emporium Theatre (venue website)
Theatre
Run ended
Reviewed by Ben Aitken

If writer-actor-virtuoso Robert Cohen had spent a month telling the story of a New York Jew who dobbed in his Communist pals to the FBI, it would have been absolutely fine by me.

The titular Harvey started rooting for the Communists just after WWII, when it was cool to do so and might get you laid. But his conviction soon wanes, and Harvey starts ‘dropping dimes to the Fed’ – earning forty bucks a week grassing on comrades, turning them in to various State bodies bent on purging the country of lefties (lest they derail the good ol’ American Dream). Having jumped on Joseph McCarthy’s bandwagon and pedalled hard for a stint, Harvey soon elects to clamber off, coming clean about his treachery in a 1955 book called False Witness. The book gets Harvey banged-up on multiple counts of perjury, and on his release, Harvey jumps ship to London – which is where we encounter him, and where he starts spinning his picaresque yarn.

Harvey carries said yarn in a suitcase. There is a telephone with which he does his dirty-work (and which he accidentally drops: “Look what yer made me do, huh?”); jackets and hats that he slips on and off to suggest a season or a continent; a microphone that serves to conjure a BBC recording studio – the lack of set and props, in a delightful paradox, allows for the scale of the story. And it’s a funny story to boot, with some plum one-liners. Trying to convince us that a jam-jar is the instrument of the future, Harvey encourages us to consider less the noise it makes, and more the texture of its silence.    

Much of the play falls into a slippery no-man’s-land between history and fiction, testimony and tosh. What is unequivocal is the sheer powerful brilliance of Cohen’s script, which manages to marry meticulous political research (done at the University of Sussex, where Martusow’s archives are held) with bravura story-telling. And then there’s the performance – pitch-perfect, adroit, vivacious and charming.  Harvey’s the kind of guy you’d lend your last dime to, even if you knew damn well he’d betray you with it.

Credit is owed to Ralf Higgins’ direction for steering this performance. It is a herculean task to retain the interest and goodwill of a fringe crowd, late on a bank holiday Monday, for a ninety-minute monologue on a footnote of American politics. That Cohen emerges from his trials a minor star (in my eyes at least) is the greatest upset since East Worthing beat Aston Villa in a pre-season friendly between the wars. 

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