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Canary Gold
Published on Monday, 19 August 2013

3 stars

C venues - C (venue website)
14-26 Aug, 12:10pm-1:20pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

Canary Gold is an interesting play, slightly flawed in concept, but performed with verve. The plot surrounds a modern-day businessman’s plan to import malmsey – that’s wine from the Canary Islands – and the machinations of his trading partners as they try to unload a particularly precious vintage. We also see scenes from the colonial era, which teach us about the history of malmsey and carry some knowing parallels to the present day. But I was attracted to Canary Gold for one simple reason: it’s performed, which supertitles, in three languages, English, Spanish and French.

The technique works well during the colonial scenes, when it reinforces a sense of tribalism or general separation; but in the twenty-first century part of the play, it often seems to be done for no particular reason.  The dialogue is fast, making it a challenge to follow the captions, and occasionally the actors or parts of the set blocked my view of the words.  Most oddly of all, there was a scene which combined physical comedy with dialogue in French, which meant I had to choose between reading the supertitles or looking at the capering.  In general – while I admire the decision to try something different – I felt the multi-lingual sections needed to be approached with a little more consideration for the audience.

Visually, on the other hand, this play works very well.  There’s some elegant design around a simple set, which successfully evokes scenes as varied as a sailing ship and an upmarket apartment using little more than a packing crate on wheels.  And the 16th-century costumes are gorgeous: look out in particular for Elizabeth I, whose outfit is made partially with pages from the Financial Times.  Somewhat unexpectedly, Elizabeth also breaks into an operatic aria, and while that’s not my area of expertise it seemed a remarkably impressive performance to my untrained ear.

The modern-day scenes, however, are less stylish.  At times they were a touch too realistic – you even have to sit through a business presentation – and the script is a little heavy on overt exposition.  There are a couple of highlights, including one fast-flowing scene where we see a woman seeking a mortgage being passed from bank to bank until she’s been lent far more than she could possibly afford, but overall I thought this part of the play needed to focus down more onto what’s truly essential to the plot.

There are some hints of clever parallels between modern times and history, but I felt they remained under-developed; the colonial sections are almost relegated to scene-setting for the contemporary plot.  Or so it seems, until the jaw-droppingly weird moment when a 16th-century merchant arrives on stage with an electric guitar.  And that, I think, sums it up: Canary Gold is fun and adventurous – piling up a host of neat ideas, though sometimes in a slightly ramshackle order.  They haven’t quite found treasure this time, but I’d sail with them again.

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