Thursday 9 June 2016

An American Accent in London

The stage version of the highly-regarded independent movie Sideways opened last week at the St James's Theatre in London, with a script adapted from his original novel by the author Rex Pickett. 

Miles (forty-something, aspiring author, divorcee, borderline alcoholic) and Jack (his old college room-mate and only friend) take a tour of the vineyards of Southern California sampling Pinot Noir, for which Miles has a particular and well-informed enthusiasm. Jack is about to marry an heiress and wants an extended stag week, shagging his way through the local women. They get into scrapes, with intermittently hilarious results. The movie was funny and generous, with terrific performances by Paul Giammatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack. Giammatti, with his toothy lopsided grin and melancholy air was wonderful; Church as the fading and chronically priapic actor perfectly cast.

While the film expanded the original novel, adding lightness and wit and depth, this stage production seemed more of a contraction. We lost the bright Californian sunshine, the sweeping Pacific Highway, the verdant vineyards and the golf courses of the Santa Ynez Valley. The road trip, despite ingenious staging, never really seemed to leave the garage.

The female leads were both terrific, the males less so (they were vocally interchangeable, and way too shouty). The misogyny was far more pronounced than in the movie (and sometimes breathtakingly so, as several reviews noted) and the anachronisms accumulated - did waitresses, did anyone, have mobile phones twenty years ago? And even if they did was it theatrically necessary to have quite so much exposition in the form of telephone calls? Would anyone with claims to oenophilia open a very valuable bottle of wine and pour it immediately without letting it breathe? And into used glasses? Does anyone ever swirl and sniff champagne?

My main point of resistance was the actors' voices. British actors are, in my experience, seldom capable of doing even generic American accents convincingly - they never get the stress and pitch and intonation right, and as a result tend to sound like the kind of tiresome English disc jockey who affects  a mid-Adlannic drawl. It's British English with a top dressing of yee-haw. They never seem to come from anywhere particular - from Boston, say, or the Bronx or Seattle or LA. Aren't there speech coaches who work with actors on this? Or failing that, couldn't the actors and directors watch a few movies?

Another thing British actors tend to do is deliver their American lines straight, never introducing irony or sarcasm or any other reading. They never, for instance, work against the line in that odd and attractive sing-song way Americans (and not just actors) do to signify deliberate banality. They never seem to get a grip on high rise terminals or vocal fry or any other characteristics of female American speech (perhaps no bad thing as vocal fry makes my teeth grind). I find it hard to explain but imagine (say) the reunited cast of Friends appearing in a show such as Sideways - or at least four of them. They'd be off to a flying start because (say) David Schwimmer (Ross) had such a whiney adenoidal idiolect that his character was fully expressed whenever he opened his mouth.

There's also a physical aspect - how British and American actors stand and move and breath, how they appear when simply responding to others. How they act when they're not acting. They have very different presences, presumably down to different training. Is Stanislavski behind all this?

Not a great show then, although there were some good moments, clever staging and the press night audience hooted and hollered and stamped and whistled. I'd be quite happy to see a permanent ban on theatrical versions of films (apart from my long-cherished scheme for a theatrical adaptation of Withnail and I with an all-female cast . . .

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