There aren’t many shows in which the performers douse themselves in enough Rioja to make a Downton dinner party descend into debauchery.
You could put yourself comfortably over the limit just from sucking on a performer’s sodden shirt. I’m a little surprised, in fact, that no-one does, given there’s so much grabbing and groping going on.
There’s also goring, but that has more to do with the trip to Pamplona taken by the pair of writers at the centre of this Ernest Hemingway adaptation than any peculiar peccadilloes.
It’s a passionate piece fuelled by alcohol, an ever present in the form of a set-dominating wine glass chandelier from which the cast source and spill their never ending supply of tipples.
Based on the US writer’s first novel, it follows bullfight-obsessed journalist Jake and his Jewish novelist friend Robert, two US ex-pats living in Paris whose lives are shaken by the arrival of Jake’s old flame, English rose Lady Brett Ashley.
She brings out the fire in Gideon Turner’s secretive, insular Jake and sparks an otherwise unseen passion in Jye Frasca’s staid and previously smitten Robert.
But if Paris is hot, Pamplona is sweltering and, among the raging bulls, sweaty passion is released, or not, as the case may be.
For all the soggy vests, passionate embraces and onstage rumpy, it’s hard to choose the saddest character. Turner’s reticent Jake has painful secrets buried deeper than a bull’s horn in a drunken matador’s bottom. Frasca’s Robert has his dream of acceptance shattered like an unwanted wine glass tossed aside after it has been emptied. But Josie Taylor brings an ancient hurt and heartbreaking longing to a woman whose esteem is shot and who must find male reassurance wherever she can. Jack Holden brings grace, naivety and boyish charm to the part of a young yet masterful matador.
Prior to the show’s opening much has been made of Trio Farouche, the saxophone, drum and double-bass combo that provides a live jazz score. Director and playwright Alex Helfrecht has built them into the production rather than leaving them hidden, and while, as the show finds its feet, the actors battle with the music for command of our ears, by the end this skirmish has eased into an amicable understanding and the jazz trio adds sultry augmentation to the vino-licious passion and pain of Hemingway’s tale.