Illustration by Eloïse Fabre

On a dark, drizzly Tuesday afternoon what else is there to do in Oxford other than go to a play? Plush could possibly be on the cards… but with the age indiscriminate fresher’s flu still making its presence very known to me it did not seem sensible to stop myself from having a more ‘wholesome’ evening. ‘Please Clap’ was the play of choice for Tuesday 26th October and it certainly did fill the latter part of my evening, although given that it started at 9:30 pm it would have been hard pushed not to.

Written and directed by George Rushton, ‘Please Clap’ explores the trials and tribulations of fame and early stardom through the setting of a talk show. With discussions of miscarriages, relationship breakdowns and obvious invasions of privacy, ‘Please Clap’ is far from superficial. The play stars Alfie Dry as talk show host ‘Dougie Harrison’, Lily Lefkow-Green as Ariane (our worn-down child star), and Leah Aspden as Serafina (a crazed super-fan). Dry’s Dougie is crucial to the dynamic between the three leads; like any good host Dougie provides an energy which saves the opening scenes from flopping slightly. Happily, it was rare that any of Dry’s jokes or quips missed the mark as he romped through his performance. He also perfects the faux jubilance that so characterises an American talk show host (think the saccharine Jimmy Fallon). He is aided by the play’s structure in this, as like a live talk show the play depicts advertisement breaks which allow Dry to compelling switch from sickeningly happy and complimentary, to caustically cold in an instant. If this play was a study in the art of the sycophantic, it would have excelled. 

Yet, with its handling of our two female roles the play begins to dip a little. Both Lefkow-Green and Aspden do as well as they can within the scope of their roles. The disinterestedness of Lefkow-Green’s Ariane is palpable from the minute she enters. Wine guzzling and monosyllabic, her stoicism filled the stage. For much of her first scenes it was easy to question if any acting was actually taking place as her performance so accurately resembled the disinterest seen from the likes of the Olsen twins, or from any strained teenager. She could have been any tired student disillusioned with life. Yet, on reflection there was a subtly to this that deserves credit. One sympathises with her hobby of making clay figures only to immediately demolish them when one sees it as a metaphor for the mundanity of life, rather than just a very sad habit. One’s sympathies also increase as towards the end of the play she is told, “you are an actor, not a person”. It was a crushing moment in the play that, despite its intention, reminded us of her humanity. When it comes to why she is on the talk show things do not start to look up – she is there to promote a film which quite simply “mean[s] nothing”. It appears to be a classic case of the self-indulgence of fame; a star makes a film about their childhood and career to reinvigorate present interest. 

What with the visible boredom and detached aura, one could doubt the skill of Lefkow-Green’s performance until the arrival of Serafina. Serafina is the play’s foil; she justifies Ariane’s tired attitude by highlighting the strain fans can place on a star. Ariane’s guarded outlook becomes understandable, rather than bitchy. Serafina also reminds us of the superficiality of the media as she is brought onto ‘The Lights with Dougie Harrison’ (our talk show) as a pawn to weasel information out of Ariane. The women are played off eachother in a somewhat cliched battle of jealousy. As ever, they fight over men and fame. Apsden excels in the role of Serafina as she brings a much-needed resurgence when the play begins to drag. This is very apt as in the world of the play Serafina is involved as a means of enlivening the show. Aspden’s accent game is also incredibly strong, I still have no idea if she is Scottish, northern or speaks in perfect RP. However, there is always the sense that more could have been done with their roles. We are left wondering why the loving fan turns on her idol so suddenly (the play justifies her shift as a desire for honesty, but that doesn’t quite sit right)? And why Ariane puts up with so much from Dougie and Serafina?  Lefkow-Green excels as secrets about Ariane’s past are revealed and flashes of emotion spark through. It is in these instances that her previous stoicism is appreciated as a performance.

All three actors are let down by the premise of the play. It takes a lot to make an actual talk show work, let alone a fictional one. The play was also not helped by an extreme breakdown of the barriers between audience and actor. Sometimes it was unclear whether instructions about the play proceedings were being given to us as audience members of the Burton Taylor Studio, or as the audience of the talk show. There were several instances where the play’s ‘stage manager’ (real or fake – I am still uncertain) addressed the audience in rhyme, and his information was both relevant to the audience in both of its capacities (also real or fake). While this could have been a clever means of assimilating fiction and reality the nuances of the attempt were lost.  This may well be a personal preference, but the self-indulgence of a glowing please clap sign and audience participation was a little much for me. However, all three did as well as could be expected to keep their audience engaged – Lefkow-Green’s in character fast response to a dropped phone was a genuinely enjoyable piece of audience participation.

All in all, ‘Please Clap’ was a valiant effort at a very interesting concept. I cannot fault any of the leads on their performances; all embodied and exceeded their parts. However, as a refined piece of drama ‘Please Clap’ might need some work given that by the end of the night I was more affected by our accidently thrown away tub of ‘Ben and Jerry’s’, which was bought for the soothing of the aforementioned flu, than most of what transpired on stage. To be fair the loss of the ice cream was a saga like no other. But, in general the play was solidly formed and in the latter half began to show some grit – it was definitely worth a watch for its study of fame, grounding approach to stardom, and humbling look at the limelight.