Should a play called Chicken have quite so many ‘stock’ characters? Sorry, no one could resist dabbling in culinary references: Michael Coveney called it “fit for a critical casserole” and Henry Hitchings in the Standard felt he could only identify “a nugget” within Mike Batistick’s play.
We are in the New York melting pot of the Bronx – or possibly Washington Heights, reviewers weren’t sure which side of the Harlem River this is set - but since the accents are all over the continent it would be picky to ask for such precision. Wendall (Craig Kelly), a blue collar New Yorker, works in a tollbooth on the Whitestone Bridge and comes home to his pregnant wife, a store clerk in Macy’s who wears five inch heels and smokes. Their cramped home is shared by couch-resident best mate Floyd (George Giorgiou), who persuades Wendall to take in and train a rooster for an illegal cockfight, despite the fact he’s bought it from a Cuban con-man and it’s already showing signs of sickliness.
The prospect of the rooster winning its bout is their metaphorical American Dream through which poverty may be escaped and misery averted for the moment: tempers flare and there’s a predictable climax when the lodger makes a play for the wife and the men act out cock fighting in silhouette. As a situation, it has potential, but with the flatness of direction, too many static duologues and some grossly inauthentic performances, it’s too difficult to care about their fate.
The problem is that the poverty and desolation of the characters isn’t grinding enough: the set is over-styled and insufficiently claustrophobic or grungy, neither are the people repellent enough to shock or disturb you: Wendall allegedly lives on a diet of stale, cold McDonalds, yet he’s wiry and overarticulate; despite being ‘older’ Lisa Maxwell’s Lina just isn’t adequately exhausted; and the ‘Cubans’ look Greek or Asian - no one seems to be trying hard enough to get it right.
There’s a sub-plot to do with getting hold of a secret recipe for fighting-cock feed from Floyd’s stroke-afflicted father Felix and in Andy Lucas’s tortured performance, beaten and humiliated by his aggressive son, there was a moment of pathos. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
Which is a pity, because in Mike Batistick you have a youngish writer with something to say about New York’s minorities and the ways in which they do - or don’t - integrate with the city and with each other. His previous best-known work Port Authority Throw Down featured a constantly-taken-for-Arab Pakistani cab driver whose brother has been wrongly arrested by the FBI, a white evangelist, and the homeless African-American man he befriended at the eponymous bus station. From these well-imagined situations, he has yet to construct a script which retains the audience’s interest in their outcomes or which is self-assured enough to know whether it’s travelling the comic or dramatic route.
Hopefully, he’ll be back. Without the rooster.
Name of Show: Chicken
Playwright: Mike Batistick
Premiered: 25 November 2008 (Hackney Empire Studio)
This Production Opened: 25 June 2012
Tweet: Chicken: would-be "gritty" contemporary New York drama but is it all cock and no fighting?
Synopsis: A New York tollbooth worker hopes to make a killing from training a cock-fighting rooster. Unfortunately, his best mate bought it from a dodgy Cuban con-man, and the bird is already on its last legs. Recriminations ensue, the best mate gets off with the toll collector's wife and, via a silhouetted acting-out of the cock fight, it all ends in tears.
- Clunky clucky sound effects punctuate the dialogue, sometimes intentionally.
Why See It: Writer Mike Batistick is a man to watch and has something original to say about New York's ethnic communities and the ways they interact.
Caveat: The play's very static and slow, and you may want to slap some of the cast for just not getting on with it.
- Although outlawed in mainland US since 2007, cock fighting is still legal in the US Virgin Islands and protectorates like Puerto Rico.
- Cockfighting features in some of the best movies: The Day of the Locust, Alex Haley's Roots and The Cincinnati Kid all have lurid cock fighting scenes.
- What do Kings of Leon and Bob Dylan have in common? Both wrote songs about cockfighting - Mr Dylan's "Cry A While" from his Love and Theft Album, and KOL's "Four Kicks".
Set in the Bronx, Chicken is a gritty play full of street-smart humour about two childhood pals, Wendall and Floyd, an unhappy wife - and a sickly rooster they are grooming for an illegal cockfight. Wendall (Craig Kelly, Coronation Street, Queer as Folk) and his pregnant wife Lina (Lisa Maxwell, Loose Women, The Bill) live in a stifling and cramped apartment, full of the mess of desperate people. Floyd (George Georgiou, Mamma Mia!-The Movie) is kipping down on the sofa, and a visit from his father (Andy Lucas), his brash ex wife (Amy Tez) and the local hustler (Daniel Yabut), clearly shows what an unstable upbringing and a burning desire for money can do ? but will the cock be their meal ticket? Chicken is an acute observation of modern life in the city, as the dysfunctional friends scrabble and strut like cocks, fighting in the grimy, slightly desperate world they inhabit. There is no working class ? this is the world of the new underclass.
Trafalgar Studios14 Whitehall
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1A 2DY
Monday to Saturday 7.45pm, Wednesday and Saturday 3pm
Lisa Maxwell (Lina) and George Georgio (Floyd) © Colin Bell
George Georgio (Floyd), Lisa Maxwell (Lina) and Craig Kelly (Wendall) © Colin Bell