“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” Corinthians
My first thought when I entered the performance space was that the grown man lying in the centre passed out, surrounded by beer bottles and clutching a teddy bear, had certainly not yet put away childish things. That said, my first impressions were challenged almost instantly when it became apparent that the bear was not a childish thing, but rather a memoir of a childhood lost.
Written and directed by Steve Brown, City of Champions is an exciting and challenging new work which confronts an insidious issue with tenacity and poignant sincerity. Inspired by recent conversations relating to the emerging recognition of molestation and pedophilia within the Hollywood community, the story follows the journey of two child stars who find themselves in the next phase of life and struggling to kick-start their careers. Having succumbed to the well-known Hollywood snares of substance abuse, sex and alcoholism the two are confronted by ghosts from their past, causing them to reevaluate their choices and reconsider their next steps.
While the narrative is a work of fiction, Brown openly acknowledges that this work would not be possible without the courage and inspiration of those who dared to speak out. Perhaps it’s this immense respect and innate empathy that provides such unquestionable depth to a piece that could easily stray into the realms of cliché.
As a literary text, the piece is beautifully written. The intertextual references and repetition of cultural motifs set the scene with authenticity and instills the piece with a level of intellectualism that ensures audience engagement. The Neverland references are particularly poignant, though it’s refreshing to see these used as a demonstration of tinsel town extravagance rather than an unsubstantiated accusation of a man who was perhaps as much a victim of stolen childhood as our protagonists.
The performers vary in capability but without question is the excellence of leading man Joel Arnold who is certainly in a league of his own. The brutal honesty he brings to the role of Laurie is completely disarming. His intensity and vulnerability during scenes of conflict reach such a level that the audience feels somewhat voyeuristic; privy to an intimate discussion (or intimate battle) that is not for their eyes. Far from a criticism, it’s moments like these that make the piece so engaging, preserving the authenticity of the subject matter and ensuring it hits its mark. Likewise, his ability to effortlessly transition between moments of genuine amusement and immature playfulness ensure he delivers a character who is as complex as he is misunderstood.
In the role of fellow child star and childhood best friend, Lonnie is Joe Southall who appears on the surface to be unscathed by his experiences but is later revealed to be anything but. Challenging our ideas of what it is to be strong and to confront our own demons, Southall provides a grounding influence within the cast which perhaps is why the final scenes are so confronting for the audience.
Also of note is Amy Burke in the role of Mary-Celeste. Her chemistry with Arnold’s Laurie is almost tangible and her presence on stage creates a sense of normalcy and reality within the piece, allowing Arnold to fully expose the vulnerability behind Laurie’s playboy façade.
It’s to be expected that in the development of this piece there are small kinks that need addressing, for one thing, the length. That said, despite the duration, I can say with absolute conviction that I was thoroughly engaged from start to finish and that this is a piece with unquestionable potential. For one thing, it’s a story that needs to be told and given that Brown has perfectly harnessed the power of storytelling, this seems an ideal platform from which to do so. I eagerly await the next phase of the City of Champions journey and feel privileged to have been privy to the first full production.
Review by Cassandra Griffin
Set in 2010, in the city of Inglewood, Los Angeles, CITY OF CHAMPIONS focuses on two former nineteen-eighties child superstars, Lonnie Drake and Laurie Monro, who are living with the after effects of early stardom and abuse as teen stars.
Lonnie, a recovering alcoholic is married and still working in the industry. Laurie, although clean after numerous trips to rehab, is broke and unemployable. He is living in the ‘guest lodge’ in Lonnie’s backyard. Desperate for work and money, a job opportunity presents itself but it means working once again with the director who abused him during his teen career.
A reunion with someone from the past and an unwelcome visit from an old colleague act as the catalyst for Laurie to make a decision to take control of his situation and change everybody’s lives.
CITY OF CHAMPIONS
A new play by Steve Brown
Presented by London Theatre Workshop
17th July – 5th August 2017
Written and Directed by: Steve Brown
Cast: Joel Arnold, Amy Burke, Ian McCurrach, Maggie Robson, Joe Southall, Ellie Ward
Leadenhall Market, 88 Gracechurch Street, London ECV3 0DN (above the New Moon Pub)