I am so relieved to have had a second chance to see The Dazzle after being thwarted the first time by an accident closing the M11. It is an extraordinary production in every way; the subject matter, venue and brilliance of all three actors, especially the incomparable Andrew Scott.
The American dramatist Richard Greenberg wrote The Dazzle as a fictionalised recounting of the lives of the reclusive Collyer Brothers, admitting that he knew almost nothing about them. What he did know was that their bodies were found buried under mounds and mounds of rubbish (140 tons to be exact) in their Harlem Brownstone mansion in 1947.
His play opens in 1905 when the brothers, Homer and Langley, relatively young men, are still venturing into the world outside. Langley (Andrew Scott) is a concert pianist, given to erratic mood swings, whilst Homer (David Dawson) a trained lawyer is his minder, manager and carer. A third person comes into their lives in the shape of the pretty young and troubled heiress Milly Ashmore (Joanna Vanderham) who puts the cats amongst the pigeons by falling in love with and getting engaged to Langley in Act I and Homer in Act II. But nothing is straightforward in the cloistered lives of these brothers, who to call eccentric would be an understatement. By the second half the strangeness of their existence is raised several notches. The hording of items, useful and anything but, has reached danger level and the only brother to venture outside is Langley and then only after dark when no one else is around. By now he has become carer, to his older, blind sibling. But I use the word carer lightly!
At no point does Richard Greenberg judge the lives or personalities of these three tragic human beings. Rather he opens up a window on their world, and imbues them with humour, a unique if outlandish outlook on life and, ultimately, love for each other. The setting for this remarkable play gives the audience the feeling that they are actually sitting in the corner of the sitting room in the brother’s house, watching their disintegration unfold. Designer Ben Stones has located the room, complete with grand piano, amongst many other things, on the top floor of the old Central St Martins building entitled Found111 and it is approached by climbing several flights of concrete stairs. The room itself is small with mismatched wooden chairs, topped with cushions (thankfully) laid out on three sides. Thus the actors are never more than a few feet away and the whites of their eyes are constantly visible. It makes for an intense experience, whilst the ever present, if muted, London hubbub in the background adds to the notion that we are actually in the Harlem brownstone.
Director Simons Evans ensures that the brothers’ performances don’t veer over into sentimentality. Both actors inhabit their characters, highlighting their differences and ultimately their quirky similarities. Whilst we, the audience, feel nothing but pity for the pair, we can understand the mistrust that was felt by their New York neighbours and why the Collyer brother’s home became a zoo like prison, with those on the outside leering in at them. We can almost understand the men’s mounting paranoia that the only safe place to be is hiding within and beneath their hoards of rubbish.
All three actors aid the director’s vision perfectly. If anyone thinks that Andrew Scott’s main claim to fame is to play the villain, think again. He can turn his hand to anything and his portrayal of the younger Collyer brother is wonderfully nuanced. He perfectly highlights the man’s childlike quality and his highly tuned sensitivity towards everything around him, from an imperceptible incorrect piano note to a tassle (the Dazzle of the title) he hangs on a light fitting. Unfortunately this sensitivity does not extend towards the other two characters, which proves devastating to both Milly and Homer.
Homer, whilst sharing his brother’s brilliant brain, is a different character altogether. He tries to mask the hurt unknowingly inflicted by Langley, by sarcastic reposts and quick changes of heart. But the hurt is there, flickering across David Dawson’s wonderful malleable face. He is more than equal to the task of sharing a stage with the wonderful Andrew Scott.
More than up to the job of playing Milly is the young Joanna Vanderham, managing to emanate vulnerability and sensuality. She is a worthy third side of the triangle.
Ostensibly a play about obsessive behaviour, The Dazzle is ultimately a tragic love story and I retraced my steps down the concrete stairs with an enormous lump in my throat and the knowledge that I had witnessed something very special.
Thank you once again Michael Grandage. You never disappoint.