Please Clap is a play about revelation. The premise: a talk show becomes increasingly tense when it is revealed that its histrionic host knows more than he should about his sarcastic, tipsy-on-arrival celebrity guest. The script, written by George Rushton (who also directed the play) is sensitive to when, and how, information is revealed. Lily Lefkow-Green shines as Ariana, delivering a complex and nuanced performance that shows what can be revealed in a single gesture or a change of tone. But the whole cast, completed by Alfie Dry as the host and Leah Aspden as the stock superfan (or so it seems), clearly understand the extent of their own character’s knowledge. They use this to hold back, to let slip, to betray something that contributes to the spiralling chaos of the interview.
The format of the show (technically the ‘show-within-the-show’) is inventive. We are the live audience at the Burton Taylor Studio, but we are also the live audience of Dougie’s show, The Lights with Dougie Harrison. Rushton comes on at the start, stepping onto a purple velvet-draped set, and addresses us in a way that allows us to understand our function as a dual audience. Then on leaps Dougie, his sparkling charisma the perfect material for a seamless façade, before settling himself behind the safety of his desk. He welcomes his guest Ariana, a former sitcom child star who is here to promote her new project: a film about her life on set.
The play is well-paced: we are drip-fed revelations throughout the conversation. Dry and Lefkow-Green play off each other well, each of his questions battering her down in some unique way. Dougie’s recurring references to Ariana’s relationships with ‘Joel’ and ‘Henry’ – just names at this point in the play – do much to intrigue. There are many deliciously uncomfortable moments of tension when a question goes too far. Ariana certainly reaches for the wine more than once throughout, an action that punctuates the emotional stages of the interview. Lefkow-Green’s body language is integral to the character and how we perceive her: her movements range from the subtle to the pronounced as she gears Ariana’s responses to the increasingly probing questions. She plays the typical seen-it-all, been-there-done-that celebrity, a role that quickly could have become stale if not for Lefkow-Green’s performance. As the interview goes on, Ariana’s persona slowly crumbles. Through a twist of a ring or a bounce of the leg, a shrugs or a shift of position, I became more and more interested in the person beyond the actress. Although she claims to have “tied off being a teen with a neat knot”, it’s a knot that seems to be coming undone.
The conflict between truth and performance is a particularly well-executed theme throughout. In the first ‘ad break’, the lights go down and the forced physical distance between Dougie and Ariana breaks down. He sits beside her on the sofa in an intimate, deliberately strained scene. “Talk to me,” he urges. “It’s much better to tell the truth here than on a stage.” This got a laugh, but it was one tinged with uncertainty. What is the truth, and why is Ariana not telling it? I certainly wanted to know.
All is eventually revealed thanks to the arrival of Serafina, Ariana’s biggest fan. Her entry comes at the right moment to re-energise the atmosphere: Leah Aspden adopts a breathy, puppyish adoration that is endearing in its familiarity (after all, what would anyone do if we were sharing a sofa with our idol?). However, like everything in the play, Serafina’s character is not without its darker undercurrent. She has the destructive knowledge we know is going to ruin Ariana’s reputation. It’s a trope, but it works. Serafina knows about the mysterious ‘backstage’ (something constantly alluded to), having heard Ariana and her boyfriend Henry arguing on the set of the biopic. The script and the actors cleverly handle the shift in the dynamic of the interview, when it becomes clear that Serafina is the authority figure, telling Ariana’s story and actually getting more out of her than Dougie. Ariana’s simultaneous distaste for Serafina and tangible fear of what she might reveal is a notable strength in this part of the show, which felt a little slower than the first half. “I want people to believe me when I say things,” says Ariana. It’s a quotable line – and we don’t believe her. “If people can see the film, they’ll understand what I think,” she insists.
Ironically, the part where a clip from the film is actually shown is where things falter a little. Albeit a delightfully ambitious choice (a lighting change indicates that we are now being shown a clip that Ariana, Dougie, and Serafina are all watching), it wasn’t completely clear from the clip what Ariana thinks. Aspden now plays ‘Marissa’, Ariana’s character. The actor-character shift had me a little lost, and I was relieved when the scene reverted to the golden light and forced cheer of the talk show.
This is when the emotion reaches its climax. Serafina blames Ariana for arguing with Henry and betraying him. In a moment of shock that didn’t quite come through, Serafina reveals that Ariana is (in fact, she was) pregnant, and she is a hypocrite for not being honest. Perhaps the long build-up had me thinking something much darker had happened. However, the darkness is reliably delivered soon afterwards. Ariana stands and confesses, revealing that on the set of the sitcom, co-star Joel watched her while she changed. We see her at her most broken. But we are spared (both disappointingly and fittingly) any further explanation. As all talk show hosts must, Dougie ‘rescues’ the mood, compressing the entire story, the entire show and all its emotions, into a line I especially liked: a syrupy “Isn’t she brave.”
It’s a well-paced script with a clear trajectory, and the revelations are fed to the hungry audience. Perhaps the ‘ultimate’ reveal wasn’t quite as shocking as I had supposed. However, I must note a couple of great ad libs from the cast. When an audience member dropped a phone, Lefkow-Green was straight there with “that’s quite rude” (in character and mid-line); when Dry stumbled over a consonant, he saved it with “that’s enough wine for me.”
Overall, I very much enjoyed Please Clap. Experimental, and at the same time digging into the solemn secrets of celebrity and humanity, the fakery of the media and the forgery of façades, this was a show to be applauded. Please clap for Please Clap!