Mike Leigh, better known as a film director, wrote a number of plays, including the 1981 award-winning Goose-Pimples. It is now presented by the enterprising New Group and its director, Scott Elliott, who previously gave us Leigh’s Ecstasy. I have never been a Leigh fan, even if his socialist realism spiked with bile garners widespread adherence – though whether for artistic or political reasons remains moot.
In his films – and, I suspect, his plays as well – Leigh uses improvisation extensively, the cast making up the dialogue from his outline. This, to me, is a disheartening forfeiture of authorship, though it may be applied Marxism; how many times must it be stressed that literary creation and the mimetic gift are separate and, in my view, unequal talents?
Actors become enamored of their own words and don’t know where to stop. But it is not all ego; it is also marking time until the next idea materializes, whose tardiness requires a good deal of stretching and repeating of the previous one. And when the long-awaited idea finally comes, it gets gratefully nursed like a drink by a penniless toper unable to pay for a refill. In theory, Leigh edits and shapes the material, but can we trust the judgment of one so dependent on others?
Be that as it may, Goose-Pimples feels achingly distended and more than a little incredible. It seems that the smart-ass, womanizing car salesman Vernon shares a London flat with the pretty croupier Jackie, a ditsy blonde, platonically. This evening he has invited, while Jackie is at work, dinner guests: his colleague Irving and his wife Frankie, with whom Vernon is having a secret affair. His cooking misfires and the trio goes out to eat; meanwhile, Jackie comes back with a club customer, Muhammad, for a few nightcaps. She takes this Saudi for a wealthy sheik; he takes her for a whore, and the tacky flat for a brothel. Improbably, Muhammad speaks hardly a word of English, except when the plot requires otherwise. He is in fact a modest purveyor of sheep and goats to pilgrims to Mecca, and certainly behaves goatishly when he thinks he is getting on with the two girls (Frankie and her men having returned) and sheepishly when the women don’t respond and the other men butt in. He mistakes Vernon for an officious bartender, Irving for an interfering fellow john; meanwhile, he gets more soused and the situation more fraught.
I am suspicious of a play that depends on the advanced cloddishness of its characters, and whose biggest coup is the unexpected and very realistic barf of one of them. There may be valid social comment here on lower-class British xenophobia, and the set design, direction, and acting are capable enough, if rather exaggerated. Adam Alexi-Malle is funny and touching as Muhammad, and Caroline Seymour is superb as Jackie: idiotically gullible and gorgeously irresistible. Incidentally, the hyphen in Goose-Pimples is a solecism, but we’ll never know whether it was written by Leigh or improvised by his cast.