Review by Harry Bower
If the person sitting next to you is given £200 and asked to propose a deal with you whereby you take some of that money, what is a fair offer? 50/50 with £100 each? Or will one party push for a better deal? Those sorts of questions are thrown at the audience in Winner’s Curse, a new play about negotiation and the art of deal making, written by Daniel Taub and Dan Patterson. Enjoying a world premiere at the Park Theatre, it offers an interactive and humorous night out. But does the play deliver on its promise, or does it renege on the agreement?
To understand why exactly this play has been written we first have to understand its writer. Daniel Taub served as Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom for four years and was involved in Israel’s Syrian and Palestinian negotiation teams. It is these experiences which form his muse, and drove him to write a play which both entertained and educated its audience. Largely, it is mission accomplished.
The show is framed in the context of an expert retired negotiator (Hugo Leitski, played by Clive Anderson) delivering a lecture to students (we the audience) about his life as a negotiator, in particular between two fictional countries. With one long flashback we re-live his youth and watch a negotiation play out in front of us with present-day Hugo remarking on his younger self (Arthur Conti) throughout.
Young Leitski is mentored in his journey by Anton Korsakov (embodied by Michael Maloney), the head of his delegation team, and it is in this relationship that we see the true soul of the play. The pair are played with a sensitive playfulness by their actors, with Maloney in particular offering a majestic, wonderfully sarcastic and comically understated interpretation of their character’s nuances. Conti is brilliant, demonstrating a commanding understanding of comic timing way beyond their years. The two have clearly built a meaningful and effective chemistry which drives the plot forward at pace and saves some scenes from feeling a bit two dimensional.
I do wish we had seen a bit more character development on the part of Anton Korsakov, the expert negotiator. Written as a stiff-upper-lip realist with a touch of Monty Python humour about him, really there could be an entirely new and separate show purely about his exploits, such is the maturity and confidence in Maloney’s portrayal. This is an actor clearly at the top of their game.
The promised audience interactivity is delivered in appropriate and simple ways, in the form of short breaks throughout each act. I won’t spoil the tasks for the reader, but these are definitely not just here for the sake of it, and each does serve to illustrate a point about negotiation. In a very meta way, involving the audience and invoking some spontaneity does give both those watching and acting a real-life demonstration of the unpredictability of negotiation.
The show features an appearance by the aforementioned Clive Anderson as present-day Hugo Leitski, in what is the broadcaster and comedy writer’s first acting role across his four decades in entertainment. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that the audience interaction scenes are where he really shines. His quick wit and natural improvisation come to the fore when there is an opportunity for a quick joke or to use a throwaway comment as a big laugh generator. Those skills learned as a broadcaster contrast with a less convincing portrayal of his character during the rest of the show, though thankfully that’s not critical. The whole point of the show is that Anderson’s character is delivering a lecture, and in this context most dialogue is delivered with an appropriate tone.
A barn-storming performance by Nichola McAuliffe as Vaslika the landlady goes down a treat as light relief for the audience with her silly sayings and call-backs literally inducing snorting from some areas of the auditorium.
The show taking place in the round helps the Park Theatre’s PARK200 space feel cosy and intimate without feeling crowded. The set use is minimal but effective and the turntable in the floor creates some unique and comical moments which add value. Lighting design is subtle but accomplished and Sophie Cotton’s sound design deserves credit too, with many noises used for comic effect or to aid an already humorous scene. To get that spot-on, with the right sounds at the right length used in the right moments is an achievement.
Unfortunately, the second act is where I began to struggle with Winner’s Curse. It felt as though act one had largely succeeded in blending the interactivity, silly humour, goofy and somehow charming relationships, and sometimes complicated plot line together – but act two derails this. There are some over the top scenes which although are designed to be a contrast and demonstrate the change in mood when a mediator gets involved, more serve as often cringe-worthy interactions which just don’t land effectively. There are far too many twists in the plot towards the crescendo, and after a few hours of sitting with it I still don’t understand the ending. Again, I won’t spoil it, but some frankly bizarre choices about how to bring the show to a close left me feeling confused and unsatisfied. For a show which seems largely very sure of itself, this was a surprise.
When coupled with a lot of stumbling over words and the occasional forgetting of lines, missed cues, and actors talking over each other, act two rather cemented the show in my mind as rough around the edges.
Winner’s Curse is fun to watch if you’re looking for something engaging and entertaining. It will make you giggle and at the very least get you chatting to the person next to you. It might even teach you a thing or two. But let’s just say that once it had me at the deal-making table, I felt content walking away from the deal rather than going back for a second round of negotiations.
Winner’s Curse will be challenging its audience to interactive negotiation challenges until Saturday 11 March 2023 at The Park Theatre. Tickets available here: https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/winners-curse
Photos by Alex Brenner