Life with Oscar at the Arcola review: a sloppy and self-indulgent tale of a Brit adrift in Hollywood

 (E Castagno)
(E Castagno)

The desire to win an Oscar is the MacGuffin of this sporadically amusing but sloppy and self-indulgent autobiographical solo show from Nick Cohen.

A film-maker and sometime actor, he assumes the familiar mantle of the diffident Brit adrift in Tinseltown to discuss artistic purity, daddy issues, Jewish guilt and countless other themes that this 80-minute work is too skimpy to fully address.

Cohen trained with physical theatre companies including Complicite and deploys some clumsy moves here, including a grandstanding twirl whenever he moves from one coarsely-delineated character to another.

The events are true and the dialogue is verbatim, he insists, but names have been changed in case any members of “the Mafia… [I mean] the Academy” have brought their lawyers along. Actually, quite a lot of names are loudly dropped and others are potentially deducible, so I’ll be careful.

Certainly Cohen did go to Alleyn’s school with Jude Law and to Cambridge with Rachel Weisz: these associations are listed on his IMDB page as well as in the show.

The story proper begins with him as a child, lobbying producer Alexander Salkind for a role in his 1978 Superman film, which his psychologist dad – with barely any relevant experience – also offers to direct. One of Cohen’s better gags is that he’s not a nepo baby but a repo baby – reprogrammed to fulfil his parents’ thwarted ambitions.

 (G Taylor)
(G Taylor)

But he’s part of a liberal, artsy milieu, connected enough to wangle an open-ended stay in Los Angeles with a producer called Jerry, whose two Oscars for a largely unseen documentary mock his own perceived failure.

Friendships and family ties get him meetings with agents, which he bungles. And with producers, who improbably offer him Jason Statham films to direct, drugs to take and a bizarre, arranged relationship with the daughter of one of them who looks like “actual Barbie”.

Thoughts of his perfectly respectable, ticking-along career back home in stage, TV and low-budget film – plus a barely-mentioned girlfriend – are smothered by the ambition represented by the golden statuette.

The script swerves into a random dream dinner involving his grandfathers, Jewish Bill and WASP-y Ben, references to the Holocaust and the diaspora, and some details about closer family members that feel frankly invasive.

Cohen has a certain manic magnetism but isn’t a good enough actor to sustain a multi-character solo show. As a writer, he’s extremely poor at structure and reliant on cliché. Cressida Brown is credited as director for the Arcola run but her input is indiscernible.

It ends with him fleeing Hollywood, where the ghost of Marilyn Monroe “turns tricks in back alleys” to make his passion-project film – Lifesaver, about an 11-year-old girl policing a swimming pool – in England. There’s brief footage of this at the end, but no sign of it on IMDB yet.

Arcola Theatre, to April 20;