Con-trast. The title’s a pun, you see: the script tells the differing stories of two real-world con artists. On the one hand, we have the notorious Alan Conway, who lived the high life by convincing the world he was reclusive film director Stanley Kubrick. And at the other extreme, there’s the penniless Allan Debenham – who defrauded a pub of just £140, by pretending to be (of all people) BBC TV presenter Louis Theroux.
Their first names might be similar, but from then on their stories diverge. Conway – at least, the Conway of this play – is assured and sophisticated, thoroughly enjoying the experience of living another man’s life. Debenham, however, is merely desperate, a down-on-his-luck vagrant in a ripped shirt and scruffy woollen hat. Each holds the other in contempt but, as we learn over the course of the hour, in many ways their crimes are exactly the same.
There are some interesting ideas emerging from their imaginary meeting. The script toys with questions of morality, asking whether anyone was really hurt by the two men’s frauds, and it explores the surprisingly trivial reasons why they each embarked on their invented lives. Perhaps predictably, Alan and Allan aren’t the most reliable of narrators – and there’s a neat recurring theme of how they each lose control of their tales.
Both lead actors – Max Fitroy-Stone as Conway and Joseph Williams as Debenham – are entirely convincing in their roles, prowling the massive stage at Greenside’s lovely new venue with all the swagger a con-trick demands. And in a clever gimmick, they’re aided by a cast of white-shirted, half-anonymised supporting actors, whom Conway imperiously commands to re-enact scenes from his past.
So there’s no doubt that this is a highly accomplished production, but it lacked a little heart for me. It’s all a touch too measured; the narrative rolls forward at a stately pace, and I longed from time to time for an injection of tension or urgency. The emotion feels subdued as well, especially when a third and far more sinister story is introduced at the very end. There’s some genuine pain associated with these real-life events, yet that sharp truth never quite came through.
The performance I saw was also beset by continual mistakes with the lighting, leaving the actors’ faces in deep shadow far too much of the time. But Contrast is an interesting story, which Rory McGregor’s script approaches in a subtle and thought-provoking way. It might be tempting to take a short-cut, to steal someone else’s efforts and fame; but a lie, McGregor warns us, might not do your bidding for very long.