Walking into the White Bear Theatre above the pub of the same name in Kennington, you find yourself practically inside a messy, retro, rundown motel room. This is the living space of JD, the character at the centre of the play, Fried Meat Ridge Road being the name of the road where he lives, and an actual road in Keyser, West Virginia.
There is a knock at the door and we meet Mitchell (Robert Moloney). Mitchell isn’t having such a great day. He’s lost his job, been living in his car since he was kicked out by his girlfriend, and now the car has been torched. He has responded to JD’s advert for a housemate, expecting there to be a separate room, not just a second bed. JD is basically looking for a new buddy. He has a fridge stocked with mini vodkas and cans of Mountain Dew and will offer a comforting tunafish sandwich to anyone who looks like they need one.
In the next hour Mitchell experiences a whole lot of new things. Like a hillbilly farce, everybody comes and goes in this room, the door opens and slams closed to let people in and out. There are the neighbours Marlene (Melanie Gray) – a meth-smoking artist; her man Tommy (Dan Hildebrand) – a poet who is cheating on her with another rather heavy Marlene; the landlord Flip (Michael Wade) who has a racist insult for everyone. Mitchell is a great character, anxious and nervy, excessively sweaty palms. After a couple of vodkas, he starts to fit right in.
This play is a cult success in the States where it has played at the Pacific Resident Theater in California since it was first developed there in 2011. The piece was written by Keith Stevenson, who actually grew up in Keyser, WV, and who still plays JD. No, he is JD! His depiction is so perfect, from the lilting speech to the gentle way he calls people ‘brother’ and only sees the good in folks. JD is ‘out there’ in many ways but all you really need to know about him is that he doesn’t judge anyone. What matters to JD is being a good person, helping your brother man, and seeing the good in them, even if they are a wasted meth addict or a philandering hothead.
There is plenty of action, police, a hostage situation, drugs, guns. There is even a quite surreal moment of dancing to Can you Feel It? which the audience did not seem entirely sure about but which drew laughing/crying tears from my eyes. How prescient that I had only just listened to that song on my journey there. The whole cast is amazing, but it’s really JD who stands out for me. I could have listened to his views on life for days, with that lovely turn of phrase.
The writing is excellent and truly funny. What stays with me is the way my heart was fully warmed. I hope the run is a great big success. I want to see a lot more of the kind and charming JD who might not look much, but is happy with what he has and can tenderly make anyone feel better about their own no-good life.