Ever since Sunset Boulevard’s dead protagonist floated into view in the iconic opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, a drama set in a Los Angeles suburb with a swimming pool as its central feature has carried ominous connotations.
Daddy’s heated pool is set within a contemporary Bel Air mansion, and is modelled on David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings of the 1960s and 70s. It colonises most of the stage. But the play’s protagonist is very much alive, erupting out of the water in Speedos in the opening scene. This is a sign to expect the unexpected in this bold, brawny, flamboyantly theatrical production written by Jeremy O Harris and first staged off Broadway in 2019.
It features an unequal relationship between Franklin (Terique Jarrett), a young Black American artist, and Andre (Claes Bang) an older, white, billionaire art collector who becomes his lover, and whose nickname, “Daddy”, is taken from a moment of sexual role play.
Their alliance is queasy from the start, with flecks of Death in Venice but with race, money and art patronage added to the mix; the question of who is exploiting whom hangs indeterminately between them. Throw in Franklin’s churchgoing, gospel-singing moralist mother (Sharlene Whyte) and a mischievous choir (Rebecca Bernice Amissah, Keisha Atwell, T’Shan Williams, all three fabulous) that pops up to heighten the mood and we get the melodrama of the play’s subtitle.
The mood is impish and knowing with cool disco beats, sudden spotlights, and a hammy rendition of George Michael’s Father Figure. But for all the theatrics, there is enough sophistication in the writing and in Danya Taymor’s direction for these elements to work to thrilling effect.
The short first half brings sharp art world satire through Franklin’s gallerist (Jenny Rainsford), who is at pains to market him to wealthy white clients in exactly the right way. Franklin’s friends, meanwhile, always featured poolside, bring teen-movie satire: Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbrook) is an Insta addict in skimpy swimwear while Max (John McCrea) is a snarky geek who together make an entertainingly vapid double act.
There are deadly serious issues at play: Andre regards his lover as he might an objet d’art, to be gazed at and admired. There is not only exoticisation (“chocolate” skin is mentioned) but ownership, too (“You are mine”), and Franklin’s body is always on show, barely clad for the duration of the play.
Andre’s white gaze extends to Franklin’s art work; Jean-Michel Basquiat is mentioned at the start, as well as the question of how the value of artwork changes when it is brought into a gallery. Franklin first creates miniature black dolls and then lifesize figures, all of which are sold to rich white celebrity types, as his mother observes. Complicated questions arise out of his art-making: how is blackness packaged and sold in America’s contemporary art market? How does this art world view work made by a queer black artist? And is Franklin colluding in this process for his own gain?
A sensational first half hooks us into every last intrigue and all the actors work wonders: Bang, as Andre, has a raffish, Rupert Everett look and gives off a buzzing sense of predation. Jarrett is exquisite as Franklin, balancing innocence with knowing and trauma with playfulness. Whyte’s mother is a baroque creation, both funny and alarming – a preacher in disguise, belting out her moral warnings against her son’s sinful living in song.
She turns darker in the second half, and every other character feels skewed so that the drama becomes more feverish and surreal. This longer second part is less masterful than the first. The story seems to dismantle itself but to throw out too many things at once, without following them through deeply. Oedipal strains are felt and buried trauma unearthed in Franklin’s memories of his real, abandoning “daddy”.
The play moves into the territory of psychodrama and becomes opaque, locking us out with unexpected turns rather than carry us with it, as the first half has done.
But in spite of these frustrations, Daddy never ceases to be interesting. And if there was ever a play wholly worth watching for its perfectly formed first half, this is it.
Daddy is at the Almeida theatre, London, until 30 April.