Monday, September 10, 2007

Unmoved At The Almeida

When I mentioned to my friends that I was going to see a play with Stockard Channing in it, most fell into two camps: a lot of them made some reference to Abbey Bartlet and her turn as First Lady in The West Wing, while a few got surprisingly excited about the whole Rizzo-in-Grease thing. For me it's the former role that sprang to mind initially, but I'm sure she’s done a lot more than that (all the press I've read has taken pains to point out that she's done more than that) but when I tried to think of anything else, well, the only other thing that I could come up with was Six Degrees of Separation, where I believe she was reprising a role she'd played stage, but that was so long ago, she got a higher billing than Will Smith in the credits.

But anyway, I’m drifting here. The ins and outs of Channing's CV are incidental. What I do know, is that she is currently starring in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! at the Almeida and on Friday night I duly wandered up to Islington to see it.

This was an interesting one. There were a number of individual aspects of the play I really liked and it certainly oozed quality, both through the performances – which were mostly excellent – and through a nicely realised set (though I thought the canopy of dangling laundry rather overdid things), however for all its undeniable class it left me feeling a bit under-whelmed, like I’d gone to a pizza place and ordered a salad. Good for you and everything, but I still felt hungry afterwards. Actually that’s an awful analogy because there was plenty of sustenance here, but there was something a bit clinical about the production, it failed to move me in any real way.

Channing plays Bessie, matriarch of the Berger family. The Bergers live in a cramped tenement building in the Bronx. Alongside Bessie, there's her sweet but terminally passive husband Myron, their children Hennie and Ralph, and grandfather Jacob, played here by John Rogan, an actor who uses a wheelchair following an accident (something I mention primarily because it was variations on ‘oh, is he actually disabled then?’ type conversations that predominated as the audience filed out after the play, not, it must be noted, musings on Odets’ depiction of 1930s New York).

Anyway, Rogan’s performance gave the show something of the heart I felt it was otherwise lacking and Channing was very good as the somewhat tyrannical Bessie, subtly conveying that her character's actions, though often domineering and insensitive, are driven by a desire for her children to have lives less blighted by hardship than hers. I was also rather taken by Nigel Lindsay’s performance as the fast-talking, cynical but soft-hearted Moe Axelrod (though I suspect this was, at least in part, down to the fact he was playing a character with the rather wonderful moniker of Moe Axelrod).

And, so, yes. While the play is insightful about the social ramifications of poverty, while there was lots about the production to admire - and I am glad I saw it - I didn’t actually enjoy it that much, which is quite a crucial distinction.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

Yes, indeed. While the play is both important and provides necessary (moral) fibre to our diet, and it's tastefully prepared, ultimately like most dietary fibre it isn't the sort of thing you can devour with relish. And, coming so soon after Big White Fog under the same director at the same theatre (virtually the same play, only for "Jewish family in the Bronx" read "black family in Chicago"), it begins to feel like a regimented diet of such fibre, which makes one even more likely to be chewing it dutifully at best, a little resentful of it at worst.

And I so need to re-read Irving Wardle's excellent book on theatre criticism, especially the bits about avoiding food metaphors :-)

Interval Drinks said...

Maybe but yours still kicks my lame pizza/salad thing into a corner.

Didn't see Big White Fog, but have heard others say the same about it and Awake and Sing!