Friday, December 19, 2008

Crocosmia at BAC

I really would not have predicted that one of the most beguiling productions I would see this year would feature someone spitting a large amount of half-chewed Battenburg cake into a carrier bag.

Or, for that matter, that it would feature adult actors playing children, something that can be incredibly tiresome when done poorly, but Little Bulb's Shamira Turner, Clare Beresford and Dom Conway invest their performances with such conviction, such care and affection, that all worries in this area fade in the first few minutes.

They play Sophia, Finley and Freya Brackenberg; Sophia and Finley are ten year old twins, Freya is age seven and three quarters. Their parents, April and Geoffrey (whom the cast take turns playing), are an affectionate, slightly nerdy couple and their lives are clearly comfortable and contented, their world rooted somewhere in the 1970s.

In its first half, the show takes us through various Christmases, breakfast squabbles (the bartering of Rice Krispies for Coco Pops) and morning rituals. It presents us with the siblings’ musical efforts and shows them dancing with abandon to Cyndi Lauper. Every scene is filled with believable, beautifully observed details; the characters’ interactions and even the way they stand and move are utterly convincing.

And then this idyllic bubble is popped. Their parents die and the children are shunted around, first to an orphanage, and then to a new family who, while they seem kind and grounded, are a world away from the children’s ditzy, doting parents. Various toys are used to convey the confusion of the time after their parents’ deaths; plastic elephants and pencil cases become crude puppets, standing in for prospective foster couples. The family they eventually go to are represented by a running shoe and a perfume atomiser. Music also plays an important role in this inventive show, with the children playing their parent’s eclectic records, and at one point, singing a song by Sufjan Stevens.

The production is an incredibly delicate thing: the premise suggests an excess of sentimentality, but it never quite crosses that line, it never overbalances. Instead it proves to be both moving and ridiculously uplifting. In one beautiful scene, the children enact one of their favourite memories of their parents using Battenburg cakes as stand-ins; eventually they give in to their sweet teeth and gorge themselves on their pink and yellow parental substitutes. It’s a moment that’s both upsetting and playful and manages to push its audience (well, me certainly) near to tears.

The show ends on a note of uplift, as the emotive charge of earlier scenes is off-set by the warmth and colour of Freya’s eighth birthday party, which the audience are invited to assist in. The stage is filled with balloons and streamers and a sense of hope. Memories can keep the past alive in their minds, but we are left feeling that the future may not be all that grim. The last thing we see is a light shining over them, a gentle, guiding glow.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

During the party scene, everyone was invited to blow up balloons, something I am utterly rubbish at. My efforts are always sad and shriveled things, as was the case here - it was a pretty pathetic effort.

I suspect this was the last show I’ll squeeze in before Christmas and I couldn’t have hoped for a nicer way to wrap up my theatre-going year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Loot at the Tricycle

This is the first time I’ve been to the Tricycle this year where I haven’t got caught in the rain en route, the first trip to Kilburn this year therefore where I haven’t had to shake myself dry in the lobby like a damp spaniel before picking up my tickets. I mention this only because a pre-show soaking, or in this case the lack of one, can't help but have some bearing on my mood and therefore to my response to what I see - Topless Mum was still pretty rough though, rain or no rain.

The scramble for seats can, of course, have the same effect. Fortunately mine, in this instance, was reserved, so I can hardly complain, but, as reported on various other blogs, there seemed to be a general sense of confusion, of people wandering around only to find that seats they thought were free weren’t and so forth.

I am a bit wary of the works of Joe Orton after I sat pretty much unmoved through Hampstead’s revival of What the Butler Saw while people around me appeared on the verge of doing themselves a damage through laughing so much. I actually preferred this production, though that’s not much of a recommendation, as I still found it a somewhat clinical and nasty-hearted exercise. That’s not to say I didn’t laugh, I did, but there’s something about the desire to push buttons, to experiment with levels of offence that makes me tired and bored; I understand the social context and where this desire came from, that kind of humour just leaves me cold.

Loot is Orton’s second play. It was written in 1964 but it was the revised and tightened version of 1966 that achieved success. The play, which is as black as a charred coffin, begins with an end. The end of Mrs McLeavy. Her grieving husband, played by James Haynes, is being pressurised into marrying again by his wife’s leggy, predatory nurse, a woman who has seen of seven husbands and is on the look out for number eight.

Meanwhile the McLeavys’ young son and his undertaker friend have been involved in a bank heist and need somewhere to stash the cash. The solution? Tip mother into a cupboard and hide the loot in the coffin.

Death, religion, marriage, all are poked at. But though entertaining in a patchy fashion, the Sean Holmes’ production works best as a barometer of how humour and notions of what constitutes bad taste have, and haven’t, evolved over the last four decades. Jokes about the manhandling of corpses, errant eyeballs and exploding viscera – all the gruesome stuff - elicited plenty of guffaws, but the jokes about rape and child prostitution were met only with uncomfortable titters. Oddly it was a line about the mutually exclusive nature of women and intelligence that drew the only hiss of disapproval of the evening, a very mild line by the standards of the play. But this was kind of faux-outrage, not real; the truly outrageous stuff drew a much more muted response.

There were some strong performances. I liked David Haig’s turn as Truscott of the Yard, pacing the room with his hands behind his back and his head held low, is very effective. He appears to be relishing each line; it’s a hammy performance but appropriate to the tone of the piece. Doon Mackichan’s lusty, lethal nurse was equally entertaining.

While some elements inevitably felt dated, the play’s contempt for authority, and especially the police, still feels very relevant. The character of Truscott is prone to violence and vanity; he’s easily corruptible and borderline bonkers. Some of the remarks, which in essence are about how the erosion of civil liberties, still have a fresh edge to them.

The production begins with a scratchy rendition of the national anthem and, on the night I was in, a – somewhat elderly – gent rose from his seat and stood for the duration of this. His position, right in the middle at the front of stalls, made me think that he, this lone standing chap, was part of the show; a nice, wry comment on an ever changing world.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at BAC

I make no attempt to disguise my fondness for Battersea Arts Centre. It is one of the few venues that always fills me with a little tingle of excitement as I enter and pick up my tickets. It has a kind of life to it; an energy. I suppose it helps that most of what I’ve seen there this year I’ve really enjoyed (Iris Brunette, Security, Smile Off Your Face – though seen is probably not the correct word for that last one, given that I was blindfolded through most of it) and that it used to be a pleasant 15 minute walk from my front door, but still, my crabby public transport-fuelled mood faded almost immediately as I entered the theatre bar (yes, yes, I know).

Their current show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, is not the easiest thing to categorize; the work of theatre company, 1927, it combines projected film and animation, live piano music and performance. Two actresses, with faces painted white and clipped, emotionless voices, play out a series of short stories: black little tales that owe much to Shock-headed Peter and the devil-centric fairy tales of Eastern Europe. The show itself is quite a slight thing. The writing is quite amusing, but really it’s the inventiveness of the staging, the combination of all the various elements, which makes the show so memorable.

The performers interact with the projections, which sometimes take the form of simple chalk drawings, sometimes more complex animations. On occasion the images were projected onto their clothes, for example, to illustrate the path of a gingerbread man through the digestive system (it makes sense in context). The best sequences involved a pair of suitably sinister ‘twins’; blank eyed, demonic creatures, who pulled some chap out of the audience and made him play at being their granny. It was all very funny, in a kind of wrong way rather than uproariously so, and over in about an hour and a quarter – so plenty of time for a post-show pizza at Donna Margherita’s across the street.

The details really made it: the usherette selling sweeties and programmes, the endearing opening set by flapper duo The Bees Knees, the way the entrance to the auditorium had been transformed into a gaping mouth (though swathing the hard bench seats with red fabric does not make them any more comfortable, they get points for trying), the little zoetrope – I think that’s what those spinny things are called - by the BAC entrance which I felt compelled to play with, and the fact that somewhere up above the theatre a huge, ripe moon was looming, even if it was disappointingly hidden by mist.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cinderella at the Lyric


Is there such a thing as too dark for children? I’m not sure; I seem to recall my tastes ran to the macabre when I was small. I remember adoring a book of Slavic folk tales as a child in which all manner of nasty things happened to people and I have, in fact, become far more squeamish as I’ve gotten older.

The point of all this being that, while there’s a decent drizzle of gore in Melly Still’s staging of Cinderella at the Lyric, I suspect all but the smallest will be fine with it. However, as Webcowgirl's experience bears out, this is probably not the show for sensitibve five year olds.

Still has created a de-Disneyed family production that adults will respond to as much as children. The show takes its cues from the fairy-godmother-free Brothers Grimm version of the tale, with a few borrowed myths thrown in for good measure. The acting is fine, if a bit hampered by the story-telling nature of the production and the mass of back-story, but it’s the invention with which the tale is told that really lift this above the level of standard Christmas fare. That and the music. The music is quite wonderful.

This is provided by very tall Norwegian musician called Terje Isungset who sits in a small nest at the top of the stage playing an array of unusual instruments including an old bicycle, a mouth harp which apparently was made from part of a Second World War fighter plane and a trumpet made of ice. His unique percussion is an integral part of the show, driving it along.

The set is also glorious-looking, full of silver birch trees. Suspended above the stage is a circle of paper snow pigeons strung together like a mobile. More of these same paper birds are worn by the actors as glove puppets (yes, more puppets) who then flutter their fingers and make cooing noises to bring the pigeons to life.

At the interval, the production spills over into the bar (hurrah). This is where the Royal Ball, in which the Prince will search for his future bride (having already met, fallen for and then forgotten Cinderella while hunting a stag in the forest), takes place. For reasons that will become clear during the show, audience members on leaving their seats are draped in blue pashminas before filing downstairs. The Lyric has employed extra ‘guests’ to mingle during the ball, and while sipping my wine and looking wall-flowery, I was approached by a leggy thing in a blue evening gown who was apparently channeling my great aunt, as she told me I would never land myself a husband if I didn’t join in and dance.

The last few scenes are quite gleefully nasty in a way, which if you know the Grimm version of the story, you will have anticipated. Feet and eyeballs are both involved. This actually seems a bit excessive given that the not all that ugly sisters in Still’s production (entertainingly played by Katherine Manners and Kelly William) are cruel in a recognizably childish way rather than simply evil, but even so they are made to pay for being awful to their slightly simpering step-sister.

None of the children sitting around me seemed horribly trauamtised by all this - though I saw a couple of adults hiding their faces - and at around two hours, including a lengthier than normal interval to account for the ball, it didn’t outstay its welcome at all.

Incidently the prince is played by Daniel Weyman, who I stalked a tiny weeny bit once, but only for a few minutes by mistake, more of a walking-in-the-same-direction-as than a stalking really.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Twelfth Night at the Tricycle

I have blogged about Filter's energetic take on Twelfth Night over on the Guardian site, so shan't repeat myself here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Time of Your Life at the Finborough

The Finborough Theatre has a good track record in digging up treasure. They like to stage plays that have fallen out of fashion or simply been forgotten. Sometimes they strike gold; sometimes not so much.

Written in 1939, William Saroyan’s sprawling barroom play has a lot going for it; it’s warm and engaging, if practically plot-less, and has an endearing faith in human goodness. It was a big hit in its day and won Saroyan the Pulitzer, but while there’s much about it of interest, Max Lewendel’s rather muddy production doesn’t do it many favours.

The Time Of Your Life is set in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, a San Francisco honky-tonk, a dive bar with an upright piano, a jukebox in the corner and Tiffany lamps on the tables.

Into this bar come a series of people, many of them liver-pickled and desperate. There are streetwalkers and drunks, a marble game addict, a teller of tall tales, a cop who’s dissatisfied with his job and a would-be comedian and dancer who is skilled at neither art.

Sitting calmly in the middle of this constant human stream is Joe, a man with deep pockets and a generous spirit. He no longer works, choosing instead to spend his days sipping champagne, getting amiably squiffy and studying the world and its vagaries. When his friend and errand boy, Tom, becomes infatuated with a troubled prostitute, Joe does what he can to help them.

In its focus on people on the margins, the play has much in common with other more familiar names of American drama, with Eugene O’Neill and his ilk. There’s a touch of John Fante in there too, I think. But while the play contains mess and desperation in abundance, there’s also hope and a sense of optimism untainted by the coming war in Europe.

Lewendel’s production, however, seems uneasy with the play’s loose, episodic structure; with no real story arc to speak of, the production falters when it should free-flow. It only really hits its rhythm in the shorter second half, aided by a lengthy and very funny, if a little icky, scene where Joe and Tom compete to see how much chewing gum they can each fit in their mouths.

For this production, the Finborough seating as been rejigged to create a suitable barroom feel. Instead of the usual benches, many audience members perch on bar stools; the cast sometimes choose to acknowledge the audience, sometimes not. The cast, it should be pointed out, is vast: easily numbering over twenty. They’ve crammed in so many people that it feels as if, even at full capacity, the audience-cast ratio would be something like 2:1.

Among this number there are some strong performances: while there’s something appealingly oddball about Alistair Cumming’s Joe, those in some of the smaller roles leave the deepest impressions, particularly Payman Jaberi as a sad-eyed Arab man who says little but says it with weight and Emma Vane as the melancholy lady who catches Joe’s eye. Elsewhere accents waver alarmingly and there’s a fair bit of acting that’s rather too ‘big’ for the space.

Saroyan’s play is certainly intriguing and some of that comes through here. But this over-crowded production never quite gets to grips with its idiosyncrasies, never quite milks the richness from the material.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

August: Osage County at the National


Apologies for the gap in blogging, but the last few days have been all things and stuff and whatnot. Last Friday however there was actually some theatre when 'Barry' and I went to see Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at the National. For the sake of thematic appropriateness, Barry had a pre-show whiskey and I, not having ready access to heavy-duty pharmaceuticals, contented myself with a large glass of merlot.

I had already read the play, having consumed it in one greedy sitting, and thought it a ripping thing, a great dark ride. But though I enjoyed the production hugely, there were certain things that didn't quite click for me – though conceivably this might have something to do with my pre-show excitement levels being so high.

Right then, here are some things that you probably know: San Francisco, Steppenwolf, Broadway, Tony Award and so forth. It premiered last summer, made the leap to New York and then it was awards all the way. And it’s long: L-O-N-G. Three acts, two intervals, three and a bit hours. Though, actually, having said that, I've been to shorter plays that have felt a hell of a lot longer.

The first act takes its time setting things up. The Weston family is a mess. Daddy drinks, mom pops pills. The marriage of the eldest daughter is falling apart. The youngest daughter is engaged to that evil dude from American Gothic so that obviously doesn't bode well. Middle daughter has stayed close to home, only to provide a source of constant frustration and disappointment to her mother. And then dad goes missing and all the various Westons come home. This slow-burn first section leads up to the most amazing central act, an incredibly funny, tightly constructed funeral dinner in which momma Weston sets about each of her family members with the paring knife that passes for her tongue. It was sublime, though Barry objected to the fact that for much of it, we were looking at the characters backs as they sit at the dinner table.

It was the third act where I thought it lost its way a little. There was just too much, revelation after revelation, and not a shred of hope. It felt excessive, even silly, almost like a (very sharply written) soap opera. The extremity of it was alienating and drained any true tragedy out of the final scenes.
The performances were however superb, Deanna Dunagan, as the tiny, pill-raddled mother, clip-clopping down the stairs in her satin pyjamas. Amy Morton was also wonderful as Barbara the eldest daughter, you could see the capacity to become like her parents written within her, despite her external show of strength.

The thing mentioned by many people who have seen the play is recognition, that they see something of themselves and their families in the Westons. I didn’t have this feeling at all, which is perhaps why I didn’t get it in the way some people have, certainly I was aware of two people weeping in the audience at the end of the play, really bawling, clearly affected on a level I was not. I enjoyed so much of this production –the performances, the Gothic dolls-house set, the line “Well, forsook you and the horse you rode in on” - but it lost its grip on me in those last scenes; it seemed a bit to keen to be saying Big Things about America. However that central sequence, that middle scene, well, that was truly wonderful: perfectly pitched, tense and deeply, darkly funny.

If you're interested, my interview with Mr Letts for musicOMH is here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes at Wilton's


First the good. The RSC have chosen to stage their new production, The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes in the wonderfully atmospheric space that is Wilton's Music Hall. Hidden in an East London alley, Wilton’s is, according to their website, “the world's oldest and last surviving grand music hall.”

The building is utterly lovely, barrel-ceilinged and beautiful, yet flaking and fading, its paint peeling, its windows boarded. But, gosh, it seems rather sad for a place that once resounded with gin and laughter to now be a venue for people to fidget through tedious RSC fare. That’s not to say that Adriano Shaplin's ambitious historical play is utterly without merit, that’s not true at all, it just manages to takes a period of innovation and energy and ideas and somehow sieve much of the magic out of it.

The play is pretty good at scene setting. This Tragedy takes place in the mid 17th century, post Civil War, pre-Restoration; the theatres have been closed and London is alive with intellectual chatter. This comes across well, but the play lacks a sense of dramatic structure and direction. Lots of famous figures flit on and then off again: oh look, there’s Cromwell and there’s a young Isaac Newton, but it all feels a bit quick and bitty.

Shaplin depicts the ideological clash between Hobbes, the political philosopher, and the men of science from Gresham College: Roberts Boyle and Hooke and, um, some others. I am always drawn to things that try and marry science and art, but am usually disappointed. OK, my knowledge of the period is admittedly fairly sketchy, but one would hope that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, that the writing would illuminate and clarify. Unfortunately the play seemed to go out of its way to make things more confusing then they needed to be: why was Robert Boyle played by a woman? Why was Charles II dressed like Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen (or was it supposed to be Russell Brand?) What was the point of the two men who sat up on the balcony and passed comment on the play? It’s not as if they shed any light on proceedings; they were credited as Statler and Waldorf but this is not a connection I would have made without reading the cast list. (On an unrelated note, the West End Whingers might be interested to know that the RSC wigs department also do a nice line in merkins).

This Tragedy is an ambitious thing certainly and one ripe with potential, but it felt in real need of taming and shaping. However it at least inspired me to go away and do a bit of reading about the period, if only to fill in the gaps of comprehension.

I was supposed to have company for this one, but my eminently sensible would-be companion, having clocked the running time (it's a long one) and Nicholas de Jongh's less than complimentary review, suddenly decided against it. I didn't even bother asking my mother, as she doesn't do theatre in the colder months unless guaranteed a pre- and post show glass of wine and a running time not in excess of ninety minutes. It’s probably a good thing my +1 skipped out, because as gorgeous as Wilton’s is, its decrepitude means that sightlines and acoustics are pretty poor – I had an achy neck for most of the following day from sitting side-on to the stage – and, horror of horrors, they, for this show at least, have an unreserved seating policy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Good Thing

Not a proper post, just the quickest of quick notes to urge people to go and see Zena Edwards' Security at BAC. One woman show, spoken word and singing, utterly captivating and superbly performed. Sorry, this is not very critical, is it? But it's good, she's good, go see.

More words, for those who want them (all two of you), here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Emotion at Soho Theatre

Question: when is a play not a play? Answer: when it’s an essay with characters attached.

While On Emotion raises some fascinating points, about how the human mind works and about the gulf between reason and emotion, as theatre its scaffolding is always very visible, one can see the thinking behind every scene and interchange, to the detriment of the drama.

On Emotion is the latest in Mick Gordon’s series of On Something plays (On Love, On Religion) and the second one on which he has collaborated with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, following On Ego.

The play concerns a cognitive behavioural therapist, Stephen, and his two children, Lucy, a rather self-absorbed young actress, and Mark, who, conveniently in a play that deals in the workings of human feelings, appears to have some form of autism. Though his condition is left unspecified, he has many of the associated poor social skills that come with it: he has no concept of fear and a tendency to repeat verbatim conversations he has overheard. Mark cannot read emotion, preferring instead the world of Star Trek, the logical mindset of Mr Spock; his greatest pleasure is his 8 o’clock visit to his father’s study to look at the stars through a telescope.

Stephen is treating one of Lucy’s friends, Anna, an artist and puppet-maker (which, once again, feels a bit too neat, seeing as the play’s main thrust is that we are puppets of our emotions). Anna is beset by dark dreams and angry outbursts; she is sinking, but Stephen is helping her keep her head above water. Recently divorced, he is also attracted to her, and, while composing a lecture on human emotion (much of which he delivers direct to the audience), he indulges his sexual fantasies in the privacy of his study.

This brief masturbatory interlude seems an initially tasteless scene, but then this play is asking its audience to address and question why certain scenarios trigger disgust and upset in people, so in that sense it is fitting. But like so much else in this play it feels as if it were included to illustrate a theoretical point rather than as a way of evolving the plot.

The strong cast do much to give shape to potentially two-dimensional characters. James Wilby has the necessary air of authority as Stephen, but is also able to show the human frailties beneath the professional veneer. Caroline Catz strikes the right balance as Anna: she may be losing her grip, but she's still far more grounded than her flighty friend Lucy, played by Rhian Blythe (recently seen in Gordon's acclaimed Deep Cut).

Mark Down, stuck with the difficult role of Mark, a man who engages with the world on a different level to most, manages to sidestep some, if not all, of the clichés inherent in such a character. Down is also the co-founder of Blind Summit, the puppet theatre company responsible for the cool three foot high space man puppet that is given considerable stage time.

While the meat of Stephen's lecture about the way in which emotions shape our interactions with the world is indeed fascinating (as was Broks’ book Into The Silent Land, which is definitely worth seeking out), the play into which it is woven feels too contrived to genuinely enlighten. And, crucially for a play that deals with emotions, the would be pathos-tinged ending is inexcusably unmoving.

Words once more borrowed from musicOMH.

Having primed myself for puppets, I was disappointed at how little they featured. Ah well. There were other things to engage with. The couple directly in front of me seemed to disagree though. They fidgeted, chatted and giggled almost from the start before making a noisy exit about twenty minutes from the end (they were in the middle of the aisle and there was no interval). I've seen many a thing at the theatre that hasn't really done it for me, where I've felt no connection with what's happening on the stage and the minutes have crawled by as a result, but I still think it's a little unfair to inflict your displeasure on those around you. Tsk.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Puppets

When I was in Palermo earlier this year I quickly discovered that the need-to-do thing cultural thing was a spot of Sicilian puppet theatre, but in the end I never went, for when I saw the puppets – they were everywhere, displayed in shop windows and cafes – I found their spindly and inanimate forms rather unnerving. They creeped me out; so instead I invested my energies in gelato consumption and crossing the street without being mown down by unobservant motorists (a sport in itself in Sicily) and enjoyed a pleasantly puppet-free holiday.

I’ve always found puppets a little upsetting. There is a shop somewhere in Clapham full of the things and every time I walk pass it I imagine them coming to life after dark and maybe holding little puppet ceremonies in which they sacrifice a Care Bear or some such thing to their little puppet gods.

But now having had, not one, but two positive puppet experiences in one weekend, I realise how wrong I was, for it is not the puppets per se that I dislike, for when brought to life by skilled performers they are quite amazing – I understand that now, the subtlety and precision in both shows was astonishing – it’s just when the puppets are vacant and lifeless that they make me shudder.

The first show on my puppet double bill was Blind Summit’s Low Life at the BAC, which I saw as a kind of primer to On Emotion which opens at Soho Theatre this week and also features their work, and also because I wanted to address the whole puppet thing, to look it square in its (creepy, painted) face. This was a slight but very enjoyable show. Apparently taking its inspiration from the writings of Charles Bukowski, it was set in dive bar populated by both people and puppets. But really the setting was just an excuse to string together a series of sketches: a character called Kevin (portrayed by a puppet who is the spit of Kevin Spacey) fights with his wife for one last drink and ends up performing a balletic airborne duet with an empty glass; an elderly cleaning lady gets worked up about the outcome of the book she is reading; a faded star of the stage smokes a cigarette and makes a pass at the bartender; a tiny plumber embarks on a Mission: Impossible-style adventure to fix a leaking pipe; and 1940s B-movie is re-enacted using a series of little blue men.

With the exception of the last sketch the puppeteers are always visible, there is no attempt to conceal them or distract from their manipulations. With up to three people controlling each puppet, the way in which the performers create the movements becomes as fascinating as the puppets themselves. There’s no plot, hardly any dialogue and for a show of an hour, it felt a bit stretched, but within it there were some very tender, funny and magical moments.

The same – well, the tender, funny and magical bit – can also be said of puppet show number two: War Horse at the National Theatre, which I finally caught on its Sunday matinee. There’s probably not a lot I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, as I’m rather late to the party on this one, but oh my, weren’t the horses amazing: cloth and wood and wire, but so wonderfully life-like. From the stiff-legged, Bambi-like foal to the magnificent adult animal (when Albert first jumped into the saddle there was an audible ripple of excitement). Yes, it’s kind of baggy plot-wise and veers towards sentiment at the end, but given its source material (Michael Morpurgo’s novel is narrated by the horse, something the play has not tried to replicate) I think this is acceptable. In the closing scenes, the whole theatre seemed to be physically willing this horse to stay alive and the moment when one of the horses dies and the puppeteers (who again are visible, though never distracting) tumble out of the animal and slowly, respectfully walk away, it was as its spirit was quietly departing and it almost, almost made me cry a little bit.

Describing the production to a friend today I was searching for a photo online to illustrate my babble, but the horses invariably looked a little rubbish in two dimensions, you really had to be there to see them move, to see them whinny and buck and stamp and nuzzle: to see them live. I found the look of the production also quite powerful. Rae Smith’s design fitted the piece perfectly, the sketches flickering in the background were very effective and, in the trench scene, it featured one of the best uses of the Olivier revolve I’ve seen in a long time. Being Remembrance Sunday, the cast all returned to take their bows sporting poppies, which was a lovely, thoughtful touch and the play itself made me think about the First World War in a way I’d not really done so before, the devastation of land as well as life, Europe as a battlefield, for once the trenches and the pain and the mess of it all felt geographically as well as historically grounded in my mind.

I won't say I'm totally over the puppet thing but I am dealing with my issues (I will still be keeping my distance from that shop in Clapham though, I'm not that brave).

Friday, November 07, 2008

Othello at the Lyric


There has not been a lot of theatre on here of late because I have been in France for much of last week. This was a theatre-free trip, though I did draw some pretty pictures of leaves and eat a lot of cheese. There may also have been some wine involved.

Idyllic as all that was, I came back eager to break my theatrical fast - which I duly did last night by heading over to Hammersmith to take in Frantic Assembly’s modern, urban Othello at the Lyric.

They have taken Shakespeare’s tragedy and relocated it to a rough estate pub in West Yorkshire. This is not an arbitrary choice and it is clear that thought has been taken in finding a contemporary setting that doesn’t jar with the racial dynamics of the play, a modern context into which it can fit. Othello, played by Jimmy Akingbola, is the only black face in a predominantly white working class neighbourhood where rivalries run rife and violent clashes are common. He is simultaneously respected, admired and feared; his colour gives him cache, which is backed by his cool-headedness and confidence. He comes across as a man among boys and one can see why Desdemona was drawn to him, marrying him without her father’s knowledge.

The play has been condensed to less than two hours and is shot through with music and dance, indeed for the first five minutes or so there are no words, just pounding beats and writhing bodies. For the most part the dance compliments the feel of the production, even the danced fight scenes don’t stick out as much as they usually do, though, as ever, the participants look far more like dancers than fighters. There was also a brief bit of onstage up-sicking though nothing like as dramatic as the barfing in God of Carnage.

Though the production has undoubted energy, not everything works. A handkerchief feels like a very odd thing for a chap like Othello to give to his girlfriend – was there no way this could have been updated? They have no problem having Desdemona say “fuck, it’s my dad,” when their pub toilet coitus is interrupted by her father.

I did like the way Claire Louise Cordwell’s Desdemona fought and kicked and struggled against her fate, but the bloody end scenes veered towards the excessive and ended up feeling rather silly. Half the cast took their bows splattered with stage blood. Iago, played by Charles Aiken, also remained a bit too opaque. But despite some problems the production had a power and a drive to it: real effort had been taken to make Shakespeare’s world connect with a modern setting.

The time whipped by (unlike, say, A Disappearing Number, a production of a similar length but one that just dragged on and on) and the piece left a definite impression.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Surfacing

Not dead. In France. Or was until the weekend. Home now. Bit cold.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Faces in the Crowd at the Royal Court

Good lord, this was intense...

I pretty much agree with Lyn Gardner on this one. The Royal Court’s upstairs theatre has been totally transformed for this production by designers Rae Smith and William Fricker with an entire one-bed flat set in a kind of pit around which the audience sit, watching from above. This makes the characters feel like animals in an enclosure. The staging though certainly memorable also had its problems in turns of sight-lines. I was sitting right above the 'bedroom' so struggled to see a lot of what went on there, despite the positioning of a large mirror on the opposite wall. On the other hand I got a, perhaps clearer than desirable, view of Con O'Neill's jiggling naked behind.

Leo Butler's play concerns Dave and Joanne. They were married – are still married – but he skipped town years ago, leaving both her and large pile of debt behind him. and headed to London. Now he lives in tiny but fashionably decked-out flat in Shoreditch. It’s little more than a shoebox but you can see the Gherkin from the window. Now she's journeyed down to see him, keen to take what she feels is owed to her - a baby, or at least the means to make one.

The play demands a lot from its performers, depicting both Dave and Joanne’s sexual fumbling and the violent fallout of their reunion. It’s draining to watch and is blessed with two utterly compelling and open performances from Con O’Neill, as Dave, and Amanda Drew, as Joanne. O’Neill superbly conveys Dave’s barely contained fury, his ability to flip, his volatility, and the way his Sheffield accent intensifies when he loses his cool. Drew is also startlingly good: her anger is better contained but she has the capacity to wound when necessary. But, good as they are there was something false and hollow about the whole set up. The big speeches about debt culture and social mobility felt a bit forced, striving too hard to be topical.

It was gripping though and in the seconds of darkness and quiet that followed the end of the play you could hear an audible collective release of tension. Butler also understands the importance of silence, the things that people do when they aren't talking (or insulting each other's gentalia).

This is a raw, powerful piece of theatre but the couple’s background, their journey to the place where we see them, doesn’t always ring true. But the sheer strength of the performances, the utter exposure required of them, is something not easily forgotten.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Wellcome Collection

The man who for the purposes of this blog is called Barry and I had a curious but rather lovely Saturday. We had hoped to see the morning screening of Frost/Nixon at the London Film Festival. But due to an absence of BFI staff at the cinema, a general air of confusion and a queue full of foot-tapping and frustrated filmgoers (and the fact that it was probably sold out, though no one could actually tell us whether it was or not), we decided to write it off and do something else instead. Something else turned out to be a trip to the Wellcome Collection, which we reached via an interestingly circular trans-Bloomsbury route – a long-cut I think is the term.

The building houses the artefacts collected by the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, many of which are of a medical nature. Under the banner Medicine Man, the permanent collection contains birthing chairs, Peruvian mummies, Nigerian twin dolls, Charles Darwin’s skull-headed cane and an array of turn of the century bone saws and forceps. There are metal prosthetic noses for the syphilis afflicted and some quite alarming anti-masturbatory devices with the amusing and apt caption ‘probably British’

Much of it is macabre but it’s also utterly fascinating. In the lobby, opposite the café with its nursery school chairs, there’s a display called Make A Piano in Spain. The artist John Newling asked 500 people what they did to make themselves feel better and recorded the responses. Newling created a number of composite situations from these responses, combing the recurring elements in little scenarios that verge on poems. But also, on the day we were there, he was giving a reading through all the responses in order, a three hour undertaking. Visitors to the Collection were encouraged to drift in and out of the room where he was reading.

There was something soothing about hearing these responses in full, the repetition and the banality of the answers. Most people went for obvious things: a glass of wine, cooking a meal for their partner, reading a novel, having a long hot bath, sex, quite a few people said they would choose to do something creative, to write, to play music, to paint; a few seemed acutely aware of letting people know how cool they were: one lengthy comment included listening to ‘trad jazz’ and going surfing – it was the specifics that made me smirk. Some were curt, some ponderous, and though he spoke with the flattest of monotones, a sense of the character of the respondent could be gathered through the way they had phrased things, the words they had chosen. Hearing it, or at least part of it, in this long, flat flow was rather reassuring, I found.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mine at Hampstead Theatre


I should know better by know. I should know that the tube to Swiss Cottage, that grim grey line to Hampstead Theatre, can only lead to disappointment. But time dulls past pains, one forgets, and then one glances at a flyer or a preview write-up and thinks ‘yes, I like the sound of that.’

I had seen and enjoyed past productions by Shared Experience, so their latest play Mine was not unappealing. But the curse of Hampstead Theatre continues. In Mine an unnamed, childless couple try to adopt a baby girl. They are wealthy and successful and clearly lead a life of considerable comfort while the girl’s birth mother is a drug-user and prostitute whose daughter has been taken into care while she attempts to rehabilitate herself. But all the money in the world can’t prepare them for the reality of raising a child and the arrival of this tiny, helpless person into the couple’s lives leaves them feeling exposed and unsettled.

Throughout the production there are dreamlike sequences in which an actress in a floaty white dress appears and scampers round the stage like a little girl, hiding behind furniture and playing with an ornate dollhouse. She represents both the woman’s desired daughter and her memories of her own childhood. But while this is initially interesting, it’s hard to get past the fact that this ‘child’ is being played by an adult, it’s too big a hurdle, and some of these sequences feel silly as opposed to moving or revealing.

The main problem with the production – and it’s a big one - is that there isn’t a single remotely sympathetic character on stage. The woman is joyless and her husband is a domineering, sharp-tempered, one-note sod; you find yourself questioning the social worker who entrusted these two people with a vulnerable infant. The couple is surrounded by a group of walking clichés. There’s the sister with three children of her own who worries she has forgotten how to be anything other than a mother and the housekeeper from some unspecified Eastern European country. None of these people feel real. Even Rose, the child’s mother, the character with the most potential to be interesting, is a harshly pony-tailed, tracksuit clad stereotype.

It’s such a shame as the play has some valid things to say about the way motherhood can open you up like an exposed wound, how the world suddenly becomes a more threatening, unsettling place when you have this small person to raise and care for and protect. But all this is buried under the clumsy and ugly production. There are some potentially good performances marooned in there too. Katy Stephens does what she can as the woman who has longed for a child for so long that she struggles to handle the reality when her wish is granted. And Lorraine Stephens, as the baby’s mother, somehow maintains a degree of dignity despite having to perform with her G-string riding up over her trousers as she staggers around stage, cigarette in hand.

But none of this compensates for having to sit through this turgid thing – though there is some unintentional humour to be derived from watching the actors cooing over the unnerving, tufty-headed fake baby. Shared Experience has done fine work in the past but their trademark approach feels cumbersome here. The play would have benefited from a lighter touch and less reliance on familiar theatrical tics and devices.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Iris Brunette at BAC

Melanie Wilson has strange powers. She sucks up time like juice through a straw. I could have sworn we were only watching her new show at the BAC for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes at most, but when we checked our watches on exiting almost an hour had passed.

Wilson has worked with The Clod Ensemble and Chris Goode (in ...Sisters at the Gate), but she also creates her own work. Her new show Iris Brunette is influenced by Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a French short film composed of still black and white images about apocalypse and time travel on which Terry Gilliam based Twelve Monkeys.

It is designed to be performed to just sixteen people at a time. The General Office at the BAC has been lit like the inside of a chapel or a phosphorescent cave and the audience sit in a circle, facing each other, while Wilson perches among us on a folding stool. From here she tells a story with a whiff of espionage to it: there are lots of snatched encounters in cafes and a strong sense of coming danger, of some kind of war or devastation. The setting for her tale is deliberately elusive, part of both the future and the past.

A spotlight picks out each audience member in turn. We are the characters who people her strange story: a cartographer, a sea captain and so forth. There is a degree of audience involvement with Wilson positioning herself in different places in the circle and speaking to people in friendly tones, soliciting their advice and playing games. Some respond with geeky good humour, others in unnerved silence, suddenly very interested in their shoes.

Throughout the piece there are periods of blackness during which we hear a soundscape of café chatter and strange clanking noises like the sound a descending elevator might make. Wilson’s own voice narrating, both recorded and spoken, also forms part of the aural backdrop. Clad in a black dress with a long watch chain around her neck and the light playing across her sculptural features and her dancing, delicate wrists, she is a striking guide through this odd, other world.

Iris Brunette is at times impenetrable – when asked about it by someone the next day I really struggled to explain what it was about – but it was never less than hypnotic, a disorientating and memorable show, a transporting experience, that left me all of a quiver, looking at my watch and wondering.

These words also appear over here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Broken Space Season at the Bush


I like the dark. Long before carbon footprints had entered the lexicon, I was the one bustling round the house switching off lights and contentedly damaging my eyes as I read and wrote with the aid of one lone lamp in the corner of the room.

So the idea of the Bush Theatre’s Broken Space season, a season of short plays born out of necessity and staged at least partly in the dark, was particularly appealing. A series of leaks and floodings were causing the theatre serious problems, as Andrew and I can testify having had to stand gin-less for twenty minutes on the cramped stairwell waiting to see Anthony Weigh’s 2000 Feet Away. So, as they are unable to use their lighting grid, they have responded by staging a changing triple bill of plays that make a virtue out of being minimally lit.

Temporary seating has been arranged around three walls of the theatre, facing the windows, which are open to the street. The line-up varies over the course of the month, with work by Jack Thorne and the increasingly ubiquitous Lucy Kirkwood due to feature alongside work by more established names including Bryony Lavery and the super-ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere Neil LaBute.

The longest of the three plays and the one unchanging thread of the season is Declan Feenan’s St Petersburg, about an elderly man and his middle aged daughter. She bustles around him, making him lunch, cleaning his flat and checking that he’s taken his pills. It’s well observed and often very funny, with a strong undercurrent of sadness, of past pain and things left unsaid. It’s a solid, unflashy piece of writing made more poignant by the dying light outside the window. (And the Whingers would particularly appreciate the cooking and consumption of a bacon sarnie that happens midway through)

The final piece of the evening was performed in total blackness, the shutters closed on the Shepherd’s Bush streets and only a sole torch beam to illuminate things. The theatre floor has been covered in loam, spongy underfoot, and a square of plastic had been pegged out in the middle of the room. The chairs had been removed and the audience was made to stand as if at some sort of midnight gathering: there was a whiff of Blair Witch to the whole set up. Anthony Weigh’s The Flooded Grave was a grotesque and darkly comic account of an exorcism; it was atmospheric, yes, and well performed, but there was something about it that didn’t quite click, it felt too much like an exercise; a bit of a let down considering the build up.

The most successful and memorable piece for me was Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, an utterly captivating, skin tingling monologue, superbly performed by Andrew Scott. This was wonderful, the simplest of three pieces and yet the most powerful. The writing, full of devastating detail, was captivating and aptly staged in fading daylight.

It seems odd though to have one unchanging play at the centre of the season as otherwise I may well have returned to see some of the other pieces. Also you are forced to vacate the theatre between plays so the stage can be reset, and, as the Bush as no proper bar of its own, you can either stand in noisy next door bar or hover awkwardly in the little lobby. Fine for a fifteen minute interval, a bit of a chore when there’s a gap of over half an hour as there was in the case of the first two plays. Still it’s small complaint, the Stephens monologue alone made it worth it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Girl With A Pearl Earring at the Haymarket


Sometimes one wonders if there are any original stories left. Tracy Chevalier’s popular novel about Vermeer’s most famous painting has already been filmed (with Colin Firth rather miscast as the artist) and it has now been transplanted to the stage in a new adaptation by David Joss Buckley. The first question one has to ask is why? Is this story so potent it deserves a third telling? Does theatre bring something to it that the other mediums were unable to match? The answer is no on both counts.

As with Chevalier’s novel, this is a fictionalised account of Delft’s master painter and what happens when he invites a young servant girl into his house. Griet is a pretty thing, seventeen years old and still more child than woman. Her father has been blinded in accident so she needs to take a job to help support her family. But from the start Vermeer’s wife Catharina views her with suspicion; unsurprisingly perhaps, as Griet’s beauty and lack of worldliness seems to transfix every man she meets. Not only does the butcher boy want to marry her but Vermeer’s lecherous patron, Van Ruijven, (played as a lank haired panto villain by Niall Buggy) clearly wants to get into her petticoats. And while Vermeer’s attraction to the girl is less overt, it is no less damaging.

Though Vermeer appears to love his ever-pregnant wife, he is drawn to the girl and allows her to assist him in his studio and eventually – inevitably – to sit for him. Which she does; having donned that striking turban first, she poses, as instructed, with her lips ever so slightly parted, her eyes bearing all. In this way the act of painting her becomes a far more intimate act than if he had simply given her a swift one in the kitchen, something that both Griet and the increasingly jealous Catharina understand even if he does not.

It’s conjecture, of course: the girl’s identity and Vermeer’s relationship to her are unknown. The book at least, written from Griet’s perspective, had an inbuilt distance, but here the story is presented in a lumpy, literal fashion. Every now and then a character will step over to the corner of the stage and make some solemn pronouncement about the way the narrative is going, just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention.

These little interludes are so clumsy it’s hard not to snigger. Not only that but they also speak of a lack of trust, the play does not appear to think its audience will be able to guess what is going on in the character’s heads without spelling it out in so blunt a fashion. (“She was different from the other maids…”) Later in the evening, having had the concept of allegory explained to her by Vermeer, Griet sobs and winces as he symbolically sticks her newly-pierced lobe with his wife’s earring. Conceits that may have worked well on the page, feel laboured and heavy-handed on the stage.

Kimberley Nixon is suitably plump-lipped and pretty under her plain cotton cap as Griet: young, yes, but not a total innocent. She over-enunciates at first, and seems to be speaking too loudly, moving too stiffly, but she gradually warms up in the scenes with Vermeer. Adrian Dunbar does a decent enough job as the artist, but he often comes off as a bit dim for not being able to see the consequences of his actions. There is no sign of the passionate artist figure, in love with the creative process and blind to all else. That may be a cliché but at least it would be a bit more interesting that what we get. There is, however, sturdy support from Sara Kestelman as Vermeer’s wily mother-in-law and Maggie Service as the other, plainer kitchen maid, Tanneke. And the production does look very pretty, the set design recreating Vermeer’s studio with its distinctive windows.

Joe Dowling’s direction is competent at best: it gets the job done, but never sticks its neck out. It seems a particularly odd choice that the paintings are never shown. The work – the art – gets lost as a result, and the idea of master and muse is never really explored in any fresh or insightful way. Without the art, it’s just another case of a middle aged man getting itchy around a pretty young girl.

Words once more borrowed from musicOMH as I have again been bee-like in my busyness this week.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud

Right, I finally managed to reschedule Six Characters - and glad I am about it as I really did enjoy it, more, I think, than I expected to.

The words below are borrowed from musicOMH, mainly due to indolence on my part, but also because the big pile of other stuff that needs attending to is starting to growl at me.


In Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s very free adaptation of Pirandello’s modernist classic, the rehearsal space in which the original was set has been replaced by a blank, bland urban office. In this office a team of film makers are in a quandary over a documentary they are making about a euthanasia clinic in Denmark. They question how much re-enacted footage they can included before it stops being a drama-documentary and starts being a docu-drama, they worry about what the story is they are trying to tell, they worry about how to find a dramatically satisfying ending.

It is into this scenario that Pirandello’s sextet of characters stride, dressed in mourning clothes, seeking an author to tell their story. There is the domineering father and his angry, accusing stepdaughter; a mother, with her face hidden behind dark glasses; a nervy son, who clutches a book and turns his back on the others; and a young boy and girl, both silent.

The characters’ story is a sordid, tangled thing, one of illegitimacy and infidelity, of an illicit sexual encounter in a grubby room above a hat-maker’s shop. It is a tale full of twists and turns and emotional drama, and, after some persuasion, the characters convince the documentary producer (played by Noma Dumezweni) to tell it. A set is constructed – a set within a set – and they begin to film. But the characters baulk at having their story told by actors, despite the actors’ insistence that they will capture the essence of the characters, that their performance will be somehow ‘realer’, and the characters eventually win the fight to play themselves.

Goold’s production, a transfer from Chichester where it was a hit this summer, is risk-taking and ambitious, though the results, while sometimes inspired, are sometimes a little too self-consciously ‘clever’ to be truly enjoyable. Ian McDiarmid, whose illness earlier in the run caused cancellations, is now recovered and is superbly sinister as the father, veering from eccentric gent to something far more demonic as the play progresses. Denise Gough is also impressive as the wronged step-daughter and Adam Cork’s sound design is particularly striking and memorable, moving gradually from muddy, naturalism to operatic cacophony, over the course of the first half.

The production shifts in tone after the interval; the understood realities of the earlier scenes have been removed and the documentary producer is plunged into a hell of self-questioning, a limbo state. The characters explain that those who live in the imagination live forever – so who is more real, them or her? The mood becomes darker as layer after layer of ‘reality’ is stripped away and the play turns in on itself, curling itself into tighter and tighter coils. In the process the audience are treated to some lovely theatrical in-jokery and a couple of genuinely, unnerving jolts.

The trouble with this kind of self-referential, self-dissecting, self-digesting approach is that it works best on the medium in question and by drawing documentary and film into the mix, the waters are somewhat dirtied. And an attempt to give the ‘character’ of the producer a back-story, to give her some shape, some drive, doesn’t really work, as the very structure of the piece seems to argue against it. Instead, as she charges through the theatre sobbing, searching for help and answers, she reminds one, more than anything else, of the 'final girl' in an old school horror movie.

These quibbles aside, this is a challenging and exciting piece, more thrilling than one might expect an intellectual exercise of this kind to be. Goold and Power manage to stay true to the subversive qualities of Pirandello’s original while gleefully twisting the material to their own ends, creating something new and invigorating in the process.

Friday, September 19, 2008

More on the Balkans

I still haven’t written anything that I’m particularly happy with about my time in Belgrade and Bosnia. I think I hoped – desperately naively I know – that I would return from a week spent over there and have lovely, neat answers to all my questions about family and the conflicts of the past and present and that fire which I have seen in people’s eyes (the fire I feel I do not possess, not in the same way at any rate).

It was my mother’s first trip of any note back to Belgrade in 45 years, which turned out to be almost too long a time to bridge. We were both tourists in our own way, which had its drawbacks and its pleasures. I have just come home with many, many, many more questions than I had before I went and am struggling to order my thoughts. I was going to write about the pop corn vendors and the permeating sense of chaos and the evening we sipped beer in the bar at Kalemegdan as the sun set over the Danube (a very cinematic moment) and other such things – and I still might – but, really, right now the only solid true thing I know is that a week was not enough and I hope to go back as soon as I can (well, sometime next year at least).

Apologies, I suspect this was of interest to no-one other than myself. Next post will be more theatre-centric, honest.

Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola

This was going to be a review of Six Characters in Search of an Author. But my friend and I arrived at the Gielgud theatre earlier in the week to find the shutters down and some apologetic front of house staff explaining about unexpected illness in the cast. So we were forced, forced I say, to go and come to terms with our disappointment over a bottle of red wine. And a number of gins. Hopefully I will reschedule for a date in the near future as it’s one I was super keen to see. So in lieu of the planned review, here’s some words (borrowed from musicOMH) about Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola which I saw last week.

A sail fish hangs above Monk’s bar, gleaming and glossy. It’s about the only clean, untainted thing in Tennessee Williams’s 1972 play, Small Craft Warnings, set in a Californian beach bar where human flotsam drifts in on the tide.

Apparently Williams specified fog blowing in off the Pacific in his stage directions, spewing forth desperate men and women like something in a John Carpenter film. We don’t get fog during Bill Bryden’s revival at the Arcola, but we do get desperation. The play reeks of it. Broken people and the whiff of bourbon. There’s the Doctor, who can’t get through the night without a cocktail of brandy and Benzedrine; the short-order cook with the pot-belly and the My Name Is Earl moustache; the feckless layabout who calls his cock ‘junior’ with pride rather than irony and the gay Hollywood screenwriter whose life no longer surprises him. Then there’s the young farm boy, hope undimmed, who he has picked up en route, and Violet, thin-limbed and prone to wailing in the ladies’ toilets, the varnish peeling off her dirty finger nails, who regularly dispenses hand jobs under the cover of the incongruously quaint red and white checked table cloths.

And in the middle of all this, there's Leona, the trailer dwelling beautician whose eyes have clearly seen things. It is her brother’s death-day and she sways round the place listening to violin music on the duke box, trying to pry another drink from Monk the bartender, who kindly but firmly declines.

Sian Thomas is superb as Leona, hardened but soft at the same time, a force to be reckoned with. No-one else in the fine cast gets quite the same chance to shine. Jack Shepherd, as Monk, has the spot-on look and manner of the man behind the bar and Greg Hicks makes an impression as the wasp-tongued and bitter, blazer-clad screenwriter Quentin who compares gay sex to a jab with a hypodermic. Meredith MacNeil, black bra showing through her a flimsy dress, dark hair piled up on her head (in a fashion appropriately reminiscent of Amy Winehouse), is also memorable as the fog-brained Violet.

The play is a difficult one, bleak and meandering, with shards of lyrical beauty amidst the murk. Each character takes their turn to step forward and spin out a confessional monologue, before retreating back into the wash. It has its powerful moments but something about it just doesn’t sit right. It’s a hard, tired play. And it is tiring to watch, all that misery, those empty lives. Bryden’s production is moving in places but also wearying, and, talented as the cast are, they sometimes struggle to do much with this collage of lost, sloshed people.

The detailed design (by Hayden Griffin) has some nice touches and the beat of the Pacific, the constant sound of crashing waves outside the door gives a certain rhythm to the piece, but it remains a play of moments rather than a satisfying whole.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Well at Trafalgar Studios

Right, been back in the UK a few days now and am slowly getting back into the swing of things, adjusting to the whole no-longer-on-holiday hoo-ha. I was hoping to have put together some words by now on the Belgrade/Bosnia experience but have been prevaricating and it has yet to happen.

I have, however – small drum roll – been to the theatre. My first excursion after landing was to see Well at Trafalgar Studios (in the little downstairs one). This is a play about ‘issues of illness and wellness’ by American playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron. When Kron was growing up her mother was often ill, fatigued to the point where she could hardly move, yet at the same time she managed to do considerable work in the community, to ‘heal’ a neighbourhood, as the play rather too neatly puts it. Kron was also ill herself, ill enough to warrant a stint in a hospital allergy unit and in order to better understand both her mother’s and her own experiences of illness, Kron has created a ‘multi-character theatrical experience.’ This is how the play terms itself. There’s a lot of talk like that as Natalie Casey, playing Kron, speaks directly to the audience throughout, describing her intentions and how she hopes the piece will work.

Sarah Miles , sitting in a battred red leather Lazy Boy chair swaddled in blankets and sporting a pair of huge fluffy bed socks, plays Kron’s mother, Ann. She is very entertaining in the role, forever interrupting proceedings and puncturing the monologue in order to offer drinks and Oreos to the audience and point out inaccuracies in the narrative. However while there are some gloriously funny moments (an anecdote about her childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, chief among them), the production is hampered by some major problems, most significantly the fact that Kron played herself stateside while here she is played by Casey (who apparently is from Two Pints Of Lager and A Packet of Crisps, which I gather is a thing off the telly). She is very, very good as Kron, with solid, comic timing and a nice rapport with the audience, wholly inhabiting the role, but she is, still, an actress playing a part. So when the production loops ever in on itself and the other actors start breaking character and ditching their American accents, when they start questioning Kron and what she is trying to achieve, the fact that Casey is also playing a role and is not the author of the piece sits in the middle of the room like a big postmodern elephant.

The fact that the play also tiptoes around the nature of Kron’s own illness, doesn’t help either. Was she ever genuinely sick? It remains ambiguous – and while the writing acknowledges these ambiguities, that doesn’t make them any less problematic.

Despite these sizeable flaws, it is a warmly written and well performed piece, if, at times, a bit too cute and too, well, for want of a better term, American (specifically east coast introspective) but where it did work was in making me think about my attitude to illness and health. Having always enjoyed pretty good health, I think I do sometimes rather assume that people who haven’t (and I’m not talking about people with serious conditions, rather people who are more prone to sicknesses, colds, lurgies and the like, than I am) are somehow complicit in their unwellness. It’s a rather arrogant attitude and I’m not proud of it, and I shall endeavour not to tut and judge so much in future. Honest.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

From Belgrade to Bosnia

Still on holiday and Not At The Theatre. After four days in Belgrade, I crossed the border to Bosnia, which is where I am now, staying in my family's small apartment. This was going to be a long-ish and no doubt deeply fascinating post about that city but it is 36 degrees here at last look (and, sensible me, I have packed mainly cardigans and other unsuitable items) and there are people in the next room luring me with cool beer and idle afternoon chatter, so it will have to wait.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hedda at the Gate


And, so, to Notting Hill on a sticky, pre-storm Saturday, to the teeny (but fortunately air-cooled) Gate Theatre for Lucy Kirkwood’s modern update of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. I was not overfond of Tinderbox, her first full length play which was at the Bush earlier this year, but this I really enjoyed – with one fairly major reservation. Kirkwood has relocated the play to contemporary Notting Hill, to the streets a stone’s (or a play text’s throw) from the venue itself; her Hedda, still grieving for her father and impulsively married to a man she does not care for, is “marooned in nappy valley with nothing to do.” She has no job – and no real desire to get one – is saddled with a hefty mortgage on a home she never really wanted and, possibly, has a baby on the way. Though her husband adores her (even if he does not really understand her), for Hedda it is hell. So she entertains herself by toying with those around her, mocking and manipulating.

Though it runs to nearly two hours without a break, Carrie Cracknell’s production is riveting, always gripping, and superbly acted by everyone; each performance feels whole, solid. Cara Horgan is a dangerous Hedda, stalking around the two-tier set with her father’s antique pistols (though I did wonder why, when Eli’s manuscript was now carried around on a memory stick, Hedda’s guns had not been updated in any way). Tom Mison is strong of spirit as her husband George, even though he is clearly baffled and awed by his new wife. There is clearly more to him than she gives him credit for. Everyone else – Adrian Bower (the not John Simm one from Elling, Cath Whitefield, Christopher Obi, Alice Patten – adds to the picture

The set design and the use of music in Cracknell’s production is, as ever with the Gate, spot on. As a venue it seems to have a particularly good way with such things. Unkle’s Rabbit In Your Headlights (the one with Thom Yorke on vocals) was just one example of a perfectly judged choice of song.

The crucial problem for me though (and not just me, as I see from the reviews) is that in stripping Hedda of social context, any sympathy for her is lost. She just comes across as monstrously self absorbed and cruel, repellently so. Kirkwood has done her best to get around this, Hedda is still in pain following her father’s death and she clearly views herself as a bad, broken person, unfixable. Horgan too manages to inject some small note of vulnerability into the character. But it’s not enough, or it wasn’t for me. This Hedda is simply too much, too unpleasant, her behaviour malicious and inexcusable.

Unrelated, but the floor seemed to be magnetised at the performance I saw, as both Hedda’s bracelet and that vital memory stick jumped out of her grasp and fell to the ground and had to be scrabbled for.

Even more unrelated, I am off to Belgrade tomorrow, so this blog may go quiet for a week or so.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Romeo and Juliet at Middle Temple Hall

Interval Drinks has ceased running around her new garden long enough to go and see some actual theatre. Though it wasn’t in a theatre, oh no, it was in the rather grand setting of Middle Temple Hall with its ornate beamed ceiling and stained glass windows.

A company called Theatre of Memory are currently staging an agreeable version of Romeo and Juliet there as part of the 2008 Temple Festival and there was something rather exciting about making my way through the courtyards and cloisters behind Fleet Street to this Elizabethan building and getting to explore its wood-panelled corridors before the show. I even forgot to visit the bar, distracted as I was.

And the production itself? Well Interval Drinks has been known to get a little swayed by beautiful buildings and places into which you wouldn’t normally venture, to the point where she can rather overlook a show’s flaws (Hysteria at St Barts earlier this year being a case in point) but this was a far more coherent and satisfying production than that. A solid, safe thing with solid, safe performances. Juliet Rylance was a decent Juliet, if a tad too composed and grown up. Romeo, played by Isaac from Heroes (Santiago Cabrera) was a bit insipid at first but he grew on me. Ann Mitchell, as the nurse, stole her scenes by sheer force of personality and heft of considerable bosom.

The room itself presented a number of challenges to the cast, being long and narrow, with the audience seated on three sides. Despite the audience’s proximity to the performers, the high ceilinged space made intimacy difficult and acoustics were also an issue at times. The lights too flickered on and off, seemingly at random, on more than one occasion in a pleasingly spooky and, I assume, an unintended fashion.

The costumes however were a joy, all whites and creams and golds. The Montague and Capulet men wore lace-fronted shirts, cockily angled hats, three quarter length trousers and gun holsters. They looked absurd but it worked, in context, surprisingly well.

So hardly a revelatory production of Romeo And Juliet but an enjoyable one if, at three hours, something of a slog. Interval Drinks believes tickets are available via the Barbican website.

Oh and, after this post, Interval Drinks promises not to write about herself in the third person any more. Personal pronouns are definitely the way to go.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Vortex

A Non Theatre post, as I’ve been doing predominantly non-theatre-y things this week, mainly involving running round the garden, as mentioned, and exploring my new neighbourhood. (And can I just ask whether there is a word for the kind of hypocrite who waves her hands around in vaguely classist alarm when a branch of Cath Kidson opens up the road from her old flat and then gets over-excited when she realises her new home is within walking distance of a Waitrose? Because, it seems, that this is exactly the kind of hypocrite I am.)

Anyway, continuing down the non-theatre line, the man known as Barry and I skipped over to Dalston last night for an evening of Turkish food and jazz on the Kingsland Road and it was lovely. We saw a young vocalist called Mishka Adams at the Vortex and it was everything you want from a night like that: red wine, low lights, smooth music. I don’t think I have the necessary vocabulary to talk about jazz, not in any analytical way at least; I just know I enjoyed myself and will be repeating the experience at some future date.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Piaf at the Donmar


Hurrah! I am all moved in! I am now a resident of Balham, in a proper house with stairs and a garden and everything. I also ache muchly from all the lifting and shifting. But it was worth it. And it wasn’t nearly as stressful as it could have been due to some incredibly helpful and generous friends.

I have not had much time for theatre this past week, not had much time for anything else in fact. I did however have tickets for Piaf at the Donmar Warehouse which I had been looking forward to and which I enjoyed hugely, despite the fact that Elena Roger’s performance totally eclipsed the play itself. Her performance was genuinely captivating; good enough, I thought, to make one overlook the fact that Pam Gems’ play was a rather spindly thing. Anyway I have blogged about it over here, so I won’t repeat myself. Besides I have to go and run round my garden some more like an overexcited three-year-old, making happy noises.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On The Move

It has been a bit quiet here of late, as foolhardy woman that I am, I am once again packing all of my worldly goods into boxes and ferrying them from one bit of south London to another bit of south London. There were good reasons for doing this, I’m sure there were, I’m just struggling to remember them now as I unload books from shelves (books that appear to have independently bred in the last twelve months) and empty kitchen cupboards. Again.

Oh, how I wish that I had a handy transportation device that would whisk me and my things straight into the new place. But I do not, so everything must be wrapped and hauled and lugged, fortunately we have many kind friends who have offered to help share wrapping, hauling and lugging duties. And though the process of moving is daunting, the prospect of setting up somewhere new is rather exciting; I am not good at staying still, I like newness and adventure. Uncharted waters and all that.

Lately (perhaps in response to the inherent passivity involved in sitting in so many darkened theatres - even if you are, you know, actively, critically engaged like what I am) I have been writing stories and painting mediocre - but oh so satisfying - pictures of flowers and grapes and peppers, and baking cakes and cookies; revelling in the feeling of creating and completing a thing even if its edges are a trifle charred or smudgy with blue. It is a nice feeling.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A Mad Macbeth and Then The Menier

If you’ve been to the South Bank this week you may have seen that the National have erected a big-fenced off area near the stage door. This is Square2, and for the next couple of weeks it is home to two international former Edinburgh hits, the first is Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man?, a condensed al fresco take on Shakespeare’s tragedy full of motorcycles, stilt-walkers and guns, by a Polish theatre company. (There was going to be a rather laboured riff here on the production featuring an abundance of poles – the wooden kind – and Poles, but I suspect that would be scraping the bottom of even my shallow barrel).

We were ushered into fairly large space where the audience were made to stand behind crash barriers and, given that this is open air theatre in London in August, it immediately started to rain. Everyone fiddled with hoods and scarves and brollies in a stoic manner but fortunately it didn’t last long and the residual damp in the air kind of complimented the production’s war-scarred, slightly Mad Max-ish landscape. I was particularly taken with the witches, who strode around the place on stilts, dressed in black, their faces covered with white veils. When shot by the gun-toting Macbeth they would drop to the ground before silently rising again like Michael in the Halloween films. It was really rather creepy.

The production is short, just over an hour, and they’ve ripped out nearly all the dialogue, except for a few key passages (which are delivered in over-amplified and accented English). Instead they really fairly firmly on the visual to convey the power of the narrative, acknowledging that if you’re going to make people stand around for an hour you better give them plenty to look at. It was a visceral and memorable experience, one that had a pleasing cohesiveness, a sense of an over-arcing vision at work, rather than just being a string of striking images. However I suspect the National’s health and safety officer must have developed a whole collection of nervous ticks by now, what with the heady blend of flames and petrol on display here and the onstage fires lit every night in …some trace of her

This week I also saw They’re Playing Our Song at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a production that, while not truly awful, left me shrugging my shoulders and wondering what the point of it was. It seemed to be wholly an exercise in 1970s kitsch. That’s it. Ho, ho, look: orange curtains, a turquoise cardigan, some bad wigs, and so forth and so on. At least the costume changes raised a few laughs, as the one-liners, particularly in the first half, fell rather flat, leaving quite a few of those awkward, empty moments where you knew a laugh was supposed to be required, that a line was meant to be funny, only it hadn’t quite worked out that way.

While the leads – Alistair McGowan and Connie Fisher – were both amiable enough (she has a lovely singing voice and he has, well, he has a voice) and did much to make me feel warmly towards the production, they both seemed miscast as fast talking New York types and the play itself (it’s not really a full-on musical) seemed a ridiculously inward-looking piece of writing, a musical about a composer and lyricist who meet, bicker a little, get together, break up and get together again. Apparently it was based on the relationship between Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch who supplied the (forgettable, except for the title number which was just annoying) lyrics and music that accompany Neil Simon’s book. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of dramatic tension and the songs that evaporate from the memory the minute you step outside the theatre. It raised a couple of smiles I’ll admit, but I couldn’t shake this so-what feeling the whole time I was sitting there.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Two Nights At The National

Things have been a bit quiet around here recently. Well that’s not strictly true, life has been the opposite of quiet, with weddings to attend and house-moves to plan. But, in theatre terms, things have been quiet. However at the end of last week I did have a couple of lovely back-to-back nights at the National. On Thursday I met up with my friend Nikhilesh for the opening night of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin, a big sweeping play set against a backdrop of the Suffragette Movement and, as nearly every reviewer – me included – felt obliged to point out, the first original work (not an adaptation) by a living woman writer to be staged in the Olivier.

Certain elements of this I adored. The scene where Jemima Rooper’s Eve was forcefed is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen on stage in a long time – I found the image following me around all weekend, refusing to vacate my mind. The performances of the three women, Lesley Manville, Rooper and the wonderful Susan Engel, were also superb. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ - I found the central love story, the relationship between Manville’s Lady Celia Cain and Rooper’s seamstress character, far less involving than the era evoked. And I agree with all those who’ve mentioned the fact that there are too many short scenes, that the revolve is forever revolving, the cage-like set constantly swinging in and out of view. The play reminded me, favourably, of some of the things the Orange Tree has been staging of late, but it was crying out for a good monologue, a good, long passionate piece of oration.

On Friday I returned to the South Bank to see Katie Mitchell’s …some trace of her. But first I stopped to pick up coffee and nibbley things from the Slow Food Fair behind the Royal Festival Hall, then I settled on the ‘grass’ outside the theatre to half-watch something that may have involved juggling and mime, but made me laugh on more than one occasion. Feeling warm and content, I tottered around to the Cottesloe and my mood was not dented by the production. I was worried that not knowing the book – Dostoevsky’s The Idiot - would be a handicap but I did not find this to the case, the production conveyed the essence of the thing well enough, it did not try to be retain every element of the narrative, that was not the point, but as a riff on the text, a kind of game played with it, there was much to take pleasure in.

I have not seen Mitchell’s Waves, which I gather uses many of the same techniques (though I will try to rectify this when it returns next month) and so much of what she was doing here was new to me.

A screen fills the back wall of the stage and the actors create scenes which are filmed and projected onto this screen. Every frame is beautifully composed and lit, shot in rich black and white. The performers double as technicians, setting up props, positioning cameras, wielding microphones, and all the while hitting their cues with perfect timing. It’s a hypnotic process, thrilling to watch.
While the images created are already, individually, arresting (a vase apparently spinning in midair, a plate of burning banknotes, a soup bowl teeming with maggots) the contrast with the manner of their construction is equally fascinating. Sound effects are created in front of us, music is played live and rain comes out of a plastic bottle.

There is an intentional dislocation between what can be seen on the screen and what is taking place on the stage below. Moments of conversational intimacy are filmed with the actors sitting on opposite ends of the stage with their backs to one another, each facing a separate camera; close ups of hands and faces are filmed using different performers and then seamlessly edited together on screen; a couple who appear to be lying in bed are actually standing upright with a sheet wound around them, the camera tilted to give the impression they are horizontal. In this way the onscreen image, the illusion of reality, is picked apart, deconstructed, but in a way that adds to, rather than detracts, from the image itself.

If I’d seen this done before, I wonder if my response would have been quite so positive, but I hadn’t, so it was. Yes, it was frustrating at times, having performers such as Ben Whishaw and Hattie Morahan on stage and having to see them running around all the time moving props and fiddling with cameras when I was hoping for a bit more acting, but again, from a technical point of view, there was something quite fascinating about seeing the differences, the contrast, between what works for stage and screen, the tiny gestures and expressions that can took on new meaning. Ultimately the piece excited me on an intellectual level more than on an emotional level, though I’m not sure that’s a criticism, not in this case at least.

Sometimes London starts to wear me down and I seem to forever be running for (and missing) buses or fretting over bills or skating along on too-little sleep. Sometimes I think a change would be good, an adventure, a new start, somewhere less frantic and friendlier, and then I have a couple of nights like this where everything seems to slide together in a satisfying fashion and I reconsider. Surely I’d miss this, I’d long for this, this richness, if I lived anywhere else but here?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Under The Blue Sky at the Duke Of York's


I’m sure I’ve asked before what the collective term for a group of bloggers is. I’m not sure what consensus was reached on that matter but it was just such a group that descended on the Duke of York’s Theatre on Tuesday to see a preview of David Eldridge’s Under The Blue Sky, a production featuring her off Doctor Who, him off The It Crowd and them off Cranford. There were 14 of us in total, including Helen Smith, City Slicker and Paul in London, in a group outing arranged by the Whingers (and, appropriately, as with most school trips, someone was late, someone left their jacket behind, but no one was sick on the coach home fortunately, not that there was a coach home).

David Eldridge’s play, first staged at the Royal Court, in 2000, is divided into three sections, each concerning the relationship between a pair of teachers (how apt that it opens just as the school holidays begin). The first section, featuring Chris O’Dowd (him off The IT Crowd) and Lisa Dillon, was possibly the weakest. O’Dowd plays Nicholas, a bit of shit, who though aware that his fellow teacher Nicola has a bit of a thing for him, still uses her as his ‘best friend’, comfortable in the knowledge that there’s nothing she won’t do for him. Nicola is however incredibly shrill and clingy, which has the effect of diluting much of the sympathy you feel for her. Neither is particularly likeable but the sequence has an increasing rawness that I found compelling (up until, that is, Nicola does something so completely far-fetched that any sense of emotional plausibility was lost, for me at least).

The middle section is the one featuring Catherine Tate, now recovered after the ankle injury that caused them to cancel the first preview. She plays the school man-eater a role she is adept at despite wearing the world’s most unflattering dress, a nasty brown jersey thingy, belted at the waist. We first see her as she is luring the geeky Dominic Rowan to bed with a bit of fantasy role play, her playing a military nurse tending to his war wounds, the prospect of which gets him rather (over) excited. Eldridge takes this sitcom-ish set up, the misguided drink fuelled liaison between two colleagues and rapidly subverts it, their exchange takes on a sinister turn, laced with blackmail and self-loathing. The tension and unease in this scene was handled incredibly well and I enjoyed not knowing how it would end up, not knowing quite how far it would go. Tate’s role too appeared quite caricatured at first and whenever she raised her voice, used a certain tone, it did bring to mind some of her television comedy characters (I’ve not seen her in Who though which I gather puts me in a very small minority indeed) but her character and performance gradually, subtly, softened allowing the audience a glimpse of underlying damage.

The final pairing of Francesca Annis and Nigel Lindsay was quite wonderful. They play a couple of friends who spend most of the school holidays together and are clearly besotted with one another, but she has held back, fearing the age barrier will be too big a hurdle. This is a beautiful scene, superbly played and written, there is a real sense of maturation in the writing as the play progresses, a sense of a writer testing the limits of his abilities and finding them pleasingly elastic.

After the play David Eldridge unwisely wandered past the pub that we decamped to for a post-theatre glass of something and was, for his sins, subsequently bombarded with questions about prop knives and onstage food hygiene. That’ll teach him.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nocturne at the Almeida

On Friday evening I ran through a mist of fresh summer rain to the Almeida, currently in the midst of an eclectic summer festival, to see Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, an emotionally charged and beautifully written monologue about how one awful incident can devastate a family. The play begins with a blunt, enticing statement: “fifteen years ago I killed my sister” and goes on to describe a horrific accident and its repercussions. Following his sister’s death, as his parents crumble, both physically and mentally, the narrator retreats into himself, fleeing to New York to eke out a living in a book store, to lead a quiet non-life lost in words.

Adam Rapp’s play trusts language, it too puts its faith in the power of words and barely a sentence passes that doesn’t contain diverting image or a striking descriptive phrase. It’s at times a bit self-conscious in this respect, but for the most part it maintains a balance between linguistic richness and narrative momentum.

When Nocturne was first staged in the US, it featured not just the narrator but a cast of supporting characters, his mother and father and so forth, and it sounds as if it was more theatrical in that incarnation, more visually interesting than what we get in this stripped down restaging: essentially just one man and a chair (and a small thermos flask from which he occasionally drinks). There are brief breaks in the flow of words, where rough sketched images – road markings and birds in flight – flit across a black disc that hangs at the back of the stage, but these appear to have been inserted to give both performer and audience respite: the play remains just one man talking.

There were moments where I wondered if this needed to be in a theatre at all, if it wouldn’t play just as well on radio, and I occasionally shut my eyes and let it all wash over me. However to do this too often was to do the actor, Peter MacDonald, a disservice as he seemed totally at home with the material. His gestures, his pauses and expressions all felt organic. Though it ran for over an hour and a half without a break I was never bored, never restless, I sat rapt, attentive throughout. On the way home I dipped into the playtext as my bus curved through the streets, the brake lights ahead glowing red through the rain-streaked windows, and got so caught up in it that I almost missed my stop. It’s Edinburgh-bound, this production, heading for the Traverse and is well worth seeing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Female Of The Species at the Vaudeville


Sometimes when I go to the theatre I experience a sensation of having arrived late at a party late, all timid and pristine-livered, while everyone else is on their third glass of something or other and well into the ‘happy’ phase of the evening – and therefore operating on totally different level to me.

This was very much how I felt the other evening, while watching Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female Of The Species. I shall scoot over the fuss kicked up by Germaine Greer (the play is inspired by an event in her life but is, and this important, not based on her in any way). It is about some other prominent feminist writer who has never let concepts like consistency get in the way of creating a stir. A fictional, made-uppy one. Called Margot Mason. Who is played by the wonderful Eileen Atkins (though played is perhaps too strong a word as she has little to do but sit handcuffed to a desk and make the occasional self-regarding pronouncement as the other characters rant at her).

Anyway, the plot goes thusly. Once-famous feminist academic, now burdened with writer’s block, is trying to bash out new book when a be-anoraked student with a pudding bowl hair cut ambles in through her French doors and starts waving a gun about. Disturbed student blames feminist for mother’s abandonment of her and subsequent suicide. Disturbed student blames feminist for her self-inflicted sterilisation after having heeded feminist’s pronouncements on motherhood as the enemy of creativity. (You’re laughing already, aren’t you?) A hostage situation is established – though there’s never any real sense of jeopardy – and handcuffs are employed. Disturbed student is then repeatedly interrupted by the arrival of, first, Tess, Mason’s sleep-deprived daughter (who has been up all night building balsa wood models for her three young children until something inside her snapped and she has stalked out of her house leaving the kids at home alone). Next on the scene is Tess’s ineffectual, oft-absent husband. He is followed by an emotionally incontinent cabbie, with an impressive handle-bar moustache, and finally they are joined by Mason’s pink-faced and linen-suited publisher. Each character arrives and says their piece, about what women want from men, or daughters want from mothers. But as a comedy it’s a complete dud, not farce, not satire, not funny. The writing was ropey, sub-sitcom stuff (that’s not totally true, there were a few nice lines in there, I’m sure I chuckled once or twice, but they were the very definition of diamonds in the rough).

It’s the performances that save this thing from its own turgidity. Atkins is very good, even with so little to work with (her look-no-hands, bourbon-necking made having to endure this almost bearable). Anna Maxwell Martin is also on good form as the unstable student; though she is initially a twitchy irritant, hers is a performance that grows on you, and despite the character outline sketched above, she is quite the most sympathetic of everyone on stage. And while Sophie Thompson rather overdoes her portrait of maternal exhaustion, all the men handle their caricatures competently.

There is actually a nugget or two of something quietly fascinating at the heart of this play, that of the relationship between mother and daughter, and the expectations that come from that bond, be they from parent or child or from society as a whole. You get the feeling that’s what Murray-Smith is really interested in, rather than the legacy of radical feminism.

But while I suspect my position on this production is now quite clear, I was very aware of being in the minority. Most of the audience on the night I attended were laughing. Oh boy, were they laughing. They were laughing so hard their seats shook; they were laughing so hard that my seat shook. Two women in my row were, quite literally, howling. They were so caught up in their own laughter that they even laughed at the bits that (I’m fairly certain, it was quite hard to tell) weren’t even supposed to be funny. Every time someone uttered a word on stage, or even breathed in a way that suggested they were about to speak, these women started gasping and snorting and rocking back and forth with mirth. In fact there was something rather look-at-me about how much they were laughing, it felt as it were for show, not about pleasure.

Fortunately not everyone found it quite so amusing. The softly spoken and charming American gentleman sitting next to me – who turned out to be a producer of some note – appeared to be equally nonplussed by the experience. The whole thing left me baffled and bothered, a feeling compounded when I read the reviews (especially this one). However I was chatting with Phillip Fisher of the British Theatre Guide at the Almeida on Friday and he felt similarly, so at least I am not totally alone at my party,