Thursday, September 27, 2007

Scandalised (Or Not, Actually)

What is the sound of one arm shrugging? Or two arms for that matter? I’m not entirely sure. If I could think of a good word to encapsulate a sense of not-bothered-ness, a general lack of whelm, I would use it here, because that’s how I felt after watching Robin Soans’ latest at Hampstead Theatre.

This is another verbatim theatre piece in line with his previous work Talking To Terrorists. Only, in the case of Life After Scandal, this time it is more a matter of Talking To Disgraced Aristocrats – which doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

The play consists of a series of interwoven interviews with various public figures who have been involved in scandal – sexual, political, often a blend of the both – and whose lives subsequently became tabloid fodder, meat for the media. So we have contributions from Jonathan Aitken, Lord Brocket, the Ingrams (they of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire coughing farrago), an embittered Edwina Currie, Duncan Roy, who passed himself off as a Lord for some years, and Craig Murray, the vilified former ambassador to Uzbekistan. Oh, and Neil and Christine Hamilton. Because.

Anyway, Soans clearly has a knack for drawing people out of themselves and the stories were cleverly interlaced, I’ll give it that. But I simply struggled to care about these people and their predicaments. There were exceptions, there was pathos of sorts in the story of the elderly Lord Montagu who was embroiled in a homosexual scandal in the 1950s, a time when such things devastated lives rather than paving your way onto I’m A Celebrity, get me Out Of Here!. But often the juxtaposition between the more weighty issues – Murray discussing horrific human rights abuses in Uzbekistan – and, say the Hamiltons taking tea as they described their appearances on This Morning, felt more than a little awkward. Everything was slick and smooth and tautly (and, in the main, sympathetically) performed and it’s not that documentary techniques such as these have to be confined to Big Serious Themes only, but, still. I wanted more bite, more insight, more focus, and none was forthcoming. Oh and there was singing. A fair bit of singing. I really, really couldn’t fathom the point of the singing.

It was also press night and thus there were actors aplenty in the audience, as is the norm at such things. Post-show, they were doling out Brocket’s beer (yes, really, and no, I was not tempted to try any), though I did find the sight of the Hamiltons meeting ‘The Hamiltons’ (Caroline Quentin and Michael Mears) fairly amusing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

High Flying

Monday night and after the briefest of catch-ups with my flatmate Lisa in a Soho coffee bar, I darted over to Shepherd’s Bush, to the Bush Theatre for their new production of David Watson’s Flight Path.

Watson is 22 and this is his second play. A pretty conventional thing, structurally speaking, Flight Path concerns the problems and worries of eighteen year old Jonathan, an A level student whose parents have recently split up. He’s about to sit his exams and his 25 year old brother, who has learning disabilities, has just returned from a residential home so he’s having to help care for him as well. At the same time, his friend Joe is pestering him into joining him in a spot of house breaking. Pressure is piling on him from all directions and it soon takes its toll.

Inarticulacy is difficult to write and harder to perform. The stutters, the pauses, the half-finished sentences, it’s not that easy to replicate in any convincing fashion. But it’s something that Watson (not to mention the younger members of the cast) do well. You can see his characters searching for words, struggling to express themselves, their unvoiced feelings floating just beneath the surface.

While there’s nothing soul-piercingly brilliant about this play, I admired the way it avoided certain narrative traps, the way that it subtly subverted expectations. Jonathan’s social worker mother, for example, screams of cliché when she first appears but she is allowed to be more than that. A woman who wallows in other people’s problems all day, she is as baffled and frustrated by life as her son. Jonathan’s relationship with his brother is also very tenderly sketched, his love muddied by frustration and the burden of responsibility.

I’ve seen a fair bit of this kind of theatre, theatre that, with its blurts of hip-hop between scenes attempts to be all urban and gritty and whatnot – it rarely convinces – but this was written with an uncommon level of compassion. Watson can also do dialogue, be it convincing street-smart banter or awkward father-son small-talk. And it’s, in the main, an emotionally plausible piece of writing, though it could do with being trimmed in some places and fleshed out in others (the episode with the suitcase full of cocaine felt like it had floated in from a completely different play – even though it provided the springboard for one of the funniest scenes - and it’s difficult to believe that the level-headed Jonathan would get so easily involved with serious criminal activity). Cary Crankson’s performance in the central role was excellent as well, striking just the right balance between snotty, adolescent arrogance and a more weighed down, worn out air.

The reviews for this one have been mixed, with most of the criticisms fair, though I thought Nicholas de Jongh was being picky in the extreme (he questions the realism of Jonathan having a menial job. Hello? Most people I know took on crappy jobs to see them through their A Levels, I certainly spent several mind-sapping weeks packing boxes in a factory, not to mention all those hours of my life poured into the retail machine).

Anyway, I'm spinning off-topic - an actual conclusion would be good at this point, wouldn't it? Flight Path has a number of flaws, without a doubt, but it's a very promising piece of work and it left me genuinely intrigued to see what Watson will do next.

Oh, and for more on the moonwalking, head over here.

Monday, September 24, 2007


It’s Friday evening and Soho’s streets are filled with after-work drinkers and pavement tables and the general jabber of people released from their desks for the weekend. And I am off to the theatre. To Soho Theatre in fact, up the stairs to their studio space where a mah jong game is in session and tinny music plays on a radio in the corner. Someone hands me a coloured tile (a red one) and, before I or the other assembled audience members have time to fully orientate ourselves, we are waved and prodded back out of the door, following a girl with a paper lantern back downstairs and out into Dean Street.

If anything it’s noisier outside than before but our attention is drawn to one particularly shouty couple, having an argument outside a restaurant, a Chinese woman and her boyfriend. She has a family party to attend and is worried about bringing him along, as she’s neglected to tell her family that he’s not Chinese. I don’t want to give away too much about the story, both because the narrative was rather on the thin side and because the uncertainty factor is one of the key joys of this production – it constantly surprises you and you’re never quite sure what was a planned part of the show and what was just random Friday night Soho stuff.

Naturally our small procession began attracting attention and soon we had tourists and people out on the town watching us with some curiosity. Some were moved to call out questions, some began tagging along to find out what was going on, and as a result I started to feel as much part of the show as the performers. Which was a rather fun feeling. The production took us all around Chinatown, past shops and restaurants, via the pagoda, and then off down alleys full of kitchen smells and cardboard boxes, before returning to Soho proper and ending up in a hidden residential courtyard where the disparate plot strands came together over a moon festival feast (and with a bit of rudimentary shadow puppetry thrown in to boot).

It was an exhilarating experience that succeeded in making me look anew at familiar streets, streets I walk through nearly everyday without really looking at them, always going somewhere, never fully awake to what’s around me. And yet, and yet, though I’m loathe to criticize what was such an enjoyable theatrical experience, in many ways it felt like something of a missed opportunity. Justin Young’s script felt disappointingly soapy, the acting was very broad and basic and the play doesn’t really say much about the history of the neighbourhood or what it means to be young and British Chinese above the very obvious. I wonder if my expectations were simply too high, because as I said I did enjoy it, and I’m probably not fully grasping the logistical complexity of staging something like this, I just thought it could have been more than it was.

It’s still an experience worth having though, and I’d love to see similar projects put on by other theatres, the Bush and the Arcola springing most immediately to mind.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ugly Beautiful (And Lessons In Excess)

The heavy-set man in front of me looked on the verge of expiring after climbing all the stairs up which you must climb in order to reach the Royal Court’s attic-y upstairs space. He had gone a worrying shade of puce, was sweating rather profusely and looking generally rather unwell – for a moment I really thought the show might be cancelled due to some kind of ‘shit, call an ambulance’ collapse situation. However he eventually recovered (and presumably took the lift on the way down) and his little episode was unconnected to the mysterious delay that bumped the start time of the play back by fifteen minutes.

I never did find out what that was about. But anyway. The play itself was Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One and it's a study in the strengths of keeping things concise, playing at just under an hour, with a staging stripped down to the bare essentials. There is no set as such, instead the stage has been left to resemble a bare rehearsal space, with only a couple of benches and an office chair. There are no real props or costumes and a ladder and a rail of clothes have been left, seemingly randomly, in the background. The actors were milling about in a corner chatting for some minutes before the play started. It's a basic approach - and one that is somewhat appropriate in a play that is all about surfaces and the power of the visual.

A man called Lette, a designer of plugs by trade, is told by his boss that he can’t go to a conference because, to put it plainly, he is too ugly. "You can't sell anything with that face," his boss casually informs him, a fact his wife seems only to happy to confirm, in her words his face is "disastrous." Though Lette had never considered himself ugly before now, indeed had never really given the matter much thought, he quickly decides to get the problem rectified surgically, to get a doctor to build him a whole new face. Once he has been un-uglified, Lette’s whole life changes. Women are throwing themselves at him and people start wanting to look like him, coveting his face itself.

The play touches on so many themes, notions of identity and attraction and the like, of the value that is placed on how a person looks over who they are. I like Michael Gould’s performance as Lette. In this most subtle of ways he conveyed a man changed, both enraptured and repelled by this ‘new’ him. I also enjoyed Mark Lockyer’s smooth, supercilious delivery – it seemed so in tune with the tone of the writing. The remaining roles are played by Frank McCusker and Amanda Drew, switching from character to character at rapid speed, indeed all the performances have a kind of cranked up intensity, and though von Mayenburg has chosen to give all the smaller roles the same names, it was never difficult to follow who was who. The satirical elements of the play where at times a bit too, I don’t know, overdone for my liking, but as an exercise in how much can be achieved with so little – and indeed how little you actually need to feed an audience, in terms of visual cues, for them to follow along – this was a truly exciting piece of theatre.

And despite the ample drinking time afforded by the early finish (even with the delay), I took the bus straight home after the show, still feel a little, um, delicate after ill advisedly consuming a rather large quantity of champagne the night before.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Quick Link

More blogging about blogging over here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Last night I took my mother to the bland, boxy Peacock Theatre on Kingsway for an evening of what my great aunt would call, with a dismissive wave of her hand, that ‘clicky-clicky stuff you like.’ And what PR folk would probably term an ‘international dance spectacular’ or words to that effect.

The show was Tango Fire, a blend of music and dance from Buenos Aires – more swishy-kicky than clicky-clicky if we’re to be precise about such things (and we are). And it was, well, it was very disappointing actually. In my mind tango exists as a seductive and deeply sexual form of dance, and this show, while it was technically incredible – legs moving at lightning speed, all manner of acrobatic flips and spins, and a fair bit of, for want of a better term, what we’ll call lady juggling – had something rather cold and clinical about it, it was too polished, and the musical interludes, from the accompanying band Quatrotango, though enjoyable, dragged on for far too long. It just wasn’t as sexy as I was expecting, unless your idea of sexy involves being twirled and tossed across the stage at frightening speed or being repeatedly thrown in the air and caught just before you crash to the ground.

The costumes though, the costumes deserve a post in themselves, lots of unflattering satin and baffling cutaways, plus one shimmery purple outfit that seemed to consist of one leg (yes, just one leg) of a velour tracksuit combined with a bodice made purely of flimsy ribbons of chiffon. That alone made the evening worth it in my book.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Future Perfect

Lyric Hammersmith again yesterday. This time to the smaller Studio space for Vanishing Point’s new production, Subway. This is one that had been glittering near the top of my list of post-Edinburgh transfers which I was determined to catch, mainly I must admit, due to the prospect of a seven-piece Kosovan band providing the music.

The play offers up a vision of a futuristic Edinburgh where the gulf between rich and poor has widened to the point where the ill and uninsured buy lottery tickets for hospital treatment and the vending machines offer advice on getting your all important eight-a-day while declining to serve Irn Bru to the unemployed. The plot is a slivery thing: after a ten year absence from the city, Patrick returns with hopes of some sort of reconciliation with his estranged father. However it’s superbly played by Sandy Grierson, as Patrick, and Rosalind Sydney, as pretty much everyone else. Everything about the production is well choreographed and well executed and the music provided by the onstage band complemented the action wonderfully, drawing out the internal music of the Scottish accents, creating beautiful patterns from words.

This is a production that revels in language in such a way I was easily able to overlook its narrative flaws. (The plot became unnecessarily convoluted, I thought, as the piece progressed and the dystopian imagery wasn’t exactly fresh). But the marriage of music and performance worked perfectly, each element of the staging was in harmony and none of the theatrical devices felt tacked on or gimmicky, as they did in The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents.

So, yes, good, I liked this one a lot. It was also interesting to note that, as a result I suspect of the presence of the Kosovan musicians, the audience contained an unusually large percentage of eastern Europeans. And much of the post-show debate that I heard appeared to revolve around the, er, intensity of the actors’ Scottish accents and the difficulty in understanding everything that was said. Still, despite the lost-in-translation factor, the overall buzz seemed to be positive.

In things un-theatre, my weekend was spent in Brussels (to mark, what I believe is politely termed, a landmark birthday for my mother). We shopped, we ate, we drank of the Kriek and of the Hoegaarden and failed to do anything at all cultural or mind-widening. Our waistlines on the other hand…

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Drugs Don't Work

Does a banana muffin and a coffee make for a balanced dinner? I think not. But it’s all I had time to grab as I headed over to Notting Hill after work yesterday to see the Gate Theatre’s production of The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents.

I had some problems with this one I must admit. It’s a play designed to unsettle – and it does, but not I suspect, always in the ways intended. The play is about a girl called Dora who has learning disabilities and has been on medication since she was a child. Her mother decides to take her off the pills, which have kept her docile, to lift the ‘pharmaceutical curtain’ and rediscover who her daughter is inside. This device is used to explore Dora’s sudden sexualisation. Off the pills, she becomes increasingly uninhibited and fascinated with the physical.

It wasn’t the subject matter that made me feel a little squirmy, rather the play itself, which felt primarily as if it were out to press buttons, to provoke a response, which is fine to a point, but I thought here it was trying a little too hard. It had this overly slick quality, making it near-impossible to get an emotional hook on the action or the characters.

The set appears to have been designed to make the characters look like part of an installation or an experiment, with the audience looking down on them from either side of the stage. The space is filled with a number of black blocks, which the cast shift around as the scene changes require. These scene changes are denoted by little bursts of music (triggered by the actors pressing a buzzer in the corner), during which they dance around, lifting one another up or occasionally jumping over one of the black blocks. There is even a little paper screen that they jump through at the start and I must admit when this happened I did jot the words ‘Legz Akimbo!’ down in my notepad (a reference to the 'educational' theatre troupe in The League Of Gentlemen, if that needs to be clarified).

That’s perhaps a bit harsh, I think I could see what was trying to be achieved, I just thought all these little theatrical devices worked against the material – in fact, I thought the main problem here was the material itself, I just don’t think it was a very good play to start with, too obvious, too button-pushy, as I said. The girl playing Dora, Cath Whitefield, was very good though, pitching the role just right I thought, giving the play a necessary human centre. The play was only ninety minutes long but I felt more than a little fidgety towards the end, though I concede this may have something to do with the twin-pronged sugar and caffeine attack on my system. I should really learn to stick with the gin.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Orange Tree Delivers

Last week’s bumper week o’ theatre ended on a pleasant high. I was off to the Orange Tree, out in Richmond, for the first play in their new autumn season. I have a real soft spot for the Orange Tree. Their last season, composed of work by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, was genuinely fascinating and this new production of the The Years Between, a play by Daphne Du Maurier, was well chosen, echoing themes – about the shifting position of women in society in the late 19th and early 20th century – that had provided something of a spine for those previous productions.

Years is set during the Second World War and concerns a woman whose husband is missing in action, his plane was shot down over the sea and he is most likely dead. In his absence, his wife Diana sets about rebuilding and reshaping her life. Reluctantly she stands as a Member of Parliament in her husband’s stead and makes plans to marry another man. Three years pass before a phone call brings news that her husband is still alive and the play then focuses on how Diana deals with this fact and the knowledge that the life she has built in his absence will be irreparably changed.

The play makes it clear that her husband was a difficult and particular man before he went away, so when he returns, gaunt and weak, he is keen for everything to be as it once was. But, of course, this cannot be. Diana has grown in confidence during the intervening years, and her husband, Michael, comes back to a life – and wife – very distant and different from what he left behind.

Years is a compelling if not outstanding piece of writing, it doesn’t really have the macabre edge of du Maurier’s novels and stories (apparently she was drawing here on unhappiness in her own marriage plus a real event that happened near to where she lived in Cornwall) but, get this, I cared about the characters, I got caught up in these people’s lives in a way that just didn’t happen during, hmm, say, Awake and Sing! It helped that the acting was good, especially Mark Tandy as the twitchy, emotionally complex colonel.

This wasn’t an absolutely blow-you-away production but I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve seen this week, despite – or perhaps – because of the Orange Tree’s quirks. Sets are usually cluttered with rugs, mahogany side tables, antimacassars and the like – they’re clearly not big fans of the minimalist approach to set design – and they take an absolute age shifting this stuff about between scenes. The theatre is also in-the-round so at least one pivotal moment is guaranteed to be obscured by the back of someone’s head, but the Orange Tree knows its strengths, it knows its core audience (older than me by a good few decades) and it does a certain kind of production very well indeed. Measure of quality at the Orange Tree? The number of people having a bit of a nap during the play (easy to ascertain given the layout) and, for once, I didn’t spot one lolling head.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Unmoved At The Almeida

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 08, 2007

All Greek

I headed over to Hammersmith on Thursday for the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae at the Lyric. Having sorted out my tickets a while ago I was delighted to discover that Andrew from the West End Whingers, Helen Smith and City Slicker would also be in attendance on the same evening and we duly met up for a pre-show drink on the theatre’s terrace (anyone know the collective noun for a group of bloggers?)

And the show? Well, it's already played in Edinburgh and Glasgow, so it's been around for a bit. This is David Greig's version of Euripides' tragedy with John Tiffany, the man behind Blackwatch, directing, and Alan Cumming as Dionysus – a concept that seems inordinately exciting to some. I don't think it fully delivered on its promise. It felt more like a collection of incredibly striking moments than a really satisfying theatrical experience, and was peppered with considerable longueurs. It begins with Alan Cumming descending headfirst on a harness (wearing, not a dress, as some have said, but a gold kilt and waistcoat combo). The chorus of Bacchae were clad in the most wonderful feathery red dresses and boasted an amazing range of singing voices between them. There was also an unexpectedly convincing severed head. Oh, and there was fire – a burst of hot, fire-y fire – the force of which could be felt back in row J of the stalls. These things, on their own, all worked wonderfully.

And of course there was Cumming. I can never quite make up my mind about Alan Cumming; as Andrew commented, he's quite a show-off as an actor, and I found his tic-driven performance in Bent last year quite alienating. But while the same can be said of his performance here, his stage presence, his force of personality and way with an audience are such that, when he was off stage the show rather stumbled, a fact that undermined the impact of the scenes with Paola Dionisotti, excellent as Agave, the mother of the slain Pentheus. Though, at first, the shift in tone was welcome, this rather wail-heavy interlude eventually grew a little wearing and I found myself hoping for a return to the over-the-top campery of earlier in the evening.

Perhaps inevitably there were further post-show drinks (as discussed previously, the chief benefit of staging something without an interval is that it leaves room for at least two bottles of wine afterwards, not a glass as I erroneously stated) and we even managed to snag one of the Bacchae (the lovely Marcia Mantack) and bombard her with questions about the production. She patiently explained how some of the effects were achieved (the cool moment where flowers fall from the sky is done with darts not magnets as we had thought) and revealed just why it’s never advisable to let on to your choreographer that you are still capable of doing a cartwheel.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Home and Away

Deep breath, dive in.

The Arcola , tucked off the Kingsland Road in Hackney, is probably one of my favourite fringe theatres in London, so it seemed apt to break my recent theatre drought with a trip there. The place has a buzz about it, an energy which I really like, and I spent a nice half hour in the bar before the start, sitting with a drink (a coffee, OK, just a coffee) and my paperback, enjoying being surrounded by happy, chatty people and furtively trying to ascertain if that was Douglas Henshall standing in the corner.

The current production, Fragile, by London based, Croatian born writer Tena Stivicic was on in the smaller studio 2 and there’s something rather illicit and exciting about the way they lead you down a dark side alley, past the bins and down some steps, to gain entrance to the space.

The play is an interesting layered thing, a bit too sub-plot heavy for my liking but saying some genuinely interesting things about being an immigrant in London. The two main characters Mila and Marko, a Croat and a Serb respectively, share a flat together, as well as working shifts in a seedy club owned by a shady, but warm-hearted, Bulgarian. Mila is dating a foreign correspondent Erik, who was out in Balkans during the conflict; both of them are unaware that Erik’s former lover is now in London after being trafficked through Europe as a prostitute.

There’s a lot of potential for stereotype here but Stivicic manages to avoid it, for the most part steering her characters in unexpected directions. Marko has dreams of being a stand-up comedian (something that, coming from a Serbian background myself, made me smile) and Mila wants to make it in musical theatre – dreams, and the way that this fair city of ours can so casually crush them, is a major theme here. Only the naïve and hippyish New Zealand social worker remains a bit one-dimensional (and swapping her wardrobe of dream-catcher earrings and ponchos for more muted black attire is a bit of a heavy-handed indicator of personal growth).

The play becomes a bit convoluted in its incident heavy final scenes, with the various twists and the neat little epilogue feeling more suited to cinema than the stage, but the pacing kept your attention held and I was fascinated by its portrait of London as a city where so many live but so few truly feel it home. This echoes something my mother, who has been in this country for over four decades now, often describes and I feel I understand that sentiment a little better now.