Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I am Not At The Theatre again. Instead I am, or at least I was, in Italy.

Two days ago I would have been contemplating a pre dinner kir as the early evening sunshine glinted of domed roofs and ancient tiles – and now I am fretting about the whereabouts of my umbrella and wondering how best to get to the Bush Theatre now that the Central Line declines to stop at Shepherds Bush...

Normal service will resume anon.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Portraits In Time

It’s night time in Soho. People pour out of doorways, drinks clasped in hands, others queue outside clubs in weather-inappropriate attire, seemingly oblivious to the cold. I make my way to the theatre on Dean Street, and climb the stairs to the second floor. There are already a few people there, though nowhere near as many as the venue holds. The house opens and we wander in, take our seats.

I have read the odd piece about John Moran, his work, the regard others have for him, but my mind has clearly filtered it into a little used corner and I am not really sure what it is I am about to see.

The stage has been decorated like a city apartment, simply furnished with a blackboard on an easel in one corner and a guitar in the other. After a while Moran stumbles on. He looks dazed, disorientated, he sits on the floor, then picks himself up and totters off again. Then Saori Tsukada, a dancer from Japan, also appears and greets everyone with an appealing smile, but seems equally vague. I felt myself wondering: what is this? What have I agreed to sit through?

There was then some business with Saori drawing ducks on a blackboard while Moran described his youthful dabbling with a Jungian cult, and as I watched these baffling, disjointed things it became apparent that there was little about what we were seeing that was left to chance, everything was carefully cued and choreographed.

Moran describes what he does as ‘portraits in time.’ What this meant in practice was loops of dialogue to which Saori lip synched and performed a series of intricate motions. Everything we were seeing was measured out in beats per minute, each individual element of audio recorded separately. The complexity takes a while to sink but when it does it is revelatory. Even so, some people in the audience seemed unsure how to respond. There was little applause at first. The audience, me included, seemed uncertain where to applaud, or indeed, if to applaud. This, said Moran, is often a result of the fact that his work with Saori is both “super casual and super formalised.” Their shows don’t fit into any familiar boxes.

A couple of people even walked out midway through the performance, and a man and his girlfriend chatted loudly throughout the first half hour before leaving, not even appearing to give it a chance. But others sat rapt, fascinated. Andy Field , who is far more knowledgeable about such things, describes Moran and his work more eloquently than I can here. I just know I am glad I saw this strange, lovingly created thing in a half-empty theatre on cold April night.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Speaking In Tongues

There were so many moments of Natalie Abrahami's production of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist at the Gate that I loved, that I can't quite understand why I didn't enjoy the whole thing more than I did.

For a start, the whole concept was intriguing – an American businessman, Lowell, arrives in unnamed foreign country where he doesn't speak the lingo and doesn't quite understand what's going on around him, and, because the remainder of the cast spend a good proportion of the play conversing in a made up European language, by extension neither do the audience.

The air of dislocation and jet-legged befuddlement created by the production was spot on. And I loved the inter-scene snippets of 1940s music and the neatly choreographed dream/sex sequences that complimented rather than distracted from the material. I also liked its gradual shift from quirky romance to something more sinister and vaguely nightmare-like. I suppose my main problems were with the play itself; I just felt that there were too many narrative avenues that never really went anywhere. And I was never quite sure whether my sympathies were meant to lie with Lowell – the American abroad – or with Sara, the sweet filing clerk at his firm who collects him from the airport. Abrahami certainly seems to be slanting the production towards the latter, but the play doesn’t really allow us to get to know her. There were some vague references to her being mental ill but these were rather brushed aside.

My other problem was that, once Washburn’s premise has been established – once we grasp that this is a language of her own creation onto which any number of possible meanings can be projected – the production loses a little of its impetus. I liked so much about it, there were some quite enchanting moments, but the moments never really knitted together for me.

I stayed on for the post-show talk with the Gate’s artistic directors Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami and the cast, where they discussed the unique difficulties of staging play where half the dialogue is basically nonsense (I’m sure the Whingers would have an appropriate comment to add at this point, but I shall leave it alone). They revealed that they had christened Washburn’s language Muffle – their abbreviation of Made Up Foreign Language – and Gary Shelford, one of the cast, explained how, no matter how thoroughly you rehearse the lines the brain occasionally injects an English word into the tide of gibberish and he ended up blurting “tumble drier” at an inopportune point on press night.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Wherever I Lay My Hat…

Another year, another West End Whingers party. As is my wont in such situations I drank more gin than was prudent, and then preceded to ramble repetitively at a variety of people including City Slicker, Ben Yeoh, Helen Smith and her lovely daughter Lauren, Andrew Haydon and possibly some others. David Eldridge was particularly patient and kind, and it was a pleasure to finally meet him in person.

As with last year, my friend Jeinsen came along, (though, for reasons known only to him, introduced himself as Barry to anyone who asked) more faces were put to names and a ridiculous amount of organisational effort appeared to have been put in to everything by the Whingers.

I particularly enjoyed the hat-centric dress code and, in a method touch, wore my borrowed cloche-type thing for most of the day, including an afternoon trip to catch the matinee of The Lover and The Collection at the Comedy Theatre. I got two flattering comments – though admittedly both from ladies in their seventies bemoaning the lack of hat wearing these days. Still I may have to hang on to it for a little while longer.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blissed Out

There was a sign on the door reassuring people that there would be no audience participation. This made me smile. It was easy to see why such a statement was necessary. You could see the slight flash of alarm in people’s eyes as, on entering the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court, they were each handed a bright blue tabard with a smiley faced logo on the back and told to put it on. Dutifully donning my tabard, I took my seat. Like Andrew Haydon, I was going in to this thing cold and had little idea what was coming.

The production of Olivier Choinère's play Bliss, translated by Caryl Churchill, begins with a sharp blast of Celine Dion’s Power Of Love assaulting us over the speakers, an alarming prospect in itself.

The set has been kept simple: a row of employees’ toilet cubicles in a branch of Wal-Mart. Four actors emerge, each wearing the now familiar tabard, except for one who is neatly shirted and tied. Three of them start to tell a story to the audience, narrating rather than performing, while the fourth, Hayley Carmichael’s lank-haired cashier, sits behind them in one of the stalls, occasionally prompting them and correcting the details of what they are saying.

The actors begin by describing, in loving detail, a farewell concert given by a popular French Canadian singer of power ballads, before she retires from live performance to start a family. But this slowly shifts into something else, something quite different, the tale of a young girl who has been horrifically abused by her family. But the line between these two threads is kept deliberately foggy and the stories bleed into one another.

The play is a strange, shifting thing, designed to unsettle. The press blurb calls it ‘slippery’ and this is apt, in more than one way. There is a fondness for the graphic and horrific in the writing; in his review Andrew Haydon referenced Chuck Palahniuk, whom I also had in mind as I listened to the numerous descriptions of tumors and bile. Underneath all this there was a satirical attack on how the media casually juxtaposes the glossy, groomed lives of the famous with stories of extreme suffering and violence. But it had the good sense not to bludgeon you with this message. The tabards also served a purpose, having the dual effect of connecting the audience with the speakers and also creating the feeling of being at some strange convention or assembly.

Eventually Hayley Carmichael’s character comes to the fore, emerging from the shadows. There is something deliberately odd and other-worldly about her, she controls what we hear and weaves herself into the stories, often creeping to the front to speak intimately to the audience. The set has been designed in a way that it feels as if we are watching things through a two way mirror; reflections, and the line between the real and unreal, are significant throughout.

I must admit I found some of this baffling, and some of it quite repellent (as I’ve pointed out on the Guardian arts blog, I am a ridiculously squeamish sort) but despite this I was hooked. The 80 minutes rushed by and I felt myself needing to know how this thing would be resolved.

As we handed back our tabards at the end of the performance I heard one young American girl turn to her friend and say, in a slightly appalled tone of voice, endearingly failing to grasp the concept of translation: “well, Top Girls wasn’t like that!”

I wonder if Celine Dion's 'people' have seen this and what they make of it? Oh, and it’s a good thing I’m a vegetarian or I would now be steering well clear of prawns for a good long while.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Shot/Got Treasure

I caught my first of the Ravenhills last night at the Royal Court.

I had actually intended to see some of the previous shows in the Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat cycle, specifically the Saturday morning performances at the National, but the, ahem, excesses of the evening before ended up proving incompatible with the early start time. Fortunately the Court's offering was being staged at a more agreeable 9.30pm.

Staged in the downstairs theatre, Birth of A Nation was a satirical piece about a group of artists gathered in an unnamed war-scarred city, there to rebuild and repair through the medium of their art workshops. It was staged very simply: no set, just four chairs placed on the bare stage, the actors addressing the audience directly as if we were citizens of said city.

This is a sharp and cynical playlet that neatly skewers the familiar, righteousness platitudes of the left when it comes to war – and particularly the war in Iraq. The artists are full of patronising admiration for the 'once-great culture' of this once-beautiful city and full of impotent derision for the government that went against their wishes. Yet their own agendas clearly take precedence and their contempt soon seeps through.

If it rather hammered its point home in its final minutes, it was still very funny stuff, elevated by an excellent cast. Pearce Quigley, in particular, has one of those voices that is just innately amusing.

The plays are scattered throughout the city, at various venues, and at various times of day, so you'd have to be pretty committed to the cause (like say, Maxie Szalwinska, who is blogging the plays for the Guardian) to catch them all, however it is only in doing so that all the recurring devices and themes become apparent. This one stood up on its own though, and I hope to see some of the others if I can. The treasure hunt quality of the exercise is certainly very appealing. One thing that struck me though, the audience at the play I saw was made up of a good number of journalists and theatre types, including Mr Ravenhill himself, I think I must have recognised a good third of the people in there, making me pause and wonder if this whole enterprise, while undoubtedly exciting, is something of a case of the theatre world feeding itself.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dark Waters

Saw a gem of a play at Theatre 503 last week. Ali Taylor’s Cotton Wool is about two teenage brothers, Callum and Gussie who have just lost their mum. It begins with them standing on a beach in their funeral suits swigging cans of nicked lager, somehow both simultaneously boys and men, alone in the world except for each other.

That is until Harriet arrives. She is from England and wears lots of black. She has been abandoned by her feckless father but pretends that doesn’t bother her. Though she is initially hostile to the brothers’ crude attempts to endear themselves to her (“are you a vampire?” Gussie asks when his chat-up lines are rebuffed), she starts to form a tender friendship with Callum. This makes Gussie jealous, as he is both attracted to Harriet himself and envious of the hold she has on his brother. He is also convinced that he can see a body floating out to sea; he talks a lot about the ‘selkie folk,’ seal spirits from childhood stories, and becomes convinced that his mum is still out there somewhere, drifting in the dark.

Cotton Wool is a touching and, at times, quite beautiful piece of writing. The brothers’ heavily accented use of language is often very poetic and there’s also much humour in their dialogue, which prevents the grim nature of the story from becoming too intense and overbearing. The simple set manages to capture the grit and mist of the coastal location perfectly.

The mythic overtones were laid on a little thick towards the end, I thought, but this is small complaint. The acting is spot on, especially from the boys, from Joseph Arkley and Owen Whitelaw as Callum and Gussie respectively, and it’s tautly directed, a good fit for the space. But while the play was set in a grim and chilly coastal Scottish town the temperature in the Battersea pub theatre was, as ever, a tad more tropical – so, while the characters complained of being freezing, there was much sweating and fanning going on in the audience.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lit Windows

I like buses. I will always opt for a bus over a tube, even if it adds time to my travels. I’d prefer it if they smelled less of fried things but I think this is a fair trade-off for the connection they provide with the above-ground world, with the living city.

I particularly like riding the bus at dusk or thereabouts, when people have flicked on the lights in their living rooms and kitchens, and, for a fleeting second or so, you can catch an illuminated glimpse of another life, people doing their evening things, pottering about their homes, watching their TVs. I always begin my journey with a book in hand and the desire to read it, but end up distracted by this theatre of lit windows, by these copious tiny top deck dramas. This is a little voyeuristic I know, but I think the impulse is a human one.

If you were to ride a bus through Hammersmith at the moment you may spot a gaggle of theatregoers sitting on a terrace, all wrapped up against the chill of the April air. They make for something of an odd sight, all wearing these clumpy headsets and holding binoculars, staring intently at the office buildings opposite. If you were on that bus you’d stare and wonder what on earth was going on.

David Rosenberg’s new work for the Lyric, Contains Violence taps into that desire to peer into other people’s lives from afar. A bank of seating has been erected on the Lyric terrace and each audience member, on arrival, is handed a bulky pair of headphones and a pair of binoculars. On donning your headset, at first all you hear is the soothing voice of Arthur Lowe, but then a man with a microphone begins addressing the crowd, directing our attention to the offices across the street. There, in strategically lit windows, we see a man with a stuffed penguin, a woman blowing up balloons. The obvious reference point is Rear Window, but, at its best, this is like an al fresco instalment of Chris Morris’s Blue Jam. There are long, unsettling periods were little happens and we hear only the clipping of high heels on stairs, the tapping of fingers on keyboards.

Having been saddled with that title, it was obvious that there would be more to it than that – there was a need to supply some actual violence. (Though I would have rather liked it if they’d called it that, given it that title, and then simply ignored it). But, no - the violence was duly provided, though, when it came, it was all rather obvious and neither as comic nor as shocking as it was, I suspect, intended to be.

I did enjoy the barbed, rambling monologues of the microphone man, but could have done with a tad more narrative or some further exploration of the voyeuristic urge. At one point a cleaner appeared at another office window and this is where the lines blurred for me. Was she part of the show or was she a real cleaner? I wasn’t sure but suspected the latter. If so, had she been told she might inadvertently be part of this strange spectacle, that she might have all these eyes trained upon her as she went about her business? To me this was more potent a moment than the sight of a man, some floors above, being tied to his office chair.

Still, this was a fascinating theatrical exercise, an idea that can’t help but excite, even if it turned out to be slightly more intriguing in theory than in execution. And, yes, I did take the bus home.

Dealer's Choice Revisited

I don’t get to revisit shows as often as I like. I often mean to but am rather magpie-like and am usually distracted by something shinier and newer. But sometimes I do get my act together and manage to squeeze in a second viewing.

I have been meaning to see Dealer’s Choice again, since it moved to Trafalgar Studios. I had seen it – and loved it – at the Menier, but regretted that I had not gone to see it with my friend Juice who is quite the poker fiend. We finally managed to gather ourselves together on the last day of performance and get day tickets to the penultimate show, the Saturday matinee.

When we bought the tickets we were warned “you can’t be late with THESE tickets.” We only understood the meaning behind these rather stern words (surely you shouldn’t be late with any tickets?) when we arrived. Through luck rather than judgment we had snagged excellent seats, sitting sideways to action right on the stage itself, a whisper away from the actors. Had we been late we would have had to walk across the set itself.

The show itself more than stood up to a second viewing and I was able to delight in the rapport between the actors once more, more so if anything as, from our seats, we could see every subtle glance, every raised eyebrow. It was lovely being able to anticipate what was coming, to be able to focus more on the nuances of delivery and the audience reaction. My enjoyment of the play also gained much from seeing it with someone who knew the ins and outs of the game, who could scythe a path through the denser stretches of poker-related lingo.

I did wonder if, being the last day of play, there might be some end-of-term misbehaving from the cast, but there was none that I noticed - though Jay Simpson, who plays Frankie, did dash on late and breathless for the curtain call much to the amusement of the other cast members and the audience.

And finally, a question: where should one head for a post-play drink after a visit to the Trafalgar Studios, when the sky is a vile, hostile grey and you are umbrella-less?