Friday, May 30, 2008

The Menier Misses The Mark

I was primed to like this. In common with many children of immigrants I have always had a fascination with certain English institutions and gobbled up films and novels with an Oxford or Cambridge setting as a teenager. But, despite my initial enthusiasm and despite the odd moment of poignancy, this production failed to particularly move or touch me.

Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, which the Menier Chocolate Factory are currently reviving in a break from staging musicals, begins in Cambridge of the 1960s. A group of students are in the process of setting up a literary magazine named after an essay collection by FR Leavis. They’re not a particularly likeable bunch but there is something appealing in their intellectual idealism, their desire to leave their mark. But, inevitably, as the years pass, compromises are made, standards are lowered, life weighs down on them – in terms of narrative we’ve been here many, many times before.

Fiona Laird’s production is a curiously blunt affair, slamming much of the subtlety out of the play, flattening it out. None of the actors really convince as students alive with creative energy in the opening scene, so, as they succumb to hack jobs at the BBC (a very Bad Thing indeed in the play’s narrow view of the world) or to extramarital liaisons at the Charing Cross Hotel with women whose names they can’t remember, there is some key thing missing, some necessary hook – it’s difficult to care that much about their various dramas and infidelities

From a performance point of view the production is very mixed bag. James Dreyfus, an actor whose appeal I’ve never really got before now, is very good indeed as Humphrey, the possibly brilliant poet whose self criticism is such he ends up unable to write, frozen, lost. He always stands a little apart from the others, keeping his distance, occasionally breaking in with a waspish comment, but drawing a line between himself and his friends. Reece Shearsmith’s Nick was rather disappointing, far broader in comparison and his various tics were very reminiscent, perhaps inevitably, of his League Of Gentlemen creations (though, in his favour, he was the only one who appeared to age in any noticeable way over the near twenty-year period that the play covers). As for Mary Stockley’s Marigold, the lover and then wife of the magazine’s editor, it’s difficult to judge her performance given how underwritten a part it is, she exists purely to provide a plot twist, a mistress in waiting.

I concede it may be an age thing but I really couldn’t grasp what it was about the production that moved Charles Spencer to tears. But having read the Guardian blog about Gray’s diaries, I suspect I may be making an Amazon purchase or two this weekend as I’ve not read them and they sound rather wonderful.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Into The Woods

I have a new hobby. It’s called jogger dodging (sush now, it’s nothing filthy). No, instead it involves side-stepping, and generally making way for, lycra clad fitness enthusiasts as they pound the pavements. Living in the neighbourhood I do, even the briefest of excursions beyond the cosy cocoon of my flat usually involves an element of such dodging, but, for the advanced dodger, there is no greater challenge than that stretch of pavement that links the National Theatre with the Globe. Here they come at you in pairs, sometimes even in clusters, iPods on, eyes fixed on an invisible goal.

By the time you have navigated your way to Globe, successfully outmaneuvering all these numerous sweaty obstacles along the way, you may find you have worked up quite a thirst. This is easily rectified by detouring via the bar on the way to take your seat and pausing to absorb the sense of satisfaction that comes with a good workout.

My most recent visit to the Globe – my first of the year – was last week to see the second production in their Totus Mundus season, a staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Jonathan Munby (who also directed Ben Yeoh’s excellent Nakamitsu at the Gate last year). This was a broad production, not exactly subtle, but solidly entertaining nonetheless.

Colour played a major role. The first thing that strikes you is that the stage itself, which has been coated with glossy blue flooring. The Athenians wear solemn black in the opening scenes, changing outfits for their later escapades in the forest, and the Mechanicals wear the whitest of white tights when they come to perform Pyramus and Thisbe. And the fairies? Well their costumes were a mish-mash of Courtney Love‘s Hole-era cast-offs merged with a dash of Rocky Horror. By which I mean lots of corsetry and ragged tutus in lurid shades of pink and purple.

The production veered perilously close to panto territory at times. No potential innuendo was unmarked: groins were thrusted, bums were waggled and nipples were tweaked. Paul Hunter, as Bottom, went all out in his death scene as Pyramus – a fabulously over the top five minutes complete with mimed eye-gouging and self-castration. It received a spontaneous round of applause from the audience on the night I was there, though I suspect this was partly due to the sheer levels of energy involved. The other playing was less frenetic which helped to balance things out. Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers were excellent as Hermia and Helena respectfully, embracing the comic potential of their roles with more gusto than Cristopher Brandon and Oliver Boot as Lysander and Demitrius.

But I was unsure what to make of Siobhan Redmond in the double role of Hippolyta and Titania. She was perfectly fine as the former, tender and affectionate in fact. But as the bewitched fairy queen she adopted this girly, giggly voice I found rather grating. She appeared to be modeling her performance on Carol Kane’s Ghost Of Christmas Present from Scrooged - though sadly she failed to assault anyone with a toaster.

As I said, this is a solid, amusing production, one that made me laugh quite frequently. Munby doesn’t use the space with quite the same level of invention as Lucy Bailey did in her 2006 production of Titus Andronicus but there are some lovely little visual touches. I particularly liked the moment when the billowing blue backdrop was whisked over the heads of the audience in the pit. And of course the Globe is gifted with that magical quality as the sun sets overhead, capable of elevating the most mediocre of productions into something special. Not that this was mediocre, it was fun, fizzing stuff, well paced and aware of its audience, content to do its job and do it well and then fade like fairy dust as the crowds file out into the night.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Pitmen Painters At The National

It is refreshing to encounter a play that deals in ideas and yet features characters that do not just feel like mouthpieces for particular points of view. Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters at the National succeeds in this regard. It deals in Big Themes and yet it manages to also be a play about people. The play charts of the history of the Ashington Group, a group of miners who took up painting and made a stir in the art world.

Having signed up for an art appreciation class, their assigned tutor Robert Lyon, having made little headway showing them slides of Renaissance masterpieces (they can’t be doing with all these cherubs and want to look at ‘proper’ paintings), decides he can better teach them about art by encouraging them to create it themselves.

Though reluctant, with Lyon’s encouragement they begin to enjoy the process and it becomes clear that a number of the men (reduced by Hall from around thirty to just five for the purposes of the play) have an aptitude for art. Their work is noticed by a local shipping heiress and art collector and soon they are staging exhibitions and being invited down to London to visit the Tate. But what drives them to keep painting, to keep producing work, is not their unexpected success, or their increasing recognition by the art world, but their sheer love of art, of the process of creation. A window has been opened for them. They are able to document their lives in a way they hadn't thought possible, to record the 'little, tiny moments of being alive,' to create something capable of lasting.

Hall just about steers these characters away from stereotype territory: there is the staunch Marxist one, the everything-by-the-book one, the dim but goodhearted one and the younger one, frustrated by his inability to land a steady job. But though these men can be neatly summed up as such, some warm playing from the actors and some sharp writing gives them greater life than that might suggest.

It’s Hall’s portrait of Oliver Kilbourn (played by Christopher Connel), that is the most affecting. The most talented of the group, he has been a pitman all his life and considers himself a good one. When he is offered a stipend to work full time as a painter, he is torn between the desire to do something he has come to love and the fear of leaving behind all he has known. Eventually the shift in identity that this would require proves too much for him.

Hall takes particular pains to drive home how open these men were to the world of art, how they came to embrace it. On a visit to an exhibition of Chinese art, where Lyon sees mere folk art and is quick to dismiss it as such, the men saw something profound in its simplicity, something not totally unrelated from their own lives. I could have done with learning something more about Lyon and his relationship with the men. As it is we get one powerful scene between Lyon and Kilbourn (which is – very coolly – conducted while Ian Kelly, as Lyon, sketches the other man, the results in full view of the audience) that reveals something of the strange mix of pride and envy he feels towards this group of men who will be remembered longer than he will ever be.

The production loses a little of its impetus in the second half, but then these are real lives with no neat conclusions. Since there is no easy ending point to the story, Hall opts to finish with the nationalization of the mines and the men dreaming of the socialist paradise to come (and having a bit of sing as they do so). The irony is obvious without Hall us being reminded of the pit closures on the overhead screens. A woman next to me tutted to her friend as she got up, said she wasn’t keen on being lectured to. But I thought this was a rather harsh assessment, I didn’t feel lectured, but enthused and excited, it left me thinking, as was intended, about what art means to me and the role of artists in society. It’s also very funny, especially in the first half, with much of this humour derived from accent-based confusion (the accent in Ashington being a particularly thick variant on Geordie known as Pitmatic).

There’s an exhibition of the Ashington Group’s work up in the main theatre and it adds much to the experience to be able to look at the paintings you’ve just seen being discussed, including the sketch of Kilbourn and the early linocuts. As I was pottering around, looking at the pictures, Jeremy Irons swept past me with a pair of large glossy dogs on leads, which has little bearing on the play or the exhibition, but was an odd enough sight to merit a mention.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Making It Up On The Spot

I was at the Lyric last night with the man who likes to be known as Barry. We were there to see Hard Hearted Hannah and Other Stories an exercise in ‘long form’ improvisation by Cartoon de Salvo. What this meant in practice, was three performers – Alex Murdoch, Neil Haigh and the Guardian’s comedy critic Brian Logan – attempting to create a full length play from a few audience suggestions and their own imaginations.

As we entered the studio the three were seated on a small stage playing songs that included Tears On My Pillow and, of course, Hard Hearted Hannah, on an array of instruments that included a banjo, a cider jug and a washboard. But this was just a precursor to the show proper. In order to get started they ask the audience for potential titles. Someone, Maxie Szalwinska I think, suggested The Obituarist – which is a play I’d happily watch but in the end they went for The Forgotten One.

They also asked the audience to pick three songs from their playlist. These three songs would then have to be incorporated in some way into the show, this pre-arranged soundtrack the only semblance of structure it would have. The story we got involved astronauts, aliens and lonesome strangers who lived in box cars (though, as is the nature of the exercise, Lyn Gardner got to see an entirely different show involving an Icelandic woman and a butler, called The Birthday Party in a wry nod to the current production in the main house). The songs included New Delhi Freight Train and Mama Told Me Not To Come. And, it was pretty funny stuff, but more fascinating by far was watching the performers, watching them pick up the narrative thread from one another and drag the story off in unexpected directions. Sometimes they appeared in sync, picking up on cues and forwarding the story together, other times they seemed to be tugging it in different directions.

There were inevitable lulls and there was also a fair bit of corpsing but the chief pleasure came in watching the thing take shape. It doesn’t – or at least it didn’t on this occasion – quite escape the ‘gag-centred’ approach of Whose Line and its like, but it was very entertaining indeed. I do wonder what would happen if they went for a more dramatic and less obviously comic set-up – that would be very interesting to see and is something that does often happen (as Logan has pointed out on the Guardian blog). The finished thing, in this case, may have been rather lightweight, but the process remained enthralling – the way the performers built on each other’s ideas, the unexpected leaps of imagination – and the piece they produced held together, a fully formed story. There is risk involved of course, the risk that the thing will fail to click together, will flounder and fall apart, but that risk is part of the appeal. I’d like to see another one if I have time. It’s a shame it’s not on for longer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Retail Fatigue

There was a queue snaking down the stairs. It wound from the entrance of the Royal Court's upstairs theatre, down past the bar (but not through the bar, sadly) and ended up somewhere near the foyer.

Eventually, after a fair bit of milling about, they let us in. Music was blaring as we made our way into the theatre and the ushers appeared to have taken on the role of stone-faced club doormen, making us wait then reluctantly waving us in. (I presume this was for scene-setting purposes, either that or the Royal Court needs to work on its staff's charm training).

Yet again the interior of the upstairs space has been completely transformed, this time to accurately resemble a discount sportswear store on Oxford Street. So we have lots of garish strip lighting and brightly coloured signage. And instead of sitting on proper seats, the audience are made to perch on little plastic white stools.

All this is in aid of the Court's production of Levi David Addai's Oxford Street, a brash, patchily amusing comedy set in, as you may have gathered, a discount sportswear store, a place where the young staff all dream of doing something better than earning six ponds something an hour dealing with disgruntled customers and humourless supervisors.

One, Kofi (affably played by Nathaniel Martello-White) – the moral centre of the play, a decent guy with a degree under his belt who is currently working as a security guard – has hopes of becoming a journalist; another, sales assistant Loraina, wants to be a singer; while another one is studying economics at uni. Alek, the Polish security guard, meanwhile just reads his Daily Mail – a nice touch that – and glares at them all, quietly despairing of their slack attitude to their jobs.

Now, I've done my time behind the till (all through university, at various shops and department stores, though being from Surrey I was selling silverware and jewellery rather than trainers) and Addai accurately captures that world and what it's like to be tied to a soul-sappingly tedious job when you know you are capable of more. But unfortunately his plot is thinner than a thin thing, a sub Do The Right Thing dilemma about some stolen stock. There's simply not enough there to hang a ninety minute play on. The dialogue compensates somewhat, a plausible blend of patois and slang and believable staff room banter, but the characters and relationships are in dire need of fleshing out. The play has a fair amount of surface charm with some flashes of interest underneath, but I suspect were the flashy, noisy manner of its staging stripped away, it would struggle to stand up on its own.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Smile In The Dark

I have never been very fond of lifts. Or planes. Or roller-coasters. It’s a control thing, I like to keep my feet on the floor. So as I headed over to the BAC to see (no, that’s not right. To participate in? To experience?) Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, I found myself feeling pretty apprehensive and at one point contemplated simply turning around and going home again. But I’m glad I didn’t, very glad I didn’t. It was an astonishing experience.

In the BAC lobby, I was seated in a wheelchair, a blindfold was placed over my eyes and my hands were tied together. Disorientated and in darkness, I was then taken through into a room where scents were wafted under my nose, incense I think, as music played faintly in the background. A woman’s voice called out from time to time. You have no idea of the size of the space you are in or what it contains, so it is impossible to get your bearings. I felt hands touch my face, gently, carefully. Then my hands were lifted to meet someone else’s face, a man’s, my fingers tracing his jaw, his lips, brushing through his hair. It was a slightly alarming experience and yet also quite wonderful, this sudden, strange intimacy with this unseen person.

At one point I was made to stand, increasing the sense of helplessness and dependency. But I wasn’t left stranded for long. Arms wrapped around me, leading me in a kind of dance. At another point I was taken to a bed where a woman laid down beside me and, in a soft, purring voice, asked me questions. The removal of the visual element helped to remove (a degree at least) of my self consciousness and I found myself sudddenly discussing the last time I’d cried.

The end of the piece is as striking a thing as I’ve seen in a long time: a haunting, near-filmic pull-back through the space itself where the constructed intimacy of all you’ve just experienced is revealed. I shan’t go on about it too much, as I wouldn’t want to dent its capacity to surprise and delight. And besides, much of insight has already been written about it (by Lyn Gardner here and Andy Field here for instance). But it was quite amazing and, despite my initial nervousness, I found it quite freeing, in every sense. After the piece concluded and daylight was reinstated, I think I spent a good five minutes just wondering aimlessly round the lobby trying to process the experience and throughout the rest of the day I kept pausing in odd places, in Waterstones, in Somerfields, standing still and thinking about it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On The Face Of It

Whenever I suggest to my mother that she might like to accompany me to the theatre she always looks at me with a touch of anxiety in her eyes and asks: “how long is it?” It is only once she has been reassured that she can squeeze in a post-show drink and still be home in time for Newsnight, that she will then concede that, yes, she might quite like to come along.

This was the routine we went through when I mooted the idea of going to see Polly Stenham's That Face. And it was only once we'd established that it was a) less than ninety minutes long and b) that those minutes would not in any way feature Vanessa Redgrave talking about dead people (my mother was not overly enamoured with The Year Of Magical Thinking), that she tentatively agreed to the idea.

Written when she was just nineteen and originally staged in the Royal Court's 80-seat upstairs theatre, Stenham's play is about a supremely dyfunctional family. Actually dysfunctional doesn't come close to covering it. If there was a tick-list for how best to screw up your kids, every box would be filled in.

So we have a father who has run off to Hong Kong with a younger lover, leaving his former wife, Martha, to float around her bedroom in an increasingly grubby silk nightdress, swigging from a wine glass and indulging in disturbingly oedipal exchanges with her dutiful teenage son Henry. This boy is her world: she dotes on him, clings to him, calls him her 'little Russian soldier' and is fretful when he leaves her side. Her daughter Mia on the other hand, who is in trouble at her swish boarding school for dosing a classmate with Valium during a rather unpleasant initiation ritual, barely registers on Martha's radar.

Lindsay Duncan is as superb as everyone says as Martha, a woman blind to the fact that her behaviour is totally messing up her beloved son, while Matt Smith was also impressive as Henry. His was a difficult task, playing a character on the cusp of adulthood. The contrast between his taut toned physique and strange little-boy voice was striking and he even manages to pull off a scene where he has to have a complete emotional meltdown whilst wearing naught but a nightie and a string of pearls.

Though Stenham knows how to write scenes of emotional intensity, That Face is undoubtedly the work of a young person. Things frequently escalate to a hysterical pitch and the final scene is incredibly over the top. On more than one occasion it veered into Ab Fab territory, albeit with a more poignant edge, and if Joanna Lumley had floated in from the wings, hair bee-hived and ciggie in hand, it wouldn't have felt too out of place. The play did keep me gripped, despite the fact that I found these people – and their world of bitterness and privilege – so devoid of warmth, so unpleasant, that it was difficult to care overly about them. I know that's point: that Martha's extreme behaviour has left little room for normal human emotions, that damage begets damage, but I found the poisonousness of all concerned difficult to take. Again I suspect that is intended, but as a result I found the play easier to admire than enjoy.

That Face has been lauded in some corners perhaps more than is necessary, but it is still a taut, compelling piece of work. And my mother's verdict? "Not bad at all," which is actually pretty high praise by her standards.

Afterwards we headed for a nearby bar for the requisite post-play drink. Topics for discussion over said drink: Did Matt Smith have some sort of special wee-machine under his nightie or was he doing a Jane Horrocks? We presumed the former. Also, was the large, unkempt double bed that dominated Mike Britton’s set a visual reference to Tracey Emin’s bed? And were the increasing quantities of detritus, torn paper, clothes and whatnot, that Martha flung about the set a metaphor for the mess of the characters’ emotional landscapes? Or something. Maybe. Either way my mother, who abhors mess and who used to flinch in near physical pain if I so much as left a stray sock on the floor, was itching to get up there and have a good tidy. Lastly we both agreed that we were very, very glad indeed that neither of us had been to boarding school, as Stenham made it appear plausibly hellish.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Year Without End

I have always liked Joan Didion’s writing. In the 1960s and 70s, whilst her (mainly male) contemporaries threw themselves into the worlds they were writing about with abandon, Didion retained a coolness of voice and head. She was always a little removed from what she was describing, insulated from the excess, collected and considered. Part of things and yet not.

The Year Of Magical Thinking, currently at the National, is the stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s memoir of grief, the book she wrote about the death of her husband John from a massive heart attack. They were sitting down to dinner. She was making a salad. He was drinking a scotch. And then he just stopped talking.

On paper, it’s a strange but affecting read – that cool voice struggling against the rawness of loss. And the stage adaptation is stranger still. Basically it’s Jackanory. A very extended Jackanory (one hour forty, no interval, and me without a gin – bad forward planning) with Vanessa Redgrave on reading duties. An odd bit of casting that. OK, yes, she’s Vanessa Redgrave. But she’s the physical antithesis of Didion, and though she makes a vague stab at an accent and occasionally dabs at a tear, at times she appeared to be on autopilot.

Not that she has much to do but sit on a chair and quote verbatim from the book. Which begs the question, why bother to stage it at all? Any emotional resonance comes from memories of the book, of Didion’s words, rather than through having them spoken out loud.

While the book concludes a year after John’s death, the stage version covers more ground. While writing the book, Didion’s only daughter Quintana was seriously ill, in intensive care with septic shock. Though she recovered a little and was able to attend her father’s funeral, she later died from acute pancreatitis. This second huge loss is also described in the play with the same measured manner.

Though some of the small details described are highly poignant – her inability to throw out her husband’s shoes, for instance, because he will need shoes when he comes back to her; the ailing daughter asking her mother, over a hamburger, ‘will I make it?’ a question Didion cannot bring herself to address – the production is actually rather stiff, chilly, and, at times, rather dull. By it’s very nature this is a very static show, with Redgrave seated for much of her performance in front of a series of abstract backdrops, but given its subject matter it’s nowhere near as raw as you might expect. There is an absence at its heart. The only moment in this production that provides a true emotional jolt, is the photograph of Didion and her family that appears briefly at the end.

Perhaps in the smaller space of the Cottesloe, a greater degree of intimacy would have been achieved and the whole thing would have had more of an impact. But I’m not convinced this is something that needed to be brought to the stage at all (the book was a very Big Deal in the States and the production originated on Broadway which explains things somewhat) and unless you have a supreme need to see Ms Redgrave on stage, you’d be much better off just reading the thing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Unsettling City

There is a bus that takes me almost literally from my front door to the entrance of the Royal Court and there is something about this ease of arrival, this smooth transition – from sofa to stalls – that always puts me in an excellent mood: open, excited.

My most recent trip there was earlier this week to see Martin Crimp’s latest play The City, a strange and twisty thing indeed. The play begins with a scene in which a married couple discuss their respective days. The husband, Christopher, is anxious about the impending restructuring of the company for which he works, while the wife, Clair, describes an unusual encounter with a man at Waterloo Station, a writer with a young daughter, which resulted in her being given a diary as a present. A strong sense of tension underlines this entire exchange, as with every subsequent scene.

In the following scene, a woman, Jenny, a nurse you assume from the uniform, arrives at the couple’s house to complain about the noise their children make when playing. This has been preventing her from sleeping following her night shifts. She then tells them a lengthy story about her husband who is overseas, working as a doctor in a war in an unnamed country. Later a young girl appears – the couple’s daughter, you presume – also clad in a nurse’s uniform and the feeling of discomfort that has already been building grows even stronger. There is something about the casual exchange of smutty limericks between the Cumberbatch’s character and this child that makes you fear for this small, vulnerable person surrounded by all this unspoken aggression and anxiety.

This ninety minute play is a taut and finely crafted piece of writing where every detail, no matter how inconsequential it initially appears, carries weight. Katie Mitchell’s direction accentuates these qualities. Every nuance of speech and movement feels as if it has been carefully thought about. Disconnection is the dominant theme. Crimp’s characters seem to be permanently on the cusp of a volatile outburst and each carefully constructed scene is, as I’ve said, an exercise in tension.

An air of unreality is also apparent. The stories that the characters tell frequently fail to ring true: everything feels slightly askew. The reasons for this only become apparent at the end, when Crimp overturns what has gone before with what feels less like a revelation than a new layer seems the perfect conclusion, cementing the underlying sense of despair. The city of the title refers not only to a physical place but a place of the imagination. Clair works as a translator, dealing only with the words of others, her own attempts at creativity are lifeless, fractured – disconnected, her internal world barren

As Christopher and Clair, Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan give excellent performances, ditto Amanda Hale as their timid, quivering neighbour. Cumberbatch in particular is proficient at giving an edge of menace to even seemingly mundane statements and all three of them speak with an intensity, a clarity that is oddly unnerving. This, as with everything else we are given, seems designed to unsettle, an effect enhanced by Vicki Mortimer’s stark, very white set and the babble of white noise that accompanies the scene changes.

The world Crimp presents us with, is anonymous yet also familiar - also very sinister. Not a place to linger long: unspecified unpleasantness lurks beneath the surface, constantly threatening to bubble up. Some parts didn’t quite click, when Cumberbatch came out in a supermarket butchers garb, it was a predictable joke, but I enjoyed the games that were being played, the knottiness of it.

On the way home, my bus took longer than unsual, going on an unexplained diversion and meandering all round the house. I didn’t realise why until I read about the shooting in Markham Square the next day, somehow this seemed disturbingly apt.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Orange Tree and a Dubious Anniversary

Off to the Orange Tree again last week to see De Monfort, a revival of a play by Joanna Baillie. Byron is apparently meant to have said of her, that if it takes testicles to write a good tragedy, Joanna Baillie must have had to borrow some. Which I think is a compliment. Maybe. It certainly piqued my interest.

First performed in 1800, De Monfort is part of a series of works she composed under the title of Plays on the Passions, and this one was her tragedy on the theme of hatred. Now the Orange Tree has a good track record for digging up long forgotten things but, despite the fact that the Finborough are also staging a Baillie play at the moment – Witchcraft – this feels like a stupendous misfire.

The titular De Monfort is a brooding, moody chap who has long harboured a grudge against Rezenvelt for some past offence that is never really made clear. It gnaws at him, it won’t let him rest. Even his sister Jane, who rather improbably has the capacity to make footmen weak at the be-stockinged knees with her apparent radiance, is unable to dissuade him of the folly of holding onto this irrational loathing.

Eventually, after meandering along in a similar vein for (quite) some time, with Justin Avoth’s De Monfort pacing the stage, snarling and generally being disgruntled, he mistakenly comes to believe that Rezenvelt has designs on his sister and they clash with predictably messy consequences (though actually much of the mess occurs off stage). With Rezenvelt dead, you’d think that would be it, but no, sadly, the play continues on after this for some time after this with a long drawn out final scene at a monastery – replete with Latin incantations, writhing and rending of clothes, abundant nuns and midnight calls of ‘murder.’ Perhaps in other hands, this could all have been ominous and atmospheric but the production felt mis-pitched from the start and this lengthy finale simply postponed De Monfort’s inevitable demise for far longer than was necessary, leading to much seat fidgeting and watch checking amongst the audience.

The ornately costumed cast went through the motions but, with no emotional hook to hold onto, no grasp of what drove this man, his plight did not move, it merely irritated. Or sent people to sleep. Literally. I spotted a good scattering of lolling heads. Indeed the Orange Tree's nap-o-meter was set higher than I've seen it in a while and there were a couple of empty spaces after the interval. I even heard the word ‘codswallop’ being uttered by one tweed jacketed man as we were leaving. You have to love Richmond.

Oh, and, unrelated I know, but at some point while I was away in Italy this blog hit its two year mark. I shall spare you any overly introspective musings on why I blog or what I blog; I simply want to reiterate how glad I am to have met so many interesting people and made so many friends through writing this thing. Now I’m off to pour myself a glass of gin. Cheers.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


So. Then. Back in England. An England that appears not to have noticed that it is now well into the middle of spring and is busy hurling rain and hail and all manner of stuff in between down at the pavement – so it was with my winter coat buttoned high that I tube-and-bus-hopped my way to the Bush last night in order to see a play where (appropriately enough) Barking is underwater and Scotland is separated from England by Hadrian’s Channel.

Lucy Kirkwood’s debut play Tinderbox is set some time towards the end of the 21st century in a butcher’s shop in Bradford. The shop is run by the unpleasant Saul and his young wife Vanessa, a one time actress whose creative apex was a film by the title of Fellatio Nelson. Perchik, a fugitive and passport-less artist from Scotland arrives at their shop and is taken on as an assistant by Saul. It soon comes to light that Saul’s previous assistants have a tendency to have accidents that conveniently coincide with the arrival of a new batch of fresh meat in his under-stocked shop.

Josie Rourke’s production had an appropriately seedy feel to it but despite an abundance of bodies in sacks and much talk of maggots and flesh and digestion, I found parts of Bliss at the Royal Court far more unsettling and horrific. Though Joe Orton has been cited in most reviews what this kept reminding me of was an extended episode of The League Of Gentlemen. Very extended. It really did drag on. Two and a half hours, with interval. Initially it had a grubbily amusing quality with Kirkwood’s skewed vision of a flooded, brutal future coming through, but it soon lost direction, ambling on with the occasional comic volley of dialogue raising a laugh. Though Michael Billington wrote that it was refreshing to see a young writer “delivering a two-act play rather than opting for the comfort zone of 90 minutes,” its length really did work against it. The energy and excess needed to make something like this work could not be sustained over such a time and any points Kirkwood wanted to make about the besieged English and the retreat into nationalism were soon lost along the way as the play meandered towards its conclusion. The three main cast members were very good though, particularly the hugely likeable Sheridan Smith (from Little Shop Of Horrors and that Two Pints thing off the telly) as the deceptively dim Vanessa.

For this production, the Bush Theatre’s old L-shaped layout has been replaced with a small series of raked benches and a conventional stage complete with red curtains and a even a little glinty chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Like a West End theatre in miniature. It’s a potentially flexible space and presumably won’t always be arranged in this way; however the benches seemed to have been designed so that even the longer-legged audience members have a struggle to reach the floor – something that surely can’t have been intentional.