Sunday, June 29, 2008

Again With The Backlog

I suppose I should probably have spent this weekend investigating Hide and Seek, the festival of social gaming and whatnot on the South Bank, but the opportunity to spend some time instead catching up with friends ended up taking precedence. It is alarming to me, at this stage in my life, just how quickly the weeks, and sometimes months, can scamper past without seeing some of the people I care about, so it was quite, quite wonderful to spend a few aimless, weather-blessed hours traversing the city before raising a glass or three in honour of my friend’s imminent marriage.

That’s not to say these last few days have been theatre free, far from it. Most recently I caught Anna Ziegler’s Dov and Ali at Theatre 503 (who, I notice, have finally reupholstered their bench-seats and done something to make conditions inside the theatre a little less sauna-like). Ziegler’s play is about two men who end up hurting the women they love – a girlfriend and a sister respectively – as result, in part at least, of their religious beliefs.

Dov, an Orthodox Jew whose father is a rabbi, is an English teacher at a Detroit high school; Ali is his student, a seventeen year old Muslim boy, who is unshakeably confident in his views and incredibly sure of himself. (“Life” he says “isn’t about happiness, it’s about being right.”). A classroom debate over The Lord Of The Flies pits student against teacher: Ali has his own, very clear, ideas about what the events in the novel mean – he believes one must have set rules to live by, with little room for negotiation – and he challenges his teacher on these points. This discussion rapidly lurches into an aggressive critique of Dov’s life choices. Ali sees the fact that Dov has yet to complete his PhD as evidence of laziness and is critical of Dov's constant, reductive self-questioning. This behaviour, he believes, is typical of all Jews and he says as much to Dov. But, perhaps inevitably, despite the obvious oppositions between the two men, Ali begins to feel a connection with his teacher: they both have dominant fathers and they have both been pushed into difficult moral corners by their respective faiths.

Through a series of conversations between the two, Zielgler unpicks both characters. Despite his superficial self-possession, Ali is capable of doing little beyond parroting his father’s views, and though Dov speaks about the wisdom and experience that come with being an adult, he is unable to summon the courage to tell his parents he is dating, and is indeed in love with, a non-Jewish woman, a shiksa.

The set up, it has to be said, sounds worryingly trite. This is the second play in as many weeks that I’ve seen about a Jew and a Muslim striking up an unlikely friendship (after Stewart Permutt’s warm, compassionate Many Roads To Paradise) – but , despite my reservations, I found myself warming to the play. It’s an intelligent and considerate piece, not as preachy as it sounds, and Zielger resists the urge to tie things up neatly at the end, asking questions without offering answers. The acting is strong, particularly from Ben Turner as the slightly rumpled Dov. But while it avoids tidy resolutions, it is also, at times, rather too blunt in its approach. The play packs a lot of meat into its hour and twenty minutes, and as a result, it sometimes felt hurried and also a little implausible. This is especially true of the way Ali’s relationship with his teacher develops. It seemed to become very intense, very quickly and I couldn’t quite believe Dov would be that relaxed about Ali’s anti-Semitic baiting even if it was obviously being done to provoke a reaction. I’m also still unsure about the narration from Ali’s absent sister, Sameh, (who, having fallen for a man deemed unappropriate by her father – and, by default, her brother – has been dispatched to Pakistan and a life, it is implied, of untold misery.) Her character regularly interrupts events to move the story on, to provide a counterpoint to Ali’s moral rigidity – and, of course, there is an irony in the fact that it is Ali who has deprived her of her voice and yet it is her who now shapes his story. At times I found this device too constricting a way of structuring the piece, too obviously a device, but in the end it gave the piece an added sense of poignancy, not to mention a female counterbalance to the masculine bluster of the main characters.

I also enjoyed the novelty of seeing a play on a Sunday evening and of emerging from the theatre with much of the night still ahead. (Theatre 503 is one of the few London venues that does this: holding performances at 5pm most Sundays),

Other memorable things from the last fortnight included Richard Bean’s The English Game, a play about an amateur cricket team, which I saw when it came to the Rose Theatre in Kingston last week. This is a venue that has really grown on me. I love the fact that you can pay a few quid and sit in the central pit area (they advise you to bring a cushion, but I am relatively young and springy and have not felt the need for one yet). This appeals hugely to my inner-student and made me take a punt on a play that, knowing next to nothing about cricket as I do (really nothing, I even had to use google recently just to ascertain that a wicket was actually called a wicket), I might otherwise have ignored. And I’m so glad I didn’t, because it was a warm-hearted, amusing and very well acted piece. Though it contained a dozen or so characters, many of whom were quite simply sketched, Bean has a way of making these men seem to have lives beyond the cricket pitch, to exist beyond the stage. The men bicker and rib each other, tensions surface and settle, unexpected opinions are revealed, a friendship fractures, perhaps irreparably, and an old man fades gently away in the afternoon sun. It is not just about cricket, of course, Bean also seemed concerned with issues of Englishness and, beneath the banter, there was a sense of things changing, a whiff of decline, but what I really liked about it, was that, in the end it was mainly about cricket, a game I have no knowledge of or love for, and yet it didn’t matter a jot. While I admire the stripped down, nipped down style of something like The Ugly One, I love the big-ness of this, the clutter of characters, and am now, as a result, rather gutted that I missed his Harvest at the Royal Court.

Speaking of big-ness, this blog post is going on for a bit and I will wrap things up shortly before your attention wavers, but I just want to mention Metamorphosis 08, a competition for new writing in south east London held by the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. The judging panel was chaired by David Eldridge and the two winning plays were staged at the Churchill last week in a specially constructed studio space that had been erected on the stage. The first of the double bill was [in parenthesis], by Ben Hales. It contained a nice, visually appealing set up: three climbers have tumbled from a mountain and now hang suspended by their climbing ropes in midair, one with a bloody hole in his side. The shock of the fall has passed and, as they wait, to be rescued, or to not be rescued, they tell bad jokes and, inevitably, given their predicament, start talking about life and love. It was, once the novelty of the dangling actors subsided, rather a static, overlong (and, I think, rather flatly directed) production but it was well acted, particularly by Adam Sopp as the young lad slowly leaking vital fluids, and the writing had a considerable degree of charm and openness.

It was the second piece of the evening that really made an impact. Overspill is by Ali Taylor (who also wrote the wonderful Cotton Wool, one of my favourite new plays of the year) and tells the story of three lads on a night out in Bromley town centre. The language is the thing here, the pounding pulse of the piece, rhythmic, poetic, and yet wholly evocative of the location in question: the outer edge of London, the weekend impending. I preferred Cotton Wool for the way it married its lexical musicality with more strongly developed characters, but this still packed a punch of its own.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Relocated at the Royal Court

I don’t recall having a reaction to a production quite this strong in a while. I have tried to articulate what I found so unpalatable about Anthony Neilson’s current show at the Royal Court over on the Guardian's arts blog. I’m not wild about the headline, but then I did make use of the c-word (compassion), so I can hardly complain. It’s also worth mentioning that I hadn’t read Neilson’s response to Michael Billington’s one star review when I wrote it, as I filed my post the day before.

I do wonder if it’s an intellectual failing on my part that I let my emotional response to the play dominate. But then the fact that I had such a strong, near physical, reaction to the production is testament in a way to its success (on some levels at least). However I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something cheap and opportunistic about including such overt references to the Fritzl case – something Neilson was able to do given his particular habit of up-to-the-minute rewriting - though again I think this may say more about my oversensitivity; few people, bar Billington, appear to have found this as problematic as I did. It’s not that I felt it was distasteful (oh, OK, maybe I did a bit) but that it felt as if it had been included simply because it happened and he could.

Curiously, as anyone who has been stuck in a tipsy top-ten films type conversation with me will know, I rank Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Know as one of my favourite films and am rather partial to a bit of J-horror, particularly Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. Relocated shares much with both these films, indeed part of me revelled in the way the production seemed able to tap into so many cinematic worlds while retaining its own sense of identity. But there was something at the heart of this production I found repellent and I couldn’t get past that. It crossed, or rather removed, some necessary line. It leaked into the real world like a girl with long dark hair crawling through a television screen.

Friday, June 20, 2008

2,000 Feet Away At The Bush Theatre

The show was set to start at 8pm. Twenty minutes later and we were still waiting, in a queue that snaked down the Bush Theatre stairs, swelled to fill the narrow lobby area and then trailed out of the door and in to the street. Apparently – I later learned – this was due to a leaking roof, but if any announcement was made at the time, it wasn't a very loud one. And there was me, having long since necked my gin, getting repeatedly poked in the back by an Australian woman with very pointy elbows.

OK, I appreciate that the mid-performance electrocution of lighting technicians is a thing one would probably want to avoid, but an apology wouldn't have gone amiss. So, it goes without saying that, after being brusquely prodded into our seats for the now sold-out 2,000 Feet Away, our mood – myself and, I’m guessing, Andrew’s too – was not the best. Oh, and then there was the play – I had almost forgotten about that.

2,000 Feet Away takes its inspiration from a piece of American legislation that states that sex offenders cannot live anywhere close to where children might gather. This includes playgrounds, parks and schools. In the small town of Eldon, the timid deputy, a placid man who has been known to rescue half dead animals from the side of the road, is charged with evicting these men from their homes and moving them on, in order to keep the town ‘safe’. The question the play asks is, once you move them on, where do you put them? There is no easy answer, of course there isn't; and in the end the deputy comes to see himself as a kind of cursed pied piper figure, destined to keep leading these men away from his home town.

The dialogue in Anthony Weigh’s debut play has a certain rhythmic quality that is, at times, almost Mamet-like (though the repetitious nature of some of it did get on my nerves). What pleased me most was the sense of ambiguity and the way the play frequently shifted gears; first it made you sympathise with these men, before flipping things over and reminding you of exactly what they had done and what they were capable of doing again. One of these sex offenders, holed up in a grotty motel on the outskirts of town, still received perfumed letters in the mail, sexual contracts scrawled on flattened cigarette packets.

Anyway I am writing this at a late hour and I have written more coherently about the play over here. I will just add that though he may loathe theatre, Ian Hart appears to have put his dislike aside for the duration of this production, as his performance, pale and hesitant, was incredibly compelling. And the man can dry heave like nobody’s business. Being very unfond of anything vomit-related, I suddenly developed an intense interest in the contents of my handbag during this bit of the play.

There was also an amazingly confident performance from a young girl called Miranda Princi, who was quite astonishingly good as the strangely semi-sexualised pre-teenager whose fascination with these exiled men is such that she keeps their photocopied mug-shots on her bedroom wall. The scene between her and Joseph Fiennes’ deputy was incredibly tense and unsettling.

The play itself contains as many strengths as it has weaknesses. There is one wonderful moment when Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic is brought strikingly to life. But at other times you feel that Weigh has lighted on this subject matter without actually having anything much new to say about it, that he is striving and failing to create some kind of modern day fable. But this all pales besides my main problem with the piece: the casting of Joseph Fiennes. His isn't a bad performance, but never for a second did I buy him as this schlubby man, slow of thought, who is always munching on something or other (burgers, pancakes, cookies). Despite the ink-stained fingers, he just didn’t feel right in this role, physically – the script paints him as a big guy in need of a diet – or otherwise. This has less to do with his skill as an actor than with his total miscasting, and his presence actually became something of a barrier in the end. I’m sure I had some more thoughts about this, but as I said, the hour is late and my bed beckons.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Chalk Garden at the Donmar

Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden is a deceptive thing. In its opening minutes at least, it feels highly familiar; it has a whiff of regional rep about it, crisp and English and scented with crème de menthe, but beneath this gentle surface, dark things swirl like eels underwater.

Miss Madrigal sits facing away from the audience, straight-backed and silent in her blue suit. This taciturn woman has answered an advert for a governess placed by the mistress of the house, Mrs St Maugham; she turns out to be the only serious contender, the other applicants having turned up only to have a nose around the house, to fill their days.

Miss Madrigal enters a strange world. There are three generations of women in the family, all troubled. The elderly Mrs St Maugham has a touch of the dragon about her, an echo of Lady Bracknell; even at the time of writing she was very much a woman from a previous age, a relic in blue taffeta. Her daughter Olivia is absent, overseas, having remarried after the death of her husband, so Mrs St Maugham has been left in charge of the young granddaughter, Laurel, a spirited sixteen year old prone to setting fire to things and fond of screaming, a girl “in love with her own misfortune,” as Miss Madrigal astutely points out.

Both the play and the household are dominated by women. The only male presence is that of Maitland the manservant, nerves worn down to the nub, who frequently but impotently threatens to hand in his notice. He served five years in prison as a conscientious objector and has developed a fascination with trials and murder cases that Laurel shares with him. They are in thrall to an unseen ancient butler Pinkbell, who, though confined to bed, occasionally dials down to the main house, like a crabby, short-tempered god to make his displeasure felt on various matters, mainly pertaining to the garden. The house is built on chalk and, though much has been planted, little will flourish in the hostile soil.

Miss Madrigal slides with ease into this eccentric world, weighted with her own ways and tendencies, burdened with a murky past that Laurel is determined to get to the bottom of; to the inquisitive young girl with a taste for the macabre, this odd companion of hers, who she affectionately calls the ‘boss’, is a mystery waiting to be unpicked. But it takes the return of Laurel’s mother Olivia and the arrival of a judge with whom Mrs St Maugham has long been friends, for Miss Madrigal's secrets to come to the surface.

Bagnold’s play debuted on Broadway in 1955 and was staged in London the following year where, despite its country house setting, even Kenneth Tynan was impressed. This may be because of its undercurrent of melancholy and madness, a constant presence beneath the quick, witty comic dialogue. Michael Grandage’s excellently judged revival brings all this out. It is a beautifully staged and sublimely acted production. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the cryptic Miss Madrigal, stoic, sensible, but not without emotion – indeed she forges quite a bond with the young girl – and is very receptive to her environment; there is a sense of pain in her past but she keeps it under a lid.

Margaret Tyzack is equally brilliant as the formidable Mrs St Maugham. Her timing is immaculate and her way with an icy put down or comic line is exemplary. (“One is not at one’s best through mahogany,” she observes after declining to hold a conversation through a closed door). There is also more than a touch of cruelty under all the lace and pearls, a capacity to hurt, she does not like being challenged and can be quite cutting in her comments.

The young Felicity Jones, as Laurel, also impresses, the picture of precociousness and youthful passion, she is both a older than her years and yet still a child in need of love and affection. Peter McKintosh’s detailed summer-house set with its grey, rain-smeared windows gives the production a strong sense of time and place.

As a whole, the production rarely puts a foot wrong. While it brings forth the wit and sparkle of Bagnold’s writing and revels in each finely-honed line, it also finds a greater resonance in the play, these lost people find hope and happiness – or the capacity for it – in one another and, the audience too, is left moved and uplifted by the end.

Review transplanted, once again, from due to lack of time and an overflow of Other Things. I will just mention the minor kerfuffle that occurred just before the start of the play, when a member of the audience had to be dissuaded from actually sitting on the stage itself - I think she was trying to get a better view of things. When she was informed that people, as a rule, tended to sit in their seats and not on the stage, she looked rather peeved and, I noted, did not return after the interval.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Aah, I have a backlog! Lots of theatre seen, much of it good, but a lack of time to actually write about it all. So since I now have a window of, oh, some minutes I’m going to try and rectify that in at least a semi-coherent fashion.

First up, Many Roads To Paradise at the Finborough, Stewart Permutt’s warm-hearted and kind play about the lives of six disparate characters. Is ‘kind’ a relevant adjective for describing a play? Yes, in this case I think it is. This is a play full of warmth and wit and affection for its characters despite their flaws, their failings. As I said, it concerns six people, whose lives we come to realise are all interconnected. There is Martin, a middle aged Jewish travel agent who arranges to meets a man 20 years his junior on a gay dating website. Then there is his colleague Helen, who is in a long term relationship, thirty years and counting, with Avril, a strident and formidable type who wears driving gloves and has been hitting the Chardonnay with a vengeance after losing her job as a radio producer. And there is Helen’s mum, Stella, old and frail, once a milliner, a maker of hats, but now blind. She is in an old people’s home where she has developed a friendship with her new nurse, a Muslim woman from Somalia. Their growing closeness is starting to make Helen jealous. This is an admirably unsentimental view of old age. The elderly Stella is fragile and fading but ancient resentment still resurfaces within her, fresh. She asks after long dead friends and gobbles bananas as if they may be stolen from her at any minute.

I suspect the production elevates the play into something more than it is. With a lesser cast, its various coincidences and predictabilities may have grated more (a friend who also saw the play commented ‘If I ever see an African nurse portrayed as a bitch, I think I shall cheer.’ Here, of course, the nurse is as decent and caring and patient as it gets). The cast are superb, particularly Gillian Hanna as the dumpy Helen, who has become accustomed to being told she is ugly, lumpy and useless, and Daniel Hill as the nervy, needy Martin. And then there is Miriam Karlin’s Stella, frail herself, with stick limbs and near translucent skin, but still with much fight in her.

Going back further, some two weeks now, and there was Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan at the National. This to me was a play of moments, rather than a satisfying whole, with Lesley Sharp’s performance a gleaming light at its centre. The things that have stayed with me are the image of Sharp’s Harper collapsing to the floor, a slow fall, in her mother’s living room; the sense of escalating menace supplied by Jack Deam’s coked up, bigoted hack reporter in a grotty northern pub; a moment of tenderness between strangers in a glossy, anonymous urban hotel room; and the final glimmer of hope and potential healing in a morning sun-warmed garden.

Sharp is quite amazing in the role, her Harper is a woman under water, limbs and tongue weighted down. She seems forever out of step, askew, she talks where no words are needed. The play though, demands a lot of its audience. It is only in the second half that you discover the pressure she’s been under, the reason her behaviour is so odd (by which time some people had given up on it and departed to the bar). I liked the fact that the play parcelled out its story to you slowly, making you wait. But I still found the whole thing less than the sum of its parts, Harper’s journey failed to convince me, it didn't move me as much as it might have.

I also saw Hugh Hughes’ Story Of A Rabbit, which has been touring for a while and has now landed in the Barbican Pit. I remember reading Helen Smith’s description of this piece last year and being intrigued; I was worried that the knowledge that Hugh Hughes was the creation of an actor, that this ‘emerging Welsh multimedia artist’ was simply a persona, would be a barrier to my enjoyment. That the blurring of fact and fiction would somehow clash with a subject as emotive and personal as the death of a parent. But it really didn’t matter, taken on its own particular terms, this production was incredibly effective. Hughes’ eye-wide enthusiasm seemed ever so fitting, well-meshed with the collage style of the production, blending music and photographs and amiable audience banter (and cups of tea), and by the time he was describing is dad’s final fall as a kind of super heroic, acrobatic tumble, a daring dive into death, my throat had tightened and I was aware of the building prickle of tears.

Gosh, that brings us about up to date. Yesterday I saw Chris Goode’s …Sisters at the Gate, but to write about that requires a little more time and thought, so I shall hold off for now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Afterlife at the National

It was a surprisingly tough call. I was sitting with the West End Whingers (and honorary Whinger Graham) outside the National during the interval of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife. Should we stay put, in the sun with our bottle of red, or venture back inside? The first half had not been promising at all. Grand but rather empty, hitting the audience over the head with its cleverness. But we, or at least I, felt a need to see whether it would take flight after the interval, whether the plays potentially fascinating themes would actually start to, well, fascinate. So we (after polishing off the wine with practiced ease) left our sunny spot on the terrace and plunged back in.

Mistake. Definite mistake.

Indeed there was a distinct lack of taking off in the second half, a distinct lack of anything much happening that one could actually care about. This was a play of Ideas rather than one that gave much weight to things like character and pacing and so forth. And these Ideas were, in turn, rather bluntly flung about without really cohering in any satisfying fashion. Roger Allam played Max Reinhardt, the Austrian theatre impresario who staged morality plays at Salzburg Festival. Reinhardt was fascinated with the interweaving of art and life and therefore Frayn presents Reinhardt’s life as a morality play with Allam as Everyman. So we have a black-caped and skull-masked figure of death stalking the stage and much speaking in verse. (“Have they learned nothing from Fram” the Whingers asked). While Reinhardt career flounders under the Nazis and he is forced to flee to the United States, his finances decimated, living first in Los Angles with the mistress he eventually married and then finally moving to New York where Death, inevitably catches up with him. Still he achieves an afterlife of a kind through his work.

But the play remained wrapped in a thick shield of its own making, impenetrable. Clearly there is no one at the National who is able to say to Frayn, I see what you’re trying to do here Michael, but isn’t it a bit dull? A bit laboured? Wouldn’t a little burst of Climb Every Mountain pick things right up? The set was big and grand and got across the opulence and excess of Reinhardt’s lifestyle but, in terms of pacing, it was like wading through toffee, a real slog with little reward at its end. It seemed the antithesis of the The Pitman Painters, a play that managed to be about Things, to deal in Ideas, and yet also to entertain, to move, to uplift its audience. This missed the mark on all counts. You know there’s a problem when you start being distracted by finger marks on windows (God, I am turning into my mother) or when the most positive comment you appear to have made in your notebook is ‘a lovely cloche hat.’

Selina Griffiths was very good as Reinhardt’s ever loyal assistant, but Allam was nowhere near as he strong as he could be, as he has been in the past. And, OK, there were a clutch of good moments, including a scene where Reinhardt prepares to give a lavish dinner party, choreographing the waiting staff as he would the actors in one of his productions, but these were few and very, very far between.

Afterwards, our party of four moved swiftly away from the National, the source of our pain, and set about a couple of bottles of Rioja outside the BFI South Bank, (the NFT as was) and, eventually, the Bad Thing was forgotten – along with much else I suspect.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy at the National

For the first five minutes of Melly Still's staging of The Revenger's Tragedy not a word is spoken, instead the set spins and music pounds and the audience are pulled into dark, forbidding world, a world replete with a sense of menace, decadent and dangerous.

After this throbbing, attention-grabbing opening sequence the play proper begins. A bedraggled Vindice is still in mourning for his beloved Gloriana, who was killed, poisoned, by the Duke for refusing his sexual advances. Vindice has shut himself away for nine years, brooding in his room, letting his hair grow lank and long, occasionally taking her skull out from the box in which he keeps it to ponder his loss. Finally, prompted into action by the death of his father, he vows revenge on those who took her from him.

To achieve his goal he resorts to disguise – which in this case means shearing his hair and donning tight silver jeans and a white jacket – so he can infiltrate the Duke's court. The world he enters is one of corruption and debauchery: we first encounter Lussurioso, the Duke's legitimate heir, as he is enthusiastically pleasuring himself in a corridor. Lussurioso has taken a fancy to Vindice's virginal and dignified sister, and recruits him to procure her for his malign uses.

The programme quotes Confucius: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves", but this is Jacobean tragedy, so two graves wouldn't even start to cover it, not given the amount of bodies that inevitably pile up by the end of the play. The death of the Duke, forced into a fatal embrace with a poisoned skull, is a particularly strong scene, bloody and brutal. The final masque scene, though visually striking in the way it was performed – by a troupe of black-clad acrobatic dancers, Still drawing on her background as a choreographer – was disappointing in comparison, too clean, too quick.

As Vindice, Rory Kinnear has the single-minded glint in his eye of a man set on revenge; he is also adept at striking the right balance between this clear-eyed desire for vengeance and the sardonic humour the play calls for. Katherine Manners, in the small but pivotal role of Castiza, Vindice’s sister, brings an openness to the part, an appealing straight-forwardness. Elliot Cowan is also excellent as the long-limbed playboy Duke-in-waiting, strutting and cocky, but not completely oblivious to the consequences of his action.

Still's production, which blends modern dress with a historical sensibility – the men still carry swords – successfully cuts through the play’s rather knotty plot. It creates a world where death by poisoned skull is an, if not plausible, than at least an appropriate way to go. She even injects this scene, where Vindice waltzes with his long dead love, now a hideous mannequin and instrument of death, with a degree of poignancy.

The set, designed by Still along with Ti Green, peppered with frescoes and computer generated skulls, is part Italian court, part urban night spot – and is full of dark corners where illicit deeds can take place. The exhilarating music, blending operatic voices with beats provided by DJ duo DifferentGear, add to the production’s sense of momentum.

This is a production of spectacle and excess: unsubtle, aggressive, but fittingly so. The final few minutes, that last spin of the set, the vacant throne, the damage done, have a particular power.

Written for, posted here because sometimes a girl has to sleep - please insert own gin references.

Mass Hysteria

"Men in first; women wait here." So said the ushers at Hysteria, the new production to be staged the umbrella of BITE. We were queuing on the rather grand Hogarth staircase in St Barts waiting to see a show by the Brazilian company Grupo XIX de Treatro. This piece is set in a 19th century mental institution and, as it portrays a world strictly divided on gender lines, so the audience are divided, the men made to sit separately on one side of the room - the hospital's ornate Great Hall - while the women sat on benches and on the floor.

As a subject matter it's not unfamiliar. Many of the expected elements were there: much shrieking and writhing on the floor, generic 'mad' acting, women with wild hair mumbling about making themselves pretty for Jesus. And yet, despite that, it was quite an affecting piece of theatre. This was due to the way the female members of the audience were pulled into the world of the play – sometimes literally – being taken by the hand and led in a dance or asked simple, curious questions: "how old are you?" "Do you have a husband?" Though the rather pinch-lipped woman who was asked, "are you an onanist?" did not, perhaps understandably, seem too enamoured of the experience.

I was one of those sat on the floor. And, sitting there, cross-legged on the worn wood, being told what to do and where to sit, I felt transported back to school, to the assembly hall – I felt appropriately small and willing to do as I was bidden. Which, fortunately, wasn’t that much, bar a bit of twirling. Others were less, or more, lucky depending on your attitude to audience participation. Some women got invited to stand on a bench and chant along with the inmates or were interrogated by the ‘matron’ figure. The underlying theme was one of rules and their breaking, with many of the women depicted locked away for not conforming or for being excessively sexual. By being drawn into the performance, into this world, it forced me to think about what is deemed acceptable and what is not, for women today, for anyone.

Fiona Mountford, writing in the Standard, called the production ‘irredeemably dire’ which I find an excessively harsh reaction. While it’s true, the women never develop as individual characters and their accents do no favours to the coherence of the piece, it still has its own power. Being there, on display, in front of the male section of the audience, at times forced to perform, was quite a strange experience, and for all its mess and clutter – it is rather a messy thing – it cast a certain spell.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tricycle In Dud Play Shocker!

I was not making much headway. My subtly worded suggestion to my mother that she might, perhaps, maybe, want to accompany me to see a play about tabloid journalism and the torture of military prisoners at the Tricycle in Kilburn was met with the kind of expression that made me wonder if I’d just somehow accidentally posited the idea that I fellate the postman while she watched, instead of simply discussing a night of theatrical entertainment – though I’m not sure if it was the idea of the torture theme or of going to Kilburn that she was reacting to. I tried to tell her all about how wonderful everyone said Moonlight and Magnolias was (the playwright, Ron Hutchinson’s, previous work) and, when that failed, I tried to bribe her with gin and Superkings, but, no, once her mind is made up, that’s pretty much it.

At least, I hoped, the play would be wonderful and then I could dangle the reviews in front of her and show her what she’d missed. But it was not wonderful; it was wonder-empty. For a start, it was raining (possibly not the fault of the play, but it didn’t help matters) and I had, for some reason, decided to leave both my umbrella and my jacket in various places that were entirely unhelpful. So I arrived at the Tricycle damp and panting.

Then there’s that title: Topless Mum. OK, it’s a take on the bluntness of tabloid headline speak, but still it’s a bit off-putting. (The play was originally staged as Topless Mum In Dead Hero Shocker! at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory last year but it has undergoing a number of tweaks between then and now, including the circumcision of its original title). Oh and then there’s the play itself, an apparent satire on the tabloid press given a topical spin with reference to Afghanistan and the Daily Mirror faked photos affair that led to the ousting of Piers Morgan from the editor’s chair.

A disabled soldier and his wife attempt to sell a photo of an Afghan prisoner apparently being tortured by British soldiers, the paper decides to print it only for the image to turn out to be false. Fearing for their jobs the hacks try to spin the story out in a different light, one that paints the scamming couple as a pair of anti-war protestors – they also offer to print a set of pictures of the wife with her kit off (hence the title). There are further backflips in the plot that see it getting increasingly implausible and irritating. There is also a seemingly tacked-on digression about the perils of airbrushing images, about how you can’t believe anything you see in the papers these days.

It’s hard to fathom exactly what the point of the play is. Yes, it’s topical but that counts for nothing if you don’t have anything to say. As far as I could comprehend the main thrust of the argument is that Tabloids are Bad and that truth counts for little in the media.

This lack of coherent argument is emphasised in the programme notes, where Hutchinson makes vaguely unhappy noises about the state of the British media (whilst also pointing out that he has lived mainly in LA for the last 25 years.) As satire goes, it was blunt and lumpy and very flatly staged. Matters weren’t helped by mistimed projections of the back wall of the set and a very squeaky revolve.

The soldier Barry and his wife Tiffany were sketched with the finesse and social nuance of a Little Britain skit and the journalists didn’t do much better. Having missed Moonlight and Magnolias last time round (it’s coming back to the Tricycle next month) I had been quite keen to see this but was just left irritated that I’d trekked all the way up to Kilburn in the rain. I’m only glad my mother didn’t come in the end or I’d be hearing about it for weeks to come.

Monday, June 02, 2008

...And A Hard Place

I had thought that, over my time writing for The Stage and, I'd been to most fringe venues in London at one point or another. I've done my fair share of pub backrooms in Forest Hill in Chiswick, hell, I'd even ventured into the here-be-monsters wilds of zone 4. But I've not ever seen anything at Oval House in South London before now. This one was new to me. So, of course, I did the sensible thing and left it to the last minute to plan my journey there. As a result I only just staggered through the door, soggy and flustered, five minutes before the start time, clawing my way to the drinks table. Andrew, of the West End Whingers, my companion for the night, courteously pretended not to notice as I glugged down my glass of bubbly like a woman who'd gone a week without water.

Andrew had charitably agreed to accompany me to Tim Fountain's new play Rock. This is a two-hander about Rock Hudson, or Roy Fitzgerald as he was at the start, and his agent, Henry Wilson, a gruff bourbon-for-breakfast old school Hollywood type. Wilson is credited with kick-starting the 'beefcake craze' of the 1950s and boasted a book full of buff young chaps – many boasting names that, as Fountain points out in the play, would not look out of place in the credits of a gay porn film: Troy Donohue, Chad Everett, Tab Hunter.

After changing his name and giving him a made up backstory about having been discovered while pumping gas, Wilson teaches the boy from Illinois how to walk right, talk right and play the Hollywood game. He also instructs Rock in the golden rules regarding his personal life: don't fuck anyone you shouldn't and, if you do, make sure you're not seen.

As a Pygmalion-type tale of transformation, the play is entertaining and often very wittly written. But, though both men were gay, the play doesn't really provide any particular insight into what it was like to be closeted in Hollywood. I would have been fascinated to find out more about Rock's marriage or what, if anything, these men's shared situation meant to them, but such details were thin on the ground

In his early screen tests Hudson struggled to master his lines, an affliction Bette Bourne appeared to be suffering with too. He seemed to be struggling considerably in the first half, but pulled it together after the interval in order to convey the full poignancy of Wilson's fall, via booze, blackmail and McCarthy-era anti-gay paranoia into destitution and an early death.

The set was particularly striking for a fringe production, with a swirling colourful painting of LA outside the large window of Wilson's office. The play also manages to feature not one, but two scenes where Michael Xavier (who does a fair job of portraying the actor's journey from small town boy to Hollywood star) is required to strip down to his tight white jockeys. Oh and, in an admirable feat of, well, something, Andrew and I managed to squeeze in pre show, post show and interval drinks, which is always good.