Friday, July 25, 2008

Under The Blue Sky at the Duke Of York's

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nocturne at the Almeida

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Female Of The Species at the Vaudeville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2008

Black Watch at the Barbican (Take Two)

I was tempted to let that last line stand, after all what can one hope to add to the waves of acclaim that have followed this production since its Edinburgh debut in 2006? A production that is near enough finished its London run anyway? Not that much. But I feel the need to say something and, obviously, it was not merely OK, it was rather brilliant – and it passed the Mother Test with flying colours. Despite her pained expression when informed she was going to the Barbican, and despite the fact that the Barb lived up to expectations by being roped off in places necessitating much wondering up and down stairs to find a bar that had any wine to serve us, my mum said it was the best thing I’ve ever taken her to see – a fact only partly influenced by the fact she found herself standing by the fountains next to Ralph Fiennes when she went out on the terrace to smoke her pre-show cigarette.

I also loved it; it certainly deserves all the praise it has attracted. John Tiffany’s National Theatre Of Scotland production creates a rare harmony between the visual and the emotional. While the material mined from the interviews with the Black Watch soldiers is already full of powerful stories – like that of the soldier, who having survived an attack that left his friends dead, keeps rebreaking his injured arm every time it begins to heal – the power of these stories are enhanced by the scenes of dance and mime, which successfully convey the things left unsaid in this intense, insular military world: the longing for those left at home, the men’s sense of fear and frustration.

The ensemble cast have a fantastic rapport with one another, conveying the mutual protectiveness and the intense sense of connection that comes from co-existing together in a place where you may need to kill or could be killed at any time, and while I partially agree with the Whingers, in that it wasn’t quite the sum of parts, it contained so many separate wonderful moments – the pool table, the final tainted Tattoo – that it didn’t really matter. Anyway, I could go on – at some length – but I suspect it’s all been said already.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Unstated at Southwark Playhouse

My friend ‘Barry’ works in a law centre in South West London. He supplies legal guidance to those most in need of it and is passionate about social justice, particularly any erosion of civil liberties. The recent restrictions on the amount of legal aid available to asylum seekers have made his work a lot harder. A five hour limit has been implemented per case which is ridiculously unrealistic and, as a result of these restrictions, many law firms have been forced to withdraw from offering advice on asylum claims as they do not believe they can operate effectively within this time frame. As a result many asylum seekers have been unable to continue with their asylum applications or stand much of a chance of mounting a successful appeal. (Correct me if I’m wrong on any of this Barry). So he was, of course, the ideal person to accompany me to see Unstated, a The Red Room production at the Southwark playhouse, written by Fin Kennedy. The word ‘worthy’ has been bandied about in discussion of this production, a word I’m sure I’ve used carelessly myself before, in a casually disparaging fashion, but the thing is: this is a worthy production, in the sense that it’s doing a thing worth doing, giving a voice to voiceless people and combating a culture that veers towards suspicion in disbelief in regards in regards to those claiming asylum in this country. Indeed ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ have become such loaded terms, weighted with negative connotations, that anything that attempts to right that balance is commendable.

However we both felt that the immersive theatrical approach diluted rather than enhanced the impact of the material. Attempts have been made to turn the Southwark Playhouse – a series of brick walled, vaulted rooms under London Bridge station – into Southwark Removal Centre. So when audiences arrive at the entrance, they are patted down by uniformed staff before being reluctantly waved in. Once inside they are issued with ID cards and made to sign release forms – a pack of surgical gloves sits ominously on a table near the door. There are a lot of barked orders, with people being told to hurry up and get a move on as they herded into a ‘holding area’ (where the bar is), and one genuinely uncomfortable moment where a woman (cast member not audience member, that would be a bit much) is dragged screaming and pleading through the room, on her way to deportation. This was perhaps the show’s strongest moment, where theatrical elements successfully meshed together. After that it became rather repetitive, a blend of dramatic scenes, video commentary from political campaigners including Helena Kennedy QC (whose recent book Barry has been toting around recently), video and audio testimony from asylum seekers, and much shuffling from one room to another.

Again, we both felt that the production undermined itself on a number of counts. By painting the majority of detention centre staff, politicians and journalists as cackling black-hats, the power of the genuine testimony was lessened. We also wondered just who this production was aimed at? If it is hoping to overturn assumptions and to create a dialogue, it needs to reach a wider audience than the kind of people who tend to attend fringe theatre shows about the plight of asylum seekers. Also, if you’re going to fling facts and figures at people for over an hour and a half, some concession needs to be made to audibility and comfort, I was fidgety and wanting a drink well before the end (admittedly it doesn’t take much to get me to that point) and I may well have been slightly more receptive had I been seated for at least some of it.

I don’t want to knock this production too much as the intentions are good and it is refreshing, vital in fact, that the label of asylum seeker is lifted and the people underneath allowed to speak, in fact I would have liked to hear more of their stories presented in a simpler fashion. Barry and I did have a very long and animated discussion in a nearby Turkish restaurant afterwards, so on the level of triggering debate it succeeded admirably.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Frontline at the Globe

Rain has been the dominant feature of the last few days of my life. As I have recently discovered, it rains a lot in the Lake District, the weather gods showing little respect for one’s wish to waft around the place in a long skirt with a sketch pad in hand. But that’s nothing compared to a Wednesday in London when one has tickets to the Globe. The clouds didn’t care. They churned and spat and un-stomached themselves all over the city, the sky an ominous, angry, unrelenting grey.

At least we were seated and relatively sheltered; the people in the yard were shivering in their transparent macs as the rain drummed on their heads. Some had even fashioned hats from carrier bags to keep off the water. But instead of making for a thoroughly miserable experience, the foul weather actually seemed to enhance the bond between performers and audience and seemed not unfitting for a play like Che Walker’s The Frontline. Walker has written the first play set in modern London to be staged at the Globe. They’ve dabbled in new writing before but always with a historical leaning (the other new play of the season, Liberty, is set during the French Revolution). I was sceptical as to whether such an experiment would work, but needn’t have been. The play takes place in a seedy, post-midnight – and in this case, rain-slick – urban world, Camden Town at 2am. It is a big, brash, sprawling thing, chaotic and unsubtle, but very enjoyable. It uses the space incredibly well, not by spilling out into the yard, like Lucy Bailey’s Titus did a couple of years back, but by packing the stage with so much life and activity that there was always something to look at wherever you were standing and could well succeed in its intention of appealing to those who would usually steer well clear of a place like the Globe. Anyway, I have blogged about it at greater length over here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Home Again

I am back from the green place, well, back in body if not in mind – or maybe the other way round, I am not quite sure at present. In between coming back from aforementioned place of green and writing these words I have managed to fit in a wee bit of theatre which I intended to talk about now, but there appears to be some unbridgeable synaptic gap between my brain and my fingers tonight, so it may have to wait a day or so more.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Strung Out And Sleep Deprived

Gah, this week has been ridiculously busy. I have been beset by the constant sense of needing to be somewhere other than I am. Amidst all the dashing around and the white-faced late nights in front of my laptop, I have managed to see a couple of productions this week: Femi Oguns’ Torn at the Arcola, and a revival of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen at Riverside Studios, both of which have much to recommend them (though the performance of the former was rather horribly overshadowed by the violent death of the brother of one of the cast members). Tomorrow I am fleeing the city and heading someplace green and pleasant for a few days.