Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Red at the Donmar Warehouse

John Logan’s play, Red, is more successful than most in translating the world of visual art to the stage and in achieving a workable balance between the said and the shown.

In order to explore the creative drive of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko he employs a device that might have come across as rather mechanical were it not for the assured performances of the two actors. Logan’s play takes the form of a two-hander: a series of, often very one-sided conversations, between Rothko and his young assistant, played by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. It could all too easily have felt clunky and forced, but the production manages to avoid straying too far into the terrain of cliché.

It’s 1958 and Mark Rothko is at work on a series of paintings he has been commissioned to produce for the Four Seasons Restaurant of the Seagram Building. The play is set in Rothko’s Bowery studio where natural light has been banished and great, shimmering squares of red dominate the set. Rothko badgers and berates the younger man, lecturing him and dismissing his ideas - dismissing his existence. He talks constantly about art. There is no other. Art is everything. He expresses a hope that his paintings will put the wealthy diners off their dinner and eventually turns down the commission, returning the not inconsiderable fee.

Logan’s Rothko is a rather unsympathetic character. His capacious intellect and his consuming passion are coupled with a "titanic self-absorption." As written, he’s a bully and, at times, a bore. He takes pride in explaining how his generation of artists stomped on the cubists but then bristles at the thought of sharing gallery space with the emerging wave of pop artists. (The obligatory quip is made about Warhol’s work and the unlikelihood that anyone will care about it in the future).

Michael Grandage’s production grapples with one of the main hurdles in any play concerned with matters of art. Painting and sculpting – the processes of art – are not easy to stage in any plausible way (the charcoal sketch scene in The Pitmen Painters a notable exception). In a wonderfully physical scene, Grandage has Rothko and his assistant prep one of the large canvases, splashing red paint about the place until the floor looks - aptly as it turns out for the younger man' parents were stabbed to death - like a crime scene and their arms and faces are coated in the splatter of the of abattoir.

The performances go a good way to papering over the gaps and cracks in the writing. Alfred Molina, stocky and shaven-headed, is a necessarily dominant Rothko, bullish and aggressive, using his intellect as a weapon, yet not uncharismatic, not without charm. There is a bright flare of humanity and humour in him, though it’s often well hidden. Eddie Redmayne is the perfect foil to Molina. Wiry and wired, for much of the early part of the play he’s little more than a sounding board for Rothko’s tirades, but Redmanye has a way of responding with intelligence and fire, qualities evident even when he’s silent. Eventually he grows increasingly intolerant of Rothko’s indifference to him and his determination to be significant to the detriment of all else. He rebels, he bites back, and, in doing so, becomes the catalyst for Rothko’s rejection of the Seagram commission.

Christopher Oram’s set, warmly lit by Neil Austin, recreates Rothko’s studio: cavernous and concrete-walled, spattered and practical, complete with the pulleys the artist used to manoeuvre his large canvases into place.

Logan’s play is undoubtedly a polished piece, composed with care; but while it’s neither as cumbersome as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s recent The Line (a play about Edgar Degas and Suzanne Valadon), nor as overwrought as Dea Loher’s Land Without Words, which also channelled Rothko, it’s just too neat a package - it’s an essay on art given flesh and voice, but though Molina and Redmayne do much to counter this, the play leaves the heart and the gut largely untroubled.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, December 11, 2009

1984 at BAC

Though the creative use of puppetry is what theatre company Blind Summit is known for, puppets don’t dominate their new production of 1984 – they don’t need to. In George Orwell’s terrifying vision of life in a totalitarian state, every aspect of life is subject to control.

The company’s previous work includes the Charles Bukowski influenced Low Life and they also provided the puppets for Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, but here the puppets are only part of the fabric of a witty, sinister production.

A neat framing device sees the story of the thought criminal Winston Smith and ‘his whore’ Julia being performed by a travelling community theatre group as a lesson on what happens when you defy Big Brother. Winston is a worker in the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his days rewriting old news reports in order to bolster Big Brother’s omnipotence and erase the very existence of dissenters. He has been harbouring doubts about the regime for some time and embarks on a furtive relationship with the similarly disillusioned Julia. When they are together, they are human – living, loving individuals – not simply cogs in a vast grinding machine (it is fitting that the production visually references King Vidor’s The Crowd).

Winston and Julia rent a shabby room in the Prole District, where they believe they will be safe from prying eyes, at least in the short term, but Big Brother sees everything and it is with a degree of inevitability that Winston finds himself facing the harrowing prospect of Room 101 in the Ministry of Love.

Mark Down’s production draws out the comedy of the situation, something that was admittedly not particular evident in Orwell’s text, and enthuses every scene with visual ingenuity. There are some wonderful executed moments and a scattering of chairs and some pieces of cardboard are all that’s required to recreate the various scenes of the novel. A particular highlight is the staging of the rebel text The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism using a white bed sheet and some cardboard signs; it’s a fast, funny and very inventive scene. And of course there are the puppets, simple yet emotive things. There are puppet birds and bunnies and a spindly child threatened by falling bombs. These are stringless puppets, each limb manipulated by a performer and the connotations of this within the context of the narrative are clear (though the company spell things out for those not paying attention).

The ensemble cast work well together and Simon Scardifield, as Winston, and Julia Innocenti, as Julia, convey a strong sense of being normal people in an abnormal world. The balance falters a little towards the end and, perhaps as a result of the framing device, the final scenes of torture suffer from being too stylized – the full horror of Orwell’s denouement is diluted.

Despite that, this remains a potent, engaging and highly inventive rendering of a novel that has lost none of its edge or resonance over the decades.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Enjoyment of show enhanced on spotting this in the bar afterwards:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays at the Bush

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays, two bittersweet monologues about lost love, were first seen in Edinburgh. Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About a Girl He Once Loved premiered at the Pleasance in 2008 while Stefan Golaszewski is a Widower was performed at the Traverse earlier this summer. This is the first time they’ve been staged together, but they share similar themes and preoccupations and work well as a double bill.

Speaks About a Girl is a lovingly detailed account of a teenage brief encounter with a girl called Betty. The couple first meets over a packet of pork scratching in a pub, exchange texts, and go on one long, strange date over the course of which it becomes clear that this is the only night they will ever spend together.

Golaszewski really captures the tone of someone who is in theory an adult, a man, able to drive a car and buy a pint in a pub, but in reality anything but - his ideas about women and life culled mainly from Home and Away. The words fizz from him – his shock that a girl like Betty would even consider going out with him his palpable and his pain on discovering that his imagined future with her is not to be is comparably raw. The language is vivid and joyous and energetic, and the monologue is cleverly grounded in a particular time through the use of the comedy catchphrases of the day (mainly Fast Show derived).

The second play is far more ambitious in intention. The year is 2056 and a white-suited Golaszewski speaks from the perspective of an elderly man who has recently lost his wife. He talks about his marriage and the awe and excitement and oddness he felt on his wedding day. He describes the joy of fatherhood and the awful event that would tear an unmendable hole in his marriage. He speaks with bitterness about the indignity of aging, the diminishing, the growing frailty, the pain. But while the first play had vibrancy this one feels weighted by its own striving to be something more than it is.

The language - the verbal bursts and lexical dexterity - that were so appealing in the first play, feel jarring in this new context. Golaszewski over-salts the text; the words lead him rather than the other way round. His writing, which proved so effective when describing a young man, poised on the cusp of adulthood and fizzing with life, is less successful when conveying someone older, someone broken down. There are some wonderful lines, some lovely descriptive phrases, but the play feels as if it needs to be simpler, cleaner – instead it has to fight against its own verbal clutter. It’s not without poignancy and a degree of bitterness, a black thread of a disappointment and despair, but they emerge despite rather than because of the writing.

Golaszewski is an affable, energetic performer, who pitches his material well, drawing out the emotional notes, but only in the first play do all the elements come together in a truly satisfying way.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Jiggery Pokery at BAC

Amanda Lawrence has a very versatile face. With her hair upswept, her neck taut and her mouth pursed in a manner that suggest she has just become aware of a rather disagreeable smell in the room, she looks uncannily like Charles Hawtrey, the British actor best remembered for his roles in the Carry On films.

In her one-woman show based on Hawtrey’s life, Lawrence shows his evolution from an eager child actor to a lonely, bitter and gin-riddled old man who makes passes at cabbies and shouts "fawk orf" at anyone foolhardy enough to approach him.

A very private person, Hawtrey attended the Italia Conti School and played a Lost Boy on stage in Peter Pan before his film career took off with the Will Hay movies. Lawrence shows him to be something of a mother’s boy, a prim and keen young man whose once bright career hit a wall when his style and manner were deemed to be out of step with the times and only really bloomed again with the Carry Ons – though eventually his alcoholism meant that he was dropped from these too.

At the start of his career he adopted the name of theatrical impresario Sir Charles Hawtrey and sometimes claimed him as his father, though this was not the case. He clearly had a difficult relationship with his own background and yet his relationship with his mother seems to have been one of the most significant in his life. Lawrence poignantly illustrates the mix of frustration, anger and affection he feels for her and shows how her descent into senility foreshadows his own decline.

The production itself is intentionally frantic with Lawrence playing some fifty roles including Sid James and Laurence Olivier. Director Paul Hunter (of Told by an Idiot) moves events along at rapid pace; at one point he stages a conversation between three characters, Hawtrey, his mother and Madame Conti, forcing Lawrence to switch roles for almost every other line of dialogue. This she does by jumping from chair to chair, while donning and removing her round, wire-framed spectacles at an insane rate. Even though Lawrence is skilled enough to make the shift from role to role feel effortless, the direction forces the audience to acknowledge the amount of effort involved; it underlines the one-ness in the ‘one woman’ show.

Cathy Wren’s cluttered set is full of detail, some of which remain unexplained – such as the hoarded loo rolls and bedsteads of Hawtrey’s boozy twilight in Deal. From this detritus, various props are picked up and imaginatively woven into the narrative: a tasselled lamp shade becomes a hat, a shopping trolley doubles as a taxi cab (and, later, Olivier’s chauffer-driven car), and a table and a marker pen are used to illustrate an unfortunate incident when an aging, semi-clad Hawtrey had to be plucked from a burning building by a fireman.

Lawrence’s performance, the sheer skill and energy of it – her neatly pinned up hair has all but escaped by the end as a result of the physical demands of the piece – can’t be faulted. She mimes in perfect time to audio snippets of Hawtrey’s films and creates a well rounded impression of a complex, difficult and not particularly likeable man. But for all her efforts, Hawtrey remains too big an enigma; his sexuality, his disappointments - fame tasted fleetingly, the shadow of celebrity, Carry On fans still knocking on his door years later - don't quite mesh into a whole and there's a patchwork quality to the piece that, while inevitable, is also frustrating.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, November 30, 2009

This Wide Night at Soho Theatre

Produced by Clean Break (who recently staged Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful It Felt Empty... at the Arcola) Chloe Moss’s play, This Wide Night, is the fruit of a playwriting residency spent at HMP Cookham Wood and is about life – such as it is - after prison, exploring the various struggles and adjustments required in order to survive on the outside.

Marie spends her days in a cramped council bedsit - swigging cheap lager while sprawled in the sedative glare of her soundless television set - and her nights doing some unspecified job that requires a lot of vigorous showering afterwards.

When Lorraine, her middle-aged former cellmate, turns up at her door in need of a place to stay she is initially wary but eventually allows her to stop with her until she gets herself sorted.

Moss delicately unfolds the complicated relationship between the two women. They are both needy yet hesitant in their affections, both volatile and capable of snapping, of sudden flares of temper. Details of their past life together are only slowly fed to the audience – there is brief mention made of care homes, violent lovers and addiction – but Moss resists the urge to spell things out; she is not afraid of ambiguity, of leaving things unsaid.

The idea of official assistance is abruptly dismissed ("they don’t really give a shit") so the two women must support themselves as much as they’re able to. In a touching moment Marie gives Lorraine a shiny shirt bundled into a plastic bag, a gift, so she has something nice to wear when she meets the son she hasn’t seen in years.

The dialogue is rich and fresh and peppered with wonderful details ("Look at you," Lorraine says admiringly of Marie, "you look like an advert for Vosene") and superbly brought to life by Zawe Ashton, as Marie, a woman hardened by the world yet whose face still lights up in delight at the thought of playing party games, and Maureen Beattie, as the older but only marginally steadier woman who, after serving a twelve year sentence, is resigned to being dealt a dud hand by life.

Director Lucy Morrison creates a sense of insularity, of a life still shaped and infected by the time spent on the inside – an impression aided by Chloe Lamford’s cramped, spare set with its tatty sofa bed and functional kitchen units - and throughout there is a plausibly awkward mix of warmth and tension between the two women; they nurture one another yet provide a constant reminder of where they’ve been and what they’ve lived through.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cock at the Royal Court

Let's step around that title for a moment for Mike Bartlett’s latest play is a far more interesting and rich thing than such a blunt, needlessly provocative moniker might indicate.

Cock is about identity, sexual and otherwise. John has been in a relationship with his boyfriend since he was in his early twenties; now he feels they have grown apart – or, rather, that he has grown and their relationship hasn’t really allowed for this fact.

After he breaks things off with his boyfriend he finds himself in an unusual and unexpected situation: he finds himself attracted to a woman. They have sex - an unplanned, sudden and awkward encounter - yet neither wants to let things end there. Though John has never been with a woman before they feel a powerful connection and believe what happened between them was more than a one-night liaison, they believe that potentially it could grow into something strong and lasting.

Though he has real feelings for this woman, John is still closely emotionally linked to his boyfriend; they were once in love and, while that has changed, the attraction between them remains strong – they are still bound together in many ways. John must make a choice between the two people vying for his affections. This is not something he finds easy; he is drawn to both of them, for different reasons, and in making a choice it is as if he is been asked to define himself, not just sexually, but on many levels. Who is he? What does he want out of life? Marriage, kids, trips to Paris and security in old age with her or a different but no less rewarding existence with him?

He is pulled from both sides and the more they pull, the more he vacillates; he is frozen, silenced and simply unable to make the choice that, it is made clear, will steer his life in one direction or the other. There is no middle option, a decision is called for and sexuality is only a part of the picture; John is being asked to decide the whole future path of his life. This all comes to a head (so to speak) in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene when John invites the woman to his boyfriend’s house and a kind of tug of war ensues with John in the middle and the roast beef growing cold on the table.

As specified in the text, James Macdonald’s production is incredibly stripped down. There are no props, no costumes and no conventional set. Events play out on Miriam Buether's circular stage with the audience seated on raked wooden benches around the edges; this whole set up resembles an old-fashioned operating theatre, apt as emotional pain and physical intimacy are both central to the whole production. Macdonald pays particular attention to the distances between the characters. When John has his first sexual encounter with a woman, the pair remain fully clothed, standing apart and slowly circling one another, coming closer and closer together, as if dancing. Initially bringing to mind the non-sexual sex scene in Martin Sherman's Bent, it’s a moment that manages to be comic and erotic and potent all at the same time and allows this pivotal sexual experience to be viewed and dissected in a way that may not otherwise have been possible if the staging were more literal.

John, played by the wiry, if somewhat weak-voiced Ben Whishaw, is the only character to merit a name. The remaining characters are known only as M, W and F (Man, Woman and Father) and any mention of their names is scrupulously avoided. Yet the fact he has a name makes him no more solid as a character, if anything the opposite is true. At one point he remarks that he was proficient at imitating voices as a child and that sometimes he struggled to return to his own voice, to become himself again. The question of whom John is - this quest for self-definition on which the play hangs - is a self-eating one, for John seems to become less of himself, less than himself, as the play progresses.

The proximity of the audience to the performers and the precision of the staging provide a necessary emotional focus, a honing in, otherwise John’s dithering could well become insufferable – even as it is, his near disabling indecision does start to become frustrating, to the point that you want to physically shake him. It helps a great deal that Bartlett’s play is very funny and that he’s capable of seeing the comedy in the situation.

The performances also do a great deal to fill out the play, to add bulk and colour and humour to the words. Whishaw manages to be compelling in a role that requires him to be comparatively blank and, though she’s saddled with some speeches that don’t quite ring true, The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson is superbly subtle and measured in her delivery; in the final dinner party scene it’s a delight to watch her attempts to keep a handle on her temper.

Good as they both are it is Andrew Scott, as John’s boyfriend, who really resonates. His character is charismatic and energetic yet conflicted in his feelings, prone to self pity and insecure enough to invite his dad to the pivotal dinner. He somehow manages to radiate affection for John as well as bafflement and revulsion at his behaviour and pain at the thought of losing him. He’s waspish and politely passively aggressive to John’s girlfriend, yet not completely hostile, and even appears to show a glimmer of sympathy for her predicament. It’s a nuanced performance that seems completely in sync with everything that Bartlett’s play is trying to - and, for the most part - does achieve.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Making of Moo at the Orange Tree

Context is all. When Nigel Dennis’s satirical play premiered at the Royal Court in 1957 it was met with a number of boos of outrage amid the applause. Half a century on, in Sam Walters’ revival at the Orange Tree, the play, a condensed and cynical canter through the creation of a religion, lacks the same outrage factor; it’s more like a small child making a big noise in restaurant and revelling in the attention.

In an unnamed African country, the colonial Comptons, having accidentally killed the local river god by building a dam, decide to create their own replacement to keep the natives in check. hey imbue their new project with a back-story and with commandments and, inspired by the constant lowing of cattle outside the window of their wicker-furnished sitting room, they name their deity Moo.

In the Second Act Dennis shunts events forwards a couple of years to the point where the Moovian religion has grown into a cult complete with red-robed followers who are not averse to the odd human sacrifice in order to keep their god happy. When a pair of English interlopers arrives to find out what has become of the Comptons, they are shocked and appalled by what they find. To achieve this dramatic shift, the lighting designer John Harris has bathed the Orange Tree stage in red while set designer Tim Meacock has adorned it with cows’ skulls; the Comptons’ wicker furniture meanwhile has been turned into a makeshift pulpit.

In the final scenes of the play, we are presented with the next step along the path. The Moovian faith has shed the blood-hungry and drum-beating fervour of its youth and become aged, staid and respectable. It now has deacons and missionaries to spread its message; there are even some Moovian converts in London and wealthy philanthropists arrive from abroad bearing their chequebooks – yet the play ends with a downbeat glimmer that there might be a fundamentalist resurgence on the cards, that this period of tea and cakes tranquillity is only an interlude and that Moo and its more ardent followers might soon demand more blood.

As satire, this is fairly broad and heavy-handed stuff that seems childishly pleased with the extremes to which it is willing to go (William, the Comptons’ manservant turned very reluctant Pope of Moo, is forced to wear a giant phallus and a silly hat). But its in dealing in extremes that it lets itself down; the writing contains flashes of wit and invention but Dennis seems to get carried away in his wish to give religion a good kicking and he contents himself (mostly) with swiping at easy targets and reducing complex ideas to basic generalities, rather than digging deeper under the skin of what it means to believe.

The play generates a fair few flutters of laughter and Walters’ reasonably brisk production is aided by committed performances from Philip York and Amanda Royle as the socks-and-sandals-sporting colonial engineer and his wife, turned Moovian patriarch and holy mouthpiece (therefore, for her at least, acquiring a freedom of thought and voice denied to her as a colonial wife). But it hasn’t aged particularly well; it's hard to discern the tiger-like thing that Kenneth Tynan described, as it hits its audience over the head repeatedly with its ideas - for every sharp and well-targeted dig, there are several clumsy hammer blows.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Letting in Air at the Old Red Lion

Amy likes words. Words like 'evanescent' and 'wondrous.' She likes the shape of them, the sound of them; she likes to know their proper use.

The sixteen year old meets Frank, an aging widower, outside a theatre. He has been to see a play and she pretends she has too, though he soon realises she’s lying. Still he allows her to share his taxi home and assumes that will be the end of things. But Amy is tenacious and she can’t be shaken so easily; she likes Frank, his school teacher ways and his manner of speech, she feels safe in his company, a rarity in her life. She sticks to Frank like gum to his shoe.

The presence of this young, voluble girl in Frank’s life does not go down well with his son, Adam. His mother has only just died and he has moved back to Manchester, with his girlfriend Olivia in tow, to be nearer to his taciturn dad – and now he finds this gangly, young child-woman in his father’s house, always there, hanging around. He resents her presence and fears there is something seedy in their unlikely friendship.

Having set up this complex web of relationships, playwright Becky Prestwich detonates an explosive device in the midst of things and watches the debris fly. Frank, having been driven to lose his temper by Amy’s constant jabber, lets slip a secret, a secret he and his wife held together, something he has never told anyone – especially not his son.

Amy can’t bear the burden of carrying this knowledge and she tells Olivia, who in turn feels compelled to tell Adam, a man already bristling with resentment and confusion before this new revelation tips him deeper into darkness.

Prestwich has constructed a taut, intriguing play that initially seems to balance its off-beat sense of humour with some much blacker undercurrents; it’s only afterwards, on taking a few steps back from the canvas, that the cracks become apparent. Most obviously the characters’ willingness to let this girl, however benign her intentions, infiltrate their lives so rapidly stretches credibility

The cast do a great deal to counteract the holes in plausibility. Rebecca Elliot successfully negotiates the potentially clichéd and difficult role of Amy, the damaged young girl who looks at the world askew, and brings a fresh and unexpected quality to the part. Edmund Kente gives a subtle, layered performance as Frank, a gentle and intelligent man who does not easily lose control of his emotions. It’s apparent that he feels he lost his wife some time before she died and though he clearly cares for his son and wants to do right by him, he is uncertain how to connect with him – to say what needs to be said – and is sorely aware that he has made mistakes in the past. Tessa Mabbitt is warm and personable as Olivia, Adam’s girlfriend, a character who is unfairly and abruptly dispatched when she has served her purpose.

Adam Quayle’s direction ensures the pace doesn’t flag though the shifts between scenes are a little jerky at times. He handles the moments of conflict and tension well, even when the writing doesn’t quite ring true. Prestwich has an original voice as a writer, quirky and questing, but she seems over-stretched here and can’t quite prevent the intriguing scenario that she has created from tumbling over into melodrama

Reviewed for musicOMH

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Architecting at the Barbican

Architecting, an ambitious exploration of emotional and social repair, is stimulating and exciting and messy and frustrating in equal measure.

Devised by the TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) in association with the National Theatre of Scotland the piece began life as a BAC Scratch commission in 2006 before a much expanded version drew plaudits last year at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2008 and at New York’s Performance Space 122 earlier this year.

As the audience enters the theatre a woman is already on stage crooning in country-and-western fashion as her companion strums a guitar on his guitar. A bottle of JD sits on a nearby table and, behind her, the walls are papered in Tyvek wrap; a couple of CCTV monitors flicker from the corners of the versatile wooden box that forms the centre of Nick Vaughan’s set (and, by turns, represents a New Orleans bar, a service station, and a pony cart).

Perhaps as a result of its multi-stranded structure, it takes a little while for the production to warm up. In the first few minutes numerous themes and ideas are introduced, from a thermodynamic view of history to the architectural merit of Chartres Cathedral; only after a while do the various threads (to an extent) separate themselves.

Architect Carrie Campbell arrives in a post-Katrina New Orleans to oversee the completion of a new property project – a TND (Traditional New Development) called Phoenix Meadows – that had been designed and originated by her late father. The locals, those that remain, are not altogether happy with this re-imagining of a traditional American community, this re-packaging of their city into neat, polished boxes.

This present day scenario – the battered yet proud American south – is paralleled with another period of reconstruction, the one that occurred after the American Civil War, and this is viewed through the particular prism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell herself is a presence on stage (played by Lana Lesley as an intelligent woman slightly unsettled by the freight train success of her novel) as is her iconic heroine Scarlett O’Hara.

Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is further tied to the present day narrative by a storyline involving a boorish Hollywood producer who is trying to get a new production of the book off the ground; this time with a black director and with various trims, tweaks and wholesale re-writes having been made to bring it more into keeping with modern sensibilities, especially in regard to race. The producer suggests turning one of the O’Hara servants into Martin Luther King’s grandfather and making him an early campaigner for civil rights, but the director, having started to read the novel for the first time (his parents wouldn’t allow it in the house) becomes fascinated with the book and its depiction of the American South.

Rachel Chavkin’s multimedia production is hugely ambitious in scope and execution: characters both real and imagined happily interact, while music and video, dance and movement, all form a part of the collage. The performers all play numerous roles and gender and race provide no barrier to their character-hopping; at various points throughout the production every person on stage dons a hoop skirt and corset to play Scarlett O’Hara and the most famous exchange of dialogue between Scarlett and Rhett is delivered by the two male cast members.

There are numerous moments of humour that stop it from being too overwhelming, but at near on three hours, though it rarely lags, it does sometimes feel like the work of an artist who can’t help but keep adding and refining until some original clarity is lost. This is a complex but intriguing piece, a thing of many bricks, and it’s not always as coherent as it could be but in the last few minutes, as Carrie (compellingly played by Libby King, the emotional core of the show) delivers her final plea, everything else falls away and the audience are left listening to the cathedral-echo of her voice alone.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Little Fish at the Finborough

Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish, a musical reworking of two short stories by Deborah Eisenberg that merges the characters from two of her pieces, Days and Flotsam. The result is an intricately written and intriguingly fragmented if ultimately rather insubstantial piece, about finding your feet in a difficult city. But while this new London staging, its European premiere, is nearly always engaging and is well-performed, it seems to expend an awful lot of energy (and perspiration - literally) in order to go a very short distance.

The show began life off-Broadway in 2003, at the Second Stage Theatre, and is now been squeezed into the dinky Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court. The plot (perhaps too strong a word) concerns Charlotte, a writer who uses her decision to quit smoking as a catalyst to examine her life. Charlotte is always running away from things; she’s been running ever since her abrasive former lover, Robert, told her that she was not a natural born writer; that she was proficient but boring. Following their break up, Charlotte moved – ran – to New York and ended up sharing a flat with the coke-snorting and volatile Cinder.

LaChiusa links together a series of brief scene in New York galleries and night clubs, in Cinder’s dress shop, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he does so in order to show how Charlotte has ended up where she is and to show her growing closeness with her friends Marco and Kathy. In fact what gives the musical its heart and gives Charlotte’s crisis a bit of weight, is LaChiusa’s interest in friendship and its importance in an often hostile urban world: the necessity of connection. Whenever events seem in danger of getting too sugary, he tempers things by allowing violence and illness to intrude into Charlotte’s world, scenes which, for the most part, are well handled.

After relinquishing cigarettes, Charlotte tries to get fit – first by swimming and then by running – and she starts spending large amounts of time at the Y and at the track. It’s a physical manifestation of her unsettledness and insecurity, a feeling unhelped by the constant stream of advice she’s given by other people about all the things she’s doing wrong – wrong technique, wrong footwear: there’s always something.

LaChiusa favours complex rhymes - involving words like 'aquatic' and 'anesthesiology' - and his writing is always interesting even if the show’s main metaphor, little fish in a big pond, feels rather over-extended and forced. The cast attack the material with gusto and Lee William Davies is particularly good as Marco, investing his brief, funny song about finding himself (complete with comedy "oms") with real humour and injecting a flash of anger and pain into his account of being assaulted by his ex-boyfriend. Julia Worsley, on stage throughout as Charlotte, manages the not inconsiderable feat of keeping her self-involved character on the right side of irritating and Alana Maria is suitably fierce as scary flatmate Cinder.

Though it’s by nature an intimate musical, Adam Lenson’s production still feels rather cramped at the Finborough, even with some endearing choreography by Nick Cunningham (the glittery swimming floats are a lovely touch). The band perch atop of Bec Chippendale's clever and versatile blue-brick set, the colour presumably meant to bring to mind a swimming pool, and their playing is excellent throughout. But the Finborough is a small space filled with very bright lights and it became an increasing struggle to ignore the resultant heat. As the characters strode around in their coats, in the midst of a harsh New York winter, the audience turned their programmes into makeshift fans and reached for their water bottles. Unfortunately it’s this discomfort that ends up being the dominant memory of the production.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, October 29, 2009

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet at the Bush

Nick Payne’s promising play journeys into the dark terrain of adolescent pain and desire.

Anna is fifteen, overweight for her age, and has the added handicap of having a teacher for a mother. This makes her a target for bullies and, at the start of the play, she is about to be suspended for retaliating against her tormentors (with a head butt). Her parents know there’s something wrong; they sense she’s unhappy, but neither really sees, neither really understands.

Her father is an academic and environmental campaigner consumed by research for his current project, a polemical book on climate change. He grasps the bigger global picture and despairs over the damage being done to planet but is blind to the growing divide between him and his wife and to Anna’s increasing unhappiness and confusion. Her mother, though kind and concerned, is equally unable to get through to Anna.

The head butt results in Anna being suspended from school just at the same time as her father’s younger brother, her uncle Terry, rolls up to their door with a rucksack on his back and a vague, poorly thought through plan of getting things together with his ex-girlfriend. He’s good hearted geezer type, the antithesis of Anna’s father, with a runaway mouth that’s not overly well-connected with his brain. As played by Rafe Spall with sublime comic timing, a string of endearingly inappropriate comments come clumsily tumbling from Terry’s mouth (his drunken monologue on the joys of taking a ‘fat bird’ to bed is a stand out example).

Terry suggests that he could help out the family by spending time with Anna during her suspension and through this simple act her life is lifted, bit by bit. Immature and inept as he is, he listens to her, he pays attention to her, and he talks relatively openly about sex. He even throws her a condom when she confesses to him that she’s been asked out on a date. He treats her like a whole, grown person, in a way her parents don’t and can’t.

Ailish O’Connor is astonishingly good as Anna; she captures the confusion of adolescence, the sense of being tugged in every direction, ricocheting between longing, embarrassment, anger and acute desperation. She’s alternately sullen and gleeful, occasionally hiding her face like a shy a child. Spall fills the small space of the Bush Theatre as Terry – it’s a big but balanced performance; while Pandora Colin and Michael Begley provide solid support as Anna’s parents, though the latter’s performance initially feels too mannered, like a caricature in comparison to the rest.

Lucy Osborne’s glorious set has the whole interior of the Bush's auditorium painted sky blue and streaked with cloud, signifying both the sky Anna’s father will no longer fly in as frets over his carbon footprint and the blue of the future, the things waiting in the distance for Anna once school and all its attendant horrors have faded and fallen away.

Payne’s play is funny and touching and quite brutal in places. He’s good at writing scenes of awkwardness and at conveying unsaid things as well as said things - the words held back, trapped on the tongue - and while he doesn’t quite succeed in fusing the environmental thread (which provides a kind of framing device) to the main body of the play, he’s spot on in his writing of the complex knot of gulfs and bonds that develop between parents and children.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Spanish Tragedy at the Arcola

Mitchell Moreno’s modern dress production of Thomas Kyd’s influential, but infrequently performed revenge play of the 1580s is bathed in blood. The final scenes are a cacophony of violence, of inventive slayings and splatters of red - it’s gloriously bombastic and operatic in scope, sending judder after judder through the unnerved audience. Many of the dramatic devices that appear here would find their way into later plays of the period.

Portugal has been defeated in battle by Spain and Balthazar, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy, has been captured. A marriage is suggested between the Spanish Duke’s daughter, Belimperia and Balthazar in order to broker peace, but Belimperia, mourning a dead lover, has amorously entangled herself with Horatio, son of Hieronimo, Knight Marshall of Spain. Horatio is duly and brutally dispatched.

Dominic Rowan plays Hieronimo who, traumatised and near-mad with grief after the murder of his son, seeks revenge on those who orchestrated it. It’s a intelligent and subtle performance. Initially he is little more than a background man, one of a number of suits, but events force his hand. His raw response to finding his son strung up from a tree is incredibly well-judged. He moves from soft-voiced disbelief, pleading and hoping that this is but some other clad in his son’s clothing, to the astonishing clarity of a man committed to his actions, however bloody the outcome. There are other strong performances in the cast and Charlie Covell in particular is impressively dignified as Belimperia.

Revenge in this production takes the form of a young girl in pigtails and ankle socks (played with the perfect air of menace by the eleven-year-old Shannon Williams in the performance I saw, although the role is shared) who watches events unfold from the sidelines accompanied by the ghost of the slain Spanish soldier, Andrea.

Moreno counters the absurdities and excesses of the play with a necessary measure of dry humour and – for the most part – he manages a good balance, as he builds up to the climactic play within a play (there are actually two plays within plays: the first provides a brief window of comedy before the blood-shed begins and the second, more pivotal scene is also performed with a measure of wit, using video projections, a Katie Mitchell-style layering of sound effects and streamers of red ribbon to contrast with the spreading stain of stage blood). In fact visually black and red dominate the production and the set is kept simple with a metal garage door at one end that can be raised at the push of a button, which is most effectively used in one of the final reveals.

The modern setting works reasonably well and the use of video and digital voice recorders never feel gimmicky. There’s a shady, almost gangland quality to the piece; it’s all money and machinations and messy exits. Subtlety is necessarily abandoned for the final scenes, which have more than a little of a horror film feel to them, with the increasingly malign presence of the Omen-eyed child, the bloody de-tonguings and a genuinely jolting take on falling on one’s sword.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It Felt Empty at the Arcola

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is a fine piece of writing, one capable of creating a hard, hot ball of anger in one’s stomach.

Most people are aware of the vile reality of sex trafficking, of young women from overseas bought and sold, imprisoned with no means of escape, their bodies reduced to a package of holes and fluids to be used and then discarded when they’ve served their purpose. Kirkwood’s play, commissioned and produced by Clean Break, journeys into this world. But, instead of showering its audience with harrowing statistics or indulging in redundant hand-wringing, it provides a warm and plausible guide - a way in, a window, a voice - in Dijana, a bright, optimistic, full-hearted young woman with, as she proudly informs us, "a good head for figures."

She knows exactly how much she’s worth because she’s been keeping count, noting down each transaction and each amount earned, so she can buy back her passport from her pimp Babac and, with it, her freedom.

We first meet Dijana in her bleak Dalston bedroom as she prepares to meet the man she hopes will be her last ever client. Despite her skinny limbs and raw-thighed totter, she claims there is little difference between her and a ‘high-class’ sex worker like Billy Piper in ITV’s Diary of a Call Girl, the overtly glossy, soft focus adaptation of the books (and blog) by Belle du Jour.

Her self-delusion is both blatant and necessary, a cushion against the utter desperation of the truth. We see her counting out the used condoms in her dustbin, a series of limp white, jellyfish remnants, and being pounded, repeatedly and aggressively, by an invisible punter. Even as she is subjected to this degradation, she retains a degree of humanity and hope; she is not totally broken, not yet.

Dijana tells her story to an unseen child, her baby, her ‘little clown’, assuring her they will be reunited one day and they will eat chips together on Brighton beach. It is a testament to the open and assured performance by Hara Yannas that this approach never feels too heavy-handed or mawkish. Yannas somehow conveys Dijana’s intense vulnerability along with some inner strength of spirit that is only finally threatened when she ends up at a detention centre, thrown together with other women, removed from one hellish place only to find herself in another.

The Arcola’s chilly and cavernous Studio K has been divided into a number of spaces through which we follow Dijana on her nightmarish journey through a rabbit hole world. She clambers through vents and doorways leading the audience through rooms of glaring neon, shiny plastic wrap, twisted wire and seedy seafront shimmer. The narrative is broken up into three main scenes in which the audience perch on benches or plastic stools, sometimes sat uncomfortably close to the performers. The first scene takes place in Dijana’s stark bedroom, the second in the detention centre, a dreamlike stretch of corridor with a chequerboard floor, and the last takes place in a room padded with plastic, cluttered with white goods and lit by a chemical sun. This final scene is set some time before the other two, at a point when Dijana was still convinced her future had some good in it.

Blending elements of promenade theatre with more conventional dramatic monologue, Lucy Morrison’s production manages to be disturbing without hammering its audience over the head with the grimness of Dijana’s situation (not until the end at least). There is humour here and startling flashes of imagination, even if Kirkwood has to hop through a few hoops to make the play’s internal world hold up.

Chloe Lamford's design uses every corner of the space creatively and intelligently and, despite the sometimes bittiness of the interludes between scenes (which actually provide a welcome breathing space), the piece works as a whole - it’s cohesive and fluid.

Though the monologue form sometimes trembles under the weight of what’s required of it (and the play becomes an altogether tenser thing when a second character is introduced), Yannas’ performance and Morrison’s staging combine to turn this into a powerful, genuinely distressing, physically unsettling and yet also inventive theatrical experience that shines a torch beam into the corners most people would rather not look.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Speaking in Tongues at the Duke of York's

Though there are often up to four characters on stage at any one time a sense of loneliness and emotional isolation permeates Andrew Bovell’s intricate play. Spouses are cheated on or abandoned, lies are told, pleas for help go unheard, and the theatre echoes with the tinny ring of a voice leaving increasingly anxious answer-phone messages.

Written in 1996, Speaking in Tongues was first staged in the UK in 2000 at Hampstead Theatre. Bovell would later turn his play into a film, Lantana, starring Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush. The stage version is a far less linear animal than the film, though it retains a cinematic feel: voices often merge and overlap, the chronology of events is not always clear and the play is intentionally unanchored to a particular setting or location. The different accents employed by the performers in Toby Frow’s production add to this impression.

The first half of the play feels almost self-contained. It begins with two parallel one night stands. Two married couples, without knowing it, swap partners and they both end up in different shabby motels. Though it’s unclear whether these things happen on the same night or at different times these scenes play out in unison, around one central bed, with the voices of the characters overlapping and criss-crossing. But while one couple. Leon and Jane, end up, despite their respective anxieties, having sex, the other two, Pete and Sonja, can’t go through with it. Guilt or fear or love for their partner, or maybe of combination of all three, overwhelms them and they have to stop.

The complex relationship between these four people and the fallout from their infidelities take up the whole of the first half. Between each couple a story is shared about a strange event that has been witnessed. Jane has seen a neighbour dispose of what she thinks might be evidence of a crime, while Leon relates a tale of stranger’s obsession with a former girlfriend who went away to America and never returned.

In the second half, these two stories are picked up and unfolded, with the same four actors playing these new characters, bringing the total up to nine, including the neighbour suspected of a crime, the psychoanalyst who has gone missing after her car broke down on a country road, the psychoanalyst’s husband, and one of her clients. This second half continues the theme of disconnection and Frow seems to have paid particular attention to the spaces between these people; lighting is used to make them seem isolated even when sharing the stage with others.

Frow has assembled a superb cast. Simm is less endearing than he was in the wonderful Elling, but then he is playing a much drier role. He brings a degree of warmth and humour to the part of Leon, the unfaithful cop and, in the second act, morphs convincingly into Nick, the accused neighbour. Hart manages to differentiate between his three characters through subtle shifts in posture and voice. Lucy Cohu is vibrant and hot-blooded as Sonja and physically and emotionally buttoned up as Valerie, the psychoanalyst, while Kerry Fox seems somehow physically bigger than herself, dancing around her living room with a heavy footed inelegance as the frustrated Jane.

Bovell’s play is an impeccably measured piece of writing, even if he relies too heavily on narrative coincidence to draw the various characters together. But despite the strong performances it remains a chilly thing. Perhaps this is inevitable given that the play is so concerned with miscommunication and with the gap between what is said and unsaid, but a crucial distance remains unbridged.

Only occasionally does the play let its characters come together, to connect, and when this happens the actors make the most of it. Simm’s Leon dances tenderly with his wife, placing his face in her hands, losing himself in her. In these moments it’s possible to feel the human need to be held, to be needed and wanted and loved. It’s only a shame these moments come so infrequently.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Author at the Royal Court

It is often tempting, when in the theatre, to end up watching the audience as well as the performers: at the start of the evening when the lights are still up, say, or maybe in the interval, or even – sometimes – during the play itself. They are, after all, part of the experience. Their sounds, their movements, their comments, their behaviour: it is impossible to block all that out, nor is it entirely desirable. They are sharing the moment with you. The communal aspect of the live performance is one of its joys.

In Tim Crouch’s new play, The Author, it is impossible not to watch the audience. The audience is the play; the play is the audience. Crouch likes to experiment with the idea of what theatre is and what it can be. His previous play, England, was written to be performed in an art gallery. His latest has been written to be performed in a theatre; but more specifically it has been written to be performed in the Royal Court’s upstairs space. Both plays invite their audiences to ‘look’ and to see things perhaps in a new way; both plays ask questions of their audience. The Author asks its audience permission to be: “Is it OK? Shall I continue?” (Or at least it gives the impression of asking, the question is never tested. No one says “no”).
The audience sit in two banks of seats that are facing each other. While the lights are still up someone begins talking, quietly at first, to those around him. Then he starts to address the entire room. He talks about his theatre-going habits and the pleasure he takes in going to the theatre, particularly to the Royal Court with all its “bummings and bombings.” He is one of us and yet he is not. The audience member is joined by other speakers, by the author, Tim Crouch (played by Tim Crouch), and by two actors, Vic and Esther who have starred in one of his plays.

The Author is like a series of sheets being pulled away, but being slowly, almost imperceptibly, withdrawn rather than simply whipped aside. At a certain point the audience begins to be aware that the play has ceased to be a dissection of the theatre-going experience and has become something else. It has become an exploration of how extreme and disturbing material can infiltrate the minds and lives of those who come in contact with it. It explores how the act of writing and staging something, of appropriating the stories of others, can infect people. The play that Crouch and the two actors describe is about conflict and abuse in an unnamed country, and it has left a residue.

Every so often the voices are interrupted and jaunty music will play, sitcom themes. During these moments it’s fascinating to see how quickly people reset themselves to this new situation and break out of the audience/performer relationship of silent observation. The audience start to chat among themselves and the music is accompanied by the building murmur of conversations. When the voices begin speaking again it is also fascinating to observe how people react to having the performers sitting amongst them. Some people attempt to follow the sound, their heads twisting around to spot the speaker, while others will stare forwards, content just to listen.

This element of - for want of a better term - interactivity, this breaking down of barriers, creates moments of humour and unease. When the curious theatre-goer (played by Adrian Howells) asks another audience member what he does for a living, the man answers “playwright”, a response which draws a large laugh. Later one woman seems far more interested in the box of Malteasers that is being offered around than in any exercise in theatrical experimentation and Howells is forced to politely but firmly ignore her in order to continue.

When another woman walks out in the early stages of the play, it raises the question of whether this is a planned part of the production or whether she has simply started to find all this heavily meta banter a bit tiresome. Her departure also sets a precedent: it establishes that, even in this particularly intimate atmosphere, walking out is permissible: it is an escape route one could take if one wished. But no one else did. The audience stayed in their seats for Crouch’s sometimes playful, sometimes daring and, yes, even sometimes tiresomely postmodern and self-referential experiment.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Talent at the Menier Chocolate Factory

For this gently, if patchily, amusing revival of her 1978 play, Talent, her first major success, Victoria Wood has upped the song count of the original, reshaped some of the smaller characters and added an intentionally gaudy new opening sequence – all big hair and cornea-scalding velvet flares – to reacquaint modern audiences with the world of the cabaret and light entertainment circuit on which she made her name.

These new musical interludes are, however, rather tepid in execution and never quite feel at home in what is otherwise a naturalistic comedy, if a rather slow-paced and structurally muddled one.

The play is set in the shabby backstage area of Bunter’s Nitespot, Manchester, at the tail end of the 70s. Aspiring singer Julie is gearing herself up to perform in a talent contest and her dowdy friend Maureen has come along to provide moral support. The writing, which is weighted with seventies references, to Babycham, Kiku perfume and Hawaiian ham platters, is full of Wood’s now familiar tactic of juxtaposing the absurd and tragic with the banal and highly location/era specific. (This kind of thing: “She had a vaginal prolapse while watching Stars on Sunday and eating some prawn cocktail crisps.” Maybe.)

Obviously Wood’s writing is rather more subtle in construction, considerably so – her career is testament to that – but the skeletons of the jokes are a bit more visible than usual here, which since it’s an early work is probably excusable. Though it seems odd to revive something that provides such a sharp reminder that there is, or certainly was, a formula to what she does.

There are, to be fair, some nicely observed passages of dialogue and the backstage scenes feel as if they have been drawn from real experiences of grotty dressing rooms and repellent, ruffle-shirted competition hosts. This might explain the somewhat episodic feel of the piece; it really lacks a sense of narrative drive and certain strands never take off at all - the arrival of Julie’s former boyfriend promises emotional tension but is just left to wither. Even the key relationship, between Julie and Maureen, is never more than a rough sketch, though the two central performances do quite a lot to steer around this obstacle.

Leanne Rowe and Suzie Toase are both very warm and winning, having been given the unenviable task of taking on roles originally played by Julie Walters and by Wood herself, and Mark Hadfield is amusing both as the splendidly sweaty magician’s assistant and, in drag, as a Bunter’s veteran, receiving a cake for 35 years long service. But the cast can’t quite make up for the fact that the whole thing rather limps along, formless and fuzzy-edged, towards a hands-aloft ‘finale’ that felt almost like parody.

An extended verison of a review written for The Stage.

It also doesn’t always make sense. A whole section is built around the need to find a receptacle to wee into, only for characters to later exit the room saying they were going to the ladies. And on the barometer of cultural wrongness, the sight of former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry rubbing his implied trouser tent against Julie, sits quite highly. Which probably says more about my age then anything else, and also taps into a key problem with this production: it’s incredibly time-specific. I’m sure there were plenty of references I didn’t get, or at least had to figure out from their context. Usually the decade something was written isn’t a barrier to enjoyment, but this is so drenched in cultural reference points of the era that I felt a bit lost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Punk Rock at the Lyric

It begins with a humming, an ominous, scratchy, occasionally explosive sound. In this way a sense of unease is present from the beginning of Simon Stephens’ latest play as, in the grand library of a Stockport grammar school, two uniformed students, a girl and a boy, enter into a rapid dance of words as they try to get a handle on one another, each constantly assessing, examining and recalibrating their opinion of the other.

The girl is Lilly (played by Harper Regan's Jessica Raine). She's new to the school, with an itinerant academic for a father; a practiced air of confidence masks her insecurities. The boy is William (Tom Sturridge); he’s smart and charismatic with a somewhat slanted view of the world and a tendency to bend the truth, clearly not one of the cool kid but not an outcast either.

The other characters are initially easier to identify as certain teen ‘types’: there’s the intelligent but socially awkward kid, the bully, the amiable sporty one, and the girl who demands constant reassurances of her thinness and her academic prowess. But playwright Simon Stephens is not content to leave it there. He steers his characters in intriguing and unexpected directions.

Henry Lloyd Hughes’ Bennett has the air of a privileged young man accustomed to getting what he wants (his family plan to spend Christmas in Reykjavik). His increasingly aggressive bullying of the enigmatic Chadwick comes across as someone testing the boundaries of what he can get away, like a toddler eyeing a flight of stairs. When he spits at one of his classmates he does so simply to see what it feels like; a degree of sexual uncertainty is also hinted at.

Chadwick’s school survival strategy involves distancing himself from the world he seems poorly designed to fit into; humanity, he declares in a potent monologue, is a lost cause. He can’t be touched by taunts or threats. He is beyond all that.

Stephens, who once worked as a teacher, successfully captures what it is to be a teenager in an academically competitive environment, where the pressure to succeed is considerable and there is a real fear, as one girl wails, that if they don’t do well at this stage of their lives then they’ll “never get out of Stockport.” In their world one dropped grade is a huge, future-threatening crisis. The dialogue also, for the most part, feels believable. His characters converse with a familiar kind of adolescent eloquence and their conversations are full of subtle role playing and social experimentation, affected archaisms and look-at-me flourishes; at times they sound incredibly mature while elsewhere their speech is flecked with playground crudity. With exception of the brief, oddly flat epilogue, adults are absent from this world. Teachers are there to be ridiculed or pitied and parents are foggy outlines at best, they barely exist.

Sarah Frankcom’s production feels like a companion piece of sorts to the Lyric’s previous staging of the Broadway musical, Spring Awakening. Both feature young (though not quite young enough) casts, many of whom are making their professional stage debut, and the Frank Wedekind play on which the former is based is cited by Stephens as a key influence, along with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Lindsay Anderson’s If....

These influences provides some idea of the, somewhat predictable, place the play ends up taking its characters to. A growing sense of menace underlines events (which is enhanced by bursts of deafening, distorting music: Nirvana, White Stripes – no actual punk rock). The violence is more surprising in the shape it takes rather than in its coming and though very, very tensely staged, the penultimate scene undermines some of the subtleties of what went before. The play suddenly becomes a quite different thing, and while Stephens wants to suggest that the capacity for violence and extreme emotional disturbance is not dictated solely by poverty and that a very narrow view of what it means to be successful blots young people’s lives, he ends up writing himself into a corner.

The cast - Tom Sturridge’s William in particular – are convincing in their roles even when the script doesn’t always deliver (Lilly’s too-quick admission of her self harming habit feels like a box being ticked on a chart of teen angst clichés). The performers ably negotiate the switches from naturalistic teen banter to more richly lyrical passages and Paul Wills' set, a visually striking circular library, is fittingly slightly filmic and unreal.

The play – youthful and daring but still primarily a piece of entertainment – makes an apt start for Sean Holmes’ tenure as artistic director at Lyric and only enhances Simon Stephens’ growing status as a truly exciting writer, whose work generates a justified buzz of anticipation.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Edinburgh: To Sum Up...

So I have reached the end of my first full Edinburgh experience. I am back in my flat, reacquainting myself with old habits and the bliss of my own bed, but what, if anything, have I learnt from all this?

Well, I have learnt that it is perfectly possible to spend almost a month in Edinburgh and still come away not having seen everything one wanted to see. I have learnt that it is all too easy to get locked into a bubble of show-going and to become obsessed about filling one’s time (“well, I have a spare half hour here, maybe I could squeeze in some street theatre.”) I have learnt that, aside from the novelty factor, there is very little to be said for seeing four or five shows a day; it leaves little room for mental digestion and for letting what you have seen spread through your system, growing and unfolding – instead it must be tidied away so you can turn your attention to whatever’s next and at it’s worst it results in a mental drifting during the show itself, as your brain begins thinking about routes and start times and deadlines. I have learnt that the social element of the festival is crucial in many ways and my Edinburgh experience was enhanced considerably by spending time with various visiting friends; solo show-going has its advantages and can be rather pleasurable but some Fringe productions, particularly the more comedy-orientated ones, are simply more enjoyable when seen with company. I have learnt that the word tram is spoken with the same level of venom as an expletive in Edinburgh and will be until 2011. I have learnt that one can live off coffee, wine, apples and croissants but one probably shouldn’t. I have learnt that I can see over 70 shows and still come away loving the theatre and its capability to transport and delight and fire the imagination which is, I think, a good thing.

Edinburgh: Internal

Of all the shows under the Traverse banner, it was Ontroerend Goed’s Internal that provided the most brain-fuel. It’s been discussed at length elsewhere but I shall throw my coins into the hat anyway (so if you plan on seeing it but haven't yet, you may not want to read on).

Internal is a show for five audience members at a time that takes place round the corner from the Traverse at the Mecure Point Hotel. At the start the audience members enter a small room and stand in front of curtain. This is then lifted to reveal five performers who appear to assess the people in front of them and then shuffle around accordingly, selecting a particular member of the audience as their partner and taking their chosen ‘date’ to a little booth where drinks are offered and a conversation is had. Often this conversation is flirtatious in nature, occasionally it is confrontational, and sometimes the performer doesn’t speak at all. I have heard talk of underwear being removed at other performances, and of breasts being flashed, but the closest I got to anything like that was when my date laid a selection of naked photos of himself on the table and asked me which one I preferred. Oddly I found myself considering this, assessing the images and giving an honest answer. I found this a little jarring I’ll admit though not shocking; I then asked if my date was tired since this was the 9.30 performance and the last of the day, and it was interesting that he was happy to acknowledge the level of repetition involved in what he was doing and that there was no attempt to pretend this was something other than what it was - we even ended up briefly discussing the BAC.

In the end the questions I was left with were not ones of intimacy or boundaries or of emotional connection but questions about the production itself. How much of what went on was scripted? How much freedom do the performers give themselves within the scenarios? Is the performers’ selection of partner at the start based on anything particular or is the selection process itself illusory? How does the exchange work with dates of the same sex? Is there a pre-arranged cut-off point, a line that they won’t cross? Have they ever had any reactions from audience members they haven’t felt comfortable with?

I’ve heard people talk of the experience as extremely liberating while others have described finding it intrusive; there has even been talk of feeling “used.” Perhaps I didn’t give myself to it as much as I might, but the production, to me, was simply a thing I experienced, neither revelatory nor exploitative. I was honest but guarded in my answers as I suspect, though I can’t know for sure, were most of the people in my group. The post-date discussion (when performers and audience gather in a circle and talk about each other) was amiable and lacking in fireworks. Much more satisfying and informative was the pavement-based huddle between myself and my four co-Internalees after we had left the building. Thirty minutes earlier we had been smiling pleasantly but mutely at one another in the hotel reception/audience holding area and yet after a less than half an hour we were stood together on the street, laughing and chatting about what had just taken place, so clearly a transition of sorts had occurred, a few fences had fallen.

What did bother me however was that nearly everyone I spoke to who had also experienced Internal were somehow connected with the theatre industry, so while there was a definite buzz surrounding the show, I do wonder how long its real reach was and how many regular Fringe-goers actually got to be part of it.

Thinking about it in the days since what I have been reminded of most is the forced intimacy of retail. That might sound like a flippant comparison but it’s not, I’ve worked in plenty of shops over the years and the level of connection generated between performer and audience member was on par with that of customer and sales assistant. Some people really are very needy and the expectation to over-share, the inappropriate flirtations and the numerous subtle emotional negotiations involved in selling someone a necklace or a pair of shoes aren’t that dissimilar from what Internal required from and gave to its audience.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Edinburgh: Precious Little Talent

Ella Hickson’s first play, Eight, consisted - as the name suggests - of eight monologues, only four of which were performed on any given night, with the audience selecting the pieces they wanted to see.

The monologues were loosely themed around the shifting economic situation and how young people, accustomed to a world rich in choice and possibility, were being forced to adjust. It contained moments of inspired writing but the format, the lack of interaction between the pieces, ended up a limiting one.

In her second play, Precious Little Talent, Hickson has adopted a more conventional dramatic structure, yet it is one that really pays off. The three-hander begins with Sam, a bright-eyed nineteen year old American, recounting his first encounter with Joey, a rooftop union that led to them both charging through the midnight streets of New York and ending up at Grand Central Station in each other’s arms.

Having recently lost her job, Joey has come to America to visit her father, George, a former academic with a sharp, dismissive manner. He lives alone and it is clear that there has been some drift between father and daughter since the end of his marriage. What Joey does not yet know is that the young man she shared her impulsive evening with, her cinematic swoop through the city, is also her father’s carer – that her dad is diminishing, unravelling, losing his capacity to care for himself.

Precious Little Talent cements what Eight merely hinted at: that Hickson is a writer of some skill. The emotional tone of the play is admirably nuanced. The relationship between father and daughter – affectionate yet volatile, needy yet abrupt – is a complex but recognisable one, and while the play contains moments of acute sadness, there is also much wit in evidence. The cultural gulf between the English and Americans proves a particularly rich source of humour.

Not everything stands up to scrutiny. There are some questions Hickson, intentionally or otherwise, leaves unanswered. Sam’s actual role remains ill-defined: is he a nurse? Is caring for George his main job or something he does while he studies? The sudden budding relationship between Sam and Joey also feels a little too convenient. Yet George’s monologues, his moments alone, are incredibly moving and John McColl is superb as a man coming to grips with a lessening of self he is powerless to halt.

The two younger cast members both do an excellent job with their roles. There’s clearly more depth to Sam then his beaming exterior would initially suggest; he is sensitive to George’s needs and perceptive about Joey’s fears and anxieties. Emma Hiddleston, as the slightly stiff English girl, comes across as proud and self-sufficient yet at the same time she is clearly looking for something solid and secure to cling on to.

As in Eight, Hickson is interested in what it means to arrive at adulthood just as the rules seem to be shifting, as the old roads are swamped in snow and new paths need to be dug. The shadow of a past generation’s aspirations still looms large but this is a new world and Hickson is one of its most astute voices.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edinburgh: Orphans

Helen and Danny live in a bubble of middle class comfort. They have stylish furniture, attractive clothes and a bottle of something crisp and white sits on the dining table as they embark on a celebratory dinner. But there are thick bars on their windows and the outside world they have struggled to keep at bay is about to seep in.

Their dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Helen’s brother, Liam, his T-shirt covered in another man’s blood.It’s the most satisfyingly startling way to open a play and grabs its audience from the outset.

Liam is understandably agitated and it takes a while for the couple to draw out his story. A lad has been attacked and left bleeding on the street, that’s what he tells them. He tended to him, hugged him – tried to help. Danny wants to call the police but Liam has a criminal record and Helen fears the consequences of getting involved. After all the boy was not someone they knew, not family, and he might even have been involved with a past assault on Danny, so why take the risk?

Dennis Kelly’s tense three-hander paints a bleak picture of a world where fear is the dominant force: fear of the law and the unknown, fear of a poorly defined ‘them’ who given the opportunity will damage and destroy everything the couple have so carefully built for themselves.

Kelly is also an expert at the drip-dripping of information to his audience. He constantly resets Liam’s story, revealing some shocking new piece of information, some new twist in the truth. He seems to enjoy writing himself into corners and then finding plausible ways to escape: Helen’s reasoning for not calling the police or the two men’s decision not to go outside and look for the injured boy are prime examples of this. Kelly slowly brings the audience round to seeing and understanding why the characters react as they do. It’s an incredibly controlled piece of writing in this respect. Perhaps too controlled as some of the vital elements in the telling of the story – like Liam and Helen’s past life of foster homes and the difference in class between Helen and Danny – feel like structural components, necessary to justify certain characters’ actions, rather than natural aspects of the narrative.

His dialogue is also an exercise in control and precision. Each stutter and hesitation matters and carries weight. The characters converse in a broken, halting yet rhythmic manner; sentences go unfinished, questions remain half-formed. Of the three cast members it is Joe Armstrong’s superficially genial yet utterly menacing Liam who best grasps and runs with the play’s particular patterns of speech. He seems perfectly at ease with this stop-start way of speaking whereas the language feels rather more stylised in the mouths of Claire-Louise Cordwell and Jonathan McGuinness. There is sometimes a degree of stiffness to their performance that is absent in Armstrong.

The plot can’t quite shoulder the load of the points Kelly wants to make about fear and the erosion of communities, the setting up of fences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way that absolves people of responsibility to one another, but it is a gripping tale that keeps its single thread taut from start to finish. The use of Helen’s unborn child to give some extra emotional resonance to an already tense situation does feel rather excessively manipulative and strikes something of a sour note.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, August 24, 2009

Edinburgh: Crush

Paul Charlton’s Crush tells a fairly familiar story. Anna and Sam are a young-ish married couple, both in their late twenties. Sam’s dreams after university didn’t quite pan out and the publishing business he hoped to set up never materialised. The sheen of the early days of their marriage is fading; they haven’t had much sex recently; their small habits are starting to irritate each other.

What makes Charlton’s play sit up in a meerkat fashion above the pack of basic relationship dramas is the way he astutely pins down the role the internet can play in people’s emotional crises, the outlet it provides for anonymous and supposedly consequence-free behaviour – the acting out of fantasies from the safety of one’s own home.

Except, of course, there are consequences. Real consequences: these actions reach through and beyond the world of the flickering screen of a laptop, touching and infecting people; the bet placed online is as real as one placed at a bookies, the Facebook fantasy can still hurt the woman you love.

Sam becomes obsessed with a young newly qualified teacher who he met briefly in his job as a book salesman. She fills his mind, this young pretty thing, in part because she looks not unlike his wife did a few years ago, or so he tells himself. Later at home, still thinking of her, he befriends her via Facebook and finds this allows him ample opportunity to sit staring at photos of her on the internet.

Anna, already subtly aware that in Sam’s eyes she has let herself go, discovers what he is up to and that damages her self-confidence and self-image further. She starts hitting the gym, taking dieting pills, obsessing over her body and the few extra inches she has gained since her wedding day. Sam is certain that he loves his wife, that he is happy with her, but he can’t shake a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with his lot and the internet provides a window an outlet for his frustrations, a kind of safe half-way space.

The play takes the form of several connected monologues with Sam and Anna taking turns to speak, him at the desk in his study, her at the gym. Both actors really seem to connect with the material. Neil Grainger’s performance as Sam is, for the most part, one of laddish amiability but a wave of utter despair and desperation floods out of him as the play nears its finish. Claire Dargo’s Anna is perky and sweat-sheened, peddling on her exercise bike, but an undercurrent of self-loathing soon becomes evident, a swamping sadness that her life and her marriage have ended up as they have.

Charlton’s writing is incredibly measured; both characters, for all their flaws, are very human and the way that they flit from worry to worry, talking themselves in and out of corners, is totally convincing and real. The final double revelation is slightly contrived and yet it still manages to end things on a suitably emotional note that echoes on as the performers take their bows.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, August 21, 2009

Edinburgh: If That's All There Is

A red stain blooms like a rose on Daniel’s shirtfront. He has just been shot. His wailing wife stands beside him, dressed in bridal white. It is their wedding day – and this, his shooting, is – probably - just a dream, the product of an anxious mind.

Reality and the imagined world walk hand in hand in this new piece by Inspector Sands, the company behind Hysteria. Inspired by the Peggy Lee song from which it takes its title, If That’s All There Is concerns an engaged couple, Daniel and Frances, who are full of fear and anxiety about their impending wedding day and, presumably, their lives together after they emerge from the church in a shower of confetti.

Worried about his fiancee’s behaviour, Daniel – who is the kind of man who makes graphs of his guests’ ages and romantic status in order to decide where to seat them at the reception – consults a psychiatrist on her behalf. To be fair Frances’ behaviour is a little odd. She has taken to sniffing just-chopped onions and forcing herself to cry; at work she devours hunks of white-iced wedding cake, cramming it into her mouth like a starved woman. She has momentary urges to fling small children into rivers or to rub her face into a passing man’s quivering belly fat. Both Daniel and Frances seem like they could use a little help, they are forever teetering on the edge and the smallest knock could send them over. Even the psychiatrist offers them no rock to cling to, for she seems as unsteady as them.

Consistently physically inventive and frequently very funny, the piece offers a neat commentary on the drive for perfection that characterises so many different aspects of society, one’s wedding day being the pinnacle of this: the sense that life will be somehow less satisfying, less fulfilling, just less if you don’t match the bridesmaids’ flowers to the table linen or have the right kind of cake or own some tasteful suede cushions from Heals on your sofa.

Lucinka Eisler and Ben Lewis are well matched as the increasingly flaky and fragile couple, seemingly feeding from one another’s neuroses, while Giulia Innocenti’s comic timing is excellent. Simply by the shedding of her shirt, she switches from a dismissive middle aged shrink to a taciturn work experience girl at the market research company where Frances works. As the latter she reads from an unending ‘lifestyle’ questionnaire, slicing up the human condition into quantifiable chunks ("on a scale of one to ten how do you feel about...")

While there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate here there’s also the sense that, if you were to strip away the creative presentation and the visual energy of the piece, what’s left would struggle to stand on its own; there's a whole lot of layers of wrapping and ribbon for a gift you already have.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Edinburgh: The Event

The Event is a play about a play. More than that it’s a play about itself. John Clancy's self-referential monologue picks itself apart as a piece of theatre – it’s as meta as it gets.

A man, dapper and middle-aged, American, stands in the spotlight against a plain black curtain. He explains that what he is doing is reciting memorized words, that this is a performance that he repeats on a daily basis and that every pause and gesture is planned out in advance.

He talks about the role of the audience, listening and watching in the dark, perhaps checking their watches when they hope the performer cannot see them. He talks about the possibility of there being professional observers in the audience and their role in this thing, this happening, this moment of shared time, which he continually refers to as the ‘event.’

He talks about the role of the technician, the power that one can wield through simply dipping and raising the lights, the way the whole mood of a piece can be changed. He talks about the unseen mystery of the stage hands, of the people behind the curtain.

Throughout all this David Calvitto’s performance is superbly controlled and commanding. He makes the audience aware of the fact that the way he modulates his voice, the way he holds himself and the gestures that he uses are pre-arranged, but he remains hughly watchable and natural in his delivery. The piece never feels cold or forced or alienating in its artifice. In the rare moment he stutters or flutters over a line, he leaves the audience wondering whether it was intentional; what if anything is ‘real’ in a situation like this.

This is a self-consciously clever piece of writing and one that continuously turns in circles around itself. When, roughly three-quarters of the way through, Clancy - and, by extension - Calvitto look beyond the event to the world we live in, passing comment on society and the modern need to fill time with stuff, with happenings, with events, the play becomes both less and more than itself; by engaging with life beyond the black curtain, the play opens itself up and is simultaneously reduced by its somewhat proselytizing manner. It becomes something more akin to a lecture and the careful union between audience, performer and writer, falters. In the end the play swings back to its starting point: one man standing in the light in front of watching crowd.

Were it not for Calvitto’s engaging presence and capable performance, The Event would probably end up as a chilly intellectual exercise, a narcissistic dissection that ultimately pushes the audience away, but Calvitto’s balancing act is admirable and the play is never less than captivating

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Edinburgh: Circa

Circa is a simultaneous celebration of both the human body’s strength and its fragility.

The acclaimed seven-member Australian troupe combines circus skills with dance, performing without props on an empty white stage. The audience are able to appreciate each twitch of a limb, each tremor of muscle as the performers come together in mini-duets, colliding and then pushing each other apart or flopping and twisting on the ground like fish on the deck of a boat.

There is no real connecting narrative thread as such, rather the show is a series of sometimes spectacular and sometimes intimate episodes and encounters. Physical power over another is a recurring theme. A woman is tossed in the air like a thing of balsa wood or spun like a skipping rope. In one of the show’s most wince-inducing and unexpected moments, a female performer emerges wearing cherry red spike heels and proceeds to walk across a male performer’s torso.
Slick as the production is, the huge physical effort involved in achieving these things is never disguised, never hidden; instead it has been made part of a fabric of the show. In one sequence, a woman lifts a man onto her shoulders and one can see her face twitch with exertion, her whole body tremble and shake. Later one of the female performers stands on a man’s outstretched forearm and it’s possible to see him brace himself and to grimace with the strain. The capacity for things to fail, to go wrong, is always there, simmering underneath the surface, and when one the male performers hangs suspended from the ceiling by straps, only to suddenly tumble to within centimetres of the floor, the wave of tension and release that ripples through the audience is audible. People gasp with fear and delight.

The potential for the body to betray is also explored. In one superb sequence, played out without music, a female performer contorts herself, her head between her legs and her hands crabbing and scuttling around her, seemingly independently. The architecture of the human form is inevitably brought to the fore, from the male torsos, slender yet with every muscle clearly delineated to the female thighs which, refreshingly, still jiggle, even while hoisting another human being into the air.

If anything is lacking, it’s a greater guiding connection between the different sequences, a unifying thread, and perhaps a shade more humour. But this remains a powerful piece, concerned as much with the emotions it generates in its audience as with the creation of sheer physical spectacle

Reviewed for musicOMH