Saturday, April 25, 2009

Interiors at the Lyric

In Interiors the audience are separated from the performers by a clear plastic wall. This does two things: it serves to emphasise the inherent voyeurism of the onlookers and it also acts as a silencer so that the audience cannot hear what the characters say, they can only sit and watch.

Inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play Interior, Vanishing Point’s production is set in an unnamed northern country where the nights are long and people require rifles to venture outdoors.

It is in fact the longest night of the year and a dinner party is being thrown to mark the occasion by Andrew, an elderly gent in a red waistcoat and silk neckerchief.

Various friends arrive including middle-aged Myra who affects to know much about wine; thirty-something couple Aurora and Barnaby; tall, awkward Damir, a stranger to most of those present; and Davide the boyfriend of Sara, Andrew's granddaughter.
Despite the surreal touch of the rifles in the corner it’s a very familiar, domestic set-up: corks are popped, gifts are given, pleasantries are exchanged. Except, of course, the audience hears none of this and the absence of dialogue allows for a keener focus on the interactions of the characters, the small gestures, the hidden grimaces, the forced smiles.

At first events unfold in near-silence, the only sound the whirling wind and snow outside the house, but after a while a woman’s voice begins to comment on what’s going on. Her tone is gently mocking, a little mischievous; she is eventually revealed to the audience as a figure in white, like them an outsider looking in. This woman directly addresses the audience, pausing to stare in at the windows.

Though experimental in form, the production manages at the same time to be a hugely entertaining and accessible thing, very, very funny in places especially when a degree of wine has flowed and, warm of blood, Aurora and Barnaby start dancing exuberantly to Video Killed The Radio Star (though the dialogue can’t be heard, the audience can hear the music). It’s also very poignant, at times quite acutely moving: an unwise proposal is rejected, a relationship that has barely bloomed starts to fade.

The international cast work well together; resisting the urge to overplay the visual, their movements and interactions feel natural, necessary. The production as a whole has the appeal of a walk through a city at night, all those small human stories unfolding in lit windows, a family sitting down to dinner, a couple watching television, everyday occurrences that become fascinating at a remove, viewed fleetingly through glass.

By the end of its 80 minutes, it does end up overstating its case a bit, hammering keys that before had been struck softly, tugging a little too forcefully on emotional strings, but this doesn’t dull its message that for all the pain, regret and disappointment in life, both big (the loss of love) and small (the receiving of pork stew for dinner when you’re a vegetarian) once you’re on the outside there’s no going back.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Another Little Link

A Guardian blog over here, sparked in part by Helen Smith's recommendation of Simon Callow's biographies of Orson Welles.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Country Magic at the Finborough

One can see what drew Phil Willmott to Arthur Wing Pinero’s fable The Enchanted Cottage and made him think it a suitable case for rescuing. For buried beneath the sentimentality of the age, which is laid on pretty thick in places, there is something truly touching.

Written in the early 1920s, Pinero’s play concerns itself (and was one of the first to do so) with the aftermath of the Great War for those left alive: the widowed and the maimed. Having been left permanently disabled, Oliver Bashforth has moved away from London, moved away from his old life, and settled in a secluded country house where he can better avoid the attentions of his overbearing family.

Out of exasperation at their continual interference in his affairs, Oliver decides he needs a wife and proposes a marriage of convenience to Laura, a friendly local woman, who though kind of heart is not much to look at. She is, at first, justifiably hurt by the assumption that she is somehow less of a woman than the pretty city things he once associated with, but she accepts his offer all the same.
They duly marry but soon afterwards something curious happens. The couple become convinced they have fallen under a spell, an enchantment; that they have both undergone some glorious physical transformation. The truth of the matter is obvious enough, but it takes their blind neighbour Hillgrove, another war casualty, to make them see it.

Though the play has been pruned and retitled by Willmott, there’s still a good degree of syrup to wade through. The characters of Bashforth’s family and the local rector and his wife are flat as pancakes, but there are other, more interesting things going on which Willmott brings to the surface. The play is populated with physically and psychologically damaged men trying to find new ways of living. There is a strong background sense of a country reshaping itself, of the struggle faced by those returning home physically and emotionally altered. In this way, the classes have much in common, for Hillgrove’s valet Rigg is missing an arm and the husband of Bashforth’s housekeeper Mrs Minnett died on the battlefield.

But, for all that, it’s not really a play about loss, in fact it’s full of hope that people will heal each other, through love, through friendship; that England will, eventually, heal. That doesn’t excuse it being as stiff and plodding as it is at times – something not helped by Robin Don’s narrow, expressionistic set, with its jags of barbed wire and moody shadows, which doesn’t give the actors much room to move and makes for a rather static staging. The central device, this idea of enchantment, also stretches things to silliness. That such apparently intelligent people would believe such a thing seems absurd, fable or no.

The three central performances help to raise it up a level. As Bashforth, Daniel Abelson is suitably bitter, sharp tempered and cantankerous, stalking around the stage with his walking stick. He seems reluctant to sit still, as if to do so would be a sign of weakness. In the original, Bashforth was supposed to be disfigured, facially scarred as so many were, but here it is his temper that makes him ugly. Victoria Gee, as Laura, perhaps overstates the gawkiness of her character initially but she successfully fleshes out a rather thinly written role.

It is Jamie Hinde who leaves the strongest impression, in a role that could so easily be utterly clichéd, as Hillgrove, the wise, blind neighbour. There is something in his manner that suggests a sea of emotions going on beneath the ever placid surface: true fondness for his friends, recognition of his own loss and, again, that elusive idea of hope.

There is some attempt in the programme notes to connect the play with more recent events, more recent conflicts, but that seems unnecessary. The play is too time specific for those connections to be more than superficial, but that’s not to say the play isn’t resonant, it’s just a more diffuse resonance and, for all its stiffness and sentimentality, there is something very warm and potent about the production.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Once and For All We're Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen at BAC

The title is a misnomer for there’s a lot more showing than telling in this collaborative show between Flemish theatre companies Ontroerend Goed (the company behind the wonderful Smile Off Your Face) and Kopergietery.

The cast is made up of thirteen teenage performers, not one of them older than eighteen. As the audience enter and take their seats, obscenities are screamed from the wings, there is jeering and screaming, lewd acts are suggested by young tongues.

The stage is naked except for thirteen mismatched chairs. As the production gets underway, the kids stream on, they bicker and brawl, they flirt and toy with one another, they loll in their seats, tilting to the point where they topple (exactly what you were warned against doing at school). Two kids play with a bin liner; one bashes another with her bag, jokingly yet hard enough to hurt; one chalks words on the floor; while another sits aside quietly playing with her doll.

Their behaviour is familiar, boisterous and chaotic, raucous playground stuff – except it’s not as chaotic as it seems. As the scenes repeats itself to a changing soundtrack, patterns are revealed, a sense of order asserts itself. The production, which grew out of a series of workshops led by director Alexander Devriendt, is incredibly well choreographed: the most casual of gestures are shown to be part of some greater thing, seemingly spontaneous behaviour is shown to be anything but. It reminded me of John Moran’s recent Soho Theatre show where a seemingly random collection of moments and utterances were revealed to be mapped out to the smallest beat.

It perfectly evokes the repetition, the monotony, of one’s schooldays. Beneath all this noise, all these allusions to anarchy and chaos, there is a strict sense of order. This original scene, this opening series of movements and interactions, is them repeated in various different ways, as a comic ballet, to pounding dance music, and then, ingeniously, with no performers at all, just with the props thrown on as necessary. An attempt to do the scene once more but this time only with boys, fails as the boys become coy and uneasy alone on stage.

Occasionally one of the performers comes forward and addresses the audience, tries to explain his or herself, but these moments are brief and the bulk of the production is dominated by the physical. At times there is an undercurrent of unease, the fear for bruised and bashed young limbs, the worry that there is something, not exploitative, but certainly external at work here. We are being invited to look but are unsure where the invitation comes from.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Brief Encounter at Richmond Theatre

Somehow missed this one despite its long residency in London, finally rectified in advance of Don John.

As one Kneehigh production arrives in London (Don John, their latest show, which opens at BAC this week), another sets out on tour.

Following the mixed critical reception to Emma Rice’s adaptation of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (a reception that indirectly sparked the whole 'dead white men' debate), the company, undaunted, turned their attentions to another cherished British film, to David Lean's Brief Encounter. Rather wonderfully their version was originally staged at the Cineworld Haymarket, a central London cinema, an apt loaction if ever there was one given that this is a stage production concerned very much with film. And though Rice’s take on this cinematic classic is full of familiar Kneehigh tropes, this time around they manage to chime with the material in a more sympathetic way than in Life and Death where the excess of things ended up overwhelming the story.

Brief Encounter started life on the stage, being based on a short play by Noel Coward, Still Life, one of nine that went under the banner of Tonight at 8.30, and Coward’s voice runs through this theatrical reclaiming – literally, as his songs are peppered throughout the production. At various points the characters pause to sing snippets of No Good at Love, Room with a View and Mad about the Boy, in arrangements by regular Kneehigh collaborator Stu Barker whose distinctive contributions weren't as jarring as they have been in the past.

But though the story of Laura and Alec’s short-lived liaison began life on stage, what Kneehigh are presenting here is a stage version of the film. Rice’s Brief Encounter is both celebratory and gently teasing in its approach. It is full of allusions to cinema: black and white images of waves and wind are projected on the back wall, as are close ups of Laura’s tormented face as she plays Rachmaninoff on the piano. On a couple of magical occasions the characters actually appear to plunge into the cinema screen, becoming one with the filmed footage.

Anyone familiar with Kneehigh’s work will recognise many of the devices Rice employs: miniature steam trains chug along the floor, puppets stand in for Laura’s two young children, there are occasional acrobatics, and the stage is always cluttered with characters. The staff at the railway tea room where Laura and Alec meet are fleshed out, their roles developed so that eventually there are two additional love affairs on display, running in tandem with Laura and Alec’s. The crucial difference is of course one of social class. These characters are far less inhibited, they flirt and cavort in a way the thwarted couple cannot.

This point quickly becomes laboured and there is a sense of relief when Rice finally hones in on the main characters in the production’s more emotive second half, but the beefing up of the supporting characters does make a valid point about the outside (and inside) pressures to which the couple are subject. Like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, they are driven to do what is good and right, even if their own happiness suffers as a result. Laura’s husband is not an Osmond, he is not a cruel man, just a little dull and stuffy, if also kind and clearly baffled by the sudden distance he feels between himself and his wife.

While Rice’s production riffs and tussles with certain aspects of the story, it also understands when to leave alone and, in the end, remains true to the spirit of the film. Brief Encounter was released in 1944 but set in 1938. Ideas of duty and sacrifice weigh heavily on the couple and it is inevitable that in the final heart/head face off, the head wins out and the heart packs its bags and takes a job in Johannesburg.

This touring production features a new cast, with Hannah Yelland’s Laura in particular standing out. With her wide eyes, era-appropriate cheekbones and clipped vowels, she somehow managing to convey waves of hidden passion even while dangling from a chandelier.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court

Polly Stenham’s new play Tusk Tusk feels very much like a companion piece or even a prequel to her debut, the acclaimed That Face.

It's near impossible to discuss Stenham without making reference to her youth, to the fact that That Face was written when she was 19 and, that when it transferred from the Royal Court to the Duke of York’s Theatre, she became the youngest woman ever to have a play staged in the West End.

The pressure to produce a second play of similar power must have been intense and she has chosen not to move away from the subject matter that gave birth to That Face but to mine it further, to dig deeper into the same ground.

Both plays deal with emotional neglect and the complexities of child-parent relationships, the crucial difference being that while the figure of the mother dominated the first play – as the vampiric centre of her son’s life – here the mother, though still a potent force in her children’s lives, is an absence rather than a presence.

Eliot, Maggie and their little brother Finn have been left alone. They have just moved in to a new London flat and their possessions are all still packed up in boxes. It quickly becomes clear that they have no idea where their mother is or when she will come back. They keep watching their phones, hoping she will call. Such vanishings are, we soon gather, not entirely unusual and, initially at least, they remain confident she will return. Their aloneness soon becomes a kind of game: they sleep through the day, they eat Chinese take out for breakfast and they use what little money they have to buy a strobe light. Their plight brings to mind the adult-less world of numerous children’s books, though with the added 21st century shadow of social services separating them if they find out about the situation; at one point Maggie even comments that their lives have become like a bad Enid Blyton novel.

Eliot, the oldest at fifteen, clearly needs to believe that their mother will return and that nothing is really amiss. Whenever fourteen year old Maggie attempts to talk of their mother’s pill-popping, her depressions, her unreliability, he bats her words aside. His tie to his mother is obviously a complex, mutually needy one; beneath the nonchalance he seems far more dependent on her than his sister. In this way the family dynamics – the doted-on boy child, the daughter pushed to the side – mirror those of That Face, though here there is no chance of the father arriving white knight style at the end to rescue them, as he’s dead, carried off by cancer when they were young. “Fucking cliché,” as Eliot says. The only adults that puncture this world are the intensely middle-class Katie and Roland, friends of the children’s mother – but they bring with them their own set of complications.

Stenham’s play feels, if anything, more sure of itself than That Face. Though her teenage characters converse with a level of eloquence that at times borders on the implausible, she creates a world in which it is possible to accept that. The sparring between the two older siblings is sometimes uneasily flirtatious, sometimes stubborn and silly; but beneath their volleys of “arrows tipped with wit” there are things that don’t quite sit right, little niggles. For one thing, if there mother has been this unstable and unreliable all their lives, it seems odd that they wouldn’t be better able to fend for themselves, practically as well as emotionally.

And then there’s Cassie, the girl Eliot briefly dallies with, who it is immediately apparent is from a less well off background then the main characters. Though quite thinly sketched in comparison, she is an interesting addition, a more grounded individual who has a job, who supports herself. We never learn what absences she has in her life. But, though one can see why Stenham included her, she feels like something of an interloper, both into the siblings’ self-circling world and within the play itself.

In the end the play survives by the performances of the young cast (all roughly the same ages as their characters). And the three siblings, who are rarely off stage, are pretty amazing. Toby Regbo, as Eliot, mixes adolescent bravado and self conscious coolness with something more desperate and dangerous. Bel Powley, as Maggie, seems older than her years yet also endearingly childish at times. Finn Bennett as seven year old Finn feels utterly at home on the stage.

Though the early scenes, when it seems the play will just consist of sibling bickering, cause alarm bells to ring, the play soon becomes something bigger, darker and more compelling. It does however definitely gain something from watching it with That Face relatively fresh in the memory.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness at Soho Theatre

Edward Gant is a travelling showman of the Victorian era, a self proclaimed prodigy, soldier, traveller and poet. Dapper in topper and tails and impeccable of moustache, he awes his audience with freakish tales of broken hearts and suppurating skin.

This revival of Anthony Neilson’s 2002 play is a mish-mash of things. Presented as a recreation of a stage show of 1881, The Amazing Feats of Loneliness of the title, it is, initially at least, a blend of the grotesque and the crudely comic, full of nudge-nudge humour and waves of pus and vomit.

A young woman afflicted with acne finds that her face has the capability to produce pearls; a man hikes to the Himalayas to have the images of his dead love literally drilled out of existence; a (human sized) stuffed bear recounts its abandonment by its owner.

It is like The League of Gentlemen at their most perverse, veering at times into Little Britain territory as bodily fluids gush over the floor. But as with Neilson’s other recent plays, the disappointing God in Ruins and divisive The Wonderful World of Dissocia, there are different layers of reality at work here. As with both those productions there is a Pirandellian fracturing of the world we are presented with. There are jarring pauses, as Gant’s fellow performers grow increasingly uncomfortable with their opium-addicted boss. The play begins to pick itself apart, to reveal something unexpected and altogether more human and questioning beneath the sticky veneer.

That said, this late detour doesn’t quite emerge clean from the grossness of the earlier scenes; it remains tainted. The audience never learn enough about Gant and his troupe to fully engage with this new turn of events. There are intriguing hints of a friendship forged on the battlefield between Gant and Sam Cox’s Jack Dearlove, but given the time devoted to pus and pimples in the early half of the play, this remains frustratingly thinly sketched. There is also an attempt to raise the question of what one wants theatre to do: encapsulated in a poem that pits whimsy against hard reality. But again this feels secondary to the yucky stuff. The final revelation, when it comes however, is still quite potent.

The cast are excellent. Simon Kunz has just the right amount of swagger as Gant and Sam Cox, Nicholas Ludd and Emma Handy, leaping between roles, are all equally strong, the latter impressively managing to emote from behind a mask of acne. Tom Scutt’s Victorian set is full of lovely details and, to be fair, the audience seemed to be laughing a great deal, for it is at times wickedly, weirdly funny. But it is impossible to shake a sense of frustration that this could have been far more interesting were it to focus less on gross excess and more on the characters that populate this intriguing world.

Reviewed for musicOMH