Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amongst Friends at Hampstead Theatre

Despite a reference or two to MPs expenses, April de Angelis’ new play feels rather like something that has been lingering in a desk draw since 1987. And perhaps it would have been better off being left there.

In Amongst Friends, Helen Baxendale plays Lara, a glamorous tabloid columnist who has recently developed agoraphobic tendencies. Her husband, Richard, is a former MP who has turned his hand to writing crime fiction but who soon hopes to be reinstated in a safe seat. Together they live in a glossy glass and exposed brick apartment, part of a gated community in a run down part of south London – a fortress-like complex complete with spas, bars and a flotation chamber.

For reasons that make very little sense other than to set up a source of conflict, they have invited their former neighbours over for a dinner party. Caitlin is a breast care nurse, who has written a book about her experiences, and her partner Joe is a drugs counsellor with aggression issues. They provide a reminder of the life Lara and Richard have left behind in their scramble up the social ladder and there is a sense of hostility between them from the start.

It is not long before their world is further punctured by the arrival of Shelley, a woman from the local council estate who attempts to milk them all for money on behalf of her recently deceased son Lee. She claims she is able to communicate with him psychically and that each of the four may well have known the boy in some capacity. Guilt buttons duly pushed, she helps herself to some of their champagne and waits for them to donate to her unfortunately acronymed charity, PENIS. It’s a con, of course, but it doesn’t really matter, nor does Shelley matter – her jarring working class presence is only required to act as a catalyst for the dredging up all kind of buried secrets among the four main characters. And what do you know? Love affairs and past liaisons are soon being confessed to at a rate of knots.

While Shelley, as a character, has all the nuance of a Vicki Pollard – hair scraped back into a pony tail, gold jewellery clinking round her neck and her g-string visible over the back of her too-tight white jeans – the others are not far behind in the stereotype stakes. Baxendale’s Lara is all elbows and teetering designer heels; Aden Gillett’s Richard is an oil slick of a man and Emma Cunniffe’s Caitlin is a hippy-drippy, soft-hearted type, though not above using her patients’ emotive stories to forward her own career. Only James Dreyfus’ cranky, difficult Joe seems a bit more interesting, a bit less of an obvious ‘type.’

None of them feel like real people, nor does their dialogue ever convince. They don’t talk so much as hurl words towards each other, speaking in would-be clever phrases that might pass muster on paper but sound clunky on the tongue. With a few notable exceptions, the jokes clang to the ground like cannon balls. Clang, clang, clang.

It’s not that the cast aren’t any cop but having been assigned such simultaneously flat yet nasty characters, they all seem to be going through the motions, hitting their cues, speaking their lines, but doing little more.

There is, of course, a lot to be said about social division, about the way people with the means often seal themselves off from the problems they don't want to handle, but this play, though it occasionally teeters on the brink of being interesting, wastes its time with dud jokes, implausible twists, and slightly offensive working class caricatures.

Reviewed for musicOMH. It gives me little pleasue to be so negative, but, yeesh, did anyone actually read this before they agreed to put it on stage?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Doll's House at the Donmar

Review now up over on Theatermania.

England at Whitechapel Gallery

Look. A man and woman dressed anonymously stand side by side in a gallery. They are our guides.

The man and woman are Tim Crouch (he of An Oak Tree) and Hannah Ringham, co-founder of Shunt. They tell us a story, speaking together, two voices, one journey.

We do not know the name, job or even the gender of the narrator. We are told only that their boyfriend is a rich art dealer who speaks several languages and that he/she/they are unwell, seriously ill, possibly dying. A heart transplant is their only means of survival.

The play is divided in to two parts. The first half plays out in the recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery’s current exhibition of works by Isa Genzken (Open Sesame!, a collage of urban materials: glass, metal, fractured concrete blocks standing on slender pedestals). Though this choice of exhibition seems entirely fitting, the play was written to be performed in any gallery space and was originally staged in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007 and has played in several other spaces since.

Look, but don’t touch, we are repeatedly told as we move among the exhibits, watching, listening. Occasionally Crouch and Ringham will move around the room, causing the audience to shuffle after them in an ambling gallery manner, like a group of tourists on a guided tour. Depending on where one is standing, the performers’ faces are sometimes framed by Genzken’s dauntingly solid yet fragile concrete sculptures, an image that seems perfectly in keeping with their tale of human breakability.

The second half of the play takes place in the gallery’s lecture theatre. The change in locations coincides with a shift in the narrative: a transplant, a new heart, a life is saved, while another ends. We are now in some unnamed country, listening as the narrator converses with the widow of the donor through an interpreter, who also supplies her replies. The trade in artworks and organs are explicitly linked; life and art – two things beyond price – have become the stuff of transaction.

The play, though captivating, has a, while not exactly clinical quality, a kind of distance to the way it is performed. In the first half both voices share a sense of wonder; having faced death and survived the world has become full of gifts and everything is something that it’s possible to be thankful for. The second half has a more conventionally dramatic feel, as the recipient of the heart confronts the wife of the man whose death gave them life.

The lecture theatre setting of the second segment is rather drying, coming as it does after the milling, shifting first half. This has the effect of emphasising the rather cerebral, head-driven nature of the piece. An hour long, England is a meditation on art, health, survival, on all the things that can be – and are – bought and sold. It leaves its audience with much to digest and with a small seed of wonder within.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Time and the Conways at the National

It is difficult to enter the world of J.B. Priestley’s Conway family without thinking of Virginia Woolf’s Pargiters. The Years was published in 1937, the same year that Priestley’s play was first staged, and charts the fortunes of a similarly sized family over several decades.

But while it is the linear passage of time that interests Woolf – the toll it takes, the way people age and change – Priestly has a more idiosyncratic take on time, very much influenced by the theories of J. W Dunne, that time is eternally present, that our pasts, presents and futures somehow exist simultaneously and that, therefore, we are all our moments, the best and worst of them.

The Conways are a large brood: four daughters, two sons, and a mother recently widowed. Spanning the years between the wars, Time and the Conways opens in 1919, on the night of Kay Conway’s 21st birthday. Everybody is dressed up and gathered together, party games are being played, the younger son Robin is home on leave, the mood is celebratory, optimistic about the future.

The second act of this hefty three act play (three hours, two intervals) allows a glimpse of this future. There is a leap forwards, of almost twenty years; the bright young things are now world-worn and disappointed. Marriages have crumbled, promised novels have never been written, the family is beset by money problems and death has robbed them of one of their number. The dominant mood is one of bitterness, the once close family have fragmented, and petty resentments are harboured.

This scene is a kind of premonition, glimpsed by a frightened Kay from her place in the past, a reflection of things to come. It seems fitting that a door, a window and a mirror occupy prominent positions on Laura Hopkins set, one on each wall; in the party scenes the music and laughter from the other unseen room drift in like memories.

Though Rupert Goold’s compelling production is, for the most part, naturalistically played, each act ends with an imposed moment of visual invention – a freezing, a fracturing – that echo the ideas expressed.

However if you remove the theorizing, much of what is left is familiar family saga stuff. The National reinvigorated Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with their renowned 1992 Stephen Daldry production, but Goold doesn’t quite manage to replicate that here. The play remains a stubborn thing, its fusion of ideas and narrative always feeling a little forced. The Conway daughters in particular are rather thinly drawn and it’s all too easy to reduce their characters to one-word descriptions: the beautiful one, the artistic one, the academic one and the youngest, innocent and good – the mechanics of the writing are, at times, too obvious and Priestley seems almost to be enjoying setting up young dreams only to dash them.

Some superb acting helps to counter these difficulties and to make the production compelling despite its length. The whole ensemble is strong, especially when required to age convincingly for the second act, something most of them achieve. The smoke-throated Francesca Annis makes a formidable matriarch, unable to hide her disappointment that some of her children have not lived up to her ambitions for them, and Paul Ready is also quietly impressive as older brother Alan, with his slight stammer and his ever present pipe, content to live an uneventful life even if it means being scorned by his mother. It is Alan who gets to act as Priestley’s mouthpiece, explaining his ideas on time to Hattie Morahan's Kay, consoling her at a point in life when all seems impossible.

Both the magical mirror sequence that ends act two and Goold’s striking coda, with the characters caught up in their very own dance to the music of time, feels somewhat tacked on, reiterating rather than adding anything new, garnish on what is an otherwise straight down the line revival, with the grandfather clock tick-tocking in the hall as the Conway family walk (clockwise) into their future.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, May 01, 2009

Romeo and Juliet at the Globe

Youth is the dominant force in Dominic Dromgoole’s new Romeo and Juliet, his opener for the Globe’s Young Hearts season. His star-crossed pair are like children playing at passion, fuelled by hormonal urgency.

When Juliet learns from her nurse that Romeo has agreed to meet her she scampers round the stage in glee, and during the balcony scene, Romeo practically vibrates with excitement whenever Juliet calls him back, Rosaline’s brief flame already extinguished in his mind.

In this one, bright moment, standing beneath his window, Juliet is his all, his everything, and he can scarcely contain his pleasure that the attraction is mutual.

By emphasising the youthfulness of the lovers, Romeo and Juliet ceases to function as a sweeping love story and becomes a study of adolescent impulsiveness, of two people, tangle-handed, skidding down a path towards a lethal drop, unable to stop themselves (while the adults who may be able to stop them from plunging over the edge are either occupied elsewhere or unintentionally complicit).

Dressed demurely in schoolgirl blue, Ellie Kendrick’s Juliet is a plausible fourteen year-old, (but then the actress, who played Anne Frank in the BBC’s recent adaption of the diaries, is still on her gap year). She is a bright eyed thing taken to prostrating herself full length on the floor before her displeased father, a shining child, but with a flash of womanhood within her. One suspects she might be a skilled sulker.

Adetomiwa Edun’s Romeo has the air of the cool kid in the classroom, yet the fa├žade is all too easily peeled away. When faced with the reality of Tybalt's death he curls in a ball on the floor and cries.

Philip Cumbus’s Mercutio has a melancholy quality that couples surprisingly well with his boisterousness when over-liquored, while Penny Layden, though younger than is usual in the role, makes an agreeably earthy nurse, devoted to her young charge.

Dominic Dromgoole’s production has a bell curve quality: it takes a while to find its feet, to warm up, hits a high, but then rather fumbles the dual death scene. The young actors, so confident in earlier scenes, end their lives with little more than a shrug and sigh. And, from the side I was sitting on at any rate, it was impossible to see Romeo’s dead form on the floor as it was totally obscured by Juliet's funeral bed. Juliet’s face, as she realises the fate of her husband of less than a day, was also hidden.

The comedy is rather bluntly handled. No reference to weapons or tools is allowed to pass without an accompanying spasm of frantic groin thrusting or a sword being wielded in a phallic manner. It strayed beyond bawdy and felt as if Dromgoole were throwing out cock joke cookies to the crowd for putting up with all the poetry.

Fortunately this is countered by some atmospheric music and some amusing, if tentative, use of the pit. Dromgoole doesn’t take over the space with same degree of invention as Lucy Bailey has in the past with her Titus and Timon, but there are some nice touches. Juliet in her death-like slumber is carried over the heads of the audience and Friar Lawrence makes his entrance by placing a blessing hand on unsuspecting heads as he files through the crowd to the stage.

Reviewed for musicOMH.