Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Apologia at the Bush

It is one of the lesser known rules of theatre, though not unlike Chekhov’s one about the gun, that when a white Japanese designer dress, the expense of which has been explicitly noted, is a worn by a character in a play it is bound to come to a - literally - messy end before the final act.

Alexi Kaye Cambell’s debut play, The Pride, which was staged upstairs at the Royal Court at the end of last year, netted him both an Olivier and a Critics’ Circle award. His second play eschews its predecessor’s dual, time-hopping narrative for something that is structurally more conventional.

Kristin Miller is an eminent art historian who has recently published her memoirs. She was politically active in the 1960s and is a veteran of numerous protests and barricades. Her life has been rich and eventful but her free existence came at a cost. Now, on the evening of her birthday, she is expecting her two sons and their respective partners for dinner. The eldest, Peter, is a banker, a career choice that prompts Kristin to casually enquire if he is still busy “raping the Third World?” (“brutally” comes his swift reply) while the younger son, Simon, has recently lost his job and is clearly emotionally fragile.

Both men are in relationships with women who are the about as far away from their mother in terms of temperament and personality as it’s possible to get. Peter’s girlfriend, Trudi, is a perky American blonde with an unfading smile whom he met at a prayer meeting, while Simon's girlfriend, Claire, is an actress in a soap (or a 'serialised drama' as she insists they refer to it) with expensive taste.

Superficially at least the play could be said to echo Absolutely Fabulous in its examination of the relationship between a dominant woman with a bohemian past and her rather staid, sensible offspring. But Kristin is no Edina. She is dauntingly intelligent, utterly intolerant of stupidity and vapidity, and unable to put aside her principles even if it means causing offence. When a nervous Trudi presents her with an African mask as a birthday gift, Kristin launches into a speech about cultural respect and continues to subtly patronise her as the evening progresses. She is also unable to conceal her displeasure in Simon’s choice of partner and is forever needling Claire, unpicking her every comment.

The play hangs on the publication of Kristin’s memoirs and the fact that both her sons feel hurt to have not been included in the book. To them this encapsulates her failings as a mother over the years: her politics and career always took precedence and when they were taken away from her by their father, they believe she didn’t do enough to try and get them back, they believe she abandoned them.

Paola Dionisotti, with her classical expressive face framed by a fog of copper hair, is compelling as Kristin while Sarah Goldberg is equally impressive in what is perhaps the more difficult role of Trudi, the amiable American girlfriend. There is an openness and a clarity to her. She has a certain kind of American confidence and yet is willing to listen and to question herself; she seems genuinely moved by Kristin’s talk on the revolutionary power of Giotto. While Kristin sometimes patronises Trudi, Campbell never does, which is refreshing given how much of a ‘type’ she initially feels.

Neither son is anywhere near as well drawn as these two women and elsewhere the framework of the play rises to the surface as if coming up for air. The way in which each character gets to say their piece feels rather forced; in particular an attempt to explain away Claire’s acquisitive tendencies by having her briefly recount her poor childhood feels rather glued on – like an afterthought and a rather unconvincing one at that.

Josie Rourke’s production delivers an exhilarating dinner scene, with much simmering and building leading to a satisfying explosion, but the second half sags a bit in comparison. The play rather pounds home the fact that modern women owe a lot to the bravery and commitment of women like Kristin and that maybe some would benefit from having a bit more of her drive and conviction. There are, however, some gripping passages of writing. The scene between Simon and is mother when he recounts an incident from his childhood that has clearly shaped him, an incident she never knew occurred, is heart-in-mouth stuff.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

There is also a Guardian blog on the Oubliette collective over here.

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