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 clich├ęs). 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.