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