Monday, November 30, 2009

This Wide Night at Soho Theatre

Produced by Clean Break (who recently staged Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful It Felt Empty... at the Arcola) Chloe Moss’s play, This Wide Night, is the fruit of a playwriting residency spent at HMP Cookham Wood and is about life – such as it is - after prison, exploring the various struggles and adjustments required in order to survive on the outside.

Marie spends her days in a cramped council bedsit - swigging cheap lager while sprawled in the sedative glare of her soundless television set - and her nights doing some unspecified job that requires a lot of vigorous showering afterwards.

When Lorraine, her middle-aged former cellmate, turns up at her door in need of a place to stay she is initially wary but eventually allows her to stop with her until she gets herself sorted.

Moss delicately unfolds the complicated relationship between the two women. They are both needy yet hesitant in their affections, both volatile and capable of snapping, of sudden flares of temper. Details of their past life together are only slowly fed to the audience – there is brief mention made of care homes, violent lovers and addiction – but Moss resists the urge to spell things out; she is not afraid of ambiguity, of leaving things unsaid.

The idea of official assistance is abruptly dismissed ("they don’t really give a shit") so the two women must support themselves as much as they’re able to. In a touching moment Marie gives Lorraine a shiny shirt bundled into a plastic bag, a gift, so she has something nice to wear when she meets the son she hasn’t seen in years.

The dialogue is rich and fresh and peppered with wonderful details ("Look at you," Lorraine says admiringly of Marie, "you look like an advert for Vosene") and superbly brought to life by Zawe Ashton, as Marie, a woman hardened by the world yet whose face still lights up in delight at the thought of playing party games, and Maureen Beattie, as the older but only marginally steadier woman who, after serving a twelve year sentence, is resigned to being dealt a dud hand by life.

Director Lucy Morrison creates a sense of insularity, of a life still shaped and infected by the time spent on the inside – an impression aided by Chloe Lamford’s cramped, spare set with its tatty sofa bed and functional kitchen units - and throughout there is a plausibly awkward mix of warmth and tension between the two women; they nurture one another yet provide a constant reminder of where they’ve been and what they’ve lived through.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cock at the Royal Court

Let's step around that title for a moment for Mike Bartlett’s latest play is a far more interesting and rich thing than such a blunt, needlessly provocative moniker might indicate.

Cock is about identity, sexual and otherwise. John has been in a relationship with his boyfriend since he was in his early twenties; now he feels they have grown apart – or, rather, that he has grown and their relationship hasn’t really allowed for this fact.

After he breaks things off with his boyfriend he finds himself in an unusual and unexpected situation: he finds himself attracted to a woman. They have sex - an unplanned, sudden and awkward encounter - yet neither wants to let things end there. Though John has never been with a woman before they feel a powerful connection and believe what happened between them was more than a one-night liaison, they believe that potentially it could grow into something strong and lasting.

Though he has real feelings for this woman, John is still closely emotionally linked to his boyfriend; they were once in love and, while that has changed, the attraction between them remains strong – they are still bound together in many ways. John must make a choice between the two people vying for his affections. This is not something he finds easy; he is drawn to both of them, for different reasons, and in making a choice it is as if he is been asked to define himself, not just sexually, but on many levels. Who is he? What does he want out of life? Marriage, kids, trips to Paris and security in old age with her or a different but no less rewarding existence with him?

He is pulled from both sides and the more they pull, the more he vacillates; he is frozen, silenced and simply unable to make the choice that, it is made clear, will steer his life in one direction or the other. There is no middle option, a decision is called for and sexuality is only a part of the picture; John is being asked to decide the whole future path of his life. This all comes to a head (so to speak) in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene when John invites the woman to his boyfriend’s house and a kind of tug of war ensues with John in the middle and the roast beef growing cold on the table.

As specified in the text, James Macdonald’s production is incredibly stripped down. There are no props, no costumes and no conventional set. Events play out on Miriam Buether's circular stage with the audience seated on raked wooden benches around the edges; this whole set up resembles an old-fashioned operating theatre, apt as emotional pain and physical intimacy are both central to the whole production. Macdonald pays particular attention to the distances between the characters. When John has his first sexual encounter with a woman, the pair remain fully clothed, standing apart and slowly circling one another, coming closer and closer together, as if dancing. Initially bringing to mind the non-sexual sex scene in Martin Sherman's Bent, it’s a moment that manages to be comic and erotic and potent all at the same time and allows this pivotal sexual experience to be viewed and dissected in a way that may not otherwise have been possible if the staging were more literal.

John, played by the wiry, if somewhat weak-voiced Ben Whishaw, is the only character to merit a name. The remaining characters are known only as M, W and F (Man, Woman and Father) and any mention of their names is scrupulously avoided. Yet the fact he has a name makes him no more solid as a character, if anything the opposite is true. At one point he remarks that he was proficient at imitating voices as a child and that sometimes he struggled to return to his own voice, to become himself again. The question of whom John is - this quest for self-definition on which the play hangs - is a self-eating one, for John seems to become less of himself, less than himself, as the play progresses.

The proximity of the audience to the performers and the precision of the staging provide a necessary emotional focus, a honing in, otherwise John’s dithering could well become insufferable – even as it is, his near disabling indecision does start to become frustrating, to the point that you want to physically shake him. It helps a great deal that Bartlett’s play is very funny and that he’s capable of seeing the comedy in the situation.

The performances also do a great deal to fill out the play, to add bulk and colour and humour to the words. Whishaw manages to be compelling in a role that requires him to be comparatively blank and, though she’s saddled with some speeches that don’t quite ring true, The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson is superbly subtle and measured in her delivery; in the final dinner party scene it’s a delight to watch her attempts to keep a handle on her temper.

Good as they both are it is Andrew Scott, as John’s boyfriend, who really resonates. His character is charismatic and energetic yet conflicted in his feelings, prone to self pity and insecure enough to invite his dad to the pivotal dinner. He somehow manages to radiate affection for John as well as bafflement and revulsion at his behaviour and pain at the thought of losing him. He’s waspish and politely passively aggressive to John’s girlfriend, yet not completely hostile, and even appears to show a glimmer of sympathy for her predicament. It’s a nuanced performance that seems completely in sync with everything that Bartlett’s play is trying to - and, for the most part - does achieve.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Making of Moo at the Orange Tree

Context is all. When Nigel Dennis’s satirical play premiered at the Royal Court in 1957 it was met with a number of boos of outrage amid the applause. Half a century on, in Sam Walters’ revival at the Orange Tree, the play, a condensed and cynical canter through the creation of a religion, lacks the same outrage factor; it’s more like a small child making a big noise in restaurant and revelling in the attention.

In an unnamed African country, the colonial Comptons, having accidentally killed the local river god by building a dam, decide to create their own replacement to keep the natives in check. hey imbue their new project with a back-story and with commandments and, inspired by the constant lowing of cattle outside the window of their wicker-furnished sitting room, they name their deity Moo.

In the Second Act Dennis shunts events forwards a couple of years to the point where the Moovian religion has grown into a cult complete with red-robed followers who are not averse to the odd human sacrifice in order to keep their god happy. When a pair of English interlopers arrives to find out what has become of the Comptons, they are shocked and appalled by what they find. To achieve this dramatic shift, the lighting designer John Harris has bathed the Orange Tree stage in red while set designer Tim Meacock has adorned it with cows’ skulls; the Comptons’ wicker furniture meanwhile has been turned into a makeshift pulpit.

In the final scenes of the play, we are presented with the next step along the path. The Moovian faith has shed the blood-hungry and drum-beating fervour of its youth and become aged, staid and respectable. It now has deacons and missionaries to spread its message; there are even some Moovian converts in London and wealthy philanthropists arrive from abroad bearing their chequebooks – yet the play ends with a downbeat glimmer that there might be a fundamentalist resurgence on the cards, that this period of tea and cakes tranquillity is only an interlude and that Moo and its more ardent followers might soon demand more blood.

As satire, this is fairly broad and heavy-handed stuff that seems childishly pleased with the extremes to which it is willing to go (William, the Comptons’ manservant turned very reluctant Pope of Moo, is forced to wear a giant phallus and a silly hat). But its in dealing in extremes that it lets itself down; the writing contains flashes of wit and invention but Dennis seems to get carried away in his wish to give religion a good kicking and he contents himself (mostly) with swiping at easy targets and reducing complex ideas to basic generalities, rather than digging deeper under the skin of what it means to believe.

The play generates a fair few flutters of laughter and Walters’ reasonably brisk production is aided by committed performances from Philip York and Amanda Royle as the socks-and-sandals-sporting colonial engineer and his wife, turned Moovian patriarch and holy mouthpiece (therefore, for her at least, acquiring a freedom of thought and voice denied to her as a colonial wife). But it hasn’t aged particularly well; it's hard to discern the tiger-like thing that Kenneth Tynan described, as it hits its audience over the head repeatedly with its ideas - for every sharp and well-targeted dig, there are several clumsy hammer blows.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Letting in Air at the Old Red Lion

Amy likes words. Words like 'evanescent' and 'wondrous.' She likes the shape of them, the sound of them; she likes to know their proper use.

The sixteen year old meets Frank, an aging widower, outside a theatre. He has been to see a play and she pretends she has too, though he soon realises she’s lying. Still he allows her to share his taxi home and assumes that will be the end of things. But Amy is tenacious and she can’t be shaken so easily; she likes Frank, his school teacher ways and his manner of speech, she feels safe in his company, a rarity in her life. She sticks to Frank like gum to his shoe.

The presence of this young, voluble girl in Frank’s life does not go down well with his son, Adam. His mother has only just died and he has moved back to Manchester, with his girlfriend Olivia in tow, to be nearer to his taciturn dad – and now he finds this gangly, young child-woman in his father’s house, always there, hanging around. He resents her presence and fears there is something seedy in their unlikely friendship.

Having set up this complex web of relationships, playwright Becky Prestwich detonates an explosive device in the midst of things and watches the debris fly. Frank, having been driven to lose his temper by Amy’s constant jabber, lets slip a secret, a secret he and his wife held together, something he has never told anyone – especially not his son.

Amy can’t bear the burden of carrying this knowledge and she tells Olivia, who in turn feels compelled to tell Adam, a man already bristling with resentment and confusion before this new revelation tips him deeper into darkness.

Prestwich has constructed a taut, intriguing play that initially seems to balance its off-beat sense of humour with some much blacker undercurrents; it’s only afterwards, on taking a few steps back from the canvas, that the cracks become apparent. Most obviously the characters’ willingness to let this girl, however benign her intentions, infiltrate their lives so rapidly stretches credibility

The cast do a great deal to counteract the holes in plausibility. Rebecca Elliot successfully negotiates the potentially clich├ęd and difficult role of Amy, the damaged young girl who looks at the world askew, and brings a fresh and unexpected quality to the part. Edmund Kente gives a subtle, layered performance as Frank, a gentle and intelligent man who does not easily lose control of his emotions. It’s apparent that he feels he lost his wife some time before she died and though he clearly cares for his son and wants to do right by him, he is uncertain how to connect with him – to say what needs to be said – and is sorely aware that he has made mistakes in the past. Tessa Mabbitt is warm and personable as Olivia, Adam’s girlfriend, a character who is unfairly and abruptly dispatched when she has served her purpose.

Adam Quayle’s direction ensures the pace doesn’t flag though the shifts between scenes are a little jerky at times. He handles the moments of conflict and tension well, even when the writing doesn’t quite ring true. Prestwich has an original voice as a writer, quirky and questing, but she seems over-stretched here and can’t quite prevent the intriguing scenario that she has created from tumbling over into melodrama

Reviewed for musicOMH

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Architecting at the Barbican

Architecting, an ambitious exploration of emotional and social repair, is stimulating and exciting and messy and frustrating in equal measure.

Devised by the TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) in association with the National Theatre of Scotland the piece began life as a BAC Scratch commission in 2006 before a much expanded version drew plaudits last year at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2008 and at New York’s Performance Space 122 earlier this year.

As the audience enters the theatre a woman is already on stage crooning in country-and-western fashion as her companion strums a guitar on his guitar. A bottle of JD sits on a nearby table and, behind her, the walls are papered in Tyvek wrap; a couple of CCTV monitors flicker from the corners of the versatile wooden box that forms the centre of Nick Vaughan’s set (and, by turns, represents a New Orleans bar, a service station, and a pony cart).

Perhaps as a result of its multi-stranded structure, it takes a little while for the production to warm up. In the first few minutes numerous themes and ideas are introduced, from a thermodynamic view of history to the architectural merit of Chartres Cathedral; only after a while do the various threads (to an extent) separate themselves.

Architect Carrie Campbell arrives in a post-Katrina New Orleans to oversee the completion of a new property project – a TND (Traditional New Development) called Phoenix Meadows – that had been designed and originated by her late father. The locals, those that remain, are not altogether happy with this re-imagining of a traditional American community, this re-packaging of their city into neat, polished boxes.

This present day scenario – the battered yet proud American south – is paralleled with another period of reconstruction, the one that occurred after the American Civil War, and this is viewed through the particular prism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell herself is a presence on stage (played by Lana Lesley as an intelligent woman slightly unsettled by the freight train success of her novel) as is her iconic heroine Scarlett O’Hara.

Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is further tied to the present day narrative by a storyline involving a boorish Hollywood producer who is trying to get a new production of the book off the ground; this time with a black director and with various trims, tweaks and wholesale re-writes having been made to bring it more into keeping with modern sensibilities, especially in regard to race. The producer suggests turning one of the O’Hara servants into Martin Luther King’s grandfather and making him an early campaigner for civil rights, but the director, having started to read the novel for the first time (his parents wouldn’t allow it in the house) becomes fascinated with the book and its depiction of the American South.

Rachel Chavkin’s multimedia production is hugely ambitious in scope and execution: characters both real and imagined happily interact, while music and video, dance and movement, all form a part of the collage. The performers all play numerous roles and gender and race provide no barrier to their character-hopping; at various points throughout the production every person on stage dons a hoop skirt and corset to play Scarlett O’Hara and the most famous exchange of dialogue between Scarlett and Rhett is delivered by the two male cast members.

There are numerous moments of humour that stop it from being too overwhelming, but at near on three hours, though it rarely lags, it does sometimes feel like the work of an artist who can’t help but keep adding and refining until some original clarity is lost. This is a complex but intriguing piece, a thing of many bricks, and it’s not always as coherent as it could be but in the last few minutes, as Carrie (compellingly played by Libby King, the emotional core of the show) delivers her final plea, everything else falls away and the audience are left listening to the cathedral-echo of her voice alone.

Reviewed for musicOMH.