Friday, May 28, 2010

Ingredient X at the Royal Court

Oh my, where to begin? After all the superb plays I've seen at the Royal Court recently, they decide to put this on Upstairs?

Nick Grosso’s new play is about addiction in all its forms. His characters are a collection of recovering addicts, partners of addicts, addicts in denial about their own addictions, and even someone who’s a veteran of several relationships with addicts: an addict-addict.

Rosanna, Deanna and Katie are three friends in their early forties. It’s a Saturday night and they’re planning a night in with the X Factor in Katie’s apartment. Rosanna is abrasive and mouthy, always on the verge of taking offence to something or losing her temper. Deanna is a mother of four who’s made a life for herself despite a rough background. Katie is far milder than her friends; with a failed relationship with an addict rock star under her belt, she’s now married to recovering drug addict Frank, with whom she has a new baby.

At the centre of the play lies a dialogue over whether addiction is a choice or a disease. Katie firmly believes that it’s an illness, that addicts have little say in their behaviour, that it’s a part of them, hard-wired. Rosanna is dismissive of this and takes the opposite view. Deanna just wants another drink, preferably with ice (though this is negotiable).

While there are some amusing verbal volleys, in Deanna’s disgust at the prospect of drinking rum and apple juice and in a couple of Rosanna’s scorn-tinged monologues (with each vowel stretched like an elastic band: "shaaat uuup"), there’s something very false and strained about most of the writing.

These people don’t interact with one another in a convincing way. They certainly don’t behave like the kind of friends who’d care to spend an evening together. There’s little sense of a shared past between them and they don’t act like people who like each other or even know each other that well. Rosanna and Deanna pass continuous comment on Katie’s relationships, current and past, and treat Frank like their personal butler. Katie is less of a character than a series of excerpts from a self help book, her talk is all of "co-dependency" and "obsessive tendencies"; she’s a cool counterpoint to Rosanna's unrelenting acidity but this doesn't really compensate for her lack of personality.

Grosso's play is also stuffed with characters we never see - children, ex-partners, neighbours - to the point when it becomes tiresome to keep track of them all. This is most evident towards the end of the play where a point of catharsis is reached following the death of a character who, until then, has neither been seen nor mentioned. The resulting emotional crisis seems to come from nowhere and feels hollow as a result.

A playwright shouldn’t have to hold the audience’s hands and explain the motivation behind every action, but in a play like this there needs to be some shape, some visible path – Grosso just steers his characters round in endless circles. At one point Deanna has a brief moment of revelation about her drinking habits – the black outs, the soaked bed sheets, the gradual dawning that she might have a problem – but a few moments later they’re all discussing online dating. There’s no shift in the dynamic between them, no sign that such a confession ever took place. If this is meant to be a commentary on denial, both of the addict and those around them, on the way people sometimes fail to notice the distress of those close to them, it fell well short.

Lesley Sharp is a fine actress and hers is at least a cohesive performance in that every gesture and swagger seems committed to making Rosanna as unlikeable as possible; there is not one chink of warmth or humour in her hard fa├žade. Indira Varma seems very much miscast as Katie. For one thing she's a glorious looking woman, even clad in shapeless grey sweats, so it’s jarring to hear the other two repeatedly refer to how haggard and worn she’s looking when this is clearly anything but the case. This seems like a small point but it matters because one starts to wonder whether they’re trying to undermine her confidence or whether they’re actually concerned for her. Lisa Palfrey has a decent sense of comic timing as Deanna and her character provides some of the few genuine laughs (as oppose to the many awkward, uncertain ones). James Lance, as Frank, just seems rather distant from everything but perhaps that’s just his response to having these two women in his home.

Katie and Frank’s flat, as presented in Ben Stones’ set, is very sleek, spacious and urban, with an abundance of exposed brick and a huge, double-doored American fridge. This seems oddly out of keeping with the world the characters appear to live in (apparently they all have homes on the same cul de sac and can easily pop into one another's houses – Frank doesn’t even seem to require keys to do this).

The final scene sees Frank cleaning up after his guests have departed. Silence is an underused tool in the theatre and there’s a lot that can be told through the way a character performs everyday activities; presumably this was meant to provide a note of hope, of healing, but Deborah Bruce's production couldn’t quite sell it, instead it was just five minutes of watching a man load a dishwasher.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, May 21, 2010

Peter Pan at the Barbican

"I think that to die would be an awfully big adventure."

There has always been an inherent darkness in Peter Pan, with its land full of lost and abandoned boys longing for a mother to love them, its crocodiles with ticking guts and a taste for human flesh, but rarely has there been a version as murky as John Tiffany’s production for the National Theatre of Scotland.

In David Greig’s adaptation the haunting and iconic story of the boy who never grows up has been transplanted to J.M. Barrie’s native Scotland and Mr Darling is working as an engineer, overseeing the construction of the Forth Bridge. He’s a stern, distracted but not unkind father who dispatches his children’s beloved dog Nana to the backyard.

When Peter Pan flies into the Darling nursery one night through an open window, he tempts and taunts the three Darling children, Wendy, Michael and John, with tales of pirates, fairies and a land where no one will tell them what to do. Seduced, they follow him home to Neverland – but Greig’s Neverland is a harsh and hostile land where the Lost Boys must fend for themselves, often going hungry if Peter fails to bring them home food.

The boys flock to Wendy like bees to lavender, demanding that she tell them stories and generally look after them. Their biggest adversary, apart from hunger, is Captain Hook – here kilt-wearing, tattooed and fearsome in appearance – the one-handed pirate chief.

Tiffany’s staging is often visually very striking. Tinkerbell is depicted as a tiny flickering ball of flame, not entirely dissimilar to the fiery, molten rivets that are thrown about by the young lads working on the Forth Bridge. The flying apparatus is also always visible and the characters bounce and clamber across the set in a manner reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (albeit with the wires and harnesses on display); Peter even, at one point, takes a stroll down one side of the Barbican's proscenium arch. But the production is hampered by an uncertainty of tone and a certain acoustic muddiness, whole lines of dialogue get swallowed up or are only half-audible.

There’s a lack of tension in many of the scenes and an excess of rawness in others. Peter’s fury on finding that Wendy has grown older is unsettling and frightening (and made the young girl sitting next to me start to cry) but other potentially potent moments, such as when Peter brings a poisoned Tinkerbell back to life or the final approach of Hook's crocodile nemesis (represented by a sole reptilian eye), feel rather rushed and lacking in magic.

Davey Anderson’s Scottish music - a collage of folk tunes and working men’s songs - is evocative and Laura Hopkins' set is clever and versatile, with segments of the Forth Bridge revolving to reveal the vines and forests of Neverland.

Kirsty Mackay, as Wendy, strikes a good balance between a girl thirsty for adventure and a woman forced to play mother to a whole tribe, while Kevin Guthrie captures something of both the romance and isolation of Peter, the eternal boy, untouched by time, unburdened by memory, utterly free but also forever alone

Reviewed for musicomh

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky at the Lyric

The world is about to end. A cosmic string is about to slice and dice the universe and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. We’re all going to die.

This is the backcloth to A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, a new play by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens. The imminent end of everything brings the spectacularly messy Benton clan back together, to spend their last moments as a family. The five Benton brothers range in age from the terminally ill William, who may not live long enough to die along with everyone else, to teenage Philip, who is just awakening to his homosexuality knowing he will have little chance to fully experience love, intimacy, sex.

This is a family blessed with more than their fair share of secrets and dark, buried things. Some of these are allowed to surface, others remain half-submerged and murky. One of the brothers has been left raising his grandson on his own; another has drifted off onto the fringes of society and is glimpsed hobbled and begging in Euston Square. There are hints at past indiscretions and upsets, some family taint inherited from their maternal grandmother, Dority, who sought comfort from her volatile husband in the arms of a German refugee.

Much is left ambiguous and teasingly out of focus. There are sudden springs of poetry and moments of aching tenderness. Philip and William’s fleeting instance of understanding and connection sitting out in the fields of the family farm is beautifully played and a silent scene where Anne Mitchell’s matriarch bathes her dying son is also strange and affecting in its exposure.

As the end of the world creeps closer, time starts to slip and slide and Philip is able to see into his family’s past. Yet the play allows only the slimmest of windows onto the social unravelling caused by the coming apocalypse; the characters exist in a bubble, unpunctured. The ending of life on earth feels secondary to the depiction of this single family and their complex web of stories. There is little indication of global turmoil; a skin of normality remains in place and there is always room for cheese.

Despite having three writers, the play feels - for the most part - of one voice, even though the temptation to look for the joins, to tease out favoured themes is a strong one. But for all the little flashes of magic and beauty in the writing the finished play feels as it is masking a stronger one. As it is, ideas flare up and burn out; some of the characters’ actions seem inexplicable (a beloved dog is killed) and some of the moments of emotional outburst feel unearned. The writing is also not that well served by Sean Holmes’ direction and the pacing is rather static and plodding; the characters sometimes seem to be talking at one another rather than with one another.

Most of the acting is superb, particularly from Harry McEntire, as the bright, wondering Philip, but the production as a whole feels a little awkward and unfinished, tugged, perhaps, in one too many directions.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, May 07, 2010

Eurydice at the Young Vic

This retelling of the Orpheus story by American playwright Sarah Ruhl is primarily a play about memory.

It’s a touching if whimsical piece. Orpheus and Eurydice are very much in love, giddy with it. His head may be full of music but he still has room in there for her. They get married, but on her wedding night, while chasing after a letter from her late father, she slips and falls into the black below.

The underworld is a place where people forget. You are dipped in the river and come out clean. Eurydice’s deceased but dapper dad is something of an anomaly – he still knows how to read and write; he still remembers. When Eurydice arrives in the underworld (by elevator) her father knows her but she does not know him. She speaks the language of the dead, a language without music, without memory. Books baffle her. Her father gradually teaches her who he is, who she is. He constructs a room out of string so they can be together again.

Bijan Sheibani’s production began life at the Plymouth Drum and fits snugly into the Young Vic’s Maria Studio. The floor is made of metal mesh and water fountains up from the ground as well as raining down from above. There’s an intentional Alice in Wonderland quality to the piece: once in Hades, Eurydice encounters a chorus of stones (who, hard as they are, eventually weep at Orpheus’ lament) and a Lord of the Underworld, who is a little more than a brat on a souped-up tricycle.

Ony Uhiara is wide-eyed and engaging as Eurydice, sometimes childlike, sometimes wise, but it’s Geff Francis, as her father, who gives the production its heart; Eurydice’s relearning of herself and the bond she forms once more with her father are very movingly played. Orpheus’ quest to find his wife feels secondary and the awful moment when, attempting to lead her home, he turns and sees her is somewhat swallowed up.

Ruhl’s language can be a little to arch, too aware of its own poetry, but it’s potent when it needs to be. Sheibani’s production, which reunites him with his Brothers Size designer Patrick Burnier, is minimalist in its approach yet not short on atmosphere; light and water are used to create a dreamlike feeling.

At times, however, it takes on a foggy quality and the piece, as a whole, feels overlong; though the middle section of the play is magical and moving, it becomes drawn out and repetitive towards the end. It's left to a touching coda showing Orpheus’ return to the underworld – and the thought of all that music wiped away – to provide a final emotional kick.

Reviewed for musicOMH