Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets at BAC

The Bayou is the sore on the underside of the city, a place where cockroaches congregate and children run wild; it’s cankerous and festering, riddled with petty crime and suspicious stains.

This is the setting for the latest offering by 1927, the company responsible for the darkly enchanting
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and it once again sees them blending live performance with animation to create something that resembles a living graphic novel.

This new piece feels more developed and ambitious than their earlier show; while Devil consisted of a series of amusingly macabre vignettes, this piece presents a more wholly realised world. There’s a greater clarity of voice and vision, a keener eye for the grotesque.

Suzanne Andrade’s script focuses on a group of characters who live in the sticky, seedy Bayou Mansions on Red Herring Street. Agnes Eaves moves into the building with her little cartoon daughter Evie and a vague notion that she can solve some of the social problems with craft workshops and an abundance of yogurt pots filled with PVA glue. The building’s caretaker, who is diligently saving his paycheques to buy his way out of the place, takes a shine to Agnes, but his attentions go unnoticed. At the same time the marauding silhouette children start to stray into the city’s parks and, what is worse, to make demands – “we want what you have” - so the mayor decides to round them all up and pump them full of drugs that will make them docile and compliant.

The fantastical elements help to sweeten what is a surprisingly bitter, if decidedly timely, pill. The faint strains of A Spoonful of Sugar can even be heard at one point as the authorities prepare to dope the children into submission. What might have floundered or appeared heavy-handed in a more conventional dramatic production is here able to sneak past the guards and wave its placards. The show is ribboned with a sense of bleak resignation; as the owner of the Bayou junk shop explains to her revolutionary-minded daughter Zelda, the leader of a pirate street gang: if you’re “born in the Bayou, you die in the Bayou.” This is a show that presents its audience with the illusion of choice between an idealist and a realist ending but inevitably comes down on the side of the real: no happy endings here, the grind continues.

Paul Barritt’s animation, sepia toned and splashed with crimson, is rich with reference from the Constructivists through to Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen. The meshing of live action and animation proves more versatile than before. While a certain static quality is inevitable, it only adds to the distinctive style of the piece and motion is successfully and amusingly conveyed by having streets spiral away behind the protagonists as they run on the spot. Despite the use of Cyrillic lettering and Soviet fonts, the piece is not rooted in any one place or time, which allows it a greater resonance and, while there are plenty of sight gags and teasing details, the animations also works in harmony with Andrade’s witty and pleasingly rhythmic script.

The Bayou’s various characters are divvied up between Andrade and Esme Appleton, their faces greased a moon-like white, while Lillian Henley provides live musical accompaniment throughout. Among their various roles, Andrade mutely plays the shock-headed caretaker, with Jamie Adams’ perfectly-pitched voice-over supplying his thoughts, while Appleton plays Agnes with her sweetly wholehearted belief that with enough dried pasta shapes and poster paint you can successfully heal an oozing wound.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bea at Soho Theatre

Bea is first seen bouncing on her bed. A Madonna song is playing on the stereo as she springs about her bedroom with an adolescent energy. Yet as Mick Gordon’s new play unfolds it becomes clear that this exuberant, excitable young woman is the inner Bea, the real Bea is only occasionally glimpsed lying limp on the bed she never leaves.

Gordon’s previous On Theatre projects have been collaborative, co-written with people like A C. Grayling (On Religion) or the neuropsychologist Paul Broks (
On Emotion). This new play is a solo effort and eschews the ‘On’ moniker, though On Empathy or On Euthanasia would be fitting subtitles.

Bea is a young woman with a chronic, debilitating condition that has seen her confined to bed for eight years. She’s in need of constant care; someone else has to feed her, to wash her, to dress her. Her mother, a prickly, protective barrister, hires the camp and verbally incontinent Ray as her daughter’s new carer. He’s verbose but sensitive and Bea is able to communicate with him, though how much of what she says to him is actually vocalised is unclear. What is clear is that Bea wants to die; she does not consider her life to be worth living any longer and wants to end it, something she will need help to achieve. She dictates a letter to Ray to this end so that she can better explain her wish to her mother.

While Bea’s decision to end her life provides the play with its core, the tone of the piece is upbeat and vibrant, almost aggressively so in places. It seems determined not to be a downer, not until it needs to be. And so, for the most part, this is very much a play about life and living; the inner Bea cannot be contained for long and she frequently takes over, laughing and singing and dancing. Alice Woodward's colourful set reflects this. It’s dominated by an oversized bed and a backboard studded with gaudy earrings; it’s a teenage space, punctured by the occasional piece of grey medical kit; in many ways it looks as if a pause button has been pressed, her bedroom still looks like that of a girl, not of the woman she has become. Time in this room has stopped. There’s poignancy in the details: the party dresses unworn (except by Ray) and the furniture unused.

Sometimes the play is thin-skinned, in that its internal workings all too visible – this is particularly true when Ray describes a common test for autism and explains the concept of mind-blindness. A question is clearly posed to the audience: how possible is it for us to understand another person’s pain? At other times the play is less keen to explain itself and there remains a question mark over how Bea and Ray communicate; how many of their interactions are verbal, how many are sensed? How much of what Bea ‘says’ does she actually say? Her mother sometimes appears not to hear her at all, but is this just part of her character, this need not to hear the things that will be too difficult or upsetting? It’s true that as the play progresses Bea’s mother seems better able to hear her.

Often this doesn’t matter and it’s enough that Ray understands her and makes her happy, but it become more pertinent when he administers certain services to the sex-starved Bea. This is presented as a liberating and appealingly anarchic moment (Ray has just completed a most unique reading of A Streetcar Named Desire) but even so there’s a sense of uneasiness about what is actually occurring.

In both tone and content the production is reminiscent of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a play which contrasted a young mentally ill woman’s inner world with her stark, bleak, medicated reality, though in that world the line between the two was a solid one, a brutal cut off, whereas here Bea slips and slides between her two states.

All three performances are strong. Pippa Nixon manages to convey both Bea’s inner vitality and the physical reality of her situation. Al Weaver is hurricane-like as Ray; his comic energy is remarkable, words simply spill from him, a constant flow, which while just as the character is written is in some ways too much – he’s too dominant a force. Paula Wilcox is, by necessity, more understated as Bea’s brittle mother.

Gordon’s previous plays have been in the business of sparking debate, setting up questions and situations that require picking over, and yet here the fundamental question of Bea’s desire to die goes oddly unchallenged. It is presented as necessary and right, which may well be true but the audience is left with little space to decide this for themselves. That said Gordon manages to avoid pressing too many overtly emotional buttons and the play is thought-provoking, genuinely funny and undeniably powerful: life plays the lead here and death is very much a supporting character.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quality Street at the Finborough Theatre

First performed in 1901 in New York, J.M Barrie’s romantic comedy was a hugely popular thing in its day, and did indeed inspire the brand of chocolates that still bear its name. Though there was a time when it was oft-revived, the play hasn’t been staged in London since 1946, but the Finborough, who also recently staged Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows, have decided to rectify that, reviving it as part of their continuing Rediscoveries season.
Louise Hill’s production is light of foot and warm of heart. Barrie’s play is set during the Napoleonic Wars; when dashing doctor Valentine Brown enlists in the army, Phoebe Throsell abandons her hopes of marrying him and resigns herself to life as a faded old maid and reluctant school teacher. When he returns some years later, Phoebe is stung by the fact he thinks she has not aged well, that he seems to find her weary and beaten-down, so she pretends to be the flighty young thing she presumes all men desire. She lets her hair down (literally, loosing her ringlets from her school mistress’s cap) and dresses up in what she had once hoped would be her wedding gown; she simpers and giggles. The transformation is such that Brown does not recognise her and Phoebe ends up masquerading as her own gauche young niece, Livvy, her deception becoming more and more tangled as events progress. Eventually Brown ends up escorting young ‘Livvy’ to a ball to mark the Battle of Waterloo and she is pursued by every red-blooded and red-coated man in attendance.

Though Barrie’s play occasionally oozes sentiment it is not without charm. The scenes with Phoebe and her invented niece are pleasingly nimble and witty, and beneath the good natured sheen Barrie seems particularly attuned to the plight of the unmarried woman without means. Not that he dwells too long on such issues – this is not Harley Granville Barker – and Barrie soon returns to the business of steering his two lovers together.

Louise Hill (who also directed What Every Woman Knows) presents a faithful production which contains just the right amount of knowingness. It’s a difficult balance to strike and she hits it. It’s played fairly straight, with only the faintest hike of an eyebrow. Claire Redcliffe pitches her performance perfectly as Phoebe, bright and sparky, self-aware but not too removed. James Russell on the other hand is a touch too arch as Valentine. Though he returns from the war damaged and bandaged, there’s no real sense that he’s a changed man and his sudden interest in Phoebe seems to drop out of nowhere. He’s suitably dashing and has a nice wry manner, but one wishes for a hint of something more beneath the surface. Catherine Harvey brings a level of nuance and warmth to the character of Patty, the Throssels’ maid, whose optimism in regards to matters of love provides a neat contrast to that of Phoebe and her elder sister.
A large cast is squeezed with ease onto the tiny Finborough stage, while Hill manages to orchestrate all the various entrances and exits well and to make, if not exactly a virtue, than at least not a failing of the lengthy and low-tech scene changes.
The play may not be the fizziest or fiercest of comedies – and it contains some lines that are thoroughly steeped in syrup - but it’s entirely possible to see why it was so popular in its time, and in the plight of Phoebe, unmarried and fearful for her future alone, it still has a degree of resonance.

An extended version of a review for The Stage.