Thursday, January 27, 2011

Roald Dahl's Twisted Tales at the Lyric

This staging of Roald Dahl’s often macabre short stories for adults has a fitting adapter in Jeremy Dyson, the non-performing member of the League of Gentleman and more latterly the writer of the sinister Funland for the BBC as well as Ghost Stories which premiered at the Lyric before transferring to the West End.

Many of these stories, written in the 1950s before Dahl turned his hand to children’s fiction, were memorably filmed as Tales of the Unexpected. Among the five selected by Dyson are ‘William and Mary’, where a dying man’s brain is preserved in a jar, and ‘The Man from the South’, in which a sinister white-suited foreigner offers a young American a grotesque bet, one in which he gains a brand new Cadillac if he wins but forfeits a small part of his anatomy if he loses.

The latter is probably the most successfully executed with director Polly Findlay really piling on the tension (there’s some superb use of sound, a revelling in the scrape of a blade against wood). This stands in marked contrast to another of the stories in which an adulterous woman attempts to make some money by pawning an expensive mink. This section contains very little in the way of menace and suspense and the pay-off also lacks bite; this has the combined effect of making an 80 minute production feel suddenly sluggish. While its inclusion dose illustrate that not all Dahl’s tales were steeped in the grotesque and that some were about relatively normal betrayals, it seems an odd one to pick and rather sabotages the pacing of the piece.

Dyson makes an attempt to contextualise all this ugliness and cruelty by concluding with 'Galloping Foxley', a story based on Dahl’s experiences of the humiliating fagging system at Repton and containing a toilet seat-warming episode that he would also recall in vivid detail in his memoir Boy . During his schooldays, small boys were regularly and vicioulsy beaten for the most minor offences, such as failing to toast bread correctly, and this clearly had a lasting effect on Dahl. This story is dragged from a different place to the others, coloured with memory and pain, something Findlay’s production is able to convey.

These individual tales are linked togther in portmanteau fashion by a series of short scenes set on a train in which a voluble camel-coated commuter bombards his fellow travellers with the bizarre stories he’s heard. This device gives the production something of the feel of one of the Amicus anthology films that Dyson’s League collaborator Mark Gattiss recalled with evident affection in his recent BBC History of Horror. These linking scenes are not quite as taut as they might be and though they do serve to tie all these disparate stories together, it feels rather forced at times like roping animals together regardless of species. Naomi Wilkinson's design does however give the whole production a suitably noir-ish and cohesive feel

The cast take on a number of roles apiece and Selina Griffiths stands out in this capacity, switching nimbly from sinister and bedraggled landlady to frosty 1950s wife. She is gifted with one of the production’s best executed scenes as the widowed Mary, her harsh and domineering husband now just a brain in a jar, a brain and a single staring eye. Mary’s steely smile as she relishes the potential of the situation is one of the most memorable moments in an otherwise slightly underwhelming and disjointed production.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, January 24, 2011

Less Than Kind at Jermyn Street Theatre

Terence Rattigan takes no less a play than Hamlet as his cue for this work of 1944, originally intended as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence. Commercial pressure led to it being hijacked by Broadway stars of the day, the Lunts - amusingly namechecked in the text - and it eventually emerged, in substantially altered form, as Love in Idleness.

The original play, which has never before been staged as written, has been resurrected by Jermyn Street Theatre as part of the Rattigan centenary celebrations and in doing so the theatre has gained the jump on the Old Vic and the Theatre Royal Haymarket with their forthcoming productions of Cause Celebre and Flare Path

In Less Than Kind Rattigan lifts the central premise from Shakespeare’s play and transplants it to wartime London. Society hostess Olivia Brown has neglected to tell her absent teenage son, Michael, that she is in a relationship with the government minister and noted industrialist Sir John Fletcher. In his years overseas, Michael has become an ardent socialist with an adolescent disinclination to compromise and when he returns home he is appalled to discover the truth of the situation – his mother has neglected to mention the matter in her letters – and immediately takes against Sir John.

He can’t abide the man, both the fact that he’s still married and the couple are living quite contentedly in sin, and that, as a wealthy industrialist, he’s emblematic of all Michael claims to despise. He has no qualms about forcing his mother into an impossible choice between her son and her lover.

At times the play seems overly pleased with itself as a literary exercise; Rattigan heavily underlines the Hamlet parallels, explicitly pointing out Michael’s antic disposition and making a joke out of his desire that Sir John accompany him to the theatre. The play is a far stronger piece of writing when it is being less overt, when it makes a genuine attempt to explore the emotional ramifications of the situation.

The performances help to give necessary weight to Adrian Brown's production. Sara Crowe, as Olivia, is the heart of the piece, a woman who, having found not only a man whom she loves, but a social role at which she excels, is obliged to give it all up for a dingy flat in Baron’s Court. She accepts her situation with dignity and quiet resignation, and gives a sense of someone who is keen to make the best of things no matter what hand life deals her – even when it involves making one’s own powdered egg omelettes and learning to type. There is no sense of resentment towards her son, her love for him is undimmed, and there’s only the – perhaps too faint – trace of anger at her predicament. Facing up to Sir John’s younger, more effortlessly glamorous wife, Crowe combines a kind of scatty nobility with a fragile, faded quality.

Michael Simkins is suitably charming as Sir John, a sheen that is maintained even when Rattigan allows Olivia to glimpse the lengths he’ll to which he’ll go to get what he wants. His love for her seems sincere and complete but there’s a slight edge of steel to him which is entirely appropriate to the character. There’s something more unnerving about David Osmond’s Michael with his righteousness and utter lack of concern for his mother’s happiness. There’s a chill to him, a subtle undercurrent of menace to his manipulation, qualities which Osmond’s performance draws out.

While the play contains plenty of Rattigan's characteristic warmth and wit, it probably benefits greatly from the intimacy of a space like Jermyn Street Theatre. Exposed on a larger stage, the artifice and the occasional heavy-handedness of tone would be more glaring. This tiny venue is altogether kinder, allowing the play to be appreciated for what it is, not an unearthed masterwork but a piece of considerable interest nonetheless.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Poetry Links

I have a piece in the new issue of Mslexia about the growing popularity of performance poetry and spoken word for which I had the pleasure of speaking to poets Kate Fox, Molly Naylor (both of whom had solo shows at last year's Edinburgh Fringe), Sabrina Mahfouz and Indigo Williams, about writing for the stage. It isn't online yet but it's there in the magazine in shiny black and white. On a not unrelated note my review of Luke Wright's latest (and possibly most ambitious) show, Cynical Ballads, is now up on musicOMH too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tiger Country at Hampstead Theatre

Perhaps more so than any other profession, the working lives of doctors and nurses (or, at least, a dramatically palatable version of them) have come to seem intimately familiar through long running television shows; the hospital politics, the medical language, even the expected emotional journeys - of the idealistic junior doctor, of the tough female surgeon – all have a ring of the habitual.

Nina Raine attempts to defamiliarize these narratives by transferring them from screen to stage, but she only succeeds in part.

Of her large cast of characters only two really stand out. Ruth Everett, as Emily the young doctor whose hide has yet to toughen, and Thusitha Jayasundera as Vashti, the ball-breaking genitourinary surgeon, an Asian woman playing in a game still dominated by English men. The other characters remain sketches in comparison: the tough but not unkind SHO, the experienced doctor given a glimpse of his own mortality.

Raine’s production, traverse staged across a sea of institutional blue linoleum, concentrates its energies on recreating the bustle of the hospital, from the fever of the incoming emergency and the precious lulls in between to the tightrope between levity and tension in the operating theatre and the sting of having to deliver bad news.

As with her previous play for the Royal CourtTribes, Raine’s research has clearly been considerable but the play doesn’t wear it too heavily. Even so, it’s evident in the surgical-medical rivalry and sniping, the carping about the poor CD selection in the operating theatre (“oh no, not All Woman again”) and, more generally, in the interplay between the characters’ sense of resignation and weariness with the thrill and passion that drove them to study medicine in the first place. At its best the writing is reminiscent of the television work of Jed Mercurio - doctor turned novelists and screenwriter - though in a more dilute form.

Where the play truly lifts off is in the moments it hints at the things beyond the physical - the autonomic, the hunch in one’s guts, the hovering ghosts – and their necessary presence in the rational, medical world. In other places the drama is hamstrung by sheer overfamiliarity, never quite managing to reinvigorate situations that have been played out nightly on the BBC. Raine is in no way blind to this and even milks the ironies, showing a doctor unwinding after a night shift by flopping, beer in hand, in front of Doctors, (a show that must by now outrank The Bill on most actors CVs, including many of the cast).

Everett and Jayasundera strike the right notes with their respective roles and the ensemble playing is strong throughout. When Raine uses the potential of the stage to fracture the action, to make the audience look between and beyond the things they think they know (a stroke patient, dazed and dysphasic, is puzzled by the uncanny congregation around her, the sea of staring faces) then the production has real power, but this happens only intermittently and the lack of strongly defined characters does begin to become an issue as the play progresses.

Emily, confronted with the reality that she can’t save everyone as well as the growing understanding that if she becomes emotionally overinvested in every single case she will eventually burn herself out, duly toughens up while Vashti, her aunt ill following surgical incompetence, questions both herself and her priorities; none of the other characters is given much room to evolve and the result, in terms of narrative focus, is something like a photograph of a fast-moving object.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Painter at the Arcola

For JMW Turner light was all. His paintings are luminous; they shimmer with the glory of the sunlit sea, they emanate heat. In Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play about his life, his genius is the solid thing at the centre of the text, while Turner the man is far more opaque.

Having been obliged to leave their former home, the Arcola has moved to new premises in a converted paint factory on Ashwin Street. This raw, unfinished space doubles well as Turner’s studio and the atmosphere of the place counts for much in a production that sometimes seems to walk on tiptoe, its tread uncertain.

In choosing Turner as her subject, Lenkiewicz has to grapple with a familiar dilemma. How does one go about showing creative genius on stage? Take away the work and what remains? Though the son of a barber, Turner is utterly assured of his own abilities and seems to relish his role as an outsider. He speaks with mild disdain of the Royal Academy ("English painting is dead") and the ‘fashionables’ but certainly does not suffer from self-doubt; he seems quite certain that his work will live on after him yet Lenkiewicz shows him to be far less capable in his relations with other people, particularly women.

His companion, closest friend and studio assistant is his father; his mother, having lost a daughter in infancy, is gradually unravelling. She resents Turner for having survived to adulthood and though her venom seems a symptom of greater ailment, it is clear her comments cut him.  

As Turner, Toby Jones gives a strong, subtle performance, but an essentially reactive one. As played, Turner is a man who gives little away. He accepts things as they come to him and the drive he shows as an artist does not seem to translate into his personal life. He seems genuinely fond of Jenny, the prostitute who becomes the model for a series of anatomical studies, but he even terminates this relationship at the behest of his widowed neighbour, Sarah, with whom he is having a child. He builds a bond with Jenny’s young son but casts him aside too. There seems no malice in his actions; he just does as he is bidden. Denise Gough is superb as this brittle young Jenny; her love for her young son is palpable and she gives a sense that she grasps Turner’s emotional limitations far better than the other women in his life.

Amanda Boxer impresses as his distressed and volatile mother, terrified of the asylum, while Jim Bywater and Jones have an understated rapport as father and son – there is a strong sense of men familiar with each other’s habits, able to communicate without words. Niamh Cusack (who recently played another emotionally ostracised woman, Catherine Dickens, in Out of Joint’s otherwise patchy Andersen’s English) is a mix of calculation and resignation as the widow who desires Turner but knows he will not love her in return.

The play is episodic in structure and takes the form of a collection of short scenes, nicely handled individually but lacking in bite. Lenkiewucz mingles snippets of Turner’s home life with speeches drawn from his lectures to the Royal Academy and, in its fragmentary way, the play gives the audience a sense of Turner. However, having picked as a subject a man so distant, Lenkiewicz has penned herself in. He is both a presence and absence at the centre of the play and, though her writing contains - as ever - moments of lyricism, Turner's remoteness inevitably has an impact on the play’s power.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Potting Shed at the Finborough Theatre

Like Cold Comfort Farm’s Aunt Ada Doom, Graham Greene’s infrequently performed play is preoccupied by something dark at the bottom of the garden.

The play has not been seen on a London stage in forty years and, on watching it, it’s possible to grasp why this has been the case. Greene’s fixation with issues of faith and the rather ponderous way in which the play unfolds root it squarely in the past; however as a counterpoint to his work as a novelist, if only to illustrate that what works well on paper doesn’t always translate to the stage, it is an intriguing piece. 

In the play Greene returns to a familiar theme: the answered prayer. The Callifer patriarch, a renowned rationalist and chum of Bertrand Russell, is on his death bed and his friends and family have been summoned to his side – with the exception of his son James who has been all but ostracised from family life following a mysterious incident in the potting shed when he was a boy.

The first half of the play is concerned with the now middle-aged James’ desire to discover just what happened to him and why it has so split the family (an uncle who became a Catholic priest has also been painted out of the picture). While the play contains some pleasingly crisp lines of dialogue, the plotting is repetitive with James continually pleading with his mother to tell him what happened – for he has no memory of the event, no memory of his childhood at all – and her continually refusing to bend.
Eventually, with the help of his inquisitive niece, James is able to track down his uncle and discover the cause of the family rift; the play hinges on this moment of revelation and the scene between James and his uncle is the strongest in the play. But it takes an age to get there; there’s a stiff quality to the early scenes and while Greene does appear to have tried to build a sense of tension and mystery, it doesn’t quite come off.

Svetlana Dimcovic’s production for the Finborough is solidly staged and draws some strong performances from the cast. Paul Cawley, as James, slowly develops from the passive and baffled man of the opening scenes, through methedrine-fuelled desperation to dig up the truth, to a kind of contentment. Martin Wimbush, in his brief turn as the whisky-sodden Father William Callifer is also impressive, giving a sense of man who has lost some vital part of his himself, and Zoe Thorne is appealing as Anne, James’ young niece whose openness stands in marked contrast to her family’s tendency to bury the things they find disagreeable.

The main hurdle, which this revival can’t quite get over, is the crux of the play itself. Greene’s depiction of faith and its loss, the literalness of it, feels heavy-handed and forced on the stage; to contemporary eyes there is even the danger of it appearing daft. Interestingly, with the exception of Anne and perhaps also of Father William, the characters simply don’t take shape in the same manner as the characters of his novels do; they seem flat in comparison, despite being stood there in front of the audience. That said, the play has an appealing oddness about it and as a thing of its time and for those who know Greene's work well, it is of real interest, particularly in the way it echoes themes from his novels. 

Reviewed for musicOMH