Monday, February 28, 2011

Winterlong at Soho Theatre

Andrew Sheridan’s brutal debut, the joint winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize, is a play that leaves a mark, a bruise, the imprint of fingers round a thin wrist. The writing is vivid and intense, full of bleak volleys. A mother describes the many ways she could have killed her unwanted child with an almost poetic exuberance; the fallout of a nuclear blast is described with similar verve.

Oscar is a child no-one seems capable of loving. His young mother, in a relationship with a controlling, volatile man, abandons him and his grandparents struggle to show any affection for this scrap of a boy they’ve been left to raise. He grows up lonely, friendless, but not broken; he remains oddly unbowed.

The play spans a period of roughly fifteen years, from Oscar’s birth to his teenage years. Sheridan takes a recognisable kind of English domesticity and tugs at it, distorting and exaggerating it, stretching it out like a piece of well-chewed gum. Familiar things – deck chairs, a battered child’s paddling pool, an artificial Christmas tree that has seen better days – take on a new resonance in this world. The play is stuffed with perverts and aggressors, men who loiter with intent; few scenes pass without talk of bums, cum and pus. A rare moment of brightness ends with a bird shitting on someone’s head.

Everything stinks, everything is broken down; this is a world in a process of collapse and decay, shaped by pain and the inevitability of abandonment. This unrelenting quality has its moments of absurdity, there is humour in it, of a kind, and Sheridan acknowledges this and, plays upon it: scabs are picked, Mars bars are popped down pants for ‘softening.’ There is humanity as well as humour, a small buoy bobbing on a grey wave of despair, a note of hope. There needs to be.

Sarah Frankcom’s direction and the performances she draws from the cast add to this sense of balance. Harry McEntire (so memorable as Chadwick Mead in Frankcom’s production of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock) is endearingly awkward yet resilient as Oscar and it’s hard not to feel for him when he hides his face in his jumper and tries to eat his ice cream through the wool. Paul Copley and Gabrielle Reidy play his grandparents as two people who have had the colour drained from them over their lives, slump-shouldered, accustomed to upset and loss. Laurence Mitchell plays a string of characters, all differently menacing and unsettling, while Rebecca Callard plays Oscar’s mother, hardening as the play progresses.

Amanda Stoodley’s set is fittingly non-naturalistic, a cave-like space with a fractured, cracked floor and walls made up of the acquired junk of life: suitcases, tennis rackets, and an old television set piled and packed under plastic sheeting like a cross between a suburban attic and a crime scene. At the end of each scene, the props are piled in a growing heap in the corner, like rubbish on a tip.

While the influences of the writing are at times all too obvious, Sheridan’s play feels like a work in a particular tradition rather than a pastiche. It has its own rhythms and cadences, its own drive, though the pacing sometimes wavers and there are slumps as well as highs. The final scene, a bit too cyclical and neat perhaps, has a power of its own and the play as a whole has the capacity to leave the audience dazed and gaping. There is a moment of hesitancy before the applause begins.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Biting Point at Theatre 503

In a time of protest and unrest, Sharon Clark’s new play, The Biting Point, looks back to the early 1980s, to a time when riots scorched the streets of Southall and Brixton.

The play tells the stories of three characters, a police officer, an angry young man and an ANL supporter, in the days running up to a big march. Clark takes time and care in fleshing out their back-stories and in showing their motivations to be complex, messy and human. Yet even though there’s something slightly too forced and obvious about this desire to show that things are never clear cut as you think and that everyone has their reasons for behaving as they do, Clark goes about it in an intriguing way.
The march itself acts as a catalyst for the out-spilling of suppressed emotions. In many ways this is not a play about the riots at all, they’re simply a means of – violently – bringing these people together.

Malcolm is a hardworking young man who spends much of his spare time looking after his sister who has learning difficulties. He’s kind and patient, a dedicated carer, but it takes all his energy to remain so. He wants more and is beginning to grasp quite how much his sister is holding him back. Things come to a head when he invites a girl he’s attracted to back to their house.

Dennis is a teacher who’s involved in a relationship with one of his students, Anna. He despises himself but he’s weak and she knows it; Anna takes pleasure in exploiting the evident power she has over him. Ruth completes this narrative triangle. She speaks in a succession of oddly charged monologues, ever wary, her body tensing when a hand knocks at the door.

Charlie Holloway gives a an admirably slow-burning performance as Malcolm, a man accustomed to ignoring his own needs and wants, and swallowing his rage until it threatens to choke him. (It is more than fitting that his sister has an obsession with volcanoes and earthquakes). He’s been abandoned by his parents, left to fend for himself, and Clark paints a convincing picture of someone who might find solace and support in an extremist group. Gyuri Sarossy‘s Dennis is revealed to be quite reprehensible in some ways but he retains a degree of charisma throughout. Lizzie Roper’s Ruth stands apart from the other characters. Hers is an intense performance but the character’s instability never quite convinces.

Dan Coleman’s production is measured and restrained and benefits from Mark Friend’s aptly jagged, Futurist set. It’s testament to Coleman’s skill that the production’s most gripping moment is when Malcolm calmly destroys something very precious of his sister’s. Interestingly, when the three stories finally collide, in a suburban back garden with the roar of the crowd and the angry crunch of boots on tarmac growing louder around them, the tension dissipates somewhat. The conclusion lacks the punch of what has gone before.

Clark is rather too deliberate in the way she plays with audience expectations. She holds off assigning ‘sides’ to her characters until near the end – when they all don their various ‘uniforms’ before heading into the fray – but there’s something cautious about her approach, her careful muddying of the moral waters, that means her play is not as hard hitting as it might have been.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Our Private Life at the Royal Court

Pedro Miguel Rozo’s self-labelled family parable is set in a Columbian village on the cusp of becoming a town. Despite the opening of a shiny new shopping mall with its promise of material pleasures and a veneer of urban sophistication, the community still operates like a village; rumours can still spread like a spark through dry grass and the currents of gossip can still pull a man down.

Nothing is truly private in such a place and Rozo emphasises this by muddying the line between interior and exterior. The characters thoughts are often spoken out loud so that not only the audience but also the other characters, can hear them. It is not uncommon for one character to admonish another for not thinking more quietly.

Our Private Life is the first of two plays presented by the Royal Court along with readings and seminars and a second play, Aleksey Scherbak’s Remembrance Day, as part of what they’re terming an International Playwrights Season.

A rumour is doing the rounds that Carlos’s father molested his twelve year old farmhand and this makes Carlos, a “bi-polar compulsive fantasist”, worry that his father may have done the same thing to him when he was a boy. He turns first to Sergio, his older brother (or half-brother, as it turns out), whose marriage and success as a businessman have failed to endear him to their father, and then to his psychiatrist, whose willingness to help Carlos excavate his childhood memories owes much to his desire to own a nicer car.

Rozo’s play, presented in a translation by Simon Scardifield, has a sensational quality and the characters make constant reference to the way unfolding events resemble something out of a daytime soap or a movie. In this light, the performances are pitched at an appropriate level of artifice, encompassing extremes of emotion, with Colin Morgan’s pipe cleaner-limbed Carlos exploding into tears like a hysterical toddler before trying to do away with himself with a butter knife, or the whole family perkily embarking on a doomed Christmas dinner before this too breaks down around them.

Morgan came to prominence in the Young Vic’s adaption of Vernon God Little and indeed Lyndsey Turner’s production shares something of that novel’s Technicolor excess as well as certain parallels of plot; there are also definite echoes of the films of Almodovar in the play’s manner of exaggeration, its relationship with the absurd, and in scenes in which Ishia Bennison’s volatile matriarch flings her prosthetic breast across the kitchen table.

Morgan is springy and boyish, his eyes suggesting both damage and a degree of glee at the chaos wrought. Bennison, as his mother, hits on an intriguing balance as a woman trying to protect her husband from the waves of accusation and ultimately shielding only herself; she maintains a shell that only occasional breaks. Adrian Schiller has the requisite air of tainted professional dignity as the psychiatrist whose wardrobe and whiskey of choice improve in quality as paranoia becomes increasingly rampant in town and his services are more frequently called upon.

Shunt’s Lizzie Clachlan’s set consists of a versatile green sliding panel that resembles a Japanese shōji door in the way it suggests that nothing is ever fully concealed; seen in silhouette it also brings to mind the screen in a confessional.

The pay-off, when it comes – in the form of a downbeat coda- lacks the chill of revelation; the use of sexual abuse as metaphor seems an overplayed device and after the near-cartoonish tone of all that’s gone before, the ugliness that finally comes to light strikes an uneasy note – possibly not in the way intended.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ordinary Days at the Trafalgar Studios

As one of the characters in Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days points out, her Manhattan is not a Gershwin Manhattan. And yet the soundtrack of her city is not entirely unfamiliar either; it’s literate and witty and inward-looking, full of lyrics about Virginia Woolf, the pairing of red wine with fish and the labyrinthine floor-plan of the Met Museum. It’s well-read and tinged with angst, full of echoes of Jason Robert Brown, Jonathan Larson and Michael John LaChiusa. But while there’s a strong sense of having visited this place before, its characters are recognisable in a good way and it contains a decided emotional charge, balancing out cynicism with sentiment - though at times veering too much towards the latter.

Ordinary Days is a song cycle made up of two New York stories that touch each other without intersecting. Claire and Jason (played by Julia Atherton and Daniel Boys ) are a young couple who finally decide to take the plunge and move in together, but instead of drawing them closer together, this only accentuates the distance between them. Deb is a grad student who’s been so busy running away from the cul-de-sac she grew up on that she’s lost sight of what’s she’s running towards. When her lost thesis notes find their way into the hands of artist’s assistant, Warren, he views the event as kismet, a fated moment, while she just wants the damn things back so she can appease her professor.

The closer Jason tries to get to Claire the more she withdraws. Atherton and Boys have a crabby chemistry which they milk on their duets, particularly during the snippy passive-aggressive back and forth of ‘Fine’. And Atherton demonstrates just how skilled a performer she is when tackling the show’s big emotional number, I’ll Be Here; this is a song that could so easily have come across as mawkish, as manipulative, and yet in her hands it’s delicate and devastating, a genuinely moving moment.

Alexia Khadime, as Deb, and Lee William-Davis, as Warren have slightly less to play with. Khadime’s sweetly soaring voice stands in marked contrast with her character’s fractious personality and she’s gifted with – and revels in – the funniest lines; William-Davis is also endearing though he doesn’t quite nail the needy geekiness of Warren.

Sometimes the writing becomes bogged down with cliché –there’s a riff about overly complicated coffee ordering which feels tired out before it's finished – but director Adam Lenson keeps things light. He knows how to play up the musical’s qualities, having staged it at the Finborough Theatre in 2008 prior to this re-staging in the similarly sized, Trafalgar Studio 2. Indeed space is something of an issue here. While the studio allows for a superb degree of intimacy (with both the performers and with the audience - you could hear each teary sniffle as the show hit its emotional crescendo), it’s also constrictive. With the musicians on stage, the limited floor space is limited further and the performers have little room for manoeuvre, especially when entering and exiting.   The final visual flourish, the moment that unites the two stories, also loses some of its power as a result – if ever a scene needed a higher ceiling, it’s this one.

Alistair Turner’s set is a collection of slightly scuffed white cubes, a basic reproduction of the New York skyline which also double as a set of shelves onto which objects can be placed; this twinning is particularly apt as this is a musical much concerned with our personal debris, the things we hold on to and the things we choose to let go. 

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, February 11, 2011

Beachy Head at Jackson's Lane Theatre

Beachy Head, the dramatic white headland of the South Downs, is one of the UK’s most notorious suicide spots. Every year a small number of people will choose to end their life there and it’s this, an attempt to explore this drive towards self-obliteration, which forms the subject matter of Analogue’s production, recast and revised since its appearance at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe (where I first saw it).
Two filmmakers, Joe and Matt, in the process of gathering footage for a project on lighthouses, inadvertently capture the last moments of a young man’s life.  He takes off his boots, throws them aside, and steps off the cliff edge.
As their shock gives way to fascination and curiosity, the two men find themselves becoming increasingly interested in this man’s story. They track down his widow, Amy, and with her permission they begin to make a film about his, Stephen’s, life, something she initially finds useful as a tool for helping her work through – and work out – her emotions.
The production hinges on the moral implications of their actions, or rather their inaction, as they fail to tell Amy about the existence of the footage of her husband’s death, something that becomes increasingly difficult to do as Joe in particular grows closer to the young woman.
The reasons for Stephen’s suicide remain opaque. He is glimpsed in flashback as an introverted and contemplative man, a writer of children’s stories, but he remains a flickering figure, half-hidden, a memory. The company never present a clear-cut reason for his actions, acknowledging in the process the difficulty of doing so, that certain things will always be unknowable.
Instead they turn the production in on itself, examining the very idea of making art about suicide and interrogating the film-maker’s (and indeed the theatre-maker’s) motivations in creating such a piece. The obvious reference point is Eric Steel’s documentary film The Bridge and this is cited by the company as such. It’s interesting to note that (according to Wikipedia that is) a film on Beachy Head suicides was commissioned by Channel 4 but never broadcast.
The production, a devised collaborative piece created by Dan Rebellato, Emma Jowett, Hannah Barker, Liam Jarvis and Lewis Hetherington, makes considerable use of video, live and pre-recorded. A screen at the back of the set is used for the projection of images – of the beckoning sky, of the cool tile of a mortuary; on the reverse of the screen is a mirror, which is used to shift the audience’s perspective and amplify the sense of aloneness as Amy lies in the bed she once shared with her husband. These multimedia elements are never jarring and are, for the most part, well integrated with the fabric of the production and the moment when the filmmakers’ desk, complete with editing equipment, is transformed into the cliff itself is a unifying and potent one.
The narrative is interspersed with scenes in which a pathologist (played by Sarah Belcher) describes her work, the autopsy process, the statistics surrounding suicide, with the necessary professional detachment. This sense of detachment seeps into the piece itself and Joe and Matt never really emerge as characters. Katie Lightfoot, as Amy, however, manages to convey a plausible mixture of shock and a dazed kind of calm at her character’s sudden bereavement while Dan Ford’s Stephen remains – perhaps inevitably – an enigma.
Reviewed for, small drum roll, Exeunt

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Water at the Tricycle Theatre

Though Water, a devised piece by physical theatre company Filter and the director David Farr, was first seen on stage in 2007, it feels just as relevant today in the wake of a number of climate change plays, including the National’s recent multi-authored Greeland.
Not that Water is a climate change play in the conventional sense. The subject is dealt with, but on a human and intimate level; the company tells two stories that intertwine and echo one another while remaining separate. In the first, Graham, unsociable by nature, awkward and somewhat Eeyore-ish, travels to Canada for his estranged father’s funeral; there he meets his younger half-brother and discovers some unexpected truths about the man his father really was.
In the second thread, Claudia, a hard-working political adviser, strives to create some kind of global accord on climate change while in the process jeopardising her relationship with her boyfriend, Joe, a cave diver with his eyes set on the world record. Claudia and Graham both end up in Vancouver, in a glossy waterfront hotel, but they never meet.
Sound plays an integral part in the production and Filter’s co-founder, the composer Tim Philips, creates an atmospheric sonic collage of sound effects and music, punctuated by the thud-thud of a heart-beat, the thwack of a squash ball, and cumulating in the unnerving roar of water as a lone man descends into uncharted darkness.
Though the spectre of global warming and the threat of rising sea levels background the narrative, they are only one aspect of a production in which the human drama is pushed to the fore. The focus remains fully on these two individuals, both at crisis points in their lives.
Filter’s Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts and Victoria Moseley share all the roles between themselves, switching nimbly between characters; the backstage crew are also occasionally roped in when a scene requires it and Philips is always visible at the side of the stage, so that the technical process of creating the sound effects is incorporated into the fabric of the production. This perception of transparency is a trait that runs through much of Filter’s work – the cast saunter on stage before the show officially ‘starts’ and are introduced by name – but it’s complementary rather than intrusive, a balance is always maintained.
Enough room has been left for characters to evolve. Roberts has perhaps the hardest task in this regard, playing both the dour, unsettled Graham and his more ebullient father, a successful marine biologist and an early cautionary voice about the consequences of global warming; he manages to differentiate between the two men while subtly underlining the paternal connection. Moseley elegantly sidesteps cliché as Claudia, a woman who lives for her work, who is driven and determined to a point that borders on self-sabotage. Dimsdale’s two characters, Graham’s younger brother and Claudia’s boyfriend, are less shaded in comparison though this is more to do with the shape the play takes than his capabilities.
It’s true that if one were to strip away the sound effects, the numerous inventive touches and the inflatable fish, then the story might feel anaemic in places; one could also justifiably argue that the techniques used here have been used more dynamically elsewhere, but both observations would be churlish. Substance and surface walk hand in hand in this production, they perform an intricate dance, they form a mutually rewarding partnership.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Friday, February 04, 2011

Greenland at the National Theatre

The polar bear is something of a lumbering paradox; it could kill a man with ease and yet it seems so vulnerable in its whiteness, a vulnerability that has only intensified as its Arctic habitat has come under threat.

For this reason the bear, an animal both threatened and threatening, has come to serve as a easy symbol for the damage climate change seems likely to wreak on the planet, for all the things we stand to lose. So the presence of a polar bear in the National Theatre’s attempt to tackle the suject is not exactly surprising, is in fact pretty predictable, and yet this ursine cameo is handled so delightfully that its predictability is eclipsed.

The appearance of the bear, the work of Blind Summit’s puppet-master Mark Down, creates a moment of awe and wonder amid an otherwise noisy and tangled production. Greenland is issue theatre, or perhaps more correctly, Issue Theatre. It takes the subject of climate change and attempts to graft narrative onto it, to inject dramatic life into it. To do this the National has drafted in four writers: Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne.

The production has a jumbled quality, a franticness, though it eventually becomes possible to tease out a number of distinct narrative strands: a young boy with a passion for geography grows up to lead an isolated life studying sea birds in the Arctic Circle; a young girl, much to her parents’ bafflement and dismay, drops out of college to become an activist; the most developed strand, set in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, involves an ambitious political adviser and her burgeoning relationship with a scientist whose projected climate models present a bleak picture for the future of the human race.

These stories are interspersed with other characters, other voices, the most interesting being a pair of delegates from Mali. Together they present a less familiar picture, that of a country already feeling the real effects of climate change, encroaching deserts and disrupted rain patterns. But no sooner have they said their piece than they are ushered to one side in a way which could, optimistically, be read as a comment on the general media coverage of the issues at hand.

Bijan Sheibani’s production is certainly slick. That’s not intended as a dig; the staging is always visually striking and there are moments of real invention and magic: the polar bear, the silhouettes of swooping circling guillemots. At other times there is a sense of excess and repetition: first plastic bottles fall from the ceiling, then paper, and finally both rain and wind machines get a work-out. Music is used throughout; there’s a brief burst of It’s Raining Men and a rather heavy-handed dance sequence to the strains of Come Fly With Me, presumably intended to illustrate the irony of all the air travel that an event like Copenhagen entails. The obvious parallel is with Rupert Goold’s Enron - and the production’s dramaturg is Goold’s regular collaborator Ben Power. Yet while the markers of the musical, the air of showiness, felt like a bombastic but logical choice for a play about banking and commerce, they feel somewhat shoe-horned in here.

There are some strong individual performances, particularly from the ever-watchable Lyndsey Marshal, and there are also a number of moments of genuine humour, yet the overriding tone is didactic and clichéd - the strand with the young activist is particularly limp - and the whole thing has a stitched-together quality

This is one of a growing wave of plays about climate change. Richard Bean’s The Heretic (chosen promotional image: the polar bear) at the Royal Court looks set to cover similar ground while Steve Waters’ potent double-bill, The Contingency Plan, has already shown that’s it’s possible to merge gripping and plausible writing with the idea of a threatened world. Here, while it’s possible to glean the thinking behind the exercise, the weight of all the voices serves to sink things.

Reviewed for musicOMH