Monday, May 23, 2011

Many Moons at Theatre 503

There are many things to admire about Alice Birch’s startling debut. It’s an assured piece of writing, a gripping exercise in the control and release of information in which she demonstrates a superb understanding of just what to give away, when to give it away, and what to hold back.

Set over a hot July day in Stoke Newington, it tells the story of four people via four interlinking monologues. These characters are initially familiar types. Ollie has just dropped out of his PhD, he highly intelligent, obsessed with the cosmos, but exceptionally socially uneasy to the point where you suspect he might be on the lower end of the autistic spectrum. Meg is pregnant and suffering from an unspecified malaise, she knows the price of every expensive kitchen gadget but has never felt real love. Juniper is incessantly perky, an eternal optimistic; she’s ‘actively’ looking for love, but hints at an inner sadness. Robert is by some way the oldest of the four, a dignified soft-spoken man caring for a wife who is slowly being lost to Parkinson’s.

Birch switches between these characters and their voices, their stories. From the beginning she sets up particular expectation which she gradually and subtly undercuts and plays with. Meg’s anaesthetised life of jam-making and Debussy is shadowed by something black; she spends her time online, clicking on hate-filled sites – she has four separate Facebook profiles. Juniper, who wears butterfly pins in her hair and describes her personality as ‘cartwheely’ has no-one to celebrate her birthday with. The nurse who looks after Robert’s wife refuses to speak to him, which sets one wondering about the particular nature of the support circle he talks about, while Ollie’s endearing nerviness around women and matters of a sexual nature hides the darkest truth of all.

Birch’s writing is poetic and rich with imagery so when she slides in an unsettling detail, which she does often, it’s doubly shocking. The performances are all of a comparable standard, relishing the power of the writing. Esther Hall captures Meg’s emotional flatness; she convinces as a comfortably off thirty-something mother-to-be yet there’s an overwhelming sense of absence to her performance – she’s both there and not there. Edward Franklin is sweet and open as Ollie which makes Birch’s revelations about his character all the more troubling. Jonathan Newth deftly captures the ambiguity of his character; he gains the audience’s sympathy and never entirely loses it even when his past comes into focus. Esther Smith, as Juniper, has the most winning role and she is quite heart-breaking in it: hopeful, kind, a little ditzy, yet conveying kind of delicate desperation underneath.

Director Derek Bond moves the characters around the stage from time to time, but otherwise the piece is quite static; he trusts the writing to do the work and it does. Where he excels is in the building of tension; this is superbly handled. The play grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go until the end and the audience’s final awkward expelling of breath. James Perkins set is stylised and elegant with two chairs and a sculptural metal sphere at its centre, the curve of the stage floor suitably askew.

Once Birch plays her hand and it becomes clearer who her characters are and what they have done, the piece is a little diminished – but only a little. There is a sense of having been here before (in this same space in fact with Stephen Brown’s Future Me) and the internet is depicted as a place, not of community but of contamination, in a way that while persuasive is ultimately overstated. The play works best as a portrait of social disconnect and of the loneliness one can feel in a city full of people; it’s a confident and exciting piece of writing, and as a debut, as a marker of things to come, it’s one to remember.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The School for Scandal at the Barbican

Deborah Warner’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s delicious comedy is a shouter. As the audience make their way into the auditorium the soundtrack is already pounding while a number of cast members strut across the stage as if on a catwalk wearing blue steel stares, Hoxton specs and man-bags along with their knee breeches and crinolines; occasionally someone in a technician’s headset and a Barbican BITE T-shirt throws a few shapes.

If you saw Warner’s production of Mother Courage at the National, you’ll recognise this stylistic landscape. Scene titles unfurl on banners or are held up on cards, the flats are intentionally flimsy and rough drawn, and there is no attempt to disguise the rumble and clank of props being assembled. The whole thing is thick with anachronism, the 18thcentury violently colliding with the 21st: there are Vivienne Westwood shopping bags, bottles of Bombay Sapphire and a whiff of urban decay. There’s something very modern in libertine Charles Surface’s debauchery; he glugs from a jug of Burgundy while sporting fashionably ratty jeans and an Indian headdress, his associates and hangers on slumped and sozzled around him.

Some of these anachronistic flourishes are inspired – particularly when Charles slakes a hangover with a can of full fat Coca Cola and something greasy and possibly from Greggs or when a vital piece of gossip is confirmed via iPhone – but sometimes it feels like Warner has taken one of those banners of hers, scrawled This Is The Concept on it in fat marker pen letters and is waving it in your face.

All that said, the exuberance of the production is seductive, compelling even, and the rapidity of Sheridan’s wit is only occasionally dampened by the racket. The principle joys come from the performances. Amid all the noise Alan Howard gives an elegant and understated performance as Sir Peter Teazle, grumbling, dogged, with an air of being permanently put upon: “was ever a man so crossed as I am?” He is well paired with Katherine Parkinson – whose delivery, as ever, is superbly measured – as his wayward and (much) younger wife. Though her character has succumbed to all the trappings of life as a lady of fashion, she is not without a heart and somewhere beneath all the snapping and sparring of the couple’s “daily jangle” they manage to suggest a degree of real affection.

Leo Bill is suitably nervy and spaced as the rakish wastrel Charles, yet beneath his array of twitches he suggests the existence of some small nugget of inner decency, however eroded. Aidan McArdle, as Joseph, the other Surface brother, a noted man of sentiment, conveys a strong sense of superficial moral solidity whilst suggesting a lack of any real resolve; at one point he is even seen enjoying some 18th century porn. This is a production particularly interested in the things underneath, the padding and girdles – and, in one case, a pair of Superman underpants – beneath the mile wide dresses and towering wigs.

The broader ensemble seems to have been differently instructed; here are performances dialled up to eleven, all snivelling and screeching, pratfalls and harsh caricature. This results in some over the top mugging but also, with the character of Moses the Jewish moneylender (played with an extravagant lisp by Adam Gillen), it presents something more testing as Warner looks the play’s anti-Semitism in the face and doesn’t attempt to pull back or soften it any way.

Sheridan’s play, with its strong distaste for hypocrisy and the pedlars of slander, remains a joyous thing to behold and Warner is faithful to its spirit; despite the 21st century visual vocabulary, she lets the play speak for itself. This is theatre as event – over three hours long and big, big, big – and it’s nothing if not memorable in its own bludgeoning way.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, May 16, 2011

And I and Silence at the Finborough Theatre

Confinement comes in many forms. The windows don’t have to have bars; lack of opportunity, lack of money and food, lack of hope: these will do the job just fine.

Naomi Wallace’s new play, And I and Silence, hops back and forth over a period of nine years in 1950s America. Dee and Jamie, two young women, one white and one black, meet in prison and become close. Together they make plans for their future. They don’t hope for much: a job they can hold onto, a room they can share, the chance to walk through the city arm in arm and drink ice-cold soda. Their dreams are small but even so they are to prove incompatible with the realities of the segregated world outside their cell.

The women rehearse together for the roles they will need to play to get by: the good servant, dedicated, capable, graceful and uncomplaining. They practice polishing invisible silver, dusting invisible shelves. They remind each other there is a line that must never be crossed, there are things they must never succumb to and there are times when the only choice left to them will be to run, though even then they must always take care never to forget their bucket and brush.

By having different performers play the characters’ older and younger selves, Caitlin McLeod’s production highlights how much the hard passing of time has shaped and changed them: the optimism of old has been dulled and something vital and bright has been drained away. While both women knew well the taste of hardship – it brought them to prison in the first place – it had not broken them; it takes a constant pattern of let downs and disappointments, an ever empty stomach, and the knowledge that even on the outside they can never really be free, to tip them over.

Produced in association with Clean Break, a company whose work explores the experiences of women in the criminal justice system, Wallace’s play has a transcendent quality; its reach stretches beyond its setting. In some ways the play has parallels in Chloe Moss’ This Wide Night (also written for Clean Break), a contemporary account of two women trying to reshape their lives on the outside and doing what they must in order to survive.

Wallace’s approach is more lyrical; her language has heat and rhythm and occasionally the dialogue is rhymed, something which is initially jarring but quickly becomes part of the play’s particular texture. It has an elegance of structure, alternating scenes of the past and present, and uniting the two threads only at the end in a moment of potent circularity. There’s a more general resonance in the way the characters rehearse their actions and behaviour, learning their lines by rote, perfecting each scene.

The performances are strong on all sides, managing to convey both a sense of unity as well as the crucial one of difference, a wearing down and wearing out. Cat Simmons and Cherrelle Skeete play the two faces of Jamie, the former a little less buoyant than the latter, her spirit slowly sapped. There’s a more overt gulf between Lauren Crace’s bright-eyed and impulsive young Dee, a woman who’ll exact gleeful revenge on a cruel prison guard even it means weeks in the hole, and Sally Oliver as the same character nine years on, still given to impulse but with some central spark starting to fade.

McLeod’s production – set in one room that, appropriately, doubles as both their cell and the sparse, cell-like place the characters end up in – has some issues with the tonal differentiation of scenes, particularly at the beginning, but as the split between what the women hope for and the harsh reality that overtakes them becomes ever wider, the piece becomes stronger, building to a bleakly inevitable – if slightly overwrought - but still moving conclusion.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I am a Camera at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

According to Christopher Isherwood’s entertainingly candid memoir Christopher and his Kind, written in the 1970s and recently filmed in all its sweaty bedroom detail by the BBC, the character of Sally Bowles was based, in part at least, on his friend Jean Ross (the surname he appropriated from a pre-literary fame Paul Bowles). But by the time Isherwood got around to this further act of ‘fixing’ there were already numerous versions of Sally out there, both on film and on stage.

John van Druten’s 1951 play, I Am a Camera, which would in turn inspire the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, is based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, particularly the Sally Bowles section (which had been originally published as a stand-alone volume by the Hogarth Press) though it also contains bits and pieces from The Landauers.

Fittingly the whole thing takes place in Christopher’s rented room where he agonises over his typewriter, craving distraction, “waiting for something to happen”; the social turmoil of 1930s Germany is a reality but – initially at least – a rather distant one. Christopher and Sally find numerous excuses for drinking, socialising and generally enjoying all that nocturnal Berlin has to offer; occasionally, in an effort to make some money, he gives English lessons to Natalia, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish department store owner.

Mark Jackson’s performance is nicely judged; he is wry, laconic, a trifle prim, given to hypochondria, and the perfect foil for Vicki Campbell’s Sally Bowles. She arrives in a predictable blur of peacock feathers and green nail varnish, but rapidly wraps herself in the role, making it her own – no easy thing. There’s something incredibly open about her performance; she’s voluble and physical, knocking back prairie oysters and warm champagne as if each drink might be her last, but when reality punctures this whirlwind world of theirs, she crumbles in a most dramatic fashion. Her eyes brim with tears, her mascara threatens to run in black rivers down her cheeks; she blubs and gulps like a child.

They make a well-matched pair. He is (relatively) reserved, she is all energy and display, self-involved and prone to hymning her own self-perceived quirkiness – as she tells Christopher on their first meeting, “I think I’m rather a strange and extraordinary person” – and yet she gets away with it. As Campbell so well conveys, there is also something vulnerable about her, a huggable quality that stops her from being utterly unbearable.

They’re supported by a strong and cohesive ensemble cast. Erika Poole is suitably amiable and quasi-maternal as Frau Schroeder, Herr Issyvoo’s landlady, which makes her parroting of the Nazi party line about the Jews even more jarring. Natalie Ball is composed and somewhat intense as Natalia, a woman who has the rug pulled out from under her by emotions she had not expected to feel and does not know how to process.

Though Amy Yardley’s set design, with its bold white slogans – the writing literally on the wall – leaves the audience no escape from what is occurring in the outside world, yet it takes a while for these events to infiltrate Christopher and Sally’s bubble; when they do, it’s a jolt, a cold, hard slap.

There’s more sentiment in van Druten’s play than in Isherwood’s novels and it has a circular, narrative neatness that the stories themselves lack. The Christopher of the play is also never quite as passive and disinterested as the famous line – “I am a camera with its shutter open” – implies; he expresses hurt and anger and he grapples with a growing sense of distaste at the things he hears and sees.

Despite limitations of space, Owen Calvert-Lyons’ production is a richly textured piece that impresses on many levels, as a homage to the writer in the anniversary of his death and a potent evocation of Isherwood’s Berlin world.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The End at The Junction

Michael Pinchbeck’s The End takes its cue from the most famous Shakespearean stage direction of all: Exit pursued by a bear. Building on a collaborative project from 2008 entitled Beginning Middle End, the piece takes the form of a two-hander between Pinchbeck and Ollie Smith. This is Pinchbeck’s purported final piece for the theatre, his resignation letter and swansong, and it is also, we are repeatedly told, Smith’s first piece.

Endings are a necessity in narrative art – full stops, gun shots, the final fall of the curtain – and Pinchbeck’s piece is a meditation on endings and exits, on knowing when to draw a line, and on understanding when an ending is, in actuality, part of a process, a cycle, a longer story. The show is given shape and pace by stacks of index cards piled at the back of the stage. Pinchbeck seems to read from these, flinging them to the floor when he’s finished or – occasionally – throwing them into the air and creating a Nabokovian cascade. Snow-flaked on the black floor they also add a visual dimension to what is at first a fairly minimalist aesthetic and by the end of The End the stage is littered with them.

Dressing up in a budget bear suit, Pinchbeck portrays an actor backstage, waiting for his cue, his moment of glory, his chance to chase. But not before he has delighted in making Smith don the suit and dance until he is gasping for breath. A recurring motif is of death by gunfire: ready, aim, fire, and a toppling body. The piece is full of little symmetries and repetitions; it has an apt circularity: when the bear gives chase both Pinchbeck and Smith end up standing back in the original spot from which they started.

In this way The End is as much about continuity as finality, about the relationship between mentor and mentee, master and apprentice, father and son even. There’s a sense of bitterness in the knowledge that one will be overtaken but also a sense of pragmatism (or maybe just resignation) in the face of the inevitable. Gradually the dynamic between Pinchbeck and Smith begins to shift; at first the former is the superior, the elder, the one in control, but the power balance starts to falter as the baton is passed and Smith displays a certain glee in making Pinchbeck play out the same scenes over again with the roles reversed: the bear dance, the death scenes. The recurrence of certain phrases underlines this sense of progression, the awareness that in passing something on one is often nudged into the background.

While there is much humour in the interactions between Pinchbeck and Smith, the piece also has a self-interrogating quality, drawing attention to the processes of its making, its aims and its motifs. Though occasionally blunt in its methods and perhaps overshooting its natural endpoint (though this is at least thematically apt), this is an elegantly structured, thought-provoking and coolly resonant piece.

Then we came to the end.

Except we don’t. Or, rather, they don’t; as the house lights rise, Pinchbeck and Smith return to their seats among the debris of index cards. We leave the theatre before they do.

Reviewed for Exeunt