Monday, September 26, 2011

Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs at Camden People's Theatre

Francesca Millican-Slater is an inadvertent detective. The discovery in a Totnes junk shop of a postcard bearing an enigmatic message which was sent in 1910 to a Miss L Gibbs of Southwark kick-started a process of investigation that was to last a number of years. During this time Millican-Slater combed through census data and various archives until she gradually narrowed the gap between herself and Miss Gibbs.

The resulting show is as much, if not more, concerned with the directions in which her research takes her than with the mystery of the postcard itself. Millican-Slater attacks her project in a manner that borders on the obsessive, interspersing her telling of the story with video recordings of her younger self responding to each small new discovery. She starts to think of Miss Gibbs as, in some ways, her own, forming an emotional connection between herself and this young woman who lived a century ago, a bond which becomes increasingly evident in her voice as she describes the process of historical digging, particularly in the tender, caring way she talks about Miss Gibbs and her family.

The stage is scattered with the debris of Millican-Slater’s investigation – a quilting of train tickets, maps, and photographs – and, as she speaks, she lays each newly unearthed document and certificate in a line on the floor at her feet, a visual representation of the trail of discovery, the piecing together of the past. She has a chatty, open and engaging performance style, which is reflected in the way the audience’s discussions about her discoveries continue long after the piece has come to an end.

Though Millican-Slater was only able to discover the bare bones of Miss Gibbs’ existence – the births, marriages and deaths – this is enough for a loose-lined portrait of the person, and the world in which she lived, to start to take shape. The obvious point of reference for an exercise like this is the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and the resultant mania for genealogy, though what makes the piece all the more interesting is Millican-Slater’s decision not to delve around in her own family’s past. There is a sense of serendipity in the way the postcard first spoke to her and demanded that its story be told, but she’s also careful to interrogate her own motivations in making this show; she remains both aware and wary of turning Miss Gibbs’ life into “her own personal soap opera.”

There’s also a thread of nostalgia running through the show about the way our relationship with the past is changing; the internet is making raw data more accessible but it is also making the process of research less personal, less hands-on, and dulling the joy of the chance discovery, the beautiful coincidence.

In the end Miss Gibbs and her postcard are just the seeds in a piece about what it is to be remembered and to be missed, about the need to leave our own particular print on this world and on the people in it while we are able. By this reckoning, though long dead, Miss Gibbs still exists in the context of Millican-Slater’s show and her story will now be spread further still, contained in the memories of those who have seen it.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, September 23, 2011

When Did You Last See My Mother? at Trafalgar Studios

Ian is eighteen years old but conducts himself with the air of one who’s lived longer and experienced more of the world. He’s all talk, an adolescent raconteur, a verbal volcano in a herringbone tank top and National Health spectacles. But beneath the precocity, the intellectual self-confidence, he’s manipulative and emotionally frozen, incapable of gauging the consequences of his behaviour on others.

Christopher Hampton’s debut play was written in 1964 when he was also just eighteen. The play was picked up by the agent Peggy Ramsey and ended up being staged by the Royal Court when Hampton was still only twenty. Hampton’s writing is very astute about what it is to be young and arrogant and confident of your own charisma but also utterly wrapped up in your own wants. Yet, for all its assurance, the play also shares some of the characteristics of its young lead: it has a tendency to show off and displays a taste for melodrama.

The character of Ian, the public school educated orphan lusting after his flatmate Jimmy, is a particularly difficult one to pull off. His behaviour at times is vile and brattish; he becomes particularly waspish when faced with the girl Jimmy has a bit of a thing for, his attitude tipping towards the misogynistic, and he seems to really relish pushing people’s buttons until they lose their tempers. But Harry Melling nails it. While he’s convincingly obnoxious and hateful, he’s also something of a charmer, a man of calculated attack. He’s always ‘on’, always playing to an audience, and even when a frustrated Jimmy leaves him to his own devices, he can’t help but provide a running commentary as he pootles round his empty bedsit. At times you want to slap his face, hard and repeatedly, at times you marvel at his chutzpah; he’s like a teenage version of Butley (a play it predates), Simon Gray’s self-sabotaging academic who takes great pains to push away the people foolish enough to care about him. Melling can be over-mannered as an actor – he was the shrillest thing on stage in Deborah Warner’s production of The School for Scandal, no easy task – but under Blanche McIntyre’s direction this is not the case. As Ian, he is, as McIntyre admits, an “utter fucker” at times, but he’s also completely compelling.

McIntyre nimbly negotiates the play’s line between humour and pathos. Her production is rooted very much in a particular time with Nicky Bunch’s detailed set recreating the boys’ 1960s bedsit, complete with Formica foldaway table, a buckled mustard-coloured sofa and a floral curtain concealing the kitchenette. While Ian’s rather too rapid seduction of Jimmy’s elegant mother isn’t entirely convincing, the openness of his feelings for Jimmy and the seeming easiness of his sexuality still feels exciting, especially given the era in which it’s set.

The final scene doesn’t quite deliver the emotional kick for which it seems designed; it feels far too neat and predictable a way to tie things up, the result of a young writer looking for a convenient escape route. But this doesn’t overshadow the production’s many strengths and the pleasing complexity of the central character, a role to which Melling brings the intensity it deserves. Sam Swainsbury, as Jimmy, the object of Ian’s attentions, provides a cool, easy-going and necessary counterpoint to Melling’s energy. And, as Jimmy’s mother, Mrs Evans, Abigail Cruttendan gracefully conveys a deep reservoir of suburban sadness and longing under her smartly-tailored coat and white gloves.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson at the Arts Theatre

The last time this Out of Joint production was performed in London it was in Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, in the garret where he worked on his dictionary propped in his three-legged chair. In terms of intimacy and atmosphere it was always going to be difficult venue to equal, and it’s certainly not matched by the bland, boxy basement space of the Arts Theatre, which has a stale, sap-sucking quality all of its own.

Cribbed from Boswell’s Life of Johnson with a smattering from his London journals as well as from A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, this is potted Johnson, hopping between the key events in the life of the Lichfield-born lexicographer, essayist, clubman and failed dramatist. Johnson describes how he was taken to be touched by Queen Anne as a child to cure his scrofula; he talks about his curious marriage to Tetty, some twenty years his senior and the object of ridicule of many of Johnson’s friends, including his one-time student David Garrick; he dances around the various controversies surrounding his pension and bemoans the lack of trees in Scotland.

A familiar picture comes together of a man who was both hugely sociable, who found company and human connection absolutely fundamental to his life, but was also prone to melancholy, perennially black-dogged; a man of appetite, tics and habits, he could show great restraint but could not be moderate (he was known to drink 14 cups of tea in one sitting); he was also, of course, a man of great wit and learning, and Johnson’s aphorisms and definitions provide the largest laughs, with critics “a species of dung beetle” and the Scottish coming in for a particular kicking, and all the best known lines duly trotted out.

Boswell does his (inevitable) bit, acting as friend, antagonist, interrogator, as well as taking some predictable pleasure in recounting his amorous activities “in armour” on Westminster Bridge and his resultant bouts of venereal disease. The role of Boswell, along with the majority of the minor characters – King George III, a preening Sir Joshua Reynolds – were originally played by co-adaptor Russell Barr, but illness has forced him to pull out of the London run and so these parts are played – ably despite having to step in at such short notice – by Luke Griffin. Barr’s Jack Russell, Katie, who represented Johnson’s ageing, finicky cat, Hodge, in the original run is also no longer present.

The piece consists mainly of the two men either bickering or each relating their own strand of the story, speaking in turns. As Johnson, Ian Redford both looks and sounds the part; in his fizzy white wig, he closely resembles portraits of the man and he injects a measure of pathos into his recollections, a sense of emotional isolation, without over-egging things. A puzzling decision has been made to cast Trudie Styler as Hester Thrale, brewer’s wife, society hostess and the object of Johnson’s affections. Her eventual marriage to an Italian music master is presented as one of the major upsets of his life, but while Styler’s performance is fine, her appearance in the last twenty minutes does rather disrupt the dynamic of what has up until then been an engaging, if overly talky and rather flatly staged, two-hander.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, September 09, 2011

TeZuKa at Sadler's Wells

There are moments of astonishing intricacy and beauty sunk within this cluttered homage to the work of manga master Osamu Tezuka. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s multi-disciplinary piece is at times gloriously inventive but it also feels over-seasoned and tangled, squid-limbed.

Cherkaoui’s choreography merges animated sequences and live performance in a manner that brings to mind 1927′s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, his dancers interacting with images created by Japanese video artist Taiki Ueda projected on the screen behind them. Scrolls spill from the ceiling and kanji are formed and then dissolve into rivers of ink. A group of musicians sit on a platform on one side performing Nitin Sawhney’s atmospheric score while a table sits at the very front of the stage on which artists materials are strewn.

The dancers adopt the personas of Tezuka’s characters: one jitters, shimmies and fizzes like Astro Boy in his tiny shorts and bright red boots, another dons the flowing jacket and silver mane of Black Jack, the mercenary surgeon. A semi-naked man grapples in a pseudo-sexual way with a priest, in an overt reminder that Tezuka’s work was not just cutesy stuff for kids, far from it; he was willing to engage with taboo subjects, like sexuality, in ways that are decidedly more Robert Crumb than Walt Disney.

There are echoes of Cherkaoui’s earlier work, Sutra, in the piece too, both in the figure of the fanboy, the cultural outsider looking in, and in the figure of director – or the artist in this case – actively controlling the performers’ movements from the side-lines: at one point a piece of paper becomes like a voodoo doll, with a dancer flapping and folding as the paper is wafted in the air beside him. Two of the Shaolin Monks from Sutra also reappear and engage in a striking martial arts sequence as a series of cartoon ‘pows’ fly across the screen behind them, eventually merging like microbes to form a placid, floating Buddha.

The piece at times gets mired in the need to explain itself; there are long spoken sequences in French with the surtitles awkwardly placed on monitors at the sides of the room. The audience ends up being tugged three ways – in the act of reading, listening and watching – and this proves frustrating after a while. Some of what we’re told, about bacterial communication, ‘quorom sensing’ and Japan’s capacity for renewal after nuclear and natural disaster, is fascinating, but there’s too much of it. Even if the piece eventually archly acknowledges this excess of exposition, it still doesn’t quite excuse it.

There is also a sense of the material being over-stretched; the majority of the memorable images come in the tauter first half. The pictographic roots of Japanese kanji and their natural evolution into manga are fluidly evoked: lines, becoming words becoming whole worlds. Calligraphy is a recurring theme, ink on white paper, the elegance and precision each brush stroke; yet by the end. the performers’ limbs are smeared with ink and the delicate scrolls have become roads on which to walk. The philosophy of Buddhism which permeated Tezuka’s work – the connectedness of all living things - is also explored through Cherkaoui’s choreography.

It’s the interlacing of animation with live performance that leaves the deepest impression. Witty, playful and impeccably timed, these sequences are the things the audience are most likely to remember. But as it stretches onwards the piece loses this playful quality and becomes more sombre in tone as columns of ink are shown collapsing in the wake of a great wave.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

truth and reconciliation at the royal court

The floor is blanketed in black. This fine covering, like volcanic sand, scorched earth, becomes increasingly mottled as it is disturbed by pacing feet, the white wood underneath shows through as the earth is churned.

The new play by debbie tucker green interlaces stories from some of the most brutal conflicts of recent years. These stories are set not during the conflicts themselves but in the aftermath, years blurred by uncertainty and unanswered questions. The play explores the search for resolution and the agony of not knowing what happened to your wife, your husband, your child: the absence of an ending, any ending.

Designer Lisa Marie Hall has laid out the space like a courtroom, with the audience circled around the edges on hard, wooden seats onto which names have been scratched, marks made. Dates and locations have also been etched in the wood of the walls, like make-shift tombstones. The play begins with a scene from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A family are made to wait – more waiting to add to all the years they’ve already waited. The mother refuses to sit; she will remain standing until she is acknowledged, until she is given something tangible.

The South African strand bookends the play but green also visits Zimbabwe Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Bosnia; the characters are, for the most part, nameless while the language is economical, elliptical, to the point of being repetitious. A recurring motif sees people discussing where to sit, when to sit, picking over the little details as their loss floods into the spaces between, in acknowledgement of the fact that there is only so much words can achieve.

The stories echo one another, emotional tension co-existing with the mundane. This repetition, this constant circling, is – by necessity – at times frustrating: the play is constantly shifting, pulling back, holding back, disinclined to settle. Yet occasionally it sharpens its focus, and everything becomes tauter, clearer. The South African mother, powerfully played by Pamela Nomvete, articulates the pain of waiting for so many long years to end up here, facing an empty chair. A volatile Northern Irish woman bristles at having to defend the actions of her son. A dead Rwandan man confronts the man who killed him, left his wife a widow, forces him to remember.

The images that persist are those of doggedness and determination in the face of silence, the need to keep going even if to find the truth – or a version of it – will mean encountering fresh pain. Two Serbian men appear to barter over who will admit to a war crime, as if the thing that matters most is that someone – anyone – accepts blame, someone holds up their hands (which felt particularly pertinent with Mladic and Hadzic now awaiting trial in The Hague).

Some of the threads are more developed than others, but this helps establish the universal nature of the situation in which these characters find themselves: one story blends into the next, and while some come close to resolution, others are left hanging, incomplete. Throughout the play, the spare language pulses and flutters, with a kind of insectile delicacy, but when it hits, it hits hard.

Reviewed for Exeunt