Sunday, October 28, 2012

The River, Royal Court Upstairs

An isolated cabin, nestled deep in the woods, the setting for so many fairy tales and horror films, makes an apt backdrop for Jez Butterworth’s much anticipated new play. The River eschews the large canvas approach of Jerusalem for something more intimate and atmospheric, but while it is a wilfully different beast, lacking the thump and rumble of its predecessor, it too is concerned with the process of male myth-making, the stories we tell ourselves and each other.

Dominic West plays an unnamed man who has brought his new girlfriend, played by Miranda Raison, out to his uncle’s cabin to – amongst other things – school her in the art of sea-trout fishing on a moonless night. Bearded, flannel-shirted and rugged, West’s character is Jimmy McNulty with a dash of Gentle Ben; he’s gruff but far from taciturn, a poetic sort, and wonderfully capable in the kitchen to boot; he even manages to make fly fishing sound appealing, like foreplay.

Ultz’s detailed design is a study in brown: a raw-walled, rustic space, all chestnut and chocolate with a convenient stash of candles and a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks, a gingerbread room where it is forever twilight. Despite the potentially sinister setting, there are no bloody chambers in this cabin – though that beard of West’s does make one wonder – and the only guts we see belong to a sea-trout, spilling like pink udon into a waiting bucket as West prepares it for the oven, but this place does have its fair share of ghosts; there are faint traces of other women, little tokens and leavings, echoes of distant song. Conversations are repeated, like ripples, spreading outwards, and at the centre of the play there is a sense of a man circling and searching for something he cannot find – something lost, perhaps destroyed – a sense of something aching and even, perhaps, malign.

If it’s not too crass a comparison, there were times were I found myself thinking of that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie’s new chap – the anti-Big – takes her to stay in his country cabin and she, of course, teeters around on inappropriate shoes and squeals at every woodland creature that comes within three feet of her. The cabin in both that episode and here feels like a kind of audition, a test, with West’s character enjoying the game, playing his part and waiting to see how the woman in question plays hers. The early stages of a relationship can feel like a kind of theatre, with each participant acutely aware of their words and actions, and Butterworth plays on this idea of memory as something which can be sculpted but which can also haunt someone more effectively than any external force.

The River contains some characteristically beautiful writing, the play replete with shimmering images and recurring motifs, particularly during the scene where West’s character recalls the first fish he ever landed as a boy, a delicate dream of a story, riddled with the kind of intricacy that comes from retelling, an account honed over time. This image of the dying fish, twitching and slippery, echoes throughout the play, as do those of dead birds and women viewed from a distance across water.

Ian Rickson’s measured yet engrossing production is not afraid of silence. It devotes several minutes to a scene of West preparing a meal, gutting a fish and dicing fennel, dinner as ritual, the snick-snick of knife blade on chopping board the only sound we hear. West himself is excellent, as are both Laura Donnelly and Miranda Raison as the women who flow through his life. The lighting is low and golden throughout, intensifying the sense of intimacy and the mood shifts slowly and subtly from one of warmth to something more strained. The production concludes with, not exactly a twist, but a further rippling, one which slightly undermines the delicacy of what has gone before, and Rickson’s final casting decision – difficult to discuss without giving the game away – doesn’t help matters, spelling out visually what was already fairly explicit in the text.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Terror 2012, Soho Theatre

This year’s instalment of The Sticking Place’s annual Terror season – the ninth in total, the second at Soho Theatre – purportedly puts the emphasis on psychological horror, fears and phobias, the things that make our skin creep, our stomachs lurch, and the hairs on the back of our neck stand to attention.

The line-up consists of four short plays, by Robert Farquhar, Alex Jones, Mike McShane and Mark Ravenhill. The latter’s contribution, The Experiment, was previously seen during the 2009 Terror season and has been resurrected here as a last minute replacement for Darren Ormandy’s Horror Show – based on the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs murders in Ukraine – which has been dropped from the bill due to “issues with bringing the play to fruition.”

The plays are interspersed with cabaret sequences care of Sarah-Louise Young and Desmond O’Connor, and their rapport and engaging nature as hosts is the glue which holds this otherwise patchy collection together, creating some superficial sense of connection between the assembled plays.

Despite the ‘All in the Mind’ sub-header, the production relies on generous gouts of the red stuff to jolt a response out of the audience and there’s little here to really unsettle or unnerve despite a little bit of dabbling with an Ouija board. Of the plays, Robert Farquhar’s No Place Like is a shoulder-shrug of a thing about a man’s desire to erase his cluttered, middle class life along with his shrill blinkered wife, but it’s neither particularly tense nor angry and feels criminally stretched despite its short length. Mike McShane’s The Representative, a satirical skit set in a Los Angeles coffee shop, is more satisfying as a stand-alone piece: a washed up actor meets the ideal agent, a woman immune to the movie industry’s faddish and fickle nature, old Hollywood incarnate. While it builds to an all too easy punch-line, it’s still enjoyable.

Ravenhill’s The Experiment is probably the strongest piece of writing – evoking the full horror of animal experimentation via an intriguingly slip-slidey method of story-telling, like a half-recalled dream, the details dripping slowly forth – but because of its late addition to the bill, it’s performed script-in-hand, and while Oliver Senton’s delivery is decent, this dilutes its potential potency.

The programme also includes, somewhat randomly, a vaguely Louise Bourgeois-esque puppet spider sequence set to Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy – the work of Boris and Sergey creators, Flabbergast – which while visually striking feels as if it’s been stitched in, Frankenstein-style, from a completely different production.

The last play on the bill, Alex Jones’ Fifty Shades of Black, provides a neat commentary on the sudden vogue for S&M – thanks to that book – albeit in its most glossy and sanitised form, all Agent Provacateur undies and artful spanking. While the pay-off is predictable, it includes the most grisly and genuinely nasty moment of the evening, and the play itself – a two-hander which shifts nimbly from comedy to a more disturbing place – at least allows O’Connor and Young room to demonstrate their considerable range as performers.

In fact if it wasn’t for these two, the whole thing would be in danger of collapse. Their easy way with an audience, general quickness and wit compensate for the tonal wobbliness of the format. As a comedy cabaret the production has its moments, but otherwise it’s a timid affair and, despite all that puddling crimson, disappointingly bloodless.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cabaret, Savoy Theatre

Rufus Norris’ reworking of his 2006 production of Kander and Ebb’s musical – another iteration of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, alongside John van Druten’s I am Camera – has by all accounts had its split ends trimmed, its errant elbows smacked. Looking at reviews of its original incarnation, it’s clear that there’s far less nudity in this version – and there’s certainly no sign of any nuns in satin knickers. It’s an altogether glossier operation, more safe-for-the-West End, but lacking in teeth. It feels as if it’s been muzzled, neutered.

Will Young’s Emcee is like a wind-up Weimar man-doll, coin-operated,sneering and smirking, plucking at his crotch like a small boy whose just awoken to the new toy between his legs. He’s got the voice for it and he is a strong central presence but he begins shrill and continues upwards; there’s little shade, little sorrow, little sense of things to come.

He’s certainly game, white-faced and wide-eyed, idly stroking his inner thigh or stomping across the stage like a bulbous Mr Creosote during The Money Song, and there are times when this combination of plastic malevolence and high camp are put to good use, particularly during Tomorrow Belongs to Me where he sits atop the set like a sinister Von Trapp child puppeting the dancers below.

When he’s allowed to be still, to downplay – drifting across the stage in a plum coloured robe during the melancholy I Don’t Care Much or appearing as a ghostly watchful background presence – it’s actually very effective. But these moments are few and far between. At least his showman’s gloss and constant facial contortions compensate somewhat for the sucking absence elsewhere in production. The emotional entanglement between Sally Bowles, star attraction at the Kit Kat Club, and Clifford Bradshaw, the sexually questing American would-novelist and Isherwood stand-in, never feels real. There’s little sense of connection between them, sexual or otherwise. This is mainly down to the casting of Bionic ex-Eastender Michelle Ryan as Sally; her voice is both polished and powerful, but lacking in character which seems the inverse of what it should be. (And here it’s hard not to draw a comparison with Rebecca Humphries’ bubbly, vulnerable take on the role in the recent Southwark Playhouse production of I am a Camera – a Sally who while maddening would definitely be someone fun to share a gin or three with). Ryan’s Sally is kind of joyless and kind of lifeless too, a little too clean and pink – while her fingernails may be green, I bet it’s a manicure job – and though Matt Rawle’s Clifford is warmer, he has little to play against.

It’s the tentative and ultimately doomed relationship between Sian Philips’ ageing Fraulein Schneider and Linal Haft’s Herr Schultz that gives the production’s its initial emotional charge and the moment when he blithely decides to stay in Berlin, despite the yellow star of David daubed on his shop window, because he believes all “this will pass” is genuinely upsetting.

It’s left to Javier de Frutos’ choreography to give the production the raw edges that are not evident elsewhere. The dancers’ movements are angular and sometimes ugly, resounding with the slap of skin on skin. Black clad bodies tumble and plunge from a wheeled metal platform during Sally’s opening number and Clifford is given a stylised Clockwork Orange-style kicking by Nazi street thugs. Norris steers the production from the decadent whirl of the early scenes towards something altogether more nightmarish and chilling and the last tableau – as the stage is bathed in shadows, the West End glitter drops away and the dancers cower and huddle, exposed in every sense – is incredibly stark and chilling, one that still has the power to appal, to make the audience gasp and shudder and still their hands.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Fireface, Young Vic

For Kurt adolescence is an inferno, a ticking bomb. For his sister Olga, it’s a mire, sucking at her ankles, paralysing her in a place between childhood and womanhood. Both feel penned in and pressed down and so they retreat into the heat of each other’s arms, each other’s beds. She leads the way, tugging at the drawstring of his tracksuit bottoms, guiding him towards her, but it is his latent energy that proves more volatile.

Written in 1997, Marius von Mayenburg’s play explores the effect this collision has on a middle-class German family. Even before Kurt starts to burn, the family is fragmented. A chill pervades. His mother freely discusses menstruation at the dinner table, or strips off to wash in front of her son. It’s normal, all normal, she tells him as Kurt curls in on himself in repulsion. “Being a mother isn’t enough for you, you want to be a woman as well,” he spits in return.

When Olga, a Lolita in pigtails – with a dash of Violet Elizabeth Bott – starts dating Paul, predominantly for his cool motorcycle, things intensify. The introspective, awkward Kurt turns arsonist, baby bomber. He is fascinated by fire, the idea of a cleansing flame-birth. One misjudged experiment with accelerants leaves him marked, scarred, sporting a fire-face of which he seems privately proud, yet even this fails to cool the burning urge in him, it just alienates him further.

Sam Pritchard, the recipient of this year’s JMK award, conveys this sense of emotional remove through the physical distancing of his cast from one another. When the family sit down to eat, he positions them in a line at the front of the stage, each facing out towards the audience; when the parents are in bed with one another, they are placed at opposite ends of the stage, sitting upright as they flip through the pages of the daily paper. This approach can at times feel too overt, but it is counter-balanced by a sly streak of comedy. Pritchard fully grasps the humour of von Mayenburg’s play and has fun drawing it out, tempering the intensity.

The cast emphasise this sense of distance, though their performances are more naturalistic than, say, the dead eyed teens in Simon Stephens’ Morning; it’s possible to catch a glimpse of warmth, a twitch of regret, in their expressions. In fact Rupert Simonian’s trajectory as Kurt is almost too gentle, he simmers rather than boils; AimeĆ©-Ffion Edwards’ pouting Olga is more forceful a presence, successfully conveying just how much of being a teenage girl is about attitude, a shell in which to seal yourself.

Amanda Stoodley’s rough, plywood design forms a kind of human shelving unit into which Olga and Kurt can slot themselves. This space is broken down further by lengths of red tape, which Kurt winds around the walls, cordoning off a corner for him and his sister as they stop engaging with the world, forming a crime scene to be.

But as the play becomes more extreme, as events spiral towards a predictably bleak conclusion and the gasoline goes sloshing across the stage, if anything the production loses momentum. It’s stronger when it’s depicting the complex tangle of family life, the teenage siblings caught in each other’s orbits, the parents’ awkwardly attempting to relate to them, their gestures well-intentioned but ultimately futile. David Annen and Helen Schlesinger as their fallible parents, are convincingly confused by the spite and bite of the children, alarmed but reluctant to do anything, ignoring the warnings of Olga’s boyfriend that Kurt should be locked up.

Fireface doesn’t have the satirical punch of von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One; it’s a blunter instrument, the territory over-familiar, and this is reflected in the production, which while always engaging never flames quite as fully as it might.

Reviewed for Exeunt