Friday, November 23, 2012

The Magistrate, National Theatre

‘Tis a pretty thing, Timothy Sheader’s production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s sort-of farce of 1885: an awful lot of care and effort has clearly gone into design. Katrina Lindsay’s set unfolds like a pop-up book, its intricate fringes part city-scape, part snowflake, and the whole thing looking like an illustration by Phiz or something out of Punch: there are even ink blots spattered across the backdrop. Everything is at angles and diagonals – even bodies, even limbs, the cast tilting at windows and doorways – and everyone is coiffed to look like a living caricature.

But, pretty as it is, there’s something a little off-kilter about the piece and Sheader’s production never quite syncs with the stylised visuals: farce should appear liquid and effortless but the timing is often fractionally off, props are dropped and doors stick, making you all too aware of the mechanics, the creaking and squeaking of cogs and gears.

Nancy Carroll plays Agatha Posket, a widow who has shaved five years off her age in order to make herself more appealing to the upright magistrate, Aeneas (John Lithgow). To pull off this deception she was obliged to reduce the age of her young son accordingly, passing off her nineteen year old Cis as an ‘advanced’ fourteen year old. Trouble is it’s no longer possible to “pacify him with a stick and hoop” and despite his Eton jacket and short trousers he’s partial to a cigarette and a spot of Port of an evening and has all the women in his family’s employ out to pet and pander to him.

When Cis’s godfather, the bluff but decent Colonel Lukyn, threatens to pay them a visit and reveal her little deception, Agatha is forced to intercept him and ends up being caught up in a police raid and forced to appear in her husband’s court the following morning. To further complicate things Aenas – thanks to Cis - is also caught out of his element at the same hotel, obliged to flit to Kilburn in the middle of the night to avoid tangling with the law.

Lithgow is entertaining as Posket – his ordered world unravelling spectacularly over the course of a night – and, when he’s finally allowed off the leash, smudged and dishevelled and generally bested, he eats up his character’s main monologue with glee. But the production is never more alive than when Joshua MacGuire’s Cis is leap-frogging settees and dry-humping his piano mistress; a kind of matryoshka Tom Hollander with Willy Wonka hair, the production noticeably slumps whenever he is off-stage.

The issues with pacing are intensified by a series of between-scene musical interludes, in which a chorus of outsize oompa-loompas in stripy trews and matching Charles Dickens wigs sing about the perils of telling porkies. (“It’s the little lies that get you into trouble.”) But instead of acting as playful Dahl-esque winks, these are over-extended and plodding, hammering home messages that were already fully evident in the text. There are laughs, but they are very thinly spread, minor eruptions of mirth, and there’s an unresolved tonal disconnect between the cartoony design and the manner in which the piece itself plays out, an issue of identity, a gap which is never satisfyingly bridged.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, November 19, 2012

Constellations, Duke of York's Theatre

Nick Payne’s delicate, searching play - the third Royal Court production to transfer to the West End after Posh and Jumpy - has a fractal quality. Its central love story is a splintered thing in which several possible worlds co-exist, with small and not so small details changing from scene to scene as a couple, Roland and Marianne, meet, engage in awkward flirtation, marry and then face up to the awful fact that their time together will be shorter than they had hoped.

Payne’s play is rich with ideas, about love and loss, time and its passing, the illusion of free will, themes which are echoed in the characters’ professions - he is a bee keeper, she is a quantum physicist. But what could have been merely clinical, an intellectual exercise, is made humane and moving by the wit and intelligence of the writing and the warm, nuanced performances of Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, as two people clinging to one another in the face of an impossible wave. Each iteration of the couple’s relationship, each small scenic shift, is subtly evoked, their timing exquisite.

Designer Tom Scutt canopies the stage with white balloons which light up with each new variation, a synaptic flickering which becomes more intense as Marianne’s mind starts to shut down, a process of aphasic unravelling.

Running at barely over an hour, it’s almost too short to do full justice to its own set-up and there are times when the play’s multiverse structure seems to fight with, rather than enhance, its emotional trajectory. But when it hits home, it hits hard.

Reviewed for The Stage

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Interview: Joe Hill-Gibbins

I recently spoke to the Assistant Artistic Director of the Young Vic about his thrillingly messy production of Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, which returns to the venue later this month. We discussed, among other things, Jacobean virginity tests, the incorporation of the mechanisms of theatre into the narrative and the thinking behind the production's jelly sex scene.

You can read the full article here.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Hero/Heroine, Etcetera Theatre

One of the most unsettling things about the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons – a place of many unsettling things, with its seven foot skeletons and pickled fingers, its pâté-like slices of cerebellum and its numerous tools of amputation – are the foetuses, the bottled babies. Neatly preserved and labelled to show the stages of development, human and alien all at the same time, things that lived but never lived: it’s this primal image that sits at the centre of Dave Florez’s troubling two-hander.

Florez is a playwright who enjoys a paddle in waters psychologically brackish. His monologue, Hand over Fist, a play about memory, identity, and its painful aching loss was a critical success at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, earning plaudits for both the writing and for Joanna Bending’s arrestingly intense performance as a woman destined to repeat the same meetings, the same conversations, over and over again, who is uninhibited in her sexual cravings and who, in a memorable central sequence, imagines herself glove-puppeted on her husband’s hot hand in a kind of ecstatically physical eruption.

Hero/Heroine, staged as part of the London Horror Festival by New Wave Theatre, is a messier piece, tangled and untidy in interesting ways. Two former lovers meet on Halloween in his grotty flat, with its sea of stains, half-drunk bottles of JD, porn DVDS and dubiously used tissues. That he still wants her in some way is obvious – when she goes to the bathroom, he leaps on her discarded boots with the filthy glee of DeFlores in The Changeling, inhaling her; it is also pretty clear that their relationship terminated in a way that was both unpleasant and abrupt.

The couple goad each other, tease each other; their shared past providing them both with a source of comfort and pain. As they shoot up and indulge in a bit of awkward masochism, clues are dropped about the reasons for their split. There are traces of Irvine Welsh to both the content and overall tone of the piece, but the nastiness is balanced with something raw and human, thanks in part to the performances of Nina Millns and Bradley Taylor, who spark nicely of one another.

Hanna Berrigan’s production builds the tension gradually and avoids the overtly horrific – until the end at least – but the writing does rather overegg things at times. A sequence where the two characters break off to discuss rejection letters and the other little let-downs of life as a writer seems incongruous and the final spiralling into talk of alien gods and the beauty of mutation doesn’t seem seeded early enough. It’s a troubling piece, a disordered love story which nods to body horror, and there are some giddy passages of writing, but there’s also an issue with overall cohesiveness, kinks in the central thread, and the final reveal is slightly fumbled, lessening its impact.

Reviewed for Exeunt