Tuesday, September 13, 2011

No Naughty Bits - Hampstead Theatre - 12-Sep-2011

Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Edward Hall

I wondered if this play labours under a couple of misapprehensions. The first is that the business of comedy or backstage stories about comedy are themselves funny. It is more normal to depict the opposite as true, those cliches of the unhappy clown or the comedy duos or troupe that hate one another's guts. In this case the writer wrings quite a few jokes out of this fictionalised tale of a law suit brought by the members of the Monty Python troupe against the US ABC network over cuts made to a 1975 broadcast of the fourth series.

The problem here is, possibly, that because it's based on Monty Python we expect it to be a lot funnier than it actually is. An interview with the author in the programme seems to suggest that play started life as a quite serious almost documentary piece and he had to work to inject humour into it (he's rather pleased with putting his Terry Gilliam character in silly costumes). As I've said I think it succeeded in being funny – Matthew Marsh's judge, presiding over the case, was particularly good – but something made me want more and made me sensitive to occasional the dips in action or when humorous lines misfired.
I found the fictionalisation of the piece bothered me quite a lot. It wasn't just being told in overlong voice-overs at the beginning of each act, that the play was fictional that grated. It was more that I kept wondering just how much was fiction. I was prepared to allow it all to be fiction but I knew that the author had studied Michael Palin's diaries for the period and had to wonder if some of the seemingly un-Palin-like schoolboy outbursts from Harry Hadden-Paton's Michael were based on reality or ill-rendered imagination.
I also had a problem with the play failing to mention the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail which was released before the play was set and did reasonably well at the time. Maybe it didn't fit in with the author's desire to suggest that 1975 was a time when the Pythons were facing up to the fact that they had broken up and that some were facing uncertain futures. Of course crying “fiction” can cover this but I found it jarring.
I thought the other possible misapprehension in this play was the idea that this is “still an ostensibly Python-worshipping country”*. We are told by the media and comedy nerds that we should revere Monty Python, the troupe, the movies and the TV series. I am enough of a comedy nerd to be quite happy to do that but I'm not sure how many other people could say the same.
In the 40 years since Python was first broadcast in the UK it has been repeated about 3 times on terrestrial television (BBCs 1 or 2). I was too young to see the original series and did't catch it until it was repeated in the late 80s - I think it has been repeated once since then. It has been played quite a lot on satellite and cable channels over the years but not recently. Copyright disputes meant that the videos of the series disappeared from shelves in the mid-90s and the DVDs of the full series were not available in the UK until 2007.
My point here is that in spite of being told by the media that Python is important and main-stream, the reality is that the series hasn't been watched that often and might be completely unfamiliar to people seeing this play. It means that nuances might be lost on them and the play doesn't explain why we should care that the series was funny
I would love to feel that everybody could tune in somewhere to see an episode every night but it has never really been the case here and that's a pity.

*This comes from an excellent Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch about the Life of Brian controversy and you might not have seen that either.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Red Bud by Brett Neveu, Royal Court Upstairs – Directed by Jo McInnes

I saw this play on the 21st of October and thought it well performed and directed with a good set that included a pick-up truck (not bad for 5 storeys up). It had believable characters that seemed to speak authentically (although I'm no judge of Michigan accents or speech patterns). So far so good but I was left unsatisfied. There was action but no story and in the end, there were too many unanswered questions about the history and relationships of this group of (mostly) men who attended the Red Bud moto-cross event for the past 22 years.

As is my habit these days any notes on the play (physical, electronic or mental) were discarded long before I reached home and I didn't attempt to write a blog about it.

Then in the last few days, as blog and newspaper reviews have started to come out I've begun to have a touch of esprit de l'escalier about this play. People aren't being kind about this play. They are generally complimentary about the acting, direction, set and even the dialogue but they all have the same basic complaints. They say that they don't have any feeling for the characters or their background. They can see that the relationships are tense but the play never explains why. Most of all they (like me) don't feel that they've been told a story.

Reading these reviews got me wondering whether the author of this play was deliberately trying to do something here. It appears that he can competently write character and dialogue so why did he ignore basic tenets of story-writing? Perhaps it is an experiment intending to show real life.

Reality, which can often be dramatic, needs to be shaped in order to become drama. Reality is just one damn thing after another; It doesn't explain itself. Real people don't reveal (often mutually known) information to each other for the benefit of an audience.

In this play there is one concession to exposition in the introduction of the 19-year-old girlfriend of one of the protagonists. It allows everybody to be introduced and a little interpersonal history to be shared but it doesn't go to far. The explanations are realistically fragmentary and don't reveal much more than is necessary to continue with the piece.

If I am right about this being an experiment, an attempt to show a slice of reality in more or less real time, then it's actually rather fascinating. It doesn't work, of course, in fact it is a bit of an object lesson in why you need dramatic fakery and disguised exposition to shape real events into a story.

Going against all the reviewers means I'm probably wrong but if I'm not then this experiment, however failed, should be applauded, a bit.



Thursday, June 17, 2010

Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini, Olivier Theatre, 15-June-2010 – Directed by Richard Eyre

This is a play of impressive ambition, essentially a retelling of the Greek play (with surrounding mythology) Antigone and some offstage and Theseus bits from Phaedre, all against a modern backdrop of a bitter African civil war. On stage we see Thebes as depicted as a ruined presidential palace, a remnant of some forgotten peaceful time.
There are lots of juicy parallels and clever connections if you like your Greek Mythology; In the civil war seven militias descended on the city like the Seven Against Thebes; The three most senior ministers are named for the three Graces; The body of the warlord Polynices is decorated with a necklace of fingers echoing the cursed necklace of Harmonia (first Queen of Thebes; An avenging child soldier is named after one of the furies and other characters are named after gods, goddesses and suitable figures from Greek Mythology.
In this play Athens becomes America, David Harewood's Theseus an Obama or Clinton-like First Citizen (though smoother and much more of a political operator) and the offstage Sparta becomes China, each vying to help and probably dominate the ruined Thebes.
This is a well thought-out piece, you can see the links between the Theban wars with their gods-inspired viciousness and some of the recent West African (and elsewhere) civil wars with their strange dressings-up (soldiers would paint their faces or dress as women in battle). Each descended into chaos and in some cases cannibalism.
For all this play's cleverness and ambition I think it is let down by the language. The mix between the epic and the contemporary language didn't really work for me, even though the play worked well in terms of setting. Maybe the epic language wasn't epic and stirring enough to counterpoise the jumps to the modern slang. Then again, powerful heightened language may have jarred too much with speech that used phrases like “you are now my bitch”.



Thursday, April 15, 2010

Posh by Laura Wade, Royal Court, 12-Apr-2010 – Directed by Lyndsey Turner

For a group of young who consider themselves to be the inheritors of the mantle of British leadership, the Riot Club (modelled on a certain Oxford University Dining Club) are remarkably bad at organising a dinner. The restaurant is wrong with a too-convivial host who won't easily accept compensation for the damage they expect to cause, someone forgets the drugs and the prostitute turns out to be a jobs-worth.

Against this backdrop the several members vie for the presidency of the club while the existing president is pre-occupied with his Masters degree and, like some of the older members, wondering what life will be like beyond the University and their privileged circle.
I thought the author juggled the different characters of the ten members of the club very well, although three or four of the minor characters seemed to fade into sameness when they weren't rooted in their chairs. You could argue that those four characters were needed for the plot, the crowd dynamics and to provide weight to the shifting loyalties in the group. That said having to introduce everyone and flesh them out makes the first half play grind slowly at times.

The play works by showing this dining club and letting them speak unchallenged. There is skill in the way that they appear to agree politically on things like the tawdriness of Britain and how things were better when their grandparents (and older generations) were in charge, leaving the audience to detect the flaws in their arguments and imagine countering them. These young men are pretty obnoxious in their snobbery and attitudes but until almost the end they maintain a pretence at being gentlemen. I even suspected that the author might have succumbed to their self-mythologising and belief in their natural superiority.

These young men are portrayed as remembering their great forebears whilst ignoring the ignominious. They believe in their right to be in charge because that is the way it has always been or at least should be, maybe they don't question how and why that expectation happened.



Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Private Lives by Noel Coward, Vaudeville Theatre, 26-Feb-2010 – Directed by Richard Eyre

It was with a creeping sense of dread that I anticipated Kim Cattrall's entrance and the inevitable brainless Broadway-inspired “Applause for the Star” that would interrupt the action. When this didn't happen I was in such a good mood that I started enjoying myself and almost failed to find any fault with this production. I'm not saying that the applause won't happen on other occasions I was just happy that it didn't happen on my watch. I might be wrong but I like actors to earn applause

Actually Kim Cattrall as Amanda, definitely earned applause and although the accent slipped on the odd vowel, she was pretty brilliant. She was relaxed, assured and with the exception of her first entrance in a towel and later in the scene swinging an agile naked leg over a chair back, she didn't seem to be trying to cash in on any Sex in the City (or even Porky's) notoriety.

Matthew MacFadyen as Elyot was also good and I couldn't help feeling echoes of Noel Coward in his performance. It was not an impersonation, which could well have been ghastly and the performance was nowhere near as mannered as Coward might have been. There was something more than the actor's tallness and enlarging forehead that seemed in a way, for me, to conjure the author.

Although there is a great deal of good chemistry between Cattrall and MacFadyen there was part of me that thought they each needed a more suitable sparring partner. I'm not going to admit that I thought of this in terms of age at the time, I was sitting far enough back not to be able to see any age difference. I think the slight mismatch (and it is slight if not entirely imagined by me) may be more about acting styles not quite coming together.

There is excellent support from Lisa Dillon and Simon Paisley Day as the abandoned spouses. Day also mangled his vowels but for comic effect and oddly seemed to be suffering from some kind of shell-shock towards the end of the last act. It sort of fitted his character and age but it was rather sudden.

I'd like to finish by mentioning the Paris apartment set which is circular and furnished with low circular or curved divans, the requisite grand piano and a most excellent fish tank consisting of three interconnected globes.



Thursday, January 28, 2010

Really Old, Like Forty Five by Tamsin Oglesby, Cottesloe Theatre, 27-Jan-2010 – Directed by Anna Mackmin

It appears that Tamsin Oglesby doesn't know the difference between Giant Tortoises (long-lived, land-living, slow moving with domed hard shells) and Giant Turtles (sea-living, flippered, with leathery hydro-dynamic shells which allow them to glide gracefully through pelagic oceans). The third scene of this play is all about Darwin and how his discoveries were inspired in part by his encounters with the giant 'turtles' (in reality giant tortoises) of the Galapagos Islands. On display under a big picture of Darwin is a stuffed turtle (a turtle not a tortoise), it is supposed to be alive and so old that Darwin met it (sea turtles unlike tortoises are not known for their longevity). Darwin probably did encounter sea turtles of his voyage as there's a lot of good eating on a turtle and it would have been a bit of a treat when the sailors caught one but on the Galapagos Islands he met Giant Tortoises.
Okay, I realise I'm being overly pedantic here, I also know that Americans indiscriminately call almost any shelled reptile a turtle and it might even have been a deliberate comment on Alzheimers but for some reason it really annoyed me. Most of all, it spoiled my enjoyment of what I normally would have thought was, if I could get past the turtles (and clearly I can't), a good play. When it's not misrepresenting chelonians and testudae, this play is witty, erudite and at times touching in its portrayal of a dystopian overcrowded near-future where something has to be done about all the old people. It has a meaty twisted civil servant part for Paul Ritter to shine in, it has excellent performances from Judy Parfitt and Marcia Warren as a pair of sisters facing their old-age in mental or physical sickness and there is even a nicely thought out (and performed) comedy robot. I thought the future was well imagined with some nice subtle touches, like referring to Britain as a developing nation. There was also good future-thought in the discussion of planning for speed lanes on pavements and the way that old people had to earn their place in society by adopting “grandchildren” or submitting themselves for drug trials.
But the last word is “Turtles”



Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Whisky Taster by James Graham, Bush Theatre, 20-Jan-2010 – Directed by James Grieve

Barney (Samuel Barnett) is an advertising account executive who lives a quiet life, fearing the colours and the sensations that are set off by his synaesthesia and unable to express or acknowledge his love for his colleague and work partner Nicola (Kate O'Flynn). His inability to face his condition is depicted on stage by all but one of the characters, in the first half, wearing shades of grey. The only exception is John Stahl's Whisky Taster, brought in to pass judgement on a new brand of vodka and fill the account team with buzz words and other ideas. The Whisky Taster's character is an uncomfortable mix of wide knowledge of the world (particularly its culture) and unworldliness (not happy about leaving Scotland and unfamiliar with music videos on TV) and his kilt contains the first strong (and painful to Barney) colours we see. It is this character who in a strong scene on the making and tasting of whisky, awakes Barney to all the sensations that he has avoided – brightly coloured neon tubes crackling into life as he allows himself to be drawn into the feelings.
I usually associate Samuel Barnett with fey almost camp roles so it was good to see him doing something different. He grew impressively from a timid and shy young man to someone wanting to fill his life with more than vapid advertising and weak instant coffee.
I wasn't entirely convinced by the advertising world they showed – it was too full of jargon phrases and samey characters for me – although the idea of people not really listening to one another was well depicted. But this play is strong and I slightly regret not following the writer earlier.



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