Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Cosmonaut's Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union - Donmar Warehouse - 7 April

Written by David Greig
Directed by Tim Supple
Designed by Melly Still
Brid Brennan has the kind of face which if you saw it on a pvc catsuited and booted, spider-web stockinged hostess at a night club, you would probably know that you’d taken a wrong turn somewhere – in life if not in the street. The clothes worked reasonably well on her but as she turned to face the main part of the audience, I was a little shocked. I was slightly grateful that it was left to Anna Madeley to do the actual pole dancing. Incidentally the pole dancing was done in a slightly strange way: the poles were thinner versions of the real thing about eight foot long and carried and supported by the actress dancing or posing, rather than being fixed.
To be fair to Brid Brennan, her cat-suited character Sylvia, was almost certainly meant to be grotesque - described as a crow in later scenes. Also in other plays, she could certainly do sexy when she needed to. The only real problem I had with her characterisation of Sylvia was that her Tyneside accent kept heading off towards the Irish Sea.
The start of the play was delayed by quarter of an hour, which is normally a sign that the designer has been at it again and their elaborate set doesn’t work or will catch fire in the second act. However when we were let into the theatre I wondered what all the fuss had been about. The set seemed bare with just a couple of pouffes centre stage and a television in a corner towards the front. The wall at the back was blank and black with wide folding double doors set in the middle opening on to the stage. It wasn’t until the play started that there was an inkling of what was held up the play. The back wall lit up showing an array of stars and cosmonauts floated into view. They were, of course, suspended by wires and harnesses. It was well handled, the actors moving slowly and bracing themselves on the wall so that they often stayed horizontal, which prevented the impression that they just hanging. I dare say it’s going to break down one night but at least it worked on the first preview.
The stage had a few points of interest: A long narrow strip trapdoor was opened to show a flowerbed on one side of the stage. A larger trap on the other side contained a bed and the doors of the trap – made from three sections – were folded into triangular sectioned headboards.
As with the other evening there was occasional set change activity while scenes were going on in other areas (unfolding the bed took a fair bit of time) and it was occasionally distracting. Another distraction is that one person in the audience began laughing. For some reason I missed the line that they found so funny, there was some funny stuff in what the cosmonauts were saying at the time but little of it was laugh out loud. I got the impression that a private joke had set this woman off giggling. Her giggling, in turn, set someone else off but until the lines got funny, a little later on, not many others joined in. I find this sort of thing worse than heckling because it felt as if they were having a private laugh at the actors’ expense rather that paying attention to what they were saying and doing.
As I said I’ve seen Brid Brennan a good few times – about ten judging from her biography in the programme. Last year I saw her in The Bog of Cats with Holly Hunter. The last thing I saw her in at the Donmar was a play called The Dark which I remember mostly for scene for a scene where a boy takes a baby from a mother just to see her experience the terror of it. It is the only time that I can remember wanting a scene to end so much that I felt like getting up and stopping it.
Paul Higgins, who played one of the Cosmonauts, is one of the first actors I saw at the Royal Court in the late 80s. It was a play was called American Bagpipes and the only thing I really remember about it was Ken Stott, playing the drunken-policeman father of Paul Higgins character, trying to summon up enough authority to arrest his son and failing.
It may just be that this was the first time that I’ve seen Anna Madeley rushing around with almost nothing on and – as I’ve mentioned – pole-dancing but she’s never caught my attention before. I must have seen her half a dozen times in RSC stuff as well as at the Royal Court, even in the play Russian in the Woods where she was the only woman. I should pay more attention.
Previous plays can often seriously colour my view of actors. The last thing I saw Michael Pennington in was a Hanif Kureishi piece called When the Night Begins. In the play his character apologised for his “old man’s smell” (or stink); that phrase stayed with me and kept running through my mind as I watched him in this. It was relevant to his performance it was just an association in my head.

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