Sunday, June 15, 2008

Relocated by Anthony Neilson, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 11-Jun-2008 – Directed by Anthony Neilson

When I booked for this play it didn't have a title. I suspect that it may only have been a very early draft then, if it existed at all. The powerful presence of a Germanic figure keeping his daughter as a brood mare in the cellar indicates that it must have undergone a major rewrite in late April. Other people, Germanic and otherwise, have been discovered to have kept young women locked up for a long time, recently but the Austrian case that broke in April must have been an inspiration.
I didn't think that it suffered from this “up to the rehearsal” writing, the actors certainly seemed to know what they were doing. What I found remarkable was how closely integrated the new material was with, what must have been, the older stuff.
Overall it did have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel almost as if it had been written with a TV news channel on in the background. The story showed the way a woman had to shift her identity as she fled from public suspicions of her complicity in a Soham-like murder. It reminded me of a fictional or factual depiction I'd seen of a woman with multiple personality disorder who would create a new personality as a reaction to a major stressful incident. The new personality would become the dominant one for a time and other identities would be forgotten but would slowly impinge on the new one.
Another real story that I thought was woven into the structure was the case of a man that pretended to be a secret agent and kept a group of deluded recruits on the run from imagined terrors and plots. They gave him money, bore his children and changed their identities at his whim.
The set, which we had to pass through on the way to the seats, was a completely black low-ceilinged room with black shuttered windows to let in light when opened. We were divided from the stage by gauze screen which was sometimes lit from the front and side to obscure the room. There was a vexatious thread dangling from the middle of the screen which was noticeable when these lights were on. I’m not sure that the thread was a deliberate annoyance but it looked too big to have been missed by the stage-crew.
I’m not sure if I’d claim that there was a theme to Anthony Neilson’s work but this play did have the dissociative quality of a dream, which is familiar from other works. In this case it may have all been a dream by a woman who has fainted while doing the housework with a TV news channel on in the background.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Topless Mum by Ron Hutchinson, Tricycle Theatre, 3-Jun-2008 – Directed by Caroline Hunt

The phrase that came to me at the interval was, “a rehearsed idea”. It was as if the author had had what he thought was a good idea but had not really been able to grasp it, hold on to it and form it. Like a sculpture that's only perfect when still encased in a solid block of stone and how ever you hack it out it will never be quite right.
I’m not sure that it is an entirely accurate assessment of the play and certainly owes too much to my desire to do flowery writing. My interval thought was partially inspired by the director’s description, in the programme, of the play’s long gestation and many revisions. I have a, probably unwarranted, suspicion that the more something has to be revised (and heavily revised) the more likely it is, not to work. Seeing the first half of the play hadn’t helped, there was a story, certainly, but the cast seemed just to going through well-worn arguments as if following them in a diagram. It wasn’t that it was badly written it was more under-written as if the author hadn’t ever become interested in his characters.
I thought there were some good touches, the way that the injured soldier and his wife used careful language to lead the journalist to the wrong but desired conclusion and the incoherence of another soldier seeking to tell the truth. However the idea of making the injured soldier into a hero with the use of topless pictures of his wife didn’t make sense to me. It felt like it was only there to justify the title of the play

Fast Labour by Steve Waters, Hampstead Theatre, 2-Jun-2008 – Directed by Ian Waters

A good thing about political correctness is the way that you avoid obvious stereotypes and lazy generalisations. A bad thing about politically correct plays is that the author expends so much energy avoiding obvious stereotypes and lazy generalisations, that the drama ebbs away, leaving something anaemic and without conflict. I'm probably being lazy and generalising here but I felt this play had far too many decent people in it. Of course there were illegal immigrants [insert standard and well rehearsed arguments about the black economy of economic migrants being essential for cheap food - here] and the gang masters that exploited them but none of the nightmare stories of people trafficking. The most villainous person, arguably the gang-master Grimmer, was far too concerned about his position in society to really do anything vile. He was certainly an exploiter and, in keeping migrant workers money, a thief but he also wanted to keep his people on side.
No doubt there’ll be plenty of research to back up the facts in the play but I wanted more jeopardy, to feel that there was more at stake. The story of an illegal immigrant, working their way up and starting a briefly successful business has echoes of powerful films like Scarface but it seems the author didn’t want to go there. True, it would have been over melodramatic especially in a piece that argued that at least in Britain there are fair rules to play by and it is possible to win the game.
I’ve gone on far too long trying to say that it was all a bit too agreeable. The play itself was well put together and I was impressed especially by the switching in languages (everything spoken in English but jumping between imagined languages through accent and context). It made me think about the way that completely coherent, intelligent people can sound and look like idiots when dealing with a language that is unfamiliar or different. It was interesting to notice (though not surprising) that the author avoided the comedy of miscomprehension that is often a safe comedic retreat.
I could have done with knowing a lot more about the demons that Victor (Craig Kelly) had encountered and more about his motivations. He wanted to be a good man and to give people work but I needed more than that. There was a fair bit of talk about how perestroika and the fall of communism have changed life in the former Soviet Union but I wasn’t convinced that it was coming from anywhere or was intended to reach any conclusion.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Common Pursuit, by Simon Gray, Menier Chocolate Factory, 1-June-2008 – Directed by Fiona Laird

While I watched this play I couldn’t help being reminded of a programme note in N C Hunter’s A Day By The Sea which I saw at the Finborough a couple of months ago. As I pointed out at the time, the programme mentioned that N C Hunter’s success may have had much to do with the high calibre actors that performed his plays. I was reminded of this because when I saw this play twenty years ago, the cast which included Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, John Gordon Sinclair, Sarah Berger and John Sessions was pretty damn good and possibly the suitable for the play at the time.
I realised that the comparison with N C Hunter was probably unfair, and that the play doesn’t so much need good or even great actors, it just needs the right actors. And it isn’t all the actors, the ‘wrong’ actors in this play were arguably the actors in the comic relief roles of Nick and Peter. I began to think that it is those roles together with the role of Humphrey (a self-loathing homosexual don – played first time by Stephen Fry, who else) that really made the play something special. Otherwise, you could claim it was an underwritten romantic triangle. Reece Shearsmith, who played the literary hack, Nick, was suitably acidic but didn’t have the flamboyance and anti-heroic schoolboy charm that Rik Mayall brought to the part. I didn’t like him enough this time round, and as his character’s glasses frames got thicker, Reece Shearsmith started to make me think of Ronnie Corbett – his shortness relative to the other actors added to that feeling.
Casting Nigel Harman as the lothario lone-ranger Peter seemed to miss the point that Peter is chaotic but very lucky in keeping his infidelities secret. Harman was a convincing philanderer but too smooth for the part. John Gordon Sinclair may not have been as sexy playing Peter but he made a better muddling liar and had much more chemistry with Humphrey. I didn’t really get the strength of the attraction between Humphrey and Peter in this production although the elements are in the play.
One of the bits that I remembered most about this play (although it may have only been in the TV adaptation) was a touching speech from Stuart (was John Sessions, is Robert Portal) comparing his situation with the ‘fixed’ tom-cat who is unable to perform with cat-like agility anymore. It was missing from this production, I’m not sure why or even whether the play would have been better (or worse) for its inclusion but I felt its absence.

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