Sunday, 29 August 2010
There's a very funny sequence in the second half of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park where the character start telling very non-PC jokes to each other. The audience is delighted and uncomfortable at the parade of offensive terms. In a play that deals not just with race and real state but also with terror of appearing racist and the pressure we put on ourselves to seem as unprejudiced as possible it is a moment of great release and impact. Clybourne Park is political theatre more preocupied with asking a variety of questions rather than supplying answers (that is fine by me, I prefer this sort).
The play concerns the story of a house - the first house is set in the 1950s, where the house is sold out for a far cheaper price than it should (and the audience will come to find out why) and the idea of a black family moving in upsets the comfortable, conservative, white community. After the intermission we are in the present day, witnessing the efforts of a young couple who have bought the house and plans to remodel it, while the neighbours are concerned with preserving the historical heritage of the building.
Clybourne Park really has it all to please the Royal Court audience, and most of the non-usuals too: the humour, the political bite, a gorgeous art direction, Dominic Cooke working his magic behind scenes, family secrets, a theatrical meshing of different periods, a flawless cast (impressive Martin Freeman and Sarah Goldberg, and how nice to see Sam Spruell on stage again, a revelation to me in Trafalgar's The Caretaker) and some nice writing (mainly in the second half).
But what the play likes is an edge. I found the first part a bit weak - the family drama was predictable and we never got a clear sense of the characters as real people on one hand and on the other it wasn't satiric enough to be a proper satire. The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is very detailed and believable but what goes on inside is a bit stuffy for my taste. The second half flows so much easily and there's a wonderful ghost moment when both periods mix in a very theatrical twist (that's good, theatre is supossed to be theatrical). Plays where different periods are represented on stage to illustrate a subject or to dig up secret histories seem to work very well - while I was seeing Clybourne Park I was constantly reminded of the best of this examples, the magnificent Three Days Of Rain. Here there were bits that felt heavy-handed (the predictable reappearing of the chest) and the general feeling of the play telling us that we are all a bit racist, really, didn't sit well with me but I liked the interesting questions that it posed. And the jokes were funny.
It never got to be the brilliant theatre event that it could have been, for me, but Clybourne Park is a very enjoyable, entertaining and pretty thoughtful play. The cast is lowkey and very sharp and though Sophie Thompson is getting a lot of press for her role(s) - she had the flashiest parts, after all - the whole cast is perfect, specially in the second part.
Thursday, 26 August 2010
Live a life less ordinary.
Do you have 12 pounds?
Okay, well, if you have them get yourself south of the river to Theatre503 (upstairs at the Latchmere pub) and buy a ticket for In An Instant. It's an evening of new writing - 8 short plays focused on the idea of an unexpected moment that changes your life forever.
You wait for the house to open, sit on the comfortable and well-worn leather couches, sip on your drink and look at all that trendy and beautiful people around you (Is that Samuel Barnett I spot? Yes, it is). Then you go inside the theatre itself and it's tiny - but that's alright, you should be used to that, you love pub theatres, don't you? They are great, they bring back all the rawness of real theatre. But yes, the room is small, so go sit in the first row; don't be afraid of first rows, if you are used to getting day tickets in West End theatres you know of the rewards of first-row theatre-ing. The set is bare: black, two chairs. There will not be much in the way of props or costume during the night but that's fine, listen to the words, look at the actors' faces, that's all you need.
Then it starts.
It starts with HOW I CAME TO BE, written by Adam Barnard and directed Jules Tipton. It's a boy-meets-girl story of sorts. It's not the most original or exciting idea in the world and it sounds like something you might have seen in some writing workshop or a new writing night or something in the Tristan Bates Theatre. But Adam Barnard writes with such charm and wittiness and Nick Gadd and Katie Hayes ar such convincing players that yes, you are charmed. Things are looking good in the room.
Then comes DEBBIE (Who couldn't catch a cold if she tried) by James Graham, directed by Mel Hillyard. Nothing could have prepared you for the sheer genius of this monologue. Maybe it's a pity that it's so early in the evening because it's the best piece of the play, with the one written by Matthew Dunster. It's hilarious and touching and captures the subtle absurdity of teenage despair without looking down on its protagonist. This is a story about a girl who wants to get hit by lightning. Don't worry, she'll tell you why and you'll understand it all. Rebecca Oldfield is simply astonishing as the titular Debbie. You fall in love a bit. Maybe she reminds you of the first time you saw Jessica Raine in theatre, or Pippa Nixon. She makes Debbie quirky and sympathetic and real. This is what happens when pitch-perfect acting meets great writing, and the way James Graham writes here is... Well, it wasn't such a bad idea, coming down to South London on a Monday evening. This monologue reminds you why you love theatre: because it can be this extraordinary.
You are not expecting much AMBIENT NOISE, written by Kenneth Emson and directed by Mel Hillyard again. Maybe because DEBBIE was so perfect that you are expecting a let down. It starts very funny - in fact Richard Maxted is so hilarious that you wonder why he is not in everything. But then you focus on the language, the rhythm of the lines. And hey, wow, that Kenneth Emson sure can write. It's a Morning After story and it turns from funny and well-observed to weird and then sort of touching. You are not sure you get the point of the story completely. It doesn't matter. Richard Maxted and Antonia Kinlay are gorgeous. You are beginning to suspect that every single actor taking part in this play is nothing but extraordinary. In fact Richard Maxted is not only funny but he can give surprising depth to its performance.
QUIZ NIGHT feels perhaps like the most underwritten of the eight plays you see tonight. Written and directed by John Sheerman. It's entertaining and you are entertained despite some bits where the writing doesn't fly as well as it could, and some cheap humour. Nick Gadd, Martin Allanson and Chris Brandon play a trio of friends going to their regular quiz night at the pub, but then there's a twist. The effort to mix genres here is appreciated. You go to the interval quite happy.
When you come back to the little black room it's turn for Matthew Dunster's piece. Matthew Dunster is possibly the most talented writer in UK right now - didn't you go to You Can See The Hills at the Young Vic? Arguably the most powerful play of the last five or six years. You are a bit anxious about this one; Dunster is so good that of course you have certain expectations. You needn't worry: POP! is as brilliant as anything you might have expected. Directed again by Mel Hillyard and performed by Jonathan McGuinness and Rebecca Oldfield. Of course you know Jonathan McGuinness, you've seen him in rehearsed readings here and there, the Soho Theatre, and at the Actors Centre (in fact, you think you remember him in an evening of new writing in which Matthew Dunster also took part). He is always relieable and impressive. True genius. In the same way people like Justin Salinger are geniuses: as in "actors who don't get as much press attention as their obvious talents deserve". McGuinness is indeed impressive (and magnificently low-key) as Rupert, posh City guy hooked on heroin trying to score a hit after work and the only one who can help him is young Jenny, addict and lowlife. The chemistry between the actors works perfectly and you can hardly believe that Rebecca Oldfield can be Jenny as well as Debbie from the earlier piece. POP! takes on a familiar subject for theatre, and it's gritty and it could have easily been clichéd but Dunster is too good for that. You have the feeling this is the kind of play all those gritty plays about drugs wish they could be.
The next piece SNAP, written by Emma Jowett and directed by Jules Tipton, is a dark tale as well (and maybe putting it together with POP! makes sense). It is also a great piece of storytelling - you watch it unfold on the edge of your seat, tense the whole time. It is engaging theatre and to say anything more would be spoiling it. This needs to be said, though: Antonia Kinlay is amazing in it. You begin to suspect you are overusing the world amazing tonight but these plays really deserve it.
Amy Abrahams captures the give-and-take of male friendship very well in HAPINESS IS A CHOICE, directed by John Sheerman. The piece itself might not be extraordinary but the writing and the performances by Martin Allanson and Richard Maxted make it very easy to connect with the characters. The story of James, who changes his behavious suddenly and it pisses his flatmate Dan. Nicely observed.
The last short of the night is EYES FULL OF PORNOGRAPHY by Michael Ross, again under John Sheerman's direction and featuring Chris Brandon and Cameron Slater. Unfortunately this is the weakest play of the group. You don't go with a bitter taste in your mouth because they whole thing has been so rewarding but this piece isn't for you. It's funny at times and the actors do it well but once it's past the plot twist it doesn't have much to offer. It offers cliché but doesn't dissect it succesfully so the characters feel a bit constrained. You get the feeling someone else could have done great work with the idea but as it is the piece remains a bit underwhelming. Nevermind, you don't care. It's all well.
In An Instant comes to London from good Latitude reviews. As you leave the Latchmere pub and wonder which bus will take you north of the Thames from here you mentally thank Theatre503 and Eyebrow Productions for putting this play together. This is what theatre should be about, at its very core. Something fresh, committed with new language, performed by actors full of talent and passion. Even if it's in a tiny room with no set.
And you almost didn't want to come.
So, once again, I ask you: Can you spare 12 quid?
Friday, 20 August 2010
Friday, 6 August 2010
A harsher truth.
Some characters are really hard to empathise with. And Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine, almost surgical job with the lead man of After the Dance. But one suspects that the audience is not meant to care for David but rather watch Terence Rattigan's study of his appalling behaviour as if an insenct under the microscope. The writing is tight but cold and ultimately a bit dull. But one has to admire the dullness as well. Because these people can be very dull in their little tragic lives. (Benedict Cumberbatch is a specialist in repressed douchebags - he can move on now.)
David is appalling, indeed, but not so much out of malice; his shortcoming are, in the end, tragic, and the audience's shortcoming is to expect anything else of the play. David cheats on his wife and we know he didn't resist temptation too much; the girl he falls for is judged cruelly by both characters and audience, who resents the confidence and arrogance of youth (Faye Castelow is perfect in embodying both the spirit of the period and her age). The friend seeing the play besides me really hated her; I didn't, I found easy to forgive her, because she really did what she did for love (or so she thought). David's wife, Joan (brilliant Nancy Carroll, fondly remembered from the underrated Waste at the Almeida) lives all her life in a lie because she is afraid of losing David, but she'd probably have a better chance of keeping him if she had been honest. So much waste, such a tragic missed chance. A play about a lost generation. Adrian Scarborough plays the drunken friend with a keen eye and a big heart, offering commentary to the disastrous relationships, and in the end he achieves some kind of hope of redemption (via moving to grim Manchester).
Rattigan can be brilliant at times but the play lacked dramatic tension and momentum, which okay, I ended up believing it was all on purpose, very modern, or maybe I wanted to like this play so much (Mr.Cumberbatch!) that I liked it against its weaknesses. It was not bland, it was tight, but on the same subject of a lost generation I ended up wishing I was seeing Time and the Conways again (After the Dance was better directed, but then again I really dislike Rupert Goold and everything he does).
Also: Can John Heffernan be my Pip Carter when Pip Carter is not around? (On second thought: Pip Carter, why are you not around? I want you to be on the stage all the time.)