Bodies at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

Bodies

Southwark Playhouse, 26th February 2019

Two’s Company is a theatre company which set out to explore plays written at the time of the Great War but has subsequently gone on to stage the English premiere of Hemingway’s only play and some Pinter productions. Here it has revived one of the most successful of James Saunders’s plays which originally premiered at the Orange Tree Richmond in 1977 before transferring to Hampstead Theatre and the West End. This is the first revival in 20 years or so.

James Saunders (1925-2004) was initially a champion of the Theatre of the Absurd, and even in his later work, (he wrote some 70 plays in all), he sought to push theatrical boundaries. He was closely associated firstly with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, (now one of the largest independent amateur theatres in Europe), and subsequently the Orange Tree.

Now I am not quite sure what attracted the prurient me to this intricate tale of wife-swapping in 1970s West London. Actually that snide observation does play and production a massive disservice. This really is a stealthily constructed portrait of marriage which has universal lessons beyond its central conceit.

Anne, on the surface the archetypal bored housewife, and Mervyn, frazzled and erudite English (head) teacher, are the embittered Ealing couple whose barbed conversation is fuelled by Scotch. So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They meet younger couple Helen and David, something in marketing, and become bessies. However we join them a decade after they initially befriended, Helen and David having returned to the seething maelstrom that is Esher from the US. We discover that they left after the couples swapped, the casual affair of Anne and David countered by Helen’s more calculated seduction of Mervyn, and then returned to, their partners, all those years ago. Helen and David have undergone some fairly intensive therapy to overcome the emotional impact, whilst Anne and Mervyn have simply buried it and their other “neuroses”. The therapy in question was a actual thing, Erhard Seminars Training, which the programme explains, went well beyond the usual hippyish 1970s mumbo-jumbo into some fairly aggressive group interventions. Worked for some apparently, though the organisation was dogged by accusations of brainwashing, bullying and extortion.

Anyway it has turned David, and Helen on the surface, into models of emotional stoicism and patronising rejectors of consumerism. Mervyn though is having none of that and, niceties dispatched, starts to pick away, at hypocrisies past and present, culminating in a full-on, pissed-up, stripped-bare (not literally but it might have worked) diatribe. These are all well-read people, they read on stage, which makes their opening expositional monologues, and subsequent conversation and interaction, all the more articulate. James Saunders clearly had a gift for provocative dialogue and the lucid four hander set-up is the perfect vehicle to show this off, especially when contrasted with an off-stage sub-plot of Simpson, a troubled, poetry obsessed, student of Mervyn’s.

Out of the mouths of his morally compromised characters Mr Saunders seems to conjure up rafts of argument that never feel too forced or contrived. Indulgent, middle-class philosophising under pressure can become tiresome in some playwright’s hands. Not here. I’ll admit that the absence of interruption feels a little less than naturalistic at first but is explained by Anne’s hauteur and the younger couple’s therapy. This leaves Mervyn as the apoplectic centrepiece and Tim Welton certainly lets it all come out in his closing heft of a monologue, an impassioned defence of human frailty. Annabel Mullion as Anne may not be gifted with quite the same knockout lines but when she gets her chance she offers a masterclass in waspish scorn from her chaise longue. Peter Prentice’s David, complete with black polo-neck, exudes the priggish certainty of the spiritual convert, and Alix Dunmore cleverly reveals the doubt under the surface of the willowy Helen.

Alex Marker’s set is a faithful Abigail’s Party like reconstruction of a 1970s lounge split by a jagged line, (and some sort of Atomium caper), to symbolise the fissures in the relationships. Costumes (Emily Stuart) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) all expertly capture the 70s vibe and Tricia Thorn’s delicate direction doesn’t even attempt to distract from this excellent text.

I’ll admit that there were a couple of brief longuers across the two hours or so, but nothing to trouble the Tourist’s lardy bum on the Southwark Little’s ungenerous benches. The Tourist has sat through a few “lost classics” in the past few years that were nothing of the sort. This was, give or take, the real deal. It would be interesting to see more of James Saunders work though I doubt it will happen. (I also see that he was responsible for the script of Bloomers, the sit-com which starred the much-missed Richard Beckinsale of Rising damp and Porridge fame, before his untimely death. Never saw it. Mind you it sounds like it was infected by bog-standard 1970s misogyny).

Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

salma-hoque-lakshmi-and-justine-mitchell-in-bodies-photo-bronwen-sharp

Bodies

Royal Court Theatre, 10th August 2017

Bodies is my first exposure to the writing of Vivienne Franzmann and I hope it will not be my last. A few quibbles aside this is overall a thoughtful play which sympathetically explores the issues that it chooses to highlight.

Here’s the set up. Clem (Justine Mitchell) and Josh (Brian Ferguson) cannot have children naturally and have chosen to pay for a surrogate, Lakshmi (Salma Hoque), in India to carry “their” child (via eggs from a ‘mother” in Russia). Clem’s father, David (Philip Goldacre), has motor neurone disease and requires constant care delivered by Oni (Lorna Brown).

Clem’s desperation to have a child is manifest in the conversations she has with an imagined teenage Daughter (Hannah Rae). Justine Mitchell’s performance as Clem is finely drawn and never histrionic. I found the scenes with a confident Hannah Rae as the Daughter very effective, a pointed device to externalise Clem’s fears and wishes. Clem is determined to navigate her way with compassion through the moral maze she has constructed but slowly the threads unravel. Her proud father, very convincingly delivered by Philip Goldacre, is a union man, and thinks what she is doing is plain wrong. Josh the husband, whilst never admitting it to his liberal self, has a more acute sense of the transactional entitlement in their course of action. Oni, whose husband and child are back home, serves to wryly puncture the couple’s bubble and to remind Clem of her obligations to her father. Whilst the couple do initially travel to India to meet Lakshmi, (Selma Hoque’s lines are few and weighted to the end but powerfully conveyed) their “relationship” is mediated at long distance by the clinic’s head Dr Sharma (the voice of Manjinder Virk) which means the couple can accept a convenient pretence about Lakshmi’s situation.

Ms Franzmann is careful to offer a sympathetic take on each character’s actions whilst still very clearly revealing the human costs of “fertility tourism”. Indeed I see from a quick skim through the text that the more overt exposition from some characters has been cut which I think fits the tone of careful examination more effectively The play is an already economic 90 minutes or so but might even have been tighter given the intelligent construction of the scenes. It sometimes felt as if Ms Franzmann needed to underline her already effectively constructed dilemmas. There is no need – the delicate dialogue is consistently revealing. The set is also occasionally ungainly and there are some avian based metaphors which seem a little superfluous.

But these are such minor objections I feel impolite to mention them. This is very rewarding piece of theatre with fine performances and direction from Jude Christian, which is made more powerful in my view by its low-key tone. In fact it is turning into one of those plays which gently gnaws away in my conscience. Examining exploitation, at any scale, whilst still allowing sympathy, is an awkward undertaking. This is more than up to the task.