Instructions For Correct Assembly at the Royal Court Theatre review ****


Instructions For Correct Assembly

Royal Court Theatre, 23rd April 2018

I was much taken with Thomas Eccleshare’s previous outing, Heather, on a recent outing at the Bush Theatre (Heather at the Bush Theatre review *****). Instructions for Correct Assembly looked similarly intriguing and, much to my surprise, I manage to rope in both the SO and the Blonde Bombshells to hold my hand. Well I can report that satire IFCA is well worth a viewing even if Mr Eccleshare doesn’t seem to fully explore the ramifications of the imaginative scenario he conjures. Mind you what do I know. I am so dull I couldn’t even come up with an idea one tenth as good and then wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.

Hari, played by Mark Bonnar, who I guarantee you will know from the telly, and Max, Jane Horrocks, who needs no introduction, are keen to have a second shot at parenthood. Only this time they are taking no chances and opt for a technological solution. An off the shelf AI robot in kit form, think IKEA, which they are trying to put together in the opening scene, whose behaviour, emotions and attitudes can be altered by remote control. The result, Jan, as we soon find out, is the spitting image of their human son, Nick, who, let’s say, didn’t quite meet their expectations. I’ll say no more but the set up provides plenty of opportunity for wicked humour, particularly when Nick’s failings are set against the achievements of Amy (Shaniqua Okwok), daughter of next door neighbours bragging Laurie (Michele Austin) and condescending Paul (Jason Barnett). It also examines the relationship between parents and their children as they turn into adults and specifically what happens when someone “throws their life away” as Nick does on drugs. Would we really want, need or trust technology to help us make perfect kids and what should we do when the real thing fails to live up to our hopes and dreams?

What really makes the play come to life, as it were, is Brian Vernel’s performance as Jan/Nick. I was much impressed by young Mr Vernel’s performance as Konstantin in Sean Holmes’s erratic Seagull at the Lyric (The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***), a production which I think in retrospect was better than I gave it credit for. He also stood out in the otherwise disappointing Future Conditional at the Old Vic as well as on the telly (David Hare’s Collateral and in the Last Kingdom, which I was addicted to). He has a slightly other-worldly quality, which, unsurprisingly, fits the bill here, but can turn convincingly nasty when required. Here, as he shifted between a desperate Nick and the machine Jan he was tremendous.

The set design of Cai Dyfan is the other star of the show, as a narrow window into Hari’s and Max’s suburban home, complete with conveyor belt of parts as they put Jan together, opens up in subsequent scenes before metaphorically collapsing again into the finale. This is an enterprising solution to Mr Eccleshare’s text which calls for a lot of different rooms and fairly rapid switches between them. The visual trickery courtesy of illusionist Paul Kieve is similarly eye-catching. Hamish Pirie’s direction is geared to making the most of the clever set pieces even if he can’t quite work out a way to fully realise the emotional torments that the plot should realise. We can only assume that Nick turned into the person he was in part because of Max and Hari’s influence and that their doomed attempt at redemption reflects their guilt. There is not enough in the play though to make this connection. The whole may be somewhat less than the sum of the parts, as it were.

Even so it gets its points across, is often wryly amusing, the dinner party scene in particular, and doesn’t outstay its welcome as some “dystopian satire'” plays are prone to do. The SO and the Blonde Bombshells were more than satisfied with their outing and I await Thomas Eccleshare’s next writing move (he is also a founder of visual theatre company Dancing Brick with his partner Valentina Ceschi) with interest. Meanwhile I humbly recommend you pop along to this

The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***


The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely won over by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.