Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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Gundog

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, 15th February 2018

Always a tricky business knowing what to pick out when booking in advance for productions at the Royal Court. Obviously if it is a big name playwright, or someone with previous form, probably best to get in there sharpish and buy blind. For newer writers it is a trickier proposition. Even I can’t justify/manage pitching up at everything they stage but waiting until productions open, or worse still, reviews trickle in, is a losing strategy given the generally high quality of the offer from the world’s greatest “writers’ theatre”.

Now I really liked the sound of Simon Longman’s debut major play Gundog. The blurb suggested a meditation on the rigours of rural life, the passing of time and the impact of a stranger. With maybe the prospect of a twist. Which, broadly, is exactly what it was. Without the twist. We were presented with a stage of mud, lots of mud. (I have seen a few of these indoor fields now: Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Nights Dream at the Young Vic and Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring at Sadler Wells – la di dah. In this case I spent maybe a little too long contemplating how long it took, and who got roped into helping, to get the earth up and down the Royal Court stairs/lifts).

Loud bang, A flash of light and we are presented with a dead lamb, (not real so keep calm animal lovers). On stage are garrulous Anna, holding a shotgun, taciturn Becky, and Guy, who is plainly “not from round there”. Turns out Anna and Becky are sisters who run the failing family sheep farm and migrant Guy Tree, (“no-one can pronounce my real name”), has wandered into their world. He stays to help out. For a few years. Mum died way back. Dad, unseen, is mired in deep depression, mourning for his wife. Grandad is losing his marbles, though with flashes of lucid pathos. The less than prodigal son Ben returns after having conspicuously failed to secure his fortune. He’s even had his shoes nicked.

Time passes. In the first and third acts, forwards. In the second act, backwards. Each act ends with the death of an animal, the final and fourth act with a torrential storm. Disease ravages the flock, perhaps caused by Ben’s ineptitude, and the already precarious economics of the farm unravels. The sisters take to rustling. This is a miserable existence make no mistake. Dad takes his own life. Ben has tried and failed to escape, Becky has no choice, consumed, as she is, by the business of running the farm, Anna sees no point in any other life, she has given up on school, and Guy has nowhere else to go. Certainly not the idyllic arcadia we urban softies might dream about.

Lighting courtesy of Lee Curran, sound from Peter Rice, Chloe Lamford’s aforementioned set and Vicky Featherstone’s direction all work to emphasise this static, invariable world. Mr Longman’s dialogue, which is laced with dark humour, and the structure of the play feels very accurate. Perhaps too accurate for without any shift in tone or plot there are times when this became a little wearing. The idea is laudable, the execution powerful. Just a little too, er, still.

Ria Zmitrowicz as Anna once again caught the eye as she did in Alistair McDowall’s wonderful play X at the RC a couple of years ago. I look forward to seeing Rochenda Sandall again based on this understated portrayal of Becky. Alec Secareanu is a talented Romanian actor who, unsurprisingly, convinced as Guy. Alan Williams was as dependable as ever as grandad Mick and I know just how good Alex Austin, who played Ben, can be from his performance in Thebes Land at the Arcola, though in this he pushes a little at the histrionic.

Definitely worth seeing but maybe Simon Longman’s play is just a little bit too enclosed, as it were. The malleability of time and the power of nature are absorbing themes to explore, (look no further than the stage adaption of the mythic Picnic at Hanging Rock brought to the Barbican by Aussies Malthouse and Black Swan State Theatre). The precariousness and grind of rural existence is also a more than legitimate subject for artistic exploration. Mind you this was more satisfactorily captured by Hope Dickson Leach’s recent debut film The Levelling, which also had its own, mysterious plot (The Levelling film review *****). Still Simon Longman is clearly a writer with real credibility so I await his next move with considerable interest.

 

John at the National Theatre review *****

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John

National Theatre (Dorfman), 6th February 2018

I would be very wary of playwright Annie Baker if I were you. She will bewitch you. Magical powers. That is the only way to explain John. Nothing really dramatic happens, the setting doesn’t change and the words, initially at least, seem quite ordinary. Yet the longer it goes on, (it clocks in at near 3 hours even stripping out a couple of intervals), the more mesmerised the audience becomes. It is “pregnant with possibilities” you see and turns out to be anything but ordinary. Extraordinary in fact. John goes beyond the exaggerated naturalism of Annie Baker’s previous plays into, well, a theatrical place that I have never quite experienced before.

How she wrote it is beyond me. Conjuring up these voices, and then just letting them speak in the moment, reveals a writer of utter confidence who knows exactly what she is about. If she can see and hear the whole thing before putting pen to paper I am in awe. If she makes it up as she goes along, (I know, she almost certainly didn’t), then frankly I am gobsmacked.

Haunting is the word I have seen elsewhere to encapsulate John and it is a good word both to describe the meanings that Ms Baker seeks to explore, the effects she creates and the memories she delivers beyond initial viewing. The very best plays/productions leave you with a series of pictures in your head that can be recalled long afterwards, (doh – that’s how memory works you numbnut), and it is not always the ones that you might immediately expect. John vividly falls into this category.

It is the week after Thanksgiving. Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) arrive at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania run by Mertis (Marylouise Burke). All that follows takes place in the lounge/dining area of the B&B. Chloe Lamford’s set is a thing of wonder and a character in itself. A vintage radio cum juke box seems to be permanently set to Bach. A self-playing piano alarmingly springs to life. The furniture is exactly as you would imagine in a fading but homely B&B. Think dusty chintz. The staircase leads to a handful of unseen bedrooms, (to which Jenny and Elias retreat on occasion), which seem never to be heated. The dining area is, optimistically, named “Paris”. There are knick-knacks a plenty but what is most disturbing are the dolls lining a high shelf. Jenny even recognises one of them as the doll which unsettled her as a child. Peter Mumford’s superb lighting complements the set. The atmosphere which is created is ever so slightly off-kilter from the expected cosy, but still a long way from full-blown, Gothic supernatural.

It was Elias’s idea to come to Gettysburg for a couple of nights after seeing Jenny’s family: she was less sure. (Gettysburg remains the single biggest day, well three days, of slaughter in American history and was the turning point in the Civil War. One for students of semiotics there methinks). Elias is a musician, Jenny writes questions for a TV quiz show. They are three years into their relationship but cracks are appearing. Innocent comments, or texts, can prompt gentle bickering. Moody Elias is always looking to take offence: Jenny predictably counters with textbook passive-aggressiveness. There are silences – Ms Baker really, really understands the importance of silences. Then, just as naturally, they cuddle up on the sofa, (too cold upstairs), with Elias trying to make up “ghost” stories. So, a portrait of an entirely recognisable modern couple, played to perfection by Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale.

And so to Mertis, aka Kitty. Marylouise Burke is a veteran of the US stage and this is a remarkable performance. Mertis throughout is sweet, dithery, eccentric, but no cliche. She runs the B&B with second husband George, who is apparently ill and remains unseen. Her blind friend Genevieve, another perfectly pitched performance from June Watson, comes to visit, and, over a few glasses she and Mertis engage Jenny in meaningful conversation, Jenny having stayed behind suffering from menstrual cramps as martyr Elias went off alone to visit the battlefields. Genevieve is a more forthright character than Mertis but both believe they have been accompanied by “watchers” in their lives. This culminates in the idea of love as a haunting, literally in Genevieve case by her ex called, you guessed it, John. Jenny feels something of the same as does Elias when subsequently cornered by Mertis.

This then is what I took to be the central concern of the play. The idea that the uncertainty, loneliness and disappointment of life is what drives the urge to believe in, take comfort from, or be disturbed by, something beyond the immediate and rational. The uncanny stories, (in Act 3 Mertis reads some Lovecraft to Genevieve who then remains in the shadows through Elias and Jenny’s “final” argument), conversations, signs and symbols that abound in the play, as well as the precise naturalism of the lines, are, I think, what Annie Baker has alighted on to force us to think about how this “need” articulates with our interior monologues and our sense of external reality. Alternatively maybe I am just a pseud who thinks too much.

Theatre, at its best, is a shared experience in a way that other art forms cannot replicate. The connection between text and actor, character and actor, audience and actor for sure. But also the connection between members of the audience as text and performance unfold. That was definitely in the air for John. It is subtle but entirely engrossing. It is crammed with detail, and that is just what registered, there was probably loads more that I missed. Oh and did I say it is funny. Because, at times, it really is.

It is no surprise that James Macdonald is the director here. Is there a director working on the UK stage who is more sympathetic to playwrights? I don’t think so. I am pretty sure this will end up being in my top ten plays this year and I will do my level best to see more of Annie Baker’s plays. (I see Circle, Mirror, Transformation is being revived at Home, Manchester shortly).

If you are one of those bellends who feels the need to constantly check your phone then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are at all interested in the possibilities of theatre then you should snap up one of the tickets for the remaining performances, snuggle into a seat at the Dorfman, (not always that easy), and let this evocative play bleed into you.

 

 

 

My Mum’s a Twat at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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My Mum’s A Twat

Royal Court Theatre, 16th January 2018

I am a fat bloke with a dodgy heart and a sore back in his 50s. So I should not be swanning around London without a care in the world hoovering up culture to make up for lost time. I should be grinding away engaged in pointless labour for 12 hours a day to ensure late Western capitalism can continue to eke out basis points of economic growth. “Growth” that is only secured by measuring the wrong things or by mortgaging the future. But, in some unseemly regress to my student and early post student years, that, (the swanning), is what I am doing.

Which in turn means I end up seeing theatre where I am plainly not the target audience, surrounded by youngers who could be my kids, on seating which has not been designed with me in mind. There is an excellent tendency amongst the most progressive theatres, the Gate, the Young Vic, the Royal Court, in London to incorporate the audience seating into the set design. I probably had a lucky escape from The Jungle at the Young Vic recently, (no allusion intended), as I was unable to make the booked date. From the sound of it that was a cultural loss, given the sparkling reviews, but a medical gain as the chances of me sitting for an hour or so on a cushion without the entire audience sensing my discomfort was miniscule.

And so to My Mum’s a Twat where a quick scan on the way in saw me quickly bypass the floor cushions and opt for the sturdiest wooden chair I could find, which just about did the trick. Now to be absolutely clear I am not moaning about any of these design concepts. Quite the reverse. Bringing the audience in, rather than shutting it out, can only be a good thing. And, at the end of the day, if I could just lay off the pies, the discomfort could be dialled down. No, this is simply an awkward, space-filling preamble to the bland realisation that My Mum’s a Twat may not have been for me.

Which is galling in so many ways. The Girl in this 75 minute monologue was played by my favourite stage pixie, Patsy Ferran. By my calculations you could secure maybe 4 Patsys for every 1 of me. And since Patsy Ferran delivers more joy in 30 seconds of stage performance that I could muster across several lifetimes, (even learning from my mistakes), then this would be a very valuable trade. She was the stand-out actor in Polly Findlay’s As You Like at the National in 2015 and in Ms Findlay’s most recent RSC Merchant of Venice. And her turn in Blithe Spirit in the West End a few years ago near upstaged some way more venerable colleagues. I note she is set to take the lead in the Almeida’s forthcoming TW’s Summer and Smoke – can’t wait.

Anyway she was made for this part. This debut play by Anoushka Warden, (whose day job is schmoozing the press for the RC – good on her), is a forthright memoir of the Girl’s childhood after her Mum and partner join a ropey (“batshit crazy”) cult. She tells tales of her siblings, her stepdad (“Moron”), Mum obviously, (the twat), the pious cult leader (sorry can’t remember her name), her Dad, who she eventually rejoins after Mum and stepdad move to Canada to set up a new outpost of the cult, her friends, drugs, sex, music. In fact all the things you would expect from a memory play about childhood and teenage years. It is not too gentle though it is pretty funny, and it captures many of the pleasures, the disappointments, the self-absorption, the bedroom rebellion, of those years. At its heart lays the bond between the Girl and her Mum, despite the nonsense that her Mum subscribes to in the cult.

I wished it had gone a little bit darker, especially into the workings of the cult. The story would allow that, the anger is rooted, but Ms Warden’s writing defaults back to comedy. And it might have benefitted from a little more surprise and revelation along the way, especially towards the end, where it becomes a little bit “teenage rebel” predictable. It does though have moments of real insight and acuity which expand beyond the specific’s of the Girl’s story and it serves as a perfect vehicle to showcase Ms Ferran’s undoubted talents. Some actors recede from the memory post performance, some actors intensify. Patsy Ferran is one of the latter.

Seating aside, Chloe Lamford’s teenage bedroom design is a winner, and Ms Warden has secured the services of, not one, but two, of our finest directors in boss Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian. Ms Christian directed Parliament Square at the Bush and in Bath (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****), to thrilling effect, and Bodies (Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****) in this very space. Next up she will be bringing Trust to the Gate Theatre. A post-theatre, dance based German-Dutch collaboration having a pop at global capitalism, in the tiny Gate space. It will either be genius or ludicrous. Probably a bit of both.

Victory Condition at the Royal Court Theatre review **

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Victory Condition

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

Apparently the writer of Victory Condition, Chris Thorpe, likes to experiment with the dramatic form. I haven’t seen Confirmation, a one man work in which he also took the lead as a white supremacist, which apparently prodded and provoked its audience. It sounds uncomfortable but fascinating. In other works he has stamped on a mobile phone and set Tory party press statements to death metal tracks. Sounds like a top bloke.

However, I wasn’t entirely enamoured with this Victory Condition. A couple, simply titled Man and Woman, return from a holiday in Greece, to their tasteful, if somewhat bijou, metropolitan flat, (an ingenious design from Chloe Lamford which doubles up for B also showing at the RC – B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). They unpack, they get changed, have a drink, make a snack, play videogames, get a pizza and generally potter about in choreographed cozy domesticity. They don’t speak to each other. Instead they narrate, through two cut-up independent monologues, an entirely different reality.

Man, played by Jonjo O’Neill, with his lilting Northern Irish voice, tells the story of a government sniper, who falls in love with a person he sees from his position, imagines that person (we don’t know their gender) having a dream about an alien invasion, and eventually shoots the person in order to turn them into a martyr, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, equally eloquent as Woman, recounts a narrative about a person who has a brain haemorrhage on the Tube on their way to work. This person seems to be imagining a meeting at work where time stands still. Then then she opens up to all manner of other, seemingly unconnected events around the world, and maybe a trauma from their own childhood which has caused the clock to stop. Her monologue, memorably, imagines just how mundane our own behaviour would be in the event of increasingly catastrophic events that imperil human existence.

Now this summary is based on reading the text. As you can see I am not sure I fully grasped exactly what the two characters were describing. I also note that the dialogue at the end of the play where Man and Woman discuss their own lives back in an ostensibly “real” world was omitted from this production directed by the RC’s own Vicky Featherstone. There was instead just a few seconds at the end, following a flash, where the couple acknowledged each other. Some of the stage directions which describe a cityscape beyond the flat’s interior, which seems to be succumbing to some sort of disaster or attack, also appear to have been omitted. This means that the enigmatic texture of the play was amplified. Put this together with the cut-up nature of the monologues and the message here was difficult to discern.

Nothing wrong with theatrical elusiveness and formal experimentation. Here though it did make me wonder whether the insight justified the effort involved in following the two monologues. Some of the images which flowed from these monologues were undeniably striking, as was the contrast with this routine of “ordinary” life, but ultimately I just couldn’t engage with the two characters up there on the stage. I closed my eyes a few times. Not through boredom but just to see if this would actually work better as an entirely aural experience. It did.

B at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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B

Royal Court Theatre, 12th October 2017

I wasn’t entirely sure what to see from the plays on offer in this latest season at the Royal Court. I don’t know enough about the writers and the teasers on the website are exactly that, teasers. Seeing too many is an extravagance, but waiting for reviews risks missing out on some outstanding theatre. Sounds like I’ve already ballsed up by missing The Fall if my friend the Captain is to be believed, and she usually is. And now, with this play B and Victory Condition, both of which had their moments, but were not altogether convincing, I am beginning to doubt my picks. Still first world problems. eh.

B was written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon and commissioned by the RC. Chile has a history of impassioned political protest, which has spilled over into violence, with several hundred bombings since the constitutional changes in 2005. “Noise” bombs, intended to cause damage to property and highlight apparent injustice, are prevalent. This play, which concerns a plot to plant just such a bomb, therefore lost a little bit in translation here in the genteel surroundings of Sloane Square.

It is set in a room in a flat where Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are being comforted by neighbour Carmen (Sarah Niles). Marcela’s boyfriend has apparently been killed by a terrorist bomb. This turns out to be a ruse as Marcela and Alejandra are hatching their own bomb plot. Jose Miguel (played by the ever watchable Paul Kaye) turns up with the bomb. Cue a nervous run through of the plan which is played, successfully, for comic effect. As the night wears on though the motives behind the plot are exposed with Jose Miguel advocating a more violent approach to protest than the two women. The tone shifts, the black comedy evaporates, and we build to three impassioned monologues from each participant questioning why and what and why they are doing. Carmen the neighbour returns and is not quite what she seemed. There is a dramatic finale.

Sounds good on paper right? I agree. It also reads pretty well in the text. The problem is that the tone oscillates and the tension, which should build to breaking point given the material, just never seems to ratchet up. I suspect this is not the fault of the production under the direction of Sam Pritchard and designer Chloe Lamford, but lies in Mr Calderon’s claustrophobic and phlegmatic plot. I am not sure that enough really happens, or that we find out enough about the three conspirators, early enough in the play. Which leaves the three, admittedly fervent, monologues near the end shouldering much of the interesting and unsettling debate between the unfocussed, politically naive but heartfelt protest of today’s youth, with the more organised, direct and ideologically informed revolutionaries of previous generations.

I went with the SO. She can write the sort of sharp, sarcastic, Pinteresque (sorry its the only word for it) dialogue that this started off with in her sleep. She wasn’t best impressed. Mind you if she had stayed for Victory Condition I reckon I would have been in real trouble. Such is the danger of picking theatre in advance. Ho hum,

 

road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

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road

Royal Court Theatre, 7th September 2017

Another useless review as this revival of Jim Cartwright’s seminal debut play is about to end its run. But I would be pretty confident it will pop up again somewhere in the next few years. And that is because, as this production shows, despite it being set firmly in the mid 1980s, it is as relevant today as it was then.

The play is set on an unnamed road in an unspecified Lancashire town, largely, over one night. The vignettes are threaded together by our pukish narrator Scullery, here played by Lemn Sissay, of whom more later. We alternate between scenes of raucous comedy and tragic monologues (and most memorably an affecting duologue). The dignity of labour is in short supply in this part of the North, money is tight and hope crushed by circumstance. So most of the residents are focussed on living for today with lashings of booze and sex offering release. For some characters though the absence of money, of love, of friends fuels nostalgia, or worse, despair.

Now too often this set-up can turn into a theatrical misery fest. What makes this different is Jim Cartwright’s beautiful writing. It is a cliche but there is real warmth and poetry here. The words are so powerful that you feel you immediately know these characters despite there being no attempt to provide a before of after to their lives outside this night. He doesn’t need to bash you over the head with the message and never offers up caricatures or stereotypes. John Tiffany’s expert direction does not deny the irony of a bunch of well heeled punters in Sloane Square gawping at a bunch of actors playing those left behind in “Thatcher’s Britain”, but still allows the pathos to shine through. I haven’t the faintest idea how we reconcile the social, economic and cultural divide between the haves and haves nots in this country today but road remains a powerful document of that divide.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a model of effective economy, with a glass lightbox acting as a device to frame some of the key scenes/monologues and heighten the voyeurism. And John Tiffany, much like in his recent Glass Menagerie (The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****), with lighting designer, Lee Curran, takes the opportunity to plunge the backdrop into darkness at the crucial moments. I gather this makes for a very different (and shorter) experience to the original promenade version of the play but it facilitates absolute audience concentration. For an ageing post-punk type like me the soundtrack was also a joy – an ensemble routine set to the Fall’s Hit the North was the highlight. There is a parallel between the poetry of Mark E Smith (just to remind you the greatest songwriter of all time) and Jim Cartwright’s lines. I even tolerated Elbow as the backing to a surprisingly effective conclusion involving the whole cast.

And the cast were excellent. I have seen the TV version of the play with the mix of cast members from the original Royal Court productions and other acting luminaries and, for me, this troupe matched them (though as the play is so well written that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise). I think I have heard Lemn Sissay, the poet and broadcaster, on the radio but his performance here was terrific and I now see from his biography what an admirable man he is. Michelle Fairley shows just how powerful an actor she is as hilarious seductress Helen, and then again as the desperate, wheedling Brenda. I am so looking forward to her Cassius in the forthcoming Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre with Ben Whishaw, David Calder and David Morrissey – surely a winner. Mark Hadfield similarly shows, firstly, his comic timing as pissed lothario Brian and, secondly, his ability to invest imagery into Jerry’s nostalgic reminiscences. June Watson as lonely pensioner Molly nearly brought a tear to my eye, I kid you not. Mike Noble’s curious Skin-Lad is the one ostensibly violent character in the plan and his missive was delivered with real menace and mystery.. Faye Marsay as Clare, (hard to believe this was her stage debut), and Shane Zaza (watch this young man) as Joey, really hit home with the play’s most astonishing scene as the young couple who have literally given up on life. Liz White as Valerie delivered another affecting monologue lovingly bemoaning her workless, drink addled, pathetic husband. She also played Carol, who, along with Mike Noble now as Eddie, Faye Marsay now as Louise and Dan Parr as Brink, deliver the final, famous (at least to me), epiphanous scene with total conviction, helped of course by the voice of the master, Otis Redding.

So any way you look at it this was an excellent and worthy revival, of a masterly play on the stage where it premiered. I haven’t seen any of Mr Cartwright’s other plays, including Little Voice, either on the stage or TV, though not for want of trying. I hope I shall. And I highly recommend you find a way to see road. I suspect that, unfortunately, its power or concerns will not diminish through time.