Snowflake at the Kiln Theatre review ****

Snowflake

Kiln Theatre, 28th December 2019

Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.

Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.

Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.

We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.

Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.

Stories at the National Theatre review ***

Stories

National Theatre Dorfman, 27th November 2018

Nina Raine has a knack for dramatising contemporary social issues from multiple perspectives and a gift for sharp comedy observation. At least based on her last work Consent as I have not seen her other acclaimed works Tribes and Rabbit. However here I wonder if her determination to cover the ground, and to entertain us in each of the many scenes, may have ended up stalling the momentum of the whole play. As well as serving up a few slightly jarring moments. And the decision to cast, and give free rein to, Sam Troughton in many of the male “candidate” roles, whilst he is very funny, did rather detract from the central dilemma.

Everywoman Anna (unassumingly played by the always accomplished Claudie Blakley) is 39, successful in her theatre career but wanting a baby, after partner, the conceited, and fraught, man-child/mummy’s boy Tom, (our first taste of Sam Troughton’s comic range), decides he wants to split. This despite the couple investing in a couple of years of IVF. Bourgeois Mum (Margot Leicester) and Dad (Stephen Boxer), both excellent, are supportive, if occasionally a little un-PC, as is gay young brother Joe (Brian Vernel). And so the search for the ideal sperm begins. She auditions a procession of possibles (and occasionally their partners), in person as well as mail-order, whose pros and cons are entertainingly dissected, with help from family and friends (most notably Thusitha Jayasundera’s forthright Beth. Tom, who is somewhat younger than Anna, even gets to make his case for a second chance.

The direction is sympathetic, unsurprising given Nina Raine herself takes on the task, Jeremy Herbert’s set of moving boxes is neat and unobtrusive, as is Bruno Poet’s lighting and Alex Baranowski’s music and sound. All the requisite bases are covered, including the grown-up searching for a birth parent, but the narrative lacks surprise and the whole ends up as less than the sum of its parts. In making her conundrum believable, and explaining why she might contemplate some of the prize c*cks on show here as potential donors/fathers, Anna comes over as a bit wet in her exasperated optimism if I am honest. Too many ideas, not always fully developed, with a bit of awkward shoe-horning in of situation, character (a wide-eyed child, a Russian octogenarian) and her research on occasion.

Having said that, given the quality of the lines that Nina Raine puts into the mouths of her characters to elucidate her wry observations, it is impossible to dislike the play even as the lack of a killer punch frustrates. Ms Raine is particularly good at nailing the excuses that the men offer for their hesitancies and the validations they demand for their, brief, potential participation. In fact maybe too good, as this squeezes out the space to understand what Anna is feeling. Or maybe that is precisely the point that Nina Raine was trying to make.