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.

 

 

 

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.