Dealing With Clair at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Dealing With Clair

Orange Tree Theatre, 30th November 2019

The Orange Tree, along with the Royal Court, must presumably be one of Martin Crimp’s favourite theatres. Whilst he has primarily been engaged with writing libretti for George Benjamin’s excellent trio of operas in recent years, Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, and will have his next play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, premiering at the National next year (the Tourist has tickets, yea), many of his early plays started life at the Orange Tree, where he was championed by Sam Walters.

So it was nice to see the Orange Tree hosting English Touring Theatre’s revival of MC’s breakthrough play 30 years after its premiere in this very house. Surprisingly I managed to rope the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into the evening. Now, whilst I have an inordinate amount of time for the opera collaborations and his Chekhov translation, I am still making my mind up on Mr Crimp’s original drama. Mind you this was only the second such exposure, after The Treatment at the Almeida. Now there is no doubt there is something substantial there in his caustic stories which pick away at the underbelly of human behaviours, and in the painfully direct language he employs to tell them, but there is also a streak of irksome pretension which needles me.

Clair (Lizzy Watts) is an estate agent acting for the increasingly loathsome bourgeois yuppie couple Mike (Tom Mothersdale) and Liz (Hara Yannas). Anna (Roseanna Frascona) is their ill-used Italian au-pair. Art-dealer James (Michael Gould) is the increasingly threatening potential buyer. The cast is completed by Gabriel Akuwudike who variously plays Clair’s colleague, a builder and Anna’s boyfriend.

Now the play was originally written a couple of years after the still unsolved disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in Fulham (and who is commemorated in a stained glass window just down the road from the OT in East Sheen). Coincidentally the police were pursuing a new lead in the case as this revival opened. For those familiar with the circumstances of these tragic events it isn’t too difficult to guess where MC goes with the plot. But what he was really trying to expose was the venality of the time, the greed of the property owning classes, as well as playing with his usual themes of power and violence. It could have been written yesterday alas.

Fly Davies has delivered a cube on a raised platform in the centre of the OT stage masked by diaphanous gauze curtains and coldly lit by Joshua Carr. This only serves to heighten the voyeuristic quality that permeates MC’s play. We begin with Clair in her tiny, train-blighted flat on the phone to an unseen caller setting out, for want of a better term, the aggression that underpins the “art of the deal”. Every one of the cast, (even Gabriel Akuwudike at the end), is tasked with drawing out the worst traits in each of the protagonists, (and way more in the case of Michael Gould as James’s sadistic intent is revealed), whilst making sure we know they are still “one of us”. It is an unsettling watch in that respect and, for me, Lizzy Watts, given the truncated part she played, was particularly adept in capturing Clair’s ambitious pragmatism to get on and get the sale done even as her discomfort with James’s behaviour grew.

Clair’s flat also serves as the location for the disturbing, and slightly hyperbolic, ending but most of the action tales place in Mike and Liz’s house which they are looking to trade up from, (see how transactional language now permeates the everyday and which MC cleverly elides with the “business” of relationship). They start off blathering on about their “ethical” stance but their evasive attitudes, their treatment of Anna and the conversations they have behind the backs of Clair and, after his first viewing, James, reveal their true avaricious and condescending colours. Pretty soon they are making jokes about the “crumbling spine” of the buyer they happily gazump and gleefully ramping up the price they will settle for. Hara Yannas and, especially, Tom Mothersdale have plenty of opportunity to reveal the odiousness of the couple which, in terms of their performances, they relish.

Michael Gould as James runs the gamut from curt and business-like, through slightly odd, to Pinteresque menacing, then into creepy, sinister and finally full blown abusive psycho. I do hope in real life he is a kindly uncle type for here, in the scenes with Clair especially, he genuinely made me fell queasy, which is ironic in some ways, given that in a particularly memorable scene, Mike is the one who is actually sick in the play.

So some very fine performances, dextrously directed by ETT director Richard Twyman, of an intelligent play, built out of considered language and symbols, with streaks of dark humour, which deals with the dark side of human nature. So what’s not to like Tourist? Well I think it might just be the cumulative effect of the slightly off-kilter naturalism of the action and dialogue. It feels to me, with the odd stresses and unbroken pessimism, to be about 5% away from where it should be. I appreciate that is a daft thing to say, and I wish to be clear that it is not the subject or the form that I mildly object to, just the tone which I found a little wearing over the 100 minutes. And, whilst I am sure that MC is, like Pinter, merely highlighting the iniquity of misogynistic threat through his characters, thereby to condemn it, it would be reassuring if he this was occasionally made a little more explicit.

Mind you, like all good theatre, the bloody thing has got stuck in my head ever since, and, even with the misgivings, I am looking forward to his new play, so clearly MC is doing something right even as I think he might not be. The SO, hasn’t volunteered much of an opinion on DWC, not one to waste her words, but is happy enough to join me in the next leg of the Crimp journey.

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.