The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

The Cane

Royal Court Theatre, 21st January 2019

Somehow, until now, the Tourist has failed to see any of the work of Mark Ravenhill, either as writer, performer or director, or even his columns in the Guardian, surprising given the Tourist’s status as a paid up Guardianista. There was a recent revival of his breakthrough play, Shopping and Fucking, at the Lyric Hammersmith, but sadly the performance the Tourist signed up for was cancelled. (Made worse by the fact that the Tourist had gone straight to the theatre from an outing elsewhere during a period of deliberate mobile phone estrangement. It should be possible to chuck the bloody thing away, and to this day the Tourist doggedly persists without data, ring-tone or any social media, but realistically the everyday organisation of modern life prohibits a complete embargo. That, and the unhealthy compulsion to surf free wi-fi so as to rubber-neck the latest instalment in the Brexit car-crash).

Anyway the chance to see Mr Ravenhill’s latest play, after a hiatus of many years, at the ever reliable Royal Court, and its apparent subject, the education system, was not to be missed, and the SO agreed. Especially when directed by RC AD Vicky Featherstone and with a cast comprising Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker. You will know all three off the telly, but their stage appearances are all too rare, though Maggie Steed was in the first instalment of Jamie Lloyd’s current Pinter anthology, and it was a privilege to watch Nicola Walker’s brand of nervy, restless emotional plasticity being applied to the role of Beatrice in Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge.

Vicky Featherstone kicks off proceedings at a fair lick as we learn that Edward’s (Alum Armstrong) retirement as a teacher after 45 dedicated years is being disturbed by his historical engagement with capital punishment and by his school’s imminent takeover by an academy. There is a mob of kids outside Edward and Maureen’s (Maggie Steed) house and their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) has now turned up. It is a somewhat improbable set up but no matter. Mt Ravenhill uses this as a jumping off point to explore the uneasy relationship between the fretful couple and their seething daughter, how we apply the morality of the present to actions in the past, how much responsibility an individual should assume, and how much an institution, for excessive punishment and how violence and disciple become conflated, accepted and even internalised,

Within this tricky web Mark Ravenhill, using precise and considered language, cleverly shifts moral perspectives around and between the questions and the characters, sometimes even on a line by line basis. He asks a lot of questions but is never so crass as to give clear answers. There is a constant undercurrent of tension and hostility fuelled by the subject matter, and the symbolic cane, the weight of the past and the menacing family dynamic, visually realised in Chloe Lamford’s off-kilter, grim, and increasingly claustrophobic, set. The three actors are superb in the way they draw us in to this queasy moral maze. The looks they give each other, the barbs that they spit out, the arguments they advance and retreat from, the flashes of violence and acquiescence, all are expressively portrayed. However, over the unbroken 100 minutes or so, the flaws of all three characters become unremitting, the premise becomes over-stretched and just a teensy bit too slippery and the dialogue just a bit too predictably adversarial.

It made us squirm, it made us think and the acting is top notch. But this is a play that deliberately sets the audience outside its world. Fair enough but it might have worked better for us in more concentrated form, or with some eventual solid pay-off to all the rug-pulls and hypocrisy exposures.

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.

 

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.