Thursday, 5 May 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Philanthropist

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 18: Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (1970)

I’m finally seeing Florian Zeller’s The Father on Saturday, two years after its UK premiere. Christopher Hampton has translated it from the French, a playwright whose work I know a little about but mainly from his translations and adaptations. Reading David Hare’s memoirs recently, I was aghast when he said that he stumbled across the job of the Royal Court’s literary manager by luck when Hampton was too busy for the role and so offered to give it to his friend Hare. As easy as that! Out of the few original Hampton plays at my local university’s library, I thought I’d read The Philanthropist, a bourgeois comedy which first played at the Royal Court.

The play centres on Philip, a rather apathetic and emotionally incompetent university don, engaged to Celia but with his heart not completely settled on the idea. It’s often witty and it’s interesting that (like Leonard in Time and Time Again) Philip’s inertia and indecisiveness is his downfall. But it feels like all of this comes second to talking about the dramatic opening scene which opens with John threatening to kill himself in front of two others, although really he’s acting out part of a play he’s written. The scene continues with meta nod nod wink winks aplenty and works its way towards a discussion of how the character might shoot himself when John accidentally does shoot himself, blood spluttering up the wall. It’s surely one of the most exciting openings to a play.

Hampton presents a comedy full of rich characters: the supposedly charitable author Braham who enjoys taking his fee from televised appeals; the sexually liberated Araminta; and Don who realises his own hopelessness and uselessness but embraces it to enjoy a rather sedentary life. They’re slyly subversive. For instance, Don has a speech which is surely unpopular with teachers. We also hear of the crazed gunman who shoots down the Tory Prime Minister and cabinet in an attempt to quell socialism! What Hampton does is write dialogue which makes characters sound both intelligent and buffoonish, creating an enjoyable comedy reminiscent of Twenty Twelve and W1A.

In a neat twist which echoes the start of the play, Philip – seemingly inspired by the horror stories of shootings and hostage situations about which we hear from other characters – springs into action to do something about his (love) life.  Philanthropic turned misanthropic, Hampton’s comedy is smart, dramatically rewarding and shows a more unattractive side to the leafy middle classes.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Frozen

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 17: Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (1998)

‘Grief is hard enough anyway. But when you don’t know the truth, everything freezes and it’s hard to move on.’
Page Eight, David Hare

The subject matter of Lavery’s play is difficult and harrowing. Mainly a three hander, it focuses on the story of Nancy, who has lost her youngest daughter Rhona; Ralph, who murdered her; and Agnetha, Ralph’s psychologist. Frozen spans over twenty years taking us from prior to the kidnapping in a scene which shows Nancy wanting to escape family arguments, to her struggle with grief after Rhona’s body and killer are found. It’s a story which is easy to sum up in a few lines. But the form Lavery has chosen for the play is, as the subject matter, difficult, ensuring that it never it veers into soap.

The play is made up of short scenes, all monologues or duologues. Characters both talk to the audience, confiding in them, and interact within the scene. To some extent, it reminded me of Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott (2015). Offstage characters, particularly Nancy’s oldest daughter Ingrid, are evoked through characters’ monologues: how they look, how they speak, their attitude. Moreover, like Owen’s brilliant play, words are chosen carefully; brevity is the key. In both plays, there is an arrow-like precision, where few words and how they are presented on the page – like poetry verse – can conjure the characters’ worlds and thoughts. And the characters are so richly drawn. There’s a moment where Ralph is talking about his childhood in such a romantic and idealized way that you feel he’s lying:

            ‘Big kitchen … we had a big kitchen obviously …
            with filled cupboards … and shining work surfaces … and that’s where all
            the kettles and pans … copper, all copper, all gleaming
            in the light’

Whereas in Stockholm Lavery’s use of language provides an insightful study into a modern day relationship (albeit with a twist), with all a couple’s in-jokes and individualisms, in Frozen, the focused and poetic use of language helps to articulate what characters might not have been able to articulate in language which isn’t as stylised.

The monologues also allow for all three characters to be central characters, instead of being preachy or from one perspective. There’s anger and upset, but there is also compassion and moments of dark humour too. It also opens questions, particularly regarding, as Agnetha points out, of whether serial killers are evil or ill. Is they are ill, does that and should that make us think differently about how we distinguish between the thinkable and unthinkable, and so on.

The ‘frozen’ imagery is used adeptly throughout. As the play goes on, things are heard falling in the distance, chunks of ice breaking, characters thaw, Ingrid has found a new lease for her grief, and there are hints that Nancy is too. The play ends with ‘[t]he sun [breaking] through’, the ice beginning to break.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Time and Time Again

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 16: Alan Ayckbourn’s Time and Time Again (1971)

Alan Ayckbourn is the UK’s most popular living writer. His 80th play premieres in Scarborough this summer and there is even a theatre company by the name of Dick and Lottie dedicated to his work. What’s more is that his work is exceptionally popular with amateur theatres. From 1987 to 2013, there were 807 productions of Ayckbourn’s plays in theatres that are part of the Little Theatre Guild, beating the 703 productions of Shakespeare’s plays. And yet there seems to be an aversion to Ayckbourn. There’s a suggestion, perhaps, that his plays might pander to middle age audiences.

I have experience of this first hand. As part of a production planning team at a theatre with a fervent dedication to Ayckbourn, we at times questioned the enduring popularity of the playwright especially after the odd dud production of one of his plays. Although we always aspire to produce a varied season of plays, we are also aware that we need to produce plays which bring in an audience. Ayckbourn’s plays, we have found, have nearly consistently achieved attendance rates of over 95% over the past decade, and so when putting together a season, we tend to include an Ayckbourn as one of the more popular plays in addition to some more ‘challenging’ plays. But does that not mean an Ayckbourn play can’t be challenging? Certainly, many offer technical challenges, including a swimming pool being needed for Man of the Moment, and body suits required for Body Language as so to give the effect that a rotund person and a thin person have switched bodies. The plays also pose significant challenges to the actors. The dialogue is often dense on the page and shorter lines are more common than monologues which can make picking up cues more difficult. And, I would argue, the plays often pose challenges to the audience too.

Time and Time Again is sneakily clever. Getting into it, it seems that all of the characters are tightly wound, they suppress their sexual desires and it takes half a page of dialogue to discuss how they like their tea or what the weather’s doing. The dialogue and the characters are everyday and the setting – a garden and conservatory backing onto some playing fields – is domestic. Audiences might well be able to easily relate to the goings on in the play. But then, characters behave in ways which you don’t expect characters to in these kind of plays. The inadequate, unconfident middle aged divorcee (Leonard) starts dating the younger, more confident Joan, and yet he is still able to have a laugh with her ex-boyfriend with supposed anger issues. Meanwhile, the grumpy, slightly envious, cocky, old-fashioned Graham watches over Leonard’s new-found prowess incredulously.

It doesn’t quite reach the peaks of farce as some other Ayckbourn plays might although the climax of act one of Leonard and Joan splashing about in the pond is nicely written. And, unlike some of his plays, Time and Time Again seems to be more character-driven than plot-driven and it’s interesting to see how characters change in the weeks between the scenes. Furthermore, Ayckbourn is often linked to Chekhov and Shakespeare in his understanding of human nature, but there’s a more concrete link to Chekhov here in that both Leonard in this play and Vanya in Uncle Vanya are apathetic protagonists who have surprising effects on those around them.

Ayckbourn, then, finds comedy in middle class lives in Time and Time Again. But there are darker ways of looking at the play: it’s a story of three men’s attraction to the same woman, Joan, whilst subdued housewife Anna (whose biggest excitement is choosing Battenberg cake for a change instead of Dundee cake) merely looks on; its portrayal of suburban tedium; its hint at midlife crises. Instead of pandering to audiences, staging plays with middle class characters and issues to largely middle class audiences can perhaps, to paraphrase that less popular playwright (!), hold a mirror up to nature.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Legally Blonde

Curve, Leicester
18th April, 2016

Let me begin by saying I love Legally Blonde. It’s fluffy and feel-good and, yes, it has been dismissed (wrongly, I believe) as mere bubblegum feminism, but the message it sends out to women and girls is commendable; celebrating supportive female relationships and the importance of staying true to yourself. And everyone loves a good courtroom drama, right? So when it came to seeing Nikolai Foster’s latest production of the 2007 musical I admit that I was predisposed to enjoy it. And while the use of Curve’s technical abilities may be wasted – or at best, half-hearted – I did enjoy it.

It is rather unfortunate that while having the technical facilities to pull off big, spectacular set pieces (as seen before in Curve’s hosting the visually impressive Finding Neverland and Waterbabies), when it comes to their own productions the stage is often somewhat lacking. Legally Blonde is no different in this respect. The entire stage has been spray-painted pink. A hot, garish pink which even Elle Woods herself would declare as being a bit OTT. It smacks of laziness and the effect, to be polite, is tacky.

The budget seems to have been blown on superfluous neon lighting and projections which add little, barring the effective use of video in the Brooke Wyndham ‘Whipped Into Shape’ number. Consequently the pieces of constructed set look to have been cobbled together in haste. Amidst the exposed nails and chipped paint, the beds and closets were alarmingly wobbly at times and the loud creaking accompanying many of the set changes did nothing to alleviate my worries. It’s a shame because beneath the dodgy aesthetic, the show is in good shape, and leaves one feeling that Curve’s over-reliance on budget stretching shortcuts indicates a lack of faith in their own productions, which is rather sad.

With that said, my misgivings concerning the design elements were made up for by the exuberant performances, and the energetic choreography enlivens and counterbalances the sparseness of the set. The ensemble are extremely hard-working and display true triple-threat talent, especially the female cast members. Lucie Jones is a likable Elle with a stellar voice, if a little subdued in the comedic sections. She is backed up by solid supporting performances from the likes of Jon Robyns’ nerdy Emmett and Tupele Dorgu as the brassy but down-trodden Paulette.

While some of the self-referential lines felt crowbarred in – do people still associate Jones with The X Factor? It was six years ago and she’s made quite a name for herself in musical theatre since – the second half especially gained a great response from the audience, ‘There, Right There’ being a particular highlight in which the whole ensemble shine. I’ve also come to the conclusion that there really is nothing an audience likes more than seeing a dog (or two) on stage – guaranteed ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’!

It’s heartwarming to spend an evening enveloped in the fluffy, girly world of Elle Woods and I came out of Legally Blonde humming the songs and feeling slightly better about the world. But I put this feeling down to the sheer joy of Benjamin and O’Keefe’s score, the natural humour of Hach’s book and the inexhaustible efforts of the cast, as opposed to Foster’s direction. As a piece of good-natured, poppy musical theatre it’s nigh on impossible to dislike.

Legally Blonde plays at Curve, Leicester until 14th May 2016.
 Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Life x3

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 15: Yasmina Reza’s Life X3 (2000)


Evening. A living room.
Two married couples at a dinner party, although the only food Henry and Sonia can offer is Cheez-Its (Wotsits in the London production) and chocolate fingers because the guests, Hubert and Inez, have arrived a day early. Similar to God of Carnage, we see the two couples argue and compete, as they get increasingly drunk. It’s a riotous, farcical power play. Henry is trying to impress Hubert for the chance of a promotion, Inez can’t open her mouth without Hubert putting her down, and Sonia finds her husband pathetic. Soon after arrival, Hubert plunges Henry into disarray by teasing him that his three years of research on the flatness of galaxy halos might be wasted. Meanwhile, Henry’s and Sonia’s crying child relentlessly interrupts the soiree.

Evening. The same room.
The scene is replayed going much the same way but is slightly different, reminiscent of The Mother.
Things fall apart, they get more drunk and argue even more.

Evening. The same situation.
Henry seems more on top of it this time and things end more amicably.


Characters, particularly Henry, can feel euphoric one moment and then melancholic the next in Life x3. They can talk about the mundane including specific and recognisable snack food, from Laughing Cows to chocolate fingers, and then drift into chit chat about those larger things such as the cosmos and the impenetrable and unreachable galaxies. What can they make sense of, and does humankind make any valuable input?

However, I couldn’t help but feel that it was fairly slight, not as meaty or funny as not dissimilar plays such as God of Carnage or Moira Buffini’s Dinner. But I did admire the play’s ability to ask big questions about the significance of human nature whilst keeping as something as menial as a Wotsit at stake.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Silent

Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.

Week 14: Pat Kinevane’s Silent (2010)

Silent, performed and written by Irish playwright Pat Kinevane, won the Olivier Award this week for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre (Soho Theatre). In performance, signs and bits of clothing are used as aide-memoirs, voiceovers and music play an integral part, and silent movie is also incorporated. But the text alone is rich and bursting with ideas and insights into humanity and those living on the edge of society.

Silent is about a homeless man, Tino McGoldrig, telling the story of his gay brother Pearce and his different suicide attempts, the last of which was successful (an odd word choice!). He also reflects over his life, how he used to have a job and a wife and a kid, constantly finding parallels with his own life and that of the romantic world of Rudolph Valentino.

There’s so much that I liked about the play: its rough around the edges, it’s at turns darkly hilarious and extremely raw. The title inspires thoughts on the state of homeless people when you walk by them in the street. Homeless people can be silent, lying under sleeping bags asleep or sitting there as the world goes by their feet, but likewise the passers-by can be silent too, rejecting their pleas for spare change as if they are an inconvenience, or pretending not to have heard them ask for money at all. Kinevane upturns the title’s connotations by the having McGolrig as a very chatty figure. The density of the text is noticeable as you flick through the pages. Likewise, he is very likeable, opening his tales with a joke.

Kinevane’s writing is astute. He takes the instantly recognisable minutiae of everyday life and places it in a situation that is nightmarish. He also takes subject areas such as mental health difficulties and broken marriages and writes about them in a down-to-earth way which connects easily to the audience. Those who have experienced mental health issues will recognise the annoyances of phrases like ‘Pull yourself together’, and McGoldrig (in the manner of an observational stand-up) addresses those attitudes and difficulties with honesty and humour. As well as the play exploring feelings of shamefulness regarding homelessness, depression and alcoholism, Kinevane also touches on hints of how delicate relationships can be for the sake of people saving face. There’s his wife who felt like she had to turn away instead of helping him and his mum who felt put out by Pearce’s failed (and blackly comic) suicide attempts. Furthermore, like Mike Bartlett’s My Child, Kinevane evokes the extreme possible effects of being ostracised from your family.

Silent is an extraordinary play. There’s one particular moment of insight into McGoldrig’s life on the streets that opens your eyes to the difficulties of homelessness. People with homes have the ability to turn off at the end of the day, ‘going home to kisses and radiators and gravy and slippers and biscuits and Emmerdale… all the loudness is locked outside’ (Kinevane 2011: 12). People on the street don’t have that luxury.

Silent was commissioned by Fishamble: The New Play Company. I’m unfamiliar with much of the Irish canon, but Silent seems much more directly contemporary than some Irish plays – those which delve into the world of myths. But, like so many Irish plays, Silent is a play featuring stories and storytelling. And there’s a big twist at the end of it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Don Quixote

Swan, RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon
2nd April, 2016, matinee

James Fenton has taken on an enormous task: turning Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel Don Quixote, which is roughly 800 pages long, into a piece for the stage. The result is highly theatrical and very funny, whilst also conveying the story’s relevance. Angus Jackson’s production is charming, inventive, gloriously funny, physically dynamic, and musically imaginative.

Don Quixote (David Threlfall) has read all the books on chivalry and laments the loss of it in the real world. So he sets out on a quest to become a chivalrous knight, on which he slays dragons, wrestles giants and rescues damsels in distress. It’s a fairy tale, and like with all good fairy tales has a moral which is resonant today. Here is a man who is disenfranchised from and disenchanted with the real world, seeking to better it and endeavouring for it to live up to the sometimes heady world of literature. He is joined by the ill-suited companion Sancho Panza. Put upon by his wife and a small clang of crying children, he seems otherwise contented with his lot (the fat suit adorned by Rufus Hound perhaps conveys that). He knows where the sun rises in the winter and where it sets on the longest day, but, alas, not much of what happens between. Threlfall and Hound make a great double act off together on a journey of largely unsuccessful self-discovery and misguided gallantry. Their aim may be blinded but it is ambitious and seems a fitting story to tell in a theatre used to telling such epic stories.

As they set off on their wooden horses, Don Quixote banging his head on a beam as soon as he sets off, Jackson’s production and Robert Innes Hopkins’ rustic design ensure that the calamitous journey is full of slapstick comedy and visual delights. Don Quixote attacks windmills thinking they’re giants, kills sheep thinking they’re soldiers, and clumsily attacks a barber and uses his bowl as a hat. The performances are remarkably physical and comical, highlights being Don Quixote being taken up by a windmill wing and Sachno Panza hilariously and breathtakingly falling down a hole. Threlfall’s Don Quixote is like the calm at the centre of his own storm, causing chaos around him everywhere he goes. Hound, with his experience as a stand up and in One Man, Two Guvnors helping him, keeps the whole thing together with moments of audience interaction.

The company’s commitment and energy shines through, and it is no mean feat that some members of the cast are also in Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist this season. Furthermore, largely due to the episodic structure, they do well to make their portrayals of smaller characters memorable as well as act as stage hands and impressively operate Toby OliĆ©’s puppets. Additionally, the play’s mythic quality with talks of giants that we don’t see, and a hugely demanding central performance of a rebellious character reminded me of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

A mobile phone went off at the start of the final scene spoiling much of the pathos intended. Rufus Hound stopped the show, the house lights went up, and front of house came in until an audience member eventually found the phone and left the auditorium. I’m not in support for the rather prescriptive sounding idea of a theatre charter but I understand that the cast felt it necessary to stop the show. However, full kudos goes to Richard Leeming who, in character, asked if it was an ice cream van (the ringtone did sound like one – indeed some may have thought it was part of the scene). Leeming’s quip was completely in keeping with the jovial and relaxed tone of the show.

The play continued, showing a rather frail looking and defeated Don Quixote in bed. But Sancho Panza encourages him to stand up and take a bow before he dies. As the lights went down on Threlfall standing triumphantly on his bed as it lowered into the sub-stage, the production reminds us that the road to happiness is often happiness itself. Even though Don Quixote may feel he never got to be like the chivalrous knight he read about in his books, he may have got closer to his goal than he realises. Angus Jackson’s production stays optimistic until the end and makes for an entertaining piece of theatre which is not merely diverting but is also a reflection on living up to the magnitude of stories.

Don Quixote plays at the Swan Theatre, RSC, until 21st May, 2016.

 Credit: Helen Maybanks