Archive for March, 2013

This small scale one act play is a dialogue between just two actors in a tiny studio space. Nothing matters apart from the words and the performances. The twist is that all the action takes place in the couple’s bathroom. This is an established relationship but not one under threat, the couple have suffered a traumatic experience but neither wants it to tear them apart. What the play demonstrates is how people can talk about everything except the things that really matter, the things that they really want and need to talk about. They discuss whatever mundane trivia enters their heads until their inner tension builds up and explodes with shocking consequences. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles give relaxed, confident and utterly convincing performance, the chemistry between the two is never in doubt. Jack Thorne’s script is beautifully written, taut and carefully nuanced. A riveting 70 minutes.

There are times when an evening at the theatre needs to be about nothing more than sheer enjoyment. Subleties and subtexts have their place, but so do the simpler pleasures of gentle humour and nostalgia. Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 play, here revised by Patrick Marber and directed by Joe Wright, is an unashamed love letter to the world of theatre and the people who inhabit it. The stage is littered with Victorian theatrical props, bathed in soft, warm lighting and a company of the finest character actors all contribute comic turns to further illuminate the subject that must be closest to their hearts. Ron Cook deserves special mention for playing both a theatrical landlady and a pompous knight, once in the same scene, and another veteran, Maggie Steed, is a delight in her two roles. The play is no masterpiece and sometimes the pace of the production is too slow, but detailed analysis would be pointless. At the end, one of the characters looks in awe at what is unfolding on stage and says “it’s almost like real life”; another replies with the play’s final line “no, it’s better”. The perfect summation!

This is not a translation from Strinberg, but a loose adaptation and nothing about this production feels remotely Scandanavian, there being enough heat generated to melt an iceberg. Set in modern South Africa, Julie (Hilda Cronje) is the daughter of a white landowner and John (Bongile Mantsai) is the black farm worker with whom she begins a torrid affair. Clearly this version is meant as an allegory reflecting post-Apartheid social and politcal issues and to a point this is fine as it adds texture and substance to the story; however, in the later stages, the allegory takes over and the personal drama recedes, leaving the characters’ words and actions difficult to comprehend or to empathise with. The fault here lies in a script that is prosaic, repetitive ¬†and often unconvincing. Fortunately, this is a production of extraordinary physicality that is able to transcend shortcomings in the script. At times, it resembles a ballet, danced not to music but to spoken words, charged with passion, eroticism and rage. The two central performances are breathtaking and overall, the production provides a stunning visual spectacle that will linger long in the memory.

Anyone seeing this production through to the end (which, at this performance, was far fewer than took their seats at the start) could be forgiven for ranking Stockport second only to the Black Hole of Calcutta as the bleakest location in the history of civilisation. Repeated explicitly throughout, this is the play’s sole message as it follows a small group through 14 years (1988-2002) of their teenage and young adult lives. No doubt this message is as welcome to the Greater Manchester Tourism Board as it is of interest to theatre audiences on London’s South Bank. This is an evening of almost unbroken gloom and tedium, defamatory to what is probably a very decent town and, still worse, to the great drink that shares the play’s name. The characters are stereotypes, human themes are under-developed, and the dialogue is completely lifeless. To be fair, a great deal of dialogue in some scenes is indecipherable from halfway back in the stalls, highlighting the question as to why the National decided to put this small play onto the Lyttelton’s huge stage. In playing teenagers, some of the actors seem to be mimicking Catherine Tate and Matt Lucas, but, unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the play that is intentionally funny. Any positives? Well Kate O’Flynn is on stage throughout, ageing from 11 to 24 and it is her stamina and some slick staging that earn the production its solitary star. Otherwise, this is a resounding dud.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

76 plays and still going strong. Just how strong is the most pleasant surprise of Alan Ayckbourn’s new romantic comedy. Not for the first time, he delves into the world of the future, but his characters and his dialogue remain very much rooted in his familiar territory of Middle England. The playwright describes it as science fiction used as an allegory to reflect what is happening today. He sees a future which will include inter-planetary journeys, time travel, delayed ageing, longer life expectancy, androids and a host of new gadgets. His point is that the impact of these things is not really different from that of the trappings and paraphernalia that surround present day lives and that, ultimately, they are insignificant in relation to people and to genuine human emotions. The play is in three acts, each focussing on different characters, but with linked story lines, which are fanciful and just about strong enough to carry us with them at the time, even if they do not stand up well to analysis after the curtain falls. The middle act is easily the strongest. Here the dalliance between Sarah Parks as a high-flying but emotionally fragile lawyer and Richard Stacey as a malfunctioning android is both hilarious and touching; she always needing to be right, he always simply right. This act also introduces us to Laura Doddington as a panic-stricken Personal Assistant, who seems destined to be eternally single. The other actors making up an excellent cast are Ayesha Antoine, Bill Champion and Ben Porter, all the cast doubling up for the minor roles. Michael Holt’s sets are futuristic without being bleak, endorsing the point that the future is not such a giant leap from the present. A minor criticism is that the pace becomes too slow in sections of the first and last acts where some careful editing could have been beneficial; maybe it is not always best for a writer to direct his own work. However, overall, this is amusing, thought-provoking and moving. Having started (as with almost all Ayckbourn’s work) in Scarborough and then moved to Chichester and a number of other locations, a final surprise is that Surprises has not yet found a home in the West End. London producers remain as keen as ever to revive the writer’s plays from decades ago, some of which are now looking rather tired, and they need to take note that he is still alive and still turning out entertaining and relevant works.

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