Sunday 28 February 2016

Single Spies

Birmingham Rep
27th February, 2016, matinee

Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, a double bill made up of the one acts An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, made an interesting footnote in the National’s history when it debuted in 1988. The second play made precedent as the first play to show the Queen (played by Prunella Scales) on stage. It also coincided with the National’s royal appellation, as championed by its chairman Max Rayne, and the theatre’s 25th anniversary. Although the appellation was generally considered unpopular with most of the National’s staff and the name ‘Royal National Theatre’ has since been dropped, there was a royal gala in which the Queen attended. The fear among some of the National’s board members, Daniel Rosenthal documents in his excellent tome The National Theatre Story, was that the Queen might disapprove of her depiction on stage. AD Richard Eyre objected and it was deemed that the play should go ahead.

With this interesting bit of performance history in mind, it seems surprising how these gentle plays could ever be thought of as controversial. Indeed, as enjoyable as this co-production by Chichester Festival and Birmingham Rep Theatres (directed by Rachel Kavanaugh) is, I couldn’t help but wonder if it has been staged to fill the theatre’s coffers. In our early twenties, it was a shame that we seemed to be some of the youngest members in the audience.

An Englishman Abroad imagines the encounter between Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Spy Ring, and actress Coral Browne. Obliged to spend the afternoon in his squalid Moscow flat, Browne, possibly out of pity, agrees to order him a new suit when back in London but insists that she, as an Australian, won’t be taken into any false demeanours. Bennett’s concept of fusing the worlds of politics and theatre is interesting, allowing him to draw comparisons between the two and to skilfully summon theatrical anecdotes and witty lines: ‘I don’t know what those three sisters saw in [Moscow]’, Browne quips. Mainly a two-hander, Belinda Lang and Nicholas Farrell nicely capture the differences between Browne and Burgess. Farrell’s Burgess is a shambles, dropping tomato pips and becoming increasingly sloshed. Lang, on the other hand, is precise in her received pronunciation and appalled at having to spend so much time in his flat. First shown as a TV play in 1983, it features a self-referential add-in about Browne speaking about someone’s reaction after the TV version’s broadcast. It would have been interesting, perhaps, if Bennett revised the text for this production too.

A Question of Attribution focuses on Anthony Blunt, a former recruiter for the KGB at Cambridge, and now Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. In a meeting with HMQ (Lang), he explains that one of her paintings contains a riddle about an unnamed third man (and more) hidden in the picture. There are many clever parallels in the play between art and Blunt’s position. David Robb nicely conveys Blunt’s slight pretentiousness, his ability to appreciate art without gushing over it, as well his torment from the authorities over his role in the spy ring.

With its references to real people, I felt that the play was perhaps more effective to the older audience members. Interestingly, it begs the question of how much longer can this play be in the canon and regularly revived without its characters seeming completely historic or alien. That’s not to say that the play’s themes are irrelevant. Indeed, Bennett’s preoccupation with Englishness that features in many of his plays is still a nagging question in much contemporary drama. In addition, the idea of exile and how Burgess could’ve been welcomed back a hero years later simply if he lived to be old enough seems relevant. Furthermore, Farrell doubling as Burgess and the MI5 officer who questions Blunt highlights the idea that Burgess’ and Blunt’s authority and privileged positions are put into question.

There are some interesting matters at play in Single Spies, played out through very strong performances from Lang, Robb and Farrell, although I feel that Kavanaugh’s production could have better brought out the contradicting ideas about nationhood and betrayal. Overall, I felt it lacked the emotional power of some of Bennett’s other plays - plays which made me enamoured with his and other playwrights’ work when becoming interested in drama in the first place.

Single Spies tours the UK until 30th April, 2016.

 Credit: Alistair Muir.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Heresy of Love

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 8: The Heresy of Love, Helen Edmundson (2012)

Considering our pledge to highlight works by female playwrights, this week’s ‘Read a Play a Week’ selection, Helen Edmundson’s The Heresy of Love, is doubly appropriate. After seeing a performance of The House of Desires at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2004, Edmundson became interested in unearthing the backstory of the 17th Century nun-cum-playwright, Sol Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz. While Edmundson’s play is a heavily fictionalised biography, her aim to write in the style of the Spanish Golden Age of drama is fulfilled in its grandiose spirit, moralisation, and themes relating to both the secular and religious.

Celebrated for her poetic gifts within the Viceroy’s court, Sister Juana is encouraged by those around her to write. Fascinated by all aspects of life she indulges in her extensive library of books relating to all subjects, which she believes strengthen her faith just as much as religious scriptures. However, the newly appointed Archbishop, Aguair y Seijas, sees all plays and forms of entertainment as ‘sordid’, believing the newly founded Mexico to be a sunken land of heathens, imploring ‘Where is the church?’. Combined with the belief that women are incapable of having opinions worth voicing he seeks to put a stop to Juana’s unholy work.

What follows is a series of double crossings and betrayals, both accidental and intentional. The theme of corruption within puritanical authorities is reminiscent of the seediness of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, especially the element of sensuality in the duplicitous Santa Cruz’s interactions with Juana. Subplots involving Juana’s niece Angelica’s illicit relationship with a courtier, and the ravages of the plague exemplify the social crisis in Mexico. This crisis is shown to be proliferated, rather than remedied, by the Archbishop’s impositions. In a powerful scene towards the end of the play, Juana speculates that it is his overwhelming fear of the female sex which results in his denial of humanity and all the individuality, vitality, and frailty that encompasses mankind.

The prescriptive ideology of institutionalised religion is pitted against the soul-enriching personal faith of Juana. Her upholding that ‘faith should not enslave our minds, but open them’ presents a very credible and empathetic argument. It is worth noting that Juana’s view does not go unchallenged. Her unorthodox lifestyle is both exciting in its subversion but also raises questions about just how far we can modify religion to fit our more selfish motives. And while Edmundson’s focus on faith and women’s rights occasionally falls into preachiness it also successfully drives the plot as Juana’s poetic talent and steadfast religion is eventually turned against her by those she deemed trustworthy.

My only reservation would be that we’re constantly told how gifted Juana is, and her articulate eloquence somewhat illustrates this, but it would have been nice to see more first-hand examples of her poetry and drama within the play. This is only a minor quibble fuelled no doubt by my own laziness, as I’m aware that such examples are presumably only a quick google search away. Anyway, Edmundson has certainly piqued my interest in this remarkable historic figure. The Heresy of Love celebrates the endeavours of one progressive woman and playwright worthy of great attention, particularly pertinent in this age of reinvigorated feminism.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Painting a Wall

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 7: David Lan’s Painting a Wall (1974)

Reading reviews for the Almeida’s production of Uncle Vanya this week, one blog wrote of the scenes of accountancy (that distract characters from their heartbreak) that work will not and does not set characters free. It’s an interesting thought that reminded me of Painting a Wall, a one act written by Artistic Director of the Young Vic, David Lan, first staged at the Almost Free Theatre in London. Four South Africans have to paint a wall white: Peter cleans the brushes, Henry is in mourning for his daughter, Samson takes pride in his work, and Willy protests that he’s had enough of painting the wall. What’s more, the paint they’ve been given is green! And yet they go on, painting the wall.

This is a play about racial inequalities, the oppressive and liberating power of language, and the need to feel free. There are several memorable moments, such as Willy suggesting that words are a cage for him because the few words that he does know revolve around ‘paint, brushes, bricks, shit and fucking’. There is also his anecdote of making the bus conductor check the skin colour under the clothes of the white women on the bus in case they don’t really deserve a seat. But, despite it being Willy who keeps saying that he will get out of the job, it is the mostly silent Peter who escapes from work.

Before the bright sun fades on the completed wall, Samson tells a story about his sister to Willy. Originally a maid to a nice family, she married well and now lives in another country and has servants of her own. The story and Samson’s carefree response closes the play asking us to reflect on power change and status. I was reading something by Simon Stephens recently in which he said that Lan’s advice on being a playwright was to always write about people. What Lan achieves in such a short play with the four people centre stage in Painting a Wall is to present characters who are trapped in a job painting all day, told that the wall must be white. Within this, we care about where these characters’ lives are going (if anywhere), can they change it and do they even want to?

Monday 15 February 2016

Hand to God

Vaudeville, London
13th February, 2016, matinee

There are a few contemporary American plays which use the death of a family member as a starting point, from David Auburn’s Proof (2000), to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole (2006) and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2007). Robert Askins’ 2011 play Hand to God, which has opened in London after its Broadway run, has at its heart a story of a mother and son (not) coping with the death of their husband and father respectively. Whereas on one hand it is an unsophisticated and bawdy play which lacks depth, on the other it is an often-hilarious exploration of repressive desires that is a kick in the teeth to its contemporaries.

Margery, recently widowed and struggling to find purpose in her life, is running a puppetry class at her local church’s Sunday school: ‘without my husband’, she says, ‘I don’t know who I am’. She’s sexually deprived and both the local pastor and one of her delinquent students have eyes on her. Meanwhile, her son Jason uses a sock puppet (called Tyrone) to express his feelings, a puppet which brings mayhem to his world. This device cleverly allows Jason to express whatever comes in to his mind, those things which he either can’t articulate or that he knows he shouldn’t articulate. Through this concept, Askins has effectively achieved a way of presenting a character’s inner thoughts at the same time as their external awkwardness is on show. Harry Melling (Jason/Tyrone) does a superb job at capturing Jason’s shyness and emotional stiltedness at the same time as evoking Tyrone’s uninhibited personality. He brings the puppet to life, in both voice and body, with a sense of humour not far off Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin. I imagine it’s difficult for two performers to perform a variation on the Albert and Costello ‘Who/What’ vaudeville routine, but Melling remarkably pulls off performing both parts. But Melling maintains Tyrone’s strange duality in that it’s so separate from Jason but also so closely a part of him too, expertly shown in a moment where Tyrone stops Jason from sleeping by flailing his arms in Jason’s eyes.

Soon enough, Jason finds out that the more confident Timothy (a fine performance from Kevin Mains) has slept with his mum, which leads the usually meek Jason (through the sock mouth of Tyrone) to make Timothy’s ear bleed leading the other characters thinking that Jason has been possessed by Tyrone who has announced that he is Satan. The play is partly a satire on religion and how we still live our life by ancient rules. ‘When I have acted badly, Tyrone says in the prologue, ‘all I have to do is say…the devil made me do it’. But even though this adds an interesting layer to Hand to God, I feel that the play is stronger when focusing on the domestic unrest at its centre.

I, along with the rest of the lively audience, laughed a lot at Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s bold production. Indeed, there are a lot of laughs (although some of them are contrived or fall flat) in Tyrone’s long and varied sex scene, and Margery’s masochistic foreplay with Timothy but you wonder whether Askins is just wringing his subject matter for laughs. But the play achieves an emotional climax as Jason painfully relinquishes himself from Tyrone. This touch of sentiment is a reminder that the play’s shenanigans are grounded in an emotional situation which we care about.

Askins’ play is far from subtle. Indeed, the sketch-like scenes are often too short to let the characters grow and the jokes can come at the expense of some the plotting (Timothy’s age for instance isn’t really made clear until act two and thus the seriousness of Margery sleeping with him is overshadowed). However, humour seems to take precedent in Hand to God, and Beowulf Boritt’s colourful, impressive set reflects its energy. But what is admirable about the play is how Askins gives the story of a troubled mother and son much weight. In two short but significant scenes (which require mighty scene changes that take us to a car and bedroom), we hear more about their fractured relationship and Jason’s dad’s being miserable. For that, and the play’s near-constant ability to entertain, it is understandable why this play has earned its own little success story.

Janie Dee is excellent as Margery, showing the character’s depths but also bringing out a lot of the character’s comedy. Neil Pearson and Jemima Rooper add strong support in quite frankly thankless roles as the Pastor and Jason’s crush respectively, and John Leonard’s sound design give a filmic quality to the piece. This is an excellent new comedy worthy of its place in the West End.

Hand to God runs at the Vaudeville until 11th June, 2016.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Lord of the Flies

Regents Park Open Air Theatre (on tour)
9th February 2016 (Curve, Leicester)

As a literature student, I hang my head in shame when I admit that my previous knowledge of Lord of the Flies was mainly informed by the excellent episode of The Simpsons, ‘Das Bus’. Having now seen Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel, I can attest that said spoof is remarkably faithful to its source (albeit featuring fewer deaths), or, at least, to this production.
Crash landed in paradise following evacuation from war-torn Britain, a disparate group of schoolboys fight, unite and generally run wild in an escalating series of conflicts in Timothy Sheader’s production which explores human nature, child psychology, morality and power struggles. Lead by the well-meaning but ineffective Ralph (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), the group attempt to instil rules and order - to the annoyance of school prefect, Jack Merridew (Freddie Watkins), who forms his own anarchic sub-group fuelled by an animalistic desire to hunt and kill.

Scenes of the boys battering and bloodying each other are captured in visceral slow motion (reminiscent of those nature documentaries detailing the precise moment of death as the predator pounces on its prey), accompanied by Nick Powell’s superb use of ethereal recordings of the Choir of Westminster Abbey. These searing moments of grace highlight the disparity between the mischievous yet innocent choristers that arrived on the island and the blood thirsty brutality they now embrace. Choir leader, Jack, in particular embodies this trope of ‘fallen angel’, evocative of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This also plays upon the religious allusions of the title, as the ‘Lord of the Flies’ – initially present in Simon’s (Keenan Munn-Francis) hallucinations of the fly-infested pig’s head – eventually becomes an allegory for the boys themselves, empowering the beast within.

While the implications of primal savagery and the concept of good vs. evil are contestable, especially in our modern age, Williams’ script and Sheader’s direction strike a balance in which our empathy and critical engagement are never totally isolated. The language perfectly echoes the tones of pre-pubescent mockery, where the worst conceivable insult is to be called ‘stupid’, and saying ‘shit’ is the height of maturity. On first arrival the boys gleefully scavenge the remnants of the cargo, playing dress-up in ladies bras and swimsuits, and – in a moment of clever modernity – group together for a ‘selfie’ which unfortunately can’t be shared because ‘there’s no 3G!’ on the island. These small touches reveal their innate naivety and ensure that we never lose sight of the characters’ youth – when everything is a game and the lines of reality are blurred in the eyes of children, how far can they be held reprehensible?

The end of the play deals a harsh reminder of this as the boys are diminished both physically and authoritatively by the deafening approach of the rescue helicopters, diverted from their course in the adult war raging on the periphery. While it’s difficult not to comdemn anyone who commits murder, the issues presented are complex and don’t provide any easy answers, but I suppose that’s why Golding’s book remains so pertinent and divisive.

One of the great achievements of this production is Jon Bausor’s astounding set. Baggage and all manner of personal items spill across the space, issuing from the bowels of the life-sized aeroplane carcass. The stunningly crafted tail end of the crashed plane fills much of the stage and transforms into hidey-holes and fire pits and acts as an all-purpose climbing frame upon which the actors leap and swing. Also commendable is the seamless choreography as the nimble footed actors weave in and out of each other, the separate camps occupying the same space while remaining distinctly separate both in place and mentality. Rounded off by some fine performances from a promising set of young actors, this production is a real triumph of literary dramatization.

There was a group of schoolboys in the audience (complete with public school uniforms incredibly reminiscent of those worn on stage!) and under the assured guidance of their teachers they were impeccably behaved (and it’s great to see kids encouraged to visit the theatre). But one has to wonder what happens without the ruling thumb of supervision… I can’t help but wonder what they made of the play and its depiction of the uncivilised (or should that be uninhibited) childhood nature.

Lord of the Flies tours until 19th March 2016.

 Credit: Johan Persson

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Arbor

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 6: Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor (1980)

I wasn’t aware that Andrea Dunbar died so young until after reading her debut play, The Arbor. Most famous for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Dunbar continued to live in the area (the rough area of Bradford, Brafferton Arbor) that she grew up in, and where much of her work is set, until her death. Maybe this isn’t too much of a surprise considering the protagonist in this play says “I like it how it is. I’d never change from how I am” (Dunbar 1980: 35). The area is the setting for The Arbor, an autobiographical play which her English teacher encouraged her to pursue writing before Max Stafford Clark picked it up to direct at the Royal Court.

Act one is set in 1977 and follows the life of 15 year old Andrea (or The Girl): she gets pregnant, has to move school, puts up with turbulent family arguments, and sadly loses the baby. Act two jumps two years where it seems that Andrea has grown up a little: the scene starts with her having just been to the bank, she’s got a job, and seems more mature than her friends when she argues ‘each to their own liking’. However, her Pakistani boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant beats up her up, and she is clearly unhappy living with him. Eventually, she flees to a hostel with a friend and rejects Yousaf when he tries to win her back. Dunbar certainly paints a tumultuous picture of her life, but the play’s concluding thoughts hint that she enjoys its commotion. She even misses her drunken dad, she says, before looking around at the hostel and remarking how quiet it is.

Dunbar has a sharp eye and ear for the characters in The Arbor and the language they speak (even capturing the northern dialect). The play also has the ambitious energy of a playwright who doesn’t feel restrained by the conventions that other playwrights may follow. Indeed, looking at its filmic quality in terms of settings, she has written it seemingly without regard to how a director might stage it. Its movement from the upper deck of a bus, to front rooms, to schoolrooms, to factory toilets reminded me of the scene changes in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money or David Hare’s NT trilogy. In her characters and action (which presumably stems from her real life experiences) she authentically captures the social issues that surround her circumstances. She presents a working class northern setting that seems so real that it perhaps could be seen as moving into poverty porn. Amid this, the play shows the conflicts between the Pakistani and white communities, and also the growing fears around the IRA. Perhaps one of the problems, however, with a play which is so autobiographical is that it seems to be wanton of devices like metaphor which so thrive in theatre.

Dunbar’s characters have a straight-talking manner to them. Furthermore, the idea of the opening and closing stage directions to each scene being spoken and most of the characters being referred to by simple descriptions (such as The Mother) give the play a folkish quality.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

The Master Builder

Old Vic, London
6th February 2016, matinee

I like the Old Vic. Its appeal of £12 tickets for under 26s was the one of the main reasons why it was the first London theatre I visited outside of the West End. It also mainly stages revivals from the modern and classic canon, meaning that, as a young theatregoer, I could see well-known plays reinvented for a new generation. Warchus has replaced the £12 U26 offer with a new £10 preview scheme. It’s a good idea in that it appeals to all ages and it marks a change in the current trend of preview prices elsewhere being similar prices as performances after press night. However, as the Old Vic don’t do matinees in previews, it seems less accessible to those outside of London. So, I was now in the Upper Circle at the Old Vic (still with a fine view, yes) for nearly triple the amount that I used to pay for a front stalls seat. It’s a good job that I bought my ticket early as well, as the theatre has now introduced dynamic pricing for this production. This would have put this young theatregoer, a key demographic Warchus is keen on bringing into the theatre, off.

One of Ibsen’s last plays, The Master Builder is less of a problem play exploring the moral responsibility of a man to his society and more of an exploration of self-discovery for the protagonist. Warchus’ production, mostly, is visceral and conveys Solness’ inner thoughts rather than his external world. Halvard Solness (Ralph Fiennes) is a master builder, different from an architect in that he has worked his way up from the building trade. The best master builder in town, he is assured of his greatness (he nonchalantly draws a perfect circle with ease), but he is made aware of his own mortality by his predecessor and mentor, Knut, now frail and dying. However, Solness is still ambitious, even narcissistic, even though he now only builds houses, despite him not being particularly passionate about this. There’s a similar idea in Ibsen’s last play When We Dead Awaken in that the acclaimed artist Professor Rubek now only sculpts caricatures despite mockingly putting animal masks under the portraits.

Ibsen paints the picture of a marriage under strain, instigated by the fire in which the Solness’ lost their babies 11 years previously. This is inflamed by the arrival of Hilde Wangel who has been besotted by Solness since meeting him ten years previously when she was only 13. Then, he climbed a steeple which he built, followed by meeting Hilde who he inappropriately kissed and promised her a kingdom of her own. The play depends on the relationship between Solness and Hilde, and Fiennes and Sarah Snook do a fine job. Hilde flatters Solness, his lethargy diminishing when she enters, her youthful energy acting as a muse to him. She seems more intuitive and spiritual than him, aided by her pure appearance, her power seems to relax his steadfast nature as he becomes further obsessed with her.

Once the play is set up we go further into Solness’ psychology. It’s here where Ibsen’s characterisation of Solness becomes slightly erratic. Similar to An Enemy of the People where Dr Stockmann jumps from wanting to persuade the town of its toxic water supply to suddenly decrying them all as mongrels, Solness, through opening up to Hilde, suddenly displays signs of religious paranoia. He feels has to build a steeple (the first since last meeting Hilde all those years ago) to reprieve his guilt for not preventing the house fire, feeling it would make him closer to God. However, Fiennes’ performance is always convincing. His Solness is rarely moving but I feel it profits from that. Instead, Fiennes (and is there a better actor for the job?) brings out Solness’ cerebral qualities, made all the more tragic when we realise that his intellect and self-respect is blinded by Hilde: “I’ll build a castle in the clouds. But with firm roots”!

The play has undercurrents of being interested in the subconscious and spiritual and psychological but I think that David Hare’s adaptation is only partly successful at teasing those things out. One way into the play is to see Hilde and Solness’ scenes as dream-like, but Warchus could delve into this subtext as much as could be done. In these scenes, Solness reflects on his work, trying to grasp new inspiration and aspire to build like he used to (as Ibsen himself does in this and When We Dead Awaken). The motif of ascension that is in much of Ibsen’s work is again explored. In Warchus’ production, for instance, book cases seem to never end in the high-ceilinged room. In the third act, Solness (who is terrified of heights) climbs his steeple, at first to cheers from onlookers but soon having tragic consequences. Perhaps the concept of going up high is associated with feeling free (another common theme), it being somewhere where the air is purer. Perhaps there is a power associated with being up there in a king of the castle manner.

Rob Howell’s magnificent set contributes to much of the production’s success. Solness’ house and garden is presented as an island enclosed by natural surroundings, including an impressive network (like a building scaffold?) of wooden branches at the rear of the stage which plays a significant part in the play’s climax as it crashes to the ground in a plume of smoke, perhaps to mirror Solness’ destruction. Furthermore, Gary Yershon’s music sets the production on a more expressionist path taking us into Solness’ inner mind. In particular, the crescendo of music as Solness expresses his fears about the young coming knocking to take over his work before Hilde knocking on the door seemed a powerful instigation of the dream-like world. The music, efforts from the cast (James Dreyfus and Linda Emond provide excellent support), design, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting all come together to create a powerful and effective end that shakes off the naturalistic tone to the start of the play.

The Master Builder plays at the Old Vic until 19th March, 2016.
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday 4 February 2016

Three Days of Rain

The Little Theatre
3rd February 2016

How well do we really know our parents? They bring us into the world and forge a permanent imprint on our lives – for good or bad. Yet, despite their influence they remain almost strangers to us outside of their generic role as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, and it’s hard to believe that they once had a life that existed outside of our own. These ideas take centre stage as preconceptions, fractured relationships and long kept secrets collide in Pip Nixon’s production of Richard Greenberg’s play which explores the complexities of familial bonds across the generations.

Unstable wanderer, Walker, returns to Manhattan following his disappearance after his father, the famous architect, Ned Janeway’s funeral. Visiting the abandoned studio in which his father and business partner, Theo, once worked, Walker intends to unearth the truth behind his dysfunctional upbringing in a post-mortem reconciliation between parent and child. The dilapidated apartment set of Act 1 creates a sense of intrigue in the lives that once occupied it, the ruinous visage artfully reflecting the psychological and social wreckage left behind.

Symmetry and contradiction are touchingly realised in the regression of Act 2, as the jigsaw of jagged memories, enigmatic stories and telling omissions are rearranged and slotted back together to reveal a completed family portrait. Motif, gesture and sound reverberate between acts and the reflections of the characters with their predecessors is neatly drawn. The trio of actors, impressive in dual roles as both parent and child, hold the stage wonderfully, drawing forth the weight of what goes unspoken in still moments and wise-cracking with great comic timing.

Three Days of Rain is a wonderful, subtly crafted balance of character and plot. Greenberg’s skill lies in making us care about these characters without hammering home a ‘message’ or nauseating sentiment; he lets the characters speak for themselves. This production succeeds in contemplating the stronghold exercised on the present by the past and the delicate, ephemeral nature of life and the enduring influence we have upon those lives we touch.

Three Days of Rain runs until Saturday 6th February.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Good People

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 5: David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People (2011)

‘Some people can be content
Playing bingo and paying rent’
‘Some People’ from Gypsy. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Sung by Imelda Staunton in her remarkable performance as Mama Rose, Sondheim’s lyrics may easily remind you of another part Staunton has played. Meet Margie. In the first scene, she loses her job at the dollar store for turning up late yet again. But she’s late because she can’t rely on her landlady and friend, Dottie, to babysit her disabled daughter on time. And, like Sondheim’s lyrics in Gypsy, Margie (with a hard ‘g’) struggles to pay the rent and plays bingo. Without spoiling the plot (and what a riveting plot it is), she soon realises her ex-boyfriend lives nearby who is now a doctor and so decides to visit him.

What’s so likeable about Good People is that it is plot and character-driven, the themes and issues coming through them unforced. Exploring class, chance, choice, wealth, race, and family, Good People has the ingredients of a great American play. Indeed, there are echoes to Death of a Salesman, but what Lindsay-Abaire does differently is to place a struggling, single, unemployed mum as the central character. Likeable despite her flaws and incredibly funny, the play asks us is Margie ‘good people’ for letting Mike (her ex) go or is she being foolish? Likewise, is Mike obnoxious and has he forgotten his roots in Southie? Did he choose to push himself to do better in life or was it luck from his encouraging and well-off family?

The first two scenes of the play open with stories and anecdotes in mid flow. It not only allows for moments of humour to be conveyed, but also made me think about the importance of stories in America. It is often depicted in American theatre that people grow up perhaps expecting to follow the narrative of the American Dream, with all its promises and rhetoric. In Good People, like so many other plays, it has not been fully realised.

Along with Stephen Adly-Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat, Good People is, in my opinion (for what it’s worth), one of the best American plays of the 21st century.