Wednesday, 20 December 2017

People, Places and Please Don't @ me

What the hell is the point of this one?

People, Places and Things is, I think fairly objectively, a not very good play.

Now: if you feel like this is going to wreck something you love, stop reading. If you feel like you just don’t want to get angry at an averring opinion, stop reading. Honestly, for the love of God, I do not want to hear about people saying how wrong I am – there are literally awards ceremonies on Youtube dedicated to telling me this opinion isn’t right – but I’m going to explain myself because everyone’s got an albatross, or something and Haydon said he was interested and if Haydon tells you he’s interested then you sure as hell don’t disappoint him.

Here’s why.

That play is not about addiction. It isn’t. They can tell me till the cows come home about how people in recovery came to see the show and felt it told their story, my main revelation coming out of that show was literally zero about addiction but a lot about how interesting actors are and how interesting acting is and how theatre is just really bloody interesting.

It is. But that’s also not a difficult thing to explore when you are literally sat in a theatre making a bit of theatre.

The writing of this production finds the least difficult routes from A to B. Think about the process. The play starts and ends metatheatrically. The play’s central character is an actor struggling with being an actor who keeps acting. These are choices the play makes. There are so few representations of addiction in theatre and so few that are in any way sensitive and so few that are about women, that to choose this story is an act of having cake + eating. It says it is about one issue – an important one deserving scrutiny – but its actual concerns are about as close to home as possible. And any problems can always be explained away by the constructedness of it all, so anything goes.

The middle of the play is the most obvious, staid solution to a big problem. She goes into recovery and then what do they do? They wheel out a bunch of people and have a bunch of sodding group sessions. Group therapy? Onstage? I reckon that if you gave a bunch of GCSE students the opportunity to find a form to write about addiction that is exactly what they would have come up with. You get the corporate drug guy, then you get a bunch of people and you get to see the exact motivations for why they are there, but with some really good jokes, obviously.

You see them one by one, in a little line through the middle of the play and they mark time until we can get back to the really interesting character and how good she is at acting and how that says really interesting things about her personality and addiction (but addiction-lite shown to us mainly through a bunch of other actresses with wigs on popping out of every nook and cranny and then leaving in the least psychologically coherent image of what a mind in recovery might look like – on a side-note, the metatheatricality of this show really just makes you think in this moment that fucking hell there are a lot of actresses being given very very little to do and being employed by this production).

Getting specific about the text that everyone seems to find no fault with, there’s a trick contemporary playwrights use – and I think most people who write know this and conceive of it as pretty crap writing – where someone says “I heard someone say... “ or “I read once that…” and then the writer uses that to give themselves licence to write pretty clever esprit d’escalier lines, without having to explain why this character is talking like that.

Oh, here’s an example taken at random:

I heard this expression in a meeting. I was a scream in search of a mouth. I don’t know what it means exactly but that’s me, before. A scream in search of a mouth. In prison they get you to make your bed every day. Like here. Anyway. I made my bed this morning. Without having to remember to do it. I just got up and did it. I never used to do that.

This is paint-by-numbers addiction written by someone very well-read finding it hard to write less clever people. The play actually includes the line – admittedly later undercut but still – “Have you read Foucault?”

Look out. Niles Crane’s just popped by for a cameo appearance.

A personal hatred of mine, expressed so clearly by this show, is easy targets. This play has them in buckets but a particular one that stuck with me was Christianity. I’m not a Christian. I am an avowed atheist. But there is a moment just after the interval where you could practically hear the plinky plonky piano music as a silly Christian being silly with their silly faith that they’ve found as a comfort but that isn’t real gets walked out for some light relief. It really pissed me off. For weeks I thought how uncomfortable I felt sitting amongst a roomful of liberal theatre-goers laughing at someone finding solace in their religion. It was properly nasty theatremaking. Because whatever you think of how weird organised religion is, loads of vulnerable people find it really comforting and that’s really not a joke.

So, there’s a list of reasons – those are, I promise – just the main ones.

On positives and the reason it won all those plaudits and made everyone involved very happy and rich: Denise Gough is a really good performer so she fixed a lot of the play and Bunny Christie is a really good designer so she fixed the rest of it, I’m sure Jeremy had some part in that but I don’t know where and Duncan gets the jokes and I’m sure a nice house, which is nice, because Duncan is nice and Every Brilliant Thing and Lungs and even bits of 2071 are gamechangingly good. But PPP? Nope.

The Borrowers

I’d never been to the Watermill before. I didn’t really know that much about it and the idea of going to a show for kids in the middle of nowhere seemed like the sort of thing someone much more professionalised than me should be doing. But I did go. To see The Borrowers. And, yeah, it was alright.

First, the show: was… fine. I was really looking forward to seeing how they did tiny borrower people onstage and that was pretty exciting: they have this trick where they dangle a tiny person on a tiny string while at the same time a real-life actor hangs from a rope from the ceiling, and where they show you a tiny object that they then put through the floor and it appears onstage as a full-sized object and these bits tickled every bit of me, but they only did them sparingly, so I felt a little shortchanged, like watching a magician who had one really good trick with an elephant but decided instead to do a whole lot of quite mediocre standup about his mother-in-law.

The actors were really excitable in the way that children like, though sometimes I wondered that they weren’t talking more to the audience: the spareness of the fourth-wall breaking narration seemed unhelpful, particularly when it popped up at the moments that probably least required it. I don’t really know why they didn’t just give into baser instincts and go full panto.

I also wondered, while on the subject, whether considerations of class and gender politics *I know – just a kids show* shouldn’t be really front and centre when making theatre for properly impressionable people: the tiny female characters pretty much all at a loss as to how to walk properly until a bloke (admittedly also tiny) came along and explained it to them [this genuinely happened about three quarters of a way through]. And the boy dressed as Lord Fauntleroy who saves them is lovely but his maid and the sort of butler bloke are horrible and evil, which was weird.

But basically it was good and the actor-musicianship (something I later found out was the Watermill’s whole, lovely bag) was properly great and impressive and made everything smooth and lively in a good way.
And watching plays with children, without having children (which I don’t), is a really miraculous experience – they liked anything big and overt, all the set-pieces really worked with them and all the chatting made them snore (and fart – a lot – I was sat right at the top of the theatre and at the end I thought I might pass out). They talked and were occasionaly shh’d by their teachers but it was all in the spirit of the thing and none of them were rude and they all just accepted, without any sense of being told how the thing worked, that these were tiny people in a really big world, despite the imaginative leap that required me and my stupid grown-up head.

P.S. That theatre is honestly magic: if you haven’t been you should. It’s a converted watermill and still looks like one and the river goes under the theatre and the ushers offered me cake when I walked in because they had loads left over from someone’s birthday – and he did it like it was no big deal, like everyone gets offered cake at the theatre, which maybe they should I suppose.