Thursday, 29 June 2017

Dirty Work: The Late Shift

Act one. There are two people onstage and there is a blogger in the audience who is excited. The blogger has been told good things about this show. The blogger feels this might be a rite of passage. The performers are wearing garish costumes. The blogger thinks this is a gesture. The blogger is unsure.
The performers are talking about a hypothetical show. The events do not happen. They are all dramatic. The show is not. That appears to be the point. The performers keep talking. They talk more. They describe lots of dramatic, shocking events. People titter. This is probably clever and funny. This will become clear to the blogger, the blogger thinks. There is another woman dressed all in black who seemingly randomly puts a record on sometimes. This will become profound, the blogger thinks. The male performer looks like my uncle’s friend, the blogger thinks. He also talks like my uncle’s friend. His performance style is like someone who believes everything he is saying is intensely important and deserving of attention, just like my uncle’s friend, the blogger thinks. Why is he shrugging on every line? The blogger finds this grating. The blogger continues finding this grating and is unsure if this is the point. Time passes. Oh, and then some more music plays. The blogger continues to be annoyed, somewhat predictably.
End of Act One.
An interval is described. There is not an interval. An interval would be a blessing. An interval would allow you to leave. The blogger doesn’t feel complicit or forced to stay. The blogger’s annoyance is not productive. The blogger feels bored.
Act Two. The repetition of the show not happening but being described is referenced. People are laughing at jokes that would have been funny had the last twenty years not happened, had Breach and Barrel Organ and Chris Thorpe not happened, this performance style might be clever or funny, but, like a rerun of a dated episode of Friends shown to someone who didn’t watch Friends, the jokes aren’t funny. The blogger considers heckling. The blogger spends the next twenty minutes considering funny heckles. The blogger plans a tweet for later, something about how someone should have just given these performers a copy of Offending the Audience. The blogger makes themselves laugh. The show is still not making the blogger laugh but the people still keep laughing for no reason. The blogger’s uncle’s friend keeps shrugging and occasionally gurning at the audience. The female performer does a fairly good monologue about different forms of transformation. This is quite exciting. The blogger thinks they are getting somewhere. This seems to explain what the show thinks it is doing. You think how good a performer she is. Then you remember how boring the whole thing is and she sits down and the man is shrugging again. End of Act Two.
After the show. Magicians maybe are described. Stand-up comedy. Some jokes about political theatre, and somewhat predictably Trump. Of course they think that's very ironic and funny. Lots of other stuff. Blah blah blah blah blah. Interminable blah. The performers continue to think this is terribly important. The blogger watches the audience and is confused why they are all smiling. Perhaps they are all press or all huge Forced Entertainment fans or perhaps the blogger is stupid, the blogger thinks. Perhaps the blogger is just not getting it? Perhaps they need to be working harder? The male performer shrugs off yet another boring staid image in the style of someone remembering a particularly funny time they saw Nina Abramovic at a party and the blogger is completely done. The blogger really thinks about leaving. The blogger is so hopeful for something, anything to make this not a waste of time. The blogger is so fucking glad they didn't bring their mum, she does not need more persuading that theatre is a pretentious waste of time, the blogger thinks. The blogger is strikingly aware that they spent money on this. This annoys the blogger no end. The blogger gets actively annoyed thinking about who this is for. The blogger thinks about all the brilliant work going unproduced or unseen that could take the place of this waste of everyone’s time. The blogger is more angry than they have been in any show in months. Oh, the lights are dimming slowly. This is some blunt and ill-formed gesture about the end of the world being like when the lights go down. The blogger thinks how obscene it is to create such an anti-theatrical object. The blogger finally seizes the moment: the blogger throws a shoe, the stage explodes, the world explodes, neoliberal culture is destroyed, the theatre becomes a time machine, the blogger steps into the time machine, the time machine takes the blogger back three months. The blogger is buying a ticket but changes their mind. The blogger is very happy. The lights go down completely. The two performers emerge from the darkness to check the pulse of the blogger and pronounce them dead. They record the death and rob the corpse and spend the money in the pub with all their fans. The blogger’s corpse is found in a dark room. In their blue hand, underlined, is a review by Lyn Gardner which is incisive and beautifully argued and completely completely and utterly not in accordance with anything the blogger experienced. The dead blogger turns into some words. The words remember they don’t have an uncle. The words give up too.

End.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Anatomy of a Suicide

This play is a masterpiece. That’s that. I will take no opinion to the contrary. I will defend it to the ends of the earth. And it’s only the second most hyperbolic thing I will say about Alice Birch in the coming paragraphs.

*There’s very little I can say about the play without spoiling the plot, so I’d really, in this very special case, recommend just seeing or reading the thing before reading this. Seriously. I don’t want to inflect any of it with what I have to say. *

So.

Its narrative is fairly uncomplicated in lots of ways, which makes its unravelling remaining compelling all the more extraordinary: three timescales, Carol, whom we see in the 1970s, is mother to Anna, whom we see in the 1990s, who is mother to Bonnie, fifteen years in the future.

The play explores the way in which their lives resonate with each other. Scenes across time periods play out in parallel stage time and create echoes, linguistic and dramatic, of each other. Carol and Anna both commit suicide (we know this within the first half an hour (and the title, really) as we hear from successive children that their mothers died in the house in which they are staging) and the play leads us through burgeoning relationships, to bearing children, to the struggle against a desire to die.

It seemed to me to deal sensitively and complicatedly with the emotional labours of woman- and mother-hood. So many scenes play out these female characters being asked for too much (often by men) or being bothered when they needed peace or being harangued when they needed support. The women are constantly suffering as they fail to do what is expected of them: be caring towards children, being emotionally available to their partners and children, wanting to rear children, not taking heroine, not kissing women, children.

“Anatomy” is precise in its description. There are so many causes at play and as they echo through these parallel storylines, the complications expand away from each other – inherited trauma, structural oppression, postnatal depression, the anguish of having to reproduce – all echo and reverberate through each moment. Scenes push up against each other and lines in one scene seem to answer questions you have of another, lines echo an hour later and corrode the integrity of your memory of that past event. The past – I’m going to just hammer this home – literally infects the way you understand the present and the future.

Here’s the hyperbole. So, I was thinking as I sat there gawping afterwards that Birch is, I think, as close as we have to a contemporary Shakespeare. And I really mean it. What I mean by this is that the play’s first scenes are a wash: you feel lost and unable to parse the language, it seems far too much to deal with [it is – her brain is extraordinary] and you really expect it to let up. But as the play progresses, it in fact increases in density but, and here’s the Shakespeare bit, it teaches you its language. You start to go with it, even as you are aware that its going far too fast for you, o’erleaping itself and falling on th’other.

The play is so dense I think it might actually be cleverer than I’m imagining. It is richer and more polyvalent and elaborate than any contemporary play I’ve ever seen. It makes Oil, look like a kid’s show.

This runs in a line of Birch’s plays – and 21st century playwrights generally now I think about it, McMillan’s Lungs and Thorne’s Sugar Water being the two that immediately spring to mind –  that deal with the terrors of having children, the recklessness of that act, but this play seems the closest to finding its way to a really difficult and potentially horrible conclusion. The happy-ending for these people is sterilisation, to cut off the branch of their line to reduce suffering. The play neither censures nor supports this conclusion. But Birch allows us to glimpse the sketchpad of her most complex and knotty interrogation yet.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell, is very... well, very Katie Mitchell. The cast are stellar: every beat seemed so carefully controlled I can scarcely believe Katie wasn’t in the flies pulling strings. And scene changes, in which the three women are not allowed to leave the stage but are undressed and dressed in front of us, hammered home the ways in which these women’s bodies are undergoing constant control within the world of the play. The sound design by Melanie Wilson was evocative and blurry and great.

But. But but. The columns. So, the play’s form in the text is three columns spaced out, in the way Birch has utilised before in other texts but never to this degree. And the design by Alex Eales just seemingly transposes this onstage. There are three “tunnels”, variably lit, so that the stage is split into three time-zones and becomes immediately legible from left to right. Which really helps us read what is, admittedly, a tricky play.

But the play is so rich, so varied and so deft at the textual level, the flatness of this presentation (particularly as the stage’s depth was limited) and the greyness of Mitchell’s concrete aesthetic, made the whole thing feel less claustrophobic, more hemmed-in. I wonder what is gained by this form, and what lost by not being able to vary the relationship between the scenes in space, not being able to privilege vision of one over another, not being able to push one forward, pull one ahead, not be able to place two close to each other and one far away? Which isn’t a criticism – I wouldn’t criticise Katie not on your nelly –  more a hope that this play gets another production that frees it up and sees how far one can complicate the play’s legibility. Just to prove Katie right and me wrong. And the reveal at the end sort of assuaged my concerns over all of this: the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen, really.

I’ve read a couple of review that talk about this play being tough or depressing. I honestly didn’t feel either. It’s difficult, that’s for sure, but it has heart and guts and so so so so much to say and do in your minds. Cognitive, dramatic, and gutsy satisfaction are very very rare, for me at least. This play is about as satisfying as theatre gets. I walked out moved to tears but competely enraptured and delighted that it exists and that I live at the same time as Alice Birch.*

Now imagine all the hyperbole in the world, it’s that. I can’t tell you enough how much you need to see this.


*I’ve seriously thought in the past about offering to do rubbish errands for her, so that she could just spend more time writing. I wonder whether someone did that for Bill Shakes? I’d like to think I would have done. God, I need to get a hobby.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Roller Diner

Roller Diner is a musical comedy set in an American diner in the midlands. And it’s about trafficking. Which made me really excited when I heard about it.

It’s setting is a pretty muddling sort of place: with the owner, the daughter, and her boyfriend all feeling a bit caught in their garish but underseasoned (*real review wordplay*) lives, until Marika, who claims to be a Polish immigrant looking for work, turns up and takes the place over.

It was the winner of the Verity Bargate Award for New Writing and it fits into that sweet spot Soho Theatre have of comedy/theatre/cabaret hybrids that don’t quite fit anywhere but are really exciting when they work. And this sounded ambitious. Which it was.

But it seemed to me that there was a really interesting play in need of a stronger sense of itself. It deals with xenophobia and little-Englanders with a deft hand and has some really delightful quirks (*spoiler* one of the characters turns out to be an alien who then returns to Mars, which is completely bonkers but magic) but overall it’s got too many formal tricks going on: the performances veer between slapstick comedy and sentimental anxt; the fourth wall goes up and down without any sense of clarity or consistency; we are never clear whether Marika’s character is a satire of British ideas of Eastern Europeans (she keeps seemingly casting a spell on the diner owner) or just a hole at the centre of the piece.

I also (and this feels odd from someone so completely on-board with musicals) really couldn’t understand why it was a musical? I think it gained little and perhaps lost much. The score was pretty hokey and ill-formed and the songs didn’t open up the experience so much as continually grind it to a halt to have a bit of silly singing (again: I like musicals. I really do. I just don’t think this really utilises the form effectively.)

I particularly liked Ricky Oakley as the boyfriend P.J. – boy, can that actor pull a really funny face – and the performances are all pretty strong. The occasionally wobbly accent from Lucy McCormick (in whose show Triple Threat I practically vomited with admiration, just so we’re clear I’ve nothing against her) just made me wonder why, considering the subject-matter, they would not have cast an actress from Eastern Europe to play this part, but I guess they must have their reasons. It troubled me a bit, though.


Overall, I wish I was able to be more vociferously praising: it’s the sort of misshapen show I have a real soft-spot for, but by the final scene I was a little frustrated by its blunt machinations and its politics didn’t convince me they weren’t a bit worrisome in their underdevelopment.

Oh, and there was zero rollerskating. Zero. I know. I thought so too.

On Why I Shouldn't Have To Pay: Icky vs. Shoddy

The Fringe accredited me this week. Which means they’ll do everything to support me, apart from the one useful thing they might have done: offered free tickets to shows. And I whinged about it on Twitter.

And, as ever, Andrew Haydon was my knight in shining Manchester and was lovely and supportive. And then someone said they didn’t know why the media would even expect free tickets, that they’d never understood it. And that’s when it all started.

I bowed out of the succeeding conversation: replies came and went and I didn’t want to get into it, really. But not because I wasn’t interested. And not because I didn’t disagree with the premise. But because the more I dug into the reason why I think it’s probably important that “the media” get their tickets comped by theatres, the more I felt like my arguments were either icky or shoddy.

So, here’s a game of icky vs. shoddy played out in the form of a dialogue in my head:

ME: I like theatre, I go see far more than the average person, I write about it afterwards. I will have to go see less stuff, write about less stuff, if I have to buy my own tickets. That would be bad.

ALSO ME: Wah wah. Loads of people want to be able to go see every show they want to but they can’t because they have to pay, why is that fair?

ME: Well, they don’t write about it afterwards, do they?

ALSO ME: They do, they just do it on Twitter.

ME: So, it’s a problem of social media turning every act of opinion into unpaid labour?

ALSO ME: I don’t understand why you insist on politicising everything, you crumbling Marxist zealot.

ME: Yes.

ALSO ME: So, you conceive of reviewing as a service for which you deserve to be paid a nominal fee?

ME: Sure.

ALSO ME: Monosyllabic, aren't we? So, if this is what theatre reviewing is relegated to – by your own definition, a service reviewers provide for theatres for a fee, small or otherwise, in the form of free spectatorship – then is this not progress towards the sort of activity your (my) new BFFs at the Fringe are taking part in, where reviewing becomes no more active an agent in theatre than an extension of the marketing department.

ME: I think everyone’s pretty tired of this conceit.

ALSO ALSO ME: We are. You’re right.

So.

I really believe in criticism. That’s why the strength of this counterargument really worried me.

Critical engagement with theatre, at its best, is a dialogic relationship, where work that is struggling to find a voice gets amplified, work that is receiving a lack of scrutiny is put into focus, and, perhaps most importantly, performance practice, dewy and ephemeral, finds a record.

Good press helps companies make applications down the line, helps writers, directors, actors get gigs because they can say “hey, look at this insubstantial proof of my worth”. Press, for small companies, validates their existence. This reason, along with interest in theatre, is the primary reason I think this blog is worth anything at all. That’s good.

But it also sells tickets. This is the only reason theatres pay for it. The PR or Marketing departments organise it because it gets bums on seats. Which is fine. I guess.

And that’s it. That’s the reason. It doesn’t negate the validity of what you can do but it’s a pretty disturbing conclusion to be coming to and as fewer and fewer traditional news sources defend their arts coverage, there are fewer and fewer people who would be able to, even if they wanted to, pay for their own tickets.

Reviewing online – outside of those who are just doing it out of good grace and the love of it – I include myself in that number – is necessarily going to become pulled closer and closer into an extension of a sales department.

You already feel it: good reviews – AWFUL reviews excepted – get shared way more favorably than tepid ones by theatres. Caveated reviews don’t get clicks. Clicks sell adverts. Adverts keep people doing the writing of reviews.

So, that sort of stupid comment on Twitter ends up making me feel a bit sick. Because this blog and my accreditation don’t matter, of course they don’t. But it worries me that the best argument I can come up with for why they should give me free tickets is because I’ll help sell tickets. Because that’s shit.

So, please, give us some hope and offer me another reason. Point out a theatre working with reviewers to help theatre ecology and not just get another shmuck to buy a ticket to This House. Please.


Also, obviously, it goes without saying, the Fringe can go fuck themselves.

P.S. This is all without even thinking about the argument about why the price of the ticket is actually a ridiculous payment for labour in the first place, because I'm tired and cross and it's so fucking hot and if you want to read about that you should go read Duška's brilliant book about how we're all simultaneously fucked and not fucked right now. Actually, just do that anyway because I worry I basically said next to nothing in this post and she says loads of interest in that book.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Nothing Is Coming The Pixels Are Huge

Banging name for a show, I thought. I’ll give that a crack. And, handily, Theatre 42’s show has buckets of really interesting stuff to shout about.

It’s loads of boxes. More boxes than you’d think you’d ever see onstage. Maybe a thousand? And some characters in a future world who have had their memories uploaded use the boxes to build a landscape. A projector colours the landscape and then they tell you what they remember it being. Boxes turn from rivers, to roads, then shops, then houses, and then the characters aren’t characters and then the memories are maybe not memories either. And a world is made and unmade and then you remember it’s always just been cardboard and light.

Which sounds sort of facile. Which it isn’t. It’s a smart, nice premise – visualising cybermemory as packets of data that can be reconstituted at will but that might not hold any real-world significance. Clever, right?

And over the course of the hour, they reformulate and deconstruct this central idea in interesting ways. The playing-style of it was very World Without Us by Ontroroend Goed* but with more projector. And more boxes. (There really were fuckloads of boxes. I almost couldn’t deal.) And at its best it rung with some of the sensitive lyricism that imbued that whole masterful show.

And the design (for which it very deservedly won a specially-created award at NSDF) is sort of extraordinary. I don’t understand how people this young and this not funded and this fledgling company-y managed to pull out a show that looks and feels as expansive (note I’m not using expensive as a byword for quality) as this.

My main thought was that any of the professional designers for the shoddy, tatty work that I’ve seen over the past year at bigger theatres should really take a look at this show and feel very cowed. These are students with, presumably approximately zero budget, and the show looks and feels beautiful.

I think there was occasional misfiring of tone: sometimes the performances became just a little bit sincere and performer-y for me. And I was also hoping for slightly more in way of approaching a development in the idea – there’s something really fruitful around fungible pockets of reality but I’m not sure this show sticks to that idea, instead it lurches more towards shonky sci-fi, which felt tonally a little strange. I wondered whether it was deliberately going for absurdly bad descriptions of the future cf. the monologues from Escaped Alone but I’m not sure they weren’t just a bit naff. No. That’s rude. Not naff. Just a tad sincere. But they were a sincere bunch, so I don’t want to shit all over that sincerity. IT WAS ALL GREAT!! Feel free to quote me.

I really have essentially got only praise for them. To have made a show this compelling and thoughtful and, Christ, this unmarketable (“it’s a show about a box being a bus. it’s really good promise.”) is an act of enormous integrity and I almost had a little weep at the end because there was only one box left undescribed. And then I remembered it was a fucking box and I told myself to get a grip.

*Both shows seem to chime interestingly with the great decentralising the human work Dark Mountain are doing over here, but that’s by the by.


Nothing Is Coming The Pixels Are Huge is part of the magnificent, ludicrously brilliant, totally wondrous Incoming Festival at the New Diorama Theatre. The festival showcases emerging companies from across the country all this week (and NDT's Artistic Director David is officially the nicest man in the whole wide world and if you go this week you should say hello and ask how his ankle's doing).

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Ponyboy Curtis vs.

“Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment, which equates the living with the nonliving as myth had equated the nonliving with the living. Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized. The pure immanence of positivism, its ultimate product, is nothing other than a form of universal taboo. Nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the “outside” is the real source of fear.”

At the end of Ponyboy Curtis’ new show vs., six young male performers, sweaty and exhausted, repeatedly charge right at the audience. They run sometimes together, sometimes apart, always as if for the first time, always with an exuberant, fearsome energy,  always seemingly forgetting that they have to come to a stop as soon as starting. Over this Dinah Washington, enveloped in Max Richter’s soul-crushing orchestration, sings “What good am I? Heaven only knows… Today you’re young/ Too soon you’re old.” I’ve rarely felt more brokenhearted.

This isn’t going to be a review. Not that I really do reviews but I’m not sure I have it in me to try, genuinely. I’m just going to try to explain some of what I thought about and felt during this extraordinary piece. Because I’ve no idea what “happened” or what it was “about”. It seemed about everything – what is a man? what is a human? what are we doing? – and nothing – these people seem nice. that willy is bigger than that willy. this is weird.

Ponyboy Curtis sells itself as a queer boyband collective: all twinky sex-party, radical loveplay, unsimulated sex. And that’s there. But what the show did at its most basic for me, in a way that knocked me off my feet, is to remythologise male sexuality; to offer a reconstitution of what it means to be a man and how men can relate to their bodies and each other.

The show repeatedly constructs rituals in which the boys play: it begins with a game of spin-the-bottle, where the Ponyboys number off and decide who’s doing what and then, well, and then they go free. It is constructed around (inspired, accompanied, supported by?) Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and features games in which the company run around their tribal circle made of clothes and select items of absurdly hipsterish garms that they then have to put on as quickly as possible and then continue running. As this speeds up, they can’t quite manage it, they throw clothes at each other, the whole thing collapses. They come to the front of the stage, they leap in micro-balletic gestures, staring above the audience’s head, hoping someone will do something, aware that no-one will.

These are people experiencing living with their naked bodies in front of an audience for the first time: I was at the first performance at The Yard, so this is quite precisely accurate for this newly formed iteration of the collective. They experimented with their own bodies and with others’. They exposed themselves in ways they felt comfortable with and occasionally in ways they might not have done.

You get the uncanny sense that, while this show is intended for an audience, it could happen without their presence. I didn’t feel ignored so much as entrenchedly complicit as a voyeur to a spectacle that invited the gaze. It is [here’s Benjamin again (promise I’ll explain the long quote above from Adorno in a bit)] the most clear example of Benjamin’s idea of “aura”, “distance as close as it can be”, that I have seen.

As the piece reaches its startling “climax” [I feel this word’s absurdity as soon as writing it, but the climactic moment of The Rite matches it, so I feel at least slightly bolstered] the selected sacrifice is made: ritualistic markings are drawn on the excluded figure, he is then forced [or merely observed in the act by the other performers] to spin round and round, dizzying himself, completely naked, falling on the ground, reeling from the fall, recovering, spinning, falling, recovering, spinning, falling, until you feel that this might never end, you feel that surely this is not funny any more, if it ever was, the human tissue in front of you becomes viscerally unhinged from our accepted sense of what we do together to each other and how community is formed.

And then they hug. And they kiss. And they are bonded. The sacrifice over, the sacrificial figure re-merges with the group.

–––––––––––

As I was walking to the theatre beforehand I spotted at a distance that there were a group of young men on the street outside their school, probably about fourteen years-old, and they were attacking each other. They were holding one of the boys against the wall by his neck.

I was pretty panicked. All the things ran through my head that run through your head at that moment: fuck me, there are loads of them, what if they attack me back, but I should do something because I’m a sort of grown-up, but what if they’re just… And then the boy emerged from the brawl and he was beaming, all full of eccentric, bombastic confidence. And I remembered exactly that sort of horrible, testy, unpleasant, exhilarating contact – simultaneously violent and erotic – that used to make up my daily life between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. I doubt anyone emerged from adolescence without at least one example of it: the sort of physical contact that just doesn’t happen after a certain age, thank Christ, but that is peculiarly formative and uncodifiable.

That’s what this show, it seems to me, is about: the strange relationship between masculine sexuality and violence, the terror and exhilaration of male bonding that is allowed here to exist outside of normative homosocial structures. Because this piece, it should be said, is not locker-room. This is about as queer and radical and warmhearted a show as I’ve seen. It is a frank and nuanced depiction of male bodies as they could be, were they allowed to exist in a culture as open and free as the one this show invites. And effing fuck it’s brave.

–––––––––––

The reason I started this piece with a quote from Dialectic of Enlightenment (apart from because it’s brilliant and I want you to think I’m clever) is because they are talking about fear: about culture’s desire to reign in those things that do not fit within antinomous or dialectical relations, about demythologisation in order to disregard the terror of not-knowing. This show, it seems to me, reasserts and examines the excesses at the world: it stares right at the terrifying, noisy stuff that makes up our barest selves, and generates a performance that is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.


Quite a lot more than just a twinky boyband. But also that too. I urge you to go.


Punts

An upper-middle class couple employ the services of a sex-worker to take the virginity of their 25-year old son with learning difficulties.

That’s the plot of Sarah Page’s Punts, which just opened at Theatre503. And what’s weird is I kind of liked it. Stay with me.

I’m going to start with the positives. It’s design by Amelia Jane Hankin is properly good: these glowing neon tubes gesturing simultaneously towards a bay window in an upscale London home, a sort of seventies Americana neon altar, and a garish strip club. They glow in different colours, casting erotic shadows on the characters as they strut offstage in between scenes, as this synthy sound design by Owen Crouch pumps out at you. I’ve made all of that sound cooler than it was, and it certainly does take a lot of cues from Kuleshov’s previous production at 503, BU21, but it was pretty neatly constructed (in a space where I normally see quite naff design altogether).

The play as textual object is really well-structured: satisfying scenes galore, chockful of subtext and properly interesting argument, only slightly losing its way in the latter half. It pretty much never – I think this is testament, as ever, to actor, writer, and director – lapses into preachiness or lyricism, even as a housewife character has an argument with a sex worker about their different life-choices *cue Billington applause* – and all the characters get moments to really make big choices and disclose themselves and their complex motivations. And it’s really funny: kudos to all the cast and the director whose nuanced performances allow moments of silence to be palpably clear while also offering genuinely insightful interactions between people in a tight spot – GOD, PLEASE JUST DON’T.

So, I enjoyed it. That’s that. I did. More than a lot of shows I’ve seen at 503. It was dramatic and lived in the real-world, in a “now” I recognise (I’m still reeling from Escape the Scaffold at 503, still one of the weirdest “contemporary” plays I’ve ever seen) and I enjoyed the characters and the story seemed well-told.

But, well, and.

There’s a few problems, aren’t there. As ever. And as ever, they are ideological *snore*. Feel free to switch off now.

Even if I sidle past (as the play does) the fact of a sex worker sleeping with a man with learning difficulties, who does not seem very much to want to have sex, I think you’re left with a political conundrum that contrives a few too many "haha that’s funny moments" not to leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth. Or at least my fairly flawed, subjective mouth.

And then, and I know after that this seems small fry, there’s the problem of representation. Because this play’s politics are, under the surface, a bit grubby.

The white family onstage are very upper-middle-class-and-don’t-we-get-plenty-of-sub-Ayckbourn-gags-about-it (“we have lots of teas” stuck in the craw).

That’s fine. Sure.

But the barrister father is a bit of a hardworking nice bloke, who might really want to get it off with the younger prostitute; the housewife mother is a bit of a list-making obsessive, who is jealous of the younger, sexualised woman’s presence. The sex worker character’s real overarching dream is to have a husband to take care of her (or to earn enough money to be a care worker). And the son’s dream is to get a girlfriend and be like the other boys.

The final image *spoiler* is of the father asking the mother out on a date, while the sex worker has buggered off to try to go and be a carer and the son has gone to the rugby club alone.

So, a complex play about lots of stuff, is, at the structural level, about the restitution of the traditional family (women as care-givers, men as sexy, strong sexmen). Which is, I think, for unexpected reasons considering all the traps the play could have fallen into (representation of sex workers AND learning differences in one play), why this play is niggling my brain.

Anyway, good performances nonetheless and I’d really recommend going, if only to tell me I’m wrong and how.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Nel

Nel is a tiny joy. It’s about a young, introverted female foley artist trying to get out more, basically, and I liked it because, well, because it was really sweet and well-made and well-performed.

And actually I think a lot smarter than you might at first think: there are complicated things you can read about how form and content were matching up  – a girl obsessed with fake sound, attempts to fake an identity in order to fit in (geddit) – and I think there’s a lot of quite progressive, supportive, useful stuff about gender here – it was really nice to see an all-female company telling a story in which they hadn’t felt culturally cajoled (culturjoled?) into putting men into their narrative.

There’s a really nice bit where Nel struggles to put a coat on for ages and they use physical theatre to keep pulling her coat on and off that I thought sort of beautifully explored the way that peculiar quotidian anxieties can become magnified until they become enormous.

It’s sort of, I guess, a shame that they don’t push the story further and try to see what their particular forms can best express about this character –  they sort of just accept that they’ve got an arc to tell and that a thumbnail will help them get to the end of it and so they go after telling it. And that’s fine, I guess. I think these really talented people could probably have figured it out. But it’s fine.

Because at it's heart it’s a bunch of fun singing and some really innovative lighting and I’m a sucker for some foley artistry (“a bird! with rubber gloves! WHAT!?”).

And Scratchworks were beaming so much at the bows that I beamed with them, so basically, despite myself, I was charmed: how lovely to have a nice time with a bunch of people in a room, you know.


Nel is part of the magnificent, ludicrously brilliant, totally wondrous Incoming Festival at the New Diorama Theatre (who were very nice to me when I arrived soggy and stressed). The festival showcases emerging companies from across the country all this week.