(all Theatre Reviews originally written for Scene Magazine)
The American Dream
'Gasping' - Theatre Royal - 30th September - Plymouth
Sedition is believed by many people to only be effective if done slowly and from inside the machine and this is a concept that Ben Elton has embraced over the last ten years. Gone are his in your face rants about Mrs Thatch, the tory party and the like to be replaced by a far wryer look at life but with the same basic message. Books such as Stark and plays like Popcorn have spread Elton's views to a far wider and influential audience than his stand-up comedy ever did, using humour and clever writing to expose some of the injustices of the world. 'Gasping' was written and first performed back in 1990 and its original run in the West End with Hugh Laurie and Bernard Hill in the lead roles was to huge acclaim. This performance sees Ian Reddington (best known as Eastender's Richard Cole) playing Philip the high flying executive who can't move without 'checking with his people' and Neil Stacy (The House of Windsor, Three Up, Two Down) as his Chief Executive Sir Chiffley Lockheart of the firm Lockheart Industries. Lockheart Industries are doing so well that in the opening words of Philip…… "Lockheart Industries are making senior money. If God wanted to buy into their stock, he'd have to think twice and talk to his people. They have a profit curve wound so far round the room it looks like a Blue Peter Christmas Appeal.' Sir Chiffley is looking for the next 'Pot Noodle' a product where there was no product before to make the company 'senior' amounts of money. Philip the whizz-kid comes up with the ultimate product - the 'Suck & Blow' machine. A machine designed to bottle and release air so no more do you have to breathe in other peoples secondhand air. One of the ironies of this is that since this play was written aerosols of oxygen are now available at cosmetic counters. The machines become a huge success and before long air is privatised and the price goes up, and the poor start dying as they can't afford it. Philip's conscience finally wins through as he destroys the company and the machines. Initially and on the surface this is a hugely funny play bordering on farce or slapstick at times but without going too far. As it progresses the humour becomes blacker and blacker and people realise that they are no longer laughing at the play but themselves and the whole screwed up world of big business. Fighting the twin evils of privatisation and big business has long been a call to arms for Elton. One can't help feeling that this play, and much of his other work, is at least as an effective way of making the world sit up and take notice as thousands of protesters in Seattle or Prague. Make no mistake this is top quality entertainment but it has more than a little bit of politics running through it.
Musik (Four Life Drawings)- Tuesday 26th September - Drum - Plymouth
Sex, backstreet abortions, illicit affairs, newspaper expose, blackmail, secrets, lies and deceit, sounds like the plot of the latest Jeffery Archer 'court case'....sorry 'play'. However Musik by Frank Wedekind is nearly 100 years old written in German and set in that country. The veracity and openness of this play, both in its subject matter and performance, proved too much in its day and its original run was only to last a few performances. This is the first ever British production of the play, translated and adapted by Neil Fleming. Wedekind was no stranger to controversy having been jailed in 1899 for writing satirical ballads opposing the Kaiser, his plays often dealt with the uncomfortable nature of people's instincts and morals. The first striking thing about this play was the way that the Drum was laid out, instead of the normal banked seats the audience was either side of a long 'catwalk' on which the play was performed. This adds to the feeling of voyeurism that you get as the play draws you in to the passions, lies and tragedies of the players. Our main character Klara played by Juliette Caton is a young music student taken in and corrupted by the enigmatic and intoxicating Josef (Terence Hillier), a married University tutor, who gets her pregnant which leads to an illegal back street abortion and then prison. The start of the prison scene with the superb set and haunting music and her looking and sounding so wretched and broken is a very evocative image. This is in stark contrast to the quiet dignity in which the cuckolded wife, Else(Catheryn Harrison), holds herself even when helping to gain the release of her husband's mistress. Upon her release she is again returned to the house of her adulterous tutor and his wife and trapped there until inevitably she once again falls pregnant. Else's friend and journalist Franz - played by Jem Wall who provided the impetus to get the play staged- attempts to expose Josef in his newspaper column but is foiled. The final scene starts with Klara singing the opening lines of 'Clementine' softly to her ill baby daughter. As well as setting the scene this acts as a foreboding prediction of the future and also, as the baby is asleep, a soliloquy of the state of Klara's life and innocence. 'Oh my darling, Oh my darling, Oh my darling Clementine, You are lost and gone forever, Dreadful sorry, Clementine.'
Birmingham Royal Ballet - Arthur - Theatre Royal, Plymouth - 29th March
The ballet, is so often maligned by so many for being nothing but a bunch of blokes in tights and ephemeral woman prancing around a stage in tutus. Ballets seen on TV etc. so often seem to contain the same costumes and minimalist staging that it is easy to see why they do not appeal to the greater masses. The BRB's version of Arthur successfully transformed this standard staid image into something new and exciting; taking the well known of tale of the Arthur from his conception to his marriage to Guinevere and weaving into it many contemporary themes and images. The opening prologue is set in what appears to be a WW2 city that is being bombed, the point of which is to show how the country was being ripped apart and the suffering that was occurring at the time when the Arthur story starts. Throughout the rest of the show there are constant juxtapositions between contemporary and period pieces of costume and staging, bicycles are used to represent horses and guns are carried as well as swords. The story is split into two acts each of four scenes, with a brief prologue at the start of each act. The first act deals with events leading up to the birth of Arthur and up to his drawing of Excalibur from the stone. Although obviously a ballet much of the first act could easily be classified as contemporary dance, this lent it an interesting quality that drew the audience in with interest for not only the story but also the way that it was enacted. Merlin for example did not at any point dance rather he moved around the stage in a wheelchair for most of the time and walked slowly the rest, yet portrayed a very striking character who held the audiences attention completely. The use of props and the excellent way in which the David Bintley (Director) interpreted the story into dance made the whole story amazingly clear to understand throughout the first act. Rarely have I seen dance convey meaning so well. The second act initially carried on along the same theme and feel as Act 1 with the first scene showing Arthur's reunification with his mother and his seduction by his half sister Morgan. However the second scene where Lancelot woos Guinevere on Arthur's behalf seems completely incongruous in that its whole feel and style are so out of character with the rest of the play. This unfortunately means that the third scene (the birth of Arthur's and Morgan's son) which should have taken the dark undercurrent that runs through the show to even darker levels actually appears almost cartoon like. Many people were giggling and laughing at what should have been one of if not the most serious part of the show. The final scene, a feast of video images projected onto the back wall along with a fast musical and dance accompaniment rescued the show and brought it back to life. This scene plays on the two opposing feelings that are invoked - the happiness of the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere and the darkness resulting from the slaughter of innocent babies in an attempt to kill Arthurs's and Morgan's offspring. Highlights of the show for me were, Merlin's performance, as it was so striking yet so minimalist. The birth of Arthur - mainly because of the mutterings of disgust from some people further along the row from me. (Millions of babies are born every day, it is normal and natural, and representing it on stage is just as normal) And the final scene as it drew together so much and was very original and innovative. Lowlights were Act II scene II which spoilt much of the second act and the people behind me who kept talking. The BRB return next spring to the Theatre Royal with the continuing story of Arthur , if it is as good as this then make sure you go down to see it.
the contract - Orchard Theatre Company -The Drum, Plymouth - 15.03.00
One of the joys about going to see a play in the Drum, or any small theatre, is seeing what has been done with the very small amount of space that the set designers and director have to work with. For 'the contract' the lights went up to the sight of an older woman(Gill Nathanson) sat on a raised chair with legs about two metres high, wearing a long coat that reached to the ground. The reason for this elevation is to contrast and accent the difference in her status and position from the other main character in the play, her handmaiden(Melanie Baxter-Jones). This elevation contrasts again with the sparseness of the room she is in; it is in a state of being packed up and moved on, leaving her looking like a lonely queen with a throne but no kingdom. The story that underpins this play is that of the handmaiden preparing the older woman for her wedding later that day. This is complicated by the revelation that the wedding is essentially one of convenience - on the old woman's part she needs the money to keep her high-born status and her intended the 'businessman' wants the power and status of her title. The, not very subtle, subtext of the story is that of abuse and the emotions that run alongside it and the symbiotic relationship that exists between the abuser and the abused. From the start we see the old woman chiding, castigating and bullying the young handmaiden, through her morning chores, the most important and long running of which is to dress and prepare the old woman to face the world. We see and explore the relationship between them, the old woman who on the face of it seems powerful and strong, actually needs the handmaiden to feed and draw strength from, without her she would be nothing. Conversely the beleaguered handmaiden who trembles and acquiesces to every word is actually the stronger person, biding her time and calculating her future. The third character is the businessman (David Plimmer) a harsh, character ready to do anything to further himself and his business regardless of the cost to other people. We see him playing cruel games with the handmaiden, lulling her into a false sense of security before physically and mentally tormenting her. The handmaiden finally gets her 'revenge' by killing the old woman and taking her place as the bride, before no doubt going on and carrying the circle of abuse with a handmaiden of her own. Personally I though the concept was excellent and the conception of it by the director was a great idea, as a talking subject afterwards it was very stimulating but the play as an hour and a quarter of entertainment didn't work.
The American Dream - The Drum, Plymouth - 3rd Dec
Actually two plays under the umbrella heading of 'The American Dream' both set in the same period of time and place - 60's USA.- performed back to back by the same cast. Short quick scenes are the hallmark of both plays and together lasted less than an hour. Nighthawks : Inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, Nighthawks provides us with brief snatches of the people and their lives and how they intertwine. Using only minimalistic props and the paintings of the aforementioned Hopper as background. The players draw you in to experience the gamut of human emotions, teasing us with a snapshot of someone's life before moving on to the next person. Many of the snapshots are interweaved building up a picture of everyday life where the mediocre blends seamlessly into the wildly exciting. Interview : Written by Jean Claude van Itallie, best known for his work on the early alternative scene in the 60's, 'Interview' takes us through an experience most of us have had to endure at some point in our lives. This play, although set in 60's USA, could just as easily be set in a Plymouth job centre. The constant movement of the main characters - four interviewers and four interviewees - and the props all over the stage, accurately convey the barrage of questions and demands placed upon you in an interview situation. We all know the feeling of oppressiveness, confusion and the battle of wills that takes place in an interview and this play sums that up beautifully. The eight members that form the cast -from the People's Company 'a unique group involving adult community members' - are all very good in the roles, the only criticism being the way in which the American accents changed and slipped throughout the night. In neither of the plays are there any costumes; black jeans and T-shirts and very few props mean that all your concentration is on the players and the words - in a longer play this would probably get tedious but in this instance it worked perfectly.