Monthly Archives: December 2018

Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter Six

As the annual party season draws to a close we are all exhausted from a least a month of Christmas drinks, official office parties and socialising with everyone we’ve ever met before the symbolic chasm beyond the 25 December. One last hurrah on New Year’s Eve to see out a year no one particular wants to remember will be replaced with diets, detoxes and a month at home to recover from the financial strain of the festive period. What better time then to consider all the things we really hate about forced social gatherings – the one-upmanship, the sniping couples and the self-congratulation all concealed under a thin veneer of social expectation and small-talk.

The penultimate Pinter at the Pinter collection is another superbly insightful double bill uniting Party Time from 1991 with Celebration from 2000. This is Pinter as a social commentator subtly examining the slightly falsified nature of the party set-up, suggesting much about the complex nature of human interaction and revealing character traits through conversations full of class, gender and political meanings. Presented to a now socially-jaded late December / early January audience these are two parties you’ll be glad to observe from the safety of your theatre seat.

Back at the helm after temporarily handing-over the directorial reins, you know instinctively that this is a Jamie Lloyd production as soon as the curtain rises. Gone are the gentler themes about love and loss, and instead we return to contrasting shades of darkness and light. Where Soutra Gilmour’s revolving cube has been used to give previous collections movement and verve, here both plays have a deliberate static quality, similarly presented front-on with the actors placed in a row facing the audience. How Lloyd uses this to create two dynamic gatherings that emphasise Pinter’s focus on the dangerous nonsense of social climbing is fascinating.

Opening with Party Time Lloyd and Gilmour create a vision more akin to a funeral than a twinkly upper middle-class get-together, but for good reason. Pinter’s story is all about the ways in which the accumulation of wealth depends on the exploitation of those in the lower social order and how vulgar the conversations about holidays and tennis clubs, a heartless display of status really are, suggesting an emptiness at the heart of these interactions. Here, while peacocking, the characters reveal a ruthless approach to protecting their own privilege and a refusal to see beyond the limits of their comfortable existence, a purposeful blindness about how their lifestyle is sustained.

The attention to detail here is very meaningful, and Gilmour’s party venue is a black room, with black chairs, with a set of double black doors at the rear centre through which the external world occasionally tries to break through. She dresses each character in a carefully chosen black outfit and shoes while even providing quite specific brunette wigs to a number of the actors to create a soulless and bleak community governed by a particular set of rules about conformity, which links nicely to the political themes and faceless governing elite of Pinter One.

Lloyd carefully places his actors in particular spots on the stage, the women seated on the outer edge to reinforce the male-dominated secret society idea that comes through strongly from the script, an ominous bunch ‘taking care’ of events beyond this room – a hint of revolution in which police cordons and traffic checks delay arrivals at the party –  and rapidly shutting down any reference to the events beyond. For the men of this elite set knowledge is power and the emphasis is squarely on ‘need to know’, so information is presented to the other characters and the viewer only where it serves the progress of the story, frequently without further context, for example when Dusty is abruptly told she cannot mention her missing brother.

To reiterate this idea of party and society as a form of constructed artifice, full of tacit rules and expectations, Lloyd shies away from a more traditional staging with conversations happening around the stage and instead seats all the actors in a single line, with the relevant combinations stepping forward to deliver their scenes before resuming their place in the frozen line-up. The effect of this is quite extraordinary, showing the multiple strands of conversation occurring in this room between semi-strangers, while cutting sharply between pockets of information to draw out their strange lack of reality. We’ve seen this in several of the earlier Pinter collections, the idea that this world exists slightly out of time with everything beyond the black doors, and, for some time, each interaction here also appears to be separated from the others, sets of lives happening in parallel in the same room but in their own vacuum.

The deconstructed staginess that Lloyd brings is cleverly utilised to underscore Pinter’s views on this type of party and its people supported by another fantastic ensemble cast. John Simm has such an natural feel for Pinter’s rhythm and after enjoyably dark performances in The Hothouse and The Homecoming, both for Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, here his angry banker Terry is full of rage in which Simm draws out the brutality of the man who verbally berates his wife and hints at a joy in physical violence beyond this room while talking about his favourite health club.

Simm is supported by Eleanor Matsuura as Dusty, Terry’s wife who married-up and struggles to cast-off the thoughts of her own family and class while chafing under Terry’s rule, Phil Davis as party host Gavin inducted into this particular social circle through his appreciation of the health club, Celia Imrie as Dame Melissa whose scathing comments on the nearby town are so revelatory for the audience, Ron Cook and Katherine Kingsley as couple Douglas and Liz whose only connection seems to be their children, and the wonderful Tracy-Ann Oberman as widow Charlotte reunited with Gary Kemp’s Fred – all of them reasonably oblivious to anything but their own immediate circumstances.

Pinter uses the 35-minute Party Time to comment on the unsatisfactory nature of marriage and the rapid descent into indifference or outright disdain. These themes are even more prevalent in Celebration, essentially a sex-comedy set in a restaurant during a wedding anniversary dinner as two sets of tables (a foursome and a double) explore past lovers, jealousy and the failure of their current relationships. As with Party Time the tone suggests something amiss, but Pinter, in his final play, draws out the crass nature of his characters more overtly as the self-congratulation gives way to more dubious moral undercurrents.

Lloyd stages this 40-minute play almost as the inverse of the earlier production with a visual palette that confines black to the back of the stage and instead uses gold, white and silver to create a gaudy nouveau riche world of shiny fabrics and visible wealth – and note Gilmour replaces the brunette wigs with blonde for most of the women and their natural silver of the men. Seated at a banquet-style table facing the audience, couples Lambert and Julie are celebrating their anniversary separated by fellow twosome Matt and Prue who have joined them for the evening. At either end of the table at right angles to the audience, Russell and Suki form an entirely separate conversation, and Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.

This set-up allows Lloyd to place a physical distance between the sparring couples (with the exception of the relatively happy Matt and Prue who sit side-by-side) that emphasises the considerable emotional separation they are experiencing. At several points Ron Cook’s dislikeable Lambert either pretends not to know his wife or acts with notable disrespect towards her including mention of earlier sexual conquests. There is an evident vulgarity in the way Cook’s Lambert carries himself, flaunts his wealth and holds court at what should be a celebratory dinner, clearly indicating a self-made man who constantly betrays his more-lowly origins.

These notions filter through the group and while both Oberman’s Julie and Imrie’s Prue are expensively dressed, Gilmour’s choice of shiny ruched fabrics and piles of elaborately coiffured hair equally suggest money without taste, they drip with expense but their obvious flashiness implying, deep-down, a discomfort or surprise at their sudden fortune that they have been unable to cultivate. While the characters in Party Time oozed a classical elegance and comfortable entitlement that stifles any real feeling, here this brash group open-up their thoughts and feelings as easily as their wallets.

The theme of sexual jealousy comes from the other table as Kingsley’s Suki dines with partner Russell played by Simm. Here we discover a path for young women from secretary to boss’s wife behind the filing cabinets of the offices in which Suki once worked. As the two stories collide, Pinter comments on marriage, attraction and our inability to fully escape our own past – especially, for women, the stain of former lovers – as the characters endure an uncomfortably forced period of social interaction into which Lloyd allows only minimal movement, reflecting the confinement of the life they have built for themselves. All of this is interspersed with more wordly musings from the waiting staff (Abraham Popoola and Matsuura) and Kemp’s restaurant manager who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both.

Together, the one Act plays that comprise Pinter Six are a condemnation of the falsity of politeness and the extent to which excessive amounts of money allow groups to mask terrible and immoral behaviours. These brilliantly staged pieces are the shortest of the set to date and contain the least motion from the actors, yet the purpose of Lloyd’s still and contained approach is extremely well and atmospherically realised by a top-notch cast who bring such clarity to Pinter’s social commentary. The Pinter at the Pinter season is now alas on the home straight and as we embrace the clean-living principles that come with each New Year, keep a little in reserve because you’ll be want to accept an invitation to this wonderful Pinter party.

Pinter Six is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 5 - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

At this time of year many people’s thoughts will turn to home and ideas of family (however constructed) that dominate the festive period. Our complex relationship with these concepts has always been a good basis for drama so now seems an appropriate time for the Pinter at the Pinter season to present the plays that have most to say about contained concepts of home and the difficulties of communication between people separated by physical or metaphorical distances, a barrier to intimacy that places a strain on their interaction.The combination of Pinter’s first play The Room, the 10-minute duologue Victoria Station and Family Voices based on an exchange of letters together become a study of the shifting attachment to home, place and identity.

2018 has been a significant year for Pinter, not least because today marks a decade exactly since the playwright’s death. And while Harold Pinter’s work is a fairly consistent part of the theatre landscape, much loved by creatives, it feels as though audiences have also had a major breakthrough this year thanks to a series of clarifying productions that have transformed the work into a number of mainstream hits. Back in January, The Birthday Party at this very theatre was a huge success, combining an all-star cast including Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan with a tense and meaningful interpretation of this influential play that intrigued audiences and critics alike.

Since September, the four preceding Pinter collections in Jamie Lloyd’s fabulous season have been hugely successful, not only in bringing less frequently performed work to the stage in carefully curated programmes, but in revealing the huge variety in Pinter’s work that have made him such an influential practitioner. Where once we might think only of long pauses and a sense of menace, our view has been vastly expanded; from Pinter One we saw his role as a political commentator; from Two the nature of role-playing in romantic relationships; Pinter Three showed us his ability to capture loneliness and quiet despair which became so moving, while Four looked at domestic conflict and isolation. As a collective theatre audience, we approach the end of the year with a new-found appreciation of Pinter’s variety and learned to feel it on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

This discussion about communication is particularly pertinent to Pinter Five which opens with the 45-minute one-act piece The Room. A precursor to The Birthday Party, the story is set in a single rented room of an odd urban boarding house. As it opens Rose is talking in undisturbed monologue to a husband who barely registers her incessant chatter, unable to get a word in edge ways as his wife poses and usually answers her own questions while serving his dinner. Played by Jane Horrocks, the character instantly suggests someone safely in her own world, comfortable and self-sustaining. She requires her husband’s attention but never his voice to support or confirm her own view of the world, a trait that filters through a series of bizarre events.

Throughout The Room characters seem to exist in slightly different versions of the same world, as though none of them are physically present in the same space despite their interaction, or at least they see and respond to that room entirely differently – a feeling of dislocation which director Patrick Marber heightens very effectively. Rose Hudd certainly seems trapped there and unlike the surrounding characters is unable to step outside, yet that is a hint that the others – the frustrated landlord and the strange couple who believe the flat is vacant – do not belong to the outside world either, as if they manifest in the moment and retreat again into the shadows of the house.

Miscommunication then dominates the action, and while husband Bert (an expressive Rupert Graves) lays on the bed for some time with his arms clasped around his head, Mr and Mrs Sands barely listen to Rose, continuing with their own narrative which creates a strange feeling of displacement as they appear to lay claim to the Hudd home. This concern with place becomes important not just for Rose who maintains a neat and comfortable existence with her husband, but also for Mr Kidd the landlord (Nicholas Woodeson) whose own abode seems ambiguous, the flat-hunting Sands and even for Bert who escapes to drive his truck for reasons that remain obscure. Is home therefore a physical space of belonging or some ethereal concept based on a feeling of comfort and welcome?

After the interval, the entertaining Victoria Station explores this notion in more detail with a conversation between a taxi driver and his control room operator asking him to collect a passenger at the station for a long journey. Throughout, the two men are at odds with one another, failing to understand each other’s meaning and unable to communicate their message with considerable comic effect. The wordplay here is reminiscent of the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, using language to signal purposeful and accidental miscommunication that creates frustration on both sides, while only slowly revealing the context that determines and affects their respective points of view.

As with The Room, you feel that both men exist in a vacuum, that the real world doesn’t truly surround them hence the driver’s silent passenger and the operator’s failure to contact other cabs. Colin Mcfarlane as the controller becomes increasingly exasperated with the muddled exchange of information and the seeming belligerence of his driver, while Rupert Graves is delightfully absent as the oddly reticent and literal cabbie unable to recognise London’s famous landmarks. Their reliance on each other suggests an enduring loneliness that this unexpected moment of contact makes clear to them both, while the confinement of the taxi and operating booth offer a soothing comfort, a protected space, a home of sorts in which both men can silently exist.

Pinter 3 showed us how moving these short plays can be and Family Voices picks-up on this theme with a particularly impressive central performance from relative newcomer Luke Thallon. One of the joys of this Pinter at the Pinter season has been to see established actors and comic performers working alongside theatre’s rising stars, offering everyone an equal chance to shine. Thallon has grabbed that opportunity to showcase a range of skills both as the eager Mr Sands in The Room and as Voice One or the Son in this cleverly staged radio play.

Using a range of accents and voices, Thallon along with Horrocks as Voice Two (Mother) and Graves as Voice Three (Father) relay a series of not quite connected monologues as letters pass between a geographically and emotionally distanced family. Pinter plays with form here using the three separate character narratives to create a texture that informs the audience’s perspective on this family’s wider history and experience. Within the Son’s letters he recounts a number of comic incidents involving the fellow residents of his lodging house, a cast of near-grotesques who Thallon conjures with distinct voice and physicality as he inhabits a seductive older woman with a plain daughter and an imposing neighbour intruding on his bath time.

The tone is chatty, conversational, a series of happy stories told to his mother with a pleasure belying the difficulties that seem to exist between them. Working with Thallon, director Marber keeps the action moving around a central bedstead, signalling changing locations but remaining still enough to engage the audience in each scenario aided by Thallon’s excellent performance – a highlight of the season so far.

Horrocks’s Mother character must create a counter tone that appears to disregard Thallon’s narrative entirely, as though neither receives the other’s missives. Instead, in what becomes an emotional piece, the Mother increasingly pleads for her son to answer her letters, implying an unbroachable difference between them that becomes increasingly painful to her which Horrocks conveys with beauty and fragility. Like Lee Evans’s wonderful Monologue in Pinter 3, Horrocks elicits considerable pathos from this character, untethered as she seems to be from home and family, yearning into the void.

In the final section of this wonderful play, Rupert Graves plays the deceased Father writing to his son from beyond the grave, creating a third more wistful tone that is full of a rather formal love for his son and hope for the future. As the three pieces cut across one another, these entirely different-sounding conversations create a growing sense of despair as they explore concepts of home – the Son clearly feels most comfortable in the freedom of his new life, whereas for Mother and Father a connection to their child (although crucially never to each other) grounds their own sense of belonging. The timelines perhaps are not aligned and we cannot even be sure that these three separate monologues are from members of the same family but you want to think that they are.

It seems appropriate in this Christmas week to think more about home, family and how ineffectively we really communicate with those we love the most. The collective works that make-up Pinter 5 feel as insightful and meaningful as any of the Pinter at the Pinter anthologies that have come before, and while perhaps The Room is the least electrifying, the combination of Soutra Gilmour’s imaginative staging, Patrick Marber’s considered direction and excellent performances from an ensemble cast of established stars and exciting newcomers, means this Jamie Lloyd season really is the theatre gift that keeps on giving.

Pinter Five is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Sweat – Donmar Warehouse

Sweat - Donmar Warehouse

The decline in manufacturing industries had a far-reaching and indelible effect on the UK and US throughout the later years of the twentieth-century, characterised by the growth of services and office work in place of skilled physical and manual labour integral to product development. But too often debates and discussions about this shift in output have been too theoretical, confined to economists, political commentators and historians eager to explain the rise and fall of Trade Unions, the challenges facing Britain and America on the world stage or the growing disenfranchisement of huge numbers of working-class voters in areas of significant industrial decline. What we so rarely see amidst the economic models and pie charts are the experiences of the people living through it, the complete powerlessness of workers whose jobs are relocated abroad, the factory that generations of their family have been loyal to turning against them, and the area’s absolute dependence on that one workplace.

Lynn Nottage’s Pullitzer Prize-winning play Sweat comes to London for the first time, examining the personal and local consequences of a firm’s strategic decision to change the way it operates and revealing the void it leaves behind. Based on a series of interviews with workers in Pennsylvania and book-ending the George W. Bush administration, Sweat is the story of a group of factory workers whose lives are shaped by a series of incendiary decisions taken by the plant owners with little regard for the individual consequences. Two families whose matriarchs and sons are good friends compete for a promotion that will take one of them off the factory floor and into the remote management sphere, but just as the dust is settling big changes put everyone at risk, pitting new supervisor Cynthia against best friend Tracey. Divided loyalties upset what no one recognised as a delicate balance and soon friendships are tested, bitterness and recrimination explode, and with racial tensions heightened, someone gets hurt.

Nottage’s stunning play sets-up a sense of inevitability from the start, a Greek tragedy waiting to happen in which a brief prologue reveals two young men – Chris and Jason – newly released from prison for a crime we know will eventually be unveiled. It is 2008 and already there is a hint of opportunities lost and hopelessness about what they now have to look forward to. Nottage then cuts back to 2000 and the story begins its semi-tragic course and, while we have some perspective on the ending, Nottage’s skill is to embed the audience so deeply in the town and the lives of its people, to make you care so much for their pride and essential innocence, that you almost forget what is coming, revelling in their warmth and humanity so that you long for a happier ending than any of them can ever have.

There are clear comparisons with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and, while the driving tragedy is more dispersed and external in Sweat, the idea of working communities threatened by outsiders, worries about immigration and the nature of unstoppable change are very similar. There is an interesting strand about loyalty and broken trust which mirrors Miller’s concern with honour and duty in defined communities, most obviously explored within the friendship group but also strongly referenced in the worker-employer relationship that breaks down so badly in the second half of the play.

We are told several times that the plant sustains whole families, employing husbands and wives as well as their children. Generations of townsfolk have worked there, it is intrinsically linked to the town’s professional and personal history, the source of their identity. Nottage also reveals how exclusive entrance to this club has been with workers only ever hired if recommended by an existing employee, and through this the scale of betrayal becomes clear as devoted locals discover their dedication is not reciprocated, that the factory management was only loyal as long as they were getting a good deal – when the economic circumstances change they manipulate this long-service to force a change in the business.

The somewhat poisonous effect of this workplace then begins to infect and toxify the other relationships in the play. From the start the audience know it is a dangerous place to work, the cause of Stan’s limp and the reason he now manages the bar in which much of the action takes place. A racial dimension slowly seeps in which we know from the prologue will lead to Jason pursing white supremacist activities off-stage but begins subtly with former friends turning against each other and looking for weapons. This is later compounded by the presence of Oscar, a barman of Colombian origin with no loyalty to the town who wants to work at the factory to earn more money and reinforcing local fears that cheaper workers will undercut them.

But Sweat is ultimately a female story and at its heart is the growing distance between friends Cynthia and Tracey who have shared more than 25-years of ups and downs working together on the factory floor. Through them, Nottage examines all kinds of labour politics, not least the struggle between tradition and aspiration at the individual and community level. Set around three birthdays held in the bar – two protagonists and their underwritten alcoholic friend Jessie – over time we see a happy harmonious group ripped apart by jealousy and competition, and despite their growing distance, the birthday is a useful device to credibly bring the characters together. The second birthday is incredibly awkward while the third descends into bitter argument as external pressures reshape how these women see each other.

When Cynthia wins the promotion, Nottage is able to tap into wider discussion about the fractious relationship between manual workers and administrative management, a class divide that explores the declining power of the Trade Unions to protect their members, as well as the individual cost to Cynthia of becoming ‘other’ – promotion from the floor is a badge of honour which becomes a millstone. The “us and them” rhetoric woven through the play (also present in the wider context about fears of immigration) is a familiar one seen in British cultural responses to strike action as diverse as Made in Dagenham, Billy Elliot and even Carry On at Your Convenience when Sid James’s foreman character insists he cannot join the company board because he’s “a worker”. What Nottage does so well is to make all of this painfully real for the characters, emphasising how desperately people want to better themselves but how easily they are accused of being class traitors when they do.

Clare Perkins is full of joy as the play opens, Cynthia is having a wonderful time in a job she loves, drinking with her friends, her life is settled and content. Or so it appears on the outside, somewhere Cynthia wants more and as she transitions to a management role Perkins shows something switches off inside her, an almost imperceptible shift to greater responsibility. Her complex homelife with a dope-addict husband offers a few wistful moments on the passing of the years, but Perkins’s Cynthia is a warm, caring woman who has done her best to raise her son well while refusing to be taken advantage of.

In the new role Perkins suggest both the pride it gives her to be chosen for management after more than 25-years of work, but also the sorrow as it costs her the stability of her friendships. You see how exasperated Cynthia becomes with Tracey’s refusal to be happy for her, and the confusion of their sudden enmity. Cynthia believes she is still the same person fighting for her community from the inside, but Perkins subtly suggests a change in her persona, the concealing of vital information until the last possible moment and a stronger hint of self-preservation than we saw earlier in the show. “Was it worth it” is the question that haunts her, but Nottage is too skilled a writer to reveal the answer, instead the inevitability of Sweat shows us that all paths ultimately lead to the same destination.

Martha Plimpton’s Tracey is more comfortable in herself as the play begins but reveals greater insecurities as the story unfolds. A widow thanks to the factory, Tracey is ballsy, stubborn and willing to say exactly what she thinks regardless of the cost, she is no one’s fool and hates the idea of being hoodwinked especially by her best friend. Plimpton also draws out Tracey’s greater love for heritage and foolish belief that her family’s decades of service will be rewarded.

When she loses out on the promotion, Plimpton reveals how thin the layer of decency has always been and Tracey descends into bitterness, finding reasons to blame her own lack of agency on Cynthia’s failure to manage and unveiling a surprising bigotry, a low-blow that feeds into the race and immigration subtheme that has much to say about modern political divisions that have subsequently shaped US and British government. Yet we retain a shred of feeling for both women, Nottage’s writing and these strong leading performances show cause and effect so clearly, helping the audience to understand how little either could do to prevent what happens to them.

There are meaningful performances of the secondary male characters including Osy Ikhile as Cynthia’s son Chris, a decent young man caught up in events that cost him the bright future he once had and dreams of escaping the town that no one else can. Patrick Gibson is a little too decent to entirely convince as Jason with some of the inflections and movements a touch over-studied, but he does exude a menace in the 2008 scenes which works much better. Stuart McQuarrie is both counsellor and friend as stalwart barman Stan with his own connection to the factory that ties his greater knowledge of the customers into the importance of the plant to the town, while Sebastian Viveros as the more mercenary outsider Oscar finds himself at the eye of a troubling storm.

Nottage’s world is richly detailed and full of pain, pain for the limited opportunities left by industrial decline, pain for the communities and individuals destroyed by firms who place profit above staff satisfaction, and pain for the crippling effect it has had right across the economic and political domain, creating rents in the social fabric that have turned people against one another. Sweat is a beautiful piece of writing about small-town American but it could just as easily have been set in the UK, the effects are the same and the life Nottage so vividly describes is as real today as it was in 2008. Our industrial past is pulling against some other kind of future, and there’s little any of us can really do to stop it.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Cane – Royal Court

The Cane - Royal Court

Apologising for the past can be an emotive issue; while the physical and metaphorical wounds inflicted by countries, groups or individuals will have irrevocably altered the history of all involved, judging the past by the moral and ethical standards of the modern world is fraught with difficulty. Politicians love to do it, saying sorry to the wronged for everything we now consider to be inexcusable – the British Empire, the various wars of oppression and conquest that pepper our history as well as the acquisition of international treasures that fill most Western museums. But does it serve any real purpose, does apologising for the past become another insincere trick of diplomacy and should we just draw a line in the sand?

The play is set entirely in the house of Edward and Maureen a few days before Edward retires from teaching with a big farewell party planned. But growing crowds of angry pupils have gathered outside his home, incensed by the discovery of his role in caning boys when it was still legal to do so. Under siege for six days, Deputy Head Edward must complete a response to a damning school inspection when his estranged daughter Anna arrives, who works for the Academy group that takes over failing schools. As their family and professional pasts collide, the difference between justice and revenge becomes harder to determine.

Mark Ravenhill’s fascinating new play The Cane examines the issues of culpability for small-scale endorsed acts of violence and the nature of justice. He uses changed attitudes to corporal punishment to consider whether blame and guilt are the right responses to activities sanctioned by codes of practice at the time of infliction. Ravenhill is essentially asking whether these physically and emotionally scarring experiences should be pursued and scrupulously re-examined. A precedent set by the prosecution of historic cases of sexual assault and exposure of the culture of ingrained toxic masculinity have led to arrests and convictions, so should teacher-pupil violence be treated with the same seriousness?

To help us to decide, two questions run through the play, asking where the effects of crime endure should such cases be prosecuted, and at what point should the past be allowed to be the past? Using the school as a setting for this debate is a useful one, allowing Ravenhill to play with our societal nostalgia for the order and discipline of yesteryear where teachers were respected and power structures enforced with clear consequences for any misdemeanour. Yet, the cost of course was a state-sanctioned policy of violence against children in ways that seem unfathomable and outrageous to the modern eye. Was the world a genuinely better place when the cane was in use, turning-out educated pupils who went on to be model members of society, or did it produce scared and repressed individuals, haunted for the rest of their lives by the violation of their childhood by a trusted adult?

Our hazy fondness for the mythology of our past is a dangerous thing, one that entirely conflicts with our fetishisation of violence and its instruments that underlie much of British national identity. One of The Cane’s key strands focuses on the protection and preservation of the objects of caning, a reverence for them as historic artefacts that latterly belies their daily use. There is something here about the way we take objects out of context and purpose, putting them in glass boxes that bestows on them a reverence at odds with their functional use (e.g. an eighteenth-century chair was still just a chair to its original owner) and sanitises them, stripping them of their created purpose. Denuded of their reality, how innocent suits of armour, swords and guns look in museums never telling you how many deaths they were responsible for.

But this is far more than a treatise on corporal punishment and Ravenhill weaves all of these debates into an engaging and powerful three-hander that centres around a difficult family reunion that looks likely to explode at any time. Right from the start the difficulty of the relationship between Anna and her parents is clear, there is an immediate atmosphere, with the audience arriving in the middle of an already awkward encounter. Quickly Maureen suggests an estrangement, even an enmity between mother and daughter based on a tendency to violence that Anna claims not to remember.

As the story unfolds, Ravenhill toys with ideas of reconciliation and rapprochement as Anna and Edward in particular start to find common ground by working on his report together. Much of the drive in Vicky Featherstone’s 95-minute production comes from this power shift as various members of the family join forces against one another, as they confront their own difficult past as well as exploring Edward and Anna’s professional differences in approaches to caning. But this animosity is also entirely manipulated by Anna at particular moments in order to settle a score with her parents for past hurts, and while she genuinely seems to engage with them looking for bridges to build, at the same time she is an unpredictable force in the play whose motives and relationship with violence is not nearly as clear cut as we first assume.

This tendency to personal violence is really interesting and something that rips through The Cane, contrasting the educationally authorised violence of corporal punishment with the individual tempers of the characters that implies rather than demonstrates a history of home-based intimidation that is intriguing. Characters are accused of violent acts in the domestic and professional spheres but only two destructive incidents are shown, one driven by a hypnotic nostalgia and one surprising act of pure malice. Ravenhill is deliberately restrained here, not giving away too much, but allowing droplets of information to emerge that the audience can combine to form a picture of their lives, of relationships soured by years of recrimination. This is a snapshot of what feel like credibly larger lives, asking whether a single incident can and should shape our entire opinion of them; is what we see of these people on stage all that they are, boiled down to one mistake.

For a while at the start Edward does not appear, noted to be upstairs writing a report in his daughter’s old bedroom now a study, so the audience is left to wonder whether it will be the accused teacher or the tardy headmaster who has promised an ‘offsite’ visit to the besieged family that will complete the trio of characters. When Alan Armstrong’s Edward eventually emerges, he is entirely perplexed by and dismissive of the maelstrom around him. A career educator, Edward has only ever followed the rules prescribed at the time and Armstrong shows a man who believes his actions were never cruel or abusive, that he viewed caning as one of many acts of discipline chosen in response to extreme behaviour, something he delivered with no sense of enjoyment or even judgement at the time. Crucially, that it existed within a transparent correctional structure of which the pupils were aware, with every instance recorded and countersigned, and with the active permission of the child’s parents – a degree of adult collusion that muddies the waters.

This rationality and desire to leave the past alone, makes Edward such an interesting character, but it is the things that other people say about him that affects the subtleties of Armstrong’s performance. As the tables turn between them, his wife describes a temper and feeling of intimidation that we never see, while Anna goads him into behaviour that reveals a low-level hatred between them. While Armstrong’s Edward remains relatively composed throughout, despite what he perceives to be the unfairness of the protest, we see underneath that he is capable of the behaviour the women describe and perhaps his innate tendency to casual acts of violence is unknown to himself.

Providing an equally intriguing balance of violence and placidity is Nicola Walker’s Anna, whose appearance in the family home does more to unsettle her troubled parents than the mob beyond the walls. The mutual hostility creates an intriguing tension at the heart of the drama which prevent us from knowing whether Anna’s role is to provide professional assistance or to settle a domestic score. Why she chooses to return at this moment of conflict after years apart is ambiguous, with Walker suggesting both an opportunity to forward the Academy agenda and a desire for her own children to engage with their grandparents.

For the most part, like Edward, Anna is very much the rational adult, clearly stung by the unfeeling actions of her parents but offering ideas to manage and contain the explosive situation on their behalf. Yet we also hear of extreme acts of violence from other characters that Anna claims not to remember, and initially Walker makes us believe she has no memory of these events. As the story unfolds, her behaviour becomes notably more unstable, not manic, but Walker creates a subtle build-up of pressure that turns the scenario to her ultimate advantage, leaving us wondering whether the man with the cane who operated in full daylight is the real monster after all.

Maureen is the least complete character of the three, and while Maggie Steed imbues her with plenty of fear, loathing and a tendency to bitterness, she is given far less to do. In some ways, she could be the most interesting creation, a former teacher herself who The Cane implies may have stopped working to have a disappointing child, and who has taken her husband’s part in life, with almost no maternal instinct for her daughter. Clinging to her own idea of structure – her husband’s party on Friday, the impending visit of the Godot-like headmaster who never comes – as alliances reform themselves there seems to be more for Maureen to say about the choices she has made and the future ahead.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a spare and neglected room full of peeling wallpaper, broken staircases and vast emptiness where this family’s emotion for one another has long since departed. As the tension mounts the ceiling lowers to give the feeling of the walls closing in on Edward as the past and future eventually come together. Ravenhill’s play begins an interesting debate about how present the past ought to be and the extent to which individuals and nations need to seek forgiveness for acts conducted in an entirely different moral framework. The irony of students violently protesting outside a teacher’s door is not lost, the incident of caning, a form of personal violence, resulting in a modern display of public violence that is now acceptable. The rights of today become the wrongs of tomorrow so perhaps we need to be more careful about apologising for the past, in a few decades time it may be required of us as well.

The Cane is at the Royal Court until 2 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Caroline or Change – Playhouse Theatre

Caroline or Change - Hampstead Theatre

Individual reactions to the same show can vary wildly, which is why a single performance can draw a range of different ratings from the critics. When the same production receives both 2 and 4-star reviews your only hope is to align yourself with the writer who most often reflects your taste and book (or not) accordingly. But it is a very different conundrum when a show has received nothing by 5-star acclaim and yet, despite an equally enthusiastic ovation in the room, you’re left feeling cold, or at least less than rapturous about what you have just seen. The top rating is perhaps awarded a little too easily these days, but for an audience it gives rise to a particular set of expectations about how great the show will be and how you will feel about seeing it, expectations that sometimes only end in disappointment.

It is always a strange and disconcerting experience to feel out of kilter with an entire room of enthusiastic fans, when people are giving raucous standing ovations yet you remain firmly seated or clap enthusiastically at every available opportunity while your own hands remain undisturbed in your lap until the final bows. “What am I missing” you wonder as the entire room responds to an excitement you just don’t feel, “how is this failing to connect with me and why don’t I get it”? Well, it is a perfectly normal and legitimate reaction to an art-form predominantly based on interpretation and taste, that sometimes however much you mentally appreciate its technical skill, moments of engagement, over-arching themes and excellent performances, the expected emotional impact never comes – it’s just not for you.

Caroline or Change has absolutely everything going for it, a double transfer showered in stars at every turn. It opened at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 before a run at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, and now this production makes its way to the West End for a run at the Playhouse Theatre. And that’s not all, it’s written by Tony Kushner whose ‘gay fantasia’ Angels in America was revived to powerful effect at the National last year by Marianne Elliott before heading for Broadway last Spring, plus Caroline or Change stars the sensational Sharon D. Clarke who could break your heart singing the phonebook.

Even the themes of race equality, working class poverty and societal change set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination evoke one of the most interesting periods of twentieth-century history. All the building blocks are there for what should be an amazing night, and yet the magic doesn’t come, you feel like the only person in the room who has missed the boat.

With such a well-rehearsed show, despite its new location in the Playhouse, the fact that Caroline or Change is still in previews isn’t the issue, it feels slick, the Company at ease with the music and each other, the show running like a well-oiled machine. So, there must be something in the show itself, in its combined domestic drudgery and social change storyline, and the mixture of pointed political commentary with moments of metaphysical silliness that just doesn’t quite tick the boxes.

Kushner likes this approach and Angels in America, with its frequent dreamlike fantasies and visions of demonic-looking angels crashing through Prior Walter’s ceiling, is a delight, one you can accept wholeheartedly in the spirit of the show. Yet here, the personified domestic appliances that sing to or frighten Caroline are a flight of fancy too far, a touch of children’s television that extends to a talking bus and a woman in the moon who oversees events. Maybe it’s just fun, a bit of whimsy to lighten the mood, but it never quite connects or makes sense. It feels like a dramatic device to reflect Caroline’s thoughts which could have been achieved a hundred more effective ways.

There are lots of musicals about this era that successfully combine the individual and the political, telling an entertaining story with great music while subtly emphasising the social barriers still to be overcome. So maybe that is the problem, if you have seen and loved Hairspray, Dreamgirls or even the songs from Bombshell the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical from Smash, then perhaps a chatty washing machine and a scary tumble dryer just don’t feel as effective in relaying the context of 1960s America and particularly the position of a black working-class women with a family to support

The strangeness of this reaction is compounded by the fact that when Caroline or Change works, it works really well with plenty of fascinating characters with things to say in unusual and meaningful ways. Three contrasting experiences are presented through the narrative; first the upper middle-class lifestyle of the Gellmans, a Jewish family that Caroline works for and the various domestic problems they face as a blended group with different personalities and expectations; second, we observe the politicisation of Caroline’s neighbourhood and particularly her own children who are swept-up in the fight for race equality spreading across Louisiana; and finally we are taken into Caroline’s interior world, broaching the gap between these other experiences as she tries to keep her head down and avoid the change that ripples through the other stories.

The difficulties of single motherhood becomes a major theme as both Caroline and new step-mother Rose Gellman are forced into semi-maternal roles through the circumstances of their lives. Wishing to teach her step-son Noah the value of money, Rose becomes the driving force of the show as she veers between trying to earn his affection while providing the kind of structure and recognition of consequences he has been lacking. Crucially, Rose’s own overbearing father and all but absent new husband create considerable pressure on her to take control without any of the personal support she needs to transition to effective stepmother. This is mirrored in Caroline’s own relationship with the boy that is difficult for the most part but masks a mutual affection that neither seems to fully recognise. And it exists in the distant relationship she has with her own children where, at work for most of the day, her knowledge of them is limited, as though they have grown-up without her noticing.

This leads neatly into the activist community life that Caroline purposefully avoids. A Confederate statue has been stolen as the show opens leading to a half-hearted whodunnit strand that runs through the story, but the assassination of JFK and the race riots spreading through the South become a much more meaningful backdrop, marking-out a period of national instability and change that is mirrored in Caroline’s own domestic disputes. This works really well, offering the characters a different kind of future – not necessarily a better one – while tapping into the Kennedy mythology of a President prevented from achieving the greatness he aspired to.

There is fear about the nature of progress which excites Caroline’s daughter Emmie and friend Dotty, but worries a protagonist used to the idea that staying quiet and invisible is the only way to survive. In Kushner’s story this is one of the strongest elements, a key moment between past and future  reflected in Jeanine Tesori’s soulful music including a collections of songs titled ‘Moon Change’ in which Caroline and Dotty argue about local events and hear of Kennedy’s death, as the personal and political, historical and day-to-day collide, making the inanity of a talking  washing machine all the harder to reconcile.

Finally, it is Caroline’s inner perspective from which we observe most of the show’s events, and here this production plays its trump-card, the wonderful Sharon D. Clarke in the leading role. Everything you need to understand or know about the character is right there in Clarke’s performance, the years of being ground down by a society that has labelled her as a second-class citizen because of her skin colour, the effect of years of poverty and the resignation of a single mother who needs to keep her job in order to provide for her family. Clarke too balances Caroline’s continual turmoil, a desire to keep her place and not to rock the boat with a pent-up frustration that feels ready to explode at any time – abused once by the husband she adored and then continually broken-down by the structures of her confined world trapped in a basement day-in, day-out, her only hope to win a better future for her family.

Clarke shines in numbers including the spectacular Underwater, her powerful and emotive voice lifting the auditorium as the audience feels deeply for Caroline. In those moments you see that all those 5-star reviews were more for the leading lady than for the show itself,  because perhaps the real issue is that casting a star of Clarke’s calibre means you don’t need an animated tumble dryer or bus to tell you how Caroline feels because we already know, it’s right there in Clarke’s whole demeanour and in every quiver of her voice, she is luminous.

The secondary characters have plenty of interesting texture, especially Lauren Ward as the lonely beleaguered stepmother trying to do the right thing with almost no support from her family. A show-stealing Charlie Gallacher (one of two alternating Noahs) brings all the difficulty of his situation to the fore, developing a charming rapport with Caroline while hitting all the right humorous notes in every scene, and revealing a boy who is still coming to terms with his grief. There is perhaps not quite enough content for Emmie, Caroline’s eldest daughter who becomes a campaigner, eager for a new future to start, but Abiona Omonua is a delight in the role with a fresh and eager approach that enlivens every song she performs.

Caroline or Change has a lot going for it and three potentially interesting plot lines that should fully engage, yet it never quite unites as tidily and explosively as it promises to do, the wackier aspects serving to alienate rather than enhance the rest of the story. Lots of people have loved and will love this, and this high calibre production is certainly ready for its press night later in the month, but something just didn’t connect within the show’s structure. It may not happen with this particular show but it will somewhere sometime; if you are at a production that has been covered in praise, know that its fine to disagree, even if it gets a full standing ovation and the whole of the Internet tells you you’re wrong, it’s still ok to say, “this wasn’t for me”.

Caroline or Change is at the Playhouse Theatre until 6 April and tickets start at £20.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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