Monthly Archives: February 2019

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train – Young Vic

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train - Young Vic

Over the next couple of weeks, the Young Vic has new shows exploring the effects of the criminal justice system and the experience of prison on young men convicted of violent crime. The Jumper Factory has been created with the men of Wandsworth prison, a chance for writer Luke Barnes to dramatise the multifaceted effects of life behind bars and its consequences for individual confidence, rehabilitation and reabsorption into society. But first, there is a revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a layered story of two violent criminals, the system they hope can save them and the redemptive power that comes from confession.

In a New York prison, Angel Cruz is being held on remand awaiting trial for shooting a vicar who has recruited Angel’s best friend into a cult. There he meets eight-time murderer Lucius when they exercise together in the yard while the unrepentant serial killer talks about finding God. When Angel’s lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, convinces her client to be patient and play the system to their advantage, he starts to dream of freedom, but with Lucius in his head and hateful guard Valdez gunning for them both, Angel’s certainty begins to waver.

Kate Hewitt’s production, played out on Magda Willi’s traverse stage, is on the surface about the legal definitions of guilt and justice as two seemingly quite different men navigate the outcomes of  similar crimes in a one-size-fits-all judicial structure. It asks insightful questions about the comparative severity of offences which in context appear so different – Angel’s an unfortunate accident resulting from concern for his friend, while Lucius’s spree was a merciless act of a clearly disturbed mind. Yet, writer Adly Guirgis has placed them both in the same outdoor cage at exactly the same time in corresponding orange uniforms.

One of the drivers of this production, then, is the question of how different these men really are – the frustrated and withdrawn Angel alongside the confident and vibrant Lucius. And as the story unfolds, Hewitt expertly shifts our perspective on them both as they stand at opposite ends of the courtyard, engaged in the different stages of a tennis match. Willi uses movable plastic doors to demarcate their confinement, showing us the reflected and refracted nature of identity when seen through a transparent surface that at times also acts as a mirror. They are simultaneously themselves and a distorted version of that image, what the world sees is not the face they think they are wearing.

As these men engage in their battle of wills, there is also a more complex discussion of faith and forgiveness. A central pillar of the judiciary system (in theory) is to accept punishment and then be returned to society a reformed man, but Adly Guirgis suggests that this is only possible if the condemned man feels penance for his crimes and accepts that he was wrong. In fact, he goes further to imply that societally-imposed concepts of right and wrong crumble entirely under the idea of a merciful God, and with sufficient faith God will determine who is damned and saved. The born-again Lucius even insists that his conscience is cleared of the multiple homicides he committed because it was God’s plan for those people to become his victims and they did not receive or deserve God’s protection.

While noting the religious naming of the characters, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train becomes an argument between Angel and Lucius about culpability, one that forces Angel to question his own role in the crime he perpetrated. Angel insists that human agency and free will are the cause of his predicament rather than the unseen predestination that Lucius subscribes to. The intensity of their conversation, so brilliantly portrayed in this production, is underscored by religious evocations throughout the story, in Lucius’s chants and verbal exclamations to the sky as he exercises, in Angel’s stumbling attempts to recall the text of the Lord’s Prayer as the play opens, and the shady relationship between the man Angel shot in a church – a Reverend no less – and the “cult” he appeared to be part of, all raising questions about belief, salvation, human agency and the price of clemency.

There are also more grounded themes at play, not least in the structure of prison masculinity and its effects on modern male interpretations of bravado – something which The Jumper Factory is likely to address as well. Across this production’s two-hour run-time, Hewitt and her performers show us the flowering and reduction of the two men at its heart. Angel’s initial weakness blossoms into a much harder form of self-possession as he becomes more used to the forms of prison life and to the growing expectation of his imminent liberation. Where he was largely silent in his first meeting with Lucius, the tables are turned as the latter faces a transfer to Florida and looming death by lethal injection.

Religious debate, then, becomes just one of the battlegrounds on which Angel and Lucius flaunt their masculinity, with their conversation increasingly embittered and vital as they spar and rail at each other’s personalities, crimes and likely future. Both are searching for a space to exist as themselves in a structure that dehumanises and anonymises them, whole complicated beings reduced to reference numbers and the felonies they committed (redolent of policeman Javert eternally referring to Jean Valjean at 24601 in Les Misérables). While physically separated by their individual cages – and this maddening sense of being trapped is evoked well in the claustrophobic set where the walls frequently draw-in on them – the two men try to physically intimidate and threaten each other, locking horns in an attempt to establish precedence, a desire to project a fearlessness they are far from feeling as they get under each other’s skin.

This masculine bristling is given a slightly different form in the behaviour of the prison guards, the first who forms an attachment to Lucius is quickly removed for showing him too much humanity, while his replacement the goading Valdez is a cliché of the evil warden, but in the power games presented in this production, he acts as a reminder that however much they may jostle for position, ultimately they are at the whims of larger forces, an Old Testament God-like presence who makes them bend and submit at will, baiting them with the power to destroy at any time.

No one really cares about these men or what led them to their crimes, and while a line close to the end gives an insight into Lucius’s childhood that makes some sense of him, it is a small moment in an externally controlled structure designed specifically to reduce and restrict them. As well as the guard’s behaviour, Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan uses her client to forward her own career, and as she monologues to the audience directly as well as interacting with Angel, it soon becomes clear that law is a game she needs to win, one in which coaching her client on how to behave and besting the opposition are more important than the man standing trial and the truth of what happened on the night of the crime.

All of this is designed to take the power away from the men in prison, and crucially the audience is not shown key events like Angel’s trial and Lucius’s final moments, but have them relayed to us by characters with a paid role in the criminal justice system – the men themselves are prevented from telling the audience their own story directly, and we must deduce how much of the “official” version of events is correct from the performances. Ukweli Roach as Angel has an early vulnerability that instantly makes his character incredibly sympathetic, he’s overawed by the severity of the situation and the strangely distorting feel of the prison.

Yet as the story unfolds, Roach shows Angel’s slow emergence as at first a brittle confidence begins to take shape which, as he starts to believe the lawyer’s hype about his certain acquittal,  forms into something much less appetising. Roach never allows us to know for certain how guilty Angel really is and as the toll of prison life leads to several increasingly agitated confrontations with Lucius, an innate aggression and potential for violence is revealed. Whether Angel is really the victim of circumstance he claims to be or his own worst enemy is something Roach grapples with extremely effectively in the show’s final scenes, as he begins to doubt his own self-image.

Likewise, Oberon KA Adjepong Lucius, pseudonymously known as the Black Plague, is also forced to reassess his knowledge of himself as Angel challenges his fervent trust in God’s work. Ebullient, energetic and bombastic at the start, Adjepong creates a character who frequently evangelises, utterly confident and unshakeable in his devotion to his faith. Yet there is considerable texture here too and Adjepong uses the strange contradictions of Lucius’s character to draw attention to the psychology of a man who sees himself as a victim of the state’s prosecution process.

Lucius is beloved by his former guard, personable and friendly to Angel, sharing cigarettes with him and trying to ease his early experience of confinement. Yet, simultaneously, Adjepong convinces us that Lucius has coldly and guiltlessly murdered eight people on the spur of the moment. Similarly, he uses his build to intimate, refusing to be cowed by a bullying guard, yet relents when instructed by Valdez and is clearly affected by Angel’s insistence that Lucius’s guaranteed salvation is less than certain, that he rather than God should take responsibility for his crimes. All of these facets are made credible in Adjepong’s compelling performance of a man facing death and ultimately clinging to some kind of certainty to remain afloat.

There is good support from Dervla Kirwan as the hotshot lawyer determined to acquit her client and relishing the courtroom battle ahead. There is an arrogance and a similar kind of delusion in Kirwan’s Mary Jane, a woman who also fails to see herself they way others see her. And Joplin Sibtain as the evil Valdez is equally contained by his role, both relishing the small-scale power he has over the prisoners, taunting them, while, as Lucius points out, equally trapped in the jailhouse and unable to show any kind of weakness that may undermine him.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a multi-layered discussion about morality in all its forms and how the artificiality of prison with its removal of humanity and, perhaps quaint, concept of punishment, challenges concepts of responsibility and redemption. With so many themes to explore some get little more than a cursory nod, but in this Young Vic production these debates are enthrallingly staged.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is at the Young Vic until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Shipwreck – The Almeida

Shipwreck - The Almeida

The first big Trump play has arrived. It has taken a couple of years for writers to get to grips with the political rollercoaster that both the UK and US have endured since those key votes in 2016 separately plunging both nations into the most extraordinary debacles of the modern era. While our own experience of the Brexit chaos is so fantastical you would never believe it in a play, attempts to examine it openly are still so driven by emotion that incendiary debates rage about the role of art in reflecting politics, history and society as it unfolds – as James Graham discovered with the polarised response to his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

These issues are, some would argue, are too sensitive, too incomplete to begin to make sense of so instead we subtly nod to them through allusion, inference and by drawing loaded parallels with classic texts. Whether or not you agree with that, Trump’s presidency has left a clear imprint on theatre land even when the show in question is not directly related to him – Jon Culshaw’s impression in a Harold Pinter monologue from the 1980s during the first outing of the Pinter at the Pinter season, or a demigod-ish Caesar at The Bridge Theatre channelling the stylings of the Trumpian electoral campaign. Yet a full-length play inspired entirely by the man himself and the America that made him has taken time to emerge.

First out of the starting gate is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, opening this week at the Almeida, a 3.5-hour monster of a show that attempts to unpick the US mindset which led to Trump’s shock election and a particular kind of middle-class inertia and complacency that failed to recognise the signs and act to prevent it. Shipwreck is a huge undertaken, looking at politics, class, wealth and race as well as the small stories of friendship, parenthood and identity. If it sounds ambitious then it is, but the result has a baggy and often incoherent messiness that never quite manages to live up to its own expectations.

The play’s sprawling structure is initially its biggest asset, a collection of friends – presumably old College buddies, though we’re not exactly sure – gathered at the newly acquired farmhouse of couple Richard and Jools. As each pair arrives, the intellectualising begins as they debate core moments of the last two years at the White House, pushing each other on points of disagreement and in several cases wrangling over a determination to have the last word. As these arguments play out, there is something of Annie Baker in Washburn’s approach, big conversations that seem to be about nothing but collectively reveal so much about the American psyche and the complexities of everyday life for working people. The hope of eventual coherence keeps you watching, although a number of viewers made their escape at the interval.

Yet, the show fails to offer any notable or really new insight on the first two years of the most alarming President of modern times. Washburn’s play is a rambling essay of known facts, a polemic that charts some of the key events but fails to deliver a solid argument or even to demonstrate its credentials as a theatrical rather than a scholastic experience. Shipwreck’s very discursiveness should eventually coalesce into big themes and concepts as well as insightful and representative character portraits of the assembled group. This dilapidated farmhouse should be a microcosm of America but struggles to be anything other than a lightweight narrative about some fairly smug affluent people who like to argue.

The big failing of Washburn’s play is that these many hours of talking result in two rather obvious conclusions, first that Trump lies and second that no one who votes for him really cares – well, you don’t need 3½ hours of theatre to tell you that. Dramatically, what plot there is, as the group survive a cold night, miles from anywhere, is driven by the supposedly shocking revelation that one of the characters voted for him, not as an act of sabotage in a safe seat but as a deliberate act in a purple state because they decide that Trump is the President America deserves. There’s something of the confessional in the way this is suddenly revealed but Washburn fails to properly draw these characters and their group identity, so when it comes to it this “major” revelation barely registers – the audience just don’t know or care enough about these people to feel the level of shock they experience.

There is a laboured verbosity in how these characters interact with one another, long, complex sentences, the product of rehearsed debate that never sound remotely spontaneous and undermines the reality of the characters. And while there’s something Sorkin-esque about this approach, the play lacks the intellectual clout that makes his work so compelling, so with each scene built around a different point of contention it all becomes a bit a Dawson’s Creek meets The West Wing.

In lieu of real characters, there is instead an excellent group of actors that do everything they can to keep the show alive despite the rather thin material they have to work with – like assembling The Avengers only to tackle a parking dispute – they absolutely carry the show. As the play opens, the scene is set by Raquel Cassidy’s Jools welcoming her tired friends to the inexplicably understocked and ramshackle farmhouse that she and husband Richard (Risteárd Cooper) are renovating. There’s something frail and homely in Cassidy’s performance, a woman who is hiding from the world, offering to bake cookies and lighting candles. Later, rather out of the blue, she argues frantically with the person who voted for Trump, but the play never shows us what her former, possibly waspish, life was and why this pivotal meeting of such different friends is really taking place so far from New York.

Adam James is never less than compelling, and in Shipwreck he brings a sardonic texture to lawyer Andrew who retains his faith in cool logic however impassioned his friends become. But more than the others, James shows us something deeper beneath the surface, a hint of self-knowledge about the protection his privileged lifestyle affords with partner Yusuf as part of the New York elite, troubled by the direction of his country but rational in the weighing-up of facts and emotions. Khalid Abdalla’s Yusuf does well with some big confessional speeches that speak to the association between liberal privilege and Trumpian wealth protection polices, if only his character was anchored enough in the show to make these more meaningful.

The rest of their friendship group is made-up of stereotypes, the poor hippy couple Jim and Teresa implausibly arriving almost immediately from the birth of their first grandchild and activist Allie whose recitation of Trump facts and realisation of her own failure to act initiates most of the debate. How these people have remained friends given their vastly different social spheres is problematic and unlikely, but the performances from Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Mitchell make them all potentially interesting perspectives on the effects of Trump if only the play could have grounded their lives more convincingly.

Out on his own, monologues from rising star Fisayo Akinade tell a not-quite complementary story of Mark’s childhood, adopted as a boy by white parents and raised in the same farmhouse the liberal New Yorkers now occupy. The experience of inter-racial families, how Mark came to view his own skin colour and his later exploration of competing ideas of black heritage are interesting discussion points which Akinade delivers well. These scenes are accompanied by Cooper and Fitzgerald as Mark’s parents Lawrence and Laurie, who talk about the immigration issues that had long led to Trump’s election, but the three stories never fuse effectively enough to be a truly insightful or meaningful assessment of America’s fate.

Rupert Goold unites the domestic and the political by staging the whole thing on a big round Arthurian table, at which both the actors and audience members sit. For much of the play, the table top becomes the performance space bringing the action more into the laps of the viewer than the tiny Almeida stage normally allows. This idea was used very effectively in a version of King Lear at the Union Theatre some years ago where the battlefield and the political arena became the same space, and for Shipwreck it is an equally useful metaphor for the ways in which societal power intrinsically affects the everyday.

It is a shame that some of the other aspects are less subtle including two rather ghastly fantasy sequences, played like cartoons in which Donald Trump (Cowan) confronts first George Bush (Akinade) and then James Comey (Abdalla). These horrible missteps again show us things we already know, that Trump reimagines his own history to paint himself as the knowledgeable hero and that he sees his unlimited power in terms of who is for and against him – also reiterated in several allusions to God and religious painting that dominate the projected backdrop. In an otherwise straight production that is entirely based on small-scale discussion, these overlong parodies are vastly misjudged. Not seeing Trump at all would have made his presence stronger and more dangerous.

It is a huge shame with so many possibilities in the scenario and script that the first specific Trump play should be such a disappointment, and, despite their excellence with the classics, its hard to remember the last time new writing at the Almeida genuinely astounded (possibly as long ago as Ink). It suffers too from coming so soon after Sweat at the Donmar that has recently earned a deserved West End transfer, Lynn Nottage’s play about disillusion and disenfranchisement in working-class America that manages to be everything Washburn’s play cannot. Shipwreck has its moments and the cast are uniformly excellent, but without strong character investment it dwindles to little more than a few well-hashed arguments we’ve all heard before.

Shipwreck is at The Almeida until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre

All About Eve by Jan Versweyveld

Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.

Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.

It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.

The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.

van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.

Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.

As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.

Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.

All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.

It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.

Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.

Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.

The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.

The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.

It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.

The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May, with tickets from £15.Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 7 - The Dumb Waiter

What a difference a few months can make; when the Jamie Lloyd Company first announced its Pinter at the Pinter season finale show back in May (before Betrayal was added to the programme), the news that Danny Dyer would star alongside Martin Freeman raised a few eyebrows. Famous for a series of over-earnest gangster films, daft documentaries and his role in Eastenders, his fans were delighted but there was also plenty of sneering about his lack of stage experience, and undoubtedly some ticketholders were hoping to witness a car-crash theatrical event. But since May, Dyer’s wider public profile has rapidly changed largely due to his “mad riddle” Brexit rant that reflected the frustrations of so many, as well as his recent history series for the BBC that defied its critics with knowingly comic scenarios that were full of humanity and respect for the expertise around him. In the last eight months the nation has rather taken Danny Dyer to our hearts

For fans, the transformation of Danny Dyer began when his Eastenders character Mick Carter proved to be a sensitive and loving family man, subverting old-fashioned expectations of soap-opera masculinity by supporting his fictional son’s decision to come-out, while sensitively responding to his wife Linda’s rape storyline. More recently, Dyer cemented his status as a national treasure in waiting by delivered Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message stressing the importance of mentorship, a sentiment echoed in his quite touching speech at the National Television Awards last month in which he dedicated his win to Harold Pinter for believing in him when no one else did.

Dyer, of course had known Pinter when as younger actor he appeared in No Man’s Land, Celebration and The Homecoming. A guiding friendship developed that has clearly had a lasting effect on the actor, one that makes his presence in the Pinter at the Pinter line-up both appropriate and meaningful – who better to celebrate the writer’s life and work than someone who feels he owes it all to Pinter. Throughout this superb season the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company has made strong and strategic casting decisions that have purposefully mixed experienced actors, those who knew Pinter or have performed frequently in his plays, along with the industry’s rising stars.

It has given actors and comedians the chance to surprise us – who imagined that Lee Evans would deliver one of the most moving monologues of the season in Pinter Three, or that newcomer Luke Thallon would almost steal the show from established performers Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. There are no passengers in a Jamie Lloyd show, however large the company or small the role, every part of the production must contribute to the overall effect the director is trying to create. Lloyd likes to be disruptive and in cannily casting Dyer, he foresaw a possibility that goes beyond the commercial – though a full house and growing anticipation for a notable finale are also in there – another chance to use his stylised vision to show us that Dyer is as worthy of this company as any of the great names who have come before.

But all of that is to come because Pinter Seven opens with Gemma Wheelan and John Heffernan in A Slight Ache, Pinter’s 1958 play that began its life on the radio. While some of the other pieces in the collection have a similar provenance, they have been staged as primarily theatrical experiences, creating movement while playing with tone and pace to give them a physical dramatic life. Here the growing confidence of the Lloyd season is evident, now six revered shows later, we see the radio play performed by two actors in a 1950s radio studio using, for the most part, just their voices and a microphone to create that intimate wireless feel, and adding their own sound effects as they reveal the curious story of a middle England couple and the mysterious Matchseller.

Set in the semi-rural home of Edward and Flora on Midsummer’s Eve, it opens with the trapping of a wasp in the marmalade as the couple eat breakfast in their garden, revealing their quite different approaches to dealing with the buzzing intruder. As the longest day stretches on their happy idyll is disturbed by the looming appearance of a Matchseller lurking on the perimeter of their property, a man who appears to have watched the house for some time. Wanting him to leave, and with his eyes beginning to ache Edward and Flora invite him in, keen to know more about this troubling stranger.

Like so much of Pinter’s work, A Slight Ache uses language to create a quite specific effect enhanced here by the use of close microphones to create the very intimate feeling of radio drama. Very little is acted out, so almost everything the couple say or do must be conjured in the audiences’ mind from the descriptions and implicit inferences created by the actors. There is a strong sense of place, of class and a particular kind of easy living sustained by wealth, entitlement and expectation that comes entirely from the words Pinter places in the mouths of the characters. Frequent reference to the Latin names of the plants in the garden as Edward and Flora enjoy their home, and words like “marmalade”, “preposterous” and “treacherous” evoke a particular kind of England.

This is reinforced later by discovering Flora was once a Justice of the Peace as an encounter with a poacher sticks in her mind, while Edward has a career as an essay writer, all of which suggest a peaceful and untroubled existence that the Matchseller is about to disrupt. As so often with Pinter, what is said on the surface can be at odds with what is happening underneath, and while both Flora and the Matchseller are the recipients of some fairly ugly words that deliberately mar the beauty of the summer’s day, it is the practicality and openness of the female character that emerges with strength of purpose over her weaker intellectualising husband.

Lloyd’s staging draws out the psychological strangeness of the play, a building sense of doom but also of an almost supernatural presence that will change them all. The paganistic connection to Midsummer’s Eve runs through this one act piece, referenced repeatedly as “the longest day” as though ripe for other worldly forces to take charge. At the same time, we never see or hear the Matchseller speak, any responses attributed to him and voiced by Edward and Flora who also describe his shambling and dirty appearance. Crucially, in Lloyd’s production we never hear him, so, unlike Flora and Edward’s actions, he is not accompanied by any sound effects, questioning whether his existence is quite as firm as Edward’s failing eyes suggest.

There is a notable Inside No 9 quality to this 50-minute duologue, and, with similarities in content and tone, A Slight Ache may well have influenced Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Tom and Gerry episode from Series 1. It is also beautifully played by Wheelan and Heffernan, creating a richness with their voices so redolent of the undisturbed clarity of radio, while modulating the sound to alter the mood of the piece as the characters are drawn from their well-spoken, almost clipped 1950s accents, into misty reminiscences and increasingly fearful behaviours by the repulsively alluring stranger they have invited in. You may be here for the big stars to come, but this fantastic one-act play is the one you’ll be thinking about on the way home.

The Dumb Waiter is, in part, a more farcical affair but, written in 1957, is equally concerned with the use of language to create a sense of class and purpose. Two hit men wait in the basement of a building in Birmingham for instructions on their latest job, Ben the senior partner just wants to peaceably read his newspaper while the more highly-strung Gus poses an endless torrent of questions. Already a little fractious with each other, the unexpected arrival of food orders in the dumb waiter throws the men into chaos as they try to figure out what is going on before their target arrives.

There is a Godot-like quality to this semi-absurdist play, and while the farcical elements are perhaps less well-formed than some of Pinter’s later work, Lloyd’s production nicely frames the anticipation of the characters, forced to endure a long wait before they can perform their task, as well as the shifting power dynamic between the two men essentially trapped in a confined space. In some ways they seem both capable and entirely incapable of performing the assassins’ role they have chosen, and what emerges is a tug of war between Gus’s intellectual and Ben’s physical approaches.

Pinter often likes to introduce a disruptive element into an established group, but in The Dumb Waiter it is Ben and Gus who are the interlopers. We know from their accents, turn of phrase and the existence of particular items in their possession that they are both working-class men from London. They use words like “liberty” to mean an affront and Ben reads sensationalist stories from the newspaper, while Gus reveals a small picnic in his bag that includes tea, milk, biscuits, crisps and an Eccles cake which, with little biographical detail, still speaks volumes about who they are.

Martin Freeman’s Gus is initially the nervier of the two, he fusses about the broken toilet flush and the state of the beds they’ve been given to sleep in, at times barely pausing for breath. He hounds Ben for details of the job and, despite his supposed experience, seems disconcerted by a previous victim being female. During the course of the play, Freeman slowly suggests a different angle to Gus, with a physical bravery that surpasses Ben’s. He is first to open the serving hatch to the Dumb Waiter and to check the exterior world for contact, becoming increasingly comfortable within himself as the absurdity plays out.

By contrast Dyer’s Ben begins to come unstuck, the control and self-confidence with which he starts the play, silently and calmly reading the paper, is slowly chipped away until his own discombobulation takes on physical characteristics as Dyer sways slightly, shifting his weight or anxiously rubs his knees as Ben tries to figure out how to respond to whatever elaborate game is being played with them. With Dyer’s previous experience playing hard men, he’s on pretty firm ground here but he captures well the loosening of Ben’s certainty without entirely relinquishing the physicality of the potential threat he poses.

It’s a successful treatment from Lloyd in a play that grapples with largely realist performances in an absurdist construct. Part of that is down to the relationship that Freeman and Dyer create throughout the play, both giving the other the space for their individual performances, while allowing the sands to shift as events redefine power structures. With press night looming, these rapid changes between comedy, menace and fear that run through Pinter’s one-act show will become even more fluid and loaded with meaning which should please the house-full of fans for both performers.

Pinter Seven was meant to be the end of the Pinter at the Pinter season, and after six months of performances, these anthology collections have ended as confidently and memorably as they began, particularly with the very fine A Slight Ache to start the evening. The wealth and variety of Pinter’s work has seemed genuinely astounding, while Lloyd’s company of creatives and performers have brought distinction and meaning to every single one, eliciting very high hopes for a creative take on Betrayal in March. As Danny Dyer continues his transformation, whatever the reason for snapping-up tickets eight months ago you can be assured of a good night out. After all, a proudly working-class actor at the centre of a major West End season, well, Harold Pinter would approve.

Pinter 7: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


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