Monthly Archives: November 2022

Othello – National Theatre

It’s an interesting decision for the National Theatre to tackle Othello again when their last production in 2013 still looms large in the memory even a decade on and available via subscription service, National Theatre at Home. But it was a lifetime ago in theatre terms, under a previous Artistic Director that existed in a quite different cultural and political context to Clint Dyer’s equally contemporary but far darker perspective on a play about systemic racism and the social system stacked against not just Othello but the women of the play as well. And this is a production that recognises its place in the history of performance, scattering the stage with a digital montage of Othello posters and playbills across the centuries including the RSC’s notable version in 2015 with a black actor playing Iago and interpretations from all around the world. Co-designed by Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, as the audience take their seats, it’s clear that Othello continues to reinvent itself for every generation and that its central messages matter more than ever.

There are a number of striking decisions in this new production designed to emphasise how greatly the scales are weighted against Othello as his rise to power is stymied by jealousy and racial denigration. It may take some time before the audience see them all but the National has deliberately eschewed diversity in its casting making Giles Terrera the only person of colour in the cast, a decision that reflects Othello’s isolation in the play and must have created some interesting tones in the rehearsal room, particularly for the lead actor exploring the unusual position of this character, a self-made man who rises to a position of influence in a world that views his race with suspicion and disdain – and we note early on that the Duke of Venice happily takes advantage of Othello’s military prowess but pointedly refuses to shake his hand.

And Director, Dyer digs deep into this notion in an attempt to deconstruct the inevitability of Othello’s decline despite his soldierly successes. In a brief scene that could have been lifted from Coriolanus, Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst choreographs a sequence in which Othello is successively cheered by the crowd and then jeered as his popularity rapidly wanes. Over the course of the show, Dyer then expands this concept, inserting a bank of silent characters known only as the ‘System’ who become a physical manifestation of the status quo with a vested interest in destroying Othello. They lurk like malevolent spirits behind Iago as he unfolds his dastardly plans to the audience, showing signs of joy and rapture as he derails Othello’s marriage and unbalances his mind, while leaning in hungry for the drama as the tension rises.

It works very effectively, adding both a broader sense of the Venetian society that Iago and Othello represent, mirroring the Duke of Venice’s willingness to use the title character but abstain from him, while drawing out the feeling of an Establishment closing ranks, actively keeping people like Othello on the outside, destroying them if need be. Dyer arranges his intimidating Chorus around Chloe Lamford’s dramatically tiered stage, who, perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, may be driving the action or merely observing it. But the stillness of their chilling presence also speaks to the growing confusion in Othello’s mind, almost becoming the physical representation of the poison that infects him when the sinister System bears down on him in the final portion of the play as he feels a kind of spiritual possession take hold.

They reach their apotheosis with the final deal done over the bodies of the dead. And it adds to the tragedy that, knowing the truth about Iago’s game, no one is then sorry about or for Othello. Here, quite the opposite, after the frenzy of that multiply-murderous scene, the remaining white men forget about the dead laying before them and merely offer new jobs to one another with congratulations. The final insult to Othello that his death, like his life, means nothing to those in the System because power is restored to those who always have it.

Although it may be Dyer’s intention to point the effects of the System towards Othello, the final section of this production also makes clear its effects on the play’s three female roles – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca – who also suffer its suffocating strictures (quite literally in Desdemona’s case). Women in Othello are treated little better than ‘The Moor’ himself and perhaps even a little worse in some ways. They are routinely disbelieved, suspected of treachery and wantonness and called ‘strumpets’. The plot is built around Desdemona’s supposed adultery and her vibrant sexuality which Shakespeare writes about often in graphic terms, referencing her body and her lusts first for her husband and later for multiple men either accused with or coveting her. She is pitched as a betrayer from the start, deceiving her father to run off and marry Othello which causes a parting between them and after which he dispatches a warning to her new husband about her trustworthiness, a warning that hangs over her character throughout the play.

Notable too is the additional domestic violence subtext that Dyer adds to this production, making Emilia, wife of Iago and maid to Desdemona, a quiet victim of abuse. Appearing with a bandaged elbow at first but later with bruises, her deference to him becomes an important motivational device in which Emilia becomes enmeshed in Iago’s plot against Othello. But it lays the groundwork for Othello’s own acts of violence towards his wife, creating a model for male brutality against women that leaves them with no recourse to justice. Pointedly, no one believes in the virtue of either woman until it is too late.

Bianca too, though featured only briefly, endures taunts about her own chastity and decency, hauled away by soldiers before she can reveal the truth with Shakespeare equally uninterested in what happens to her. The presence of the System is then a multi-layered one that seeks only to protect its own, showing no grief or care for the fate of the people it tramples over so long as it triumphs and is sustained. These harbingers of fate separate this Othello from the National’s 2013 version, reflecting very contemporary concerns about social justice and the inbuilt biases of modern power structures that ultimately deflect and deter even the smallest incursions.

Dyer and Lamford’s vision is a gloomy one, a world of shadows in a classical meets dystopian-utility design that draws out the embedded political processes stacked against Othello and the women, dwarfing and enclosing them even when they think they are the height of their power or happiness. Lamford has created a tiered set, almost ampitheatrical that nods to Greek and Roman democratic tradition upon which the System imperiously sit, watch and guide the action like Olympian Gods observing their instrument Iago. There is something solid and unshakable about the design, a stone edifice that seems carved into the stage representing millenia of stable, unmoving and unchanging power resting with the elite, one that by default creates a pit or arena at the stage level where individuals from outside the System contend for victory and place. Yet, before the story even begins Lamford’s imposing structures shows us that they will always lose.

Michael Vale’s costumes dovetail very neatly into this concept, using military uniforms for men and women as a base but making them feel like everyday wear, a utilitarian consistency in how everyone must dress that suggests a rigid right-wing despotism of the kind that George Orwell might have written. The most obvious allusion is to fascist blackshirts which underpins the racial tension in the play and Vale exclusively uses blue and black in his colour scheme, combining 1930s tailoring with the simplicity of futuristic and orderly design to enhance Lamford, Dunn and Green’s notions of a sad timelessness in which the story of Othello plays out again and again. Vale gives the protagonist only one moment of true power in the play, when he appears after his wedding wearing a tunic that suggest his cultural heritage – also in midnight blue – matched by Desdemona as the pair are momentarily ascendant and in sync before their attempted conformation and assimilation consumes them.

Dyer controls all of this really nicely and while there is no sense of urgency in the performances – with a three hour running time – the methodical destruction of Othello by degrees unfolds with precision, giving space and clarity to all of the complex crossover plots and devices that Shakespeare uses. Iago’s plan are complicated and multi-dimensional with no pre-determined direction at the beginning of the play. Instead he tries a few things out on Othello and others to see if his venom will work and when it does amplifies his plan accordingly. This production is very good at making those moments particularly clear and marrying together the emotional manipulation and linguistic tricks that Iago employs with the trail of physical evidence he creates as the decisive handkerchief is passed between characters. Notable too is Iago’s influence on others and his ability to coerce not just his wife but Michael Cassio and Roderigo which are well presented here.

Terera’s Othello is a complex figure, a doomed tragic hero unable to account for the very different forces that assail him, not recognising the gradations of difference between his own internal jealousy, and the external influences of racism and the System willing him to fail in marriage, job and status. It makes his Othello extremely trusting, taking things at face value be it his wife’s professions of love or Iago’s words, and as a consequence he slips very easily into paranoia which soon consumes him. And Terera charts that descent confidently, creating a sense of the voices plaguing him as doubts and fears drive him to a form of insanity. That this then connects to the masculine aggression for which the Venetians use him makes sense and Terera feeds this into the production’s take on domestic violence and the effect of male rage acted upon female bodies and reputations.

Paul Hilton’s Iago is given leave to be a big, bombastic villain that seems to suit the grandiosity of Lambert’s surroundings, making his character something of the graphic novel baddie. Hilton relishes every word of Iago’s speeches, enjoying the mischief he makes and even when finally caught out, laughing dismissively and with great self-satisfaction. Hilton nonetheless makes his Iago tangibly intimidating, using every inch of his height to tower over Tanya French as the cowed Emilia and dominate any space he is in. That this Iago can choose to stand unnoticed in the shadows while equally forceful when he needs to be be makes him doubly dangerous, leaving the audience in no doubt of the physical strength that matches his vicious oration.

Among the rest of the cast, Rosy McEwen does her best with the fairly thankless role of Desdemona, a little too giggly in the first half perhaps but certainly demonstrating a fighting spirit in the second. French is suitably ambiguous as Emilia who well presents the symptoms of abuse that appear as devotion to her husband but she is ruled by fear, while Joe Bolland makes much of Roderigo as a creepy chancer chasing Desdemona and Rory Fleck Byrne makes a dignified patsy in Cassio. Together with the Ensemble who flesh out the System, the cast convincingly create a sense of society keeping Othello at bay using gesture and body language consistently to isolate and ultimately shape his destruction.

This is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Dyer’s perspective, which has its Press Night this week, is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before. Othello continues to resonate not only for its jealousy themes but because now, as in 1604, while the System remains, those on the outside of it will never be safe.

Othello is playing at the National Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

London Wall – Tower Theatre

London Wall - Tower Theatre

Office-based plays are relatively few and far between particularly those from the 1930s, so the revival of John Van Druten’s London Wall at the Tower Theatre is particularly interesting, not least for its focus on the female staff of a busy London law firm who struggle to be seen as equals by their male colleagues who treat them either as secretaries or a prizes to be won. Essentially a romantic melodrama, Van Druten’s play explores a core dilemma for women at different ages in this era and the pressure to find a husband or accept their lot – and a fairly static wage – at this imperfect office with little hope of a career.

Van Druten has a not particularly inspiring tale to tell, offering a stark choice for his female characters whose lives are essentially mapped out for them whichever path they choose – wife and mother or tragic spinster. London Wall roughly compares the positions of 19-year-old Pat Milligan and 35-year-old Blanche Janus who discover they have far more in common then they realise. Initially, Van Druten situationally pits these characters against one another, creating a comparison that their workmates and an elderly client help to reinforce.

Pat is warned repeatedly not to end up like Miss Janus and to use all her ‘skills’ to grab a man while she can, even if she doesn’t love him, all the better to have a comfortable, settled life. Beauty and opportunity fade, she is told – and how little that particular social message has changed in the last 90 years – as does the first flush of love, so better to make the most of it while she has time on her side. Blanche, by contrast, is almost at the tipping point, soon to be trapped in this office role if she is unable to convert her 7-year relationship with a UK-based Dutchman into marriage.

London Wall is structured around a series of long scenes taking place across several weeks in the office and within each one Van Druten stages a number of duologues as characters come and go. These are set in the buzzing General Office where the usually segregated workforce can mingle openly, which has significant plot consequences, and the office of Mr Walker, the first half of Walker, Windemere and Co. (the latter partner is never seen). Van Druten builds tension and scenario through these interactions as opportunities for the women to speak alone and in depth are mixed with loaded male-female encounters and occasionally a full cast scene whose role is to intrude into the private and personal conversations as well as acting as tension relief. The writer has skillfully layered these budding office dramas across his play as the lives, experiences and future of his characters – both primary and secondary – are determined by the 2.5 hours we spend at this London Wall office.

Directed by Stephen Brasher, this Tower Theatre production has mastered all of the complexities that Van Druten has built into this drama and finds almost all of its subtext. Brasher also controls the changing pace very nicely, particularly when long conversations give way to faster-paced comings and goings as the office closes down for the evening. And there is relatively little sag in a tightly controlled piece that finds its feet pretty quickly once the preliminary character introductions are out of the way to create investment in the fate of these women and the fluctuating possibilities that the business of the play generates.

Act One is two long scenes taking place a few days or weeks apart, while Act Two has three scenes covering a decisive 24-hour period in the office. Dramatically, Van Druten places the most significant encounter at the end of Scene Three which may have been a better place for a cliffhanger interval given that there are consequences for everyone in the rest of the play as the characters return for their reckoning the following day, but the Tower Theatre’s decision to place the interval after Scene Two is equally valid in order to keep a time balance between the two parts of the show.

There are lots of characters in London Wall, each of whom is certainly distinct in this production but they all have a very clear purpose, chosen to reflect on the central romantic and career trajectories of Pat and Blanche. Van Druten has, in effect, created a sliding scale of female experience and marital predicaments for the audience to consider and, in what feels like a very contemporary attitude, the writer starts to question whether the desirability of marriage should be the only satisfactory option for a women, especially if she has independent means or the capacity to make a living.

Therefore, secondary characters Miss Bufton and Miss Hooper offer alternative or more extreme versions of the lifestyles of the other women with Bufton presented as closest to Pat in terms of situation, a little older but embracing the opportunity to date as many men as possible, a good time girl who enjoys the theatre and owns plenty of evening wear that she can lend to her colleagues. Hooper, by contrast, is more akin to Blanche, dating an equally unavailable man for a number of years in the hope that their relationship will become official before long, in this case requiring a divorce. In this sense, Van Druten creates a spectrum of female characters all of whom are looking for different degrees of commitment from their future. Whether Miss Bufton and Miss Hooper are ideals or warnings, the writer leaves to the audience to decide.

Although some of these characters are lightly drawn, even plot contrivances, Van Druten is a convincing writer of women whose circumstances and limited options he creates well, and which is one of the strongest elements of this production. This approach makes it possible to draw parallels between London Wall and other works that look at the restrictions place on working women in this era as well as exploring the nature of work itself such as Sophie Tredwell’s Machinal which was brilliantly revived at the Almeida Theatre in 2018 which also focused on workplace relationships born out of female constriction and its consequences.

It is Mr Walker, in fact, who gives voice to the play’s underpinning sentiment that echoes the themes of Machinal, that work and personal lives should never mix, that workers should in fact be ‘automatons’ delivering their tasks without emotional compromise or influence. That Van Druten takes these female characters through a process of recognition of their state and their options feels significant, and it is notable in Brasher’s production that the conclusion of their individual stories is entirely positive, although not perhaps in the way that audience or convention might expect.

The male characters also represent different archetypes and while their behaviour shapes the actions of the women, they are by no means as richly drawn. Unusually, this is not to the play’s detriment and, instead, the men are dramatic devices who deliver the women to where they need to be both physically and emotionally at the end of the play. Like their female counterparts, Van Druten creates two foregrounded men and two who exist principally in the background – Pat’s useless friend/lover Hec Hammond who cannot recognise or give voice to his feelings without help from Blanche and a comedy office boy, Birkinshaw who provides the light relief much like Stanley in Still Life.

In the more decisive roles, Eric Brewer is a man presumably in his 30s who is a serial seducer with a terrible reputation. He suffers from none of the age and marriage angst foisted on the women and instead represents a kind of lechy persistence, a toxic masculinity that, again, feels all too familiar 90-years on. The really interesting male role here is Mr Walker who remains an absent figure in Act One but with a sharp presence that shapes the office routine, especially when his back is turned, and flurries of activity forcing the staff to respond rapidly to his demands. That he becomes vital to the resolution of these stories is particularly interesting in the exercise of quiet but beneficent authority that he dispenses with a patrician’s care for his staff. Mr Walker is not afraid to make a difficult decision for the good of the firm but is all too aware of the behaviours his office provokes even if he’d rather not acknowledge it.

This compelling production at the Tower Theatre brings all of these issues and themes together really nicely, creating a deeply engaging drama that digs deep into Van Druten’s text to find considerable value in this rare revival, making a convincing case for the longevity of this work. The small auditorium makes the scene changes overlong and especially necessary in Phillip Ley’s naturalistic set design but the 1930s office aesthetic is very well captured and some economies are possible by leaving the main set in place and using Samuel Littley’s lighting to demarcate the scenes in Mr Walker’s office. On the whole, the static and faster-paced sections work equally well and Brasher has created a feeling of revolving doors with multiple entry and exit points that convincingly lead to a variety of other rooms and levels where the rest of the firm and other businesses are located. It creates a good sense of its London location with few companies able to occupy a whole building even then, so the layers of relationship drama in London Wall are facilitated by the opportunities for characters to appear from outside and infer a broader interaction with the city itself.

As Blanche, Stephanie Farrell moves in and out of the spotlight in this play, sometimes the main focus of the drama, sometimes its author as she attempts to solve the problems of others through her semi-maternal intervention, while at others she is almost part of the furniture, a staff member who has kept the place ticking over efficiently for a decade waiting for her moment, her turn to find something more. All of that is convincingly realised in Farrell’s subtle and often low-key performance but she has a gravitas that emphasises Blanche’s stalwart and pragmatic nature. Eloise McCreedy is a far more emotional creation as Pat, navigating a variety of experiences for the first time. There is a youthful naivety in Pat that McCreedy captures entirely but also a failure to even know what she wants that offers plenty of messy situations for the character. Understanding her own heart is the road Pat follows through this story and her development and ultimate happiness is well portrayed.

Nick Edwards is suitably creepy as Eric Brewer although he occasionally overdoes the affrontery when knocked back that gives the performance a touch of stiffness in places. But he has a degree of command that allows Eric to walk through the offices and impose his presence along with his demands on the women. That the office power structures fluctuate depending on the presence of Mr Walker is reflected well in Edwards’s performance as he scurries back to work at the first sight of his boss, and yet there is a sense of entitlement that underpins his behaviour. Jonathan Norris’s Mr Walker is particularly effective, emitting a real authority without fuss or frill, a business-like attitude that make him a far warmer and fairer presence than you might expect. Walker demands equal degrees of dedication and respect from male and female employees alike, while Norris also finds a gentleness and compassion, even loyalty, to his workforce that gives the actor plenty of layers to investigate even with relatively little stage time.

The acting is more variable across the other roles but they each do enough to justify the purpose of their character within Van Druten’s wider story. London Wall is by no means happy endings all round but there is some satisfaction within this Tower Theatre production that everything ends as it should and largely with the women finding different kinds of agency in their lives. Not seen in London since 2013, its first revival since its 1931 debut, London Wall presents a nuanced impression of opportunities for women in this era making this Tower Theatre production feel like a lost treasure restored.

London Wall is at the Tower Theatre until 26 November. Tickets are £13 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Sex Party – Menier Chocolate Factory

You start the evening bristling with excitement, maybe you have even dressed up for the occasion, put on something a bit special. The anticipation builds as people start arriving, perhaps there’s some small talk over a few drinks as everyone readies themselves for what’s in store, but one thing is certain, everyone is here to have a really good time. So how disappointing when the evening turns out to be damp squib. Maybe the timing was off or the chemistry just wasn’t right, but somehow all that hope and excitement has ended in disappointment. But that’s the gamble you take with a night at the theatre, one that is sadly replicated onstage in the world premiere of Terry Johnson’s new play The Sex Party, reopening the Menier Chocolate Factory. What could have been an entertaining farce or even a dramatic exploration of middle-class yearning is instead as unsatisfactory for its audience as it turns out to be for its thinly drawn characters.

A suburban past time most associated with the 1970s and 80s, there should be endless mileage in the notion of bringing a group of semi-strangers together in a leafy enclave of North London for an evening of sexual exuberance and liberality. The contrast of their respectable daily lives and the outward privilege of middle-class dignity with the seedy wife swapping and orgiastic abandon of the sex party is replete with tragicomedy.

Victoria Wood based a rather superb stand-up piece on the concept that mined the awkward balance of repressed personalities with the very 80s incidental observations about brushed nylon sheets, DIY woes and bad backs. And although Alan Ayckbourn has never directly set one of his plays at an orgy (at least not yet), the scenario speaks to his interest in the interaction of uncomfortably formed groups where home truths and long-hidden resentments pour out of his characters as their facades finally crack, not to mention the template that Abigail’s Party has set for suburban excess and bitter desperation. Johnson’s play, therefore, is couched in some strong comedy ancestry, if only The Sex Party has been less distracted by identity politics.

The set-up is a good one, a group of semi-strangers known mostly only to the host, invited to the Islington home he shares with a younger girlfriend for an exclusive sex party. And Johnson sets his story primarily in the kitchen, a location that immediately suggests plenty of avenues for comedy where people can hide or feel awkward away from the excesses taking place in other rooms – which Johnson’s scene-setting suggests well. Kitchens at parties serve partly as a functional space, a place to pass through in search of drinks or sustenance while the real business of the evening – be in conversation, dancing or something more licentious – happens elsewhere.

Consequently, as Johnson recognises here, the kitchen is both deliberately detached and a place of refuge, even a space for a different kind of intimacy or problem-sharing. This proves a useful backdrop to The Sex Party, a place where conversation is the thing on most people’s minds and from here, Johnson quite successfully establishes the tone of the play, beautifully represented in Tim Shortall’s set design of teal units and a spacious island counter that offers plenty of places to sit, stand and lean as the size of the group changes and morphs across the evening while speaking to the clearly well to do aesthetic that drives so much of the drama. Beneath the shiny facades and catalogue-perfect furnishings lurk multiple demons as well as the psychological emptiness of the characters’s lives which, although never outwardly stated, manifests in this desire for status symbols and a projection of self-satisfied success.

From this solid platform, Johnson then interjects a series of characters and relationships that explore the need for individual gratification and the complex dynamics of different marriages; some fine, some troubled, some that become troubled as a result of this evening. And there is a real mixture of personalities and backgrounds that Johnson uses to create variety within the attendees of the party, some more successfully drawn than others, which certainly begins to feel like Ayckbourn territory with the potential to be either explosive or caustic depending on the strings the writer chooses to pull.

Indeed for a sex party, relatively few of the attendees seem comfortable with the notions of abandon and promiscuity that the situation, you would think, demands hence why the kitchen becomes the safe focal point for those seeking retreat. And there is huge potential in these dynamics that Johnson doesn’t mine to their full extent, not sure where the balance of comedy and drama should lie. And while performances will sharpen as the run continues, there are underlying structural difficulties in The Sex Party that stymie its development.

Character trajectories are one of them, and although wider problems or fears are hinted at, the play’s uncertain tone means these are never brought to a head. Host Alex, for example (played by Jason Merrells) has multiple levels to him, organising this party and personally selecting friends and acquaintances to attend. And we learn that this is not his first party, something it appears he has done many times before. In Merrells’s performance, he is open and unembarrassed about the evening, not cocky or seedy but a good host keen to encourage everyone according to their comfort levels. Yet, Alex has a much younger partner (Molly Osborne), we learn he has never married and seems to hold a candle for married friend Gilly and enjoys being seen as the liberal Islingtonite.

Yet, he spends almost all of the party in the kitchen, the anchor around which the show pivots as different individuals and groups come to talk to or across him. And Johnson never really let us know why. There are some interesting hints about his feelings for Gilly which could have been the emotional core of the drama but never quite takes up the room that it should, while questions about his own lack of fulfillment go answered – is he secretly prudish about his own body, is it just Gilly’s presence that makes him so reticent, why is he so keen for girlfriend Hetty to have sex with any or all of the other men and is there an impotency or libido issue as she implies later on. Just who is this man and why is he holding this event? Johnson takes us frustratingly close to the answer, and Merrells does a great job in finding an inner landscape, but it feels incomplete.

Similarly, Gilly and husband Jake have acres of possibility that is never fully realised with a marriage that seems to be filled with contradiction and unresolved conflict. They appear to be in a fairly anomalous position in this drama, attending a party but only to have public sex with one another, as Jake’s awakwardness and jealousy prevents them from indulging with others. And, other than a way to push the limits of their marriage, particularly through Gilly’s connection with the host, Johnson doesn’t know quite what else to do with them or to present their relationship with any consistency.

We are told very early on that they have sex seven or eight times a week so what is the appeal of the party if their desire for one another is still so notable – not that they appear to be particularly enamored of one another despite this supposed close physical intimacy. Later, Gilly’s frustrations bubble up, an unfulfilled need for a more adventurous life and clear wish for them to join in with the rest of the party, so there are great possibilities for marital revelation and the culmination of years of hidden resentment, but Johnson doesn’t build up his characters enough to tear them down. That Lisa Dwan creates depth and credibility for this character is a credit to the actor, but the trajectory is weakly resolved.

Likewise, husband Jake played by John Hopkins never gets beyond the surface of an unexplained possessiveness. There is great comic opportunity in being the uncomfortable one who feels overwhelmed, perhaps forced to be there through fear of losing his wife, but none of that is properly realised and it is unclear – given Jake’s refusal to share his wife – why he was convinced to come, especially as Johnson had already allocated the kitchen-lurking to the host. What does The Sex Party gain from the presence of this character if not an eventual implosion or, conversely, an unexpected overindulgence as the main outcomes for him?

Everyone else is too basically drawn to really grasp their role or input into the play’s final outcome; the mismatched party bore Jeff (Timothy Hutton) and his Russian wife Magdalena (Amanda Ryan) are tools to showcase contemptible political views and comic outbursts, drug-taker Tim (Will Baron) is almost from another show while his similarly unlikely partner Camilla (Kelly Price) is the mouthpiece for contemporary sexual politics on consent and gender identity but she has so little personality beyond this that she barely feels like a real character.

Now, having set the pieces in motion, Johnson throws a curveball at their night, one that inadvertently also sinks the play. The arrival of a trans character Lucy played by Pooya Mohseni feels brash and unsatisfactory, turning the story from a light tragicomedy to something more political but without anything particularly sensible to say about trans rights or the attitudes of others at this party. Lucy’s body suddenly becomes the battleground about which some attendees demand genitalia information while her presence causes confusion about any further sex that may be expected. Questions about Lucy’s sexuality are equally crass and while Johnson is trying to mock the clumsy ignorance of this set, the way in which the volume of other people’s opinions are imposed on this last-minute guest as well as a particularly clunky exposition on the concept of womanhood with references to J.K. Rowling are inadequate at best, even lazy.

A generous reading of this scenario is Johnson’s attempt to explore a complex issue and highlight the inherent or multilayered prejudices of almost everyone else at the party, and showing the various negative inferences that trans bodies are subjected to. But it doesn’t work and, as the primary focus of the play, this becomes a storyline that distracts from and undercuts comic potential elsewhere, and feels unnecessarily reductive in its exploration of the issues it raises, boiling gender down to bodies, sex and sexuality in which the character is blamed for attending and, thereby, making it awkward for everyone else. A trans person at a sex party isn’t a basis for comedy and Johnson just isn’t the person who should be writing that story.

As the piece concludes, the writer cuts to the end of the party where everything has gone wrong and a slightly chaotic scene of recriminations, arguments and boundary violations culminate in an equally lightweight scene about consent. The audience never sees what goes wrong and perhaps it should as the imaginative leaps from characters debating trans rights to confused outraged about the outcomes of the party itself is too sudden, picking up none of the threads from earlier in the show or weaving together character behaviour with the things that happen in their time off stage. As a result, The Sex Party provides neither comic or dramatic resolution.

There is so much potential here, a scenario that has so many interesting facets and comments to make about middle-class dissatisfaction, sexual expectation and status that could move the image of 1970s suburban orgies on and reflect on the practice in the twenty-first century. And there are worlds of possibility within the character sketches that Johnson creates, more than enough to fill a play without focusing on these patchy political debates on gender. But without this injection of humour, the characters and the audience go home unsatisfied.

The Sex Party is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 January with tickets from £39.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Improbable Fiction – Tower Theatre

Improbable Fiction - Tower Theatre (by Robert Piwko)

While Hollywood loves nothing better than turning the camera on itself, so too do writers enjoy exploring the creative process from the germination of an idea to the paralysis of writer’s block. Beyond the more straightforward page to stage adaptation, another strand of plays exist exploring the lives and work of writers themselves. Often discursive pieces, they seek to examine the impact of a particular luminary or celebrate the border between the facts of their life and the elaborate fictions they create. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland about Patricia Highsmith which enjoyed a London run in 2018 for example put the famous crime novelist into a scenario dictated by her own stories as a stranger invades her remote mountain home, while Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars exhibited huge potential when it premiered online as a gathering of great female writers led by Dorothy Parker to discuss the coming storm in Europe in the early months of the Second World War.

Now, the Tower Theatre revives Alan Ayckbourn’s playful two hour piece Improbable Fiction about a writer’s group with varying degrees of experience and dedication who are asked to consider creating a joint endeavour that combines their vastly different genres. This charming parody of amateur writers gives Ayckbourn himself the opportunity to try on very different writing styles and in the Second Act to create a single story that attempts to put them altogether with Ayckbourn’s own trademark farce.

And while this may not be his most accomplished work, it nonetheless contains many of the characteristics with which he is most associated while perhaps notably casting some judgement on the cheap sentiment and generic plotting of different kinds of fiction. Playing into these cliches is part of the fun for Ayckbourn who combines Victorian melodrama, the 1930s detective novel and Science Fiction with a dash of children’s stories and even more pedestrian, functional writing that requires little imaginative input. The challenge in Improbable Fiction is wondering the extent to which Ayckbourn sees all of this as forgettable fluff.

But first Act One, more recognisable territory for Ayckbourn who gathers a disparate group of connected people together for a single event. This scenario is classic Ayckbourn, a chance for very different personalities and ages to interact often, for them, in a single unsatisfactory environment where they bring out the worst in one another. All of this first section of the play is dedicated to the Writer’s Group meeting, clearly a regular endeavour that attracts a variety of local people at different stages of the creative process including a female farmer struggling to start her Victorian romance, an introverted young man penning an elaborate futuristic fiction, a prolific woman writer on her sixth, as yet unpublished, crime novel with a serial detective, an artist creating a long-gestating children’s book, and, for variety, a disgruntled school teacher attempting to write a musical based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, all of whom discuss the particular challenges of their work in the conventional meeting set-up in which bland Chair and host Arnold invites each member of the writers club to speak.

Into this very ordinary setting, Ayckbourn then explores the personalities and circumstances of the individuals that informs or blocks their writing, while tapping into some of the undercurrents and resentments that shape their interaction. In a new revival at the Tower Theatre directed by Phillip Ley, this is one of the production’s strongest elements, giving life and shape to a lightly drawn group. Given the two-tone structure of Improbable Fiction, Ayckbourn is unable to explore in more detail or probe these relationships more deeply in order to take this particular set of interactions to their farcical endpoint. In fact there is an emphasis on the very ordinariness of this grouping in which nothing decisive is going to happen. No one will get their comeuppance nor will any of the long-held bitterness be resolved or at least allowed to erupt as the logical conclusion to most Ayckbourn productions.

In fact, as Director Ley makes clear, this meeting is routine, the same as the previous one and, with few changes, the same as the one to come. These characters are trapped in a cycle of semi-dull interaction and that is why they seek an imaginative outlet in creative fiction. While they may snipe and denigrate, they will never move beyond this relative stasis in their real lives, something Ayckbourn realises, eschewing the kind of plot contrivances that could be necessary to form a clash, and instead delving into their fictional lives for the second part of the this drama. But it means Act One is filled with clues about the things to expect in the following scenes, the writing styles and plot points that explain some of the behaviours and character quirks when Ayckbourn blends the novelists’ updates into a singular story. From Vivvi’s weepy assistant detective to Clem’s triple sidekicks for space age fixer Rex, Ayckbourn doesn’t only mix these worlds together but, in a sense, honours the creativity of his own characters by drawing on their source material for the anarchic fiction of Act Two.

Ley’s production probes these characters really nicely, both creating distinction as they arrive one by one and in conversation. Although Ayckbourn gives them a minimal characterisation, Stephanie Irvine finds a nice layer of prissy poise as Grace whose questionable personal life with her husband implies a mousy browbeaten woman which is the impression Irvine gives – aided by Jean Carr, Emma Efkeman, Isabel Putt’s costume design – but as Act One unfolds, there is an inner certainty in Grace that emerges, an outspokenness about an unpleasant male writer who collectively irritated the group at a previous gathering, and a clear dislike of Brevis, her disparaging former teacher who criticises everyone. That Richard Hague’s Brevis is entirely unaware of how others see him is equally entertaining, a man with a chip on his shoulder and entirely wrapped up in the multiplicitous failings of those around him. There is real verve in Hague’s performance as he complains about yet another generation of hopeless children playing pranks which equates with his frustration with Clem’s malapropism-ridden writing that drives Brevis to explode with disgust on more than one occasion.

The others are given far less rounded material to grapple with, however, making Tony Sears Clem hardly more than a geeky cliche who contributes little beyond his own reading, Sophia Chrisafis’s fast-writing novelists has lots of polish in a confident performance, but Ayckbourn never gives her the chance to investigate her multiple boyfriends, the slightly glamorous figure she presents, why she is so fond of Clem or the need to escape into her crime fiction world. Likewise, farmer Jess played by Julia Blyth struggles to put her ideas onto paper but clearly lives a more interesting existence in this small community as part of a same-sex couple.

Host Arnold (Sean McMullan) too is really just a sketch, someone who doesn’t write creatively himself – a producer of functional guidance leaflets – but facilitates the work of others while he struggles to maintain a large home still owned by his demanding mother who is bedridden upstairs with dementia. Ayckbourn also gives Arnold someone to talk to in the set-up and aftermath of the meeting, and who can attend to his mother, but again, she has relatively little independent life in this script and Ilsa’s (Isabelle Boreham) has no opportunities to put her outsider status to good use as either a conduit for the drama or for the kind of character implosion that this kind of routine would usually necessitate.

So, Act Two becomes the purpose of Improbable Fiction, the place where Arnold’s suggested collaboration comes to fruition, not because the group do create something together but as a magical interlude that happens to Arnold as everyone leaves. Ayckbourn tries on a number of different styles here; in Victorian melodrama, the modern day Arnold is confused by the mysterious haunting of a household in which the young niece is accused of insanity by the dastardly nephew, observed by a local doctor and various other servants. Ayckbourn’s master stroke is to present this as a female narrative, that of the housekeeper who speaks directly to the audience, mirroring the fiction of the time by telling her story like a journal written in retrospect, a device employed by the Brontes, Wilkie Collins and many others. Ley’s production also handles this very nicely with changes of lighting by Andrew Maxted to blend the storytelling by Blyth’s servant with traditional dramatic scenes, although the acting style is also heightened for effect and to enhance Arnold’s disorientation which works well. That Ayckbourn delivers these stories in inter-cutting chapters is interesting but the deliberately silly conclusion – that pointedly Arnold says he guessed – shows Ayckbourn gently mocking these stories and the generic tropes that he has so carefully copied.

The same is true of the second and third styles that build on first noirish crime fiction as a detective seeks to identify a murderer in the household. Ayckbourn adopts the hard-boiled style effortlessly, while noting Vivvi’s character points from her book. But, again, Ayckbourn draws the perplexed Arnold into the story as an unwitting suspect. The Tower’s production makes good use of costume again with trench coats and wide-legged trousers to create the impression of the 1930s in Ley’s timeless living room set design, and again the heightened dramatic style of performance implies both the fantasy world being created and an opportunities for additional humour as Ayckbourn lightly mocks the tropes he employs. The final section is the most obviously silly, Clem’s Science Fiction creation, the contrast of which against Arnold’s traditional home is especially enjoyable. Again, Carr, Efkeman and Putt have worked wonders with a series of garishly coloured bodysuits that create futuristic costumes for these characters that reflect the nonsensical scientific language they reel off.

Each of these mini stories has its own conclusion, one that is dictated by the conventions of the genre while Ayckbourn, and this Tower Theatre production, leave the audience with the feeling that nothing significant has happened at all, just a bit of light relief. Improbable Fiction is not Ayckbourn’s best work and there’s very little comedic build up that investigates character and scenario in the writer’s usual way, but what you get instead is something more subversive as though Ayckbourn is telling us that the fictions we create are lots of fun but these gossamer-thin escapes from reality leave very little impression once they’re gone. Historical, Science and Crime Fiction, children’s stories and musicals, even his own play are just a bit of light relief and nothing more.

Improbable Fiction is at the Tower Theatre until 12 November. Tickets are £13 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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