Category Archives: Theatre

An Ideal Husband – Vaudeville Theatre

An Ideal Husband - Vaudeville Theatre

Of all Oscar Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband is arguably the most socially and politically relevant to the modern day. In post-war Britain, the rise of the tabloid newspaper and the political scandal appear to have gone hand-in-hand, and while Profumo-esque sex scandals will always be stock-in-trade for these publications, we are increasingly concerned with how MPs make their money. From the “cash for questions” affair in 1994 to the expenses debacle beginning in 2009, whether our Parliamentary representatives are taking legitimate steps to prepare for their future or feathering their own nests at the expense of democracy, reveals so much about the integrity of those we elect.

Wilde’s play still speaks to these important questions, asking not only about the financial legitimacy of those in the House of Commons, but also about the dangerous extent to which we idolise, and therefore sanitise, our public figures only to be disappointed when they are revealed to be all too human. And while building people up only to tear them down ranks high among favourite British past-times, as An Ideal Husband reveals, this can only happen when we put someone on a pedestal, bringing with it the corrective problem of subsequently setting them down too low, as Lord Goring aptly reminds Lady Chiltern of the punishment she inflicts on her once perfect spouse.

With such sharp relevance to political life in twenty-first century Britain, it seems a shame then that Classic Spring’s latest production, directed by Jonathan Church, though beautifully realised and worthy of many of its 4-star reviews, should muzzle its bite in a season that has, so far, failed to break the mould. Wilde is a wonderful playwright and a huge audience favourite – whether amateur or professional, there is almost certainly a production somewhere at all times, in fact there’s probably a by-law insisting upon it.

There is no danger of Wilde being forgotten, or his plays falling out of fashion, they remain as much a staple of the theatrical landscape as Shakespeare, so why then stage a dedicated London season without anything new to say? It is a money-spinner certainly, undoubtedly charming, witty and fun to play for the actors and directors, as well as a delight to watch, but audiences have seen it all a hundred times before, the approach taken in Dominic Dromgoole’s season to date has hardly set the canon on fire.

The three productions have all been very enjoyable with some great performances and high production values that have envisioned a series of charming room sets evoking comfortable wealth filled with beautifully dressed aristocrats. Eve Best as the titular Woman of No Importance along with a marvellous comic turn from Anne Reid in the same production were charming. Jennifer Saunders took no comedy prisoners to become the joyous highlight of a rather romantic take on Lady Windermere’s Fan. Here too, An Ideal Husband has a lovely gold and white set designed by Simon Higlett, whose costumes are a marvellous nod to the power of the female characters and the modish splendour of Lord Goring. But these wrappings reinforce the idea of Wilde’s play as a museum piece, which is far from the case. The class structure may be less pronounced, but Wilde’s view of humanity, and delight in mocking the pompous, vain, ambitious and scheming characteristics of society, are as prescient as ever. If any of Wilde’s plays were crying out for a modern spin particularly in a reverentially dedicated season, then An Ideal Husband certainly is. Enjoyable though it is, the overriding impression of this version at the Vaudeville Theatre is that Dromgoole et al have missed a trick.

And it’s a trick that would also have solved the other big issue that affects this production – it’s determination to depart from Oliver Parker’s wonderful 1999 film that set a high bar for subsequent interpretations. In some of the performances, it is clear that different decisions have been made in order to separate from the movie, but this only serves to weaken the personality of particular characters causing an imbalance in the play. A modern setting could have alleviated some of these issues, opening up the possibility of even stronger female characterisation than offered here, and tapping into a renewed devotion to political theatre that has been such a feature of West End productions in the last 12 months.

Sally Bretton’s Gertrude, for example, has become simpering and even shrill, barely suggesting the strength of character that should ultimately make her as much a match for the plotting Mrs Cheveley, as it does for her eminent husband. Where the text implies a passion for female liberation and, crucially, a true partner in a marriage of equals, Bretton’s Gertrude is a wallflower who relies solely on men to fix her problems. As a consequence, her scenes with Nathaniel Parker’s Sir Robert Chiltern have a whining quality rather than the logic of a devoted but sensible wife forced to recast her image of both her husband and herself.

Likewise, Francis Barber’s Mrs Cheveley borders occasionally on pantomime villain relishing the political hold she has over men, and Sir Robert in particular, but without fully convincing us of the sexual and emotional hold that she is fully capable of deploying to achieve her end. The supposed pre-relationship with Freddie Fox’s Lord Goring is a bit of a stretch given the age difference and while as a young man he may have “enjoyed” her company, it’s hard to believe the pair were truly in love enough to have considered marriage.

Where this production excels is in its approach to the comedy of Wilde’s dandyish characters and here the much-lauded appearance of father and son Edward and Freddie Fox is the backbone of this production. There is huge enjoyment to be had in the waspish bantering of the Gorings who find each other’s company irritating and unfathomable, entirely on different tracks but yoked together in a wonderfully bitter relationship that they cannot, and potentially would not, do without.

As Lord Goring, Freddie Fox builds well on his comic career to date, but his approach feels fresh, even modern in such a traditional take on the play. He has a feel for the rhythm of Wilde’s language, allowing him to make the lines seem like everday speech, natural conversation rather than a series of witty remarks strung together which is too often a failing of such stagings. Fox captures the arrogance and immense self-obsession that marks Goring’s character while still also suggesting a true generosity of heart that explains his desire to help his friends and ultimately himself to a more complex emotional life. It is a fine and vital performance that brings the various elements of the plot together with incredible skill.

Fox senior has considerably less stage time but enjoys every moment as the obstreperous Earl of Caversham, berating his wayward son and landing every insult with superb control. Nathanial Parker brings a nice sense of dignity to the set-upon Sir Robert Chiltern, hinting at the unrepentent conceit of a man who has scrambled his way to power by whatever means necessary, mixed with the fear of losing the respect of the wife he adores. Parker conveys Chiltern’s confliction, and despite becoming the face of honour and respectability, you still feel that he isn’t that ashamed of his murky past.

As we all now know, politics is (and always has been) a dirty business, and Chiltern represents a realistic portrait of how real power is founded, often not through essential decency, morality and achievement alone, but from dubious opportunity, whatever you make of it afterwards. It is something that Wilde clearly recognises in An Ideal Husband, that worth and duty can emerge from a less than auspicious start, that goodness is far more complex than idolisation imagines.

The modernity of these ideas is so striking that, in an otherwise charming and chic production, it can only be a shame that Classic Spring didn’t decide to take a risk with this interpretation. In a very traditional season and with tickets to sell, it is understandable, but the most remarkable theatre experiences come from innovation, from seeing beyond the surface of the text and every prior interpretation to find a new way to bring a story to the audience. In recent years several writers whose work has always been coddled, held captive by the era in which they wrote, have found new resonance, and if we can do that for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, then its also time to let Wilde free.

An Ideal Husband is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 14 July. Tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Red – Wyndhams Theatre

Red - Wyndhams Theatre

All art is ultimately tragedy, commodified, misinterpreted and subject to the whims of fashion, the greatest art will always mean the self-destruction of the individual, standing apart from real life but forced to see their work reduced by the people who buy it. Whether it is designed to stave-off fears about the fragility of human existence, or to rage against the artistic conventions handed down by generations of beloved artists before them, the creation of a single piece of art is a lonely moment of self-expression. Then again, it might all be self-indulgent nonsense?

John Logan’s Red returns to the West End for the first time since it premiered in 2009, exploring the complex separation between the fire which which something is created by an individual, and how it is subsequently viewed by the masses beyond the walls of the studio. Red is more than just a play, it is a conversation about driving an artistic vision, about purpose and fame and the weight of cultural context that can shape an artist’s profile allowing them to create something new, while simultaneously suffocating that expression of their world.

Set in the studio of Mark Rothko in late 1950s New York, Red opens with the arrival of new assistant Ken, a young artist, who is there to mix paint, clean-up and admire the senior painter. Told in no uncertain terms on day one that there will never be anything more than employer-employee relationship, Rothko focuses on creating a set of paintings commissioned by the new Four Seasons restaurant which he hopes will transform the room into a temple of art. Over two years, the men share few personal moments, but their discussions on the meaning of creativity come to shape them both irrevocably.

For all its high-minded discussion of artistic principles, Red is ultimately a very practical examination of the life of a working painter, taking in the day-to-day necessities of building and preparing canvasses, buying materials and plenty of thinking time. Michael Grandage’s revival may only be 90 minutes, but there is no sense of rush here, and instead the play – much like Rothko’s creations – is given room to breath, to slowly come into focus as a true picture emerges. What you see at first is not the finished piece, but something that takes shape through the conversations between Rothko and Ken, as they find a value in each other’s perspective.

And the mere existence of this relationship, based on little but a financial transaction of employment, becomes hugely significant in the shaping of Rothko’s character and the serious, methodical approach to his work. The first and last image we see is of the man alone, looking at his creations with nothing else in his life. Ken is almost the only person he speaks to in the play, and certainly the only one permitted to see the vision from the inside. Rothko’s essential loneliness (and preference for it), his devotion to creating the right low-level of lighting and to sealing off his creative space from any external influence, speaks volumes about the singularity of purpose Logan suggests is necessary to create eternal art.

At the same time, Ken represents a period of change in society, in art and in Rothko’s approach to the reception of his work. When he roars against commodification of art and condemns emerging Pop Artists, he is giving voice to his own fears of sudden irrelevance and ultimately his own mortality. The tragedy that Rothko fears, that suffuses his work, is exactly the kind of overthrow that his generation was once responsible for, when Cubism was edged out by Abstract Expressionism. The drama in Red comes from this struggle between historical past and present, and between art history and evolving concepts of creativity, for which the characters of Rothko and Ken are metaphors.

As the action unfolds, it’s fascinating to see Ken emerging in confidence as a person but also as an artist. We never see his own work, but where initially he received Rothko’s opinions in almost silent awe, over time he argues back, staking his claim to relevance in the here and now while stepping out from behind Rothko’s shadow into the light. And it is no coincidence that it is Ken’s own shadow we see reflected on the canvas later in the play, and, in the penultimate scene Ken stands alone on stage contemplating the work as he will soon do for his own.

But there is also a very modern relevance here about the disposable nature of contemporary living, with the sense of times changing, in Rothko’s view, for the worse. Even though Logan wrote Red in 2009, long after social media had begun to take root, Rothko’s criticism of the public focus on “likes” still feels prophetic, while his views on those purchasing his art just to be seen, to be known to have taste, or to keep up with Jones’s similarly speaks to more recent obsessions with Instagram lifestyles. If everything is design to capture a single moment, what are the future foundations of our society, where does history, tradition and experience fit in a world based on endless throwaway consumption?

In our new context, Logan’s argument that art matters because it transcends time and is carved from thought, pain and sacrifice is still quite powerful, that creative things should be loved because they have meaning and should inspire us to see and feel the world differently. Grandage’s direction uses the moments of silence to allow the audience to contemplate these discussions, so, like Rothko’s approach to painting, Logan’s frantic moments of debate are counterbalanced by the opportunity to sit back for a few moments and try to see ourselves more clearly.

Christopher Oram’s set is at once an open space, giving the paintings room to exist and to be considered, while suggesting a sealed vacuum, a dimly-lit chamber in which Rothko both actively separates and cautiously protects himself from the vagaries of the world outside. But it also reflects Ken’s experience to a degree as a white canvas, t-shirts and even a movable cupboard are slashed with red paint that subtly links to an important childhood memory.

Adam Cork’s music selection frequently reflects the emotive tenor of a scene, using carefully selected classical pieces to create a mood of frenzied work accompanied by heavy orchestral sounds or lighter imaginative sequences supported by sprightlier tunes. Ken’s conversion is complete when he breaches the walls, bringing in his radical jazz, intruding into Rothko’s private space and bringing new sensations and purpose with him.

Reprising a role that he played in the premiere production at the Donmar almost a decade ago, as well as his award-winning turn on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Alfred Molina playing the famous painter. He captures the full-range of contradictions, complexities and passion Rothko exudes, using every second on stage to suggest the mix of arrogance, artistic certainty and dedicated craftsmanship of a serious artist. Only 10% of the time spent creating great work is actually painting he says at one point, so Molina never just stands on the stage, he shows Rothko always thinking about the work, assessing how the piece is unfolding or actively preparing his materials.

Even in discussion with Ken, you feel his mind working endlessly, engaging with the conversation, absorbing every comment and thinking deeply about what’s to come. Yet, Molina remains almost still during these scenes, suggesting all the certainty of a man at ease with his status as a genius, a certainty that comes with age and success that feels imposing, almost intimidating. Molina commands the room, filling his Rothko with bitter rebuke for the less restrained era he lives in, unhappy with the inexperience of an audience unable to properly appreciate the levels of meaning and value of the work they are privileged to see.

Yet, in the new light reflected from Ken’s presence, Molina also suggests at heart Rothko is afraid, almost hiding away to protect his essential fragility. His use of black and red representing the encroaching darkness and frequent references to a sense of tragedy that seems to beset him. It implies a man fighting for his place in art history, desperate to be remembered and to be understood, using his overbearing personality to fake a certainty he is far from feeling. Molina’s trick is to make you wonder how much Rothko has even admitted this to himself.

Alfred Enoch as Ken charts a course through initial naivety and deference, to becoming more confident in his opinions and airing his frustrations. While references, and eventually a full description, of a childhood tragedy are the only aspect of Logan’s play that feel a tad false, as though the young man has been given a convenient backstory on which Logan can hang some of his themes, nonetheless Enoch creates a character who must be the audience’s way in to the story, he is our view of Rothko which shifts and evolves as Ken displays him to us.

Ken fulfils much of the practical activity necessary to run a studio, moving paintings, covering canvasses, mixing shades of colour which act as a tutorial for the emerging artist, and, as Rothko demands, we begin to see him contemplating his wider role in the creation of art from a philosophical and cultural perspective as the months pass. Enoch’s Ken actively grows in front of us until he can stand his own ground, and while Molina’s performance is exceptional, Enoch more than holds his own on the exposing Wydnhams stage.

Red is a show where the audience really needs to see the art work to understand Rothko’s near torment in creating it, so finding a seat with a decent view is important.* Like the Donmar where it first opened, the Wyndhams is a particularly useful choice with good sightlines from most seats, even in the balcony, allowing you to see the large replica paintings scattered around the stage. This may be one occasion where sitting higher-up in the theatre would be an advantage because it gives the viewer a chance to see the minutiae of studio work that won’t be as visible from the stalls, offering a wider perspective on the backstage creation of a single painting as the play intends.

The struggle for artistic integrity and the personal cost of creating art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating revival of Red shows us that to create is to suffer, but the tragedy is in knowing that what’s left behind may not mean as much to its consumers. Art, then, is tragedy to some degree, but for an audience this 90-minutes of engaging debate and conversation is pure joy.

Red is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 28 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

 

* In choosing good seats, the website Seatplan is particularly useful and user-friendly. It contains a comprehensive layout of every London theatre (and many others), with reviews, star ratings and pictures of the view from individual seats, all uploaded by audience members. Much like TripAdvisor, individuals can add their own experience, and it’s a great place to find tips on legroom, comfort and sightlines before you book. While not every seat has been rated yet – most have and are now colour-coded, so you can see at a glance – you can usually get a sense of the view from the next seat, and you can easily see which reviews also include an image which is invaluable, particularly in the older theatres where the curve of the auditorium or circle overhang can obscure large parts of the stage. The front page is now more focused on selling tickets but the search field for theatre layouts is obvious at the top


Mood Music – The Old Vic

Mood Music - The Old Vic

Another week, another brand new play arrives in London, the fourth in as many weeks, and the second successive opening to focus on female creativity and the nature of toxic masculinity. Despite being obsessed with reflections of its own image, captured in films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard or TV shows including Smash, which have long reflected the the scheming arrogance, male-dominated power-structures, falsity and inherent cruelty of showbusiness, the entertainment industry, it seems, had barely changed in decades. Now, in the wake of successive scandals that began with Operation Yewtree and culminated in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, an unyielding light is shining into every corner.

The consequence of all this is the beginnings of a notable shift in how the various branches of commercialised art are managed and sustained, and these industries have rarely had to respond so readily to the widespread rot and abuses of power that have filled our newspages for many months. But will it really be so easy to dismantle? Joe Penhall’s new play Mood Music which opens at The Old Vic on Wednesday is set in the music industry, and examines the complex and tricky personalities whose deep and longstanding knowledge of how the ‘business’ works means they have become adept at manipulating every system, using their power to control everyone around them.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mood Music considers the ways in which male-dominated structures affect the creation of female art, where inspiration comes from, and the problematic border between collaboration and ownership within our existing creative environment. It asks important questions about the boundary between celebrating and recognising achievement in a more experienced creator, while not allowing your own contribution to be pushed aside, and the extent to which stars use their art and the adulation of others to fulfil a deep void in themselves.

Cat is a young female songwriter in the midst of a legal battle with middle-aged producer Bernard over the creative credit of her big song. Both insist they added the magic ingredient that made the song a hit and catapulted Cat to fame. But as the audience learns how their relationship became so acrimonious, shocking details of their working life together start to emerge as the entertainment lawyers attempt to build a case. With both parties also in therapy, embittered by their experiences, can they learn to be generous about each other’s art or will the business always win?

Penhall creates a multi-layered narrative which brings the audience into three different sets of conversation all happening simultaneously. The narrative is initially dominated by Bernard and Cat’s discussion with their therapists as they put forward their perspective, recount events and reveal what shaped their personalities, but quickly Penhall intersperses interactions with both their lawyers and occasionally restages scenes from their studio sessions. It sounds complex, but works extremely effectively in practice, allowing the play to break free of traditional scene structures, change shape and maintain a constant rhythm throughout its two-hour runtime.

And while it has plenty to say about the toxicity of the entertainment industry, where young hopefuls seemingly stand little chance of besting established figures with nothing to lose, this message is fairly subtle at first, becoming stronger and clearer as the story unfolds. This is no finger wagging piece of drama, yelling its message at the audience or deliberately exaggerating scenarios to create the right effect, but instead suggests a highly credible picture of people with nothing but their own interests to attend to.

Penhall trusts in the strength of his multifaceted central characters to essentially undo themselves, showing that while there may be minor fault on both sides, ultimately Bernard is all too real an archetype that whether you work in showbusiness, in a normal office or any other kind of workplace, you will know men who think like him. For all that, he is a fascinating creation and one that displays both the charm and enthusiasm for his work that attracts Cat to his talent in the first place, as well as the mind-blowing lack of empathy that make him entirely self-contained. And while you’re laughing at his coldness, Penhall’s trick is to let us see underneath just for a moment, not just to write him off as abominable, but to understand why. And if you understand why you can do something to change it.

Playing Bernard, Ben Chaplin is outstanding, managing to be completely engaging and utterly repellent at the same time. Careful not to muddy the focus with any suggestion of a sexual connection with Cat, Bernard sees himself as a perennial victim, delivering most of his lines with boredom, as if he cannot believe he’s in this ridiculous situation when everyone must know he wrote all the music. Chaplin offers a very clever performance that amplifies Bernard’s arrogance, selfishness and fatal lack of empathy, but without overstatement, he always feels unpleasantly real but charming enough that on more than one occasion you almost believe his version of events.

At the same time, Chaplin implies the grand delusion of a man who sees the world entirely on his own terms, and cannot conceive of anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or imagination. He suggests both strength and self-sufficiency as well as a tragic loneliness and an inability to genuinely connect to anyone else, driven by nods to his childhood experience. He is blinkered but doesn’t know it, and Chaplin gives life to one of Penhall’s key themes on the relationship between emotional damage and the need to seek control.

While Penhall’s female lead endures being patronised and pushed aside, she’s also full of human complexity that allow the audience sympathies to swing occasionally between the protagonists. It’s a cunning way to demonstrate how easily we are all manipulated by Bernard’s particular view of the facts – its not even that he twists them, he genuinely thinks his interpretation is right. Cat is given her own demons to contend with including addiction issues and frequent references to an idolised father that ensure her feeling towards Bernard remain ambiguous even well into to the legal dispute. None of this is meant to excuse Bernard’s conduct, but to demonstrate how young female behaviours are used to judge and condemn in a way they’re not for men.

Seana Kerslake gives Cat both a naievity about the industry and a determination to keep fighting for the right to own the music she created. As the play continues, Kerslake presents a complex picture of a young woman with her own emotional baggage that affects the personal and musical choices she makes, unable to control her impulse to escape and being forced into the shadows by her overbearing collaborator. We see a performer who becomes recognisably self-destructive in a way that many young artists have, but Kerslake plays this credibly as we see the effect on the relationships with those around her and a growing irritation with being controlled even by therapists and lawyers.

There is a degree of hero-worship in her response to Bernard that never entirely disappears, even when it becomes impossible to work together she still admires his talent, with Kerslake even suggesting a touch of regret that working with an idol has been so difficult. Her performance taps into some of Mood Music’s more difficult questions about whether the creation of great art is worth the pain of collaboration in an industry populated by ‘damaged’ people, and if individual brilliance is ever possible without someone to push an artist to their extremes.

The supporting cast are deliberately more anonymous and less rounded, used as reflections on the central characters or the industry that shapes them. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter are the therapists whose sympathetic air wanes as their clients begin to question what role they’re really playing in the power structure, while Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are the respective entertainment lawyers who try to play the system to get the best deal for their clients. Interesting to see Chaplin and Stuke in the same production having once played the same role in the 90s sitcom Game On.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s thrust stage that emulates a recording studio meets therapy session with a curtain of hanging microphones and scattered chairs, the design approach suggests both simplicity and complexity, reflecting the characters’ creative abilities but ultimately giving them nothing to hide behind. Director Roger Mitchell uses the full extent of the stage to keep the action flowing, which is particularly tricky in the rapid transitions between conversations that in the space of a line can switch to an entirely different scenario, time and place. But ultimately, Mitchell and Bechtler provide a showcase for the characters, allowing them to reveal their own failings to the audience.

Mood Music’s focus on ownership in collaboration is a fascinating and engaging examination of the power structures in the entertainment industry, and while it may seem petty for the characters break down a single song to fight over every bridge, chord or lyric, when art is for sale, personal and professional betrayal are never far behind – the overriding commercialisation of every piece of art means that ultimately the winner will always be the industry and never the creator.

Mood Music is at The Old Vic until 16 June and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


The Writer – Almeida Theatre

The Writer - Almeida Theatre

It feels as though we’re living through a golden age for new writing, unsurprising given the heightened political circumstances of the last two years, but this has coincided with a period in which mainstream theatres have been prepared to take greater risk, making space amidst the musicals and classic revivals for a blossoming of new work. The Ferryman may have had all the best new play categories sewn-up in the recent award season, but its fellow nominees – Ink, Oslo and Network –  in any other year would have been equally deserving. And there were plenty of impressive new shows that were overlooked including Anatomy of a Suicide and The Grinning Man.

2018 is proving to be equally rich, and along with The Inheritance which premiered at the Young Vic last month (Part 1 and Part 2 reviews), three new plays have opened in as many weeks in London’s major theatres – Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre, Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court, and now Ella Hickson’s The Writer at the Almeida, her much anticipated follow-up to Oil. While all of this writing has been innovative, exciting and engaging, it also set a high bar exposing the weaknesses in less satisfying work.

The creative process is a complex and fascinating thing, but Hickson argues there is a personal cost for those who put something meaningful into the world and, if the artist happens to be a woman, there are also significant obstacles to overcome in a system that favours and empowers men. The Writer reflects our current interest in sexual misconduct and gender inequality to tell the story of a young writer whose early encounter with a sleazy male director and later a passive-aggressive boyfriend affect her work and emotional development. While she actively rejects many of the social expectations placed on women and embarks on what seems a more contented path, she cannot quite escape the expectations of others and her own self-sabotage as reality fails to match the world of fiction she wants to create.

Hickson uses an abstract approach that constantly keeps the audience guessing about the nature of truth and fictionalised versions of it. The Writer opens with a post-show confrontation between an audience member who claims to have left a bag in the auditorium (Lara Rossi) and a member of the crew (Samuel West) who asks her opinion of this hit show and receives a lengthy and impassioned diatribe about theatre reflecting the sullied gaze of the male director who sexualises his female, but not male, actors, patriarchal blocks to the progression of women, the overly middle-class subject matter and attendance at theatres, as well as the desperation of men who marry much younger women. At one point, the nameless audience member astutely remarks that whenever a woman walks on stage we instantly assess her attractiveness and clothes, but when a man walks on we wonder what he’s going to say.

It’s a great scene, uncomfortably long for some as we learn why the conversation becomes increasingly embittered, but Hickson prevents it from being too one-sided, subtly shifting sympathies between the two sides before delivering a knock-out blow. It’s a discussion many women in theatre have longed to have and to see it played out onstage feels significant. With the house lights staying up for the first two scenes on a virtually bare stage, there is no artifice, and the company are eager for us to know that the audience is equally complicit in the prolongation of this aspect of the industry.

And Hickson maintains this energy through the next two scenes. As we discover that what we have just witnessed is part of a play written by another writer about her own experience (played by Romola Garai) the scene dissolves into a Q&A in which the ‘real’ overbearing Director gives her pretentious and patronising notes. This is followed by a deliberately artificial scene in which the audience watches the stage crew construct the set, before the Writer goes home to pressure from her boyfriend to commercialise her work, get married and have children because these are the ‘expected’ measures of a successful life.

Blanche McIntyre takes an alternative approach to staging each new section which comments on the variety of ways in which real life is filtered into different kinds of theatre, making it harder to tell which parts of the play represent reality or its reconstruction, all of which are interesting viewing. The purposeful artifice of the boyfriend scene is particularly effective, not just in drawing attention to the pressure of social expectation and how one couple could have such opposing approaches to the same circumstances, but also emphasising the idea of constant female (and to some extent male) performance in society, expected to dress, look, sound and even think a certain way, and the exhaustion that engenders.

So, by the play’s midpoint, you’re convinced that The Writer is an innovatively envisioned and mind-expanding piece of work that uses the very idea of theatre to explore the pain of female creativity within our socially constructed value system. But then it starts to unravel, with a confused second half that removes the male characters almost completely to focus on the Writer’s journey of self-discovery. It takes her into a more satisfying emotional and sexual connection with another woman but lacks a coherent link with the power of what’s come before.

The tone switches completely and a new form of theatrical presentation is used for the fourth scene as the Writer calls on the style of Greek mythology to offer a third person narrative of her experience of retreat from reality. She finds both love and a sense of calm, told using a bit of physical theatre, complete blackout and swirling video design designed by Zakk Hein. Despite openly acknowledging the scene’s flaws in one of the many meta-theatre references, as the ground shifts from under the audience’s feet, you can actively feel a lot of the room disengaging with the production and no one’s quite sure what this is about any more, Arguably, distancing you from what has come before is exactly the point, Hickson actively wants to push you out and shake your complacency, but its less clear what she wants you to take from this part of the production.

The final section almost exactly mirrors the earlier boyfriend scene, using a similar approach to uncover the Writer’s own relationship with a partner but in new circumstances. Its still artificial but in a much classier and more expensive-looking set which, again, we watch the crew construct before us. However, this time, the purpose is slightly more opaque, and while there’s a connection to the idea of cost referenced earlier, and the difficulty of being with someone who cannot understand the creative process, this scene is rather ponderous. A couple of sex scenes, some silent eating – which admittedly hardly anyone does on stage – and lots of pauses don’t quite do enough to join-up the various bits of the show. It sends the audience away slightly frustrated because The Writer has front-loaded the most powerful sections and left a somewhat diluted ending that will take away from the important point the play is making about women in theatre, as well as, unfortunately, giving others a reason to dismiss it.

The inherent strangeness of the show is one of its strengths, and, as we saw with The Treatment, heightened reality is something that the Almeida is quite adept at presenting. McIntyre directs creatively, not allowing the multiple-staging techniques and Anna Fleischel’s exciting flat-pack set to distract from the central purpose. McIntrye also balances the transition between the layered scenes, offering a clarity to the Russian doll-like distillation of argument as Hickson uses her the fictional Writer played by Garai as her mouthpiece, while she in turn uses her own creation played by Rossi to open the debate.

As the protagonist, Garai presents a woman – if indeed each scene is the same woman – who has endured all the hurts and frustrations the industry can inflict, and while we see a slightly timid person learning to defend herself against these external assaults, its always clear how profoundly the initial encounter with the Director has shaped her. As we know from her other work, the subject matter is something Garai is passionate about and she uses that anger to great effect to rail against other people’s expectations and their failure to recognise her own essential difference. The purpose of the final section is an enigma, but Garai here makes her character less sympathetic, as though the she’s now enjoying a selfish freedom that makes her unable to connect to others.

It’s always a pleasure to watch a Samuel West performance and here he takes on the duel role of the fictional Director in the first scene and the real Writer’s boyfriend. As the former, he has an easy charm, displaying a comfort in his own skin that reflect a certain type of powerful man. During the sparky confrontation that opens the play, his quips and sense of detached amusement almost win you over, and you see why these figures have remained unchallenged for so long. As the boyfriend, he is equally engaging but offers a gentler portrait of a good man, accepting of life’s unglamourous reality and unable to really understand his partner’s creative scruples.

Rossi’s fictional Writer opens the play with a strong performance delivering a credible and heated speech that will resonate, possibly unnervingly, with many in the room. But there is a vulnerability too as Rossi slowly introduces her character’s backstory that gives nuance to what could be an unrelenting force. As the real Director, Michael Gould is initially condescending and dismissive, but in a later scene reveals his own inability to explain his own emotions, to praise someone he admires hinting at the persona he too must project to maintain his status.

The Writer is a show about women, made by women celebrating the creative strength of women which is still all to rare on any stage. But for all its use of technique and intelligent staging, only half the production really delivers its intellectual and political purpose with significant vigour, while the remainder doesn’t quite feel as impactful. This is, and should be, a show that will divide audiences, making tomorrow’s press night a particularly interesting occasion, but while The Writer is pointed social commentary, it also has dramatic flaws that start to put out its own fire.

The Writer is at The Almeida until 26 May and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


Instructions for Correct Assembly – Royal Court

Instructions for Correct Assembly - Royal Court

Perfection is something we’re all supposed to strive for, living the ideal Instagrammable life, to be seen in the right places, eat the right food, wear the right clothes and create a home that is the exact balance of calmly-designed refuge and welcoming social space. What other people think, and all kinds of external judgment have grown in importance, and as a society we crave some kind of external validation to know that we are worthy, accepted, good enough to belong. And, whatever our internal thoughts, however much turmoil exists beneath the surface, we need to paint on a smile, to show the world that we are carefree, happy and perfect.

Nowhere is this pressure more keenly felt than in the modern cult of parenting, where the need to be seen as a perfect mother or father is steeped in expectation. Whether you exclusively feed your child organic handmade meals, where they go to school, what skills they develop, their hobbies, friends and future path are all mini-reflections on an individual’s parenting technique. Thomas Eccleshare’s new play Instructions for Correct Assembly goes to the heart of this quest for perfection, using the story of a couple who choose a robot son to fulfil their slightly confused lives. And while Eccleshare has plenty to say about Artificial Intelligence (AI), our desire for control over any object we create, and the convenience of our flatpack world, this is really an emotional and beautifully told family story about grief and guilt.

Harry and his wife Max need a project, they’ve put together the wardrobe and have all the furniture they need, but something is missing. Spotting a magazine advert, the couple order a new son, a mechanical young adult, and spend many happy hours putting “Jan” together, adjusting his personality settings and teaching him to reflect their liberal middle-class values, all to make him perfect. But, as Jan’s occasional embarrassing malfunctions increase, and their neighbours express concern, Harry and Max are forced to recall their history with similarly-aged son Nick. It soon becomes clear that the couple are haunted by a past they can never change and that their life is far from ideal, but is Jan really the second chance they so desperately need?

Instructions for Correct Assembly is a subtly constructed play in which Eccleshare comments on the consumerist nature of our society, where each home can have the same pieces of replicated furniture, a Stepford Wives reality where personality, difference and complexity are conveniently designed out of our lives. In Hamish Pirie’s production, we first see the couple via a curtained hatch, a small window through which a series of scenes are played along a fast-moving conveyer belt, as if the very theatre is dispatching identikit pre-packaged scenes. It’s some time before the front panel is lifted to reveal the full interior of their room, while, as events play out and we get to know the couple, further elements of their home are slowly revealed.

Eventually the full breadth of humanity is unveiled, complete with a “living wall” of plants at the rear of the stage, and room bathed in natural sunshine from the skylight windows. By this point in the story, every layer of packaging and padding has been removed from the characters and we see the full and complicatedly rich life they once lived with Nick. Cai Dyfan’s set is a marvel, superbly representing not just the flat-pack world the couple inhabit, but in creating layers of meaning that help the audience to understand the psychological journey of the characters. Everything we see deliberately looks like a DIY job, put together from a pack, shiny and bland, while the remaining set is constructed from boxes and a permanent dusting of packing chips – a whole world of convenience, home delivery and customer service phone lines. Towards the end, the walls and panels begin to slot back into place, and you realise that what you’re really seeing is a shroud of grief, confining and restricting Harry and Max until their whole world has reduced to that tiny curtained window of empty, soulless necessity.

And, slowly, subtly Eccleshare makes you feel their pain, which, like a dull ache that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, grows gently throughout the production until the extent of their loss and delusion becomes quite desperate. Wrapped in an AI-inspired tale that wouldn’t be out of place as a Black Mirror episode, the writer initially wrong-foots you, making you expect a clichéd story about the worrying effect of machines on the human condition, but for Eccleshare the presence of Jan is almost a red herring, he is just the excuse to explore the couple’s pre-existing guilt and sense of failure – their obsession with perfection stems from believing they got it so wrong.

Intercutting the two stories – with Jan and Nick played by the same actor – is an excellent device, demonstrating just how much is at stake for Harry and Max. Director Pirie exerts great control over the way scenes unfold, so what is happening soon becomes apparent without any wasteful exposition. This 100-minute show progresses with much hilarity at Jan’s mistakes, crudeness and failure to read the situation, culminating in a disastrous dinner party with neighbours Laurie and Paul (the representative Jones’s the couple want to keep up with, played by Michele Austin and Jason Barnett) and their daughter Amy who is purposefully “perfect”. Jan’s muddled logic and crass conversation are a high point, but only serve to emphasise the growing focus on Harry and Max’s grief which slowly and unexpectedly hits you with an emotional punch that is quite poignant.

Leading the cast is Mark Bonnar as Harry, a man who has internalised every bit of emotion and leaps enthusiastically from project to project because then he never has to think about what really happened. Harry seems like a good man, a well-regarded friend and pleasant company but needs to be constantly distracted from his own thoughts. In the flashback sections Bonnar also shows us that Harry as a father was a slightly softer touch than his wife, more forgiving and arguably more hurt by his failure to properly connect with his grown-up son.

Crucially, there are no histrionics, no elaborate weeping and wailing, nor at any point does Eccleshare let Harry or Max say how they feel, all of this is down to the actors to convey, and Bonnar does this superbly. Everything – humour and tragedy – is played straight, letting the writing do the work, and through that Bonnar elicits a quiet devastation that he brings into focus for the audience as the show unfolds, and without a single tear makes us feel the full emotional weight of a man drowning in his grief, clinging to a dream concept of a second chance and plastering-on a public jollity, even for his wife, with his true feelings clearly miles beneath.

Jane Horrocks as wife Max is a more remote figure and it’s not until much later in the play that her part of the story really comes to life, but when it does, her quiet housewife exterior belies a much harder centre. In retrospect Horrocks suggests that Max acted hastily, that her past actions are a source of much regret, but in the flashback scenes with Nick we see instead a woman choosing to act decisively, at a loss how to proceed and taking the only course of action she thinks will work. And while Max is less overtly emotional than her husband, Horrocks suggests the mutual pretence between the couple in order to survive.

Playing both Jan and Nick is demanding for Brian Vernel who frequently switches character between scenes to considerable effect. His Jan is almost imperceptibly human, and in keeping with the subtle approach taken to the rest of the play, there are no overt references to his mechanical interior, no attempt at a synthesised voice or juddering cyberman movements, which is entirely the right call. Instead, Jan’s purposefully bland personality is only slightly heightened, just out of joint with everyone else to draw attention to his status, and Vernel elicits much of the humour from Jan’s shocking malfunctions.

By contrast as Nick, he is a grouchy, frustrated and troubled young man, eager to escape the cloying attentions of his parents and fully, complicatedly human. Far from the perfect image presented by neighbour Amy (Shaniqua Okwok) who wins a place at Oxford, Vernel’s Nick is on a parallel track to self-destruction. What is so interesting about Eccleshare’s writing and Vernel’s performance is that for all his complications, the audience is encouraged to see that the flesh and blood Nick is preferable to his robotic replacement, however much pain he causes.

In what has been a slightly over-earnest Winter season for the Royal Court, Instructions for Correct Assembly is their best show since Anatomy of a Suicide last summer, and both use a family structure as the basis for explaining the long-term effects of grief and loss. Eccleshare’s play could lose the slightly awkward choreographed movement sections between scenes which has the actors robotically shuffling around, the only misfire in an otherwise restrained and thoughtfully created piece that questions why we all strive so hard to suggest a veneer of perfection. Perhaps because, underneath all those layers of polish, there are truths we just don’t want to face.

Instructions for Correct Assembly is at the Royal Court until 19 May, tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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