Tag Archives: Chloe Lamford

Shoe Lady – Royal Court

Shoe Lady - Royal Court (by Manuel Harlan)

The one-hour play format has really come into its own in the last few weeks with several of the larger theatres staging meaningful One Act pieces and taking the lead from fringe theatre and festivals where shorter works are often programmed back-to-back to appeal to two or even three different audiences in one night. In some ways this is a natural reaction against a period of extra-long plays extending to at least if not beyond three hours, but the chance to be home by 9pm is a welcome one even if this spate of short plays doesn’t last long. The revival of two Carol Churchill plays is largely responsible with artistic integrity prized above interval bar sales with Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse and A Number at the Bridge Theatre playing solo, both so packed full of atmosphere and meaning that a second work would only detract from the power of their commentary on how the domestic and social is affected by science and politics.

Now, Graduate of the Young Writer’s programme, E.V. Crowe presents her new 65-minute play Shoe Lady at the Royal Court, which opens to the Press this evening, and takes an equally impactful look at the pressures of modern living. The central concept, that of a character with one one shoe forced to live with the indignities and physical challenges that it presents, is on the surface a silly one and the audience might expect plenty of slapstick encounters or Sex and the City posturing as the heroine Viv hobbles through this one day.

But Crowe uses this seemingly trivial scenario to more closely examine the ways in which we internalise and respond to societal expectations while judging those who fail to meet these prescribed standards – something as minor as a lost shoe becomes a symbol of Viv’s increasing ostracization and rapid descent into social dejection. The role of women as workers, wives and mothers is central, so to maintain status, lives, homes and families along with set notions of normalcy into which we painfully force ourselves, we all try to fit in, play the game and stay afloat. Crowe’s work is particularly interested in how the “merry-go-round” of commercial city living along with the “have-it-all mentality” this engenders affects female mental health which Shoe Lady charts in Viv’s declining stability as life and health unravel.

The compression of time in this play means Viv’s story acts as a symbolic or representative experience taking place across a single day in which the central character changes from reasonable optimism at the brightness of the morning to disorientation, devaluation and despair at its close. Director Vicky Featherstone’s approach adds layers to the concept with nods to seasonal changes as well, the charming spring morning turning to the searing and uncomfortable heat of summer that burns the exposed sole of Viv’s foot on the tarmac before autumnal leaves blow at her as she flees from a rash and pressured act, leading to an engulfing darkness as the consequences of her shoeless state are felt.

There is also a focus on the uneven balance of the trivial and more vital functions of life, with Viv frequently distracted by small homely concerns that put her wider purpose at risk. The flow of Viv’s mind between these different degrees of concern is one of Crowe’s most notable achievements here, and as the character prioritises fixing her bedroom curtain over taking her son to school and getting to work on time, or is distracted by a hidden and unnoticed smear on the window of a house she is showing to a potential buyer, Crowe reflects on the multitudinous expectations of perfection that Viv experiences, where the ideal home or outfit is given as much precedence in our overly-stylised instagrammable society as the basic functions of providing food and shelter.

Shoe Lady packs a lot of themes into its 65-minute run time, held together by the semi-absurdist style that Crowe has adopted in which her monologuing female lead talks to the audience, herself and occasionally to other characters in a scattering of dramatically constructed conversations. In staging the show, Crowe and Featherstone draw their influence not from the contained almost apocalyptic worlds of Beckett or Ionesco but from the dreamlike illusion of 1960s French cinema but mixed with the noirish splintered imaginings created by Salvador Dali for 1940s films like Hitchcock’s Spellbound. This heightened but vaguely nightmarish state is well maintained throughout the show as the tone darkens and the consequences of Viv’s lost shoe take on a terrible momentum of their own.

Chloe Lamford’s exciting design is simultaneously simple yet complex, a plain narrowing black box that creates a funnel shape with no exits to left or right, with only a square rear window at the back which references both those tense Hitchcock screen designs as well as the inescapable nature of this scenario for the lead character. Drawing more on this metaphor, Lamford creates further height within the stage with two descending staircases for Viv and her family to access the downstairs rooms of her house. Initially covered by a bed, the centre has a thin treadmill with clear allusions to the relentlessness of the society that Crowe depicts as well as creating opportunities for Featherstone to incorporate movement, travel and emotional emphasis within the rhythm of the play.

Katherine Parkinson’s recent stage work has focused on the challenges for modern women expected to publicly deliver an idealised concept of themselves and their lifestyle. Her last major West End role in Laura Wade’s superb Home I’m Darling as a wife wanting to live-out an idea of 1950s domestic perfection and vintage ease was a fascinating study in the dangers of nostalgia and our misplaced concept of historical reality that fractured beautifully in Parkinson’s fragile and nuanced performance. Parkinson has such an ability to tread the line between comedy and emotion which she uses here to great effect, drawing out the inner sadness and anguish that Viv experiences but maintaining the lightness of the play’s frame.

Here as the titular Shoe Lady there are similar ideas about the pressures placed on women especially to look, behave and even think a certain way. Crowe’s character is shown to be immediately afflicted by various contradictory worries but to the outside world as long as she looks presentable and normal in two shoes and can physically put one foot in front of the other, Viv’s interior struggles are irrelevant. Using that idea as the baseline of the play, we infer much of this from the writing and Parkinson’s performance, with Crowe starting from the point at which that changes. What we see, then, in Parkinson’s fascinating performance is a constant battle between wanting to maintain a semblance of normality, of adherence to social expectation while struggling to cope with the physical demands of her shoeless state.

So, while Viv proceeds with her day wearing only one shoe, makes it to work and continues to engage with her family, two intertwined things are happening to her; first her balance is physically and emotionally disrupted by the absent shoe, making her hobble but also slowly fracturing her sense of self and completeness with the missing part of her increasingly dominating her thoughts and actions. Parkinson is particular good at creating the confusion of Viv’s mind, the ways in which her thoughts splutter and disconnect, mindful only of the missing shoe – which itself represents another kind of internal balance that the treadmill of work and family expectation is disrupting or at least muting.

Second, is the bodily effect of Viv’s bare foot that becomes bloodied, painful and inflamed as she walks the city streets without any protection from the grit and damage of her journey. Parkinson often holds that leg out, drawing attention to its damaged state and incorporating greater physical distress into the performance as the impact of her day takes its toll on vulnerable flesh and bone. There is a sense of how easily we can suffer, how random acts and decisions, even the loss of a single shoe, can cause someone’s life to unravel fairly quickly and the audience is given an insight into the economic consequences for this small family.

Crowe uses secondary characters sparingly and allows them very little dialogue. Tom Kanji is Viv’s husband Kenny who remains mute for most of the time he is on stage, a presence in the same bed who attends to their child but rarely voices his own feelings or concerns to his wife. We learn that Kenny is also facing potential problems at work with redundancy looming but Viv quickly becomes absorbed by her own day, creating an interesting effect that Kanji manages well to create a character who is present but somehow colourless.

There is a similar challenge for the younger actors with Archer Brandon at this performance as Viv and Kenny’s child (he will be alternating the role with Beatrice White) and has a key birthday scene in which Viv tries to teach him an important life lesson without considering the impact of her behaviour. Her final interaction is with Elaine played by Kayla Meikle as a fellow shoeless woman fallen on hard times that Viv meets in the park and represents how far Viv has to fall. This also offers the play’s most comic scenes as the pair awkwardly tussle over footwear and their relative superiority.

Some of Shoe Lady’s production decisions are a little curious, including the regular appearance of stagehands to deliver props and dab further gory mixtures onto Parkinson’s exposed foot. And while the purpose is to jolt the audience back to reality, drawing attention to the unreality of the scenario created while practically managing the changing scenes creates a jarring effect, intruding on the carefully constructed composition of Lamford’s staging. The talking curtains in the house sale scene are also a weird addition that doesn’t develop into anything more significant later in the story, and is left hanging in every sense.

Matthew Herbert’s piano composition adds to the increasing drama, creating tension and anxiety that integrates really effectively with Lamford’s multipurpose design and the overall tone of nonsensical unease that Featherstone and Crowe create. With a very short run of only three week at the Royal Court, Shoe Lady may only be an hour but this is an intriguing and well-considered examination of the social and domestic pressures placed on women to perform multiple and often contradictory roles in our society.

Shoe Lady is at the Royal Court until 21 March with tickets from £14. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Teenage Dick – Donmar Warehouse

Teenage Dick - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Shakespeare and the High School rom-com go way back; the universality of his plays make them suitable for adaptation to a number of different environments and in the prescribed social structure of the American High School with its strict categorisations, power plays and love of social gatherings (proms, pep rallies and elections) it is a perfect setting to explore some of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes. Gil Junger’s 1999 reworking of The Taming of the Shrew became the accomplished 10 Things I Hate About You, a high point of the genre that made stars of Julia Styles and Heath Ledger, while Baz Luhrmann took a more traditional approach to the language if not the style of his 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring pin-up Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And plenty of High School movies have at the very least referenced or borrowed plot points or ideas from Shakespeare including Never Been Kissed in 1999 whose heroine played by Drew Barrymore adored As You Like It.

In this context, Mike Lew’s new stage adaptation of Richard III feels surprisingly at home in its new world of teenage angst and social divisions set against the backdrop of the Senior Class President elections at one normal American High School. Taking Shakespeare’s overarching plot, some characters and themes as inspiration, the way in which the two genres have been melded together is remarkably sophisticated although on the surface Teenage Dick looks and sounds like your almost average US teen movie. And while the adaptation has not found universal favour among the critics, anyone growing-up in the era of the High School rom-com will delight in its affection for the genre and an approach that celebrates rather than dilutes Shakespeare’s text.

From the mid-1980s with The Breakfast Club to the mid-2000s when High School Musical signaled the end of the golden age of this enduring genre, for 20-years the US high school movie was a relatively low-budget staple of productions aimed at the teen audience. While the tone varied, they all had their stock formula, usually some kind of disaffected loner or outsider drawn into the world of the cool kids in order to effect change, social realisation and self-belief. There were highs like Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls (2004) – both now stage musicals – as well as the satire Election (1999) and there were plenty of lows too but the genre launched the careers of actors from Paul Rudd to Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron to Rachel McAdam, Alicia Silverstone, Emilio Estevez and countless others who all went on to bigger, albeit quite different careers.

In Teenage Dick Lew absorbs all of this to believable create Roseland Junior High where jock Eddie is gunning for re-election as Senior Class President having served in the position for two years based entirely on his good looks and football-star status. Surrounding him in what is a very small cast for this kind of setting, we have a teacher Miss York looking to promote social equality and justice, therefore easy to manipulate, and the outcasts demarcated by their disabilities. But integrating Shakespeare into this context makes Lew’s approach so much more interesting than that and soon the audience is questioning whether the apparent divisions we are shown are only truly visible to Richard Gloucester, our protagonist and potential villain.

The central role is recognisably Richard III and those who know the play well will enjoy watching his masterful manipulation of friends and teachers as he manoeuvres himself into candidacy while letting his helpers think it was their idea. But in our more enlightened times, Lew deliberately sidesteps the notion of a truly dastardly Richard while also deciding to tone down the violence to make it appropriate for the High School setting. Instead, Lew asks interesting questions – as Shakespeare does to a degree – about the perception of Richard’s disability and its role in preventing others from seeing him as a leader. Most importantly though, we see clearly how Richard fails to see past his own physical appearance and it is this misconception about others that drives his behaviour and the action of the play.

What is so interesting about Teenage Dick is that there are no straightforward heroes and villains, so we see both Richard and Eddie behaving badly, squaring-up to one another while also being reminded that they are essentially children, 17-year olds acting out with a greater capacity for emotional development than the early part of the play suggests. The audience becomes complicit in its categorisation of the characters into their High School cliches before Lew spends some time in the second half revealing more complex truths beneath the surface.

Richard’s plan to bring about Eddie’s downfall initially seems straightforward and entirely justified when the popular boy taunts and mercilessly bullies Richard, using his disability against him. Eddie’s arrogance and use of offensive language to describe Richard’s condition pit the audience against him while he appears equally cruel in dumping the play’s love interest Anne Margaret before the action begins. Yet as with Shakespeare’s version, our changing opinion and understanding of Richard starts to recast the people around him, including Eddie so before too long other traits including his friendship with Barbara Buckingham known as “Bucks” and his clear popularity at the Presidential Debate force us to re-evaluate our judgement of him. This is only given greater emphasis by the shocking revelations and events of the last section that makes us wonder if, as our narrator, Richard has been manipulating the perspective of the audience as well as the characters.

Lew follows Shakespeare and incorporates aspects of his work in interesting ways across the play, occasionally having Richard break into a flowery Elizabethan structured speech (something which “Bucks” reminds him repeatedly is weird) and maintaining the wonderful soliloquies in which the protagonist directly addresses the audience in spotlighted revelations of his evil plans – there’s even a very funny moment when “Bucks” is onstage for one of these and thinks her unresponsive friend has just gone to “his happy place.” More humour comes from the occasional phrase borrowed from other plays including Julius Caesar – it is used sparingly but adds to the semi-artificiality that both the High School setting and Shakespeare create in allowing Richard to narrate his own story.

But Lew also gives Shakespeare short shrift for his treatment of women and the expansion of Anne Margaret’s character to create the central romance as well as delving into her backstory, aspirations and own feelings of self-exclusion which are meaningfully explored. There is a very sweet tentative chemistry that builds between the initially nervous Anne and Richard, two people from quite different cliques who find humanity in each other, and it is this which prevents Lew’s play from becoming either too snide or too lightweight. The effect of Richard’s decisions have significant consequences for this character and Lew gives her a chance to meaningfully address the viewer and stake her claim to relevance beyond Richard’s existence.

Lew has stipulated that both Richard and “Bucks” must be played by disabled actors which makes perfect sense in this version of the story. Daniel Monks is superb as the teenage Dick of the title, a young man tired of being defined and reduced by his physical appearance so decides to assume the mantle of the villain – as his Shakespearean counterpart does – to upset the balance of power in the school. What makes Monks’s performance so interesting is the conflicted perspective he brings to the role and not only does his Richard believe he is a good person using nefarious means to bring about a greater good, but sometimes he really is.

This nuance is evident all the way through the show and while it takes Richard to quite different places, navigating both a sensitive and sweet relationship with Anne Margaret that develops a real emotional honesty, and into some much more controversial territory as he schemes and undermines his friends, Monks retains the oily fascination of the original character who cannot see beyond his own image and uses that to blame others, while finding a large degree of empathy for his genuine social struggles. And this makes his final actions all the more shocking as he loses control and perspective.

The supporting cast is equally fine, particularly Siena Kelly as the compression of two Shakespearean originals to create a young woman desperate to hide from the spotlight to focus on her dream of becoming a dancer, but she learns to care for Richard and Kelly makes her trajectory extremely moving. Ruth Madeley is a calm presence as best friend “Bucks”, the only character to remain rational throughout, refusing to be blinded by Richard’s obsession with Eddie and finding plenty of comedy in their sparky interactions. Susan Wokoma is fantastic as the enthusiastically naive teacher unwittingly drawn into Richard’s plans, while Callum Adams as Eddie and Alice Hewkin as Clarissa perfectly represent their High School tribes but get to offer some deeper sense of motivation and emotion beneath the surface.

It all looks wonderfully recognisable in Chloe Lamford’s basketball court setting, with floor markings and hoop redolent of any secondary school gymnasium. Characters are dressed appropriately for their social status with Richard in the trademark black jeans and t-shirt of the outsider while sweatshirts and school-branded baseball jackets mark out the sporty boys. The transformations are quickly managed by Director Michael Longhurst who takes a cinematic approach to scene changes using speedily rearranged furniture and lighting to maintain pace. The ball scene is simply and effectively achieved instantly establishing the characteristics of an event we’ve seen in countless movies, but it is the inclusion of projected social media feeds, hashtags, tweets and characters filming on their smartphone that brings this up to date, skewering our modern obsession with an instant visual record and online responsiveness that magnifies every humiliation and private moment.

The murderous tension doesn’t build in the same way as Shakespeare’s original and that sense of deathly danger is all but expunged, yet at only 1 hour and 50 minutes rather than three hours something has to give, not to mention that the idea of mass murders in a High School setting would be in pretty poor taste. Lew has nonetheless created a version of Richard III that suits this context extremely well asking the audience to consider attitudes to disability, power and social structures that perpetuate all kinds of inequality. Teenage Dick may make less sense to those who bypassed the High School movie, but Lew’s play is funny, sad and meaningful, and like Joel Edgerton and David Michod’s film The King, Lew demonstrates that Shakespeare’s characters, plots, structure and themes are just as important as his verse and vocabulary, proving that Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature is as relevant to a battlefield in Leicestershire as it is to a High School gym in America.

Teenage Dick is at the Donmar Warehouse until 1 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Antipodes – National Theatre

The Antipodes - National Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Annie Baker is a major force in modern American theatre whose work captures the sense of a nation battling with its identity, history and loss of purpose. Her characters are always people who, whether they realise it or not, dream of more, of being something or someone else but are economically and emotionally trapped in the perpetual cycle of their own existence from which they are unlikely to break free. The way in which Baker deconstructs the modern American psyche is every bit as accomplished and vital as David Mamet’s skewering of masculinity in the 1980s, but with her own cerebral approach that distinctly uses language to create tension between the intellectual and instinctual in her plays, while drawing on the the underlying tones of religion and mysticism that run through Western societies where faith and science sit side-by-side.

Her latest play The Antipodes is at least an hour shorter than her previous works in the UK – The Flick and John – and focuses on the essential nature of storytelling set in a kind of writers’ room where a small group of people share personal anecdotes over a three month period. What they are all doing there, what the outcome is supposed to be and who they are working for isn’t the point – and it’s not something Baker spends any time trying to explain -because for a play in which plot is the key driver, there really isn’t one. Instead it is these various interactions that become the point as the team explore what it means to tell a story, where stories come from and why they need to feel authentic.

That is not to say that Baker’s scenario doesn’t create a number of questions that have subtle points to make about the ways in which we appropriate individual stories and often commercialise them with little benefit to the storyteller – note here the character of Josh who months into the project still hasn’t received his ID card and most importantly hasn’t been paid despite being an equal contributor to the group – is he being used? Clearly, the team are working for a big commercial organisation represented in Chloe Lamford’s design as a large corporate and soulless boardroom – no pictures or inspiration adorning the wood paneling  and just a stockpile of Perrier water in the corner. There is nothing about this room that inspires imagination or creativity, yet the occasional references to boss Max suggest the scale of this business endeavour and whether it is TV show development, a film project or video game design, there is a feel of exploitation, of something being taken from these people without them realising, dressed up as an exclusive opportunity.

One of The Antipodes most interesting aspects is how Baker controls the changing nature of the stories being told and while these may seem random there is a deliberation behind what people share and when that builds a sense of isolation and even mania around the room as the play unfolds. So it begins with questions posed by Sandy – a management representative who controls the pace and nature of the conversation without sharing himself – using icebreakers that encourage the group to reveal intimate details such as how they lost their virginity and biggest regrets. Over time these become clearly fantastical, taking on the sci-fi bent that they have been gathered to create and running alongside this are discussions about the nature of time, as well as the monsters and creatures that will be included in the final story. The point is that eventually one of them will tell the right story, that the influence of the collective unloading will be something they can sell.

What is so interesting about Baker’s play is not only the intensity of the pressure as eight people remain trapped in a room, but that it takes them all back to the beginning of life itself. Those strands of mysticism and Christianity emerge in elaborate evocation of the Adam and Eve story where the act of creation becomes the ultimate tale, and one which is mirrored by the simplicity of the childhood stories that Eleanor tells. Baker has things to say about how we over-complicate our stories, we elaborate, add dramatic emphasis to make them seem more important and include complex subplots to sustain interest, but what we miss is the youthful innocence of a child’s story with its straightforward detail and rapid resolution, while our obsession with monsters and fear of the dark stems from the biblical twosome who started it all, that all stories will eventually take us back to the origins of life.

The pacing of The Antipodes is still finding its rhythm ahead of Wednesday’s press night but co-directed by Baker and Lamford, it’s almost there with only a couple of energy sags later in the production as the characters themselves tire of the process they’re being subjected to. Like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, Baker employs no clear scene breaks and instead changes in time happen with just a flicker from the actors, the lights alter perhaps or the group simultaneously move their chairs creating an unbroken flow to the narrative that helps to create the growing displacement that affects the characters as the show unfolds.

There is also a strong sense of the apocalypse outside that increasingly draws Sandy away to attend to diseases and extreme weather conditions that give the Boardroom a bunker feel, as though storytelling has become our refuge against the outside world. That contrast is well created by Baker and Lamford, adding a fear of the external and a growing displacement from it that adds to the safe-space concept within the room. The reality seems fantastical, that, outside the stories being created in the room, the world is upside down and only here is truth.

While we hear often deeply personal tales from each of the  members of the group, Baker determinedly doesn’t distract us with too much characterisation and although there is enough distinction between them, it is their collective function as a a hive mind that holistically  deteriorates and struggles that determines the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their stories and  their ability to conjure these experiences is the point and it is notable that while petty competition  and momentary tensions exist between them, these are not the focus, so there are no dramatic breakdowns for individuals or even particularly separate trajectories. This can be a strange and puzzling  experience at times but as with the scene in which the team take part in an interrupted futuristic-looking conference call with Max, Baker is asking us to consider how we form the collective stories we tell as groups, societies and nations. And by taking the voices or experiences of others into the very concept of identity, how we express and communicate that through language to embed these ideas and reinforce them between generations.

Of the eight characters, Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor is purposefully the only woman in the creating set, and Baker uses the character quite carefully to explore both her different mode of storytelling and the small moments of sexism endemic in these scenarios. Matthews is clearly separated from the others not by distance but in bringing her own food each day as well as the expression of her anecdotes. You see in the opening scene that the men describe their first sexual experience as a technical or circumstantial occurrence – who, what, and how – but Eleanor never shares these details only the feeling, the strong impression of it which Matthews delivers with the warmth the memory holds for her character. Later, she subtly conveys her astonished indignation when she sees Dave take credit for an idea she had expressed in an earlier scene. Matthews has a way of drawing the audience to her character, part of the group but always noticeable and intriguingly fragile.

Arthur Darville’s Dave is the most competitive and is the team member trying to keep everyone else on track when Sandy is absent. He’s outraged when he catches Eleanor texting after phones were banned and takes a high-handed approach to chastising her. Similarly, he frequently emphasises how lucky they all are to be chosen and how hard he has worked to get into this room. Dave’s behaviour stems from a need to ensure that no one else jeopardises his big chance, but Darville also gives him a hint of neurotic frustration, an arrogance about his creative abilities and a need to be seen as the unofficial second that adds additional layers to a play where movement and dramatic development are deliberately stifled.

Among the remaining cast, Conleth Hill is a force as boss Sandy, the only one allowed to stay in contact with the outside world and who openly displays his interest or contempt for what he’s hearing with a steely gaze. Imogen Doel as PA Sarah becomes a marker of time passing with constantly changing outfits and is the pleasant face of the corporate machine who becomes increasingly drawn into the creative process, while Fisayo Akinade has a great monologue in the final part of the show. Completing the cast is Matt Bardock as Danny M1 who has more of a no-nonsense approach than the rest and tells a wince-inducing and graphic story that will make you recoil in your seat, while Bill Milner as note-taker Brian performs a strange ritual that could be better explored in the text. Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 whose squeamish reluctance opens him up to criticism adds a depth to the dynamic, as does Hadley Fraser as new recruit Josh obsessed with stories that play with time but finds himself unable to fully benefit from the corporate machine determined to use him.

Annie Baker’s plays can be an acquired taste and in spite of its much shorter running time this is one of her most challenging so far. At times you do wonder if perhaps she has bitten off more than she can chew in an attempt to explore the universality of storytelling, while the descent into a kind of collective insanity may seem strange in lieu of a plot. But this is a writer with lots to say and always with her work, you find your thoughts returning to it again and again once the curtain comes down. We are a culture built on storytelling, the myths we believe about ourselves and our national history, the way the news is presented to us and the tales we daily pay to consume on TV and in the cinema. But we never stop to ask ourselves who is telling these stories and why – this is the brilliance of The Antipodes, Baker’s decision to jettison the plot leaves us to wonder what madness is filling the void?

The Antipodes is at the National Theatre until 23 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


The Cane – Royal Court

The Cane - Royal Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.


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