Whoever is in charge of choosing the plays for the Bush Theatre certainly has a social concussion. So far this year they’ve covered themes from racism to legal aids cuts, and tonight, we come upon global warming. One thing they can never be accused of is not tackling some meaty topics.
Knowing the theme of the play, the title does sort of speak for itself really, but the polar bear also takes physical form in the young daughter’s stuffed toy, lost somewhere in the home that the parents are trying to sell in order to move to somewhere nicer by the river, a move being made possible by the father’s high powered job in an energy company and who is working on a deal that will make the move even more possible.
Added to the stress of the lost toy and father’s job, we have the wife, stressed about everything in life and desperate to give her daughter everything she can to make sure she has the best start in life, then the energy conscious au pair from Iceland who is stressed about the tiniest little piece of silver foil in the bin rather than it being in the recycling, and finally the ex-drug addict brother, happy with his simple life and girlfriend who “isn’t a looker but she makes me happy” but stressed about making amends with the brother who he admires. Oh and there is also the hamster that needs its twice daily exercise. There is a lot of stress in this household.
And as ever with the Bush Theatre, it’s all played out on a stage that has been so well thought out. One of the joys of attending a new play here is in seeing how the space has been laid out; this time around they return to a centre stage, with seating around the outside. And with just 144 seats its always intimate, no matter where you sit. You’re so close to the action at times you could almost reach out and touch the actors; in fact tonight I was sitting alongside one of the four entrances into the stage and at a rather dramatic point between young daughter and father, was almost face to face with him as he raved and slowly lost his mind. It was slightly disturbing to say the least. The knife in his hand didn’t help much either.
The set is as simple as always here; one room, a few items of furniture, walls defined by strips of lights, which are used for great effect as the play progresses, and almost everything else is left to the imagination and aided by sound and light effects. The four exits off stage and between the seated audience become the rest of the house; through one door you know it’s the kitchen, you can even hear the tumble dryer, much to the dismay of the au pair who feels they could hang clothes out to dry!
It’s played out at a fast, at times hectic, pace, and over and done in 90 minutes flat without a break, just to add to the stress that is building. And to drum home the central message of global warming, there is a lot of talk of energy consumption, mobile phones are constantly plugged in, the aforementioned tumble dryer comes on and off, lights flicker, and we see family life on the edge for the first hour as mum and dad rush around with their busy important lives, while brother and au pair try to stay calm and enjoy the simpler life. And at the same time, they all seek the lost polar bear.
The play is certainly funny, the writing keeps it moving along nicely and the staging keeps your eyes focused and your mind engaged. It’s not until the last half hour that the play starts to really preach it’s message, but in a way that isn’t as clear cut as you might expect. Yes the message is that we are killing the planet, but the central argument becomes one of whether one person can make a difference, or even whether many people can change things. And if I was to be critical at all, I’d say here it slightly fails, as over a short space of time we go through too many options and thoughts, although it is probably the intention to show how things cannot be as black or white as we would wish. But this one issue aside, it’s a play worth an evening out.
And as ever with anything I’ve seen at Bush Theatre, you do walk out knowing you have not only enjoyed an evening out seeing a great play as well as knowing that you will be discussing this for the rest of the evening afterwards with whoever you may have seen it with.
A play about legal aid cuts… no, wait, it’s not that bad, please, don’t stop reading, give it a chance. Still here? Good, so, as I was saying…
Legal aid and the government’s decision to reduce eligibility to claim it is maybe not the most riveting of topics for a play. So when the Bush Theatre commissioned Rebecca Lenkiewicz to write such a play, there are many thoughts that spring to mind. Such as:
You want what as the topic of a play?
Are you mad?
Why did she actually say yes?
and the list goes on. Thankfully Lenkiwicz did said yes. And gave very good reason for that.
Such a remit in the hands of mere amateurs would no doubt be a disaster, then again, most things in the hands of amateurs usually are; take this review for starters. The first things that come to mind about legal aid, for those of us a little left leaning, is how it will create a two tier legal system, how the less fortunate of society will be trodden upon as they fail to get the help they need. So it would be all too easy to write something that shows this in all its ugly truth, the rich against the poor played out in the courtroom, the under-privileged against the privileged, and we all know where that ends.
It’s a relief then that Lenkiewicz goes for a more subtle approach. While our central character, Gail, may be a lawyer struggling to pay the bills of her small community based firm, it’s hardly noticeable for much of the time. In fact the two halves of the play both open around her (disastrous) blind dates as she seeks out romance to get away from the pressures of the day job. It’s humorous as we watch first the discomfort as the dates clatter along without success, and then they are used to subtly introduce the topic at hand; both dates in fact being just an excuse for the men to try to get help with their own issues, both unable to afford proper legal assistance.
Interspersed with her doomed love life we see her legal firm; her and an assistant, and the pressures of running this as funding is slashed. It may be subtly done, but for anyone with knowledge of the type of people who are the clients of such firms, it is clear what the message is going to be.
Over the course of two enjoyable hours we see reference to who is going to be most affected by such cuts; those with low level mental health, those living in sub-standard housing, those earning just enough to survive but not enough to employ a solicitor when things go wrong. Again, the list goes on, but it can be simplified maybe by just saying “the poor.” Or if you are a Tory lover, that can be rephrased for you as “unimportant people.”
The play flows smoothly, scenes move quickly from the blind dates around the restaurant table, into the law firm, into the lives of those affected and in need of such help. And slowly the picture is built, that these are people who aren’t scroungers, they aren’t leeching off us hard working upstanding citizens, but rather, and for various reasons, they are people in need of help. And the play shows that the help is going to vanish, leaving those who need this help stranded. Simple as.
The problem as ever with plays such as this is twofold. Firstly, in its simplicity. It is near-on impossible to do justice to such a serious topic in two hours whilst also entertaining. Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s already preaching to the converted. I doubt anyone who bothers to turn up to this charming little theatre in Shepherds Bush is the type of person who doesn’t already agree with Lenkiewicz’s views of being “deeply troubled about the way society increasingly talks about the poor and less fortunate.”.
Then again, as she also says, “All I can do is shout loudly about it. A play may be a very small ripple, but it’s a start.” And there are a few minutes during “The Invisible” when that ripple becomes a wave, reaching a level of awareness that should be recorded and played over and over again to anyone who thinks legal aid should be done away with; I’m thinking we should all club together and hire a big screen to play it on outside the next Tory party conference, anyone fancy chipping in?
For we see Aisha, one of three totally varied characters played by the same actor, Sirine Saba (and to me, the absolute stand out performance). She sits and explains what has happened to her. The background already having been set earlier; an arranged marriage, moved to live with her new husband and his over-bearing mother, and quickly isolated and abused, physically and mentally.
She speaks softly and slowly, in stuttering English, how she feels, how she is in need of help but has not been able to find anyone who will listen to her. Yet. It’s an incredibly powerful few moments, gone is the light heartedness of it all for the briefest of scenes.
Then Gail begins to ask her to expand, and there is a sad beauty as Aisha repeatedly changes the subject, seemingly shocked that someone is, at last, taking her seriously, that there is help at hand to someone in a strange place with no friends, no support and no money. “It was my birthday on Saturday, we went to Kew Gardens” she explains in complete contrast to the violence she has been the victim of as she pulls out sweets to offer to Gail, as in a way of saying thank you for listening.
In those few minutes perhaps the very meaning of the play is in full glare for anyone who takes the time to watch it, and maybe in the audience each night might be one or two people whose opinions could alter, and that could be the small ripple Lenkiewicz is referring to?
So, still reading? In that case, please do think about going, it is a wonderful way to spend two hours in a wonderful little theatre.
Just four days after being at The Royal Court for the shocking but brilliant “Violence And Son“, I found myself returning back again to see “hang”, the other play currently showing in this split venue. “Violence and Son” had left such an effect on me that it was strange to go back to the same building so soon and try to watch another play, especially another play that was clearly going to need a lot of thought.
I was very much hoping for something slightly less shocking and disturbing, and thankfully I got it, sort of anyway. I mean, what on earth could be a better piece of light relief than what was basically a discussion on capital punishment and what it might be like if we were allowed to select the way it was to be administered? Oh yes, light relief indeed!
I’d decided to go to see “hang” purely and simply on the basis of the lead actor, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, known to me for her role in “Without A Trace”, a standard American TV series, but one of those shows that just got my interest, and in no small part because of her, as she seemed to give the show some character. So it was a little surprising to find she was born and bred in London, and had cut her teeth in places like the Royal Court originally. Of course from the moment she opened her mouth tonight, suddenly it was very obvious she was a London girl, the accent clearly not faked.
“hang” (yes I know I keep putting a small “h”, it’s apparently how it’s meant to be, take it up with the writer if you have a problem) reminded me in so many ways of “The Nether“. Both plays worked around a central concept that for a long time isn’t made obvious. Like “The Nether” it takes time to start to piece it together, to work out what is really going on. It’s not giving anything away to explain that our central nameless character is a victim of crime, we don’t know what the crime was except that it is clearly serious. She expresses her anger at being a victim, and in very clear and blunt words explains how it has destroyed her family, and how the two officials she is in the room with just do not understand how she is feeling.
It’s 70 minutes of superb acting, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is worth the effort, her anger is real, and as I watched, I swear she shrunk physically on the stage as she moved through the emotions, going from anger to misery as it seemed the person who did whatever it was to her seems to have one final moment to take away more of her dignity.
Like “The Nether”, the play doesn’t have a real beginning or an end, it’s all about a middle, It’s up to the audience to decide those parts; the beginning is the question of what brought us here, although I would argue we don’t really need to know, and the end, what of the person who committed the crime, and what of the victim and her family afterwards.
It’s one of those plays that is open to so much debate, something that you could discuss for hours afterwards in the bar; both on the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, as well as the more personal question of how would we deal with being able to make the decision of how someone should be put to death.
While “Violence And Son” left me stunned and disturbed about its context, “hang” was very different; it entertained and it left questions, both about what it didn’t tell you as well as what we would do in a similar position. Enjoyable in the debate that it leaves and enjoyable to see an actor dominate a stage and show what separates the good actors from the great ones. And Marianne Jean-Baptiste is clearly great.
Thankfully though, while the subject matter was heavy, the fact we couldn’t relate to these characters in the same way we could with “Violence And Son” meant that even as we watched our leading lady shake with anger, for me I could watch and admire without feeling the same way I had those few days earlier. I’m not sure I want to feel that way again for a while!
So, after a week where I saw two great but heavy plays in one great venue, I’m now thinking it’s time for something more light and fluffy and easy-going; anyone fancy coming to see “1984” with me soon then?
I so want to be very flippant, casual and easy going when I write here, but at the same time, as anyone who knows me will testify, I can get just a little serious and way too deep in my thoughts. So “Violence and Son” left me in a real quandary. Because I am not sure I can be so causal about something that left such an impact on my thoughts, both good and bad, and left the girl sitting next to me crying as we stood to applaud the fantastic performance of the four actors.
But at the same time, I want to talk about the things that made this a great piece of theatre; the humour, the theatre’s layout, the endless Doctor Who references, as well as explain the pain of Sloane Square tube station being closed for the day meaning I had to walk through the high street on a Saturday afternoon trying not to imagine burning the whole place down.
So, maybe a review in two halves is needed. Let’s start with the serious…
I’ve been told recently that I have a pre-disposition to put myself into situations that I find uncomfortable. Apparently by generating my own discomfort I can fulfil my need to feel something. Yes I know, deep shit hey!
That theory though might explain why, after a week of work that involved the usual wide range of social problems for which it’s never easy to find a solution, I thought it would be a good idea to go and watch a play called “Violence And Son”; I think the title alone should make it fairly obvious where this was going to lead.
I’ve seen some “weird shit” (I’m loving that phrase, courtesy of Tracey, see my review of The Angry Brigade for the reason) but as the first half of this drew to a close, I was feeling more uncomfortable than normal in the small confines of the upstairs of the Royal Court theatre.
Firstly there was the context of the play, the alpha male who is happy with the fact he is nicknamed “Vile” short for violence, “you know, how when you are young you get a nickname based on what you do, like Pat the Butcher” explains the girlfriend, apparently equally relaxed that he is more handy with his fists than his mind.
Then there is the way the first scene of the play is so sweet, innocent and funny; Liam, the 17 year old son in the title, and his friend Jen, returning to his home after a Doctor Who convention, Liam dressed as the Matt Smith era doctor, Jen as Amy Pond as she first appeared in Doctor Who, a kissagram police woman. It is all very geeky with references to the series flying from their mouths. At the same time, there is a tension between them as the audience know full well Liam fancies her, but there is some innocence as to whether the feeling is mutual.
Even when the father and his girlfriend Suze are introduced, the humour and innocence remain, as the pair tease Liam about Jen; “a girl don’t wear a skirt that is nothing more than a belt just for a friend” the father explains to his son with a knowing wink. It’s all looking rather cute and sweet and nothing like the title suggests. Except well, we all know it’s not going to last.
As we hit the interval, “hit” being the word you need to place some emphasise on there, the violence of the title freshly played out right in front of us, there is a momentarily stunned silence in the room as the lights go out. As they come back, there is the normal chatter as the audience discuss it and get up to relieve the tension, in both body and mind.
While this is happening, I’m thinking “why do I do this to myself?” The absolute discomfort of the subject matter, the familiarity of scenes I have seen played out in real life, “He doesn’t mean to do it, it’s not his fault” being a phrase that seems so apt. And however unfair it may be, I feel a disgust at both myself and my fellow audience members for taken such a serious subject and treating it as just a piece of entertainment to pass a few hours of our middle class lives. This feeling really isn’t helped as I watch around me, a trio return from the bar with a bottle of wine to share, something so middle class and casual in this, something for a moment I want to scream out “how can you just drink that, surely you need to take in what you have just watched first?”
The second half is even more harrowing; suddenly a sledge hammer is causally laid against the wall. Where did that come from, I’m sure it wasn’t there earlier, and worse still, I’m now fixated by it, it clearly has a purpose. And again it’s reminding me of something else I have seen for real recently, not a sledge hammer but a garden fork, but the same thoughts were in my mind then.
The play drives on, the humour still there to break up the tension, but less so now as we wait for what we all know is going to happen at some point. Except it doesn’t, the title doesn’t play out that obviously.
Because this play suddenly turns in a way no one watching could possibly have been expecting, and it is that turn that I found so harrowing, driving home a concept that is at the heart of so much I feel strongly about; how our actions affect children, how children learn from their parents, their guardians, their protectors; that what we do later in life is so strongly influenced by what happens to us and around us when we are children. And I’m thinking that most of us in the audience had very good childhoods, so this is just a play, just two and a half hours of entertainment before we wander home for maybe another glass of wine, thankful we don’t have to deal with dreadful people like “Vile” for real, we just won’t come across them in our safe little lives.
As the play ends, you do feel the tension in the theatre, that final twist so unexpected. I think we could have handled the violence we were waiting for, we may have been upset but not as upset as we were with what we were given instead. This was worse, much much worse.
As we start to walk out I am talking to the girl beside me, the one crying, and I ask “has this really affected you that much?” She nods with a smile, and I do have some hope that she will be thinking about that when she is home, that maybe for some in the audience it isn’t just about a few hours entertainment to please our middle class needs, but also it will make us think a little more, understand a little more about the lives of others outside our happy norms, and maybe, just maybe, will change an attitude or two.
Too hopeful? I don’t know, but as I said, sometimes I think too much, maybe I should just think of this as two and a half hours of stunning theatre and leave it at that, it would probably be so much more healthy for me. Whichever, I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants to be stunned, shocked, moved;
Told you it was heavy shit didn’t I. I do apologise, and promise I will be more light-hearted when I write the second half of this later.
“I’ll come to the theatre with you. But none of your weird shit.” my friend and work colleague suggested while we were having lunch one day in April. For someone so respected in the office, she does sometimes have a direct and blunt way with words
Of course what I should have asked is “define weird.” I mean, just look at the big west end shows, surely they are “weird” when you think about it. we have people painted green, others pretending to be animals, shows based on wars, shows about autism, and god knows what else. So, what exactly is my “weird shit” anyway?
But taking her simple request into consideration, I settled on The Angry Brigade, clearly not weird at all. What is wrong with a play based (loosely) on true events from the early 70s when a small group of activists bombed a number of big targets to protest against their perceived commercialisation of the world. See, perfectly normal, nothing weird at all in that, move along, nothing to see here thank you very much.
I’m fairly certain she agreed. As I forwarded on the emails from the theatre to tell us more about the play and its history, I took her comment of “oh god what have I let myself in for?” as a clear sign her interest had been piqued. Then the night of the play finally with us, I introduced her to the marvelous Bush Theatre; “yes, it is a converted library, what’s weird about that?”
So what about the play anyway, this perfectly normal play that I picked to avoid anything too weird? Well, it really is a play of two halves, both in content and style. The first half sees the four actors as the police seeking out the activists. Then the second half they are now the activists, the same time period as the first half now re-run from their viewpoint.
As the police, everything begins very formal, very straight, very normal. Desks are neatly arranged, people correctly attired, formalities followed, tea and biscuits on offer, everything is as it should be. But as it progresses and the four police officers try to get into the minds of the activists, it slowly changes. The office becomes a mess, paper strewn everywhere, desks are moved out of line, and the officers become more relaxed, no longer the formality of earlier; in uniform or language. In short, they slowly descend into a form of anarchy.
In total contrast, the second half begins in chaotic, anarchic fashion. The four actors, now playing the activists, run around the theatre, scenes happen all over the small and intimate surroundings, making us look all around ourselves to see where the voices are coming from. Scenes descend into song and dance for no apparent reason other than it is anarchy. Other scenes flick quickly between time lines, no longer the more linear approach of the first half. And yet as they head towards the moment where the two halves collide and end, there are suggestions that the anarchists are becoming more formal; tea is even being served.
Lines slowly become blurred between the two halves, the police formality trails towards anarchy while the anarchists seem to seek more formality. You are left wondering who are the good guys and who are the bad? After all, how can the bad guys be the ones claiming to want to help others, and yet how can the good guys be the ones planting bombs? As with so much, there is no real answer, no black and white, just many blurred lines in-between.
There are some stunning performances, the ease with which the four actors switch between characters, one moment a police officer, the next a witness, then later an activist, leaves you admiring how flawless and flowing it all is.
There is clearly some artistic licence to the play, and I’m sure if I were to research the real history, much of what was portrayed tonight would be debatable as to its truthfulness.
While set in 1971, it had the feel of today, and maybe it can be questioned how much of the premise was influenced by today’s thinking. Concepts of commercialisation, a lack of trust in authority, politicians having vested interests, all maybe as true today as when the Angry Brigade were rallying against them in their time.
But as with all good theatre, the aim is to make you think, to make you discuss it. And discuss it me and my friend did as we wandered back to the tube afterwards; the concept, the stunning performances, the fantastic use of such minimal staging, and the perfectly normal non-weirdness of it all… ok, maybe the last wasn’t discussed, maybe that was in my mind?
And in-between our happy deep ramblings about what we had just seen, she stated “I want to read what you write before you put it on your blog.” And for a moment I thought that would be only fair, but then on second thoughts, we had just seen a play about anarchy, and well, I thought it only right that I should have this one act of rebellion, it’s the anarchist in me, live with it darling, live with it.
So I publish and be damned. After all my friend, it’s all just more of my “weird shit.” Take it up with me over lunch later while I try to convince you to come back to see something else perfectly as normal another time.
@ National Theatre, 19 May 2015
I hated homework, but not far into tonight’s play, I started to regret not having done any prior to deciding to watch Light Shining In Buckinghamshire. My knowledge of 17th century history is clearly a little lax, and this became very apparent as the play lead us through a potted history of the English Civil War of that time.
While I have a fleeting knowledge of many areas of history, the emphasis is on the word “fleeting”. In my defence, my History O-level covered 20th century history only, and I did get an A grade, and clearly the 17th century feel outside the remit of the 20th century. In fact, I came to realise half my knowledge of the history of that period appears to have come from 1980s music; the Levellers and New Model Army being two bands who were named after that period.
So, as tonight’s play led us through the history of that period, from the reasons for the uprisings, through the various factions that tried to form a new system of governance, and the aftermath of it all, I watched and did my very best to understand it all, but at times I confess, I was a little confused. And I doubt I was the only one.
But let’s be clear, this didn’t mean for a moment I didn’t enjoy it, there was certainly plenty to enjoy, and like many good plays, it left me wanting to understand more. It’s just that tonight it may have added to my enjoyment if I had understood a little more of the long speeches that were used to carry the story forward.
So what was there to enjoy? Well, let’s start with the stunning visual of the opening scene. The curtain opened (curtain in the loosest sense of the word) to reveal a table, and this was one very impressive table, taking up nearly the whole stage. And anyone who knows the stages at the National Theatre will know these aren’t small stages. The table was surrounded by well dressed noblemen, all finely dressed, clutching wine goblets and enjoying a feast. And as they did so, the play unfolded on the table itself. I told you it was a big table, big enough to be the stage.
Actors walked on and off the table as the scenes unfolded, the sheer grandiose of the play becoming clear as you took in the size of the cast. Even as the noblemen ate and drunk, we saw servants, soldiers, religious groups, one after the other, all setting the scene of how we led to the civil war. It’s certainly a brief history, but done in a way you can’t help but be taking in by.
There are heavy scenes, again this is where some greater knowledge might have helped. The whole scene as the various factions argue over the powers of a new parliament, and who should have the right to vote gets a little confusing, and was a struggle to follow who was who. Even here thou, it is interesting, and led to me wanting to know more, but it was an effort to understand what was going on right then.
As the second act opened, the table took centre stage as it had at the very beginning. As there was talk of the Levellers and Diggers, two terms I have a passing knowledge of, we watched in awe as the surface of the table was destroyed in front of us, dug up to represent the taking over of the land by the commoner, and suddenly the table become the land upon which they would plant their corn, and the land on which the second act would take place.
There was clearly a lot to cram in to the play, maybe a little too much, the cast seemed endless, and there was at least ten central characters to try to keep up with, and without that strong knowledge beforehand, that became difficult.
But even so, it was fun; it was fun to watch, it was fun to have a history lesson thrust upon us, and afterwards it was fun to come home and look up the levellers, the diggers, Oliver Cromwell, and many other things the play had put into my mind.
What is so great about theatre is that every experience can be so different. Obviously a big part of that is simply in seeing a new play, but it is also much more. It can be the experience of discovering a new venue; or the way a theatre already known has been adapted for a new play; or because of a totally different type of audience. Or, like my visit to see Woman In Black, it can be because of who you go with. But more of that later…
Considering how long The Woman In Black has been playing on the West End and that it had spawned two films, it had never really crossed my mind to see it. Not until the evenings company, Jenna, had suggested it as she had just recently watched the second of those films. For a play that has been running for so long, I was as innocent to the story as Jenna was to the theatre, my only knowledge coming from a vague remembrance of the film trailer a few years back; a big house, a solicitor, a ghost, a bit scary.
Thankfully there is so much more to the play than that, as I was to find out from Jenna. The play and the film are poles apart in how they tell the story, and both in themselves far from the original book the play was based on.
The play begins with our solicitor, Arthur Kipps, now an elderly man, dryly reading out his story, so carefully written down due to his desire to finally tell his family the horrors of his youth. It’s mumbled and hard to hear, and when he is interrupted from the back of the theatre, for a moment you actually worry someone in the audience is already annoyed at the lack of clarity. Thankfully not though, and you soon discover that he has sought out the assistance of an actor to better tell his story.
It’s a clever way to tell the story, allowing for the whole performance to be done by just the two actors; elderly Kipps and young actor. Even as they interchange roles, not for one moment is there any worry about why Kipps has suddenly become someone else and the actor has suddenly become the young Kipps.
It’s also a device that allows for massive liberties with the simple staging. When Kipps asks how they can possibly demonstrate being on a carriage, the young actor pulls a large chest out and sits on it, bouncing up and down, “like this, this is our carriage.” Even more of a liberty, the need for a dog is foregone as they simply pretend it is there, the actors eyes following the dog across the stage, leaning down to stroke it. It’s done so well you do feel as if there is a dog present.
As the story unfolds, it is the classic ghost story; unfortunate death leading to a sorrowful ghost seeking revenge. But even with its simplicity, both in story and staging, the way it is portrayed is enjoyable, and the way the tension is pushed up makes the moments of horror more effective. It’s also interesting to see that some tricks are ageless; the use of a torch to allow something to be momentarily glimpsed is used here in almost the same way as in Ghost Stories, a much more recent show.
But all this is not why seeing this was so enjoyable. It was, as I have said, the company kept. At the interval we spoke about the play, and Jenna was eager to explain how it differs from the film; “in the film…” she begins, explaining parts of the plot that were not in the play, at least not in the first act. Possible spoilers for what was to come, as I tried to tell her, “yeah, and in the film…” she continued to tell me what happened, clearly not having noticed the subtle hint of me pointing out I didn’t know what was going to happen as I hadn’t seen the film. Maybe I should have kept to my original suggestion of bringing a gag along for the evening for her?
Annoying? Not at all. Funny and entertaining and adding to the pleasure of the evening? Oh yes indeed.
And as the second act played out in front of us, I realised why every theatre experience can be so different. Because there is no greater theatre experience than seeing someone so clearly taken in by the drama unfolding in front of them. A glance to my side gave me the view of Jenna perched right on the edge of her seat, head resting on hands, leaning forward. For someone who already knew the story, she was still so taken in, completely immersed in the live performance. As was I, her possible spoilers at the interval not in fact being such.
This is why theatre is so good, why I go again and again, because every time it’s a different experience, because something new can happen to make it so memorable. The play in front of you doesn’t have to be the greatest thing ever to be put on stage, it just needs to be something that gives a new experience in one way or another.
Tonight that new experience was the company, her enthusiasm, her ability to almost tell me the story without realising it, and the sight of her totally engaged with the two actors on the almost bare stage riding a wooden chest and stroking an invisible dog.
As The Royale drew to its close tonight I sat in wonder as our central character, the black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, entered the ring against the world champion, except that the person facing him was his sister, who in herself represented the black population of America in 1905 when the play is set. As the fight was played out in superb chorography, the pair entered conversation about what the fight meant, not just to Jackson himself, but more importantly, the whole of the black population of America.
It was a scene that left me in wonder as to how someone could come up with such an idea; I can get my head around a character to represent more than one person (the black population) and an idea or thought (racial tensions), after all this is what the chorus line in every Greek tragedy is about, but to then take that concept and play it out in the guise of a boxing match is just utter genius, tinged with a stroke of madness and explains why this play has had such great reviews and is now sold out for the remainder of its run.
It’s very loosely based on the life of a real boxer, Jack Johnson rather than Jay Johnson. Jack Johnson did fight for the world heavyweight crown in 1905, a fight that did cause massive controversy at the time because he was black. Major liberties are taken with his story, but that is because the play isn’t really about him, but about the racial tensions of the times.
While the play closes with the boxing match ending, it also closes with the knowledge that more fighting is beginning in the form of the riots and tensions that occurred for real when Johnson won the fight, outrage that a black man could be the heavyweight champion and beat the white man, and that the black population celebrated. It’s a powerful end, more so because of the imagery of the sister as the opponent rather than the actual boxer.
The staging is as simple as it can get. The centre stage, surrounded on all four sides by banks of seating, is just a wooden square that shakes as the actors move around, and the only items used are two wooden stalls. And yet it doesn’t matter, it is a boxing ring from the moment the actors set foot on it and start the opening scenes, and it is the changing rooms of the boxing hall when they are talking pre-fight, it doesn’t need lots of props, just the right words and a little imagination, something that this play has plenty of.
The fights are played out in an imaginative way as well, at times the opponents aren’t even close, or looking at each other. At one point Jackson is addressing the audience with his thoughts, and as he swings his fists, his opponent folds over as if hit. It might sound stupid, but it works, the power of the words and the visual effect making the fact no punch really landed so unimportant.
This was a play that left me stunned on so many levels; I was in awe of not just the brilliance of the acting, the writing and the actors, but it also left me wanting to know more about the real boxer, and the history behind him and the real fight. Something that I did as soon as I was home, reading up on the real boxer and the issues around the troubles that the fight caused.
And it was a play I wanted to talk about, the first thing I did on leaving was text a friend with the less than subtle message “fucking hell that was powerful”, maybe not my most eloquent use of words, but I feel expressed how I felt in that moment.
There is a blackboard in the foyer of the theatre that simply says “287,182 people have screamed at Ghost stories. And all have kept the secret.”* The area around the number shows obvious signs of constant rubbing out, so it looks like someone has the role of updating this on a regular basis. Well, that makes it hard to write about it without giving too much away doesn’t it. But here goes…
The show is exactly what the title suggests, a collection of ghost stories all perfectly fitted together around a narrator. One of the things I enjoy with theatre is seeing how a narrator is worked into the story, and often a show will live or die on the strength of that one character. That is even more true with Ghost Stories, as the narrator, cast as a parapsychologist presenting a lecture, spends long periods alone on the stage, building the tension for the audience as he gives his talk that initially shows his disbelief in ghosts and ghouls, but as things develop you start to suspect something deeper going on in his denial.
The staging is well done. starting with just a lecture rostrum on the front of the stage with the curtain down. As the stories unfold, the set moves around the performers. For example, the first story is set in an old warehouse type building, and the simple set is just one room, that turns as the actor moves out to walk around the building, turning into a corridor, and then another room. Simple and effective, no doubt helped by the dimmed lighting and the fact the audience isn’t really concerned with the wobbly walls as they move, too focused on waiting for something scary to happen.Like all good ghost stories, they work best with an audience who are willing to suspend belief, who want to be scared. This is one show that just wouldn’t be the same with a polite demure audience waiting for the appropriate moment to clap and make any noise. Rather the show needs the background chatter as tension rises and falls. The writing is perfectly crafted for this, but what would you expect from a duo whose credits include The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson) and Derren Brown’s TV and stage shows (Andy Nyman). You can feel the withholding of breath, the discomfort of the more susceptible members of the audience as the tension builds, the shuffle of bodies as coats are lifted across faces ready to hide from the scare that could happen at any moment (https://twitter.com/GhostStoriesUK/status/553305308421181440 actually think I am sitting just under the words at the bottom of this picture.) It is this tension that makes a good ghost story, making even the most hardened viewer likely to jump when all those around you scream at just the right moment.
And as tonight’s audience included a whole school party taking up the best part of the front four rows, this audience was cannon fodder for the show. Even before it had started you could feel the tension. The eerie music and the flickering lights all creating a tense atmosphere that was having an effect even before the lights dimmed.
When things did really start and we got into the first of the stories, the audience were already primed, and just the rattling of a chain was enough to make some people yelp out well in advance of anything actually scary. But then, that is the art of a good ghost story isn’t it, those false moments when you expect something to happen, luring the audience into the hope that it won’t get any worse, when in fact everyone watching knows that soon something really is going to give you reason to scream.
For me, half the enjoyment tonight was the audience, and I do suspect this is the same most nights. Being in the third row, surrounded by the school group, meant I couldn’t help be drawn in to the tension as they almost sucked the air from the room as they all held their collective breaths. And sitting next to a young teen who spent the whole show with her coat pulled up to her chin, and at time over her whole face, squirming in her seat whenever things got even slightly tense, it all just added to the evening. Even if the clever staging and special effects weren’t going to make me react, having everyone around you jump and scream in unison certainly made sure we all got a fright too.
Ghost Stories is great fun, and even those who don’t do horror, it is still recommended. There is no gore, no long lasting memories of fear, it simply works well in making you jump, scream and then laugh at how simply you have been taken in by someone basically saying boo when you least expect it.
But remember, if you see it, don’t tell anyone the secret, or maybe the ghouls really will hunt you down for spoiling it for others.
* The number may be slightly wrong, and is obviously changed on a regular basis. In fact the words may be slightly wrong too, but the thought is right!
So this week I’ve been out to see a comedian, and then a few days later, a play. And in an effort to keep this blog fresh, I sat down the evening after the comedian to try to write something about it.
And I’ve realised just how damn hard it is to write about comedians. I mean, what do you say; he came out, told a few jokes, the audience laughed, he said goodnight and buggered off. Because that is basically what comedians are all about. Obviously there are differences, some are funnier than others, some tell one liners, others tell stories with punch lines. But when you break it all down, it is one person on stage with a mic talking to you.
Or to write that last bit again, but shorter; I haven’t been able to finish writing about the comedian yet, but here is something about the play I saw this afternoon, ‘cos plays are easier to write about than comedians.
But first, big thanks to the Royal Court for the upgraded seat. I’d like to think they realise my amazing reviews are so important to their existence, clearly sending hundreds, even thousands, more to their door. Or it could just be that it was a Saturday afternoon matinee performance, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it just wasn’t fully sold out. No no no, I’m pretty sure it was the first reason.
Hope is, at its most basic level, about a local council having to make massive savings in its budget due to the government austerity measures. Yes I know, it sounds riveting doesn’t it, who can resist a play about budget cuts and local councils. I know I couldn’t. Thankfully it does have plenty of laughs in it as well.
It centres around four local councillors as they deal with the difficulties of how to balance the budget following massive cuts to their funding. So far, so dull. At their heart is Mark, the deputy council leader, a man whose own son thinks he is weak and pathetic, and whose ex-wife runs a day care for people with disability and campaigns against these cuts.
Written by Jack Thorne, who I have now realised wrote the script for Let The Right One In, possibly the best play I have seen in my life, he does have a way with words and manages to squeeze plenty of laughs in-between the political point scoring. The interplay between deputy council leader Mark and his sixteen year old, know-it-all son produce some great moments; early on it appears that they about to have “the sex talk”, at which point the son asks “did you bring props, you know, condoms, a cucumber, maybe you have gone all the way and some lube?”. Crude but played out extremely well and full of humour.
It is clear where Thorne comes from, he has worked with Royal Court before, and right now this venue, like many others, is going through sweeping cuts and having to find new ways to fund themselves. And this play makes no attempt to hold back from criticism of such things. But it does give some balance, showing how to fund one thing will mean a need to cut elsewhere, and the difficulties faced in doing so. I could happily right now go on about the rights and wrongs of government cuts and my thoughts on all this, but maybe I should avoid that if I want people to read anything else I ever write.
While the politics is generally kept reasonably subtle, Thorne does allows himself one moment of preaching to the audience. The father of one councillor, a die-hard labourite, gives a speech to Mark about how things use to be, the solidarity, looking out for others, protesting against the wrongs of the government, doing things because they are right and not because they are popular, all things he feels have been destroyed. It’s an interesting scene and is the only time you really feel the politics is being forced onto you, but as it’s just the one scene, not enough to alienate those in the audience who came for the laughs rather than the politics.
The play runs through the year, showing how the budget is argued out, how decisions are made, and then unmade, how difficult this can be when there really is no choice, whatever they may try to do to protect everything.
It’s not until the very end that the meaning of the title reveals itself. And again, maybe this is Thorne revealing his true colours, his belief in people shining through.
Firstly we see what lies in store for the future, with Mark’s son showing he isn’t as cocky as he previously seemed, rather he is looking ahead, is realising that the world can be a good place, that it’s all about trying to do the right thing, that his father probably isn’t as pathetic as he first thought. And then at the very end, you see the councillors, the ones who have spent so long fighting about the budget, suddenly showing what they are there for really, to help others, to support; to give hope when before there was none.
For a change, I didn’t walk away from the Royal Court with hundreds of thoughts running through my head as I try to analysis what I have just seen. The themes of Hope aren’t earth-shattering, they aren’t going to change any political views of members of the audience. But what you do get is a feeling that even with the state of things today, there is Hope, and that there are people who care, who do things not for personal gain, but for the support of others. And it was this thought that I walked away with, a small glow that perhaps it isn’t as doom and gloom as we sometimes feel.