Unreachable by Anthony Neilson, Royal Court Theatre, 9 July 2016

I’ve heard it said that jazz is the only form of live music where the players seem to be having more fun than the audience. That was certainly so last night at the Wigmore Hall in Janie’s case; she certainly did not enjoy Christian McBride and Chick Corea as much as they enjoyed themselves.

Unfortunately for Janie, Unreachable by Anthony Neilson might be described as a theatrical equivalent of jazz. Neilson’s writing technique is to start with no more than an outline and to work up a piece through workshops, rehearsals, trial and error.

So much so that, rarely for the Royal Court, there was no play text available for this piece. Simon David at the bookstall told us proudly that the piece is still being devised even beyond press night (which was the previous night). Simon also commended the piece to us.

I got a heck of a lot more out of it than Janie did. She hated the piece so much she even wanted to abandon me and the car at half time; then reluctantly relented and agreed to stay for the remaining 45 minutes, suggesting that she might sleep a bit during that second half. But it wasn’t a relaxing enough piece to fall asleep in much, according to Janie. I agree with that last point.

The play opens with a scene showing Natasha (a very confident young actress named Tamara Lawrance) auditioning for a role in a movie. We hear the dismembered voice of auteur/director Max (played by Matt Smith) describing the film. It is set in a dystopian near future after a virus has wiped out most of the population etc. etc.

Some members of the audience laugh at this horrifying scenario; presumably they have been told that the play is basically a comedy. But Natasha then acts out a quite lengthy gruelling monologue as a mother who believes that a malevolent militia is about to inflict terrible cruelties upon her and her child.

So far, so Vicky Featherstone’s Royal Court. I have written before about the relentlessly dystopian theme of the new regime on Sloane Square, where the ubiquitous grimy kitchen sink has been replaced by the apocalyptic landscape.  But perhaps this time the dystopian opening is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the new norm in SW1’s corner of theatre-land…

…because, beyond that early monologue, Unreachable is basically a lightweight, albeit black comedy, looking behind the scenes at the world of movies and movie-making people. They are a grotesque, dysfunctional lot, if this play is to be believed. Probably the play shouldn’t entirely be believed.

Another element you might find hard to believe (but this bit is true) is that Janie and I live in such a limited-TV-viewing bubble that we had no idea that Matt Smith was Doctor Who. We just thought of him as the fine young actor we saw in That Face by Polly Stenham a few years ago. But it was clear from the business he was given to perform and the audience reaction to it that Matt’s performance was the centre-piece of the play…

…until the arrival of the craziest character of all; Jonjo O’Neill’s Ivan “The Brute”.

Even Janie agreed that all of the performances were very good. She just struggled to get her head around the play. The plot was perhaps so superficial Janie was looking for “more in it” when there was no more to be had.

But I laughed a lot and enjoyed the sheer nonsensical intrigue of it. Indeed, in our troubled post-referendum times, the preposterous back-stabbing, feigned walk-outs and the politically-motivated engagement of an uncontrollable anarchic element in the interests of some unattainable “light at the end of the tunnel”… it seemed to me to be quite an appropriate tonic for the live-arts-supporting troops at the moment.

As for the jazz analogy, well clearly the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously. In particular, once Jonjo O’Neill got going with Ivan’s foul tongue and ludicrous boasts, you could tell that not only the audience but also the other members of the cast didn’t quite know where his verbal cadenzas might go. The other actors needed to react quickly to those crazy outbursts without corpsing; which they were able to most but not all of the time.

To be fair, although Janie didn’t enjoy herself and some audience members left at half time, the vast majority stayed and were clearly enjoying themselves at least as much, if not more than the cast.

Here’s a link to the plentiful Royal Court resources on this play.

The Royal Court will no doubt post some reviews eventually, but they are only starting to come out, as the press night was the night before our visit. So far:

Janie would say “take my word for it, don’t bother” whereas I would say, “decide for yourself  – go see it!”.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, Cottesloe Theatre, 15 January 2011

Janie really isn’t into Shakespeare, but Twelfth Night is a play close to my heart, having “done it” at Alleyn’s for the Dramatic Society in 1978.

Twelfth Night, Alleyn’s School, 12, 14, 15 & 16 December 1978

Ever since, I had been keen to see productions of Twelfth Night when they came around. Further, this production with Rebecca Hall as Viola and possibly a last chance to see a by then 80 year old Peter Hall directing…Janie said yes.

In truth, I don’t think this was the best Twelfth Night I have ever seen. It was of course very well acted, directed and produced, but it was a little old-fashioned in style for my taste; it felt like the sort of Shakespeare production I might have seen at the National 20-25 years earlier. I guess I should have expected.

It certainly didn’t do anything to improve Janie’s view on Shakespeare. I explained how much better it was done in the hands of Alleyn’s schoolkids in 1978 and Janie said she could understand exactly what I must mean.

She wasn’t humouring me, was she?

“After all,” said Janie, you are practically a reincarnation of The Bard, are you not?”

 

Anyway, here is a link to a search term that finds reviews and other resources on this production. The reviews are a little mixed; mostly suggesting that it was a good, but not great production, which I think sums it up pretty well.

House Of Games by David Mamet, Jonathan Katz & Richard Bean, Almeida Theatre, 11 September 2010

We are big fans of Mamet and also big fans of the Almeida, so Janie and I were really looking forward to this one.

We indeed got a fabulous production, wonderfully well acted, directed and produced. But we were less sure about the piece itself.

Of course with Mamet you get more twists and turns than a country lane. Of course you get even riper language than an expletive-filled debate at our place after Janie and I have both had a bad day. And of course, with Richard Bean in the driving seat for the play script itself, you get some lovely stage devices and coups de theatre.

But the piece itself, based on a 1980’s Mamet film script, seemed surprisingly slight and it was unusually easy to predict the twists. I suspect the film worked better, but I haven’t seen it.

Still, with Alleyn’s School alum Nancy Carroll heading up a pretty impressive cast, plus Django Bates providing the atmospheric jazz music, it was an entertaining evening to be sure. Janie enjoyed it thoroughly, but also claimed she let the plot wash over her.

Here is a link to the Almeida resource on the play/production. 

Sceptics might not trust the above resource to link to all the reviews – quite rightly, as the reviews were mixed. Here’s a helpful search term for your own deep dive – click here.

If you’d like to see the trailer, click below – it’s pretty cool:

Parlour Song by Jez Butterworth, Almeida Theatre, 11 April 2009

Coincidentally, at the time of writing this (early May 2017) we have just seen a new Jez Butterworth, The Ferryman, which was excellent.

While I remember Parlour Song pretty well, it hadn’t dawned on me that it was also a Jez Butterworth play.

There’s a good trailer and stuff on the Digital Theatre Plus site – click here.

It was a very good, very funny play. All three members of the cast: Amanda Drew, Toby Jones and Andrew Lincoln were terrific.

I don’t think it sent us into quite the level of ecstasy that the critics describe, but we did enjoy this one a lot, without finding much depth; it is basically a slightly quirky, sinister comedy about suburban infidelity.

But it did for sure signal Jez Butterworth on that upward trajectory to playwriting stardom.

The Stone by Marius von Mayenburg, Royal Court Theatre, 14 February 2009

This was a short play with a good cast and minimal set. We wanted to like it more than we did like it.

Set in Dresden, it is about a house that changed hands while retaining secrets across 60 years of political strife.

Janie usually hates plays that jump backwards and forwards in time, as this one did.

The play and production is well described in The Stage – here.

…you get the point.

Not sure what we ate afterwards – in all the temporal confusion it’s a miracle that we succeeded in getting food and getting home in that order.

 

Faces In The Crowd by Leo Butler, Royal Court Upstairs, 25 October 2008

This was a very memorable, very intimate play.

The set was effectively a small studio apartment which we, the tiny audience, was observing from above. You really almost felt you were in the apartment with the couple. And the couple were discussing very intimate stuff.

Official London Theatre maintains a basic resource on this production – click here.

Janie and I took Charlie (Lavender) with us to this one, which I think she enjoyed very much. We’re struggling to remember what we did for grub on this occasion; we think we possibly ate at the Royal Court itself.

Definitely more plus than minus for us.

John Gabriel Borkman, Henrik Ibsen, Lyttleton Theatre, 20 July 1996

This was a great production of great play.  Paul Scofield as the big man, Vanessa Redgrave as the long-suffering wife, a great supporting cast, Richard Eyre directing, what was not to like?

Janie doesn’t tend to like “classics” but tends to makes an exception for Ibsen. This production was no exception to her exception.

As is often the case, the Lyttleton did the play no favours, too big and set back for intimacy yet not quite big enough or shaped right to be the big stage. But when the only criticism one can muster is that, the fact is that this was a great night at the theatre and I am so glad we saw this production.

Paul Taylor in the Independent loved it – click here.

Here’s another little review archive link – click here.

But in truth, you had to be there.  One of the more memorable evenings at the theatre.