Nuclear War by Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 22 April 2017

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but still I rather liked that”, was Janie’s unusual verdict. The first phrase would usually precede a phrase such as “what a load of rubbish” or similar.

But in many ways I could see Daisy-do’s point.

Actually, about five minutes into this short (45 minutes in total) piece, I thought I was really going to hate it.

I didn’t have a clue what was going on, it was cold, it felt soulless and some ghastly member of the audience was coughing and spluttering so much I couldn’t concentrate on trying to penetrate the impenetrable. It certainly wasn’t about nuclear war.

But once I realised that Simon Stephens and Imogen Knight had no intention of giving us a clue as to what was going on, I relaxed and went with the flow. The flow was mostly astonishing dance and some poetic words.

I sensed that the central character was bereaved and/or seriously mentally ill. I sensed that the chorus were her inner tormentors/comforters.

In the end, I did, like Daisy, rather like the piece.

I wondered what our friend Michael Billington would make of it all. We ran into him as we entered the Royal Court and had a quick chat with him, realising that we hadn’t seen him for ages.

We also chatted, in the queue, with a nice man who clearly goes to theatre a great deal and whose late partner was a cricketer as well as theatre-lover – a point that came out as I checked the Middlesex v Essex cricket score for the umpteenth time.

Anyway, turns out our friend Michael Billington (as I suspected) didn’t like it at all – a rare two stars, “baffling and obscure”. Other critics agreed with the obscure tag but were kinder on the piece:

We enjoyed a veritable smörgåsbord of nibbles when we got home, for a change.

X by Alistair McDowall, Royal Court Theatre, 2 April 2016

We have a split jury on this preview of X at the Royal Court. I found lots to like about it, whereas Janie pretty much universally hated it.

We booked it very much on the back of the amazing Alisair McDowell play, Pomona, which we saw at the Orange Tree some 18 months ago and which was undoubtedly one of the best things we have seen in the past few years.

Pomona was set in a dystopian Manchester, either in the near future or right now. X is set on a space station on the planet Pluto (“nay, not even a proper planet, a dwarf planet”, I hear you cry) in a dystopian future, perhaps a long time in the future, perhaps sooner than we think.

Vicky Featherstone really is becoming the queen of dystopia; for pity’s sake cheer up, Vicky, it might never happen. But these days you don’t very often go to the Royal Court in search of being cheered up; in some ways you never did. The Royal Court audience loves a good kitchen sink drama and indeed we sort-of got one of those; especially the first act, which is set in the space station’s living/eating area.

I liked the oldest character, the mission captain; the only character who really remembered meat, trees and birds therein. He also clung to some small physical artefacts as symbols of “real life”; the inference was that the younger characters lived more or less entirely virtual existences without physical artefacts at all.

Perhaps this point about excessive reliance on 1s and 0s rather than real existence was a clue to the title and symbolism X, which remained obscure, at least to me and Daisy, throughout the play despite the importance and several uses of X as both a symbol and word.

In truth, Daisy wasn’t really in the mood for theatre even before we set off for the Royal Court, but I know that “her sort of play” would have lifted her mood, while this really was not her sort of play.

X is an extremely cold play in every sense. It’s set on Pluto for a start, where the average temperature is −229 °C. Further to suppress Janie’s mood, the Royal Court was almost as cold as Pluto itself for some reason that evening and the bar staff put ice in our drinks despite our specific request for our drinks to be ice free. Perhaps the latter was a small nod towards Ed Hall’s idea at the Hampstead to have themed bars for several productions?

X isn’t really my sort of play either, but there was plenty in it to keep me interested, in suspense during the show and thinking a lot afterwards. Indeed it made both of us think a lot afterwards.

While this cold play simply made Daisy feel low, it left me with confused emotions. The few moments of tenderness and kindness in the play, were beautifully handled and were a glorious reminder of people’s inherent benevolence, even in situations which are sure to test the very limits of humanity.

Janie and I both agreed that Jessica Raine as Gilda, in particular, was superb. I actually thought the whole piece was very well acted.

As we left the theatre, just before we stepped out into the cold, wet evening, I spotted the playwright Simon Stephens deep in conversation with a younger fellow, who Janie believes she recognised as Alistair McDowell himself. Quite likely, as the production is still in preview.

No, X did not quite connect in the way Pomona did, but this is only Alistair McDowell’s second major go and I still think we have a rare and original talent on our hands in him. Perhaps his next go will be just a little more down to earth, which might enable me to persuade Daisy to give him another chance.

 

 

Linda by Penelope Skinner, Royal Court Theatre, 28 November 2015

We received an e-mail from the Royal Court, fewer than 10 days before going to a preview of this show, to say that Kim Cattrall had withdrawn from the show on doctor’s orders and that Noma Dumezweni would start rehearsing about a week before the first preview.

Truthfully, we had not booked this production to see Kim Cattrall; we had booked it because we had been so impressed by The Village Bike, Penelope Skinner’s previous play at the Royal Court.  We had also previously been hugely impressed by Noma Dumezweni, not least in the lead of A Human Being Died That Night at the Hampstead Theatre in 2013 and more recently cross-dressing in Carmen Disruption at the Almeida earlier this year, so we were really not bothered.

Noma needed to work from book to a greater or lesser extent for most scenes our night, but she was almost there and we could tell that work was in progress for a great performance.  We loved the play and thought the supporting cast were all excellent.  Amazing staging too, so all the creatives have a lot to be proud of.

Perhaps because of the unfortunate circumstances or perhaps because we liked the production so much, we were hoping hard that the show would get great reviews and so, on the whole, it has – five great reviews linked here by the Royal Court.

Our friend (perhaps now former friend) Michael Billington was less sure about the play though generous with his praise of Noma, click here.  Ditto Paul Taylor in the Independent, click here.  

Still, top marks from both me and Janie, plus five out of seven from the critics; it’s a big hit.