The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court Theatre, 29 April 2017

This visit to the Royal Court Theatre was the third of my “three courts in one day” – click here to read about the other two.

There’s been a lot of press chat about The Ferryman, now that Jez Butterworth is seen as such a hot property playwright and with Sam Mendes returning to the theatre to direct again, now that he is a hotshot movie director. Apparently this Royal Court run sold out before the previews even started, while the West End transfer is already taking bookings.

We saw one of the last of the previews.

Here is a link to the Royal Court on-line resource on this play/production.

I don’t recall Jez Butterworth’s plays being long previously, so we were a bit daunted when we learnt that this play runs to more than three hours. Especially daunted in my case, with all that court time in my mind, legs and backside, I feared for my ability to concentrate throughout the piece and wondered if I’d be able to move at the end of the show.

As it happens, the play/production is sufficiently pacy, stylish and interesting to hold the attention almost throughout. My body didn’t let me down either…just about. Janie and I both felt that the final act was perhaps a little too long, but twixt previews and press night there might be some tweaks to put that aspect right.

The cast was superb. The design and directing top notch. Sam Mendes knows what he is doing. The Royal Court almost certainly has a big hit on its hands.

Janie remarked that this was a quintessentially Irish play (or words to that effect), which she tends to prefer in theory more than in practice. She loved The Weir, for example, but often finds Irish plays a bit samey and she usually struggles to understand the accents at times.

This play reminded me of Brian Friel’s hit Dancing at Lughnasa, except that The Ferryman is set in rural Northern Ireland (County Armagh) in the early 1980’s rather than Friel’s play from County Donegal in the 1930’s.

Indeed, the thing that distinguishes The Ferryman from most traditional Irish rural plays is that The Troubles are right at the heart of the story, rather than on the periphery. The older generation talk of friends and family caught up in the 1916 Easter Rising and listen to Maggie Thatcher on the radio talking about the 1981 hunger strikes, while the younger ones talk of attending Bobby Sands funeral.

If this all sounds a bit “tell rather than show”, then I am doing the play/production an injustice. It is very show. There’s singing, dancing, several species of livestock and spirits, both of the supernatural kind and indeed a great deal of Bushmills drinking. Yes, everything you’d expect from a good rural Irish play.

Why The Ferryman? Well, towards the end of the play one of the oldsters, Uncle Pat, quotes Virgil (The Aeneid Book Six, since you asked), in which Aeneas learns that Charon The Ferryman is not permitted to carry the unburied, lost souls across the River Styx until they have roamed the shores for a thousand years.

What relevance does that tale from The Aeneid have to the play? Well I’d probably spoil the play by trying to link those tales and might not hit the spot with my attempt. Suffice it to say that the West End transfer has used the strap line:

“You can’t bury the past”.

A very Ogblog strap line, for a play/production that is very much worth seeing.

The image is another link to that Royal Court resource

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!”.

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.

 

 

The Mistress Contract by Abi Morgan, Royal Court Theatre, 8 February 2014

This is a very interesting play, based on a true story about a man and a woman in California  who agreed a formal contract for “mistress services”, at the behest of the woman.

The true life couple also taped a great deal of their conversation; a resource that was utilised for the story.

For me and Janie, it worked much better as a conversation point than it worked as a drama. These were consenting adults after all and it seems that the arrangement worked well for them; the persevered with it into their extreme dotage. Perhaps that explains why the reviews were mostly indifferent.

Still, excellent cast and well produced, as you’d expect from the Royal Court. The piece certainly got me and Janie talking afterwards. I think we went to the Four Seasons for Chinese that evening – I don’t know why that thought pops into my head nearly four years later.

Here’s the Royal Court’s resource page on the production.

Here is a link to reviews and stuff.

Below is the trailer vid:

The Priory by Michael Wynne, Royal Court Theatre, 28 November 2009

I recall this one as being a bit Alan Aykbournish – a gang of thirty-somethings on retreat in the country for New Years eve. What could possibly go wrong?

A slight set of Royal Court details and links about this play/production can be found here.

We quite enjoyed it, while agreeing that we normally seek plays with a bit more oomph and have seen a lot of plays a bit like this one in our time.

Of course it was well acted and well produced – the Royal Court hardly ever misses one of those beats.

The Vertical Hour by David Hare, Royal Court Theatre, 2 February 2008

This was a really good play/production. It was only on at the Royal Court for a short while – so we felt we’d got ourselves hot tickets for this one. Unusually for a David Hare, this one had started in New York 15 months before.

The Royal Court Stub has all the details and the full text of lots of reviews.

The usual suspects all loved it. As did we; great cast, super play.