Bodies by Vivienne Franzmann, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 5 August 2017

This was a highly-charged-emotional play about surrogacy.

We chose it primarily because we had been so impressed previously by Vivienne Franzmann’s writing, when we saw Pests at the same venue in 2014. That was a high-octane play too.

Productions upstairs at The Royal Court are top quality these days and this was no exception. All of the performers put in excellent performances and the set, while simple, was clever and engaging.

The Royal Court resource on this play/production can be found here.

The reviews on the whole were (deservedly) very good,

Susannah Clapp in The Observer is not quite so sure, describing the play and production as “over deliberate”.

Sarah Hemming in the FT goes for four stars, but shares my doubts about some of the fussiness in the potting.

But it was an incredibly powerful, mood-affecting piece. So much so that Janie suggested, after getting uber-strident over shawarmas at home after the show, that perhaps we should skip these very morally-upsetting subjects at the theatre for a while.

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.

Torn by Nathaniel Martello-White, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 24 September 2016

On paper, this looked so good I booked it twice.

Well, in truth, what happened was, this production was tagged on to the end of an almost year-long season booking list almost a year ago, then was re-promoted a few months ago and I didn’t realise that I had already booked it. The Royal Court very kindly took the second set of tickets back; they seem to treat the term “Friend Of” as a reciprocal thing more than most theatres these days – respect.

Anyway, I really liked the look of this production and was in a very good mood for some more drama, as if the thrill of Middlesex’s last day/last hour triumph in the County Championship the day before had not been enough drama for the next year or so.  

Truth is, this play/production did not really float my boat; nor did it float Janie’s. The subject matter should have kept us rapt and engaged; a young woman confronting her family with complicity in the racial and sexual abuse she suffered as a child and youngster, especially at the hands of her step-father.

Yet it all came across as a rather shouty, soap-opera style drama workshop exercise; the latter part of which description is presumably where this play and production started its life. Fine actors, but somewhat untrammelled in/by this play/production.

Here is the Royal Court stub for Torn.

It seems to have had terrific reviews, so I guess the problem is us, not the play/production.  Half-a dozen rave reviews linked on the fourth tab of the above stub so no need for me to repeat them here.  Of the usual suspects, only Chris Bennion of the Telegraph seems less sure and even then thinks the piece worthwhile for “what it has to say”. 

I believe the run is sold out in any case, but perhaps it will get an extension or a transfer given the rave reviews.

For us, I’m mighty glad that we don’t have to see it twice.

We indulged ourselves with Mohsen’s Persian food after the play, which made us feel that the evening was most worthwhile, despite the play.

 

 

 

Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 30 April 2016

Many months ago, when I read the sparse Royal Court promotional synopsis of this play, to Janie, she said, “surely not?” But I said, “it sounds weird and intriguing, I’d really like to give this one a go”.

Eric Miller, a Belfast loyalist, believes that his new born granddaughter is Gerry Adams.

I was also attracted by the fact that this was to be a joint production with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and that the magnificent Stephen Rea was going to be in it.

Several months later, when (as is often the case) we have both forgotten what we booked and why, Janie asked me again what the play we were due to see that evening was about. I told her. “I can’t believe we booked that,” said Janie. “It was my idea; my bad if it’s no good. But I have a feeling it’s going to be something special”, I replied.

It really is something special.

When we got to the Royal Court, we went to see Simon David in the bookstall to buy our programme and find out what he thinks. Simon is often quite critical and we don’t always agree with him. “It’s marvellous”, said Simon, “I’ve seen it twice and am hoping to sneak in again this evening to see it for a third time.” He did.

When we sat down, the lady sitting next to me said, “you’re in for a treat this evening. I don’t often come back to see a play a second time, but I’ve come back to see this one again. The acting is just marvellous.”

Frankly, I might look at the script to get my head around some of the incredible dialogue again, but having experienced this extraordinary piece as a member of the audience, once is enough. It is unusual and special and a very clever piece; it is superbly acted, provoking laughter, thought and horror in equal measure. But once is enough.

From the very first scene, when Eric (Stephen Rea) calmly asks his psychiatrist, “why are you a nigger?”, through the flashbacks where we learn of Eric’s delusion about his granddaughter and his back story from the troubles, the piece is funny and yet chilling.

Perhaps the funniest scene is the watershed (scene six) which starts as a long soliloquy by Eric and ends as a frantic scene between Eric and Slim, the loyalist paramilitary, played wonderfully by Chris Corrigan. You know you shouldn’t be laughing at the rantings of these crazed extremists, yet there is something inherently funny about them. Heck, my NewsRevue friends and I wrote enough songs and sketches about it back in the day – one example linked here.

When the play pans out to its inevitably horrific conclusion, of course you know that discrimination, extremism, prejudice and terrorism are no jokes. This play/production works the audience’s cognitive dissonance like a maestro conductor with a great orchestra and a fine symphony.

Highly recommended, but (as they used to say on the telly when I was a child) not for people of a nervous disposition.

Cypress Avenue by David Ireland – click for Royal Court Information Here,

The play and production has understandably been very well received by the critics:

Yen by Anna Jordan, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 23 January 2016

This extraordinary play and production completed our January hat-trick of marvellous but grim plays; the first being You For Me For You by Mia Chung, the second being The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch.

Before we set off, I looked up the details on the Royal Court website and called them out to Janie.  “It won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2013,” I said…

…”hold on a minute, I thought The Rolling Stone was promoted as having that same prize, the same year.  What’s going on?”

Turns out, this wonderful (relatively recent) Bruntwood Prize is run biennially and is awarded to four winners each time.  So they had both won  in 2013.

Yen is in some ways even more troubling than The Rolling Stone.  It feels more “on our own doorstep” (not that proximity should make the issues and human suffering any more alarming) and had extraordinary intensity and sway of emotions.

The young cast’s acting was simply superb, Ned Bennett’s directing once again takes the breath away.  In short, this play/production deserves all the plaudits and rave reviews it has already received and more besides.  You’ll find those here in the helpful Royal Court area.

Janie found this play/production so troubling she said she didn’t sleep so well that night.  Very unusual; she is pretty robust and we’ve seen a lot of troubling plays in our time.  So this is not for “people of a nervous disposition”.  But if you like your drama strong, raw and top notch, try somehow to get hold of a ticket for this one if you can.

 

Plaques and Tangles by Nicola Wilson, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 14 November 2015

This was a very interesting play at the Royal Court Upstairs. As usual these days, there is an information-packed stub on the Royal Court website – here, saving me much of the trouble to write about the basics.

I had been avoiding the subject of dementia for a while, but I guess we booked this some six months after mum died so I was starting to feel able to handle the subject again.

In many ways, this play was about a different type of dementia, as the protagonist has a rare genetic form of the disease that takes over the person’s life much younger and therefore far more invasively.

This difficult subject and the dilemmas that spring from it were handled with skill, dignity and humour in this play. Well acted and produced too.

Lots of rave reviews are linked through the reviews tab in the Royal Court stub – click here specifically for that tab.

Michael Billington was not so sure in Guardian – here...even less sure was Matt Trueman in WhatsOnStage – here.

Janie found the non-linear nature of the piece (moving backwards and forwards in time on several occasions in short scenes) more than a bit confusing. I think we were supposed to feel somewhat disoriented, to enable us to empathise with the protagonist.

Still, we were both glad to have seen this one.

 

Cock by Mike Bartlett, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 14 November 2009

So we saw a young Ben Whishaw as far back as 2009 in this thing – who knew?

Mike Bartlett has also gone on to bigger and bolder pieces than this since.

I seem to recall that it was a fairly slight piece about someone who is confused about his sexuality; I think the modern term is “fluid”.

The Royal Court link is very slight for an archive of this age – click here.

As usual, high quality production and performances upstairs at the Royal; Court – we love that place.

The Author by Tim Crouch, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 26 September 2009

I only vaguely recall this one. Experimental theatre, with the cast sitting among us as the audience.

The Royal Court has only left scant details up – click here for those.

Tim Crouch himself is a little more forthcoming on his site – here.

Here are some rehearsal and preview extracts from the Royal Court:

Tim took this play to Edinburgh the following year – here is a two minute extract:

Post modern in a “theatre about theatre” way. An attempt to shake up the complacency of audience members like us.

It seems to have worked better on critics than it did on us:

Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 28 March 2009

We enjoyed but were a bit disappointed by this one.

We had absolutely loved That Face, Polly Stenham’s first play, so had eagerly awaited this one for two years.

Tusk Tusk was another play about a dysfunctional family with an addled mother (absentee mother this time) and several wild kids as the result.

It felt a bit like more of the same to us, which was a shame because we (perhaps unreasonably) expected more from Polly Stenham on the back of her stunningly good first play.

Still, some excellent performances from the youngsters (this must have been the first time we saw the excellent Bel Powley, for example) and the usual Royal Court quality of production, even when the play is being done upstairs.

We saw the Saturday preview before press night.

I have found some super Pete Jones Productions photos online – presumably from opening night – click here.

The Girlfriend Experience, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 20 September 2008

We really liked this play. It was funny and interesting.

It’s one of those verbatim theatre jobbies. Alecky Blythe went round talking to prostitutes at “the parlour” and pulled together a play about them based on their own accounts.

Intriguingly, the cast listened to recordings as they delivered their lines, to add a particular type of authenticity to the verbatim method.

It worked for us, anyhow.

Perhaps the Royal Court are starting to put up archives going back this far, but for now this one is merely a stub – click here.

OfficialLondonTheatre.co.uk has more – click here.