Anatomy Of A Suicide, Alice Birch, Royal Court Theatre, 3 June 2017

I don’t suppose we booked a play named “Anatomy Of A Suicide” expecting to go to the theatre for a jolly time. Which is just as well.

In any case, the Vicky Featherstone regime at the Royal Court specialises in miserablist theatre, as I have discussed elsewhere, so we knew what to expect.

We chose this play because the synopsis sounded very interesting and because we enjoyed Alice Birch’s play, Little Light, a couple of years ago at the Orange Tree. We also tend to like Katie Mitchell’s work as a director. Rarely conventional, almost always interesting. This piece was no exception.

The play is about three generations of women. As the story starts to unfold, each scene in effect depicts three scenes, one for each of those generations, being shown to the audience at the same time.

If that sounds like information and sensory overload to you, then you are spot on; that is exactly what it is. In truth, most of the time there are two active, dialogue scenes and one less active, minimal or no dialogue scene. But still, a heavy sensory load, if not overload.

Further, the play is two hours long without an interval, which is a heck of a long time for drama without a break, even in the easiest of scenarios. Which this isn’t.

Janie described the experience immediately afterwards as feeling like we’d been put through a mental ringer.

And yet it worked as a play and we were both really pleased we’d seen it.

At first, I’m sure both of us were thinking “what on earth is going on here?”, but as the play pans out, the central device becomes apparent and you do get a good sense of what is happening in each of the three generations and how the earlier generations’ events impact on the later generations and how the later generations’ events echo those of the earlier ones.

The acting is superb. Hattie Morahan we’d seen before – in The City by Martin Crimp alongside Benedict Cumberbatch – that’s two weeks in a row the ubiquitous Cumberbatch has had a mention on Ogblog – I told you he’s everywhere. Mind you, that’s two weeks in a row for Martin Crimp as well.

Paul Hilton is a fine actor who we’ve seen several times – he does a grand job in this play. As does Kate O’Flynn – indeed all of the cast were very good.

It must be fiendishly complicated to direct and perform – like a dramatic symphony with so many different parts which have to time and sound in harmony with each other. In fact, we were at the first preview and Katie Mitchell stood up before the show to address the audience. She warned us that the piece was so complex to perform that they might have to stop and start in places on this first performance – but apart from a couple of stutters which might have passed for deliberate, the whole thing was done with aplomb that night.

So, despite the play being a grim portrayal of depression and suicide, it was gripping and superbly unusual drama. We’ll remember this one for a long time. For people with sufficient attention span and a sense of dramatic adventure, we’d highly recommend this play/production.

Janie and I certainly both enjoyed a glass or two of white wine with our light smoked salmon and salad supper when we got home; we’d recommend that too.

A different recent supper on a different continent, but I’m sure you get the drift

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

The Kid Stays In The Picture, based on the life of Robert Evans, adapted by Simon McBurney & James Yeatman, Royal Court Theatre, 11 March 2017

Where shall I begin?

Little did we know it when we booked this slot, but we inadvertently ended up with one of the hottest tickets in town.

Janie and I are Friends of the Royal Court – regulars – and tend to book up the season early. For this show, we thought we had booked one of the last of several previews.

As it turned out, because The Kid Stays In The Picture is technically complex and difficult, the producers ended up cancelling the first few previews and indeed delaying the press night/official opening by more than a week.

So our Saturday night preview ended up being the very first public performance of this utterly stunning and absorbing show.

Janie and I are great fans of Complicite and Simon McBurney – our most recent encounter, The Encounter, linked here – ever since our very first date nearly 25 years ago, also a Complicite piece, which I shall Ogblog come the anniversary in a few month’s time.

But enough about us.

Robert Evans is a fascinating person with a fascinating story. Actor, studio executive, film producer…with more sub-plots to his personal saga than The Lord of the Rings.

There is an autobiography named The Kid Stays In The Picture from 1994 and even a 2002 documentary film of the same – click here to find those – but neither of those media could possibly have the same visceral impact as this extraordinary stage experience.

There is a superb piece in the Guardian from late February 2017, about Evans’s life and this forthcoming Royal Court Production – click here – which provides a very handy one-stop-shop exposition on it all. It includes a lovely photograph of Robert Evans with Ali MacGraw (her second marriage of three, his third marriage of seven…so far). To see that picture you must click the link, as I cannot replicate a copyrighted picture. If you cannot be bothered to click, you’ll have to make do with an eerily similar picture which is unquestionably ours.

The sweet love story that is older than the sea

At the start of the evening, Simon McBurney and Vicky Featherstone each made a short speech, explaining how our evening had ended up being the very first public performance, explaining their mutual admiration/thanks and begging our forbearance if anything did go awry technically.

Nothing went awry. The performance was masterful. Janie and I, though both suitably cynical with age and vast experience of stage productions, were simply blown away by this piece.

At the end, Simon McBurney came on stage with his little boy, who had played the voice of Josh Evans (and indeed whose voice had been part of the story of The Encounter). The little boy seemed terribly nervous of being on stage and tried to scarper a couple of times while McBurney was, once again, thanking us and the Royal Court for putting up with all the disruption.

We saw Simon McBurney with his family in the bar before the show and also at the back of the stalls during the interval. Despite sharing Robert Evans’s multiple skills and visionary nature, I sense and hope that Simon McBurney is a more rounded individual who does not and will not let his grand projects prevent him from having some semblance of balance to his family life.

The title, The Kid Stays In The Picture, is attributed to Darryl F. Zanuck, who cast the very young Robert Evans as Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises movie, against the wishes of several of the stars and indeed Ernest Hemingway. Evans expected to be sacked, but when Zanuck exclaimed, “the kid stays in the picture” was spared. At the same time, Evans realised that he no longer wanted to be the kid, but wanted to be the guy with the power to make that exclamation.

That story was beautifully told, as were many other stories about the movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, Chinatown…) and stars (Mia Farrow, Ali MacGraw, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson…).

All of the performances were superb and the depiction of well-known people done with great visual and vocal care. It almost feels wrong to single anyone out, but for laughs and bravura, Thomas Arnold’s depiction of Charles Bluhdorn (the Gulf & Western industrialist who bought Paramount and engaged Evans to run it) and Henry Kissinger (with whom Evans had intriguing links) was exceptional.

Janie and I sincerely hope that The Kid Stays In The Picture gets rave reviews. It deserves to become a huge success for McBurney, Complicite, The Royal Court and all involved. Surely the West End and/or Broadway beckon for this piece. Perhaps even…whisper it…Hollywood?

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.

 

 

Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill, Royal Court Theatre, 12 March 2016

A conversation with Janie back in January.

Janie: I’ve just heard Front Row. They were talking about an amazing new play by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court.

Me: (inquisitively) Yessss…

Janie: …so why haven’t you got us tickets for it?

Me: (nervously) Cripes – I’ll look into it. Leave it to me.

But of course, I had already bought tickets for Escaped Alone at the Royal Court. I’d bought tickets for the play so long ago, Janie and I had both forgotten about it. So long ago, that we hadn’t then quite worked out when we were going to take our winter break. I had, for that reason, booked for right at the end of the run, 12 March, to ensure that our holiday window was as wide as possible.

By the time we returned from our winter trip to Nicaragua, we were aware that Escaped Alone had received rave reviews from almost all the critics, that several of our friends had already seen it and that no-one seemed very able to explain what the play is about.

Thus we went to Sloane Square with a great sense of expectation; perhaps that in part explains why both of us found the play rather disappointing. Yet I didn’t find the piece quite as obscure and mysterious as critics (and friends) inferred. So, for those readers who wonder what this play is about, (even those of you who have seen and/or read it) here is my take on the work.

Caryl Churchill gives us, at the front of the play text, the quote “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” from the Book of Job (Job’s servant with bad news) and also from the epitaph to Moby Dick (Ishmael’s words). But I don’t think this clue leads naturally to the idea that Mrs Jarrett’s (Linda Bassett’s) dystopian speeches are supposed to be her describing actual experiences prior to visiting the garden and/or that the garden scenes take place while other aspects of the world are turning hellish.

The start of the play reveals that Mrs Jarrett knows the other three women only slightly when she joins them in the garden. The other three clearly know each other well; that familiar trio are given and use only first names. It is only Mrs Jarrett, the surnamed partial outsider, who steps outside the comfort of the garden to make dystopian speeches in partial, flashing light of the outer stage.

In the garden scenes, as the play unfolds, each of the three familiar friends makes a relatively lengthy speech in which they reveal their inner demons. In Sally’s case, it is the fear of cats. In Lena’s case, it is workplace-induced depression/agoraphobia. In Vi’s case, it is obsessive thoughts about her killing of her husband and the effect it has had on her life since. Mrs Jarrett doesn’t make such a speech within the garden – we have heard plenty about her demons in her dystopian speeches from the outside. So Mrs Jarrett merely says the phrase “terrible rage” many times over, when it is her turn to open up to the others with a longer speech in the garden.

The point is, I think, that all four women are describing inner demons; Mrs Jarrett only articulates hers outside the garden. We all have inner demons, which we can only really “escape alone”, or sometimes reveal to friends as personal dystopiae, because those worries are unique to us.  There is an interesting counterpoint here with Hitchcock’s take on inner fears (which in his case manifest as plot devices and ways of making the audience anxious) – fresh in my mind after seeing Hitchcock/Truffaut the previous day. Perhaps Churchill’s subtle focus on the notion that everyone has inner fears explains why Escaped Alone seems to have resonated so well with the critics (and perhaps also audiences).

Janie and I have seen a fair smattering of Caryl Churchill in our time. They are often short works, with an absurd, obscure and/or dystopian feel to some or all of the piece. This piece didn’t seem, to us, to add much to that Churchill oeuvre. Among the critics, only Billington (whose review was also very good) at least alluded to dystopia overkill and the use of similar ideas in earlier Churchill works. Blue Heart, A Number and especially Far Away all came to my mind while watching the play, prior to reading that Billington review.

Yes, Escaped Alone had a super set. Yes, the production had a superb posse of senior actresses, but the play/production simply didn’t resonate well with either of us, unlike many of Churchill’s earlier works.

The audience was ecstatic at the end of the show, but then it was a last night audience and the critics had universally told readers that the play/production was top ranking. Thus the audience went into critic-induced raptures at the “Da Doo Ron Ron” rendition by the four ladies in the garden, sandwiched between two of Mrs Jarrett’s dystopian speeches, soon after Sally’s cat phobia speech, just before Lena’s depression/agoraphobia one. An excessive response, in my view, to something that was a nice touch but not a coup de théâtre.

Similarly, the universal acclaim for this play/production seems excessive to both of us, although perhaps this piece does far more for people who have been less steeped in Caryl Churchill.

You For Me For You by Mia Chung, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 9 January 2016

We attended the last night of this quite remarkable piece at the Royal Court.  It was also the last night downstairs for Linda by Penelope Skinner , so the place was swarming with luvvies, presumably supporting their friends and/or sticking around for an end of run party.

We spotted Sam West (who I knew reasonably well at school) and Laura Wade in the bar.  We also saw Tamsin Greig and Richard Leaf, plus Benedict Wong and his date.  These latter four ended up in our upstairs show sitting close by.

Janie asked, “is that Ai Wei Wei?” just after Benedict Wong  squeezed past us, to which I said “yes,” thinking she meant “is that the bloke who played Ai Wei Wei?” rather than mistaking him for the Chinese artist himself. “Good job I didn’t congratulate him on his exhibition at the Royal Academy,” said Janie later when the confusion came to light, “he’d have taken me for a right divvy”.

As always now with the Royal Court (and many other theatres), the archive contains pretty much everything you want to know about the production including the reviews, which were universally and deservedly very good indeed.

This is not an evening of light entertainment, but it is a wonderful piece of original theatre, with superb acting, stage design, movement and all.  It deserves a transfer and sighting by a much larger and wider audience, but the bleak North Korean subject matter will, sadly, probably prevent that from happening.

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.

Roosevelvis by the TEAM, Royal Court Theatre, 31 October 2015

This is a weird show, but in a good way.

Half way through, Janie and I agree that we couldn’t really understand/explain what it all means but that we were enjoying it. At full time, we still felt the same way.

At the simplest level, it is a road trip about a lesbian couple who at times imagine themselves as their heroes, Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. I’m not sure what Ged and Daisy would think about imaginary characters working through a couple’s issues. We’ll have to ask them.

I guess the play raises questions about gender, identity and stuff, but most of the profundity got lost on me/us in the plots and subplots of the couple and their imaginings as they criss-cross America trying to make their relationship work.

Best I hand you over to others for more substantial analysis – here is the Royal Court stub which is, as always, the best place to start. It was pretty universally well reviewed, so the reviews section of that stub covers pretty much all the bases.

It reminded us a bit of Thelma and Louise, so I was delighted to spot that reference up front in Bill Brantley’s very interesting and informative NYT review from the original New York production – click here. So perhaps we’re not so thick after all.

We really enjoyed the production; it was unusual, entertaining and sort-of thought-provoking. What’s not to like?

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, Royal Court Theatre, 10 October 2015

We were really looking forward to this. While we were unsure about McDonagh’s earlier work, such as The Cripple of Inishman, we absolutely loved The Pillowman and had been hoping to see another new play by him.

We certainly were not disappointed by this play/production. It had us gripped from the start. It is a shocking, at times hilariously funny black comedy about the last hangmen in the UK. The mixture of cunning plot twists and traditional comedic devices works brilliantly. Great cast, great production, what’s not to like?

The Royal Court stub – here – covers more or less all you need to know, including links to the myriad of rave reviews this production justifiably received. 

The production earned a major west end transfer, deservedly.