Prism by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre, 16 September 2017

The neighbours tried hard to put us off this one. Joy and Barry are film aficionados extraordinaire, having been “in the film biz” themselves. They are also knowledgeable about and great admirers of Jack Cardiff, who was one of the pioneers of colour cinematography. I suspect they found the piece uninformative and irritating.

I had trouble getting Daisy out of the house, after Joy had told her unequivocally that this play was garbage and that she & Barry had walked out in irritation at half time. I said we should judge the play for ourselves and we are both glad we did.

It is set at the end of Jack Cardiff’s life. The play tries to show Cardiff looking back on his fascinating life in cinema through the distorted lens of a long, lingering old age with advancing dementia.

I think we are supposed to see analogies between the cognitive distortions of dementia and the the natural distortions of light through prisms and colour lenses.  The latter can lead, ultimately, to beauty and clarity, whereas I’d suggest that dementia struggles to do that.

The play is also meant to show us the impact of Jack Cardiff’s success (and latterly his dementia) on his son Mason and his second wife Niki. I fear that both of those parts were underwritten, perhaps because both of those people are still alive. Indeed the son, Mason Cardiff, is credited as an associate producer of the Hampstead production. As is Robert Lindsay, who plays Jack Cardiff (rather brilliantly) and was very instrumental in encouraging this piece to be written and produced. I believe Lindsay was a neighbour of the Cardiff family in Denham, where the play is set.

Consequently, the normally excellent Claire Skinner had little material to work with, while I fear that Barnaby Kay who played Mason (and also vaguely attempted Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller) was stretched even by his sparse roles.

Actually we thought the stand out performance was Rebecca Night as the young carer, rather casually employed by the Cardiff’s to help Jack with his daily needs and also to help him write his autobiography. The young woman’s unfortunate story formed an interesting sub-plot – potentially more interesting, in my view; that sub-plot bubbled but didn’t really boil.

To my mind, Prism is certainly a flawed play. Terry Johnson is a very capable writer, but I think the conceits of this piece are inherently problematic and the cracks show throughout. There are some superb coups de theatre, though – not least when the boat scene of The African Queen more or less comes to life in front of our eyes on the stage, just before the interval.

Two scenes after the interval were genuine highlights – The African Queen one immediately after the interval and a scene soon after, in which we realise that an explosive earlier scene with the carer and family was perceived by Jack Cardiff to be with Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Arthur Miller.

On balance, we’re glad we have seen this play and glad that we have learnt a bit more about Jack Cardiff through it. But this is not one of Terry Johnson’s nor the Hampstead Theatre’s greatest hits.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Mixed reviews so not all that much shown at Hampstead – this search will find most of them for you.

Ken by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 23 April 2016

I had been looking forward to this one since we booked it. I am a big fan of the late Ken Campbell, an interest going back to the 1990s. I/we saw several of his shows. Soon after he died, in 2008, we went to see a tribute to him at the Royal Court. Etc.

This piece sounded interesting, written and performed by Terry Johnson, who worked with Ken Campbell when he (Terry) was very young. Terry’s material tends to be much more structured than Ken Campbell’s stuff, but there’s usually a suggestion of that Campbellian anarchy in Terry Johnson’s writing. In short, the piece promised to be a bit different. It was.

From the moment you walked in to the theatre downstairs, now littered with comfy sofas, armchairs, suspended egg chairs and the like, you knew it was different.

“Come and sit at the front – there’s no audience participation,” entreated the ushers. Up to a point, they were telling the truth. But beyond that point things could take a strange turn.

Actually it had been a slightly strange afternoon for me. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I felt motivated by some incoming correspondence to put something up on Facebook about “me and the Bard”, which got quite a few friends going. If physiognomy were all it is cracked up to be, I’d have quite a few hit plays in the west end right now. But enough about me.

Ken is a short piece of some 80 minutes without an interval. The main part of the piece is about Terry Johnson’s youthful involvement in Ken Campbell’s bold The Warp project in 1979; in particular the infamous “squat transfer” to Edinburgh for the festival that year. More than half the piece is about that. The remainder picks up on Terry Johnson’s subsequent involvement with Ken. The ill-fated stage version of Hitchhiker’s Guide at the Rainbow Theatre in 1980, plus a few later overlappings.

Jeremy Stockwell does a magnificent turn as Ken Campbell (and a few other seriously good impersonations too; Stockwell’s Trevor Nunn body language is great). Terry Johnson does a reasonably good turn as himself; but I suspect that Jeremy Stockwell might have been able to do Terry Johnson better than Terry Johnson. Jeremy Stockwell in particular moves among the audience a lot, making unnerving eye contact at times.

Some of the crazy stories we’ve heard several times before, although I never tire of the “Royal Dickens Company” practical joke on Trevor Nunn, for example. Actually, it was the crazy material about The Warp that held the most interest for me; partly because that project was clearly such an anarchic, enormous overstretch, partly because I hadn’t heard the detail about that crazy production before.

Daisy didn’t enjoy the show as much as I did, but she did enjoy the show. You can sense that Terry Johnson feels that his time and relationship with Ken Campbell was hugely formative for him, so deep affection as well as the desire to tell the crazy stories pervades the script and the production.

At the end of the show, Jeremy Stockwell, still in character as Ken, together with a slightly timid young woman in a diaphanous wrap which left precious little to the imagination, invite the audience to join them backstage in a re-enactment of the nude body painting scene from The Warp.

“If you are curious, you come through this door, to my left, take off all your clothes and join in the body painting scene. If you want to go straight home, you go out the way you came through the door to my right,” said Ken/Jeremy.

“You may keep your undies on if you wish,” added the diaphanous young woman, almost apologetically.

I shall now draw a veil over the proceedings; a far more opaque veil than that of the diaphanous young lady’s wrap. So it is up to your imagination, dear reader, to wonder what Daisy and I chose to do in these circumstances. The curious door to the left, or the safety of the exit door to the right?

To borrow from that ghastly Las Vegas adage: what happens in The Hampstead, stays in The Hampstead.

 

 

 

 

Entertaining Mr Sloane by Joe Orton, The Arts Theatre, 27 January 2001

After the hoo-ha of being grounded from the Royal Court revival of this play in 1975, Entertaining Mr Sloane had been on my bucket list (not that bucket lists had been invented back then) for more than a quarter of a century.

So the chance to see Alison Steadman reprise the role of Kath at the Arts Theatre seemed too good to miss.  I recall she was a very good Kath, ably supported by Neil Stuke as Sloane, Bryan Pringle as Kemp and Clive Francis as Ed.  Variety magazine was less sure about Steadman, but still rated the production.

Did the play still have what it takes, nearly 40 years on?  Michael Billington certainly thought so.  Janie wasn’t so sure – she’s never been convinced by Orton. I thought this one worked better than the revival of What the Butler Saw at the National, which I recall disappointed me, so I didn’t find it dated; but  Tom Keatinge did.

But who cares – I’ve seen the play now and mum couldn’t stop me this time.