Have a look at my latest review for the Old Vic’s charming ‘Design for Living’ on WeekEndNotes…  If you haven’t already…

Mother Courage and her Children at the National Theatre, 2nd October
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Deborah Warner

2009 is the right time for ‘Mother Courage and her Children’, a play originally penned by Bertolt Brecht in 1939; because though the main argument that runs alongside any revival of this play is whether or not it’s an anti-war play, it is undoubtedly a play not just set during the war, it’s also a play about war.

Specifically it’s set during The Thirty Years War, but Mother Courage is not a solider or a combatant, she’s also not just a mother, she’s a commercially minded woman looking to make money off the war by following around the column of marching soldiers on her cart, selling food and comfort.  This particular war gradually strangled the inhabitants of several European countries, but Mother Courage is a character set to turning the tragedy going on around her into financial security for herself and her three children.  And for a while at least if seems as if she’s going to be one of the few ‘winners’ caught up in a conflict that’s un-winnable for 99% of those it touches.

There are peaks, but this is a play of greater troughs.  But while you could call the material bleak, and you could at times accuse this production of being sparse, attending this play is not a harrowing, or even particularly depressing experience, it’s more revealing than anything else.  As the years fly by on stage and the ravages of war lap closer at Courage’s person and resolve, the beautiful stubbornness of the human spirit is unpeeled like an onion skin, and as each layer’s removed she just keeps on keeping on.  As do many of the characters around her, surviving any way they know how.  Which is why it’s so 2009.

The main role of Courage is almost perfectly pragmatically played, with fluctuating verve and grit by Fiona Shaw, whose long, and surely energy sapping, performance mirrors Courage’s journey.  Sophie Stone as ‘Kattrin’ has an almost equally long and arduous acting journey ahead of her every night – Kattrin is in almost every scene, but the character is dumb –  but Stone rises to the occasion.  As do the rest of the cast.
The National Theatre’s 2009 production, directed by Deborah Warner has made a couple of unique additions to the 2006 translation from the German original,  One of the actors does the sound effects for the war scenes using his own voice, augmented by shrapnel spewing explosions, and there’s a rather beautiful live musical soundtrack performed by Duke Special.  Brecht may or may not have thought his story leant itself to song, but if he’s able to hear it from beyond the grave there’s every chance he’ll agree that this specific musical poet has been able to add to the power of the script by providing more lovely light to make the dark moments seem darker.

The budget of the National can seem over generously spent on frills at time – and in this production the on-stage rain and the fireworks could have been cut without detracting from the performance.  But for the most part the relatively simple set, yet complex staging was a very effective backdrop to the drama without upstaging it.
‘Mother Courage and her Children’ isn’t a dinner date play, but in this instance it’s a very thought and discussion provoking experience, expertly presented, with a few personal flourishes, by all involved.  This may even be one of the most memorable nights of your year.

Goes well with a heavy red, with a top up in the interval and one more after the show (it starts at 7:30 and finishes about 10:45.).  Definitely invest £3.00 in the program.

Annie Get your Gun at the Young Vic, 21st October
Written by Irving Berlin
Directed by Richard Jones

Lots of humming-for-days-in-your-head songs come from musicals without people realising it, and ‘Annie Get your Gun’ has more than its fair share.  And the Young Vic’s inventive new production, put together by Richard Jones, proves that ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business‘.

Those songs sound even better belted out of the tiny, slightly magical frame that is Jane Horrocks.  You might know her as Bubble from AbFab, or the star of ‘Little Voice’, but in this quite intimate space she’s definitely ALL western hick pro-shot Annie Oakley, and an absolute miniature powder-keg-darling with it.  Annie is usually played like a shoulder-padded brass-ball-breaker who intimidates men with her skill, but Horrocks plays her as a grubby hill-billy, disappointed that she lacks the ‘pink and white’ charms men look for in a girl and laments ‘You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun’ - “And you can’t shoot a male/ In the tail like a quail/ Oh you can’t get a man with a gun.” – even though she’s comfortable telling the assembled gathering in the diner that she’s fine at: ‘Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly’.

The director and cast had fantastic material to starters in Irving Berlin’s witty western era musical of boy meets girl who can shoot better than he can.  ‘But anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you.’ The chorus is a strong set of characters; and the wooden 1940s update set is clever and imaginative – relative simplicity compared to some of the revolving stages you see in the West End – and is augmented with some clever and endearing tricks: playing with the difference in height of the leading couple, the old travelling conveyor belt trick for moving trains, and a mini Lady Liberty letting you know you’re coming into New York’s harbour.

There’s also a cleverly done multimedia ‘reel’ over the overture helping to set the scene of 1940s nostalgia for the ‘golden’ wild west – which is how this production manages to get over a couple of the politically incorrect twists this story takes: it’s a spoiler, but Annie has to miss her mark in order to win the love she’s looking for, and there’s some Native American characters in it who ‘fit’ the racial stereotype of the 40s but would offend today’s audiences if not put in context.  But Jones makes it all better with toe-tappingly inclusive rendition of ‘I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night’, reminding the audience, as all good musicals should, that what’s really important is love, family and a bit of adventure: ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’.

Pains of Youth at the National Theatre, 9th September
Written by Ferdinand Bruckner
Directed by Katie Mitchell

When a piece of theatre promises in its advertising to be ‘erotically charged’ choosing the ideal plus one can be tricky. Probably best not to bring a family member of one of the cast or crew, or anyone you have a ‘past’ with for starters. So I scrolled though the names in my phone a few times before I decided on the perfect accomplice, someone who’d be bright and witty about it, and who I’d shared the experience of seeing a deer get hit by a car on a cinema screen the week before.  But it turned out that I spent the latter half of the first act secretly wishing the actors would get on with it and simulate sex if they were going to, and most of the second realising that the physics and chemistry between myself and my plus-one was more ‘charged’ than what was going on on stage.

It could be that Ferdinand Bruckner’s play is 80 years old and what moved loins then doesn’t titillate now, or it could be that Katie Mitchell’s direction lacked an understanding of human body language, so that however provocative and beguiling the words were they weren’y delivered with intent that meant business. And this production didn’t mean business: it hovered uncomfortably between the slight discord an audience can feel watching realistically simulated sex and the kind of clunky body language one sees in the lead up to an encounter on a porn film.

On stage, like in person, subtle is sexy. The nuances of physics and chemistry – and this play benefits from the backdrop of a medical academy, allowing for ever more beautiful innuendo potential – is what makes intimate personal encounters a distraction from everything else going on in the world. In the case of this play that means the disillusionment that blighted the world’s youth post First World War, and in the case of my own experience sitting with plus-one, from watching the play.

The Pains of Youth has everything, but it feels like it’s just ticking ‘everything’ off to prove it, like a list of classic male fantasies: lesbian temptation, manipulative men, Nietzsche quoting students, depressed beauties, lovers driven mad and a maid turned hooker. But this should have felt larger than an episode of the latest emo drama or hormonal horror, after all it pre-dates them all, and that’s the interesting bit. The Pains of Youth is in the tradition of many more familiar works: but it’s actually their grandparent – proving that we were all young once; this generation didn’t invent sex or angst, and that there are several generations – those before the release valve of pop music – who spent their teenage years living though political, violent turmoil as well as personal upheaval. Which is the stuff of real drama. When considered in the context of the 1920s, the bold talk and even bolder actions of the play’s six youths is more than interesting enough to procure attention. Especially seeing as the play didn’t adopt a modern setting, just some questionable futuristic scene change devises – questionable because though graceful it was difficult to see why they’d been employed to break up the scenes.

Sexually liberated Desiree (Lydia Wilson) tries to pack everything into her highs before she swings back to lows demanding suicide, her perfectionist room mate, Marie (Laura Elphinstone) gets ensnared in the net of love, desire and getting things done, similarly does Irene (Cara Horgan), Petrell (Leo Bill) spouts wisdom learned from philosophy texts and Freder (Geoffrey Streatfeild), is a charming sexual and emotional predator, who uses maid Lucy’s (Sian Clifford) love for him into moonlight career as a streetwalker. These are six characters on the cusp of life of all kinds, or careers, of love, of violence, and they’re all striving to get the most out of themselves and their surroundings, at that point where youth is finally so close to burnt out that it seems precious.

These characters are living for themselves and there should be plenty of tension evident in that. Many encounters should have been a feast for all the senses, but their levels of audible and visual angst rans so high for so long that it was like listening to the same song on repeat for too long in your bedroom – yes, the emotion is still there, but you never get anything else out of it, and it became a bit of a foregone conclusion. While the forces at play between myself and my plus one remained distractingly open ended.

Hamlet is a big play, heavy with its own importance, it always is: but the much bantered about Donmar Warehouse production, directed by the Donmar’s Artistic Director, Michael Grandage, wasn’t just big and heavy, it was also very physical: the performances, the emotions, and the set in three dimensions of weight.  All the details considered the greatest effect – why have stiff costumes if you’re going to make it a physical production where the actors are going to manhandle each other as well as do some serious gesturing?  Why would the characters wear anything but blacks and greys when they’re all supposed to be in mourning?  And why would the set be anything by stark and cold, encouraging not just blood heating revenge to course though the veins of the young who inhabit it, but also madness.  It puts more pressure on the players but then what’s the point of putting on a three hour Hamlet that hangs on anything other than the acting.
And Jude Law, who I’ve never had that much of a thing for, despite his being just the right kind of giant, slightly angular and effeminate school boy that I tend towards, was really very good – even though I didn’t really want him to be.  His acting came like waves over the audience, at times frightening, especially when paired with his mother, Gertrude (Penelope Wilton) and Ophelia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – I never thought of him as a physically large man, but he certainly seems it here – and with a sort of aloof comfort and glee in the feigned madness, that saw him doing some serious capering, yet showing warmth with his friends.  This character doesn’t just have an emotional arc, he has an emotional MC Escher painting he has to take the audience with him on.  Law’s Hamlet spoke direct to the audience, like we shared his conscience, so when he was withdrawn it was more acutely felt, and though some of the speeches are long, his presence didn’t really waver: at all times he was an impressive physical presence.  In a very physical production.
Laertes’ (Alex Waldmann) tumble into madness, following after his sister, and for similar reasons to Hamlet, was done with a different kind of passion, which reminded how similar the experiences of these characters are.  Yet Laertes’ loss took us back to the beginning to the grieving process, to the sharp shock and anger, which this character fans and then quenches more quickly than naturally self reflective Hamlet is able.  It’s a deep play with a lot of layers, but in this production I saw and felt this layer with most clarity.  I didn’t mind as much when Ophelia died – the women in this play find it hard to scratch into the many layers of heavy earthen emotions going on, but I was captivated by the fate of all these young, hot blooded men, especially when contrasted with the chill of the older characters.
The snow effect was very lovely, and the sound design heightened the drama.  The gravedigger’s scene and the fencing match were personal highlights, and the behaviour of the audience, some of whom were really just coming to ogle dear Jude, was good – though there were a very young couple sitting in front of me who needed to get a room: I wonder how Shakespeare would have reacted to that?  A testament to the green shoots of life affirmation, a rousing of a kindred hot blooded passion, or just a reminder that art can only ever compete with real life.  Still, for a whole periods I wasn’t just captivated by an attractive – at times stunning sight, and I don’t mean Law, I still don’t fancy him – I really cared about what was going on.  Even though this is one of those theatrical experiences where most of the audience already knows the result.

The Frontline at The Globe Theatre, July 6th
Written by Ché Walker
Directed by Matthew Dunster

Tube stations at night are unpredictable places, frequented by a congregation of random and potentially unpredictable characters. But then Shakespeare’s characters were naves and madmen as well as kings, so why should strippers, drug dealers, gangsters, god-bother-ers and hot dog sellers not tread the boards of Shakespeare’s Globe? Ché Walker thinks they should, and deposits them there by way of his new play, The Frontline, specially commissioned for The Globe theatre. His point being that these London ‘invisibles’, commonly summed up in just one word, be it hooker or addict, are also individuals with just as much potential story to them as Shakespeare’s characters.

The Globe was an egalitarian entertainer in the early 17h Century when it was first built, and Walker sees no reason for it not to be equally as accessible now, both for the audience and for the kinds of characters who appear on the stage. This is the first play about contemporary London to be staged at The Globe. Busy with characters, there are 24, and storylines, it is the setting, a tube station late at night that ties the action together. Drug deals turn sour and violent, gangs bicker over turf, reformed sinners preach to the converted, a young actor goes mad for lack of recognition for his ‘”tsunami of talent’“, a stripper and a bookish, gentle bouncer fall in love, a deluded man mistakes every woman he sees for his missing daughter, a young man is murdered and hot dogs are sold.

Walker has layered the dialogue of different storylines on top of each other. In one moment three separate arguments are taking place at once, but more often it is two, one happening on either side of the stage. The effect works in some places, creating an audio backdrop of city nightlife, but in some places it just makes it difficult to hear. The use of concurrent scenes makes use of the unusual setting of The Globe, which feels like it played a big role in the writing process. Performing in daylight, in a space where all sound carries, the actors are far more at the mercy of the audience than in a traditional theatrical setting. Audience murmurs and shuffles have more effect on the rest of the audience, and tides of dis-engagement can spread like Mexican waves where people can see each other’s faces as well as they can see those of the actors. So expecting people to isolate the intended dialogue from the mix is a tall order – unless Walker weighs all dialogue equal and is happy for people on opposite sides of the audience to walk away having seen different plays. When the timing was perfect this device was used wittily, arguments were allowed to slot together and reference each other (brilliantly in one section where one character analyses the importance of Marmite to Britain’s colonial past, while another finds out he’s about to become a father.) and there was a clever overlap of themes that heightened the mood further; but when the actors lost each other it fell into sounding like people talking over each other.

Fair play to the actors though, they would have had just as much difficulty hearing each other as the audience did, especially considering how engaged and active the audience was. The Globe is a precarious space for maintaining audience belief, but this audience was totally on side – even though the questionably suitable song numbers which littered an otherwise ‘real life’ production. And it wasn’t just cheering and clapping, I actually heard someone boo – and not in derision, but as a way of expressing his feelings and siding with one character over another – I don’t think that happens anymore in a traditional theatrical space.

Maybe the songs were in reference to Shakespearian traditions of lyrical dialogue and breaking the ‘third wall’, where characters leave their scene to address the audience in a way that suggests they know they’re players? The Frontline’s narrator, the hot dog seller, who also has a role within the play, does something similar, signposting particular events and giving the audience the gift of foresight.

For an audience to follow so many characters and simultaneous storylines, the individual voices have to be quite distinctive – especially in the beginning of the play where there are so many characters to introduce. Walker achieved some of this by including characters from different countries, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and different cultural or social groups, but some of it was just good writing, to the extent that I began to wonder if some of it wasn’t work shopped on these actors – but I checked and it wasn’t.

Each character’s path had moments in both light and shade. Quite philosophical and definitely a social commentary on the politics of multiculturalism and wealth distribution, The Frontline could have bogged the audience down with serious issues (maybe the songs were also mood lighteners?), but didn’t. Some characters spiral downward, the young actor, desperate for his big break becomes increasingly unhinged, the reformed sinner is drawn back into her old ways, the young man is murdered because of drugs; but some pass by on their way to better things, a couple begin and a baby is anticipated with excitement – life has potential, we’re told in so many (unnecessary) words. People can be murderers but they can also be good, and some surprisingly allegiances are formed under difficult conditions. These coalitions (not quite friendships) or unlikely bedfellows (literally in the case of the homeless junkie who shares his telephone booth squat with the actor.) are much more life affirming than the overt promises of a new couple and a new baby (I wonder if Walker realises this?).

The question is asked how far do people need to be degraded before they’ll be helped and how strong is our humanity in the real world of tube stations, crap jobs, no rights and financial struggle. Walker, without sounding twee, answers that though many of us have to deal with inequality, injustice and simple unfairness, there’s still hope for us yet. And he doesn’t spell that one out, just lets you leave with a warm sense of sharing something with the rest of the audience – which is something that not all theatrical settings allow, but which Shakespeare’s audiences must have felt too.

The Revenger’s Tragedy at the National Theatre, 28th May 2008
By Thomas Middleton
Directed by Melly Still

Nothing puts a spring in my step as I exit a theatre like seeing a play that finishes with everyone getting what’s coming to them. If that also means most of the cast ends up sprinkled with fake blood my pony tail will get that cheery bounce to it as well. I don’t necessarily revel in the macabre, but I am as enthralled by stories of lust, murder and revenge as the next person, and considering that The Revengers Tragedy was written in 1606, people must have been drawn to these darlings-of-the-tabloid themes through the ages. Considered high art now, this play may have been the late night TV program of its day with its naughty dark shadows and violence, virgins, sex, rape, death and shrill drama.

In order of events, the play follows cycles of lust (for women or power) followed by death then revenge. Repeat, sometimes changing the order of the final two phrases. Two sparks set events and characters smouldering: the violent rape of a virtuous lady by one of the Duke’s stepsons and the murder of Vindice’s (Rory Kinnear) fiancée by the Duke (Ken Bones), payment for her refusal to submit to his lust. Delaying sentencing his stepson on the rape charge cements the Duke’s place at the top of the revenge hit list on one hand and incurs the wrath of his new wife on the other who seduces the Duke’s eldest son, a bastard (whose revenge is to cuckold the cuckold.). Vindice, the main avenger, has a brother, Hippolito, (Jamie Parker) who has a place in the Duke’s court and can get a disguised Vindice a job procuring virgins for the Duke’s only legitimate blood son and heir, Lussurioso (Elliot Cowan). The catch is that the virgin Lussurioso has taken a fancy to is Vindice’s sister and though she is adamant she isn’t for sale, disguised Vindice is able to tempt his own mother into assisting in procuring her daughter’s flower. Vindice is then tasked to procure a virgin for the Duke, which he reads as an invitation to assassinate him – using a puppet wearing the poison coated skull of his betrothed (!) whose kiss is murder. Multiple groups have their eye on terminating the new Duke, his stepbrothers (who have already accidentally ordered the execution of their youngest brother, the rapist), the Duke’s bastard and Vindice and co.. A masked ball seems to all the best time for it and in the ensuing energetically danced sword and knife fight a lot of characters meet their end.

The plays opening scene is a Dante worthy explosion of hedonistic noise and movement, a pulsating party throbbing with a big fat rappers bass line to which the almost castrati voice of a counter tenor (Jake Arditti) adds waves of colour. The lazy Susan stage, set with three different rooms all fitting together like pieces of pie, spins, and almost primal dancers lead us through the lush ‘bordello’ room, the ‘monk’s cell’ and the ‘statesman’s court’. Usually mash ups of thumping music and bard era dialogue with backdrops featuring pudgy Michelangelo cherubs and costumes including white Italian pimp suits and medallions look like a lame attempt to ‘attract the kiddies’ but I have never seen a more successful blending of traditional and modern. There were a few grey heads shaking in the audience but the loud opera remixes and modern body language and staging made it clear why audiences at the time the play was written would have enjoyed it: it’s a passionate, violent story where the characters are compelled to act, the scenes are short and to the point, there is plenty of action and lots of people talk about sex and even more people die.

The impetus keeps pounding and the story dashes between scenes of plotting and scenes of action without too much idle chatting about it. And everyone appears to be plotting: brother against brother, son against father, wife against husband, mother against daughter. The prevalence of nastiness, even against flesh and blood does make the story complex to follow, (our 2008 morals are more offended by the possibility of that much power and the possibility of that much corruption.) though there are few characters truly aligned so maybe it is logical just to imagine it’s everyone versus everyone. Vindice’s disguises could also have made things more difficult to follow but again the dastardly themes run so strongly through the play that even if you don’t follow the dialogue precisely, the staging and clear tones make it abundantly clear what the characters have planned.

It was the details which made this performance so engaging. All the way through the tempo of the dialogue and the action drove the story on at the right pace, the climactic sword fight was forceful and exciting, somewhat of a dance but designed to be so and the deaths head puppet was beautifully and carefully manoeuvred by Vindice (as I imagine you would treat your ex-lover‘s skull?). The National is a big space to fill but the pie slice staging fitted well. Backdrops painted on partly sheer screens were used to dramatic effect and clever backlighting tricks made minimal sets more powerful. Scantily clad dancers and the music also helped to eat up empty space and keep the audience hooked on the action.

Lucky they had such a big (and very strong) cast to kill off.

That Face at the Duke of York Theatre, May 14 2008
Written by Polly Stenham
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

‘The family that separates dominos separately into crisis’, could be the by-line of alcoholic Martha’s upper middle class family in Polly Sternham’s ‘That Face’. Left by her husband, for a younger, more amicable alternative, Martha (Lindsay Duncan) flounders, self absorbed, into a cycle of escalating madness dragging her children with her; her son, Henry, (Matt Smith) held oedipal-ly close, her daughter, Mia, (Hannah Murray) held at arms length in boarding school like a pedigree stray.

It is the toppling of Mia’s domino that brings father, Hugh (Julian Wadham), back to London to deal with his erstwhile responsibilities. Armed with Martha’s valium, Mia ‘accidentally’ sends a younger girl, comatose, into hospital and is tossed out of school to Martha’s unwelcoming door, behind which Martha is engaged in a dangerous relationship of mutual and uncomfortably sexualised enabling with her son Henry. The play’s crisis coincides with Henry’s as he, who at 18 has held Martha together for the five years since Hugh’s exodus, has his need for her effortlessly bypassed by his father’s will to have her and her dependencies removed from the equation.

‘That Face’ is a bit like an after school special dealing with alcohol and drug abuse (and possibly even incest) gone wrong. Individual scenes feel real, suggesting an element of the autobiographical but the characters have a short journey making them hard to see as real people. Lindsay Duncan as Martha does a beautiful, graceful, quite Blanche Dubois, alcoholic from her first scene to her last, her walk a language of degraded glamour in itself. Mia begins as an unpredictable, lonely, fifteen year old, boarding school girl and ends similarly and Henry’s downhill gradient is slight: he’s already left school to heal a mother who doesn’t want it. So who is the main character taking the journey most narratives revolve around? Martha commands the greatest attention but the most interesting chapters in her story happen on either side of the play and Mia and Henry’s dominos wobble so wildly in the first two scenes that it feels like being first on the scene of a car crash wondering what happened. Despite this the play has great structure; each scene is well crafted and flows seamlessly into the next helped by the staging, which centres around an increasingly crumpled and detritus accumulating double bed. A dream for drama students, many of these scenes would lose none of their power if seen on their own.

A lot has been made about Sternham’s age, she was 19 when she wrote ‘That Face’, and it shows. Not in an amateur way but in a lack of light and shade. The intensity is there from the first scene, a boarding school initiation more Abu Ghraib than St. Trinians, and then continues to increase to heart attack rate rather than allowing pressure remissions before ramping up the adrenalin to a tremor level crisis. By the climactic scene, where the family is reunited, the dialogue and acting are already at fever pitch and the hysteria that sees Henry, drunk, clad in his mother’s jewels and negligee, pissing on the bed couldn’t push me above my the intensity plateau. It felt like that point in an argument where you’ve already thrown everything breakable and are down to the cushions.

The one comic scene shined out as one of the most memorable: Martha, drunk, but in good spirits, chats cheerily to the talking clock, brilliantly taking up both sides of the conversation. In this play Sternham’s writing is strongest when her stage has only two speaking characters and this scene was no exception.

One of the great benefits of Sternham’s age was the language used by Mia and Henry. It’s good to hear teenage banter that doesn’t sound like the OC sprinkled with try hard hip hop lyrics. Her older characters have strong voices as well; Martha’s dialogue bubbles messily fleshy beneath her well brought up shell and Hugh is the perfect cardboard cut-out absentee father.

This is a well crafted, well written play which takes a fresh, real perspective to themes not much dramatised. Individual scenes easily enlist emotions but without an obvious character to back and the intensity woodpeckering away for its one 90 minute act it left me feeling more hollow than I would have hoped.

‘That Face’ debuted in a much more intimate setting and could have been lost in a west end size theatre but the staging used the extra space to accentuate the feeling of each character being lost instead of just losing them in the emptiness.

Major Barbara at The National Theatre, May 5th
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Considering it was penned in 1905, Major Barbara is acutely timely. Debating who welds more power: the government, those with the most money or those with the most guns? the play muses on the saleability of morality and religion, jokes about purchasing peerages and contemplates what constitutes an apt arms sale. If it had a line about a louche mayor of London or a wayward Olympic torch I’d say it was written in 2008.

George Bernard Shaw thrashes out these weighty questions in a witty, drawing-room-drama style chatter which dates the play far more than the content. Long, rousing monologues are the meaty fare of the main ideas course while the play deals with the side order of how the characters are bound together with that terribly British refinement which can be so charming. This production by Nicholas Hytner would be a perfectly timed parlour-room-drama revival – if done on the scale of a parlour room instead of bouncing around off the walls of the National’s hanger like Olivier theatre. The physical distances between the characters felt forced and kept me at arms length as well.

The protagonists are a long estranged father and his family plus the fiancés of his two adult daughters. Dad, Andrew Undershaft (the excellent Simon Russell Beale) is a wealthy arms manufacturer and Mother-dear, Lady Undershaft (a very Lady Bracknell, Clare Higgins) is looking out for the financial well being of her son and two daughters when she resumes contact with him. Daughter, Barbara, (Hayley Atwell) is a Salvation Army Major at the height of pious, moral fervour, her intended, Adolphus Cusins (Paul Ready), a scholar of Greek and ‘collector of religions‘ while the other Undershafts and co. are foppish members of the leisured classes. Dad takes a shine to Major Barbara, agreeing to spend a day with her at her ‘mission’ in return for her spending a day at his arms factory, each attempting to bring the other around to their world view. Andrew Undershaft has a particularly memorable line where he cheerfully admits to being ‘a manufacturer of mayhem and murder’, while Barbara struggles with her father’s capacity to ‘buy the Salvation Army’ which she had already declared not for sale.

Simon Russell Beale plays exactly the right kind of ribald man of power, slightly menacing and used to getting his own way but with a flicker of Santa about him and Clare Higgins commands the scenes she appears in as both a powerful actress and a wonderfully tough but fitting mother. Paul Ready as Cusins warms into his game, but then his character has the most interesting journey as a pragmatic intermediary between father and daughter – which left me wondering if it should have been Barbara’s journey I was following (seeing as her character has the title role…?). Hayley Atwell was never as potent as I wanted her to be, she was a good devoted child of god but never really went any further with it and I was looking for a bit more clever passion as she and her fiancé get more involved with her father and his business. Maybe it was the vast empty space they needed to fill but the more exaggerated characters (including John Heffernan’s as son, Stephen Undershaft) were the most engaging, they were allowed the big voices and facial expressions that made them pervasive. Where were Barbara’s convictions damn it!

The act in the Salvation Army shelter suffered most from excessive space. In all other scenes the action took place on a strange little raised platform which worked to focus attention on only a part of the stage but this was forgone for this one section, replaced by colourless benches reminiscent of an army canteen. The whole scene lacked colour despite having the most action (and almost a musical number.) The final scene in the weapons factory was backed by frightening bright lines of hundreds of missiles, particularly intimidating considering the play predates the World Wars. But the statement was writ bold: All men (and women) are equal under God and violence, what an appropriate message for 2008.

The Lover and The Collection, a double bill of The Lover and The Collection, by Harold Pinter
The Comedy Theatre 30th April

The Lover, a Pinter one act two hander, sparkles with emerald style (diamonds being just a bit too obvious.).
An intimate look at a marriage where a set of careful compromises are in play, the tone is glib and the actors (Gina McKee and Richard Coyle) are clearly ’acting’ but the emotions are surprisingly raw. No one would expect the writing to do anything less than whip, dice, turn and sing, but in The Lover, Pinter leads the audience up a very twisting garden path with a lot of nice flourishes and witty moments along the way.

The couple, ten years into their marriage, are exploring their differing desires for duality on that rickety old bridge between love and lust and instead of finding a spot in the middle they’re moving straight from one end to the other by conducting very civilised affairs – with each other. The brilliant frission between the terribly British Mr. and Mrs. amicably discussing the affair as if it’s being conducted outside the marriage, and the role playing, bongo drumming, intimate personal fantasies they act out had me on-side from the start. I got the impression that the audience felt in safe hands with the actors and narrative and were eagerly following the couple as they began to explore a bit more than just the difference between being a man and a woman or a whore, lover, mistress or wife.

The two-roomed staging was suitably stylish and clever and the era was 40’s – 50’s chic (and that goes for the dialogue as well as the look.).  The sex was less suggested, more real, and more sexy and honest than overt (with coitus performed under the tea table.) as were the emotions – I thought they all trod the line awfully well, darling.

The Collection, with two extra characters (played by Charlie Cox and Timothy West), was a similar dip into the intimate world of personal relationships, partnerships and desire, with the extra characters adding the possibility of homosexuality into the mix. The story centres around the confession and re-confession of a one night stand; did the young married woman really do ‘that’ with the louche but glamorous toyboy? As the partners of the standees become involved events are revised and the winners’ and losers’ roles are cleverly re-assigned. Insecurity reigns as does the clever arrangement of the actors’ bodies on stage which is suggestive but without being an utter farce, and more witty dialogue, including what has to be one of the best monologues I’ve ever seen: a tremendous moment from Timothy West as he explains that his young ‘friend’ is a “slum slug”.  More emotive words have never been spoken in love and I will keep that one for future use.

In both plays it is the female characters who come off best, playing cat and mouse games with the truth and kneading and seasoning the situation to their own tastes. Both girls (both played by Gina McKee) are durable and comfortably capable of duality and expertly play their strengths and weaknesses. Both plays explored the themes of love, partnership, sexual desire and insecurity but I still appreciated the underlying sisterhood of those graceful slips of things playing to get what they need and winning . Without this edge, The Collection would be a bit like the decadent versus the ‘proper’, but the bourgeois tone Pinter allows his characters shows up their flaws warmly.

In spite of the comic and unerring tip of the banter flashing across the surface of this evening’s theatre, I found the underlying emotions honest. I like the idea of these characters being real people.  In fact, I hope very much that there are people creative enough to add this kind of drama to their personal relationships as they tread back and forwards on the love-to-lust bridge via insecurity. I just hope they’re not living next door to me (unless they’re a slum slug, of course, and then I may get the opportunity to utter those words.).

P.S. It should have been called ‘The Pinter Collection’…

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