Theatre Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Shine a Light on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Light Shining on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Caryl Churchill’s play about the English revolution, a moment in history that could have changed this country forever – imagine, no Jubilee parties and commemorative mugs – but instead sort of fizzled out leaving the French and the Americans to show us how to do it properly.

The staging of Lyndsey Turner’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire production is fantastic and grabs you the moment the curtain rises to reveal the Lyttelton Theatre stage dominated by a giant dining table groaning with man-sized mutton legs and pig heads around which sit upwards of 30 men, gnawing away at the plastic feast, undeterred by the starving masses outside the banquet hall. This stage-sized table later gives way – once we’re got rid of the Norman nobles – to enclosures, then a barren field. Well done set designer Es Devlin and team.

But as well as been a spectacle, the impressive staging is also a bit of a distraction. Churchill’s play was originally performed by six people; in this National Theatre production the cast is enormous – 62 according to Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, although we counted around 40 actors during the curtain call.

The bulk of the ensemble is made up of the Community Company who provide a large chorus that adds to the theatre of the production. The singing that bookends the play and heralds the Putney Debate scene is indeed stirring stuff. But at the risk of sounding like a philistine, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is wordy and dense, Churchill’s script packed with rousing speeches that demand the brain firing, if not on full, then at least 90% throttle. While the dialogue is often enthralling, it was too easy to get distracted by all that was going on. The group of students next to us, many who didn’t have English as their first language, certainly found the dialogue difficult to follow, squirming and sighing throughout the first half, only for one of them ask his mate in the interval what it was all about. “Robin Hood, I think”, his friend replied.

Well, the disposing of a leader by birthright and taking power and land from the few and redistributing them among the many was one of the revolution’s aims so maybe Oliver Cromwell in green tights isn’t such a ridiculous idea. And a mash-up of Robin Hood and the English Revolution may have been, dare I say, a little more entertaining?

That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy. Churchill’s play focuses largely on the experience of the working classes for whom little changed in the seven years England was without a Monarch and it’s interesting to see history narrated by those who weren’t in power when history was made. There’s also some nice correlation with today’s politics. A focal point of the play are the Putney Debates of 1647 scene that reenact the famous discussions on the constitution and the future governing of England by soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, lead by the Levellers (so much of this period in history reads like an issue of the NME in 1992). Apparently in the days following the General Election 2015, these scenes received a spontaneous round of applause at the part where they call for electoral reform.

It’s difficult to pick a performance from such a large company, but I enjoyed Daniel Flynn as Cromwell and as the rather less revolutionary vicar who survived the seven monarch-less years with his velvet cloak unblemished. Adelle Leonce was excellent as the vagrant preacher who dares to speak out in church when women are forbidden to. Churchill highlights the plight of women even in this male dominated cast, drawing attention to the complete exclusion of the fairer sex in this revolution and their disenfranchised from life generally as their punishment for Eve’s love of a Granny Smith.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire isn’t a cosy piece of theatre, it feels old-school in its execution and performance, but it’s well-produced and interesting (that sounds more damming that it’s meant to). Worth a look for fans of history and magnificent staging – just do go expecting any merry men. 

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireLyttelton Theatre, National Theatre | Until 22nd June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Behind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s quite brutally in a review for my university newspaper (rather uninspiringly called Ripple). So disgusted was I by the opening page, I discarded it and consigned Atkinson to the list of authors I Will Never Read Again (this list exists entirely in my head).

Then, a few months ago, I was lent Life After Life, her Bailey’s Prize nominated novel (it was simply the Women’s prize the year of her nom) and loved it. Since then I’ve been on something of an Atkinson feast, eating up her novels in an attempt to satisfy myself after those years of wilful self-denial.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum is the latest in her back catalogue to make it to the top of my  To Read Pile (this does exist in physical form) and I can now stop admonishing my undergrad self’s disregard for it. While it’s a lush read full of wry wit and juicy descriptions, it’s definitely Early Atkinson. There’s a great deal to admire in the 400+ page novel that sweeps between generations of the Lennox family, with the youngest Ruby, born in 1952, narrating our journey through the years. There’s plenty of trademark Atkinson word play and amusing observations, but the narrative arc gets rather lost in all the cleverness in a way that she learnt to avoid in Life After Life where the complex plot is dealt with so deftly (practise makes perfect as  Behind The Scene…’s Ruby Lennox would no doubt observe).

Protagonist, Ruby Lennox narrates her life from the minute she is conceived during an inspiring union between between her permanently furious mother, Bunty and oafish father, George and we see everything through her sardonic eyes. Ruby feels adrift in the Lennox family,a family defined by tragedy, wrath and an inability to be happy, and is convinced from the minute she is dispelled from her mother’s womb that she was swapped at birth. But as she takes us back to visit her great-grandmother Alice and her large brood – amongst them Ruby’s grandmother Nell – the genetic patterns are firmly stamped in Ruby’s DNA.

There are large dramas  – the Lennoxs have a propensity to die young –  in among the smaller domestic crises.  Atkinson’s skill is not only finding the poetic in the mundane, but the mundane in the dramatic. Ruby’s life is brutal , her dissatisfied mother has a tongue as fierce as barbed wire and a heart hardened by unfulfillment, and Ruby’s childhood is strewn with grief and loneliness – I don’t think she once gets a hug. But there is a joyfulness to Atkinson’s writing, which is just as well as there’s a lot of it in Behind The Scenes… as we meander from Edwardian to post-war times and back again. And there’s so many characters, many of them dead, that they clutter the story like the ghosts that lurk on the stairs of the living quarters above the Lennox’s pet shop (Above The Shop – Atkinson loves a capital letter for effect As Do I).

The York-born author has grown into her clever yet chummy style. The humour that pumps through her novels reminds me very much of Hilary Mantel’s wry observations – I was reading the Wolf Hall author’s Beyond Black concurrently and the stories would sometimes weave themselves together in my mind so similar are their styles. And like Early Mantel, Early Atkinson is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan, even if it’s just for the chance to saw you prefer their early work best – although in my case it’s quite the reverse.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Matchbox Theatre, An Evening of Short Entertainments, Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn's Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s latest (and maybe his last) book, Matchbox Theatre, was a collection of 30 short sketches that revealed the workings of his creative output across the stage and the page over the past 50 years. Written over the course of his career, inbetween his many other projects, Matchbox Theatre smudged the boundaries between his dramatic works and his fiction. Were these sketches short stories or minute plays?

Hampstead Theatre clearly voted for ‘play’ in the debate and installed Hamish McColl in the director’s chair to bring the pieces to life with an ensemble of six actors, Esther Coles, (the very likable) Nina Wadia, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu and Chris Larner.

I am a big fan of Michael Frayn (except for the dirgey Democracy that remains the only play I’ve ever nodded off in). He is a specialist at smart comedy and witty intelligence whether for theatre or fiction. His work is frantic with ideas and dazzlingly dexterous in their execution. It’s no surprise that despite his prolific output, there are enough scraps worthy of a two-hour play.

But Matchbox Theatre does sometimes feel a little too much like those metaphorical balls of paper strewn around the wastepaper basket. The pace waxes and wanes and inevitably some of the sketches work better than others. And when Matchbox Theatre catches fire it only every really smoulders with a dimmed Frayn brilliance.

I enjoyed the David Attenborough-style look at the stage hands that saw black-clad figures scurrying around a set moving props with exaggerated movements, communicating in high pitched squeaks. There was the clever Outside Story, where Hamlet is reimagined as a national news event (“there were rumours earlier that someone had seen a ghost!”). And there’s a lot of enjoyable theatre meta as Frayn breaks down the relationship between the audience and the actors, reality and the theatrical. Just before the interval we find Tim Downie and Nina Wadia in the audience (the characters don’t have names) riffing off the audiences’ interval regimes – and it’s very funny.

When the sketches don’t quite work, there’s no hiding in the exposed round with the audience as a seventh character, the actors occasionally addressing the front row and the stalls remaining partially lit. But this intimacy falls a little flat in a theatre as soulless as Hampstead where the audience always seem a little annoyed at having to be there.

Frayn likes to stretch farce and the unlikely to breaking point, his brilliant countryside set novel Headlong is a fine example of his expertise in dicing with the ridiculous with skill, but in some of these sketches don’t know when to stop. There’s a piece about a b flat french horn player whiling away his long moments of nothingness in the orchestra pit that falls as flat as flat as a b flat. Then there was the politician ranting about technology only to be called by his wife and a tabloid reporter asking him about an affair that felt a little dated and neither dark or funny enough to work.

While the characters were different in every sketch, the characteristics of each actor follow them through each piece. The cast play their parts with verve and a knowing nod to the theatrical, this is no po-faced drama, we are all in this together so bring your sense of humour – especially if you find yourself on the front row.

Matchbox Theatre | Hampstead Theatre | Until 6 June

Theatre review: Golem, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1)

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Written, directed, animated and largely performed by the often off-beat, always on-point 1927, Golem is shaking up the conservative West End with its gleeful, quirky and wonderfully imaginative comment on the technology takeover of our age.

In Jewish legend, a golem is a creature made from inanimate material, usually clay (in Hebrew, golem means shapeless mass), that is magically instilled with the power to take commands from its master. In legend, a golem usually becomes ever more powerful and ultimately destructive, in Golem, our clay man becomes a nightmare embodiment of our relationship with technology – like Frankenstein’s monster with an iPhone.

Golem’s master is Robert Robinson (a fantastic turn from Shamira Turner), a nerd who loves binary code and brown clothes. His instrument of choice in his sister, Annie’s, band – Annie and The Underdogs – is a keytar. Robert and Annie, a former librarian from a time when libraries existed, live with their Beethoven and knitting-loving grandmother. Robert has a mundane job in the Backup Department, “backing up the backup”, with four other like-minded geeks, writing out binary codes to existing computer programmes in preparation for the day the power goes out. He fancies Joy (a delightful Rose Robinson who plays Gran with equal relish), the Backup Department’s stationery cupboard manager who is wonderfully odd and whose dream it is to one day visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Robert’s world is changed dramatically the day he bumps into an inventor friend who persuades him to take home a clay golem he’s been tweaking, promising that this lump of clay will make his life far simpler. Golem, who looks like a, erm, very adult Morph, is animated onto the screen along with the projections of a city from a future that could be ours, with derelict buildings abandoned by the Russian oligarchs and hipster restaurants where the food is served in aspic.

Robert sets put Golem to work – literally, he’s now backing up the backup – but unbeknown to Robert, a sinister corporate company have also recognised the power of Golem and one day take over Golem’s mind. Like Dr Frankenstein, Robert soon discovers that his creature isn’t as pliable as he’d like and he’s soon in thrall to his powers.

Golem is simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge. It has a fringe feel to it, but is as slick as any West End musical. Suzanne Andrade’s script is shot through with wit and poetic and knowing popular culture nods.  In among the fun and the surreal charm, are lots of on-point messages about modern life – the power of advertising, social media, those unseen trend makers and, of course, our slavish devotion to technology that is drilling holes in our communities, big and small.

Paul Barritt’s animation is more than simply a projected set, it’s an integral piece of a production that encompass several art forms including a jaunty live score (the drums and piano are played by Lillian Henley and Will Close respectively) that hints at Robert and Annie’s jazz-obsessed father.

I loved the numerous imaginative touches – the broken 7″ in punk fan Annie’s hair, the moth that rises up from the table when gran bangs it in frustration. I also enjoyed the hugely funny parodies of the more ridiculous aspects of modern life; Joy’s interview for her role at the Backup Department sent up job description cliches so perfectly and my friend and I were knowingly amused by Robert’s dalliance with internet dating (or what passes for internet dating in this production) after Golem persuades him to ditch Joy for being “a frumpy 35-year-old who is going to trick you into having a baby”.

Golem reminded me of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and was every bit as joyful, clever and thoughtful. The message may be stretched a little, but wrapped up in such wit and originality, Golem could have been saying nothing and it would have still been tremendous fun.

Golem | Trafalgar Studios | Until 22nd May

by Suzanne Elliott

Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

I could pick holes bigger than a haystack in Thomas Vinterberg’s reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be churlish when I enjoyed it so much. My reasons aren’t terribly scholarly, but everything and everyone looked so sumptuous, it was as intoxicating as a balmy Pimm-drenched English summer evening.

Shamefully, I’ve never seen the 1967 Julie Christie-starring John Schlesinger film of Thomas Hardy’s brooding Dorset novel (if only Hardy had written more books along these lines). And, despite describing myself, when asked – which is never – as a Hardy fan, I hadn’t read the book. Of course, I knew about the bit with the sheep, and that shabby, handsome Alan Bates rather paled in comparison to dashing Terence Stamp as they both courted Julie Christie in her luminous prime.

What I didn’t know was that it was positively a rom-com – or, indeed a novel by David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay – compared to Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene is pretty badass for a Victorian era woman, especially in Carey Mulligan’s hands who relishes her character’s rebellious side. She also got to wear some terrific hats after she inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes lady of the manor, not bad for an orphan who we first meet toiling the land on her aunt’s farm in what looks like an H&M denim dress.

On her first day as mistress of the farm, her barn and harvest are saved from a ravishing fire by none other than Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who asked her to marry him in her lowly farm girl days (Gabriel looks like Matthias Schoenaerts so this was Bathsheba’s first mistake). He’s had a run of bad luck (that sheep bit) and is currently homeless and jobless. But his fortuitous fire-fighting skills secure him a job as chief shepherd on Bathsheba’s farm where he is free to look longingly at his mistress.

Bathsheba gains another admirer, her next-door-neighbour, a 40-year-old bachelor farmer, William Boldwood (played by the ever wonderful Michael Sheen). To amuse herself (these were the days before X Factor) Bathsheba sends Boldwood a Valentine’s card as a joke that misfires in typically terrible Hardy fashion. Hardy LOVES a coincidence and he enjoys the tricks that the cruel hand of fate plays on us mortals. For all of Bathsheba’s independence, she’s still a plaything for the gods, and a slave to her own fatal flaw.

Her fatal flaw arrives in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a redcoat who is recovering from a broken heart after being jilted at the alter. Sturridge’s Frank is one of the haystack-sized holes I mentioned early. He is allegedly 29, but looks like he couldn’t order a pint of Scrumpy without being asked for ID. He’s a good-looking lad, but his Frank lacks the sex appeal that would lead an otherwise strong-willed, independent woman to lose her head (and knickers and farm). To be fair, it’s not really Sturridge’s fault; his Frank is almost a side note, his role cut down to one-dimensional size to fit the restrictions of a 119-minute production. This is a shame, but it’s not disastrous as it gives us more time for sun-tinged scenes of haymaking and broad-shouldered Belgium Schoenaerts making doe-eyes at Bathsheba (some might gripe that Schoenaerts’s Wessex accent is a little, erm, continental, but I’ll let that one go. See aforementioned doe-eyes).

As with all adaptations of classic novels, Vinterberg’s film of Hardy’s 1874 novel is also very much of its own time. David ‘One Day’ Nicholls’s script lifts Hardy’s characteristic gloominess to acceptable 21st century tolerance levels and Cary Mulligan – who largely is excellent – injects the odd modern intonation into some of her carefree pre-marriage dialogue. And, while it may not be a classic, leaving a cinema smiling after a brush with Thomas Hardy is as pleasant as a stroll along a Dorset cliff dusk (mad sheepdog incidents aside).

Far From The Madding Crowd | Released 1st May 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

First performed at the National Theatre in 1997, Closer was written in a time when popular culture was teeming with studies of overly-sexed, overly-stressed, overly-self-obsessed people and their relationships. This was an era of This Life and Queer as Folk, TV programmes where the world for the under 35s was both hugely fun and horribly messy and hurtful.

Marber’s tale of sex and love has survived the best part of two decades better than many of us, in fact, in a time when internet dating and Tinder seem to magnify the differences between what men and women want, Closer could be seen as even more pertinent. In 20 years, men and women are still doing badly timed dances around each other because ultimately neither gender knows what beat we’re dancing.

Closer is about love, sex and London – and not the shiny Michelin star laden capital of the 21st century, but the slightly bleary eyed city that saw out the millennium. Against this slightly grubby background is this weary, crude and poignantly funny tale of four people trying to reconcile the ultimate mundanity of love. The two female leads were transformed into glamorous Americans in Steven Soderbergh’s 2004 film, but they make far more sense as spiky British women more used to failure.

Marber’s story directed by David Leveaux’s on Bunny Christie’s stark set should be a depressing watch – essentially, it’s saying, heterosexual men and women may be deeply attracted to each other, but they are doomed to misunderstand each other. But the script is shot full of enough wit and Leveaux keeps any arm-flailing at bay for it to be an absorbing and intelligent watch.

The four-hander follows (deeply, or just normally?) two flawed couples over several years, all grasping for love that they can never quite seize. Daniel Woolf  (Oliver Chris) is at once a hopeless romantic and an utter rat in the way these two characteristics are often flipsides of each other. He meets Alice Ayres (Rachel Redford), a young, beautiful orphan, when he scraps her off the street after she’s knocked down by a taxi. Dan, an obituary writer who dreams of becoming a novelist, takes her to hospital where Alice chooses to fall in love with him because he cuts the crusts off his sandwiches. He’s bewitched by her youth and kookiness and despite having a girlfriend, believes her to be the one. Alice is briefly treated by Larry (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist who, in one of the many coincidences the play hangs on, Dan will, a few years later, set up with Anna – who he is now in love with – via a very funny exchange in an internet chat room. Dan first met Anna when she was taking his picture for the sleeve of his forthcoming novel that he’s finally written it. As he is prone to, Dan has become infatuated with Anna and so begins a circle of obsession and attraction between the four characters.

The characters are pretty damning representation of the human race, but they are not cardboard cutout villains, their very human flaws don’t distract from the appeal and the brilliance of a script full of those moments that resonant so much that you want to punch the air and shout ‘Yes. This’.

Marber’s brutal dialogue requires some pretty robust acting and the cast largely handler the script with conviction. Nancy Carroll was captivating as Anna, whose brittle efficiency hides a vulnerability that Carroll’s expressive eyes give away and I loved Rufus Sewell as Larry, a nice comic cadence cutting through the self importance of the other characters.

The Donmar’s production of Closer was good enough that the play’s niggles (the idea that Anna wouldn’t run a mile from a strange man in an aquarium who calls her a “cum-hungry bitch” even if he did look like Rufus Sewell; the beauty of the two women being so central to the story; what do these people talk about when they’re not arguing or snogging?) didn’t grate. As the production comes to an end, it remains to be seen if Marber’s play can survive another 17 years will as much spirit.

Closer | Donmar Warehouse | Until 4 April 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Game, Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida reputation as a company that pushes theatrical boundaries continues apace with Game, the new play by Mike Bartlett in which the audience are voyeurs in an unorthodox response to the housing crisis.

The game in Game places a young, unemployed, homeless couple in a brand-spanking new house complete with a hot tub. The catch? They consent to be shot with tranquiliser darts by people behind glass panels who have paid for the sheer pleasure of using poor people as target practice. Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble), who are keen to start a family, decide that this is an inconvenience worth putting up with for the sake of a roof over their heads – and, of course, that hot tub.

As the audience, we are part of the game, viewing Carly and Ashley’s life through the glass panel and the CCTV monitors above our heads as the punters stand amongst us to take their pot shots. In the beginning, Ashley and Carly are protected by rules that allow them some privacy and limit where and when they can be shot. But the novelty of the game soon wanes for the snotty snipers and the ante is upped to appeal to an increasingly bloodthirsty audience. Watching all this with weariness and disgust is David (Kevin Harvey), employed to train and oversee the shooters. David is a laconic former army man who struggles in the face of this new conflict, his revulsion helping to prevent the audience slipping into neutral.

Although Harvey’s stoic performance didn’t entirely prevent me from feeling the same fatigue as the amateur snipers. Game leaps out of the starting blocks and at the beginning it is tense and thrilling. But Game’s clever conceit is also it’s problem and it soon plateaux; like the characters in the house, there is no where for it to go. And I was confused by its theme – it’s billed as a play about the housing crisis, but I felt that was more a comment on the class system. Choosing to have an unemployed couple from Liverpool seemed a deliberate decision to shine the spotlight on the disparity of the class system, a point further compounded by the shooters being largely parodically posh.

Bartlett’s writing is as on point as ever, the Shakespearian tone of Charles III swapped for a realistic, pared down dialogue. The acting is excellent across the board, but Game was rather one note and the helplessness of Carly and Ashley was frustrating. Would they not have discussed their options once life became unbearable? Were there really no avenues available to them to even contemplate? When it was on form, Game was entertaining and shocking, although it’s not so much the violence that appalls, but the attitudes of the shooters themselves – spoilt, rich, stupid and banal, they could have been shooting rabbits (only one participant did have the decency to question her actions).

Mike Bartlett clearly has a bee in his bonnet about the housing crisis; he’s written about it previously in the rather irritating Love, Love, Love. Game is a far more penetrating piece of work and his leads far more sympathetic, but I’m still not sure he’s quite got to the heart of the matter, although he does nearly hit the mark this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Game | Almeida Theatre | Until 4th April

Book review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro  published by Faber & Faber

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber & Faber

With the release of his seventh novel The Buried Giant, I realised I’d rather neglected Kazuo Ishiguro’s back catalogue. The only work I’d read of his was Never Let Me Go a rather gloomy sci-fi novel that was a long way from the musty Merchant and Ivory air that I’d always rather associated with him. Conversely, When We Were Orphans appealed because I needed the bracing air of a costume drama,  a trip into the well-written past. Plus it was the only Ishiguro in the library.

Ishiguro is not a showy writer. I thought that the science fiction coolness of Never Let Me Go encouraged his brisk prose, but it turns out this is just how Ishiguro writes. His cold, odd style fits nicely with When We Were Orphans’ protagonist Christopher Banks who is a rather strange, slightly shady creature who’s, nevertheless, rather endearing. Written in the first person narrative, Christopher is our good friend the unreliable narrator. As is the Ishiguro way, much of Christopher’s true personality is hidden from us, but we do get a few clues from childhood friends (“My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school”) that reveal our narrator may not be as well balanced an individual as his smooth delivery suggests. But, then Christopher is a literary detective and so obliged to be an odd ball.

Set against the backdrop of the opium trade and the rumblings of war, When We Were Orphans is part detective novel, part love story (with, it’s true, very little romance). It reminded me of Graham Greene in his spy drama moments as well as JG Ballard, partly for the Shanghai element and partly for the prose which, like Ballard’s, is beautiful in its plainness. There’s an old-fashioned tone to it that I enjoyed and a commitment to a tight narrative even when the plot heads a little off centre.

The story starts in 1930, although we don’t stay there for long. After an early childhood in the international settlement in Shanghai, Christopher Banks is living in London, a man with an increasingly successful career as a detective. He is reminiscing about one afternoon in 1923 when he bumped into an old friend  who invites him to a party where he sets eyes on the mysterious Sarah Hemming. He is captivated by her despite being warned by a fellow party guest that he’s far too insignificant to peak her interest. She pops up several times in the novel to prove this man wrong.

Banks is presumed to be an orphan, both his parents having disappeared when he was a boy in Shanghai within days of each. His mum was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign alongside ‘Uncle’ Philip and wasn’t afraid to challenge Chinese warlords and British big businesses about their actions that had led to thousands of helpless local addicts.  Was she killed to silence her? And what was Uncle Philip’s involvement?

Brought back to England by the kindly Colonel Chamberlain, Christopher is brought up by his aunt in Shropshire. The mysterious case of his missing parents casts a dark shadow over his life that he can never quite escape – it shapes his childhood games and choice of career. The novel revisits those years in Shanghai in the run up to his parents’ disappearance where we also meet Akira, Christopher’s childhood friend. We swing backwards and forwards between the past and present  – as the years move on, Christopher’s reputation as a detective continues to rise and, after inheriting a nice little sum from his aunt, his life is comfortable (he even picks up a little Canadian orphan to play families with). But, as he tells the Colonel during a brief reunion in the early 1930s, the past is “where I’ve continued to live all my life. It’s only now I’ve started to make my journey from it”. He must return to Shanghai to discover the truth.

Ishiguro doesn’t believe When We Were Orphans is his best work, and it’s not perfect. The plot rather descends into chaos when Banks returns to China and starts tearing around chasing ghosts and Sarah (who arrived several months before with her buffoon of a husband) in a blur of a rushed end and strange turns that set off the beggars-belief alarm. But despite the that-would-never-happen klaxon, I was taken with Christopher, his unreliable memory and his attempt to flee the past by hurling himself right at it and soaked up Ishiguro’s crisp prose with relish.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.

Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.

With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.

Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.

The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets.  I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April