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 even Monty Python.

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

Theatre review: Antigone, Barbican

Obi Abili, Juliette Binoche and Patrick O'Kane performing in Antigone. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld/HO/EPAFresh from his success in the director’s chair of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – now triumphantly transferred to the West End – director Ivo van Hove transfers his skills to the Barbican’s adaptation of Sophokles’ Antigone.

Swapping a 20th century tragedy for one written in 441BC van Hove’s employs many of his directionally flourishes that worked so well in Arthur Miller’s tale to this Classical text, but with far less success. The stark staging that allows actors to casually sit and the loud soundtrack that made such an impact in A View from the Bridge, both seem out of place in Antigone, as if the stage notes had got muddled with another, far punchier, production.

If nothing else, van Hove still has the story which of course ticks all the Greek tragedy boxes, including fratricide, despotic rulers and amusing messengers. Antigone’s life was probably never destined to be great, after all as the daughter of Oedipus, her mother – Jocasta – is also her grandmother. If that wasn’t enough, her brothers – fighting for opposing sides – kill each other in fighting to rule. The new ruler, Creon, declares that Etecoles – whose death meant he got to be king – will be honoured while his brother, Polyneices, will be left to rot where he fell. Reasonably, Creon decrees that anyone attempting to bury Polyneices will be killed. Antigone, no stranger to family drama, is determined to defy the rules and give her brother the send off he deserves. Her sister, Ismene, isn’t very keen on the idea and the play opens with a sisterly spat that sees them fall out for ever. All alone in the world, Antigone, is determined to put blood-ties before her own survival.

I was gripped by the story, my knowledge of Greek theatre is poor, but on this occasion my ignorance served me well as Anne Carson’s retelling of Sophokles’ ancient tale was probably the highlight. The opening scene, when Juliette Binoche’s black clad Antigone walks out onto a sandstorm for her confrontation with Kirsty Bushell’s secretarial-like Ismane is wonderfully dramatic and evocative. But once the wind machine was turned down, the production seemed to lose the wind from its sails.

For a genre that is famously tense with emotion, this production of a Greek classic, was rather cold and lacking in spirit; it was difficult to believe these characters would have enough passion to disobey an over zealous traffic warden who’d put a parking ticket on their chariot, let alone their leader at pain of death. The lack of connection, I think, can be partly explained by the play being visually contemporary, but there being no effort made to make the story relevant to modern day audiences. I wasn’t sure whether we were meant to be understanding this from an ancient Greek point of view (never easy at the best of times) or from a 21st century mindset where our references would have been different.

Binoche as Antigone gave a very considered performance, but whether this is a curse of the do-gooding daughter role (see also King Lear’s Cordelia) was a little dull. In fact few of the performances were loaded with personality, Obi Abili as the guard was a brilliant exception, his comic timing bringing a welcome shot of humour in a production that was otherwise a little one note.

Antigone | Barbican Centre | Until 28 March 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (publishing by Penguin)

Nominated for the Bailey’s Prize longlist and winner of the Costa first novel award, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was the big publishing story of last year. The marketing campaign has been huge – piles of the book greet you at every bookshop door and even the front cover is as much a campaign as design, covered as it is in hyperbolic praise from established authors and newspaper critics.

The marketing push and the enticing cover lines all promise intrigue and an up-put-a-down-ableness so beloved of reviewers. You are going to love this book says everyone.

Only I didn’t.

Elizabeth is Missing has plenty of fans, particularly at Penguin who won a nine day bidding war to secure the rights, wooing Healy with handwritten notes from employees who loved the book (and, presumably, a nice fat advance).

I wanted to be one of those note-writing fans, mysteries with a benign old lady at the centre of them being right up my tweed-lined Marple street. But while Healey is clearly a talented writer who honed her skills on the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at UEA, her talents are no match for the overstretched plot she set herself.

Maud is a woman in her 80s who is suffering from dementia. The novel is narrated from her point of view which is clever, but difficult to pull off considering Maud has no short term memory so, um, how does she remember all the things that have happened? Of course this literary device helps enormously when her short-term memory loss allows Healey to be vague about things when she realises the plot isn’t quite slotting together.

Maud is convinced her friend Elizabeth has disappeared. Of course nobody believes her, including me (are we really meant to?), but her search for her friend stirs up painful memories of her sister Sukey’s disappearance in 1946 and the two mysteries run in tandem throughout the novel. Maud’s obsession with her missing friend unravels the clues behind her sister’s disappearance and ultimately the two stories clunkily collide and lead to a (frustrating) conclusion. The way the two stories were fused was almost laughable cartoony at times – 82-year-old Maud seeing, say a, pub and being reminded “of the time I met Frank (Sukey’s husband) for a drink”, cue a return to 1946. I expected the page to wobble in front of my eyes.

The post-war story is by far the most interesting of the two tales, although annoyingly bity, just when it hits its grove, we were jolted back to the present day where Maud is repeating her Elizabeth is missing refrain and making another cup of tea that she’ll never drink.

That’s not to say present day Maud isn’t moving, but the one character I really thought Healey caught well was Helen, Maud’s daughter, her exasperation, sadness and fear seeping through the layers of Maud’s muddled mind onto the page and right off it again.

There’s a lot of heart behind Elizabeth is Missing, but the better story is Healey’s own fairytale from 16-year-old school leaver to celebrated author via five years of hard graft where she fitted in writing around her full-time job. Are we more lenient towards debut authors? Are we so impressed by their dedication that we mistake quite good novels for brilliant ones? Maybe (incidentally, Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, which would have wiped the floor with the rest of the Costa first book award noms). Maybe in time Healey will write one as good as the marketing people told us Elizabeth is Missing is.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Taken at Midnight, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson in Taken at Midnight

About to end its all too brief stint at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Taken at Midnight is a gripping thought-provoking production that is as enthralling as it is moving.

Set in 1930s Germany, Mark Hayhurst‘s new play tells the true story of Hans Litten, the man who had the courage (arrogance?) to reduce Hitler to size in the witness stand at the trial of SA men in 1931. Hitler’s anger and subsequent revenge comes from him being cut down to human size by Litten; Hitler wanted to be a deity, above reproach or mistake, but that day Litten exposed his humanness and for that the lawyer pays a heavy price.

But hope is not entirely lost, Litten has a vocal cheerleader in the world outside of his concentration camps. His mother, Irmgard, beautifully played by Penelope Wilton, pushes her way into the office of Gestapo chief Dr Conrad to campaign for her son’s release. Soon her visits are frequent, the pair of them enjoying cups of tea as Irmgard’s increasingly angry pleas get bolder.

Taken at Midnight is full of emotion without being mawkish, intelligent without being aloof, Hayhurst’s script is a highlight in a play full of them. I seen several plays recently where words are seemingly thrown out in the vain hope that they will magically slot together and make sense and it was wonderful to hear Hayhurst’s thoughtful, clever script. The play is riveting with an easy rhythm that allows the actors to tell the story without melodrama. That’s not to say emotions are subdued, if anything Taken at Midnight is more intense because it’s not all hysterical hand-wringing.

Competing in the ‘best of…’ category is Penelope Wilton (this week nominated for best actress at the Olivier Awards), whose Irmgard is, in contrast to the turmoil of the story, so stoical and still, her fists clenched beside her body, her jawline holding her anguish. She’s brilliant in the role, beautifully composed, but her determination and courage are never in doubt.

Wilton’s not alone, the whole cast are excellent; Martin Hutson is charming as Hans Litten, capturing his brilliance and the arrogance that accompanied it, while John Light as Dr Conrad reimagines the Gestapo chief as an ordinary man, playing him as a human being not a cardboard cutout, goosestepping monster.

Stories set in Nazi Germany, particularly those that tell true stories of individuals suffering in concentration camps can be relentlessly grim, but Taken at Midnight, while it won’t have you rolling in the aisles, has genuine moments of humour. Wilton, who honed her comic timing in Ever Decreasing Circles, a sitcom I was semi-obsessed with in my childhood (Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers!), puts it to excellent use here. She’s not playing for laughs, but the amusing lines help make this story even more human.

Jonathan Church’s subtle direction enhances the horror of the final few minutes of Taken by Midnight – there were gasps from the audience at the events before curtain call, no mean feat for a true story.

by Suzanne Elliott

Taken at Midnight | Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until Saturday 14 March 2015

Book Review Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Unexpected Lessons in Love was written in a flurry of creativity during Bernadine Bishop’s cancer remission and its aggressive return. The novel is Bishop’s fourth, although her first in fifty years, published in 2013 when she was 73.

Unexpected Lessons in Love is an odd little novel that’s stylistically gentle yet full of dramatic plot turns. The tone of this novel about one family and their small Venn diagram of friends and acquaintances, is rather old fashioned, the rhythm so smooth as to be almost soporific. But this soothing tempo is at odds with many of the events of the book that take in cancer, a mentally ill mother, an abandoned child, heartbreak, grief and even a rather strange and slightly half hearted kidnapping. Bishop lets these events gently unfold with such calmness that I often found the stillness immensely irritating.

At the heart of the story is Cecilia Banks, a retired psychotherapist in remission from cancer and now reliant on a colostomy – or stoma. She is married to Tim, a benign presence who loves tennis and his computer. Cecilia’s life is further disrupted when her son Ian discovers he is a father to a three-month-old baby, the product of a fling with a beautiful but schizophrenic woman who called herself Leda. It’s bad timing all round as Ian is busy falling in love with an old friend Marina and, as a foreign correspondent, he’s often abroad. Fortunately Cecilia willing takes on the baby (called Cephas, a name that tripped up every sentence it was in, a point Bishop later acknowledges) with few complaints. Completing Cecilia’s close circle is Helen, a woman Cecilia meets at cancer treatment. The two become fast friends, in fact seemingly each others only friends. In addition to this close knit crew, there are also a few other characters that drift into the story, all loosely linked by a thread that leads back to a nun called Sister Diana.

Bishop, who in her hiatus as a writer trained as a psychotherapist, is unflinching in her portrayal of humans at their everyday worse. When Cecilia, a good, little complaining woman notices the glint in her husband Tim’s eyes when he’s around the beautiful Leda, she notes he is happy and dislikes it: “it struck her as ironic that she could honestly say she loved Tim, and yet she hated the look of happiness on his face”. Later she ponders: “it is possessiveness, thought Cecilia sadly, that prevents us from wanting those we love to be happy in their own way”.

Stylishly, Unexpected Lessons in Love Bishop is endearing and it’s rare for a writer to capture the inner workings of the human brain so honestly and accurately. Bishop writes fluidly and truthfully, the novel oscillating between the characters’ inner monologues, their thoughts seamlessly drifting into the narrative – even the cat and baby Cephas’s personal motivations are expressed.

But despite Bishop’s skill as a writer, I didn’t fall for Unexpected Lessons in Love, it was like an Aga saga turned up to too high, its realism blunted by too much drama. I found the tone too languid, the dramatic events so incongruous – it was at once too ordinary and too extraordinary for it to hit the right note with me. The characters were also rather irritating, not unlikable, just rather flimsy and, well, boring. Plus Cecilia’s son, Ian, might be the most annoying man committed to paper, and in a world were Christian Grey exists, that’s saying something.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Lippy, Young Vic

Lippy at the Young Vic

Lippy at the Young Vic

Sometimes the disparity between the critics’ reviews of a production and the audiences’ verdict is so vast that I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a critical filter that mere mortals can’t pass through that reverses the way the pros and the rest of us think.

Dead Centre’s Lippy was critically acclaimed when it showed at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and the Young Vic’s marketing materials are adorned with quotes from gushing critics proclaiming it “extraordinary” and a play that “pushes at the limits of theatre” (in hindsight this may not have been meant as a compliment). But as the rather bemused audience shuffled out of the Maria Theatre the evening I saw it, the woman in front of me summed up Lippy better than any theatre critic, loudly proclaiming that it was “the biggest load of crap I’ve ever seen”, before accosting a steward demanding her money back “under the trade descriptions act”.

Lippy starts off strongly with a well played Q&A session for a play we never see. Lippy‘s main writer creator Bush Moukaezel plays a – presumably – more unprofessional and vapid version of himself who is interviewing one of the actors (played with impressive conviction all things considered by David Heap). The Interviewer is more interested in the actor’s off-stage lip reading skills than the play and during prompts the actor to reveal that he helped the police in the investigation into the deaths an elderly aunt and her three middle aged nieces when he was called upon to interpret the words of two of the women captured on CCTV on their final shopping expedition to Dublin. Moukarzel – as the Interviewer and it transpire as a writer – isn’t interested in this morsel of a story. And from this point, neither was I.

The Q&A session ends and the stage lights dim as thumping music pounds through the speaker while shadowy figures emerge from behind the thin curtain. This is the best moment in the production, genuinely terrifying and sinister, with real menace and unease. But then things go sub-Beckett as reality goes to the bar (later there’s a randomly thrown in reference to the demise of the interval, a decent theatre in-joke in another play, but why this one?). The music, the treacle like movement of the characters, the lack of focus create an anxious atmosphere that is irritating rather than evocative. In amongst all this muddle, the fates of these women became increasingly irrelevant.

There is an interesting story in here somewhere, the psychological study of why four women seemingly chose to starve themselves to death. And there’s certainly a valid point being made about us never being able to fully understand the world around us – trying to makes sense of it is like a lip reader trying to interpret the mumblings of a mad person. But all the interesting stuff is buried under several layers of pretension – even the actors don’t look particularly invested.

And there were so many unanswered questions; I don’t want to be spooned fed a story or its message, but there’s got to be a strong script and well developed characters to pull off surrealism, and there was something too cold and knowing about Lippy that prevents it pulling off the feat it sets itself. So extraordinary it might be, but not quite in the way the critics meant it.

by Suzanne Elliott

Lippy | Young Vic | Until 14 March 2015 | Tickets

Theatre Review: Joy, Etcetera Theatre, Camden

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jone

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jones

Velvet Trumpet, a South London based theatre company who revel in the dark recesses of humour in everyday life, brought Joy to North London with this production of three bleakly funny monologues.

Written by Thomas Jones (who also doubles as a river cop in this production) and Nikolai Ribnikov each story in Joy is connected only by the deep seam of joylessness that runs through the three men’s stories.

The first monologue, Toast, is how a recently divorced man, now living with his brother, finds comfort in an unlikely place. Breaking down the fourth wall is Michael (Jon Cottrell) who vents at the audience about his frustrations and his flirtations with the mysterious kitchen companion he meets at one of his brother’s party (his reenactment helped out by a handily placed member of the audience).

Next up is Roger (Thomas Jones) in Thames Cop. He’s giving an entirely inappropriate lesson to a bunch of primary kids about life in the Marine Police Unit. His talk is laced with bitterness and resentment, and as he draws to a close we discover why a mix-up on a party boat got him relegated to giving talks to schools rather than fishing tourists out of the Thames. Equally as unfulfilled is Phil (a particularly angry Simon Grujich) in “All Change, All Change” a tube driver whose ramblings over the loudspeaker go beyond “please mind the gap” into a much blacker hole. But is anyone listening?

Well, I certainly was. Joy is a quirky hour-long production that’s bitingly funny and as dark as the tunnels tube driver Phil inhabits. Unable to connect with the world, these men are sad, lonely , socially disenfranchised and awash with self pity. Despite their sad situations, none of them are terribly sympathetic; they are victims of their own self-importance as much as their circumstances. But it’s fun laughing at them.

Joy is not joyful, but it is very funny, the monologues given greater intensity in the small stark space of the Etcetera Theatre. It cuts pretty close to the bone at times and takes us into darker places than the many laughs the pieces get would suggest. It reminded me of early Ian McEwan novels featuring plenty of sexual inadequacy, loneliness with a dose of sordidness and desperation. Joy may not feature any incest that was a feature of McEwan’s 70s work, but Toast and Thames Cop both take sexual turns that Ian would have been proud of. Quirky, dark and a little bit twisted, Joy maybe not be joyful, but it’s a lot of fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Joy | Velvet Trumpet | More information

 

 

 

Theatre Review: The Nether, Duke of York’s and How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Pictures Manuel Harlan.

Maxine Peake (Dana) and Michael Shaeffer (Jarron) in How to Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court Theatre. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

The future never looks good in the arts. You rarely read a book, see a play, watch a TV programme about the world 30 years from now and see people contentedly and comfortably living in a world overflowing with food, water and oil.

By coincidence, I spent the first week of February watching two playwrights’ visions of the miserable future that awaits us. First up was Zinnie Harris‘ new play at the Royal Court, How To Hold Your Breath followed by The Nether, a play that started life at the Sloane Square theatre before transferring to the Duke of York’s last month.

How To Hold Your Breath is the cautionary tale of how a one night stand can lead to the economic collapse of the European Union. Dana, played by the captivating Maxime Peake, meets a handsome man in a bar only for her blissful post-coital bubble to burst as he tells her he’s a Demon called Jarron (played with sinister charm by Michael Shaeffer) and he absolutely insists on paying her €45 for her services. Oof. Rightly pissed off, Dana tells the Demon to shove his money up his eurozone, a decision that proves rather unwise as the Demon’s wrath brings down the Western world as we know it.

As catastrophe reigns, Dana and her pregnant sister Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) attempt to find their way from Berlin (where the play is set) to Alexandria where Dana has been invited for an interview for a research post. Their journey continues in the same slightly surreal tone, a kind of apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland where a librarian keeps popping up with ‘how to… ’books for all eventualities  like Carroll’s White Rabbit with a library card.

There’s an awful lot going on in Harris’ issue heavy play and as a result it feels unrelentingly bleak with seemingly little purpose. Luckily we have Maxine Peake in the lead, an actor capable of conveying a 100 emotions with a flick of an eye. The performances are the cornerstone of Vicky Featherstone’s production, elevating it  above its muddleness. Peake is well supported by a talented cast all of them digging deep and extracting some emotion from the play’s curious coldness.

The Nether is a more coercive play despite tackling some very big issues. Set in 2050, the Nether is an virtual world where people create other identities and fantasy lives, although the moral codes of the real world remain, in theory.

Within the Nether, a man named Sims (an imposing Stanley Townsend) has created the Hideaway, a faux Victorian house of which he, as Papa, is head. There is nothing upstanding about this chocolate box world Sims has created, its purpose is to allow people to use the children of the house as they please. But, as this is the virtual world, these children aren’t who they appear, they too are adults, opting for these roles and seemingly complicit in their abuse.Isabella Pappas as Sims’ favourite Iris, gives a wonderful performance and the part being played by a child adds to the moral murkiness.

The Nether, Duke of York's

David Calder and Stanley Townsend in The Nether, Duke of York’s

Jennifer Haley’s clever script is ambiguous in its moral message and like the detective (played with stern intensity by Amanda Hale) in charge of the investigation, we’re never sure if what goes on in The Hideaway is a crime if all involved are, in the real world, consenting adults.

As much as this is a futuristic moral maze, The Nether is first and foremost a detective play with plenty of surprises in the taut script that twists and turns with dexterity, building the intensity. Director, Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin stretches the suspense tight for a gripping 1 hour 20 minute play that will leave you buzzing with questions.

The Nether doesn’t however look much like your average detective story; it’s super sleek and Es Devlin’s set design and Luke Halls’ video design are fabulous, mixing technological polish with imaginative aesthetics much like Haley’s play itself.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Nether, Duke of York’s until April 25th 2015

How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court until March 21st 2015