Theatre Review: South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre

The idea of a West End double bill set in two all-boy public schools sounds as appealing as a night out with the Bullingdon Club. But South Downs/The Browning Version are/is (should I be talking of them as one?) was/were engrossing, engaging and emotional.

They’re both very far from a celebration of this most English of institutions dealing as they do with the rigid conformity and snuffing out of individuality that these schools encouraged, especially in the early 60s and post-war 40s when these plays were respectively set.

David Hare’s South Downs is set in a school in Sussex that’s clearly based on his old alma mater, Lancing, a school founded on religion. The play focuses on an earnest middle-class boy John Blakemore who struggles to find and fit in with ‘the norm’. He questions everything, including the bedrock of the school’s religious belief, the Eucharist. His only friend shuns him and the masters grow weary of his continuing curiosity. But he’s given a lifeline in the form of an outsider, an actress mother of the school’s popular boy. She understands, sympathises, even encourages his differences. And feeds him cake.

It’s an outstanding first time (big time) theatrical performance by Alex Lawther as Blakemore. He conveyed teenage angst in the most controlled, compelling way, his performance unleashing the stench of those polished floors and the uneasiness of being an outsider in such a ferocious, unforgiving environment with the merest catch in his voice or furrowed brow.

The Browning Version leaps over the desk as we see school master Andrew ‘Crock’ Crocker-Harris on the eve of his retirement from a top public school (a thinly veiled Harrow, which Terence Rattigan attended in the 1920s). He’s a conformist, fiercely loyal to the school that is happy to discard him like last term’s timetable. Crock’s bullied by the traditions and rules that he so ardently conforms to, but he’s not immune to emotion. His sniff upper lip, which had shown such enormous strength as his marriage, career and friendships fell apart around him, wobbles after a small kindness is shown to him by one of his pupils in a hugely moving scene that saw me shed a tear into my overpriced ice cream. Nicholas Farrell is utterly engrossing in the role, drawing you into the mind of Crocker-Harris, getting you to sympathise with his fate even if you know he’s the kind of person you’d avoid at a party.

The ideas of rules, tradition and conformity are laced through both Hare and Rattigan’s plays, as is the belief of accepting your own fate and acting out the character and life you’ve been given. That’s not to say either play throws its hands up in defeat at the cards life has dealt you. Both refer to change; in South Downs Jeremy Duffield – the school’s leading man – proposes debating the end of public schools and the bringing down of the monarchy, two very real concerns to the establishment as the 60s got swinging. And while the changes in The Browning Version are more domestic, they are no less cataclysmic to the people involved.

I loved the subtly of both plays; ideas, truths and beliefs bubble to the surface ready to be taken up by the audience and interpreted in their own way, rather than unleashed as a tidal wave on spectators leaving them dripping with the weight of the playwright’s Opinions.

A very fine double bill then, with some wonderful performances, not just from Lawther and Farrell. Anna Chancellor is a magnificent, imposing presence not just as actress Belinda Duffield, who she plays with a relish that doesn’t tip over into campuses, but also as desperate, bored, vindictive Millie Crocker-Harris in South Downs. Mark Umbers proves he’s more than just eye-candy as suave school master Frank Hunter in The Browning Version and Andrew Woodall straddles both plays with well-observed performances as an English teacher and headmaster respectively.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Love, Love, Love: The Royal Court

The great problem with theatre is that can be so embarrassingly unsubtle, wearing its ideas as self-consciously and as inappropriately as a tubby 17-year-old in a too tight mini dress. Too often playwrights and performers hit audiences over the head with earnest yet inane ideas. Faced with limp dialogue and half-thought-out ideas, plays too often fall back on shouting to imply the SERIOUSNESS and IMPORTANCE of what’s unfolding in front of your eyes.

Love, Love, Love is one of those shouty, shouty, blah, blah plays where middle class people yell at each other, slam doors and wave their arms around until we’ve all completely forgotten what the point was. Except we know that it’s all deeply profound. Because they’re shouting. And smoking. And holding a wine glass in a manner that implies the character is drunk. Which means they’re Deeply Unhappy and have Important Things To Say. All this yelling and flailing about combines to convince us that we’ve just seen something new and visionary rather than the same old ideas recycled louder than last time you saw exactly the same play under a different name.

We meet Sandra and Kenneth in 1967 as we watch them fall in love soundtracked by The Beatles and a joint in their hands, ignoring Henry, Kenneth’s brother who Sandra had originally come round to spend the evening with – the first example of the selfishness of a couple concerned only with their own pleasures. We meet them again in 1990, now married and living in Reading with two teenager children – Rose, a promising violinist, and Jamie, who may be highly intelligent or ‘different’. Still yearning for the carefree life that they never really had, the couple combust over a bottle of wine. Fast-forward to now and the children are grown-ups with their own demons (including, Rose’s *gasp* terrible problem of not being able afford a house) while Sandra and Kenneth (now divorced, but still friends) bury their heads in the wine bucket.

Broken down there’s little to like or admire in this play, but despite flaws bigger than the average 30-something’s debt, I enjoyed Love, Love, Love. The performances were great; Victoria Hamilton’s been singled out by most reviewers as the standout star, but there were times, particularly in the first act, when she seemed too aware of all those admiring critics’ eyes. Claire Foy played a Claire Foy character; she scowled, she shouted, she scowled a bit more, but she does it (just) without being too drama school (it’s no coincidence she made a very convincing teenager). George Rainsford as Jamie gave an excellent portrayal of an ambiguously damaged young man while Ben Miles’ Kenneth was a nicely judged foil to Hamilton’s exuberant Sandra. And – the first two acts at least – were lightened by laughter. There were a couple of great one liners – “Everyone’s family is boring, that’s why London exists, as somewhere to escape to”, “something’s gone wrong” “nothing’s gone wrong” “yes it has, we’re living Reading.” Who knew Reading could lead to so many jokes?

The cast deserves applause at the very least for disguising many of the flaws in the writing. They managed to brush off the clichés they were forced to utter and ignore the clunkier points as they dropped like lead balloons from their mouths – there were times that I almost covered my eyes as I thought “oh no, you’re going to say… please don’t say… oh you’ve said it”. The play also suffers from the “Downton Abbey problem” where characters speak as if they know what the future holds (“Things are changing, in 10 years time the world will be a different place,” Sandra says in 1967). You can only learn so much from a lava lamp.

As with so many of these middle class family dramas, the characters were odious (and female characters seem to suffer most at the writer’s hand in this respect). Surely their repulsiveness dilutes the point the writer’s trying to make? (Although in this case, I’m not sure what the point is – is it our parents’ fault that we’re not prime minister and can’t afford a house in Hampstead? Ah, it’s our fault because we watch YouTube.  And we need a buy a house to be happy? No, we don’t? It’s not about money. Oh, it is about money.) If these people were more sympathetic, in fact, if these characters were less like cardboard cutout stereotypes from the playwrights Book Of Dramatic Characters, wouldn’t their cause be easier to understand? LLL also suffers from some very awkward time shifting with the decade scene setting mildly embarrassing. It’s the 60s (“pot!, The Beatles!); Oh, look it must be 1990 because the son’s dancing to The Stone Roses and the mother’s clothes still have a whiff of 80s-power dressing about them; iPhones! iPads! Facebook! – it must be NOW. At least the mother didn’t have a blog and no one mentioned the financial crisis.

The play does have things to say, and on a personal level there were parts that I empathised with. “You don’t hear me”, shouts (obviously) Rose in the final act. A common cause of complaint amongst my friends and I (and yes, First World problems) is that our parents take a baffling lack of interest – to the point of being hostile to our interests – in their children’s lives, just as Sandra and Kenneth pay their kids so little attention that they don’t even know who their daughter lives with. But then maybe parents have always been disinterested in their children’s lives; our grandparents’ generation was so shaped by the war that they must have looked upon our parents as aliens from another planet with their tie-dye and reaching-for-the-moon dreams. One of the more interesting, but under explored, points in Mike Bartlett’s script was that it was the sense of entitlement our parents instilled in us that has been our biggest ball and chain. We were brought up to believe we could do anything, have it all, when in reality most of us will only ever lead rather mediocre lives. Rose, a slightly above average violinist at 16, was encouraged to “follow her dream” and is now a not very good jobbing one at 37, why, she wants to know, didn’t her parents tell her? But, ultimately, it’s a dumb argument, because, even if your mother does prefer Pinto Grigio to you, by the time you’re nearly 40, you should have figured out that you are in the driver’s seat of your life.

These middle-class family dramas have been done so many times – and with so much more to say – that Barlett would have had to work hard to come up with something new. And he didn’t. Fortunately, in the hands of fine actors, Love, Love, Love is enjoyable in spite of itself.

Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locusts

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – original name Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein – was an American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. He published four novels, wrote several screenplays and two short stories.

Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.

Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.

The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.

Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott


Book Review: The Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

In my younger days I used to pick an author and work my way through their oeuvre before inevitably growing weary of their voice, becoming increasingly annoyed at the repeated themes and overused words and phrases that would crop up in many of the writer’s novels. I tired of Alice Walker’s relentless anger; J.G Ballard’s over use of similes; Jeanette Winterness’ opaque prose and George Orwell’s bleakness. (I’ve gone back to them all, and have learnt to love them again).

But despite hoovering up as many Graham Greene books as I could lay my hands on (i.e., as many as the library had) it was still never enough. There are so many Greenes, and, even with the religious thread weaving its way through many of his later novels, his narrative and themes were varied enough that I never felt that I’d heard it all before. There’s the funny, satirical Greene (Travels With My Aunt and Our Man In Havana), the shady, murky Greene of The Quiet American where as much lies in the shadows as on the page; the brutal, thuggish Green that reared its head in Brighton Rock (my least favourite) and the obsessive, love-struck writer of The End of the Affair (my favourite).

The Stamboul Train, nabbed from a friend’s bookshelf while cat sitting, introduces some of his major themes. It has traces of the same murky, secretive, claustrophobic world of The Quiet American, with a streak of violence and a smatter of religion-angst that will appear with greater force in other well-known Greene works.

The story is set on the Orient express as it weaves its way through a snowy Europe with a cast of characters each with their own demons and desires that all slot together as the train nears its destination. Dr Czinner, a Serbian dissident communist leader, is on his way back to lead a revolt, that, unfortunately for him, kicks off a few days early while he’s barely through Germany. To add to his woes, a British journalist, Mabel Warren, a ferocious bulldog of a reporter, recognises him in Cologne and attempts to blackmail him into giving her an exclusive story.

Myatt meets Cora Musker and, attracted by her slim figure, lends her his compartment and, later, his bed. But he’s also got one eye on the elegant Janet Pardoe, Mabel’s paid companion, who’s also caught the attention of cockney writer Mr. Savory.

Jumping on board at Cologne is on-the-run murderer Josef Grünlich who is a downright bad ‘un, but crafty enough to continue getting away with it. Josef, along with Cora, gets caught up in the arrest of Dr. Czinner just over the Hungarian border in the Serbian town of Subotica, which, from Greene’s descriptions, is the most desolate place in the world. Greene’s not one for hyperbole and his stark prose can sometimes stripe the humanity from his characters, but at this point, he builds the tension to the point where my heart was beating as loudly as Cora’s as she huddled in amongst empty grain sacks in a barn with only the dying Czinner for company.

There are, as is so often the case in novels pre-dating the 1960s, some uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes. Myatt is the caricature literary Jew that you can trace back to Shylock – all big nose and shrewdness. To make it even worse, Greene congratulates both himself and his characters on liking Myatt despite him being Jewish. How kind! This is particularly ironic considering the book was published in 1932 and, as we all know, the world took a very, very large anti-Semitic step backwards.

Equally as objectionable was the portrayal of Mable Warren, the predatory lesbian who hates men and becomes obsessive about the women she loves (who are rather too beautiful to love her back). Had our Graham ever met a lesbian? From this shoddy representation, I doubt it.

There are plenty of loose ends – Greene wouldn’t want to make things too neat for us would he? Does Cora survive? Will Myatt, who did rather heroically try and rescue her only to balls it up and come back with Josef instead, now marry the glamorous (and half-Jewish!) Janet? And will Josef ever get his just deserts?

Greene originally filed The Stamboul Train under his ‘entertainments’ and admitted, in 1974, that he wrote it to make a bit of money. “In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims”.

So while The Stamboul Train may not up there with his very best – although he still casts a fascinating web of intrigue and duplicity – it gave him enough financial freedom to allow him to go on and write some of the finest novels in the English language.

Suzanne Elliott

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern

Damien Hirst is very much an artist for 21st century Britain. A man driven by fame and money and obsessed with immortality, he’s a reflection of our own naval gazing, self-obsessed vanity.

Hirst is driven by concepts rather than fine brush strokes; his art is a by-product of clever ideas. That doesn’t mean that his work can’t be beautiful. But its cleverness lends the pieces a certain cynicism and soullessness. This lack of depth was thrown into sharp relief by the passion in the work of Yayoi Kusama, the Tate Modern’s other big exhibition; her life is consumed by art and her works throb with her very heart and soul.  Kusama wouldn’t have found time to make comedy World Cup anthems with Groucho Club mates.

Seeing Hirst’s work at a collective also served to show how stagnant he is; he repeats himself constantly, but what to what end? Every work he’s ever produced, as he says so himself in the short film to introduce the $50million diamond skull, confronts death. And while the butterfly paintings such as Sympathy in White Major, were beautiful and fragile in contrast to the gruesome and brutal A Thousand Years, the works show little development in ideas or technique. It’s interesting to consider what he may have produced if Saatchi hadn’t championed and financed him from such an early age. How much of his soul did he trade in to become the rich and famous artist he is today? Has he got a cow slowly coming back to life in his the attic of his Devon mansion?

But regardless of what you think of his art, I defy anyone to come out this exhibition with nothing to say. Hirst is a tremendously important and confrontational artist. Along with his fellow YBAs he brought art into the main arena and shocked people into caring about it in a way a public brainwashed by water lilies hadn’t for years. And I think that’s his greatest legacy and one that will stay will us long after that shark’s shrivelled into oblivion.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter Theatre; Hay Fever by Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

There are so many parallels between Absent Friends and Hay Fever that there were times watching the latter (I saw it a couple of weeks after AF) that I wondered where the 70s kaftans were. The spirit of Coward is as much a guest at Ayckbourn’s black comedy as the six characters on stage.

Both plays revolve around awkward house parties and revel in the humorous fallout of painful human relationships. They’re both heavy with toe-curling pauses (it’s appropriate that AF played at the Harold Pinter Theatre, named after the king of the pregnant pause) and all-too real foot-in-mouth moments. The results are often hilarious and frequently embarrassing.

AF is set in the brown-tinted 70s as a group of middle class friends come together at on-the-edge Diana (pitch-perfectly played by Katherine Parkinson) and her throw-back chauvinist husband Paul’s house as they gather to show their support over tea and trifle to their supposedly close pal Colin who moved away only tragically lose his fiancé in a drowning accident. The opening awkward scene – heavy with bitterness and paranoia – between the unhappy Diana and the sullen, taciturn mum Evelyn (played with the perfect balance of sympathy and menace by Kara Tointon) who Diana is convinced her husband is having an affair with, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The arrival of Marge and her new shoes only stirs up the drama, and, with it the laughs. Elizabeth Berrington is deliciously funny as the childless mother hen with a knack for putting those ugly wedges in her mouth.

The bubbling despair  – and with it the squirm factor – boils over with the arrival of Colin (Reece Shearsmith) and his photo albums – who, despite his recent trauma, is the only contented character on stage. I found myself laughing to the point of tears at a particularly inappropriate Marge comment before realising I was guffawing at a tragic death and someone’s grief. Feeling conflicted I tried to rearrange my features into a more sombre façade.  An emotional conflict that Ayckbourn would no doubt be happy with.

HF doesn’t throw up the same conundrums. Set in the 1920s during a weekend at an English country house, the laughs are more straightforward, arising from the unpleasantness of the Bliss family and the class clash between the boho hosts and their more conventional weekend guests. Lindsay Duncan has rightly been lauded for her role as Judith Bliss, a former actress whose life remains one long performance. It’s a role that could easily slip into overdramatic campness, but Duncan veers towards underplaying her which only enhances Judith’s melodrama. Under the shadow of such a mother and a boorish, disinterested father (Kevin R McNally) their daughter Sorrell struggles to encourage herself and her self-obsessed family to be more polite and normal. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance is both snortingly funny and rather touching while Freddie Fox as her spoilt brat brother Simon inhabits his role as easily as a 1920s smoking jacket. Jeremy Northam – who I’ve only ever seen doing borderline-gruff –  proves a fine comic actor in his role as fusty diplomat Richard. In fact the only cast member who doesn’t quite fit is the usually brilliant Olivia Coleman who barely stretches her considerable acting chops as glamorous Myra Arundel.  But I think she was the only one in the theatre who was bored at this fizzing adaptation of Coward’s sharply observed script.

by Suzanne Elliott