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

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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

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I’m late to the Meg Wolitzer party, although it’s rather less of a party and more of the after-dinner mess, all wine-stained lips and drunken tear-streaked cheeks.

But increasingly her name cropped up on my radar that challenged my pre-conception that her novels were too domestic, too insular for my tastes. I had fallen into the very trap that Wolitzer tackles in The Wife, the idea that books written by women writers are narrower – ‘female’ – in scope than male authors whose narrative we accept as the norm.

The Wife is far larger than its domestic setting and says so about the world we live in with such composure and understanding. It’s the story of one wife’s domestic unhappiness through which Wolitzer tells the larger picture of living in a world that’s narrated by men, both in literature and in the real world.

Joe Castleman is a “man that owns the world”, Joan, his rock, his carer, in short, his wife. He’s a successful white man of a certain class and age who is at ease with the world because it’s entirely run his way. We met him and Joan en-route to Finland where he’s heading to collect the Helsinki Prize (a Lidl Nobel Prize). It’s on this transatlantic flight that Joan decides to leave her husband who has set the rhythm of her life for too long.

Joan takes us back through their life together, beginning in the 1950s when women were still tied to the kitchen sink, a baby on one hip and their husband’s dinner in the oven. Women may have broken free of the kitchen, but depressingly many of the points that Joan Castleman refers to are still relevant today, the “men who own the world” still set the agenda and how we – male and female – view it. We’re characters in the fiction that has been created where the male view is the norm. The Wife challenges the idea that the male story has to be the universal one, that fiction written by women can’t be big and far reaching.

But as much as The Wife resonates with unfailing truths, it’s a story not a manifesto and it’s a damn good one. Joe is so real with his flabby middle aged spread, smugness and wandering hands. The world is his for the taking and he’s grabbing it with two fat greedy hands. Written in the first person, Joan is no sweetheart, she’s hard-nosed, caustic and seemingly humourless (although, to be fair, she doesn’t seem to have much to laugh at) and she’s not afraid to steal another man’s husband. Her controlled, unemotional voice doesn’t hint at a love of the sisterhood. But her intelligence and tolerance evokes your understanding, if not your sympathy.

Wolitzer writing is a constant joy, it’s rich and fluid, capturing dialogue and human failings with a hypnotic ease. She hits just the right tone, blunting the sharpness with wit and an emotional heart. This is one tear-stained party I’m definitely going back to.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

The Wasp is a smart two-hander in which Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script explores the impact of childhood experiences on our adult lives in a dark, if sometimes camply absurd, thriller with an ending that is as swift and sharp as a sting.

Despite the gulf in their social backgrounds and upbringings, Carla (Myanna Buring) and Heather (Sinead Matthews) were best friends until year eight when things went a little Lord Of The Flies. Twenty years later, we meet them in a cafe where a heavily pregnant Carla is chain smoking while Heather, all lattes and pashmina, stutteringly explains why she wanted to see her former friend again despite the cruelty she inflicted on her.

Their meeting is nervy and heavy with secrets, we all know that Heather hasn’t simply arranged to meet Carla to talk about her marriage woes with her husband Simon or her fertility problems. As they drain the last of their tea and Carla stubs out her final cigarette, the story takes a sharp twist and with a swift set change, we’re in Heather’s magazines-on-coffee-tables-“shoes-off” house where things are about to get even darker.

Even in the confines of Heather’s middle-class sitting room, the play continues to wring out increasing bleak secrets. What specific incident has scarred Heather so deeply that she’s consumed by it twenty years later? And how far is this “Guardian-reading, left-leaning” woman prepared to go to help heal her wounds?

Lloyd Malcolm’s script occasionally loses focus and there are a few moments when the characters have to dig themselves out of a plot u-turn, but when it’s en pointe, The Wasp is absorbing and laced with enough black humour to cancel out its more absurd moments.

Myanna Buring is brilliant as Carla – during a scene when she finds herself in a situation stickier than a cobweb, she’s devastating in her fear and vulnerability. Sinead Matthews has a harder time with Heather; she’s a jittery, not quite fully formed character and Matthews never quite got the character’s rhythm right, losing some of the vital humour in her agitated delivery (this was a preview performance). But the ending helps to make sense of Heather a little and completely underpins the story with an assurance that erases any niggles.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre until 7 March