Theatre Review: Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

This immersive show is more M4 Travelodge than Savoy

The trend for immersive theatre, spearheaded so brilliantly by companies like Punch Drunk, seems to be in danger of eating itself. It’s certainly lurching towards the end of the seesaw, balancing on the edge of the tipping point as everyone with a theatre studies A Level scrambles onto this exciting new trend they’ve read about in Time Out.

When it’s done well, as my last immersive adventure was, it’s captivating, enthralling and inventive, shaking up the traditional static theatrical model with humour and imagination. But, as with any new take on an art form, you have to understand the rule book before you go ripping it up.

Zebedee, the company behind Heartbreak Hotel, currently playing at The Jetty on the Thames by that great ode to the mainstream, the 02, had obviously thrown the Book of Theatre Rules into the river. The production, set in a fading seaside hotel purpose built from shipping containers, is rather adrift. The audience are taken from room to room, meeting the lost souls who reside within the hotel’s dimly lit walls. We, the audience, are treated as members of the new A.C.H.E (achieving creative heartfelt experiences) programme which has been established in the Heartbreak Hotel to, well, we’re never really told – is it to give people a convincing experience of love and heartbreak? Or is it a An Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brain wipe style programme? 

The set up is a nice idea, and the set establishes an authentically shabby, sinister atmosphere. But the production lacks cohesion, purpose – and heart.  The place, performance and, to an extent, the cast, felt like they’d already checked out on this miserable autumnal July day. We were launched straight into the middle of the play and there was no resolution – we were all marched to the rooftop (smashing view, mind) and left to shuffle away awkwardly as the play stopped dead in its tracks.

Even if your audience are standing, a dramatic arc is vital, without it you’re watching people say words in isolation and, as this show proved, that’s quite dull. Plus, an immersive production has to be just that – immersive – the audience has to be a part of the show not just bystanders. Otherwise we could buy a ticket for a show where we get to sit down. Beyond calling us by our names (we all had to wear stickers as if we were at a conference) there was little participation between the actors and the audience, indeed most of the time we might not have been there at all. Sometimes I wondered whether we shouldn’t be. 

Heartbreak Hotel lurches between camp and tragedy and the result is jarring and confusing. The funny bits weren’t funny enough, the sad parts felt contrived and tried too hard to tug at our heartstrings with dramatic backstories that had no substance. The dialogue was largely improvised which, except in the very best of hands, is rarely a good idea. The lack of a script meant there was no emotional depth as the characters flailed around in a plotless abyss, desperately trying to claw some heart from a production as thin as the walls. Booking into the Heartbreak Hotel is most definitely not a five star experience.

Heartbreak Hotel | The Jetty | Until 27 September 2015

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Vaults, Waterloo, London

Les Enfants Terribles' Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Go down the rabbit hole for a wonderful immersive experience in Alice’s Wonderland

You could argue that it’s difficult to go wrong with a story as enchanting as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the slightly darker follower up Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , but handling a text as bonkers and imaginative as Carroll’s demands big creative thinking.

The minds behind Les Enfants Terribles’ brilliant production were clearly firing on full creative juices when they devised Alice’s Adventures Underground, a production that has transformed the musty, damp Vaults theatre under Waterloo station into a magical place where we disappear into Alice’s – and Carroll’s world – for 90-joyous minutes.

The production merges Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland with her return in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice is absent for much of our journey, but she’s never very far away if you look in the right places…

Wonderland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen who has banished nonsense from her kingdom and is on the warpath to find the cards who ate her tarts (I can confess I was one of them now there’s no chance of having my head cut off).

The content is perhaps a little light, but the plot isn’t an issue when the staging is so charming and entertaining. Samuel Wyer’s maze-like set is hugely impressive as we weave in and out of the Caterpillar’s middle eastern cushion-strewn den into Bill the Lizard’s ‘secret’ room, ducking under corridors hung with pages from novels and walking through wardrobes. There are some wonderful details in the set, particularly in Lewis Carroll’s cluttered study, the first room we find ourselves in, that’s littered with references to the novels if you look hard enough.

Oliver Lansley’s script is sparkling and funny and throws new light on the sheer inventiveness of Carroll’s often poetic prose. The interactions with the actors also lead to some properly belly-laugh moments (Knave of Hearts: “What fruits to do you think are in All-Fruit-Jam?” Audience member: “Strawberry”. Knave “…”

Along the way you meet the floating grinning head of the Cheshire Cat (a great piece of puppetry) and enter the Duchess’s steamy kitchen where I stood grinding pepper into the soup under the stern eyes of Chef. You, as the audience are very much a part of this so leave any self-consciousness at the burrow door.

The exact journey you have will depends on the choices you make and the cards you are – literally – dealt. Will you drink to shrink or eat to er, grow? Will you be a Club, Spade, Diamond or Heart? After separating through two doors, each group is taken on their separate journey before meeting up again at the lush Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where you sit at a huge table set for 60 celebrating an un-birthday while the Mad Hatter and March Hare run riot over broken tea-cups and poor dormouse, confusing the poor White Rabbit (who was as adorable as he should be) with their endless tea-time and confusing riddles.

The production is wonderfully imaginative and hugely fun. Grown-up theatre is many things, but it’s rarely as playful and charming as Alice’s Underground Adventures. The production runs until 30 August 2015. Don’t be late to the party…

Alice’s Underground Adventures | the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo | Until 30 August 2015

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman, Noel Coward Theatre

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC's Death of a Salesman

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman

Now into its final week at London’s Noël Coward Theatre after transferring from Stratford-Upon-Avon in May, the RSC’s Death of a Salesman shows no sign of slowing down. The Gregory Doran-directed production is hugely powerful, a juggernaut of emotions and intensity with staggeringly good performances.

Arthur Miller’s tale of one man’s downfall at the hands of his own stubborn pride is a masterpiece of theatre, but one that requires a deft directorial hand and confident acting to pull off. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has been flogging stuff on the road in New England for 36 years and is dog tired. His small life isn’t big enough to contain his dreams and he starts hallucinating about the past, back to a time when his sons, Happy and Biff, were young and full of potential. He also re-visits the moment his successful – and now dead – brother Ben left New York to start a new life in Alaska – later Africa – and his ghostly form drifts into Willy’s head and onto the stage with a smarmy smugness.

Juggling the past and present in a theatre production isn’t easy, but Doran makes it look like it is, the ease with which Willy’s mind alerts in front of us is impressively seamless and the cast handle the jolts in time with a fluidity that takes us right into the heart of the story.

Willy is, of course, a frustrating character. On the brink of madness, he’s been dealt some fierce blows in his 63-years, but his downfall – like King Lear’s – is ultimately his stubborn pride in himself and his son Biff. That he isn’t able to live up to the man he projects to be is a key part in the downfall of the adolescent Biff, who goes from being a well liked teenager with potential to the 34-year-old man we see on stage – broken, bitter, confused. The Death of a Salesman is in many ways about the curse of being ordinary

Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman is really something special. He captures Loman’s madness, vulnerability, nativity and arrogance in a compelling performance. The always watchable Harriet Walter is exceptional as Linda, Willy’s long suffering wife whose patience is saintly yet steely. As with other Miller wives, Linda’s husband is her life; her strength is his – in many ways she’s the powerful figure in the house. I can’t imagine these Miller’s wives are easy roles to play without seeming meek and submissive, but there’s real strength in Walter’s performance. Alex Hassell as Biff is also a perfect mix of vulnerable, confused and angry. He is the only character who seeks the truth about himself and his family. He is as believable as the ‘hey, gee’ football playing 17-year-old as he is as the jobless kleptomaniac he becomes. Sam Marks as the younger son Happy manages to flesh out what is a deliberately a one-dimensional character – I even rather liked him.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set accentuates the gloomy claustrophobia of a Brooklyn before it was fashionable without it overwhelming. Although it would have had its work cut out to overshadow this powerhouse of a production.

Death of a Salesman | Noel Coward Theatre | Until 18 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott