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

Theatre Review: Let The Right One In, Apollo Theatre

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Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli

Let The Right One In, the West End transfer of the Royal Court production, steps into fill the empty stage left by the retreating Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime following the partial collapse of the ceiling at the Apollo Theatre last December.

Despite their ostensibly very different subject matters and storylines (vampires and Scandinavian dark-doings versus a teenage boy with learning difficulties playing Poirot) the two shows share themes of adolescence loneliness and alienation.

Let The Right One In, an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish horror novel (he also wrote the screenplay to the 2008 film) by BAFTA-award winning Jack Thorne, is a vampire story that’s more steeped in Dracula than Twilight. But for all its gore, and a higher body count than King Lear, Let The Right One In is a rather sweet tale of two outsiders finding solace in each other.

For this production, the story moves from the frozen suburbs of a Swedish town to the equally bleak Scottish Highlands in mid-winter, the set of silver birches glowing ghost-like on the perpetually low-lit stage. The deceptively simple set design later reveals itself to be far cleverer than it looks when a modest looking climbing frame becomes the focus of an impressive piece of coup de théâtre.

Oskar (the characters, slightly oddly, keep their Scandinavian names), is a bullied boy who can’t find peace at home with his often-drunk, often angry mother. Not only is he vivaciously picked on, there’s now a murderer on the loose in the woods, hanging his victims from trees like pigs and draining their blood (incidentally, this is the third production I’ve seen this year where an actor strung up by their legs, it’s not a good time for actors with a fear of inversions).

It’s in the now out-of-bounds woods that Oskar meets Eli, a Willo The Wisp like vampire whose otherness to Oskar is most apparent in her not knowing what a Rubik’s Cube is. He lends her his to play with and she becomes his guardian angel.

For all its endearing qualities, there’s a coldness to this production that’s not just the smattering of fake snow on the stage. The dialogue and the staging are studied and remote, its artificiality exaggerated by the scene-dividing dancing that bleeds into ‘over-done-the-E-at-a-rave-in-a-forest-in-1989’ style moves. I’m a little squeamish about self-conscious theatrics (and blood, fake or real) so the tree-hugging dances made me a little queasy, almost more than the over enthusiastic, bloody necking.

But the very young leads are great. Martin Quinn as Oskar is brilliant and inhabits the teenager with great conviction – he’s funny, cheeky, sensitive and confused. Rebecca Benson as the slight Eli who refuses to acknowledge who – or what – she really is, is small but mighty, her sprite-like build betraying her strong presence.

This slightly disjointed production is aided by Ólafur Arnalds sweeping atmospheric soundtrack that gives the play a filmic quality and helps keep the production lifted when it starts to sag.

While this may not have as much bite as the eerie Swedish film it’s adapted from, it’s an imaginative production that’s rather charming in its bloodsoaked portrayal of the perils of adolescence – with or without fangs.

by Suzanne Elliott

For tickets and more information visit www.royalcourttheatre.com.

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