Nation (National Theatre 23/2/10) 28 February 2010

What took so long? I hear you ask. I had a £10 Travelex ticket for Nation back in November, but had to give it up when I took ill and wasn't able to make it. Well, I didn't really give it up but was able to bank it as a credit with the National Theatre. After this time I became more aware of the buzz surrounding the show - not really good. To be honest I don't recall anything extremely negative or damning but more - perplexing. As a result, I didn't rebook.

As the production continued into the new year I noticed more and more promotion with ticket offer popping up and I immediately thought 'that's not a good sign'. A week or two ago they made an offer that I couldn't resist - £5 for the best available seat. When I checked online I saw I could get a primo stalls seat in the Olivier for £5 I took the chance and booked. I figured that if I didn't like the production I wouldn't feel I was cheated.

Nation is directed and co-designed by Melly Still. I first came across Melly in the late 90's when she - along with her then partner, the then Artistic Director of the Young Vic, Tim Supple, were renowned for putting on the best productions at Christmas. These productions were revolutionary at the time partly because they provided a Christmas entertainment that wasn't panto and appealed to both children and adults. Grimm Tales and More Grimm Tales set the standard by which most Young Vic Christmas productions from that point modeled themselves on to some extent. These productions were based on stories or fairy tales that had somewhere along the way been Disney-fied. What they did so well was go back to the original story which usually included elements of blood and guts along with mild ribald humour and never shied away from presenting those elements to audiences of all ages. What they found was the young children were not only not scared by the violence but really enjoyed it.

Melly and Tim created true theatrical experiences - there was usually a strong storytelling narrative, with the actors narrating bits directly to the audience as well as scenes being acting out, as well as live music to accompany the action. Additionally they used economic theatrical devices normally seen in physical theatre productions that engaged the imagination such as using a large blue cloth, stretched out and held by the actors to replicate an ocean or large body of water. These were not just productions but theatre experiences and events held within the confines of the intimate Young Vic theatre space. If someone had their hand chopped off, you could see it wasn't real although there would be loads of blood but you were thrilled just the same. When the actors narrated the story or offered a brief aside to the audience, you felt it was intended for you to hear. The intimate space allowed for this wonderful audience actor interaction.

As I mentioned this model for children / family shows continued past the Tim and Melly productions - most notably in Dominic Cooke's Arabian Nights which has recently been revived - and has come around again full circle as Melly Still has gone 'solo'. Melly had a hit with Coram Boy at the National a few years back (it didn't do as well in it's Broadway transfer) and although I didn't see it I got the impression it had many of the same elements found in those early productions. And then came Nation.

Unlike those earlyYoung Vic productions Nation has been adapted by someone not known for adaptations or Melly's particular style of direction - Mark Ravenhill - who to date is best known for writing the controversial Royal Court hit Shopping and Fucking. That's not to say that a playwright should stick to what they're best known for, but you have to admit, he's a surprise choice. You could also say that when the National produced His Dark Materials as their Christmas production they were taking a very risky gamble by adapting a complicated and controversial book for the stage but as we all know now, that gamble paid off. I thought that Nation would be in the same vein, but alas this gamble doesn't pay off and there are some tangible reasons for this.

The National's Olivier Theatre is known for being a bit of a beast of a space. There's no proscenium which opens it up and brings in the audience to an extent but it's quite cavernous and its productions need to be big in order to fill it. Nation is big. There's a central 'island' which is also half a globe that rotates and three large framed screens behind it which are used for projections as well as providing alternate views of events through puppet work and actors on wires. Although I can see why they are used, you have to reach the rear seats, but it means the production becomes more literal.

During one scene at the start the now obligatory blue cloth comes out with a miniature boat in the centre to replicate a storm at sea. Behind it and behind the screens we see actors on wires plunging into the sea. For me it's a matter of having your cake and eating it too. On one level we have theatrical invention and on the other there's an almost cinematic experience. When this happens on stage I find it difficult to suspend disbelief and the pure theatrical elements just appear false.

On that note, there're dual elements in the structure of the play itself. I've never read the Terry Pratchett source novel but from what I understand it touches on many themes and is complex in thought. It's near impossible to ever translate all of a novel's elements to a stage production so what Mark Ravenhill did, which seems right to me, was just use the basic storyline - two young people from two very different cultures, both having lost their foundations - the girl, British Daphne, through a shipwreck which leaves her stranded on a remote Island with a boy, Mau, who is the only survivor from his nation - learn to communicate, grow up and forge a new nation. There are other elements thrown into the mix - the islanders religion and the ideologies of the Daphne's conservative middle class family who are searching for her. Unfortunately, I feel the Mr Ravenhill has tried too much to stay faithful to the book.

There's a sense that he went through and picked out important moments that would satisfy both sides - fans of the novel and the theatrical story. Ultimately what we get is a strong set up with all the characters intentions revealed and then a series of scenes and events that sometimes seem unrelated to the whole. I think there may have also been a fear of being too explicit in his dialogue, of having the characters state what is happening or narrate the story. Unfortunately in this sort of play, that's an important element, as there is a fairy tale 'moral' conclusion. The character arc is either missing or is not clear. We get a general sense of how some of the scenes and adventures contribute to the characters development, but when they tell us in the end (with some really bad dialogue I might add - many around me couldn't stop giggling) you have to wonder why they didn't let us know earlier or at least give us some sign posts. Under normal circumstances this would be a no go area but this sort of production demands it.

The old Melly Still /Tim Supple structure is there but the direct narration element is gone as was an attempt to incorporate it into the dialogue, which didn't work. There is one character that spurts rude comments and slightly comic asides - the parrot which is played by a human. It's somewhat funny but seems more necessary to break up the seriousness of the play than make any considerable contibution to the story.

Lastly, there is live music by Adrian Sutton (Coram Boy and War Horse) which is pretty unmemorable and sometimes turns into a little sing song by the natives of the island. Irritatingly so. It doesn't move the story forward or shed any light on the Islanders lives than we already knew. I think it could have been stronger without the songs.

Basically, it just didn't work. It looked great and the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves which is aways infectious, but it couldn't figure out what Nation was supposed to be - storytelling or straight ahead narrative. It fell somewhere in the middle and neither was strong enough to connect with the audience. I'm glad I saw it this late in the run (it's only on for a month more I think) because I know I'm not seeing a work in progress. Although I wasn't bored or clock watching (2 hours and 45 minutes!) it just wasn't engaging or clear enough for me to say I enjoyed it.

Serenading Louie (Donmar 20/2/10) 25 February 2010

Considering all that I've blogged about recently I have begun wondering if the main point for enjoying a play is memory - memory of people you've known or come across, memory of places you've been and times gone by. What I never realise is how much memory I've got stored up in my grey matter, memories of little things that come racing back when I come across a similar situation or person. Sometimes being reminded of incidents and people can be such a powerful thing that one tends to ignore everything else surrounding it.

Memory can also be a dangerous thing for artists when without realising it you have injected your art with bits and pieces of someone else's art - many times called 'being influenced'. There were many times during Serenading Louie when, for me, memories came flooding back and I was prepared to ignore everything else in favour of being thankful for a good time.

Serenading Louie takes place in the early, early 1970's Chicago, where we meet two couples, the men friends since college are now married and living out the lives they were expected to. Unfortunately things aren't going so well and it's not only their marriages that are falling apart.

On the surface this would seem to be a typical 'look at how our lives have run away with us' play but if you look closer it's about much more.

What makes this play a bit of a curio is that it's, like John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, a play written in the era in which it takes place. As a result it never comments but just exists . To an extent, if you are not familiar with those times socially, some detail might escape you but that's a minor note as having that knowledge only enriches the experience not define it. Here's one example that come to mind. The two couples go to the cinema to see the film Deep Throat - which for those who aren't familiar, was the first main stream hardcore porn film, a huge sensation in its time that almost single handedly heralded a new sort of sexual revolution. This in itself is almost inconsequential as it doesn't have a direct impact on the story but it does colour it a bit. It's great having that knowledge but not having it doesn't change the dynamics of the characters lives as their issues are not solely based on what was happening around them.

Generally, there isn't a great deal that happens in this play, it's a slight story. The enjoyment comes form the fine tuned performances and the attention to period detail. Designer Peter McKintosh (Be Near Me, Chalk Garden - both Donmar, The 39 Steps - all productions, Prick Up Your Ears at the Comedy) has, I think, taken a leaf out of the Mad Men notebook and created a picture perfect replication of an American middle class home in the early 1970's. It's not the sort of design that one would immediately conjur in their mind when asked what a 1970's home looked like (if you were around then) as those memories tend to get jumbled with what you remember and what you think you remember. What he has done, at least for me, is bring back the actual memory.

Mr Mackintosh and director Simon Curtis (Otherwise Engaged - Criterion, Road and A Lie of the Mind - Royal Court) have worked some magic on the Donmar stage. There are two very specific moments in the staging tapped into memories long since forgotten. First, one of the female characters opens her bags and takes out her house keys. She gets a little impatient and begins jingling them. Sounds inconsequential, right? Not to me. One thing that I had forgotten is that American keys have a different sound to UK keys. You would never find chubb keys on US key rings so all the keys are smaller and lighter, which when jingled together make a noise, slightly higher in pitch. I hadn't heard that in years. Second - after the two couples have finished their post cinema outing at one of their houses one couple readies to leave. Now this will be difficult to explain but the way it's written is that the two couples are at the front door and have split into two groups - male and female. Each group carries on its own discussion which in itself is just idle banter, which happens simultaneously. While they are conversing coats are being put on along with all the accoutrements that go along with the party exit. Again, it was really strange seeing and hearing that exchange, it reminded me of the many times my parents entertained and as the evening started to come to an end everyone gathered at the front door with various last minute conversations. Memories.

What is also very interesting is wondering how many plays or playwrights author Lanford Wilson (Burn This, Talley's Folly, 5th of July, The Hot L Baltimore) has influenced. There are times when the characters directly address the audience - asides and brief inner thoughts. It works really well and although it breaks the fourth wall which is probably the intention, it's never jarring. This same sort of device is used in Six Degrees of Separation written almost two decades later. I wonder if John Guare saw an early production and that device somehow seeped into his memory banks? I also thought about who Lanford WIlson was influenced by. My first thought was Tennessee Williams. The opening scene between Alex (Jason Butler Harner in his UK theatre debut, numerous plays in New York and the films Changeling, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, TV's John Adams ) and his wife Gabrielle (Charlotte Emmerson - Therese Raquin, The Coast of Utopia and Baby Doll - all National Theatre) reminded me of the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Alex returns home from work and is besieged by Gabrielle, talking almost non stop trying her best to reach out to the indifferent Alex, in effect digging for for the truth. It's almost a monologue and very reminiscent of the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Maggie trying to reach her husband Brick, also digging for the truth. Is this a chicken or egg situation? One could argue that John Guare was influenced by Lanford Wilson who was influenced by Tennessee Williams. I wonder if it was an obvious choice or if the memories of the influential plays were so deep that unknown to the authors, they were unleashed in their own writing. Who can really say? I also wonder how the fashion world tends to all have the same idea season after season - stripes, long, short - is it cosmic of just stealing?

This is a great production to see if you enjoy great acting. Not the sort that screams acting but the sort that fully realises an actual human being. The two standouts for me were Jason Butler Harner and Geraldine Somerville (Power and Blue Remembered Hills at the National Theatre; Lily Potter in all the Harry Potter films) as Mary, the wife in the second couple. Both command the stage with a naturalness and ease as well as bringing the characters off the page with a simple gesture. Wonderful.

Also in the cast - Jason O'Mara (The Homecoming - National Theatre, Jew of Malta - Almeida Theatre; The John Simm role in the American version of Life on Mars) as Carl - Mary's husband. He plays the bruised sensitive male very well although I wasn't entirely convinced by the turn of events at the end as he portrayed them. Charlotte Emmerson came into her own with her final big moment. Like with Jason O'Mara I wasn't entirely convinced of her opening scene. Where it seems that the audience should at once find her a little irritating but also pity her, I found the scene primarily irritating. This still worked because it sets up the couple's lives and makes her husband's description of her a few scenes later all the more interesting.

I'm not sure if this is a play that everyone will enjoy. I loved it for it's subtlety and the way it built. It seems to be going nowhere in the beginning but as it progresses more layers are uncovered. It's a slow burner that provided great conversation after and allot to ponder in the days following.But, saying that, I also don't think the production would stand up as well without the team involved in this one.

My favourite from the play that says allot about memory - 'I didn't love him then, but I loved him then now'. Ponder that.

A Man of No Importance (Arts Theatre 16/2/10) 19 February 2010

For anyone who has ever had to put together and or edit a theatre programme will know trying to get all the information to fit within a given number of pages can be a real nightmare. You start with 'x' number of pages and little by little you fit in the various pieces only to discover you have two choices - cut down the biographies, which will usually upset at least two people, or increase the number of pages. That second option has its own set of problems as you cannot add just one page but two - four if you count printed pages as opposed to panels. You only needed about half a page to get it all in but now you have three and a half empty pages to fill. Oh the drama.

I bring this up because I find that programmes can tell you allot about the workings of a production. Not what's ultimately per say but the mechanisms that existed to bring that work to the stage.

I've never heard an actual reason for the importance, or not, of biographies. It's an odd thing, if you think about it, to read biographies of the real people who are portraying imagined people on stage. One could argue that it really shouldn't be important. There probably isn't one all encompassing answer to that question but many personal ones. For me, as a frequent theatregoer, I enjoy putting things into context, connecting the dots, recognising names from other productions I've seen. This would also be true for the writers, directors, designers and also producers. I've also wondered how those whose biographies are included view their inclusion. I suspect it's about getting that next job, selling yourself and quite possibly showing how accomplished you are. Just a guess.

Anyway, I aways buy programmes when I go to the theatre (with the exception of shows that I don't really like) and the A Man of No Importance programme was no exception. As I mentioned, I have had to put together a fair number of programmes - from the 'desktop published then colour photocopied and sold for about £1' variety to the more glossy. I understand having to cover costs and maybe get a little profit, as well as serving the audiences needs and this is why I paid £2.50 for the A Man of No Importance programme. It definitely wasn't photocopied, more a semi glossy eight page colour mini magazine.

Everything seemed to be there - basic cast list with the band and actor/musicians listed, a note from the writers, the list of creatives and acknowledgements. This is followed by seven pages of cast biographies, with photos, and two pages of creatives biographies, followed by four pages of ads - all with a direct connection to the originators of this production, the wonderful Union Theatre, the producer and the production. But wait, something was missing. It wasn't until I was attempting to relay to my friend the composers and writers other theatre credits that I noticed the information was nowhere to be found. Then, we were discussing the musical numbers and really couldn't go further than trying to remember the lead up scene or faintly humming what we could remember because the musical numbers weren't listed either.

From experience and habit, I instantly started reviewing the programme from an editing point of view and realised that the actors biographies were way too long. Generally, most of them really haven't done allot of work that would instantly ring a bell or sway a casting person, director or producer. It's a rookie mistake. First instinct is usually to try and keep your actors happy by including everything they submit but it also needs to be balanced by 1. reality and 2. remembering who the programme is for - the audience.

I bring up the rookie mistake element not to be condescending but to try and explain how I felt about the production. I didn't think it was a mistake to transfer this musical but I think how it has been presented in it's new West End home hasn't been fully thought through.

As usual here's the quick rundown. It's a musical based on the 1995 movie A Man of No Importance starring Albert Finney an here's a synopsis I found online: 'Dublin bus conductor Alfie Byrne is content reading Oscar Wilde poetry to his passengers and staging plays in his local church. But when forced to confront a lifelong secret, Alfie must learn to face his true nature and finally take a stand in the world. With a powerful story, lovable characters and a stunning score, A Man of No Importance celebrates the genius of Oscar Wilde, the boisterous streets of Dublin, and the bumps along the road to self-discovery.'

What I will remember most of all about this production is it's smallness. That would seem to be a contradiction in terms for a production with seventeen actors but I always felt it was far away, somewhere off in the distance. It's at the Arts theatre which only has around 350 seats total, so not a cavernous beast, I was pretty center around seven or eight rows back and yet the production didn't reach me. I could easily understand how it was so successful at the Union Theatre, it has an intimate charm to it. The production is filled with colourful characters, each individually carved by a very capable cast, however I felt it was being performed as if it was still in the tiny Union and not adjusted for a larger house with a proscenium stage. There were so many moments to treasure such as the eccentric amateur acting troupe preparing for their controversial production of Oscar Wilde's Salome, but they never took off the way you thought they should. This could have been a fear of going over the top but turning up the volume (overall performance) some would have been a great benefit.

The music on whole wasn't my cup of tea and without a list of songs I didn't have much to grab on to.There were two numbers really stood out. The first was performed by the character Alfie's sister Lily (Joanna Nevin) who, although doesn't have a traditional music theatre voice, delivered with great conviction (a conviction that many with traditional music theatre voices sadly lack). The second was a wonderful song, touchingly and movingly delivered by the character Baldy (Anthony Cable) about his relationship with his deceased wife. Other standout performances were by Roisin Sullivan as Adele the new girl in town, Jamie Honeybourne as Ernie Ally, the Amateur performer with little to no talent, and finally in the small role Breton Beret, a man who flirts with our hero Alfie in a bar - Dieter Thomas avoided cliche and turned in a very believable performance.

Overall, the music was not a favourite,it was just not my thing. The songs hardly ever felt like songs, more like dialogue that was set to music (but what do I know, I'm not a fan of opera) and it didn't make sense to me that so many characters could change their stripes, so to speak,in the last minutes. It seemed very - convenient. But again, like the programme, I think it was a matter of transferring a production from the Union to a larger house. The performances had to be adjusted and it didn't feel like that happened enough. From the few reviews I read before it transferred,it seemed the intimacy of the Union Theatre played a big part in it's success. I wished I had seen it there.

For the record, here are the writers credits:

Book by Terrence McNally - Plays: The Ritz, the Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, Love!Valour! Compassion!, Corpus Christi; Musicals: Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Ragtime, The Rink, The Full Monty

Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Music by Stephen Flaherty- Ragtime, Once On This Island

Heldenplatz (Arcola Theatre 12/2/10) 14 February 2010

I've always wondered what goes on in the mind of a translator. Not so much the translators that immediately translate conversations from person to person but those employed to translate a literary piece of work from one language to another. Do they intend to keep the English version as close to the original as possible or do they translate the essence for the original into a work that's accessible to English speaking audiences? Either way, I find translations problematic. I can usually tell it something was originally in a different language, as there is usually a stilted quality about it, an English as a second language quality about it. There's nothing wrong with that but there are always elements that are either lost in translation or remain obscure to the likes of me unless I've done some proper research in advance.

All of these issues lie at the heart of Heldenplatz. It's very evident during the first long, almost monologue (clocking in at close to an hour). As the play takes place in Austria and is addressing social and political issues within the country, it makes numerous references to specific locations and buildings. Without any knowledge of these places and buildings I could only guess at what the characters were on about. Add to that very mannered and stilted dialogue and you have what I found to be an impenetrable play.

Before I go any further I have to confess that I didn't buy a programme (which was also a play text) so I have absolutely no idea who played who or what the characters names were. For the record here are the actors:

Hannah Boyde, Paul Brightwell, Daniel Curshoen, Andrew Hawkins, Caroline Horton, Petra Markham, Barbara Marten, Jane Maud, Clive Mendus and Holly Strickland.

Also, I think it fair to give you the description (from the leaflet):

'Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhard
Translated by Meredith Oakes and Andrea Tierney
Directed by Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden

Austria, 1988. For the Schuster family - intellectual, Jewish, Viennese to the core - the country remains as uninhabitable as it was when they fled in 1938. Forty years on from World War ll, irrational hatred, neurosis and decadence still reign.

Bernhard explore the shared isolation of people who have lost their bearings along with the most of their illusions. Condemned in his homeland when it was first released, the play delves deep into Austria's historic alliance, exposing the right-wing sensibilities of some of the country's most prominent citizens,'

Without going into too much depth, the play is divided into three sections. In the first are we encounter two female maids in the household of the recently deceased boss - the Professor. The elder speaks to the other about the Professor and her life with him. He seemed to have hated almost everything and was always torn between a home in what I think is the name of a place and not a household in Vienna (and funny enough even after having it repeated at least, no exaggeration, a hundred times during the course of the evening I still can't remember the name - the word 'Ibuprofen' always comes to mind) and Oxford in London. That wasn't a metaphor by the way, but how the name translated phonetically in my mind.

Also repeated was the fervidly polishing of the Professors many, many pairs of shoes by the younger maid and the ironing of a shirt by the older maid while discussing how the Professor liked his shirts to be ironed. The shirt would get folded, continuing with how the Professor liked his shirts to be folded and then the maid would shake the shirt out, iron it again, then fold it again... you get the picture. What else were they talking about? That there were still Nazis in Vienna after all this time and that it's difficult to know who to trust.

Scene two - three more people, two women and an older man, who are also throwing Viennese names around so I had to guess that the two women were mother and daughter as they were always referring to father and grandfather. I finally figured out they were sisters and the old man with then was their Uncle, the brother of the deceased. They basically talked about the same things covered in the first part.


Scene three - the meal after the funeral. Everyone from the first act plus some additions were in attendance. The maids set the table and their presence upsets the equilibrium a little (evidently, the elder female maid was left one of the Professor's houses in his will and the fact he had a will was a surprise to many). The discussion? Pretty much the same as in the first half - with the mention of 'ibuprofen' so many times, a friend and myself had to stifle giggles. The Professor's wife comes in, making a mini scene, she hears the sounds of the Nazis in Heldenplatz square (which their home overlooks) then abruptly dies in her soup.

End of play.

Imagine sitting in a pub in a Country you know little about with a few people you don't really know but who know each other very well. These people have a few issues they feel passionate about, mainly dealing with relatives and their fellow Countrymen. Over the course of the evening they have quite a few pints, loosening them up a bit, and the passionate topics of conversation get more intense. After the fifth pint and the umpteenth time around the subjects at hand your initial interest in trying to decode their conversation begins to wane as you discover they are just covering the same ground, over and over. That's how I felt during the performance. It was interesting to watch in the beginning, but then after hearing the same thing five, six, seven times I lost interest and began thinking of ways to make it shorter.

As you can probably tell, I didn't get very much out of it. I get the feeling this play is very much in a German tradition of playwriting of some sort. For me it had echos of Chekhov and I think there were echos of other literary traditions that I just didn't get.

Finally, the translation. Going back to what I said in the beginning, it seemed that the translators were very faithful to the original German. Was that wise? For me no. Or possibly yes. It depends on the audience. I guess there would have been only two choices in the matter - translate it as faithfully as possible or throw in a few things that would make it more understandable to the layman. Either way I feel to fully enjoying Heldenplatz would have required a good knowledge of Vienna, it's history, some German, classic literature and drama on a semi academic or 'really a big fan' level, or extensive notes in a programme. I don't really think that much studying should be done to enjoy a play unless the evening is being promoted as a form of theatre new to these shores. If the latter were true you would know what you were letting yourself in for and would take tit upon yourself to get clued up before attending. Otherwise, you could be, like me a little lost in translation.

The Whisky Taster (Bush Theatre 10/2/10) 12 February 2010

We've struck gold!

Let's be honest, there aren't many of us theatregoers who will take many chances on untried, untested theatre i.e. hasn't played regionally or at Edinburgh (translation - doesn't come with reviews). Other than knowing someone involved there has to be something about the play that catches the imagination and usually it's just the marketing description. Never dismiss the power of the description. Here is the one for The Whisky Tasters:

'Barney and Nicola are advertising wonder kids. They win accounts with wit, charm and a secret weapon - Barney's ability to feel, smell and taste colours, and to translate these sensations into words.

Lately Barney had been finding things way too colourful and wished his full throttle London life was more black and white, but Nicola is hell bent on winning accounts at all costs.

When the two hire an old Scottish Whisky Taster to help them with a new campaign, his strange wisdom slows the Londoners to a stop, just as the deadline looms.'

Now, to me that sounded really interesting and pair that with the urge to take a chance I booked. Luckily enough I didn't revisit the description so when I was finally settled in my seat at the Bush I was completely open to what was going to happen on stage, completely unencumbered by preconceived thoughts. This was a good thing because ultimately what happened was allot bigger than any description could ever capture on a leaflet.

What else did I get? Characters that are at once bigger than life and entirely recognisable with uniformly knockout performances, a script that mines the curiosities of personal and work relationships, and direction that understands the writers style and transfers that understanding to all the plays many detailed elements to create what I feel was one of the most wholly enjoyable evenings I've spent in the theatre.

Let's break it down. The performances. Amazing. I was only familiar with two of the actors - Samuel Barnett (Olivier and Tony nominated as Posner in The History Boys - and on film) and Simon Merrells (recently seen as the lead in On the Waterfront at the Theatre Royal Haymarket). Samuel plays Barney, the one with the special talent and Simon is his boss. I saw The History Boys twice at the National and remember Samuel Barnett very well. I thought he was really good but wasn't entirely sure why he was singled out so often as being exceptional. Close up at the Bush it's evident why. His character is not the funniest of the lot and is not supposed to be, but he delivers a finely drawn performance as a young man not willing to let go. We feel every twist and turn his character goes through. Also, he has the ungodly difficult task of letting us, the audience, see and feel what it's like to feel smell and taste colours. You try it.

Simon Merrells delivers an hilarious performance as his overly expressive boss. There are hints of Ricky Gervais in The Office but they are only hints.

There are three other actors - Chris Larkin, John Stahl and Kate O'Flynn. Chris Larkin (The Lady from Debuque,TR Haymarket; His Dark Materials, National Theatre; Midsummer Night's Dream / Much Ado About Nothing, Open Air Regents Park) as Christopher the client, turns in a very subtly funny performance that will seem very familiar to anyone who has had to pitch to a client, John Stahl (Othello, The Globe; The Crucible, RSC; The Weir, Royal Court) is the Whisky Taster and is suitably enthusiastic, obsessed and mysterious and finally, what could be my discovery of the year Kate O'Flynn (A Miracle, Royal Court; House of Special Purpose, Chichester) as Nicola. She turns in a stonkingly amazing performance. From the get go, she inhabits her Croydon native character with such gusto and humour that you immediately warm to her. She allows us to see all sides to her character - gutsy, funny, strong, determined and driven as well as the tender, insecure and vulnerable side. It's true tour de force. In one scene she leaves in a huff then reenters and while standing still, a single real tear falls from her eye, it was magical. She spoke volumes without saying a word or indicating her emotions. It was very powerful.

Of course non of these performances would have been possible without a wonderful script by James Graham (Eden's Empire, Finborough Theatre; Tory Boyz, Soho Theatre;, The Bush). He has a very keen ear for dialogue and infuses his characters conversations with current cultural references. I like the way his mind works. Throughout his story we get the pleasure of hearing a debate on what was better to watch as a youth - CBBS or CiTV, finding out how whiskey is made and hearing more about the London tube map than I knew before. It may sound dry but these various elements are intricately sewn into the whole, it really is a tapestry of characters and ideas and it never gets out of control. All the elements have a very specific reason for being there and as a result the characters are as rich as the whisky of the title.

Extra special mention to director James Grieve (Artefact, The Bush, National Tour, Off Broadway; Comfort, Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays; The List, Arcola; and Associate Director of the Bush and recently appointed Artistic Director for Paines Plough).

This is always a difficult one for me. I connected with his style. There are certain directors whose 'style' I immediately connect with and I am not sure if I can get the 'why' across. For me it's about how the actors interact with each other, how they deliver the dialogue and get across the plays ideas and elements. Anything too showy or 'unauthentic' and I tend to shy away. This play has alot of quickfire dialogue, sometimes heavy with ideas and thoughts. Characters cut each other off and often react and comment without saying a word. Of course much of this comes from the actors but it's the director that keeps it all on track and ensures that what happens on stage remains true to the story and style of the playwright. James Grieve does all the above, with panache, and I will be seeing more of his work.

My last mention will be the designer Lucy Osbourne who has actually found a way to immerse the audience in the felling and colours that Barney experiences.

I really can't say enough good things about The Whisky Taster. It was quite full the night I saw it and I couldn't help but think that it should have been packed out. From what I could tell the audience, pretty much loved it and many dashed out during the interval and after the performance to buy a play text. I think that's a great testiment to the writing.

If you are in London or can be here before the the end of February I strongly urge you to get a ticket. You don't want to be that person who will have to regret, out loud, to all those who were fortunate enough to see The Whisky Taster ' I really wish I saw that'. You have until the 27th of February. I took the chance and struck gold.

Six Degrees of Separation (Old Vic 8/2/10) 9 February 2010

I've always loved John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. I read it long before I finally saw the production, oh so many years ago. It was in LA, the touring version with Marlo Thomas as matriarch Ouisa ('wee-zah') the role made famous on Broadway by Stockard Channing who later reprised the role in the original London production. I enjoyed that version but it didn't really hit me as I thought it would. Possibly because I had read it so much my vision of the performances overshadowed what I witnessed on stage.

A few years later we all had the opportunity to see Stockard Channing play Ouisa when the film version was released. Filming this play was always going to be difficult prospect as the structure is very theatrical in it's presentation. As a result it didn't transfer well. What also didn't transfer well was the central performance by Will Smith as Paul. I have always been bemused at the laudits bestowed upon his performance as it was just not right (I always thought the critics and the public were actually saying that they loved Will Smith attempting serious drama).

The role of Paul is the hook upon which everything else must hang and I am very pleased to report that in this Old Vic production, Obi Abili excels. He has not only managed to find all the nuances of character but has the acting chops to make the character his own. Paul is a very complex character and to play it well you have to play all your cards very close to your chest and be absolutely convincing with each card you reveal. I more than anyone, am surprised to be saying that, especially since he was the one reason I originally didn't want to see this production. I had seen Obi in the recent-ish production of Angels in America (one of my all time favourites) at the Lyric Hammersmith and I wasn't impressed with his performance - at all. (see my post of Prick up Your Ears for more on this and it's director Daniel Kramer).

For those of you who aren't familiar with Six Degrees of Separation I'll give you a quick rundown of the story - but will leave out some of the developments that I think are best left to discover for yourselves.
John Guare's play is loosely based on an actual situation where a con man, pretending to be the son of a famous actor, swindled some wealthy New Yorkers out of money. I say loosely based because Six Degrees of Separation delves into the relationships between all involved parties, notably the parents and their children. The main couple are Ouisa (Lesley Manville - All about My Mother, Old Vic; Pillars of the Community and His Dark Materials, National Theatre) and her husband Flan (Anthony Head - Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Rope and Chess in the West End) unconventional Manhattan art dealers who are all consumed with the next big art deal and maintaining their wealthy existence. Into the story comes Paul, a friend of their children who are away at college and who may be too good to be true.

One thing I love about this play is how its formed and structured. We enter the story directly after a disturbing event where Ouisa and Flan think they have been robbed. It then moves back to the events leading up to that moment and then moves forward to what happens after. Ouisa and Flan also directly address the audience in a manner in keeping with how they relate to each other, stopping and correcting the other. Like with the recent Midsummer: a play with songs, I have never been a fan of this technique but in certain circumstances (Midsummer and this play) it works a charm. Mainly because it furthers the story and helps develop the characters. It's also useful for stories that span a great length of time. In Six Degrees, it's used sparingly but to great effect.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as Ouisa and Anthony Head is really good as Flan. In fact, all the performances are good. I have been asked if it's a three actor play. Not at all. In total it's a cast of sixteen, and they are all wonderful. This is a somewhat stylised play that requires sometimes heightened versions of reality - such as Ouisa and Flans children and their friends. Each character is wonderfully delineated and no one slips into stereotype (and have really good American accents).

I had a concern going in that this play, which was written in and takes place in the late 1980's, might not hold up in 2010. There are elements that are definitely of that time - technology of course, and cultural references - most notably to the musical Cats - but director David Grindley (Philanthropist, Donmar; Some Girls and Journeys End, West End) has wisely retained the late 1980's setting and it doesn't come across as a period piece.

I may sound a bit vague about this play but as I mentioned before, there are many little elements which though not a huge 'shock' surprise (except one - and the little touch of wearing a condom was genius) I feel not knowing what is going to happen or where the story is going will only add to the enjoyment. It's a little like a detective story as more and more elements and details are uncovered as you go along. I think that many feel they should be moved by the various stories and situations that crop up but I don't feel that's true. It works mainly on an intellectual level, in that it deals with the subjects of race, family, parenting, wealth, sexuality and trust, but that's not to say that it has it's emotional elements as well. A I think it's well worth seeing and you would be hard pressed to find many plays as well structured and written as this. I don't like seeing the joins when I go to the theatre and I find this seamless. But of course, there are two sides to every story.

Addendum: The Little Dog Laughed (Garrick Theatre) 7 February 2010

When The Little Dog Laughed performances were announced with Jamie Lloyd directing I opted to buy a ticket independently instead of attending the what I assumed to be scheduled, outing. These outings usually cost less, include more and have an exclusive post performance discussion. The reason I didn't wait was I figured, based on previous experiences, that Jamie Lloyd would not be attending. Imagine my surprise when I saw the partial transcription of the WOS Outing Post Performace discussion that Mr Lloyd was there after all. Oh well. That aside, I was still able to read about his experience with the play and get some insight into its origins.

In my original The Little Dog Laughed blog I wrote that I felt the impetus for writing the play came from an anger at Hollywood. At least that's how it felt to me. What I have now learned is the story came from writer Douglas Carter Beane's original idea to write about the experiences of a New York rent boy. The fleshing out of that story, so to speak, moved on to include a closeted politician (which evolved into the agent played by Tamsin Greig) and eventually became the current story with the closeted Hollywood star.

I don't know if this changes anything for me. It's always interesting to hear directors and actors talk about the process of developing performances and too often I find myself sliding along with them into the land of justification when I do. Hearing the 'whys' always makes sense in terms of process but outcome is another matter entirely. I tend to second guess myself, thinking I must have missed something or just didn't 'get it' - whatever the 'it' is.

After all is said and done I still get the issues presented in The Little Dog Laughed and I think it's an interesting subject to explore. The origins are simply an interesting side note that I wanted to clarify but I still don't feel it gives the audience enough to care about.

(click the title to go the Whatsonstage The Little Dog Laughed page)

Midsummer: a play with songs (Soho Theatre 4/2/10) 6 February 2010

At last! Against all odds here's a play (with songs) that defies expectation. A play about 'relationships' between a man and a woman, with occassional songs accompanied only by acoustic guitar that actually works. It works because it never falls into the trap of being cute, overly sentimental or most importantly predictable.

It was more than likely that I would have passed this one up as I do with with many Edinburgh Festival transfers (of which this is one - later than usual). The idea of a two person play about relationships with the addition of music conjured in my mind sweet 'knowing' interchanges between the two characters punctuated with gentle folksy guitar strumming. Not really my thing but, I was strongly urged by a friend at work to go and as is the case, again, I'm really glad I did.

It's a difficult production to explain because if you just state the basics it sounds like a million things you've seen before - a man and a woman meet in a bar and embark on what may or may not be a lasting relationship as they try to come to terms with reaching their mid thirties. But, and that's a big but, it's done in such a clever and fresh way that the end result stands heads and shoulders above anything else in the same genre.

Sure, it treads familiar territory but it's the flourishes of reality that give it punch and bite. It's not afraid to go places many wouldn't dare to even recall except to their closest friends. Here's an example: there's a great scene early on when the pair agree to get extremely drunk and have sex (so they wouldn't remeber the encounter the next morning). While having sex (and it is sex, not lovemaking) the audience is privy to their inner thoughts which inhibit their performance. The man - Bob (Matthew Pidgeon - The Wonderful World of Dissocia, National Theatre; The Lying Kind, Royal Court and the film The Winslow Boy) keeps having to remind himself to concentrate on the act and not let his mind wander while the woman - Helena (Cora Bissett - Electra, Gate Theatre London; Caledonian Road, Almeida Theatre) is also having a difficult time concentrating and realises she isn't being pleasured so figures she will have to fake her moans of pleasure. The next day as she arrives hungover at her sisters wedding to be a bridesmaid, she throws up on the steps to the cathedral and ends up drawing so much negative attention she has to flee. This is not your typical love story, in fact, I wouldn't really call it a love story at all as it is more concerned with looking at emotional attraction and what brings people together.

Throughout the rest of the 100 minute play we are taken on a car swindle deal, a big night out which includes getting tied up with ropes by a Chinese bondage expert (the outcome is meant to be psychological not sexual) and a foot chase as Bob goes on the lam, running from some heavies he's done a deal with. All this is punctuated by the ocsssional song, some touching in their simplicity and others very funny - like the 'if my hangover was a city - it would be Belgium'. For me, the music works because the songwriter (Gordon McIntyre - a member of the band ballboy) has as his musical references bands like The Jesus And Marychain (the character Bob is looking to busk around Europe singing Jesus and Marychain songs) so they never get too cloying and sweet, staying away from faux folk. Also, Cora and Matthew are great singers, not vocal 'powerhouses' a la Cion Dionne and the like (thank god), but real, emotional singers with good voices.

I was a little worried during the first five minutes or so because the characters directly address the audience and that's not my thing. I always figure that if you can't incorporate that information then why bother. However, I soon realised that I was getting information that added and enhanced the story. It's another example of how clever Midsummer is in using convention and making it work. Big thumbs up to writer and director David Greig (responsible for the amazing adaptation of Albert Camus' Caligula at the Donmar starring Michael Sheen in 2003) who has written a wonderful piece that doesn't draw any easy conclusions and keeps all the various elements and stories flowing so effortlessly with his direction. Funny enough I hadn't bought a programme so I was in the dark or a while about who was involved and had assumed that Midsummer was written and directed by real life couple Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon based on their own experiences. Imagine my suprise when I discovered that not only did they not write or direct it but are not a real life couple. I think that's testiment enough.

Side note: Unfortunately, as I write this, it's the final performance of Midsummer at Soho Theatre. If I get any information about additional performances at Soho or elsewhere then I'll post it here.

Jerusalem (again) (Apollo Theatre 1/2/10) 2 February 2010

I went back for more although I wasn't impressed the first time. An opportunity arose to see it again without anything to lose (but time). So, I went for it and to be honest, there were some extenuating circumstances that clouded my first viewing and I wanted to be sure I gave it a fair shot, especially after it has been praised to the skies as the best play of the previous decade.

Here were the extenuating circumstances. I was dead centre in the first row (finances) and as many of you may already be aware, the Jerusalem set has really brought the outdoors in - real grass, real trees. Add to that a huge caravan and a large cast and I wondered if I was too close, I could smell the fertiliser and watch tiny flying insects just above the grass. Second, I had a bit of a hunger issue on that day which manifested itself as tummy rumbles. Nothing to be embarrassed about - unless you are dead centre in the front row and the actors are performing a quiet scene three feet away (act 3). So, to try and alleviate the systems I was squirming a a bit and trying to apply, covert pressure on the areas where I thought the rumblings were coming from. Needless to say, my concentration waned. Lastly I distinctly remember getting double vision, the kind you get when you are over tired and are trying at all costs to keep your eyes open. So, I figured by eating before the performance, ensuring I wasn't tired, and not sitting in the front row, I could eliminate all those obstacles which lead me to not enjoy it the first time. What did I learn from all that preparation? Those external obstacles were not the problem.

While watching it this time, I realised the Jerusalem is like watching an extended version of a TV sketch show. I think there's an argument there. Most TV sketch shows (think Little Britain and to a greater extent The Catherine Tate Show) have recurring characters. What sketch shows don't do is expand those characters into fully realised people, because, that wouldn't be funny. That's not what we watch them for. We want the quick, clever comedy that comes from obvious character traits - an immediate level of recognition.

In Jerusalem, just like a really good sketch show, the razor sharp dialogue comes fast and furious, one funny line after another - one put down after another - one funny situation after another - one too many after another. It's relentless and repetitive (like sketch shows when the character has outstayed their welcome). What we learn from a few exchanges is repeated in various forms, numurous times. Indeed, it's a laugh fest - for a while - but then each successive exchange gets more and more obvious. It seems like I'm digressing but I'm just trying to plant an image in your head so if I say that playwright Jez Butterworth is a great sketch show writer you will understand where I'm coming from.

It must have been hard work for the actors, each trying to make their character an individual but, no matter how much work they put into it, they will remain stock characters, enitrely interchangeable. At the Royal Court, their version of a programme is the playtext which I have from my first visit, so I looked into the writers descriptions of his characters. Usually, there's a little snippet of information that will give a clue as to who these people are. Here is Mr Butterworth's about four of the main characters:

1. Ginger played by Mackenzie Crook

Enter Ginger from behind the trailer singing....he puts his hand to his ear and air-scratches on an air-turntable.

2. Lee played by Tom Brooke

A young man, Lee, suddenly sits up from the couch, gasping.

3.Davey played by Danny Kirrane

Enter Davey, in big shades with an accordion.

4. Pea and Tanya played by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Mills

From beneath the trailer crawl two sixteen year old girls, Pea and Tanya.

That's pretty much all we get. All other traits were obviously created by the actors, the costume designers and the director. The most realised character is Johnny played by Mark Rylance and here's his description -

Wiry. Weathered; drinkers mug, Bare chest. Helmet. Goggles Loudhailer. Despite a slight limp he moves with the balance of a dancer, or animal.

It's now easy to see why, in addition to being a great actor, Mark Rylance rises head and shoulders above everyone else.

The entire cast from the original run have trasferred with the production and the same problems I had with four of them at the Royal Court I have at the Apollo. They aren't very good. And if you are having to carve your character out of a void you had better be real good. Maybe the lack of experience in those actors was a smokescreen to hide the lack of character?

I have three final gripes before I leave you in peace. First - these characters, although familiar and funny in their own way, come across as hilarious. These are drug taking, foul mouthed, unachievers who think of nothing to partake in a few lines of coke with teenagers. The audience continually whoops it up on the laughter front. Are they laughing with them or at them? Is it really funny or rather sad? I find it a misstep. Second - as has been proved in other Jez Butterworth productions I've seen - notably Parlour Song at the Almeida - he doesn't write women well. Actually he doesn't write them at all. They just exist and say some lines. They are just foils as is the case of one major female figure in Jerusalem, she makes a speech daming Johny then does what he does. Owing that we know nothing about her other than her realtionship to the main character this really makes no sense. Thirdly, it's really long, way too long for what it is. I kept thinking during the performance (not a good sign) of what they could have cut. Finally, I found that each of the three act was less interesting than the one before it. When we finally arrived at what seemd like the end I was begging for it to be over but, no. There were about three false endings. It was like Michael Meyers in Halloween, just when you though he was dead... but Halloween was at least interesting.

I can understand admiring parts of this - the set, the mostly clever dialogue, Mark Rylance - even Mackenzie Crook, Tom Brooke and Danny Kirrane are very good, but how can you just ignore the really bad parts - lack of characterisation, excessive repetitive length and some really clunky performances? Could it be a sheep mentality? Who knows, but like my friend said - 'You couldn't pay me to sit through that again'.