Tennessee William's Spring Storm (National Theatre 13/4/10) 18 April 2010

Breaking News! Tennessee Williams long forgotten play Spring Storm, on its first trip outside of the US has been involved in a serious head on collision. Miraculously, or predictably, it has emerged - unscathed.

This is a great testimony to the genius of Tennessee Williams. Here we have a play that few have seen and even fewer are even familiar with, in a production that if it were a lesser playwright, would have been dismissed as a potential flash in the pan. That's not to say that Spring Storm is a masterwork, I don't think it is, but there's enough of what Tennessee Williams does best to rise above, even the most lazy and uninspired of productions.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm when he was in his 20's, it was never produced. Interestingly enough it was written in 1937, the same year he wrote The Fugitive Kind (the precursor to Orpheus Descending) and then a year later Not About Nightingales. The play was found amongst The Tennessee Williams Collection in Texas and received it's first public reading in New York in 1996 followed by publication.

This production currently at the National's Cottesloe Theatre is Royal & Derngate Northampton's transfer of two seminal American playwright's early work - the Young America Season. Spring Storm is paired with Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon which admittedly I know nothing about with the exception that it, like Spring Storm, was an early work.

Let's look at the foundation. Tennessee Williams was an amazing playwright. His style immediately puts the viewer into a zone, the Tennessee zone. The plays are witty, clever, heartbreaking with astoundingly good dialogue and often tackled complex issues. All those points are present in Spring Storm, but make no mistake, it's not one of his best and it's pretty clear that it's an early work. Some of the elements don't come together. Some of the themes and characters he was exploring aren't fully explored - I got the sense that he wasn't really sure of some of the characters himself.

Here's the story, Spring 1937 in Mississippi. A young woman from a good family, Heavenly has to choose between local tradesman Dick Miles, a man below her social class, and the son of the towns wealthy family Arthur (who is Heavenly's mother choice for a suitor). There's also the dowdy 30 year old library assistant Hertha who also has a dream of finding something better as does Dick. Just from those descriptions I'm sure you can weave a story of how these characters might interact and for the most part that's where Tennessee Williams takes the audience. What makes it less obvious are the twists he throws in that make these relations much more complex, mostly to do with Heavenly's character.

Heavenly is a conflicted character, she wants to be with Dick, makes it clear to her Mother that Arthur is not for her, yet in his presence she shows interest in him. Because she's had 'relations' with Dick she has become the talk of the town. It doesn't help that she drinks, smokes, really enjoys that new product called Coca Cola and is not embarrassed about any of it. Arthur also seems to be conflicted, he wants to be with Heavenly or so it would seem, but makes a play for Hertha early on. Dick is more straightforward, he just wants to get out of the town and is hoping Heavenly would join him but will leave regardless. All very complex, emotional conflicts are poised to run high, however, what I have just retold I got from hearing the words, not from the individual performances.

For me, the performances were pretty much way off the mark. Here are a few examples. The opening scene has Dick looking down at the Mississippi River, equating it with his need to leave town and experience another place. As far as I could tell, the actor was looking at the ground and just saying the words. I never got the sense there was a river there. Tennessee's words did all the work. A few scenes later Arthur is talking to Hertha. He is retelling a story that could be construed as a pick up line of sorts, which Hertha asks about and takes his word that it was not. Later in the play, a drunk Arthur confronts Hertha at the Library. He overpowers her and she struggles then gives in. It's a violent scene where the overtones are rape. So, why does she give in? She gave absolutely no indication of having any feelings for Arthur. She would have if the actress had played the earlier scene differently.

Here's a good one. I'm going to set up a scenario - now think of what you would do in the same situation. It's late at night and you are awakened by sounds of conversation in another room. You go down the hall to investigate and turn into the room where you thought you heard the voices. You enter, see a family member and ask who they were talking to? Out of curiosity, your natural instinct would be to look at the various doors in the room to see if you saw anyone, right? Same scenario in Spring Storm. What does the actor asking the question do? Look behind him, at the door he just entered through. That really stood out to me - I thought 'you just came through that door, you know no one's there because you were just there yourself, so why look back to investigate?' It reeked of acting school scene work.

Finally the big laugh of the night came from the woman playing Heavenly's mother. She has a scene where she is trying to impress the wealthy Arthur and it turns into (for all of you familiar with this British TV show) Keeping Up Appearances fused with some Noel Coward comedy. The audience roared. I wept.

I wondered if there was any preparation made regarding Southern lifestyles, locales and accents (on the latter - there is a dialect coach listed but I fear much of the instruction fell on deaf ears.) I never got the sense of location, era or society. The performances were mannered in that acting school sort of way and universally, there were no real connections to the imagery they were describing (which Tennessee is so famous for) or the other characters.

I sat in the Cottesloe and tried to figure out what the problem was. Was it the actors or the director? As I tried to unravel the problem (also a bad sign that I was going through such a lengthy thought process during a show) and came to the conclusion it must be the director as it would be near impossible to find such uniformly poor performances in the same production. Then I realised that I didn't like anything about the production (my friend liked the shoes). I wondered if it was intentional to not have anything ring true or logical.

Director Laurie Sansom - also Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate Southampton, has included voiceovers (by a voice assumed to resemble Tennessee's) of the stage directions and scene introductions at the start of most scenes and most irritatingly, at the end where we hear - 'end of play. Curtain.' It immediately alerts you to the fact that you are watching a play. Was the director trying to tell us that the production should be viewed as something other than a finished work and we as audience members need to be reminded that it is just a play and no semblance of reality should be inferred?

If this is true then they've hit the nail on the head as I am hard pressed to point out a performance that transcended the actors ambition. In fact, they pointed out their own deviations from the original character description. At the opening, the voiceover introduces the main characters with a physical description. For the most part, none of the descriptions matched the actor playing the role. Gun, foot, shoot.

There is one saving grace. During the second act it dawned on me that this was most likely an early version of A Streetcar Named Desire with Heavenly as a young Blanche. This could also point to Blanches attraction to Stanley. In Spring Storm, there's a scene at the end where Dick, covered in mud, tries to convince Heavenly, dressed in white for a party, to go away with him. They embrace, getting Heavenly's dress all muddy. The image of Dick as Stanley Kowalski came into my head. Dick leaves without Heavenly and you could imagine her never getting over it - this could be transferred to Blanche's the attraction to Stanley as a Streetcar back story. I've heard this mentioned before but I had forgotten about it until that scene.

What did I get from my evening? Hearing and seeing an unknown Tennessee Williams play that although not one of his best was still enjoyable in that Tennessee Williams way. There could have been much more made of it, if only the production had been up to it. I long for someone to have a real go, if you cast extremely talented actors this could be amazing. I know all the reviews have been raves, I'm not sure if they are reviewing the play or the production. Either way, Tennessee emerges fit as a fiddle and the production - DOA.

BBC's Over The Rainbow (Fountain Studios 23/3/10 + 10/4/10) 11 April 2010

I got a strange reaction from people when I told them I was going to a recording of Over The Rainbow. I wasn't sure if it was because it has all those things stereotypically associated with musical theatre or the fact that it has that 'friend of Dorothy' element about it. Either way, I didn't feel it was anything to be ashamed of. I have always found backstage and 'the road to (insert production name here)' stories interesting. Okay, this isn't exactly as straightforward as some, there's a great deal of TV gloss and just a little bit of desperation about it all but I still really enjoy it.

Over the Rainbow wasn't my first Andrew Lloyd Webber in search of...recording. I was at two live shows for How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? (once in the front row next to the family of one of the Maria's who I wasn't supporting and had to wave goodbye on that particular week - very uncomfortable), I missed out on the Any Dream Will Do - couldn't get a ticket, was at the final of I'd Do Anything and just attended my second Over the Rainbow. Strangely enough, for a programme that's seen by many as just a piece of fluff, it's been steadily in the news and has had its fair share of controversy.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
The search for Maria in The Sound of Music

1. It made news first by being such a risky venture (what if the voting public choose a Maria that's not up to it?
2. As a safety precaution they hired seasoned actress Emma Williams to basically split the performances with the eventual winner).
3. Went under attack by actors equity about it's casting process.
4. Winner Connie announced she would be able to do most of the performances - Emma Williams then left the production as she would be relegated to a matinee only schedule.
5. Connie gets ill and blows her voice proving she wasn't as up to it as she thought.
6. The production went on to get wonderful reviews, make the producers loads of money and introduce many to the theatre.

Any Dream Will Do
The search for Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

1. Contestant and eventual winner Lee Mead had been in the West End as an understudy in Phantom of the Opera which seemed to go against the productions intention of finding an unknown fresh face.
2. Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat received so so reviews but still did great business and gets more theatre newbies in.
3. Lee Mead weds Any Dream Will Do panelist Denise Van Outen.

I'd Do Anything
The search for Nancy in Oliver!

1. Old Vic Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Spacey makes a public denouncement of the programme stating that he feels the BBC were promoting Oliver! through a 10 week advert. He feels the the same attention should be given to other theatre.
2. Oliver! producer Cameron MacIntosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber announce on the final programme that they feel contestant Jesse Buckley is their favourite. Jody Prenger wins and everyone seems uncomfortable.
3. Jody Prenger is given a great deal of preparation time and training including a short stint in the West End's Les Mis.
4. Oliver! has record breaking sales and respectable reviews.
5. SOLT - Society of London Theatre - announces the West End experienced it's best year ever and reality shows like I'd Do Anything are cited as a contributing factor.

Over The Rainbow
The search for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

It's still early days but...

1. None of the previous Panelists return fueling speculation that John Barrowman and Denis Van Outen (now pregnant with Lee Mead's child) were sacked.

Personally I feel that these programmes have had an impact on West End ticket sales. Of course there will always be naysayers stating that audiences are coming for the wrong reasons but I know from experience that this sort of thing actually works. Years ago ,one of my first theatre jobs was for a theatre that relied mainly on subscribers. When I started they were just finishing an extended run of Phantom of the Opera (extended as in years) which had made it's first non New York appearance. My job was to ring those who attended Phantom and encourage them to become subscribers. Initial thoughts were in the vicinity of - good luck - but I was very surprised at the number of people for whom Phantom was their first theatre experience and were very interested in trying others. There was a second smaller theatre that produced straight plays also on subscription and many, many people became subscribers in the smaller house. It's the equivalent of casting out a big fishing net, there may be a large number of fish initially but when you pull it in there will be a great deal less, but you just have to keep throwing out the net.

I wonder if the tag 'reality show' is putting people off. I don't get it to tell the truth. Reality show? It contains real people but does that make it a reality show? To me a reality show is something like Cops where the audience is following something that would be happening with or without the cameras. All the others I would call either game shows or competitions. If there is a process that pre selected people go through in order to win or gain something at the end then it's a game show. Look at something like Mastermind. Contestants compete week after week, with big winners making it through to the semis and then the finals. It is a long process and someone wins at the end. Big Brother is the same thing as is X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent and Over The Rainbow. They're just flashier than Mastermind or Master Chef.

Anyway, to the experience. I'll save you loads of detail but just pull out some interesting bits.

It's a very different experience seeing it live. Being in the studio gives a better sense of how the contestants would be on stage. You get the whole picture and are able to see and focus on what grabs you. I've seen some really good performances in the group numbers that the TV audience don't get to see.

If you've ever watched Simon Cowell on American Idol or X-Factor you will probably be aware of his 'when you watch this back...' phrase, usually accompanying a performance that everyone else thought was great but he wasn't so keen on. He is so right. On Saturday night I thought Bronte was pretty good and was very surprised when she got the least votes. It wasn't until I watched it back that I could see why she would have not been a favourite. I think that the one who wins has to be able to come across well on stage and on TV.

From the Dorothys that didn't make it, Teghan was my favourite (She comes across much better live) and I think the Leading Ladies (first show mentors Kerry Ellis, Ruthie Henshall and Tamsin Outhwaite) who were present during that first show which whittled it down to ten Dorothys, she was their favourite as well. After the announcement of the final 10 and the group was split into two, there was a short filming break. Tegan was very upset and all the Leading Ladies got her attention and gave her a private pep talk.

Both the live show and the results show are filmed back to back. It's a long evening especially after queueing for quite a while before getting into the studio. As with all of those variety type shows there's the warm-up guy, a semi comedian who gets the crowd enthused by making everyone stand up and dance, clap along to dance tracks and have to endure the 'which side can scream louder' competition. Unfortunately it's been the same warm up guy since I'd Do Anything, along with the same tired jokes. Especially wearisome was the tossing chocolates into the audience bit where he encourages a woman to catch chocolate in her cleavage in order to win a prize - this week, an Over the Rainbow mug. Anyway, part of the routine is to instruct the audience to clap along (and if you are in camera shot - as we were - they really want to ensure you keep the clapping going to look good). The audience is also encourage applaud high notes and interesting vocalisations. I now forgive all the audiences I've damned from the comfort of my sofa.

We spent alot of time on Saturday waiting while a huge Great Dane couldn't be trained to sit still. I think it was supposed to be part of the results show to tie in with the search for Toto. The dogs lead was tied to Lord Webber's chair and almost took the Lord with him as he dashed to his owner. Each time they brought the dog in they had to take away the podium with the ruby slippers. This in and out with the slippers prompted someone to let us know that the slippers are worth over £2000. They didn't say what they were made of but Graham Norton said they were a size 6, the average size of all the Dorothy's. He could have been joking about the size. Not really sure.

Halfway through the results show taping, the Lord whispered to Charlotte Church and John Partridge. He seemed to be quite upset. John whispered it to Sheila Hancock and they all seemed shocked. I think they found out who was in the bottom two which makes sense as I had wondered why Lord Webber never had the look on his face which comes from hearing such news for the first time.

There are three Dorothy's that I think would work - Steph, Stephanie and Jessica. All three come across really well live which is what I'm looking for.

If you want to apply for tickets the are still taking requests for the final three shows as of this posting - you'll have to register at The Applause Store.

That was pretty much it - oh, for the moon effect - the girls are not strapped in - just holding on for dear life.

New Writing Part Three: Word:Play 3 - Box of Tricks (Theatre503 30/3/10) 6 April 2010

Here we are at part three. In addition to the LPC evening the week before, I bought a ticket to Box of Tricks Theatre Company's Word:Play 3. Box of Trick is 'a new writing company committed to developing and producing the best new work around; discovering, nurturing and promoting the next generation of playwrights. We are drawn to plays that have an immediacy and relevance today: stories that need to be told, the voices that need to be heard.' (click the blog title for more)

Word:Play 3, as the title suggests, is the third in their Word:Play series where six new playwrights are commissioned to write a 15 minute plays based on a single word. This year the word was - obsession. I have never really considered the idea of short plays as something I would find interesting. I've never found short stories to be as fulfilling as say a full length novel or novella so I figured I would have the same sort of reaction to a short play. I figured I'd give it a go.

Back to Theatre503, a full house again (I neglected to mention that fact for the LPC evening) but the atmosphere was different. I was sure there were more people in attendance not directly associated with the production.

Unlike the LPC's Crash Test Audiences, Word:Play was unencumbered by an existing on stage set. The stage was bare with the exception of black chairs and tables carefully piled in a corner and a large collage of newspaper clippings on the black back wall, not entirely legible with the exception of certain words.

First up - Shove by Kenneth Emson, directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.

'And I started to feel like I was about to fall. Like I was about to come crashing to the floor and this feeling took me over'

This solo piece explored the feelings surrounding a particular incident involving being in a crowd, feeling people behind you and eventually being shoved to the ground. At the time I couldn't figure out what the incident was but once I settled into that I enjoyed it as a meditation on thoughts and emotions. Simon Darwen was wonderful in the role and the lighting and direction very appropriate to the switch of emotions throughout the piece. Honestly though I think I admired it more than enjoyed it. I'm not a fan of solo pieces, preferring interaction between two or more people to spark my imagination. I discovered later through one of Box of Tricks Theatre's tweets that it was about the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots last year.

Next - That Dark Place by Anna Jordan, directed by Adam Quayle

Nathan can't find his pen. He wants to write his confession. Constance fears the repercussions in a small community. But why are they guilty?

For this this one was a mixed bag. I really liked the story - a man wants to confess to something he probably didn't do, his wife has been trying to talk reason to no avail. What worked for me was Jonathan Harden's performance as Nathan. I believed his obsession and he played it as quiet desperation as opposed to wild crazy frenzy. What didn't work was his wife. I felt that her obsession - trying to convince her husband that he didn't do it - wasn't strong enough. And going by the snippet of information about the piece, she is supposed to be obsessed with what the neighbours are saying and thinking. I didn't get that at all as she seemed to be a foil for the husband. Also, I wasn't entirely convinced by the dialogue, I have an issue with characters over using the names of the person they are speaking to - people rarely do that. But, great story and good direction.

The last piece before the interval - With (Toxic) Love from Anna by Elinor Cook, directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder

Anna's new to London. But she left her heart in Australia. A funny and heartbreaking tale of a lonely girl in a big city.

What I really liked about this was that it looked at a few different issues. Most of us, I would imagine, have spent at least one relationship waiting by the phone, waiting for 'that' call. Times have changed and we now spend that time waiting on our computer, connected to many, waiting for one. And while we wait we interact with 'friends' both real and virtual. Without realising it we are basically attached to our computers in a way that's far more personal than we ever could have imagined. With (Toxic) Love From Anna looks at a young woman from Australia, in London on her own who is hoping her 'boyfriend' will miss her and get in touch. While she waits she sets up camp in the land online and pretty much cuts herself off from any real human interaction. A nice touch was the separation anxiety she suffers when her laptop is taken away for repairs.

I enjoyed the immediacy of the content but wished the performances were pushed a little more. We understand the pain of waiting for that email or having your computer taken away for repairs which can leave you with the most desolate feeling but that sense of urgency, the obsessive nature of the situation was missing. We got the sense of the situation through the writing but the performance didn't push it to the level I felt it needed to be seen as obsessive. I have to note that I attended the first of week long performances and I suspect it got stronger through the run. All the signs were there.

The first piece of part two - Awake by Hannah Nicklin, directed by Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder

Flo is lost. So is Jon. A story about new ways that we connect, disconnect, reconnect and plug ourselves into the digital age.

I had a problem with this one. Although I loved the premise, a woman wakes up in a place she doesn't immediately recognise. The only other person present is a man who speaks with in a strange stilted manner. We discover that they are in an online game and the man is the gaming character the woman has created. Great premise but I suspect the author had issues with constructing a story around it. We get stories about the woman's troubled relationships with family but it never really goes much further in relating that to the gaming character and understanding how that particular moment is important in her life. To be honest, I felt it was a bit clumsy in the writing department and ended up being fairly run of the mill and the obsession part didn't come through. Pity because the elements were - premise, direction - there but the writing let it down.

Next - Struck by Love/Train by Evan Placey, directed by Adam Quayle

Sarah fell in love today. Before she fell under a train. But she needs to break up with her husband. One woman's journey to find true love on the London underground.

This one was a great tour de force. A woman on a tube platform observes her dead body on the tracks below as she recounts the many different times she fell in love while riding the tube. She had recently fallen in love with a fellow passenger and tries think of ways to let her husband know. This had a wonderful stream of consciousness air about it with some very funny lines and great observations. I really got the sense I knew this woman. We all knew that he was in a sad state but it ever ventured into pity due to the direction and the performance by Natasha James who really inhabited the character but unfortunately fell into the trap of speeding through some of her lines to the point where they were lost. As with some of the others this was more than likely rectified and I wish I could have seen it again later in the run.

The last piece of the evening - Safety by Marcelo Dos Santos, directed by Adam Quayle

Ben's new to all this. Mark's a grizzled veteran. Olly's in love. Someone pass the tea. A daring black comedy set in swinging South London.

The evening concludes with a bang. Mystery, sex, sleaze and ultimately love collide in a very surprising piece. Two men and a boy sit in a flat, one of the men seductively whispers in the others ear. We're not entirely sure what's going on but based on the seductive quality of the man doing the whispering, Mark, we feel it's something sexual. What transpires is a game of sorts. The other man, Ben, has answered an ad but we're not sure what the specifics were. We are aware that part of the deal was getting the boy, Ollie, who at that point is with Mark and there seems to be the added extra of domination. Mark controls the situation, taunting and instructing Ben, using Ollie as a pawn and prize. It seems like an almost straightforward transaction, Ollie moves from Mark to Ben, but it gets more complicated. Mark has grown attached to Ollie, something that moves beyond the parameters of their situation and Ollie has fallen for Ben. This could have been just a quick look at the games people play but it's Jonathan Harden's performance as Mark which gives this piece depth. Portraying quite the different character from his performance in That Dark Place, he moves from being the sexual manipulator, the dominant force in the transaction to the one most hurt by the situation. A very subtle shift. Excellent. Of all the pieces this had the most elements to navigate and it was all done beautifully.

Overall a wonderful evening. There was a great attention to detail, not just in the individual pieces but as a whole, no clumsy set changes here, they were carefully thought out and made the evening seamless. I've come away a fan of the short play, not only can they be great launchpads for new writers, directors and lighting designers but also as a standalone theatrical experience.

One thing I paid attention to as well as the LPC performances was the audience reaction - the level of attention, the applause at the end.We are all acutely aware of how live performance affects audiences and vice versa and I wonder if we as arts practitioners should pay more attention to this because it's very difficult to fake an immediate response. I wonder if this could be more useful than filling in pieces of paper.

When we are more willing to accept that there might not be an enthusiastic reaction during or after a performance then we all could be a little more mindful of what we put on stage. There will always be a argument for and against how much one should pander to the audience but that's not what I'm speaking of. Writers write because they have something to say, because they want to communicate something to an audience. Whether or not this is communicated will usually be felt on the night. Putting everything in place to allow audiences to have the pieces affect them is a good start.

As the two artistic directors of Box of Tricks Theatre were also the two directors for all the pieces I feel it safe to say that they chose writers and pieces they believed in. They worked on them to give audiences the best possible experience of the highest quality. They proved that limited resources does not equal shabby and thrown together and they've shown me the value of theatre shorts.

How about this? Until pieces are completed how about presenting a 15 minute self contained (ish) segment as a finished short work and then listen, look and hear how audiences react. If we want the audience's attention we must pay attention to them.

New Writing Part Two: London Playwrights Collective (Theatre503 22/3/10) 2 April 2010

Here we are at part two of my new writing month. I went to Theatre503 - the self proclaimed home of fearless writing and the theatre that was first to put on this years Olivier winning best play The Mountaintop - twice. The first for an evening of new writing from The London Playwrights Collective I figured that I keep going on about new writing and figured I had to make more of an effort to support it. I had been intending to go to Theatre503 for some time and when I went onto the website to see what was on I discovered London Playwrights' Collective - a collaborative supportive ad proactive community for writers. Taking chances is what it's all about, right?

When I first read about this one-off evening of new writing my expectation was to see extracts from new work. I figured it would be about showcasing four new writers by giving a peak at their full length plays. The fact that this ended up only being partially true was not a huge problem but I only wished I had known in advance what I was letting myself in for prior to attending, so I could get into the right frame of mind.

As mentioned, this was my first proper visit to Theatre503 and I have to say it exceeded my expectations. For those who have been to the Gate Theatre is Notting Hill, imagine the same with 10 times the amount of foyer space. After I collected my ticket I received a programme from what I believe to be the organiser. She let me know that there was a questionnaire and asked if I could complete it at the end. I had no problem with that but it sort of took me by surprise. For me to give feedback I would have to quickly adjust my head from punter to critic. I took a look at the programme which gave a good deal of information - play titles, cast lists with biographies, playwright biographies and a bit about the evening. Here it is:

'The Platforms are opportunities for the playwrights to go beyond the relative comfort of the writers' group an get a real taste of the theatre making process. More than a simple showcase, it is a crucial step in the development of the playwrights and their work both through working with directors and cast but most importantly by the immediate response of the audience.

These exciting platform performances are the result of a 4 month development period where our writers came together during specially designed LPC workshops, generously pooling resources and sharing knowledge in order to support each other in the creation of their piece. Once selected, the playwrights we given feedback and recommendations from the Theatre503 selection panel and got rewriting. They were then each paired up with a specifically appointed professional theatre director, who, through proactive feedback and dialogue, provided additional support in the conceptualisation of the piece whilst fully involving them into the directorial process. The directors were selected by the LPC artistic team out of the forty plus who applied!'

It sounds as if a great deal of work and energy went into the evening, but unfortunately I had difficulty seeing that work onstage, much to the detriment of the plays themselves.

The evening started on a promising note. The first piece The Inappropriate Conversation by Reen Polonsky, directed by Jackie Kane was a two hander involving an teenage girl and an older man. What I liked about it was the aspect of not knowing if these two were lovers. It was eventually revealed that the man was the girls god father but the girl obviously really fancied him. This story could be spun off into an interesting dissection not only of Lolita style attraction but, as was hinted at here, the differences between age groups. The actors were off book and although I found the performances to be a little stilted and actorly, not entirely convincing, I could still see see the play beneath.

Next up The Lesson Before We Break by Colin Bell, directed by Alexander Summers. Unfortunately I found this one to be a bit of a disaster.

This play concerned an elderly teacher who it seems in the past was convicted of a relationship with a younger male pupil (we sit through an interrogation scene where it is revealed the male officer knows the teacher). He befriends a young male student who is new to the school while he is reading 'Catcher in the Rye'. During a school assembly the teacher verbally insults a female student after she laughed during a bit about the holocaust. It seems that he had been forced to wear a pink triangle during WW2 (This can't be confirmed as we only really see him putting on an armband with the pink triangle). This young female student is 'inner city tough' and files a complaint in a scene where she, accompanied by another teacher, confronts the elderly teacher. She has knowledge of his prior conviction and threatens him with spilling the beans.

Along the way, this female student meets the new kid and tries to get him on her side by threatening violence, he is not interested. He gets a lesson in the 'Catcher in the Rye' from the teacher who dissects the books characters names - Holden Caulfield becomes - Hold On (with all that implies) and Caul - the membrane around a baby - blah blah blah. (I think Catcher has already been done to death). Finally, the girls gang beats up the boy and he goes to the teachers home for help. The teacher is afraid that he will be seen as having a relationship with the boy so tries to get him out. At this point the student brings up how he is scarred by his father being in Afghanistan. I can't really remember how it ended. Mind you, this was just an extract. It was very long and everyone was on book and there were a great many 'scene' changes which made it very difficult to watch and follow. Honestly, just two of those issues raised could make for an interesting play but it was all too much.

After the interval came Cold Hands by John Anderson, directed by Anna Brownstead. This one was partially off book, but I really couldn't figure out what was going on. It's hard to say whether a few scenes were shoved together to give a bigger picture of the story or we were just dropped into it. This concerned something about a cryonics laboratory. Here's the description - 'When the Director of a cryonics firm finds his business world shattering into shards around him, he finally confronts his won personal grief.'

There was something very cold and distant about this, as if it was written by someone from the medical profession. It got a bit too technical at times and I really didn't see the personal grief. Again, it seemed very under rehearsed and this got in the way of seeing the play. From what was presented on stage I didn't find it very interesting.

Finally, the best all rounder of the evening - Waterton's Wild Menagerie by David Bottomley, directed by Daniel Burgess. Here's the description - 'Charles Waterton 1782 - 1865, a traveller, naturalist and benefactor to the local poor. He created the world's first nature reserve at Walton Hall, his ancestral home. This extract recalls his encounter with a group of starving beggars and supposes what might have occurred had he invited them back to eat bread with him at Walton Hall.' Although all actors were on book, it never interfered with the story or performances. It was well directed, very simply relying on the actors to tell the story. It was also funny, witty and well observed. The only downside for me was that for an extract, it seemed to go on for quite some time.

I opted out of filling in the questionnaire. I considered starting it during the interval but I didn't have a pen and then when I had a proper look at the sheet I realised it would prove an impossible task. There was only a very small comment space for each play accompanied by a 'rate this' from two to five section. It also asked which of the pieces I would be interested in seeing as a full length version. Because of the presentation I couldn't comment on the play without commenting on the direction and acting. Did I not like the play because of the directing? or were the actors so under rehearsed that it showed the play in a poor light? I didn't know and there wasn't enough room on the sheet to explain.

Although the intentions were honorable I fell this was a good example of why some 'scratch' type performances don't work. I like to know what I'm getting myself into, how I am supposed to experience the evening. I was never made aware, as a punter, that I would be seeing such unfinished extracts. The plays themselves may have been considered finished but the presentations were so fussy, unimaginative and under rehearsed I felt the only people that would have really gotten anything out of them would be the playwright and those also involved in each writers writing group. In fact, I have the feeling the audience was mostly made up of those two groups and those associated with LPC. There was a very 'in crowd' feeling about the evening, as if they all knew what was to come and I was the only one out in the cold.

What would have made this evening work for me?

1. An introduction on stage to each extract - giving a small overview of where it fits within the whole of the play - finished or not.
2. Better rehearsed actors so not to distract from the play itself.
3. Unfussy direction so the audience could concentrate on the play and not get bogged down with fussy blocking and set pieces.
4. Allowing on side of an A5 sheet of paper for each play and a way to either send in your comments later or email them through.

I think LPC were trying to straddle two worlds by trying to make both playwright and punter happy. I can't imagine the average punter being that interested in seeing something so unformed. Although these were works in progress I feel they should have been shown as finished works with more time put into presentation. If this is what is to be expected from scratch performances I can't see myself attending more unless I am associated in some way.

I wonder if what's keeping scratchs from being an integral part of the process is how the writers view their work. This came up during my 'Devoted and Disgruntled' session. Either you can present something as a work in progress or as a finished piece. My feeling is that there aren't many people who are interested in works in progress but as theatregoers are aware that as with all types of art, things can change. It's all about your intention.

In the present format I'm not sure I will be attending another of LPC's evenings. Funny enough they waited until you arrived to let you know what you were in for. Unlike the description on the website, the evening had a title, it was printed on their programme - Crash Test Audience 2. Enough said.

New Writing Part One: Eigengrau (Bush Theatre 13/3/10)

This past month has been heavily populated by new things for me. A new play at the Bush Theatre, two evenings of new writing and with the first of the two, the first time I had been to Theatre503. Add to that my finding out that I will be starting a new job in May (Marketing for Arcola Theatre - which now marks a self imposed embargo on Arcola blogs) and it all adds up to a pretty momentous month. My original intention was to discuss each of the three new theatre works individually but in my mind they always seemed to come together as three parts of one conversation so that's how I have decided to approach it this time around.

Back at the end of January, beginning of February I attended Improbable Theatre's Devoted & Disgruntled weekend where, using Open Space Technology, participants set the agenda. If you had a topic you wanted to discuss then you made it, titled it and scheduled it into one of the predetermined time slots. It was your responsibility to act as moderator of your 'session' and take notes as a record of the discussion.

One session I attended has a direct correlation to these new works and the thoughts I've had surrounding them. There was a woman who has been presenting her work at scratch performances for years and felt she was has fallen into a scratch circle. Can you scratch too much? I had never been a part of a scratch evening as a participant or viewer so I thought it would be interesting to hear if it was something I should pursue for my own work and if so maybe I would find out some of the pitfalls to avoid. The one thing that stood out for me was the question - when is your play or work finished and ready for a real production? This one went back and forth quite a few times until one of the participants - an Improbable regular - finally said - when you say it's ready.

That seems an obvious answer but it wasn't something that many had considered - partly because we are all used to having the 'powers that be' tell us when something is finished or possibly we as artists sometimes don't have enough faith in what we produce. Either way it was something to chew on.

Keeping all that in mind, I approached this month of new writing with the thought that all of the artists involved (as well as the powers that be) feel that, unless otherwise noted, the work on show is the finished deal.

Here is Part One.

Production 1: Eigengrau by Penelope Skinner at The Bush Theatre, Directed by Polly Findlay

Following on the heels of the stonking The Whisky Taster , to my tastes, Eigengrau had alot to live up to and on many levels if fell way short. I tend to have a thing about booking the final preview performance before a press night, the reasons being that for larger productions I can take advantage of a preview ticket price and ensure I'm getting the press night quality of performance. Also, I like to see things earlier on so not to be swayed or influenced by word of mouth and reviews. Unfortunately in this day and age, the press performances tend to be a bit fluid so I found myself surrounded by reviewers, the only ones I recognised were Mark Shenton and Lyn Gardner. Oh well.

For those who don't know, Eigengrau tells the story of two men and two women whose lives are intertwined. There's Cassie (Alison O'Donnell) a radical feminist and her flaky flatmate she found through Gumtree, Rose (Sinead Matthews - Our Class and The Women of Troy at the National, The Wild Duck at the Donmar and The Birthday Party in the West End), and on the male side there's Rose's city boy almost one night stand Mark (Geoffrey Streatfeild - Pains of Youth, The History Boys and The Bacchai - all National Theatre, Journey's End in the West End and Henry VI 1, 2, 3, Richard III, Henry IV 1, 2 and Henry V - all RSC) and his slacker flatmate Tim Muffin (John Cummins - A Stab in the Dark at the Kings Head, Edward II at BAC and The Beaver Coat at the Finborough).

Once all the characters and situations have been established, you can see how they will be interacting a mile off. City boy Mark has had a brief fling with Rose and runs into her flatmate Cassie the next morning in the flat. Cassie challenges Mark with her feminist views. Rose who has become obsessed with Mark, goes to his flat and meets Mark's flatmate Tim Muffin who in urn takes a shining to her. Mark starts fancying Cassie and it all gets a bit brit-comesque.

Going one step further each of the characters has a 'thing'. Cassie, as mentioned, is a feminist and is actively involved in the movement. Tim Muffin's grandmother has recently died and he keeps her ashes in a teddy bear shaped urn. Cassie is a flake and early on seems to be the eternal optimist but is revealed to be a bit psychotic in her single visioned pursuit of Mark, against all odds and signs to the contrary. And then there's Mark, the city boy. That's it. He's a city boy with all the trappings that one would expect - a bit laddish, a bit middle class with a dark side of liking to dominate sexually. No surprises there.

There's not much else to say about the actual storyline other than things happen and you can't really figure out why because they're never explored or brought up again. After a night of domination sex Cassie never speaks of feminism again. We learn that Rose has a history of not paying bills but is that a reason for her excessive behaviour? She refuses to see reason in regards to her pursuit of Mark, justifying every action in her favour, she debases herself by giving Mark the longest onstage blowjob ever (complete with the spitting out of sperm) to help secure their relationship, then goes onstage at a karaoke club and sings a complete song off key which concludes with self mutilation, only to bounce back at the end to her almost original self. And there's Tim Muffin, the only character with two names, (most likely for the humour factor) who we find out at the end has been devastated by the death of his grandmother. How that gives reason for his pursuit of Rose and his general slackerishness is beyond me.

Basically nothing seemed to add up. Yes, there were some wonderful comic touches and lines which the audience ate up but when you got to the end you just weren't sure what you just saw and why you saw it. At the end, two things came to mind - either the characters were poorly written or the director (Polly Findlay - Thyestes at Arcola, Romeo and Juliet at BAC) or the actors didn't assist enough in the creation of the characters.

Kind of sidestepping for a moment - I was working at a theatre in Los Angels during their pre Broadway run of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. At that point it was still a work in progress and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a discussion between the actors a group of young people for one of the theatre's outreach programmes. They told the eager listeners about all the cuts that had been made throughout the production.

The actors performed the previous version of the script for quite a while but it became evident that the play was running too long and many of the scenes were dragging down the pace. As a result, there were some major cuts - mostly involving character backstory. Some of the kids wondered if the cuts made the actors work more difficult. The reply was that it made their work easier because although they didn't perform those scenes anymore the information that they imparted became part of their performances, they informed how the characters acted and reacted within the scenes. It was something I hadn't considered before and has since stayed with me. (Unfortunately to the extent that I have issue with seeing replacement casts for long running productions). Having that much information is a luxury and that the majority of actors (and directors) have to get that sort of information on their own. It may be difficult at times to figure out but I think it's a necessity to gaining well fleshed out characters.

With Eigengrau I would say the lack of fully fleshed out characters are a result of the writer, the actors and/or the director not realising that something was missing. The writer introduced many elements that were either dropped without explanation or not explored beyond one or two lines. There is the possibility that the actors had worked on their characters stories but unfortunately this work never appeared in their performances (with the exception of Sinead Matthews who gave a wonderfully heartfelt performance which in fact revealed the flaws of the text). If they had worked on their back stories then I would say it was the director who failed to realise that the physics of cause and effect were not in play here.

Physically, the space itself was just a small traverse with audience on both sides. With the exception of a fast food stand where Tim Muffin briefly works, four chairs were used in various configurations to determine settings with a shelf on one wall for the teddy bear urn to indicate when they were in Mark's flat. The scene changes were a little clumsy and there were times when I had to think a little too much about where the characters were supposed to be. It mostly wasn't as obvious as it should have been.

Afterwards, I thought about Eigengrau, not for the good reasons that stimulating theatre can do but wondering what determines a finished play? Does it read better than it plays? Who could have read it and not seen all the missing pieces? Have I missed something? Am I crazy? I don't know. The audience I saw it with laughed up a storm, I didn't find it funny. A little humorous but too obvious for my tastes. Most of the reviews were glowing but I did read one that had the same questions about not following through with storylines. It is almost a deja vu situation. It reminds me a little about a certain play I blogged twice that was pipped to the post of a major award. It's almost like the title of the play exclaims - eigengrau: the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness. Like the character of Rose it may seem the world only wants to see the good. I can excuse alot but I love theatre too much to wear rose tinted spectacles.

Stay tuned for the continuation of the new writing discussion with London Playwrights Collective and Box of Tricks' Word:Play 3 at Theatre503.