Review: Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, presented by Headlong, at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

Amanda Hale as Morris and Stanley Townsend as Sims. Photo Johan Persson

– Don’t you feel pain?
– Only as much as I want to.
– And how much pain is that?
– That’s rather personal, don’t you think?

Words that are brazen, suspicious, suggestive. Even worse, this is the conversation between an adult and a child. Even worse, this is not quite true.

Jennifer Haley’s play assumes a world where we can go to hide. It’s The Nether and it’s virtual but other than that, each character defines it in a different way. No consequences, no pain, no sense of time, no limitations. These are the lies people tell to each other. The closest the virtual world imitates the physical one, the less escapism it offers. Isn’t that weird?

The play will be discussed as a play about pedophilia, but this is far too obvious an approach. It’s mostly about intimacy, and whether it can be achieved without moral choices and consequences. The characters try to evade reality and then demand it as a token from each other. Continue reading

Review: No Quarter by Polly Stenham, at the Royal Court Theatre

no quarterPlays are bad for your health. After watching Polly Stenham’s No Quarter, I wanted a fag. And some booze. And to party. Because this is the effect Stenham’s plays have on me: among the crushed mythologies and family secrets and distorted mirrors, I feel all tingly and alive and seduced.

No Quarter is the story of a family. Or all families. And the lies that hold them together. Stenham doesn’t stray far from previous obsessions: mothers and sons, trashing a house, hanging from chandeliers. Her characters start recognisable, almost predictable, but all of them have wild cards up their sleeve. What they know about each other, or themselves, shifts like quick sand. The play’s brilliance is to tease the magic mirror and reveal it as real life. Stenham’s dialogue is stubbornly down to earth, yet fearless and the combination left me stunned and kind of breathless. Continue reading

Review: Hero, by E.V. Crowe, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Last night, as the performance of Hero finished and the discussion on twitter started, I was asked whether I had seen Kin, E.V. Crowe’s previous work for the Royal Court. The answer is no, in fact I have no knowledge of any of her plays. Often the audience’s experience is framed by expectation, in this case my experience is framed by the lack of it.

Hero is the story of Danny, openly gay and teacher in a primary school, who lives with his husband Joe somewhere in the south of England. The couple, excited and apprehensive, has just entered the process for adopting a child. Their friends, Jamie and Lisa, are trying to have a baby themselves. A small incident snowballs, and the four characters make decisions or take action that will show them in different, often unflattering, light. The play says we might not be as liberal as we think. It’s not a startling thought but a personal and character driven response to that revelation would make for a fascinating play. Hero is frustratingly close to being that play, but too often it favours argument and gags at the expense of psychological truth.

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Review: This House at the National Theatre

Philip Glenister as Walter Harrison and Charles Edwards as Jack Weatherill. Photo Johan Persson

I like a production that announces itself with a bang. And This House is such a production. The energy of the first entrance, in addition to the set, both intimate and imposing – the Cottesloe never looked this huge, make a clear statement and from the first few minutes I knew this production will be something special. The next three hours didn’t disappoint.

This House is set in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979, when Labour, with a tiny majority (or often with no majority at all) was trying to hold onto power. The period has inescapable drama and Margaret Thatcher looms large: not in the choices of the characters but in the mind of the audience, we know the consequence of those choices even if they don’t. The action is largely set in the offices of Tory and Labour whips, with excursions to almost all parts of the building (toilets, corridors, basements, chapel) but we see very little of the House of Commons’ main chamber. This story is set at the bowels of power. The Cottesloe is made to look like the debating chamber but that only reinforces the point: the backstage drama is central to politics, only punctuated by the political debate.

James Graham (who wrote The Man, one of my favourite plays of the last few years) makes a marvellous job of the story: his script is astute, funny but, most of all, interested in the human condition: these people plod along, get confused, are not always clear about what they can achieve. Characters with very few lines are still fleshed out to a poignant presence. This is a world before media spin and expenses scandal. It’s a world where politics – both the debate and backstage action – can relate to real life. The writing has flair and substance, and the result is fast, funny, involving and unexpectedly moving. Continue reading