Review: Alistair McDowall’s Talk Show at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Jonjo O'Neill and the snake. In case you didn't believe me. Photo Helen Murray

Jonjo O’Neill and the snake. In case you didn’t believe me. Photo Helen Murray

This is not the way I wanted to start this review. Or any review for that matter. The evening of July 17th, when I saw Talk Show at the Royal Court, the news that actor Paul Bhattacharjee had been missing for a week was hanging in the air. He had been part of the weekly rep ensemble, playing the president in The President Has Come to See You and the father in Pigeons, and was due to appear in Talk Show. But after the rehearsal on July 10th, he had gone missing. I can’t know how staff and actors at the Royal Court were feeling, but I was unnerved and sad: pit of the stomach sad, hoping that everything would be alright and wondering how this can happen to someone I stood so close to only a couple of weeks before.

With this absurd, even selfish, thought, I sat down to watch Alistair McDowall’s Talk Show directed by Caroline Steineis. The story of three generations of men, all of them struggling to survive financially, emotionally, existentially. The more they need each other, the more they drift apart. Through pride and stubbornness, they barely keep their head above the water. Continue reading

Review: Nicole Beckwith’s Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters), at the Royal Court

From left: Laura Elphinstone, Natasha Gordon, Angela Terence, Debbie Crazen, Anna Calder-Marshall. Photo Helen Murray

From left: Laura Elphinstone, Natasha Gordon, Angela Terence, Debbie Crazen, Anna Calder-Marshall. Photo Helen Murray

The Royal Court Weekly Rep continues, we are at number five of six plays in six weeks. The Untitled Matriarch Play (or Seven Sisters), written by Nicole Beckwith and directed by Vicky Featherstone, doesn’t hold any mysteries in its title. Seven women, related to each other in different ways, or not at all, grudgingly come together to argue, undermine and occasionally support each other. Men are largely absent. Apart from a boy who died as a child, Ted whose best quality is he is irrelevant and a father who looks like the captain from Love Boat (you need to be of a certain age to appreciate this reference). Continue reading

Review: Clare Lizzimore’s Mint at the Royal Court Downstairs

Laura Elphinstone as Stephanie and Sam Troughton as Alan. Photo Helen Murray

Laura Elphinstone as Stephanie and Sam Troughton as Alan. Photo Helen Murray

That was unexpected: could it be that the Royal Court weekly rep season, rough, quick and unpolished, produced one of the best acting performances of the year? When the time comes and I look back on 2013, I have little doubt Sam Troughton playing Alan in Clare Lizzimore’s Mint will be a definitive theatre moment of the year.

Mint tracks Alan, a 26 year old prisoner, through the next seven years of his life: prison visits, relocations, release. Family relationships, dreams, world events, personal milestones for loved ones. Alan is forced to watch from the sidelines, trapped physically and emotionally. He is desperate to connect, wrestle some control back and find his way. He struggles too hard to see that everyone is moving away. Continue reading

Review: Pigeons by Suhayla El-Bushra at the Royal Court Theatre – Downstairs

Parental guidance: this review contains strong language (and some sexual themes). Much like the play.

Pigeons get a bad press. As a character in the new play by Suhayla El-Bushra says, they excrete all over the place and don’t get out of the way when you approach. As it turns out, he is not talking about the birds and he is a bit of a shit himself. Be careful before you agree with him.

The story plays out in playgrounds, backstreets and semi detached houses in inner city neighbourhoods. A bit grim and a bit normal. The characters – most of them young people – are disaffected and bewildered in equal measure. They clash with parents who are present, or long to argue with parents who are not. They perform fellatio in sheds and split drugs in bus stops. Their disaffection mixes with sexual frustration. They turn on each other, and know where to strike in order to inflict the most damage. Some times literally.

Continue reading

Review: Death Tax by Lucas Hnath, at the Royal Court Downstairs

death tax review - cast listLucas Hnath’s Death Tax, the second play at Royal Court weekly rep season, starts at the same box of a set The President Has Come to See You occupied, but the similarities end here. While “The President…” was a seat of the pants experience, certainly for the actors, Death Tax is a thoughtful, funny, exposing play about life close to death and life without death. The characters are defined by questions of mortality, money, the moment when their response to a moral and practical challenge changes their life, whether they realise it or not.

The story also makes an interesting leap into the future and imagines a world where immortality is merely a question of funds. Plays rarely step into science fiction territory and, while Death Tax is moderate in its futuristic ambitions, it is still an adventure with a genre theatre rarely touches. More science fiction plays please. Continue reading

Review: The President Has Come To See You, by Lasha Bugadze, at the Royal Court theatre

the president has come to see you - cast listNew artistic director, new bar. New adventures. Last night was my first time at the Royal Court since Vicky Featherstone took over and some of the changes were immediately apparent. Nice use of space at the bar, mismatched furniture, greater variety at the menu and food served till late. I heartily approve. I can see many more theatre friendships forged there.

New adventures, new rules. The President Has Come to See You, by georgian playwright Lasha Bugadze, is the first of six new plays performed by the same cast who only has a week to rehearse and perform each play. It’s fast, exciting, a little bit messy, and there is not enough time to feel the panic.

The play, with an exceptionally interesting premise, certainly lived up to all of the above. The story skids along the public and the private, the historical and the fictional: it’s August 2008, Georgia is at war with Russia, the BBC news readers sound as grave and as urgent as the circumstances demand. The georgian president has a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?), and takes to the streets. He meets people even more stressed than he is: reality tv contestants, young men forced to join the army, a dog owner who looks more unhinged than his savage dog. His chief of police bursts into tears. A (pregnant) man in a dress starts to look positively serene. Continue reading

Martin Crimp talks about the audience walking out In The Republic of Happiness

Back in December, I made no secret how much I disliked Martin Crimp’s In The Republic of Happiness. It was unrelentlessly boring, further more its central theme – the myopic indulgence of the middle classes – is at least five years behind the times. Until 2008, the middle classes thought the world was their oyster, happiness, success, security their entitlement. After 2008, the main story is fear. Entitlement is still wedged in the consciousness of the middle classes, yet it doesn’t match reality. Casual cruelty, confusion, shame drive the narrative.

A few days ago, Martin Crimp was interviewed at Front Row by Mark Lawson, a propos of his opera Written on Skin playing at the Royal Opera House. The conversation turned to In The Republic of Happiness, and here is what Martin Crimp said about members of the audience walking out in the middle of the performance. Continue reading

REVIEW: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, by Anders Lustgarten, at the Royal Court

if you don't let us dream“Everybody’s got an agenda”, says one of the characters towards the end of Anders Lustgarten’s new play “If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep”. It’s impossible to see the play, remember the line and resist the temptation to mention it in the review. Because Anders Lustgarten clearly has an agenda. Which is to say he has an opinion and a conviction. All fine ingredients for a play. The question remains: Do drama, insight, even provocation, match his conviction? Let’s see.

MAJOR SPOILERS. I won’t be able to make my case without plot spoilers, you have been warned.

The play starts when a government official comes across a great idea: if we monetise social unity and sell it as bonds, the private sector will pick up the cost and create incentives to reduce social unrest. Cue in scenes where bureaucracy and stupidity go hand in hand, money talks, people become numbers on a form. Early on, the play, with short jump cuts and scenes not necessarily related to each other, is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, but without the grace and piercing intellect. 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: In the Republic of Happiness, by Martin Crimp, at the Royal Court Theatre

republicofhappinessSeveral unexpected questions occurred to me during the performance of In The Republic of Happiness: At what level of collective boredom am I allowed to get my phone out and start surfing? How close to the edge of a row do you have to be to leave in the middle of a performance? Do the actors feel as trapped as I do?

Martin Crimp’s In The Republic of Happiness is an unusual play. Ian used the word “daring”. Is that enough? A rant of low level misanthropy and verbal violence, some of it set to songs, it could have been interesting if it wasn’t so stubbornly unprocessed – and ultimately unprocessable. Individual sentences possess elegance and beauty. Collectively, they make less sense – and have less poise – than a man ranting on a street corner. Continue reading