Review – Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, 18th July 2019

Bitter WheatMrs Chrisparkle isn’t the greatest fan of David Mamet but the Squire of Sidcup and I really enjoyed Glenglarry Glen Ross a while back so we decided to book to see Bitter Wheat on the strength of its writer and because neither of us had seen John Malkovich in the flesh before. Then came the reviews: one star, two stars, one star, one star…. offensive play, bad acting, underwritten characters, lazy direction… it doesn’t give you much confidence in what you’re going to see.

FeinThe concept of the offensive play is a fascinating one. The first audiences of Edward Bond’s Saved were offended by the play because of its infamous baby-stoning scene. Mary Whitehouse was offended by The Romans in Britain (even though she’d never seen it) because Roman soldiers rape native Celts in a rather heavy-handed metaphor for invasion. I don’t believe either of those plays particularly set out to offend; they just contained scenes which, for whatever reason, shocked some members of the audience into recognising unpleasant truths. On the other hand, a light-hearted entertainment like Oh Calcutta, which had no serious axe to grind, was probably more likely have been assembled with the intention of offending some people; and Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, with its cast directly criticising, ridiculing and abusing the audience, does exactly what it says on the tin. Is Bitter Wheat to be added to the list of offensive plays?

Yung Kim Li and FeinMamet’s new and very black comedy satirises the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. His character Barney Fein is a belligerent and manipulative movie mogul who schedules, into his daily routine, ways of taking advantage of young actresses, cheating writers out of their fees, blackmailing his staff and acquaintances, and ignoring the needs of his only relative, his mother. Not a nice man. When the young starlet of new film Dark Water, exhausted and starving after a 27 hour flight from Seoul to Hollywood, arrives for a business meeting, he has no intention of giving her film the backing she and it needs unless she performs some kind of sexual favour first. Shocked, scared and disgusted, her natural reaction is to somehow get out of harm’s way; however, her career depends on this deal, so she’s resigned to, as the old phrase might go, Shut Your Eyes and Think of Korea. How far can he push her? Will she give in? And will there be consequences? I must keep some of the plot back so that you have to come to see the play to find out!

Doctor and FeinLet’s be frank here; there’s been a casting couch for as long as there’s been casting. It wasn’t that long ago that the tongue-in-cheek joke used to go something like: “Who do I have to sleep with to get a job here?” with its subsequent variant, “who do I have to sleep with not to get a job here?” Revolting and despicable though they may be, there’s nothing new about a Weinstein or a Fein. What is new, is the Internet, and its free flow of information and opinion, and individuals’ first-hand accounts, closely allow us to be involved with – almost complicit in – the activities of such monsters.

Sondra and FeinAnd I think it is the complicity that is the most powerful undercurrent in this play. Splendid actors like Doon Mackichan as Fein’s PA Sondra, or Teddy Kempner as his Viagra-providing doctor, actors whom audiences automatically love and identify with, play characters who know full well what Fein gets up to inter alia, and figuratively hold their noses whilst they enable him to – literally – rape and pillage. As witnesses, we the audience are also asked to dip our hands in the blood and be complicit in his actions. Sondra, the doc, and assistant Roberto allow themselves to be offended and allow others to be abused in order to keep their good jobs, high status and nice incomes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not offensive (in dramatic terms), that’s challenging, which is what I seek from theatre.

Casting CouchI must add: I’m not in any way casting any doubt on the legitimacy of #metoo accounts, or downplaying the sheer horror of their consequences. What men like Fein do is simply unacceptable and criminal. But to find this play offensive just because it portrays Fein’s modus operandi through the medium of black comedy rather than through serious drama is to miss the point. Even a wretch like Fein can make himself likeable when it comes to the crunch; indeed, he has to, to get away with it. When society doesn’t act to block his ruthless and selfish pursuit of women, we, as a society, are partly culpable for his actions too.

Fein and TaitteThe play is dominated by Fein, so, unsurprisingly, the production is dominated by John Malkovich. Never off stage, he cuts the most grotesque figure. Cantankerous, belittling, and totally self-obsessed, he never listens to what people say to him because his own voice is his only music. Mr Malkovich inhabits Fein’s body with repugnant accuracy; small details, like his need to rock back and forwards a couple of times in order to get the physical impetus to stand up, work perfectly. When the world closes in on him, his self-pity comes to the fore, choosing to blame all his problems on being fat, instantly taking to the window ledge in a hollow, but ostentatious nod towards a suicide attempt – and you can tell from Ms Mackichan’s unimpressed reaction that he’s done that several times before. Mr Malkovich spits out Fein’s sarcasms and foul-mouthed tirades with dismissive disdain, only revelling in the words when he’s using them to either a) get the girl or b) blackmail the opponent. It’s a brilliant performance, playing with the grotesque from all angles, making us laugh at his repulsiveness.

Fein and the WriterDoon Mackichan is excellent as Sondra, a role that’s not underwritten as some critics have said, rather the character understands that she must choose her words very carefully to avoid falling into all the traps that her vile boss lays with every sentence. She tries her best to do a proper PA job and knows she has to go along with his devious plans in order to remain employed; Ms Mackichan very shrewdly portrays that fine line between disgust at him and disgust at herself. There’s also a very strong West End debut from Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the respectable and vulnerable young woman who slowly realises how she is being trapped and manipulated, conveying beautifully not only her horror and disgust at Fein’s intentions but also her disappointment at the realisation that someone she regarded as a hero is in fact a zero.

Roberto and FeinIf you decided to skip this show on the strength of the reviews, think again. Sure, it presents us with a pretty seedy side of life, but you’re a mug if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen. Unchecked, men like Fein carry on; Mamet shows how he can even find a way of extricating himself from the narrowest of squeaks at the end of the play. Recommended!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Government Inspector, Warwick Arts Centre, 28th May 2011

Warwick Arts CentreIt’s been a sin of omission on my part that I have never visited the Warwick Arts Centre before last Saturday. Its reputation as a home for challenging theatre was made early on in its life in the 1970s, so I’m delighted to have finally found it and will be checking religiously for new shows to see there. I recommend it – the sightlines are excellent, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. The ice-creams were tasty but I wasn’t that keen on the cafeteria aspect of the bar areas. It’s definitely more functional than sophisticated.

I also have a great fondness for the Young Vic, where I saw some pretty sensational stuff in the 1970s and early 80s, and so it was with eagerness that I booked for us to see “The Government Inspector”, being a Warwick Arts Centre – Young Vic co-production.

Government Inspector Gogol’s 1836 play is a satire on corruption and greed. It’s a terribly simple plot. An inspector is to arrive incognito in some backwater Russian town and the mayor and notables are terrified that their corrupt inefficiencies will get discovered. They assume a new man in town is the inspector and so, as they are used to receiving bribes, they give him bribes to smooth the waters. Of course, he isn’t the inspector but a waster with a gambling addict, so he is pleased to receive their money and take advantage of the townswomen to boot. At the end, he leaves scot-free with all the cash, and the locals, much poorer, still await the horror of the real government inspection.

I’ve not seen or read this play before, but I understand it that it is often presented with an eye to the surreal. That’s certainly the tack taken by director Richard Jones in what I felt was a pretty woeful production.

Let’s start with the set. Stage right you have the Mayor’s living room, taking up the majority of the usable area. Stage left you have another room, at times the mayor’s wife’s boudoir, their guest room, the room at the inn, or an interrogation room-cum-torture chamber. Fair enough. My opinon is, having established those boundaries, stick with it. But for the final scene the mayor’s front room just extends and takes over the other stage area, oblivious of its previous segregation and because of the other area’s different flooring and decoration, it just looks and feels wrong. On another occasion, when Khlestakov, the non-inspector, was sleeping on the floor in the guest room area, his feet distinctly broke through the imaginary wall and ended up in the mayor’s parlour area. Sloppy, I thought; no real respect given to the staging.

Secondly, the vision of the play is inconsistent regarding its era. Whilst the majority of the time it appears to be fully 1830s as far as costume, scenery and props are concerned, in the final scene, all the guests have helium balloons. Not sure that’s entirely right.

And then you have the stage effects. In order (presumably) to give an impression of the mayor’s tormented mind, they project the moving word “incognito” on to the walls in a spooky sort of way. And rats appear at the door and along the picture rail too. The trouble is the rats are laughable. They look for all the world like the ones that they didn’t make earlier on Blue Peter. Visually, it came across as very cheap and amateur. There’s one scene change moment when – for some reason – all the stagehands and actors who are moving scenery come on wearing bird masks and other surreal costumes. There was no artistry to those costumes; they look like they were just chucked on higgledy-piggledy. They were tawdry and it was embarrassing. Plus it was accompanied by a ridiculously loud, off-putting, indescribable and headache-inducing sound effect.

Oh my God those sound effects. I can only guess they were meant to enhance certain aspects of the play for the hard of understanding. When Khlestakov is sitting on one chair and the mayor’s daughter is on another, he draws the chair close to her as a visual sign of pursuing her. She pulls her chair away from him. He follows her again, she pulls away again, and so on. This takes place on carpet. Yet the scene is “improved” by having a chair scraping sound effect whenever the chairs move. It makes the whole thing so unsubtle. At other times, there is music in the background which ends with an old-fashioned “stylus being dragged across a record” sound effect. Not quite sure what it was meant to signify, but by the sixth or seventh time I’d heard it I wanted to smash the record over the director’s head. It was an overdose of inanity.

Julian BarrattOn the whole the performances themselves were not bad. Julian Barratt plays the Mayor, and as I have never seen The Mighty Boosh, I had no preconceived ideas about what he would be like. On the whole I enjoyed his performance; I liked his facial expressions, and I thought he conveyed the mayor’s tortured angst pretty well. My main concern was that he spoke in a monotone nearly all the time. I wouldn’t say he actually sounded monotonous, but he kept exactly the same vocal cadences for when he was talking to his family, buttering up the soi-disant inspector, dealing with the other worthies of the town or interrogating the dissident shopkeeper. It lacked variation.

Doon MacKichanDoon Mackichan, for whom I have a lot of time , played his wife. A naturally comic personality, she was great vamping up to the inspector and trying to out-sexy her daughter in his affections. For me the stage certainly brightened up whenever she appeared.Kyle Soller Kyle Soller was Khlestakov; we saw him as the eponymous Talented Mr Rigby last year, where I didn’t entirely believe his charisma, but this time I found him more convincing. Basically Khlestakov is a show-off fop, camping it up around the stage and taking advantage of everyone, and he did it fine.

I can’t help but think, though, that instead of this downright weird presentation, it would have been much more telling if it had been played more straight and serious. I would have thought you could really demonstrate the scale of the corruption and foolishness of the townspeople and make Khlestakov more of a threatening and manipulative presence if they’d taken away all the gimmicks and left the text. What are now mere cartoon characters could become real people instead. This would also have meant the impact of the final realisation by the townspeople that they had been fooled would have been more devastating. As it is, the ending has all the force of being kicked in the shins by a dormouse.

There was a theme of repetition too: characters repeating the same short speeches ad nauseam to very little dramatic effect. God it was tedious. No wonder it felt like the show runs for several hours. I think I should stop now before I think of other aspects of the show that irritated me.

It’s an excellent play, but it’s a production that tries too hard to be clever, relies too heavily on artificial effects and offers too much caricature instead of characterisation to warrant the ticket price, I’m sorry to say.

Review – A Number, and Primadoona, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 31st

A NumberA Number is the first play by Caryl Churchill that I have actually seen in a theatre. I have read several others but never before witnessed the words coming to life in front of an audience. And her words are fascinating. A Number is a 50 minute one-act play with two actors in constant conversation, and the structure of her writing is based on that ability of people to keep a conversation lively whilst rarely finishing a sentence. This means you have to keep close attention to what’s going on. I can see a link to Pinter, who was also adept at conversational plays, but with Pinter the pauses gave you time to take it in. There aren’t many opportunities to sit and reflect in this play.

Timothy WestAnd I think that’s one of the problems. Without the ability to reflect on what’s going on you end up somewhere in the range between “not quite sure what happened there” and “what on earth was all that about”. In our post show discussion, Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed on at least two aspects of what actually happened in the story, let alone any philosophical interpretations one might apply to it.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story – or at least the story as far as I understand it. Son finds out that he is not unique genetically as there are “a number” of people who were cloned from the same cells at or around the time of his birth. The extent to which Father is complicit in this is one area in which Mrs C and I differ. Son (let’s call him Son A) doesn’t cope with this very well and visits Son B and puts the frighteners on him. Eventually Son A kills Son B. Father and Son C meet – it is revealed that Son B killed himself. (Another area in which Mrs C and I disagree). Son C is well balanced, unlike Son A. Any further dramatic tension comes from how you think the characters react to the situation in which they find themselves.

Samuel West And that’s the second problem. Delightfully, (at first sight) the Menier has restructured itself so as to present this play in the round (well in the square really). The trouble with our seats (A1 & A2 bought on the first day available) was that they were directly behind the armchair on which one of the two characters is often seated. That meant that for many of the conversations we could not see the reaction of the character facing away from us. Despite being so close to the stage it was a real distancing effect. It may be that others got more from the production because of its staging but, I have to say, we got less. I think it would have worked better on a traditional platform stage at one end of the room.

It goes without saying that real life father and son Timothy and Samuel West gave excellent performances and that the play is definitely thought provoking. But in the end I think it promised more than it delivered.

Doon MacKichanSo on reflection it was a great relief that we also decided to book to see Doon MacKichan’s one-woman-show Primadoona 90 minutes later. This apparently has gone down a storm in Edinburgh earlier this year and is an hour’s tour-de-force encapsulating Doon’s life from award-winning tv comedienne to divorcee and mother of a very sick child. Her comic timing is immaculate; her story is moving and hilarious. We came away from the day feeling that she had got to the heart of the human condition much more directly than Caryl Churchill.