Review – The Narcissist, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 7th September 2022

The NarcissistThere’s a moment about five minutes into Josh Seymour’s excellent production of Christopher Shinn’s deeply fascinating The Narcissist, when the main character Jim, a writer and political adviser, explains why the last American election was lost by the Democrats. “To win, a candidate has to understand that the average voter is angry, scared, selfish, petty, perverse probably – but most of all […] pessimistic.” His advice is to ignore all those traditional attitudes of “we will do it better…” “you can trust in us…” or (as very recently in the UK) “I – will – deliver”, because no one will believe you. And I confess I was completely swept away by this brilliant political analysis-in-a-play, with its cynicism, insight and study of power and ambition.

Harry LloydBut Jim has a private life too, and to say it’s messy is an understatement. Every waking minute is spent juggling his temporary engagement by The Senator to get her through a series of TV debates and addresses; he’s also co-writing a book with his best friend, dealing with the end of a long-term relationship with Emma, managing a domestic battlefield between his mother, his brother and his girlfriend Harry Lloyd and Stuart Thompson(most of whom don’t like each other), plus setting up some online sexual shenanigans with The Waiter (Jim is bi, and rather actively so, it would seem). With so much activity going on, it’s inevitable that he takes his eye off the ball occasionally – and he does, with at least two dramatic consequences.

Stage podsTo emphasise the constant interchange of conversation with all the various people in Jim’s orbit, Shinn has constructed this play to give equal weight between not only interactions with others in real life, but also text messages and phone calls. At the back of Jasmine Swan’s splendidly modernistically designed stage, are various text pods; little boxes that light up when the person housed inside them is having a text conversation with Jim. Which of us can hold their hand up and say they never text others whilst having a real-life conversation with someone else?Claire Skinner I know I can’t. This presentation perfectly depicts the tricky balance between holding real life conversations and text chats at the same time, and how one’s tone can change instantly from one interaction to another. It shines an insightful light into the intricacy of this modern form of communication.

Caroline Gruber and Harry LloydIt also creates an immense challenge for the actor playing Jim – Harry Lloyd – who deals with the multifaceted conversations with effortless ease, being, for example, business-like with the Senator’s Aide, long-suffering with his mother, flirtatious with the waiter and pleading with his friend/co-writer all in virtually the same sentence. Mr Lloyd manages to make us (largely) identify with Jim as we accompany him through all these different types of conversational relationships, feeling his suffering, admiring his wisdom and abilities. He’s hardly ever off stage and puts in a tremendous performance.

Paksie Vernon and Harry LloydHe’s supported by an excellent cast; Claire Skinner’s Senator reminds you strongly of Hilary Clinton even though she’s clearly a different person, crisply requiring instant answers in words of 300 or less because she hasn’t time to waste, and steadfastly refusing to open up to let the electorate see the real her until Jim eventually succeeds at just slightly cracking her veneer. Caroline Gruber is excellent as Mom, pretending helplessness, picking at self-pity, weak until tragedy means she must either buckle under or survive. Paksie Vernon is great as Jim’s friend and co-writer Kara, balancing her own domestic crises with her workload, realising she’s always going to play second fiddle to him until she too finds herself a voice of assertiveness.

Jenny WalserStuart Thompson is also excellent as the carefully spoken Waiter, gently probing at the possibility of a sexual relationship with Jim but not standing for any nonsense from him; and Jenny Walser is also superb as the demanding, unreasonable, and petulant Cecily. There’s also great support from Simon Lennon as Jim’s wayward brother Andrew and Akshay Khanna as the Senator’s aide.

Simon LennonThe Narcissist is an interesting, perhaps curious title for the play; you might enjoy playing “spot the narcissist” as the plot develops, although to be honest, there are at least two of them, and conceivably five or six amongst the eight-person scenario. The play is red-hot where it comes to politics, interacting with the electorate, and the pitfalls of social media on both a public and private level. It also comes with a surprisingly optimistic ending, which is a pleasant bonus. I’m not quite sure the play succeeds as well with mixing Jim’s political work with his private life. There’s one, rather long, but very important scene where Jim is at home and is visited by The Waiter for a little “home-servicing”, where the energy strangely drops at first, and I found myself hanging around waiting for my interest in the story to resume. Harry Lloyd and Stuart ThompsonNothing at all wrong with the performances, or indeed the direction – the two of them chasing/retreating each other around the sofa was beautifully and funnily done – so I think the writing might just get a little bogged down there. But overall this is a fascinating and relevant modern work that has a lot to say about political and Internet discourse. Very enjoyable!

P.S. The cast seemed curiously ill-at-ease during the curtain call, as if asking each other was that all right without actually saying anything. I note that the show finished after about 2 hours 10 minutes, whereas the programme suggests it should be 2 hours 20 minutes, so I wonder if they might have an unwittingly missed a chunk of the show out! If they did, don’t worry – you got away with it!

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Theory of Everything, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st January 2015

The Theory of EverythingOne thing’s for sure – Stephen Hawking is a very clever man. He’s known for his intelligence, his books, his theories, and – let’s be honest – for his survival instinct. When you hear it, everyone recognises that metallic artificial voice and knows about the motor neurone disease that changed a fit and able young man into a completely physically paralysed one. Personally, I can’t recall ever seeing a photograph of him as a young man, and I must admit that I’ve never thought about his private life at all. It’s as though his intelligence and disability are a mask that prevents us or discourages us from seeing – or even considering – the actual man underneath. My bad.

Eddie RedmayneFor that reason alone, The Theory of Everything is an extraordinary film because it lifts the lid on this private and unique individual and shows us the course of events that takes us from 1963 to the present day. It’s based on his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoirs so one can presume it’s all pretty accurate. We relive Stephen and Jane’s undergraduate days, their early married life together, the progress of both his career and his disease, their growing family, and the way they grow apart in the directions of Stephen’s helper/carer Elaine and their family friend Jonathan. In many respects it’s an ordinary family saga, just set against the background of a brilliant brain and a hideous wasting disease.

Felicity JonesMathematics and Science really are a foreign language to me. I haven’t tried to learn the basics of what Mr Hawking’s philosophy is about, because I know I simply wouldn’t be able to understand it. I know I wouldn’t grasp the concepts in his books. In the film I was entranced by the sequences when he is writing out his equations on a blackboard; reams and reams of hieroglyphics of which I couldn’t follow even 1%. They’re just patterns to me. So for me it was a revelation to relate these random, non-understandable concepts to a real man, his real hands writing the equations out on a real blackboard, flowing out from his real brain. It’s not just textbook theory – it’s Mr Hawking’s life-blood, full of passion, hope, and ambition. He wants to find the equation that proves the theory of everything. If that isn’t ambitious, I don’t know what is. Call me shallow, but it had never occurred to me that these (for want of a better word) sums actually stemmed from the mind of an individual person. I just took them as a given. I guess 1+1=2 was actually the brainchild of some caveman once upon a time.

Harry LloydAnother aspect of the film that shows the human dimension of the man, rather than just singling out his brilliant brain, is the fact that people with disabilities are interested in sex too. This isn’t so much Does He Take Sugar? as Does He Use Condoms? – with the answer firmly in the negative. As the Hawking family continues to grow with more and more children – and Hawking’s disability seems to get worse and worse – I bet I wasn’t the only person in that cinema who thought “well just how the hell did he manage it?” That was also the suspicions of their contemporaries, as idle speculation from Jane’s parents and family wondered if Stephen really was the father of their third child – with suspicions alighting on their friend Jonathan. But no, Stephen is definitely the father, and it’s the mark of a classy film that they don’t feel the need to give us the ocular proof.

angry croquetVisually it’s a stunning film, with lovely settings of Cambridge in the 60s as the backdrop to Stephen and Jane’s blossoming romance: the river, the university buildings, railings full of bikes, idyllic lawns. There’s a memorable scene where Hawking is led into a very old-fashioned looking laboratory by his professor in an attempt to galvanise him into some great thoughts and ambitions for his thesis. It actually reminded me of the Biology classroom at my old school, and it’s precisely the kind of place you would expect to see in a traditional institution like Cambridge.

RomanceBut the really impressive heart of this film is in the acting. Eddie Redmayne delivers just about as perfect a performance as anyone could imagine as Stephen Hawking. From his faux-embarrassed brainboxy young undergraduate, to the world authority that he is today, Mr Redmayne captures a remarkable balance between expressing Mr Hawking’s character and portraying the physicality of his progressive disease. Over the course of the two hours you see Mr Redmayne literally deteriorate before your eyes in a way that you would have thought it was impossible to act – you would think he was genuinely suffering with the disease too. The strength of his voice also fades as the film continues, and somehow, facially, he even manages to recreate Mr Hawking’s trademark swollen lip; I guess that’s down to some clever make-up. His performance is clearly driven by sincerity and respect for the person he is representing; it’s a genuinely unbelievable piece of acting. I thought he was great as Marius in the film of Les Miserables – but this is a career-defining performance.

Stephen and JaneFelicity Jones plays Jane as a complete powerhouse of strength. The young undergraduate who spins around in joyful freedom by the side of the Cam when Hawking is trying to explain some cosmological law develops into the young woman who doesn’t flinch from the heavy demands of being married to someone with motor neurone disease. There’s one splendid scene where Miss Jones attempts to persevere with her own classical poetry studies, so easy to ignore as irrelevant compared with Hawking’s discoveries. There she sits, at a table, books spread everywhere, getting increasingly irritated that she can’t concentrate on the research that she wants because of family demands; but then she reassumes her role as wife and carer without comment or argument. It really conveys the challenges and stresses of her life. It’s a very thoughtful, honest performance; and also her growing fondness for Jonathan is portrayed with quiet respectability, decency and genuine affection.

Wedding DayI really enjoyed Harry Lloyd’s performance as Brian, Stephen’s university roommate and pal; bright, good-natured, funny, but supportive – the perfect credentials to be your best friend. The scene where Stephen tells him he is suffering from the disease and has two years to live is performed with utmost integrity. As the penny gradually drops, Mr Lloyd desperately faffs round trying to get his head around the fact that his friend won’t be around for long and that it will be a horrible death. Mr Redmayne meanwhile just calmly asks to be alone. It’s a perfectly acted scene. But Mr Lloyd gives great support throughout the whole film. There’s another dignified and mature performance from Charlie Cox as Jonathan, the choirmaster who helps both Stephen and Jane with the practicalities of life before slowly falling in love with Jane.

CambridgeHowever, for me the film isn’t an unmitigated success, because despite enjoying it – and thinking the lead performance was simply remarkable – I have to admit that I got a little bored by it. As Stephen’s condition worsens, and the difficulties he faces increase, I found there was a general glumness about the whole film that rather wore me down; and the last half hour or so felt a little bland and lacked a dramatic intensity, primarily because we know that in real life, the real Stephen Hawking is still alive and kicking and slaying cosmological dragons.

Charlie CoxI was also slightly irked that the film raises the question of Stephen only having two years to live, but never addresses the fact that this diagnosis was clearly wrong. Was the original doctor over-egging his pudding? Or is it an absolute miracle that Stephen Hawking is still alive? It’s a loose end I’d like tied up. I also felt the timescale was a little woolly throughout; it was hard to get a feel of the actual progression of years as the film went on. We know it started in 1963 but I couldn’t work out roughly what year any particular event might have taken place. Specifically I got confused by the car that Jonathan drives sometime after the third child has been born (when they go camping in France). It had a six digit number plate, meaning it was registered before 1963. But I believe we’re talking mid-80s when Hawking caught pneumonia in France. So either time had stood still, or Jonathan had a very old car.

Nevertheless, it is an excellent film that gives you an insight into the personal life of a very public figure, and it is crowned by a simply breathtaking performance by Eddie Redmayne. Highly recommended!