Review – Waste, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 30th December 2015

WasteThe final instalment of our post-Christmas London Theatre Splurge was to see Waste at the Lyttelton, written by Harley Granville Barker in 1907. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, was subsequently revised in 1927, and finally staged in a public theatre in 1936. It was high time I saw this play, having researched stage censorship in my early 20s. I still find anything to do with censorship (particularly on stage) totally fascinating, as you will realise from this review! In October 1907, 71 dramatists wrote to complain about the extent of censorship and Waste was a major catalyst for the revolt. Barker spent much of his post-Waste life campaigning for the withdrawal of stage censorship. There seemed to be a particular concern that when a serious play, which questions the establishment and makes you think, utilised subject matter which the censor would list under “dicey”, it was more likely to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen than, say, a drawing-room comedy with similar content. Brookfield, the individual Examiner of Plays to whom it fell to read and judge the play, loathed it so much that he dubbed it Sewage.

Charles EdwardsHenry Trebell is a very able MP, Independent and much admired; and the Tory government, under the leadership of Cyril Horsham, wants to encourage him to join the cabinet. Trebell is particularly interested in putting forward proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a thorny issue, but one that attracts support in certain influential areas. However, Trebell’s private life is a bit of a mess. He treats women with flirtatious contempt; as a result, most eligible women don’t touch him with the proverbial bargepole, but some women enjoy the danger of his attention. One such woman is Amy O’Connell, estranged from her once respectable husband (who’s now only gone and joined Sinn Fein, would you believe, Lord love a duck). Sometime between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two, Trebell and Amy have had a relationship; they have parted; he has gone travelling, and returned; and she has tracked him down to his offices to announce that she is pregnant. Not the best situation for a prospective cabinet member. Worse, she insists on having an abortion. He doesn’t go along with this idea but is powerless to stop her. What happens next? I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know.

Olivia WilliamsIt was the whole business of abortion that was too much for the censor. The final scene of the play, which also contains rather iffy subject matter as far as the censor was concerned, was pretty much ignorable in comparison to the abortion. As long as this illegal operation (as they termed it) was being bandied about on stage, the play would remain unlicensed. Apparently particular offence was taken at the suggestion that a doctor (so revered in those days) would undertake such a procedure. Barker refused to yield to Brookfield’s pressure to “moderate” his plot and his terminology, and thus it went unperformed for almost 30 years, apart from a private performance under the aegis of the Stage Society (one of those “theatre club” ways you could use to get round the censor).

Michael ElwynEven today, abortion is a very hot topic and the subject of much debate. Disestablishment of the Church, too, is very relevant, especially with the current trend in developing faith schools, and continued uncertainty as to what part bishops should play in the House of Lords. And we still love to snigger over the sex lives of politicians, especially when it thwarts their political ambitions. There’s a lot of very meaty substance to this play and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found it very engrossing, well-written, not without humour and extremely thought-provoking. So I was baffled when, en route to the bar for our half-time Shiraz, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: “it’s a good play but this is SO badly directed…..” and then he went out of earshot.

Paul HickeyTrue, it’s not staged like a typical Edwardian drama. There are no comfy leather armchairs, warm fires, leather-bound libraries, or French windows with glimpses of tennis courts in the distance. Instead, Hildegard Bechtler has designed a monochrome, featureless set, with huge walls that slide from side to side to compliment the Lyttelton’s own safety curtain which has always amused me with the way it goes up and down. Apart from some messy desks at Trebell’s house, props are kept to a minimum. It is rather a disquieting set-up, but I think it works, encouraging the audience to concentrate on the spoken word rather than peripherals, creating a stark and sterile environment where only black and white survives. When the walls move for scene changes, your sight is struck by the geometric shapes that are created, and with much of the stage out of sight there is a suggestion that you are literally only seeing part of the bigger picture. The design was all rather clever and eerie, and I rather enjoyed the tricks that the designer played on me, including that rather significant waste paper basket.

Charles Edwards and Olivia WilliamsThere are also some fine performances. Charles Edwards is perfect as Trebell, balancing public decency with private impropriety, married to his work, brashly defending his situation to the Tory VIPs, upset at Amy’s pregnancy but more for how it will inconvenience him than for what it does to her. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Amy, nicely spoilt and outspoken in the first scene so that you get a really good insight into her character, then rather coquettish in love in the second. Once she is pregnant she gives a great account of someone who is deeply upset and trying to hide it, knowing she will have to go into battle alone, with her reputation shattered. It’s a very moving performance.

Andrew Havill and Charles EdwardsSylvestra le Touzel gives great support as Trebell’s faithful sister Frances, trying to guide him in the right direction but in reality indulging him to make serious mistakes; it’s a very convincing portrayal of someone who has sacrificed themselves for another. There also a few terrific cameo performances – Paul Hickey as Justin O’Connell comes in unexpectedly as the soul of reasonableness, with a very fine dignified performance; Louis Hilyer is superb as the bluff and gruff self-made northerner Blackborough; and perhaps best of all Doreen Mantle as Lady Mortimer, politely observing everything that goes on but delivering some deadly lines with wicked timing; she can fill the Lyttelton with laughter with just one blink of an eye. But it’s a long and ambitious play, during which the entire cast regularly come in and out of the action, creating an excellent ensemble feel. We both particularly enjoyed the third act, where Trebell’s actions are dissected and discussed with no thought for anyone or anything but the Good of the Party. It reminded Mrs C of a Management Team meeting.

I highly recommend both the play and the production. Riveting stuff, and still very relevant today.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Pitmen Painters, Leicester Curve, 15th June 2013

The Pitmen PaintersThis National Theatre production has been around and about for five years now, including a spell in the West End, so it was high time we saw it. The story of the Pitmen Painters was new to me. The play by Lee Hall is based on William Feaver’s book about a group of miners in the 1930s from Ashington in Northumberland, who decided to start an art appreciation group and from that discovered an extraordinary ability to paint.

Nicholas LumleyLike Lee Hall’s rather better known work, Billy Elliot, the play is set in the world of working-class, ill-educated people who struggle to accept the presence of creativity and artistry where traditionally there has only been hard graft. But whereas Billy Elliot has self belief and his problem was with his traditional, unimpressed father and brother, the only people that the Pitmen Painters have to convince is themselves. Embarrassed at their own ability, when the local wealthy P&O heiress takes a shine to their work they have no idea how to behave; and the play grapples with fascinating subjects like patronage versus independence, loyalty within a group, and the place of art in the fight for improved conditions for the working man. It also takes a good humorous look at the nature of groups and societies, how they develop, their rules, and how they react to outsiders; and at the nature of art itself – what does it mean, and how do you appreciate it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s no serious treatise however. It’s extremely funny, with the humorous, class-based contrast between the well-educated, posher art crowd and the Geordie bluntness of the miners; and also the relationships between the group members themselves, each one of whom is convinced they know the best way forward. Lee Hall’s script is beautifully written, and is full of good lines that not only give the audience a good belly-laugh but also reveal the truth about the fascinating individual characters that make up the artists’ group.

Donald McBrideGary McCann’s set is unglamorously dark and foreboding, and there are just a few ramshackle old school chairs to suggest all the different locations of the story. To understand what the characters are discussing when they examine works of art, there are three projection screens at the back of the stage, which show the close up picture details. Even though it sounds a bit stagy and artificial, this device works extremely well and you quickly forget its essential lack of reality. The screens also explain the place and time for each scene, which is useful for a play with a number of short scenes that gradually spans 13 years.

Joe CaffreyThe whole cast give a great ensemble performance and do justice to the memory of the real people they are portraying, with an entertaining blend of older and younger too. Nicholas Lumley is superb as George Brown, the authoritarian retired miner who runs the local Workers Educational Association and is never without his rulebook to hand. Short-tempered, world weary, pernickety, but essentially good-hearted, it’s a really well-rounded performance and totally believable. He has great comic timing too.

Riley JonesThe young, idealistic element of the group is best seen in the character of Oliver Kilbourn, played with absolute conviction by Philip Correia. Kilbourn was one of the more gifted artists and Lee Hall depicts him as having a genuine artistic brain; for instance, he is the only one who can appreciate Ben Nicholson’s “circle in a square” creation that has so entranced the heiress Helen Sutherland played by Suzy Cooper. When Mr Correia talks about art appreciation it is like listening to a young child learning how to make sense of something new, and he brings a freshness and excitement with his growing understanding. Helen offers to pay Kilbourn to stop working at the pit and just paint, which causes him considerable anguish and pressure to make the right decision. His subsequent showdown with Helen is dramatic and vivid, and his anguish is palpable and painful; as is the atmosphere between them afterwards. The two actors work together really well here.

Suzy CooperDonald McBride plays Jimmy Floyd as a humorously intellectual lightweight who apparently only lives to work robotically down the pit and to provide as good a home for the wife as he can; unless his working class tenets are threatened, and then he turns surprisingly confrontational; another very good performance. Joe Caffrey is excellent as the ruddy-faced Marxist Harry Wilson, always on the lookout to improve the lot of the working man and to spout Communist bon mots, but who clearly believes in a Utopia that will be everyone’s saving grace, is genuinely furious at inequality and becomes moved to tears by the Miner’s Hymn. Riley Jones is also very effective as the “young lad”, the nameless character who appears to be George’s nephew, ungainly, socially awkward, out of work but nevertheless with an ability to get to the heart of an argument when needed. He also turns in an excellent silly-arse-accented Ben Nicholson, in a very significant conversation with Kilbourn that alters his opinion about Helen and changes his life forever.

Louis HilyerThe catalyst for the development of the miners’ artistry is the character of Robert Lyon, the lecturer engaged to take the Art Appreciation Course and who suggested they have a go at painting, as his approach and their approach to art appreciation didn’t have any common ground. Louis Hilyer takes to this role with huge enthusiasm, his Home Counties gentility creating a hilarious first scene as he tries to understand the locals. Did he unfairly profit from his association with the group by exploitation? That’s another question the play poses and that you must decide. There’s a superb scene between him and Mr Correia when Lyon invites the now more mature Kilbourn to criticise the sketch he has created of him; talk about the boot being on the other foot. And there’s very good support from Catherine Dryden as Susan, Lyon’s pupil who wants to earn a little extra cash from posing nude, much to the hilarious alarm of the highly traditional miners.

Catherine DrydenI confess I wasn’t – and still am not quite – sure about the final scene, where discussion about Kilbourn’s idealistic banner for the Labour Party results in the rendition by the entire cast of Gresford, the Miner’s Hymn, which certainly some members of the audience also knew as they were singing along in the stalls; not entirely appropriately, I felt. The scene trod a fine line between genuine sentiment and mawkishness, but I think the majority of the audience appreciated it. What I am sure is that it is a very thought-provoking and entertaining play with a terrific cast and I am not remotely surprised at its continued success. Touring until August, and definitely worth catching if you can.