Review – Straight, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 10th November 2012

StraightWhenever I go to the Studio in Sheffield, I’m always amazed at how versatile a space it is. Like the Menier Chocolate Factory, every time you see a different show, the whole layout has changed. For D C Moore’s new play, the entire length of the wall opposite the entrance door has been given over to the set, a wonderfully convincing layout of a studio apartment – bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom (off) – just a bit of extra width and you would think it was absolutely for real. I loved the attention to detail of what was in the cupboards (they had those Nairn oatcake biscuits in all the flavours; I wonder if one of the cast or crew is a coeliac). You are asked to leave the auditorium for the (necessarily long) interval so that when you return the way it has been changed for the final scene has a terrific impact. Hats off to designer James Cotterill for his superb sets.

Henry Pettigrew This is the third D C Moore play we’ve seen. We thought Town was a beautifully crafted, rather sad play about someone returning home, and Honest a superb one-man play set (and performed) in a pub. “Straight” shares some common themes with these earlier plays, such as dealing with hidden secrets, and the responsibilities of telling the truth. It’s based on a film, Humpday, which I haven’t seen, but having read its wikipedia entry I can see that the story of the play seems pretty true to the original film, but with a couple of additional twists at the end (which makes the story far more interesting, to be honest.)

Jessica RansomBriefly, two old friends, Lewis and Waldorf, meet again after about ten years absence, get drunk and/or stoned on a night out and, inspired by one of Waldorf’s one-night stands, take a bet to perform in an amateur gay porn film. With each other. Penetrative sex, apparently; and they’re not gay. There’s no question that D C Moore is an exciting, original author and he creates moments of agonising self-revelation on stage. My personal main problem with this play is that I found the story rather hard to believe; and I also feel that the structure of the play is somewhat lumpy and that the story does not flow very well. The play culminates in an incredibly funny and cringe-inducing scene that deservedly brings the house down and ends with a serious and cryptic tone; but I sense that somehow the previous scenes have been pieced together backwards in order to get to that required conclusion. As a result there are some passages and plot developments that don’t really go anywhere, and a few character inconsistencies that tend to make you lose faith in the overall integrity of the piece. Mrs Chrisparkle accused the end of being a cop-out, deliberately vague and inconclusive. I’ve re-read the end a few times (the programme contains the script) and I do find it frustrating – I’d rather like the writer to commit himself to how he thinks life will go on in the future, but he doesn’t. I suppose it’s for us to decide; but I’m not sure I can really be bothered.

Philip McGinley Having said all that, I don’t want you to think that it’s not up to much, because actually it’s a very funny, entertaining and revealing play, directed with warmth and feeling by Richard Wilson and with four excellent performances. Henry Pettigrew as Lewis has just the right mixture of sincerity and self-doubt, and his easily abused open nature is very believable. I relished his superb comic timing and he held the audience’s attention with ease. Jessica Ransom as his wife Morgan has a brilliant way with her eyes to show surprise, dismay and the hundred other emotions that the disruption of her easy life with Lewis now requires. She too has a guilty secret and her scene with Lewis before the interval is played with beautiful control and sad tenderness. Her journey from a relaxed if a bit complacent partner to someone who’s had all the certainty removed from her life is very moving.

Jenny RainsfordPhilip McGinley (great as Mossop in Hobson’s Choice) is Waldorf, a libidinous louche loner who you suspect has shagged his way around the world just because he could. He reminded me strongly of an omnisexual university friend – you know the type. He plays the role of semi-unwanted guest with roguish charm and is completely believable. Suffice to say Messrs McGinley and Pettigrew together enact a comic and theatrical tour-de-force in the final scene, and make the most of the comic embarrassment of their situation – it’s superbly well done. The final member of the quartet, Jenny Rainsford as Steph, appears only relatively briefly (which is a shame) and does an absolutely perfect interpretation of a stoned art student. Her voice and mannerisms were accurate to a T.

We were quite surprised that it wasn’t a full house on Saturday night, as normally the Studio is packed. This is definitely a production to see, if you enjoy a bit of shock, a bit of cringe and a lot of laughs. Just don’t think too deeply about the plot but revel in the performances and you’ll have a great time.

Review – Benefactors, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

BenefactorsAn ambitious young architect has a great vision for social housing in some decaying corner of SE15, something that will provide decent accommodation whilst enhancing community spirit. His kindly wife keeps open house for their needy neighbours, whilst doing his admin and looking after the kids. The two guys were obviously at college together and the other chap has gone into journalism, whilst his wife, a sometime nurse, has gone into some form of depression.

Simon WilsonBut all is not as it seems. The friendships and marriages are fragile. Petty jealousies and rivalries come to the fore; and roles and values change. As the reality of dealing with planners, builders, utilities and so on gets progressively harder, the great vision for social housing becomes a little eroded. Compromises are made. Low rises become high rises. High rises become very high rises. Decent community housing becomes a mere tool for getting a job done; and something breaks between the four of them. I won’t tell you more of the plot because it’s an intriguing comedy and as it develops, the characters become more honest and the true nature of their relationships gets revealed.

Andrew WoodallSimon Wilson plays architect David, and his journey from noble visionary to cynic is very credibly done. It’s a solid central role, a character who sometimes can’t see the blindingly obvious, and his internal battles of self-confidence versus growing defeatism are nicely judged. His old friend and later rival Colin is played by Andrew Woodall, whose apparent reverse journey of cynic to visionary is also very well portrayed. His deflated disappointment with a life, a job and a wife none of which he rates particularly highly, all contribute to his being rather a nasty piece of work, and he carries it off well.

Abigail CruttendenHowever, I enjoyed the performances of the two women rather more. David’s wife Jane is played by Abigail Cruttenden, bringing out all the comic nuances of being nice as pie to Colin and his wife Sheila whilst actually finding the open house situation drives her mad, really disliking Colin and being frustrated with Sheila. When Colin manipulates her in the second act to a position of working against her husband, her distaste for what she is doing is both sad and funny, and her enthusiasm for how her role subsequently develops is also very amusingly done.

Rebecca LaceyAt first you think Rebecca Lacey’s Sheila is going to be a mousey mute but her journey of self-development is extremely well portrayed. When the mouse eventually roars it’s a very telling moment. With something of the 1970s Prunella Scales about her, during the course of the play step by step she pieces back together again something of a new life, courtesy of her benefactors. It’s another excellent performance.

The creatively flexible space that is the Crucible Studio is given over to a simple kitchen set, with just a few kitchen implements and bits of crockery and a functional kitchen table big enough to feed the neighbours and to spread out architectural drawings. It’s a straightforward set for a straightforward production that lets the text do the talking, and weaves an entertaining tale of what happens when you are practised at being good to others. It’s a very cleverly constructed play – I liked how it’s Jane who takes the confessional role in the first act and David who assumes that role in the second. But I still feel that the play’s vision is a little cramped – perhaps I was comparing it too much with the broad brush of “Democracy” that we saw earlier that day – and whilst it’s a good play, I don’t think it’s a great play. However, Mrs C enjoyed it somewhat more than I did and feels the characters’ journeys are very provocatively portrayed and that it says a lot about the nature of relationships and idealism versus reality. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is right!

Review – Happy Days, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Samuel BeckettI nearly met Samuel Beckett once. He was a friend of my university tutor and he came to see some of us for sherry and debate. “It was a shame you didn’t meet him” said my tutor. “It was a shame you didn’t invite me” was my riposte, but only in thought, not words. I chose not to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he also visited for sherry and debate, and I’m pleased I didn’t as the whole set-up was intimately recorded by a visiting TV documentary team who “just happened to be around”, and I would have found that a great invasion of my privacy. I did however meet Kathleen Raine who came round for sherry (no debate I think). It was on the stairs outside his rooms and I had no idea who she was. I didn’t ask her about poetry, scholarship, neoplatinism or even Ring of Bright Water. “Is it still raining?” was all I said.

Happy DaysI digress. About four years ago I thought it was about time Mrs Chrisparkle was exposed to the works of Samuel Beckett so we went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production. It went on a bit perhaps. But I thought it had a lot of merit. All Mrs C said afterwards was “Never take me to another production of Waiting for Godot. Please.” My look must have been one of astonishment as she added: “Don’t make me beg.” So it was with some trepidation that I awaited her response to this new production of Happy Days at Sheffield, with Pauline McLynn as Winnie. It was definitely her name that decided me to book, as I felt it would be perfect casting. What could be more Beckettian than Mrs Doyle? And so it turned out. Her performance is a splendid tour de force and keeps you locked in with interest despite the difficulties that Beckett chucks in your path.

They cleverly constructed a mini proscenium arch stage in the middle of the otherwise free acting space that is the Studio, slightly reminiscent of the kind of thing you might see at a village memorial hall; or actually my old Pelham Puppet Theatre. So you get a very traditional feel but in a modern space. When the curtains open, what you see is completely enclosed on all four sides by a black border frame, which reminded me of those modern digital photo frames, which you can set to play a sequence of snapshots. However, there’s no series of different images here. It’s just a pile of rubble, from which Winnie emerges at the top, visible down to her waist, but with her arms free to gesticulate, a little like one of those awful doll toilet-roll holder things. The rest is arid desert. It’s a very striking image.

Central to the whole play is the character of Winnie. Much has been said about her by countless scholars much more insightful than me. All I can say is that she is irrepressibly optimistic about the minutiae of life, despite living in a hostile environment, buried in a mound of rocks, responding without free choice to external signals, and having limited movement. She is kind, considerate and supportive, and whilst she has her Willie hovering in and out of sight, and her tools for existence in her black bag, she is happy. In the second act, when she is even more buried and with less movement, her outlook is still broadly similar but her eloquence, and maybe her faith, begins to fail.

Pauline McLynnPauline McLynn makes Beckett’s language come alive. If you read the play text it’s extremely difficult to imagine how it can become three dimensional on the stage. But she transforms it. It’s a sparkling, lively performance, with great vocal dexterity, endearingly conveying all aspects of Winnie’s personality. She very much looks the part, and her warmth easily takes us into her confidence. She makes you laugh – a lot. Her timing, which is all important in this play, is impeccable. When Willie finally speaks out loud she says “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Mrs C laughed a little too knowingly at this line, making me think I must sometimes be unwittingly taciturn. Oops.

Peter GowenLurking in the background, sometimes out of sight, sometimes seemingly undressed, is Willie, who ostensibly has more freedom that Winnie in that he is not enclosed by a mound and he can also read the newspaper, even though it’s probably the same headlines everyday. As of course, in real life, it is. Peter Gowen gives good support and can be a menacing as well as supportive presence. When he is scrambling through the rocks at the end of the play, you feel very disconcerted by what he is doing. Is he trying to get the gun? What for? To kill her? To kill himself? It’s a literally painful sequence – the scraping of those rocks and stones looked and sounded very real to me. I’m sure Mr Gowen’s knees, hands and arms must be red raw by the end of the play

The play’s reputation and its place in the modern repertoire are I think fully deserved. But there is a danger that it could become – maybe it already is – a museum piece, as the stage directions are so set in stone (much like Winnie) that there is limited opportunity for future productions to convey anything new about the play – really the only change possible is the new voice of a new actress. Even Winnie’s facial expressions are dictated by Beckett. It may well be that it is a timeless piece and that Beckett got it so right that changes are not necessary. But I do feel, having seen it once, that there is no need ever to see it again.

Jonathan HumphreysNonetheless it is an excellent production, and a great choice for the Crucible’s young resident director Jonathan Humphreys to cut his Sheffield teeth. As for Mrs Chrisparkle, she found it a much more rewarding experience than Waiting for Godot, I’m pleased to say, and has not ruled out furthering her Beckett-like experiences. I think, however, we might have to wait a little longer before she’s ready for “Not I”.

As a postscript, I’m sure that in later life Beckett could have written an eight-minute drama about an old man failing to come to terms with modern technology and its effect on the wider community, based on my effort to use the ticket machine in the car park.

Review – Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonHaving seen Racing Demon on the Saturday matinee, we went the whole hog and stayed for David Hare’s Plenty in the Studio theatre for the evening performance.

I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.

Plenty Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.

Hattie Monahan Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.

Kirsty Bushell Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. Edward BennettThe other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.

Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.

Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.