Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.
Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.
The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.
Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.
Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.
There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.
And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.
But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.
This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.
Keep informed about this fantastic company:
Sure. I think I saw that in high school. Think it was the school play in my freshman year or something. Generally pleasant production. Can’t remember a specific thing about it.
Okay. Forgettable then. I can’t imagine this new version being watchable, not even at The Almeida. It would have to be amazing.
But alas. So indelibly is Our Town associated in my mind with clichéd canonical American ‘taught texts’, school bells, homeroom, locker combos, and am dram, that it would need to be a damn fine overhaul for this play to impress in 2014. It would have to be like Tim Burton directing ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, or Jim Jarmusch’s A Separate Peace or David Lynch’s The Scarlet Letter (actually that could really work) or Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and no one wants that.
But this, David Cromer’s production of this American classic is something else entirely. As it turns out, it’s a bit more like Peter Brook directing… well… Thornton Wilder. And it works incredibly well.
Cromer’s touch on this gentle and slow-burning story is well-judged, subtle, and in the end, devastatingly masterful, the director himself taking the role of the narrator and of the ‘stage manager’ in this very postmodern work that plays freely with the dividing line between audience and actor. You can hear the crisp sycamore leaves crackling in the wind in Cromer’s nasally Chicagoan drawl when he addresses us directly, striding the parapet of the practically nonexistent fourth wall. An expatriate theatregoer in Islington will feel a warm sense of autumnal nostalgia for the homeland. Their British counterparts will feel the same transatlantic warmth drifting round them.
Cromer’s production has had a successful run and rave reviews in several cities back in America and we can see why, but clearly the decision for each actor to play their characters in very strong regional British accents is fascinating and ingenious. It universalizes the chronicling of provincial life in this play and somehow internalizes the existential yearning that each character endures. We imagine instead of this being a small town in New Hampshire that it is a small town in Wales, or England, or Scotland, that in fact these characters are everyman figures struggling to escape small town, everywhere.
The set is minimalist, as Wilder seems to have intended, but Cromer doesn’t even bother with the ‘half light’ specified in the original script, setting up the stage as though the actors are still in dress rehearsal. Characters enact their intimate confrontations with self and others amidst the audience, sometimes with members of that same audience participating.
Although this play is at its strongest with the ensemble working together, slicing apart a cross section of their community for us, Laura Ellsworthy’s portrayal of the young, naïve, and surprisingly complex character of Emily has such depth and evokes such a sense of sympathy that it would be hard hearted viewer who does not feel deeply moved by the time the lights go up.
Perhaps in the same way that George Bernard Shaw opined that youth is wasted on the young, Wilder is wasted on the high schools of America. Cromer has done for me what no teacher managed to do in four years of high school. He’s made me interested in Wilder again.
Our Town is in The Almeida until Sat 29 November. Bookings here. It’s awesome and worth it.
Slightly misleading post title, I know. I mean it’s purely theoretical. I don’t have any plans to leave at any point soon. Why would I? Duh, it’s London.
There are of course push factors: lack of any family in close proximity to us, a moderate to small flat with no outdoor space, Michael Gove, David Cameron, you get the picture. But frankly, nothing’s reached tipping point yet. My son’s in a good school that The Missus and I both like, modest though our flat is, we’ve made it our own and we may not have a
backyard or front yard garden, but we do have a lovely flat roof veranda that we have to struggle to climb through the window to get to adjacent to the bathroom loo. So, why would we want to move from this dreamy place?
I’ve been to more theatre than ever this year, courtesy of a few different online and print publications that I’ve been reviewing for and I feel so privileged to be able to have done it and to keep doing it. The truth is theatre in London is nothing less than phenomenal. Though the first item on your bucket list in one of the greatest cities in the world may not be to spend two hours in a darkened room with crowded strangers, there are good reasons why it should be.
Obviously, you’ve got The West End. Word Famous. Who hasn’t, right? But it really is the overpriced tip of the iceberg. Any chump can wait in line at a kiosk in Leicester Square, part unthinkingly with 100 quid for two seats with restricted viewing to see Billy Elliot and go home happy, having gawked at Elton John’s vision of the working class in the North of England. What you’ve got to do is explore.
Pre-parenthood days, when we first moved to London, the weekend consisted of picking up the Guardian Guide in the Saturday Edition, paying £6-12 a ticket, and seeing some marvellous, or appalling theatre. Whether it was marvellous or appalling, it was always engaging, in only the way that a performance that utilises space, human voice and movement, and the deep connection between performer and audience can engage on that deep, penetrating sort of gut level. I have seen Paul McGann reach heights of magically realist redemption in a backroom space of a pub in West London in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, took a student group to see a version of The Tempest in West End that was heavy on trapeze artists but fell just short of meaningful, was genuinely touched by Samuel Beckett’s ode to Vaclav Havel, Catastrophe, failed to be moved beyond audible snoring in a dishwater-dull perfunctory attempt at Faustus in The Arcola several years ago, and recoiled in horror at a character’s eyes being gouged out of their sockets in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Serpent’s Tooth, written as a response to a production of King Lear. But my greatest, most heartfelt, and most intensely cathartic experience in London theatre was in a tiny little performance space underneath a pub in Baron’s Court, near Knightsbridge. The production was a version of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), an immersive performance that set you up with a frame story lulling you into a false sense of safety until the actors turned everything on like a switch about 10 minutes in and from there to the end of the night it was a joyfully bleak journey to the utter depths of the human capacity for pathos.
Because theatre’s a risk, always. More often than not, I’ve been gripped and even when I haven’t, I’ve been provoked by what didn’t but should have gripped me. It’s a cognitive process that happens rarely for me with movies, and almost not at all with TV, probably because my most UnAmerican tendency is not watching it much.
My judgement of course could be somewhat flawed having never been much exposed to theatre when I was a kid, hailing from a small rural town in a mountainous region of District 12 and raised by wolves. My first real memory of proper theatre was a local university production of Waiting for Godot, in which the actors pronounced it Godot as opposed to what the rest of the world say, Godot (Cue Beckett’s gaunt and ghostly cyberfist shaking in indignation), beginning a lifelong obsession with Irish absurdist. But that it is the main reason why I review plays; not because it’s good practice or because it adds to my portfolio, but because I find theatre, especially here in this great metropolis, breathtakingly inspiring and that it lifts my mind off the ground nine times out of ten well after I’ve exited the foyer and am out on the street.
So if you’re in town, go to see a play. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot to see a play in the West End (there could well be much wrong with paying through the nose to see a musical, but that’s another blog post) and you most likely won’t be disappointed by your investment, but it’s more fun, less expensive, and more of a unique experience to get out into the smaller theatres and performance spaces and see what’s out there.
Go on. It’s worth the risk.