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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Ayckbourn’

I have to confess I wasn’t looking forward to this. It wasn’t received well at the Edinburgh Festival last August, when it was in two parts with a total playing time of 5.5 hours. The anticipation of even one part at just over four hours filled me with dread. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much!

It’s set in a future where men and women are segregated after a plague which killed many men. They believe the women are infected carriers. Same sex partnerships have, by necessity, become the norm and in their half of The Divide the women partner with one another as MaMa and MaPa, the former having children by some form of artificial insemination. Male children are sent to the other half of the divide when they come of age. There is a governing council with three parties whose names speak for themselves – orthodox, moderate and progressive – ruled by the Book of Certitude. The story revolves around the orthodox Clay family, and in particular brother and sister Elihu and Soween, told in flashback by the latter reading her teenage diary which goes on become a book, but its Elihu who threatens the equilibrium of this dystopian state when he falls in love with Giella, the daughter of progressives, whom his sister has already identified as her future life partner.

There was too much talking direct to the audience at the expense of character interaction, but given it was written in prose as a diary / memoir, that’s not surprising. The staging is well paced and it didn’t feel like 3.5 hours playing time; in fact, it felt shorter than last week’s marathons, John and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Annabel Bolton’s production is full of invention, with great use of projections and curtains, and has an organic flow to it. At first I found the black / white palette a bit dull, but I warmed to it. The big surprise was a live ensemble and 26-piece choir and Christopher Nightingale’s music added much to the feel of the piece.

The role of Soween is huge and Erin Doherty, who has already impressed me three times in the last year, is sensational, investing an extraordinary amount of emotion into her performance. Jake Davies as Elihu and Weruche Opia as Giella are also terrific, with a fine ensemble who have learnt their parts for an unfathomably short run of ten days.

It owes something to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaidens Tale and it’s the most un-Ayckbourn of Ayckbourn plays, which wasn’t even meant to be a play. It’s a cry for tolerance and a rage against fundamentalism, much lighter than you might think, and an evening I wasn’t looking forward to became a very pleasant surprise indeed.

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Alan Ayckbourn is famous for experimenting with form and structure and this 1999 pair of interlocking plays staged simultaneously in two spaces with two audiences and the cast moving between the two was amongst his most ambitious, and successful. In 2000 they were staged in the National’s Olivier and Lyttleton auditoriums and Ayckbourn had to write additional dialogue as it took longer to get from one to the other than it did in Scarborough, as it probably does here at the lovely Watermill Theatre where they stage Garden in the actual garden, which might be a first. In fact it might be the first revival?

We saw Garden in the afternoon, which seemed appropriate as the action centres around preparations for a fete, and House in the theatre in the evening, the opposite way round to my experience at the National. The fete is in the grounds of the Platt family home. They have a loveless marriage and a precocious teenage daughter who is being pursued by Jake, the son of neighbours’ the Mace’s. Teddy Platt is the son of former local MP’s and it is suggested he might stand in the future. Add to this cocktail the staff – gardener, housekeeper and her daughter the maid – a pair of local worthies, a visiting novelist and a minor French film star en route to rehab and you have the ingredients for Ayckbourn’s brand of middle class suburban social comedy, but underneath there are darker themes of infidelity, bullying, alcoholism, middle-aged men flirting inappropriately with teenage girls and a bizarre triangular relationship. 

Some storylines are evenly split between plays, but some dominate one or the other. It is suggested that you can see either or both, but seeing just one seems pointless to me as a lot of the fun comes in your second play seeing entrances that were once exits, and joining up the storylines for yourself. It’s a logistical marvel (three cheers for the stage managers) and it’s performed superbly by a 14 strong ensemble and a handful of kids.

Ayckbourn’s other experiments included one play with eight versions and sixteen possible endings with two actors playing ten roles, and his ambitious staging’s including a swimming pool on stage and a water-filled tank on which a full sized cruiser sat and moved (which famously sprung a leak). I have to confess I’ve enjoyed the experiments more than the plays, but I enjoyed this one more than most. Definitely worth a whole day in rural Berkshire!

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Well, I’ve got seriously behind with my blog, so instead of individual play reviews, I’m adding them to the customary monthly round-up, which given I only spent 12 days of April in the UK, wasn’t much to round-up!

The highlight was undoubtedly the ballet – Scottish Ballet’s new working of A Streetcar Named Desire at Sadler’s Wells. I felt just like I did the first time I really ‘got’ ballet as dance drama, when I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. This wordless form was more dramatic than any production of the play I’d seen – and both operas adapted from it. Starting with Blanche’s back story (way before her arrival in New Orleans when the play starts) was inspired. The drama unfolded chronologically from her childhood to her incarceration in an asylum by her sister Stella & husband Stanley. The fingerprints of director Nancy Meckler were all over it and the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa matched it seamlessly. Graeme Virtue’s jazz influenced score was hugely atmospheric, played beautifully by a small 13-piece orchestra. Niki Turner’s designs were elegant, evocative and simply beautiful. You got every bit of the play’s intensity, the longing, the sadness, the testosterone, the fragility….this is a masterpiece I can’t wait to see again.

The opera was ROH 2’s Opera Shots in the Linbury Studionew operas by those new to opera. Graham Fitkin’s Home wasn’t really an opera but a dance drama with music! Nice music though, and lovely flowing movement. What it was about is another matter; don’t ask me. Neil (the Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Sebastopol was more substantial, but still felt more like a staged song cycle than an opera. Again, nice music – though lots of missed words with opera singers singing the way they do i.e often unintelligibly!

I first saw Filumena in the West End in 1977 in a Zeffirelli production starring Joan Plowright – though I didn’t really know who Zeffirelli and Plowright were! Samantha Spiro at the Almeida makes a great Filumena and Clive Wood is an excellent Domenico. Robert Jones’ vast set is so realistic it looks fake (all those artificial plants!). Somehow though the play doesn’t seem that good now. There’s an implausibility to the story of a prostitute who ‘goes native’ but never manages to bag her man, even using the parentage of her sons as bait. A good production, but I’m not sure the play has stood the test of time.

I was recalling my first trip to NYC in my recent travel blog and in particular that one of the plays I saw in that 1980 visit was a preview of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (which closed soon after opening, but got an NT production some years later). The co-incidence was that I’d booked to see it at the Finborough two days after my return – and very glad I was that I had. Director Phil Wilmott’s idea of framing the play with scenes at a present day exhibition of great depression photos was inspired and heightened even further the parallels between 1929 and today. Given the number of scenes, the production has to be simple and it was, and the acting was the usual high standard we’ve got used to at the Finborough – but what grabs you is the uncanniness of the contemporary relevance of Miller writing 30 years ago about something that happened 80 years ago. Spooky!

Big & Small’s big draw is its movie star lead – Cate Blanchette – and she is an extraordinarily good stage actor. Sadly, her vehicle here is a load of pretentious bollocks about a woman searching for meaning in her life. I will allow the director’s quotes in the programme to sum it up as I can’t – ‘It alludes simultaneously to the spiritual and political dimensions of life; macro / micro, cosmos / cell, state / individual, history / present, eternity / now. The expansion and contraction of being…..the seemingly fragmented de-centred dramatrugy…..the slow-motion detonation of character and narrative…..the existential puzzle…..the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey confronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss. As I said, bollocks.

Making Noise Quietly gets a gentle loving production from Peter Gill and the three playlets are finely acted. Again the problem is the material, Robert Holman’s 27-year old piece, now apparently an ‘A’ level text! Loosely connected by the second world war and the Falklands war, I didn’t really find them satisfying, particularly the last (title) play which I found unbelievable; I just couldn’t buy in to the characters and situation. Not the Donmar at its best.

Babes in Arms wasn’t the Union at its best either. Hampered by a weak book, this musical just didn’t sparkle as it could and has. The musical standards weren’t up to the Union’s usual high, though the choreography of Lizzi Gee was outstanding so all was well in the dancing department. Overall, a disappointment though.

I’ve lost track of the number of Alan Ayckbourn shows I’ve seen – maybe half of his 75? – but of late the new ones have seemed dated and the old ones like veritable museum pieces. Neighbourhood Watch at the Tricycle (what’s it doing here?) was no different. The one location and setting was dull and restrictive and the whole thing was just a bit predictable and dull. The premise was fine and it was nicely acted, but it didn’t sustain its 130 minute length and left me thinking ‘so what?’

Not the greatest eight days in theatre, then…..

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When I heard that the Bush Theatre was on the move, my heart sank. I’ve been going to that room above a pub in Shepherd’s Bush for nigh on 30 years and have lost track of how many plays I’ve seen there (somewhere between 100 and 200 I’d think) with a ‘hit rate’ that is second to none. Other theatre moves, notably Hampstead, have resulted in a loss of magic associated with the space and I found the thought that this might also happen with the Bush positively devastating.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to this playful exploration of the yet-to-be-finished new space in an old library round the corner, where three short plays in three configurations (thrust, in-the-round and end on staging) using nine props from the NT’s store are coupled with wanders around the building, giving feedback on how you’d like it to be. It’s a terrific idea and it was brilliantly executed (helped by an unplanned evacuation between the first two plays for the fire brigade to deal with an exploding light!). It has, for now, put my mind to rest, though my fingers remain crossed.

The first play was the most successful for me as it fitted so well with the concept. Deidre Kinahan’s piece shows a theatre company rehearsing a PC adaptation of Wind in the Willows and the resulting theatrical send-up seemed so appropriate. One of the contrivances is to ask three directorial luminaries to provide stage directions, and Alan Ayckbourn’s for Tom Wells play seem longer than the play itself, which may be why it was less successful. Jack Thorne’s piece was the best written, but coming last and being far from playful, it somehow didn’t have the impact it might have done in other circumstances; maybe he  should work it up for a proper production.

They’ve attracted some great actors to participate in the experiment, with Nina Sosanya shining both as the first play’s play-within-a-play director and a more tragic and moving role in the final piece. I liked Francesca Annis as the old school theatrical in the first play more than as dotty Helen in the second play. Richard Cordery, Hugo Speer, Debbie Chasen and Hugh Skinner complete the excellent cast. Nathan Curry, with designers Amy Cook & Lucy Osborne, has done a terrific job of covering the building with fun-filled opportunities for the audience to explore and comment on everything from desired seating to programming to the bar. I loved the fact that the playing space had been wallpapered with scripts of previous Bush shows, reminding us of tis illustrious past.

This wasn’t great theatre (I don’t think it was meant to be), but it was a great experience and has moved me from dread to cautious anticipation of my old friend’s new home!

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Considering the thinness of the material, they’ve worked wonders at the Landor to find enough fun in Andrew Lloyd Webber & Alan Ayckbourn’s 35-year old musical comedy to justify the revival – just!

It’s Panto meets farce meets Boys Own story, a play-within-a-play that’s very silly indeed. The story, dialogue and songs are entirely undistinguished and inconsequential, so it’s left to the performers and production team to mine it for whatever they can – and they certainly find a lot more laughs than you’d find on the page.

Kevin Trainor plays Wooster as a cheeky chappie, which provides some welcome charm, whilst Paul M Meston rightly plays it straight as Jeeves. The supporting cast is excellent; I particularly liked Charlotte Mills gung-ho turn as Honoria Glossop. Designer Morgan Large has created a finely detailed and brilliantly realistic village hall in this tiny space. Nick Bagnall’s staging fizzes with the chorus numbers superbly staged (and choreographed by Andrew Wright). There’s a fine four-piece on-stage band but they don’t have a score worthy of their talents and enthusiasm, I’m afraid.

There are six producers and associate producers, in addition to the Landor’s new in-house producer, listed in the programme which I suspect means they planned for life after the Landor? As much as I admired the production, in my opinion the show certainly doesn’t deserve that.

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