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Posts Tagged ‘Caryl Churchill’

When this evening was announced, it was three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. Now a fourth has been added, longer than the other three added together, which makes it the longest evening of new Churchill work in ages. I’ve tired of her descent into minimalism of late, also finding earlier works haven’t stood the test of time when revived, but this is a real return to form, a veritable theatrical feast.

The first half consists of three short works, with the inspired idea of front of curtain entertainment between them. The first is an intriguing piece about a glass girl. The characters perform on an elevated white shelf, which at one point is clearly a mantelpiece with ornaments that come alive, but at other times not. The second play features a god on a cloud and a boy playing on the ground, the god giving us a manic telling of Greek myths. In the third, a serial wife killer’s friends discuss him and his crimes and how they should react.

In the longest play, we’re in the home of Dot and Jimmy, cousins who live together, neither of whom work. In most of the short scenes, they are visited by Niamh, a distant cousin from Ireland who has recently moved near them, and Rob, a homeless man Jimmy has befriended during his runs in the park, mostly separately, but sometimes at the same time. Dot has a past and an intriguing object, both of which are revealed.

Death and killing run through all four plays, though they are often very funny. They appear to be modern spins on old tales – Greek myths, Bluebeard and a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – though I can’t identify the fourth. James Macdonald’s staging is clever, Miriam Buether’s design is stunning and the acting is brilliant, with Tom Mothersdale giving a virtuoso performance as the god and Deborah Findlay and Toby Jones acting masterclasses in the final play.

It’s been a long wait, so all the more welcome.

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It does seem timely, reviving Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking 1982 play, which takes a look at differing views of feminism, but is it a modern classic or a play of its time?

The story centres on Marlene, a ruthlessly ambitious Thatcherite who gets the top job at recruitment agency Top Girls, beating Howard, who everyone expected to be promoted. In the first act, she’s celebrating at a fantasy dinner party to which she’s invited five unpredictable historical figures with differing perspectives on being a woman. We see her in action in the agency, where each of the historical characters has a contemporary parallel, before we travel back in time to visit her sister back home in Suffolk and learn what she’s really given up.

The first act is brilliantly inventive, but it outstays its welcome and becomes irritating, the second act’s first scene is a trip back to Suffolk with Marlene’s niece and her friend and seemed unnecessary to me, and the second scene of this act, in the agency, seemed a bit overcooked, a touch too caricature. The third act is the heart of the play, and its staged and performed to perfection.

Director Lyndsay Turner has assembled a fine cast of actresses, including many favourites of mine. Katherine Kingsley is terrific as Marlene and there’s brilliant support from Amanda Lawrence, Siobhan Redmond, Ashley McGuire, Lucy Ellinson and Lucy Black and an outstanding performance from Liv Hill as Marlene’s niece Angie.

It seems to be the first time the play has been performed without doubling up, and I wondered if the frisson this provides, given the historical / contemporary parallels, was missing. I was glad I saw it, but it seems more play of its time than modern classic to me.

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This was trailed as Caryl Churchill’s first full-length play in over 20 years. It isn’t. It’s another obtuse 50 minute miniature. Apart from providing work for four excellent 60/70-something actresses, it’s hard to see what else it contributes. It’s feint praise to say it’s a better than her last ‘miniature’, Here We Go, at the National last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/here-we-go-evening-at-the-talk-house).

Mrs Jarrett pops into Sally’s garden when she’s passing. She joins Sally, making inconsequential small-talk with Lena & Vi about the local shops and a whole host of other things; typical old people stuff, looking back (I should know!). We return to the garden with the same four ladies in a row, in chairs, a number of times. In between, Mrs Jarrett appears stage front, framed by red tubes and crackling wire, to tell us about some catastrophes, which become increasingly implausible (and tiresome) as they progress. We learn that Lena has served six years for killing her husband. They sing Da Doo Ron Ron. Sally and Lena each have a bit of a monologue and Mrs Jarrett ends the play with a bit of a rant, repeating the same phrase over and over again – the verbal equivalent of the undressing at the end of Here We Go, but mercifully shorter. 

I’m not entirely sure what Churchill is trying to say; perhaps that we carry on regardless or oblivious of the catastrophes happening around us and / or what it’s like growing old. Playwrights often become minimalist in their later years (Beckett, Pinter…) yet they continue to occupy their place on a pedestal. I sometimes think they have lost their mojo but no-one has the nerve to say so. After 20 years of plays like this I think that’s where I’m at with Caryl Churchill and I think it’s time I gave up hoping for a return to the form that gave us plays like Serious Money.

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Two turkeys in one evening and there’s still two weeks to Christmas. 

Here We Go

In the first ten minutes we are with mourners at a funeral. They reminisce about the departed and take it in turns to tell us how far in the future they will die and the causes of their death.

In the next ten minutes we’re with an old man who has died, possibly the one they were just mourning, in that gap between death and the afterlife. 

For the next twenty-five minutes we’re in a rest home where the old man is in a loop, being undressed and dressed over and over again by his carer, in complete silence. 

This is the latest in Caryl Churchill’s minimalist period. Once upon a time she was a good playwright.

Evening in the Talk House

The Talk House is a private club which has fallen on hard times. Tonight they are hosting a reunion of a group of people who worked together on a play ten years ago – the producer, writer, composer, lead actor and wardrobe lady. Another actor who didn’t get a part in the play has taken refuge in the club. The two staff reminisce about the club’s heyday. Most have subsequently become involved in TV. No-one goes to plays anymore (with plays like this, it’s easy to see why). The government changes every three months and seems to flip-flop between two people. There’s a policy of murdering anyone who’s against them, with members of the public involved in both targeting and assassination.

It’s self-indulgent, dull, preposterous and a complete waste of the talent on the stage (and a great set).

Presumably both of these skipped the NT QA process because they are by ‘names’ like Wallace Shawn (who also acts) and Caryl Churchill, but that’s no excuse. Shameful.

Two turkeys for Christmas.

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I was cursing the education system at the interval of this play last night. I studied history for 4 years, for things then called O & A levels, and all we covered was the 125 years between 1814 and 1939. I was also cursing not reading the programme before the start. In my view, this 1976 Caryl Churchill play about mid 17th century English history needs, or at least benefits from, some prior knowledge.

It was clearly a fascinating period, the closest England came to revolution (a century before the French!). Charles I grabbed absolute power, provoking a thirty year period of unrest and civil wars until the establishment of the constitutional monarchy which still survives. Just the names of the groups involved makes you smile – in addition to the Roundheads and Cavaliers, we had the Ranters, Diggers, Levellers and the New Model Army! More recent history plays, like last year’s James plays, present historical events in a much more accessible way than this, though, which is very 70’s and very wordy, in a G B Shaw way. Too much of it is people talking direct to the audience and the endless debates about who’s side god would be on, though historically accurate I’m sure, just muddied it all for me.

Director Lyndsey Turner has added 40 or so ‘extras’ to the 18 strong cast (and it is strong, with actors like Leo Bill, Daniel Flynn, Alan Williams, Steffan Rhodri, Joe Caffrey and Amanda Lawrence in relatively small roles) which gives it an epic sweep. Es Devlin’s brilliant design starts as a giant banquet, before becoming a bare wooden stage, the boards then removed to reveal the earth. The audience wasn’t considered enough, though, as the sight lines (well, at the front of the stalls, at least) are dreadful. Soutra Gilmour, more usually a sole design credit, provides excellent costumes.

Notwithstanding my lack of preparation, I think we’ve become used to history presented more clearly and lucidly, so despite a spectacular production, I suspect it’s impact 40 years on has been watered down significantly.

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I think you are meant to complete the title yourself; well, when you’ve only got a 20 min running time you can’t waste it reading the title. This is Churchill does Pinter. Structurally, it’s Caryl Churchill. Subject-wise, its more Harold Pinter.

The same scene is played out twice in the 20 minutes – but each is in a different country (the clue’s in the flags, a rare moment of clarity) with different characters in the same situation speaking the same lines facing in the opposite direction. There’s some sort of war going on outside and one of our characters is off to join it. Watching the TV, each set of characters get both angry and triumphant.

I think it might be about how war turns us all into morons and it’s the same on both sides, but then again it might not be. I don’t mind doing a bit of work in the theatre, but I don’t like plays that make me do all the work. That’s a bit lazy.

I was surprised that this had its own white box, rather than being played out in the love and information white box, and its own cast too. You can’t fault the staging or the performances but you can’t really understand the play….or is it just me?

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Twitter on stage? Over 50 3D audio-visual bites. In seven sections (not sure why). Each a completely different situation. Over 100 characters, each appearing only once. 16 actors playing all roles. In each, information is passed. Some scene breaks are longer than scenes. Sound bites between scenes. 105 minutes.  No interval.

Caryl Churchill used to write plays. (Cloud Nine. Top Girls. Serious Money). Then she went all minimalist. (Blue Heart. Far Away. A Number). Like Beckett and Pinter before her. Is this creativity or a lack of ideas? A friend said it would never reach the stage. If it was a new writer.

Miriam Buether’s bright white box frames each scene. James Macdonald’s staging is slick. The speed of scene changes is impressive. The acting is superb. It must be hard to portray a character in mere moments. It’s occasionally funny. It’s occasionally profound. It’s often clever.

This review might give you a flavour of the evening. Intriguing. Innovative. Satisfying theatre? Not really.

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