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Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Prebble’

Playwright Lucy Prebble has given us some excellent plays, most notably ENRON, her second, but isn’t very prolific – she’s only written three plays in the 16 years since this debut, but then again she’s also successful in TV, notably with HBO’s current hit Succession. Her fourth play, A Very Expensive Poison, premiered just four months ago and her third, The Effect, will be revived at the Boulevard Theatre in March, so we’re having a bit of a Prebble Fest. I missed this one first time round, so I was delighted the Orange Tree have revived it.

The play revolves around 17-year-old Dani who lives with her somewhat neurotic mother. Dani’s father works away and plays away too, something they are both fully aware of. She suffers with an eating disorder and has recently returned from a residential clinic which she resents being forced to go to. She frequents internet chat rooms, where she meets two very different people – lonely 22-year-old Lewis, seeking a relationship, and thirty-something paedophile Tim, looking for boys. She meets up with Lewis, and they strike up some sort of relationship. By posing as an 11-year-old boy, she also meets up with Tim and they strike up an even odder relationship, where she becomes a friend and confidante. The two worlds collide when Lewis visits Tim and then her home, and her relationship with her mother is exorcised.

These very sensitive issues are handled really well, in the writing, staging and performances. All of the characters are treated sympathetically, even Tim, delicately played by John Hollingworth. Ali Barouti navigates Lewis’ journey from desperation to obsession beautifully. Alexandra Gilbreath handles the complexity of mother Jan with great skill. Jessica Rhodes’ performance as the very mercurial Dani, onstage virtually throughout, is superb, even more impressive when you realise it’s her professional debut.

Oscar Toeman’s excellent revival benefits from the intimacy of this theatre, but the sunken playing area brings sightline issues, as it did with Pamona at the same venue. This was my only gripe with what was otherwise a thoroughly satisfying evening of theatre.

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As playwright Lucy Prebble proved with Enron, you can learn a lot about a subject of which you know little in a few hours in a theatre, and when it concisely summarises what you may have followed over years, it can be illuminating. This clearly well researched play packs in so much knowledge yet, also like Enron, you are royally entertained.

We were drip-fed information about the Litvinenko poisoning as the facts emerged. Here they are presented to you in less than 2.5 hours playing time in a very concise and lucid account. It starts after his death with his wife Marina discussing the possibilities of an inquest or public enquiry, the government having shamefully washed its hands of the case for political reasons. It then goes back further to the days immediately after the poisoning, and back again to the Litvinenko’s life in Russia and the events which led to him becoming a subject for assassination by the Russian state, moving chronologically forward to where it begins. The defiant Marina acts as a narrator, with Putin a counter-narrator in the second half.

Also like Enron, the story is told with great ingenuity, playfully, employing a variety of clever theatrical devices. The fourth wall is broken continually, with characters talking directly to the audience, and there are some deliciously cheeky swipes at the form and the venue. It took a while to take off, but from halfway through the first half it was gripping like a thriller. It’s already lost c. 20 minutes from the published running time; another 10 minutes from the first half would probably make it even better. It’s a fine ensemble, with almost everyone in multiple roles, led by an outstanding performance by Tom Brooke as Litvinenko. Tom Scutt’s design is clever; I particularly liked the way it moves between London meeting locations leading up to the poisoning, with all of them remaining on stage. John Crowley’s inventive staging even makes use of Peter Polycarpou’s musical theatre talent to great effect.

I suspect it will still tighten before press night, but even at this late preview it proves to be a thrilling ride. What more can you ask for when going to the theatre than leaving it feeling both informed and entertained?

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Like Lucy Prebble’s last piece, ENRON,  Rupert Goold’s production turns a good play into a great evening, though on this occasion I’m not sure Miriam Buether’s reconfiguration of the Cottesloe is entirely necessary – in a similar way to Rae Smith’s design for This House, which is sharing the Cottesloe in rep., the Pit has been turned into a clinic, with the audience in two rows on all sides, padded walls interspersed with coffee tables on which sit magazines and vases of flowers. 

In essence this is a love story. Two clinical trials volunteers fall in love during their 6-week stay at the clinic, but as the trail is for an anti-depressant and some volunteers have a placebo, we never know whether this has impacted the relationship. The only other characters are two doctors, whose relationship was itself affected by depression, though that is in the past. Along the way, we peep into the world of clinical trials and their ethics and the workings of the brain, but not in much depth and that’s not really what the play is about.

Even more than the inventive production, what propels the evening into greatness are the performances. I’ve only seen Billie Piper three times (I think she’s only done three plays!) and on each occasion she has impressed, investing extraordinary emotionality into her charaterisations. Now I want to see her in a classical role (Ophelia, anyone?). Here she matched by a stunning performance from Jonjo O’Neill. I’ve only seen him a handful of times, but this is in another league altogether. Anastasia Hille and Tim Goodman-Hill are very good as the doctors but its the roles of the volunteers that are are at the heart of the play and enable Piper & O’Neill to shine.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first half, but the play goes up several notches after the interval and it proves to be a very satisfying evening. I’d like to see a more minimalist production (like Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the Royal Court) to test my theory that its the production wot does it, but I suspect I never will. 2012 really was a brilliant year for new writing at the NT – this is the fourth gem (third in the Cottesloe).

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