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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Billington’

It’s taken thirteen years for Arthur Miller’s last play to cross the Atlantic, and on this showing you can’t help wondering why. As if the Finborough Theatre didn’t have enough feathers in its cap, here’s another one for this European premiere of a fascinating play.

Though Miller insisted it was a work of fiction, he is clearly revisiting a period in his life he first did with After the Fall forty years before. His five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe was disintegrating during the filming of The Misfits in 1960, for which Miller wrote the screenplay, and it’s hard not to see this play as based that real-life experience.

We’re on a troubled film set where the leading lady’s behaviour is raising a lot of eyebrows. Famous director Derek Clemson is desperate to complete his film, cinematographer Terry Case anxious she looks right in his shots and Philip Oschner, the producer sent by the company’s new owners, just wants to finish it before his boss closes it down. Actress Kitty’s assistant Edna and coach Flora try and keep her together; they even fly in Flora’s husband Jerome, another coach. Our other character is screenwriter and Kitty’s husband Paul, their marriage breaking down before our eyes.

There are a couple of striking things about the play. The first is that it revolves around a character we never see, and the second is that the third act is made up almost entirely of a series of monologues by all of the characters talking to Kitty through a gap in the doorway of her hotel room. Most of the characters are probably archetypes or ‘composites’, as Miller said, but there are too many parallels between Kitty and Monroe and Phil and himself to make this anything other than an exorcism of a troubled period sixty-five years before, through guilt perhaps.

I much admired Phil Willmott’s staging and the work of design team Isabella Van Braeckel (set), Penn O’Gara (costumes), Rachel Sampley (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound). Oliver Le Sueur creates a totally believable period perfect rookie producer in Philip. Jeremy Drakes, with the help of some specs perhaps, actually looks like Miller and I very much liked his restrained performance. Rachel Handshaw makes much of her role as assistant Edna, embarking on a relationship with producer Philip. Patrick Bailey looks and sounds every bit the down-to-earth cinematographer Terry. Stephen Billington, Nicky Goldie and Tony Wredden complete the picture with fine characterisations.

For a Miller fan like me, this is a huge treat, but it’s a decent play regardless, and a lot better than the other two of the final trio – Mr Peter’s Connections and Resurrection Blues – which I’d recommend to anyone.

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Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

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