Sunday 11 September 2011

Poliakoff's My City at the Almeida, or Getting a Bit Too Lost in London

Note: This is a review of the first preview performance on Thursday 9th September 2011.

This was my first encounter with Stephen Poliakoff as playwright (I'm not even sure I ever seen any of his television dramas). It is also Poliakoff's first stage play for 14 years. I'm afraid on the strength of this evening it hasn't altogether been worth waiting for.

The play concerns a meeting between two ex-pupils (Richard (Tom Riley) and Julie (Sian Brooke)) and three of their former teachers (Lambert (Tracey Ullman), Minken (David Troughton) and Summers (Sorcha Cusack)). The narrative of a long night spent in each other's company is then interspersed with assemblies from days past conducted by the three teachers.

The central dramatic punch of the play ought to come from the present day encounter of this ensemble but somehow Poliakoff leaves key elements unexplained. It is never clear, for instance, why these three teachers have remained so closely associated. The implication seems to be that they are all in some way troubled, scarred but the explanations given for this struck me as rather hollow. Summers rants about how children aren't allowed to be children anymore; Minken complains about London now being a dirty violent city. These didn't really seem to me to get at the heart of who these characters were and meanwhile, particularly in Minken's case, much more key issues never get explored – why is he packing up his flat? How does his wife (conveniently banished by the playwright to Australia) factor into the rest of his life? It's rather as if messages have got in the way of characterisation. The context for Ullman's character works slightly better but she's such a dominating figure that I found the twist at the end, and her opening herself up to the frankly obnoxious Richard, difficult to believe. The other big problem with the teachers side of the story is the veering between a credible set of retired people and the distinctly creepy elements of some of their activities (particularly in the case of Minken's collection from years of teaching). The play can't seem to decide whether it's reality or fantasy, both elements are present and they tend to undermine rather than reinforce each other.

Then we come to the pupils. I can't decide whether it's the fault of the play or of Tom Riley's performance, but something about it grated on me badly. I found him sufficiently obnoxious that I really could not see why Ullman should saddle herself with him and again the twist in Act Two just didn't seem to emerge organically from the character so far established. Riley and Brooks seemed to come from a not wholly dissimilar world to that portrayed by D.C. Moore in his recent The Swan at the National but they don't measure up to Moore's rounded, emotionally convincing characters.

There are moments of power here of which the strongest one is the recollection of Minken telling the school in assembly of how his Jewish father escaped Nazi occupied Vienna. Troughton delivers it in a compelling, understated way and it packs a real punch. But the emotional connection made her rather reveals the shortage of the same elsewhere.

I've said nothing so far about Lez Brotherston's design and this is because there isn't really a great deal to say. There are one or two striking things, most especially the children's pictures preserved by Minken and developed in collaboration with schools. Elsewhere it creates generally effective visual environments but can't by itself get past the play's problems.

For, ultimately, this is a play that doesn't seem able to decide whose story it is trying to tell, and doesn't know when to stop telling it. Granted this was a first preview so things may tighten up, but I find it difficult to see how a faster pace will deal with the issues there seem to me to be with the way the piece is written. Some good performances notwithstanding I can't especially recommend this one.

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