Thursday 30 November 2017

Labour of Love in the West End, or, Ultimately Ducking the Question

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 25th November 2017.

In advance of this show I was disposed to like it having been strongly impressed by James Graham's This House at the National and Ink at the Almeida. Interesting issues are raised and there are some funny moments, but ultimately Graham can't quite decide whether he is writing a political drama or a romantic comedy, and ducks the final hard question.

The play tracks Labour MP for Ashfield, David Lyons, backwards from his 2017 election defeat to his first by-election victory in the late 80s, and then forward again to 2017 in Act Two. Graham's structuring is certainly clever and brave, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along say – though granted that simply goes back in time. Graham doesn't quite find the richness that a truly great use of such a structure could yield where lines or interactions sting in different ways depending on the period, and where all the characters are completely convincing creations whose changing nature we understand better for having followed them in this way.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Albion at the Almeida, or, Time for a Moratorium on State of the Nation Plays

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 18th November 2017.

Mike Bartlett's new play is anxious to tell us about the state of England. So anxious that he hammers the point home in the title and on several other occasions in the body of the play. England, in this instance, is like a garden. A garden in which, it seems, a lot of pretty unpleasant people are trapped with each other. Unfortunately, after what felt a pretty long three hours, I was convinced neither that this was an illuminating representation of England, nor in these individual characters and their relationships.

Bartlett's premise is that Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton), a successful businesswoman, has left her London life and bought a run down mansion with extensive garden somewhere rural (possibly the precise location is mentioned but it didn't stick in my mind). The house was previously owned by a great uncle, who constructed a massive and allegedly pioneering landscape garden. Now that I reflect on this it seems to me something is awry with the chronology because the relative in question is supposed to construct at least some of the garden on his return from World War One, but I feel sure that the history of landscape gardening goes back rather further than that. Despite some laboured expository passages on the matter quite why the garden was so significant never really comes into focus. The same insufficiency of illumination applies to Audrey's decisions first to buy the house and reconstruct the garden and by the end to abandon the whole business.

Monday 13 November 2017

Network at the National, or, I'm Feeling Bored

Note: This is a review of the matinee preview on Saturday 11th November 2017. The press night is this evening.

About midway through this long two hour show a performer demands to know how we are feeling. We're expected to join in a collective applauding of fictitious TV anchor Howard Beale and shouting out of his catchphrase (“I'm mad and I'm not gonna take it anymore”). As far as I'm concerned theatre has to earn my participation, persuade me to become complicit in such an act. This failed. I was bored and I quietly said so.

I haven''t seen the 1976 film on which this show is based, but a read of the plot on-line, scan of quotations on IMDb and a viewing of the trailer suggests that Lee Hall has made a pretty fair copy of the original. Looking at the trailer there is a noticeable difference to the emotional pitch – zany, tending to crazed, which this wearily slow-paced version fails to match. But I also wonder if the politics of the film – the power of television, the threat of a faceless corporate America, were more original and provocative in 1976 than they feel now. I felt I was listening to lectures on these matters I have heard frequently before and which, as so often at Norris's National, were not subjected to sufficient on-stage critique.