I recently spent two weeks in London and managed to see fourteen plays in fourteen days, spending the meagre sum of 127 pounds on them, mainly for day seats in the first row or for standing. Here is the overview of the plays I’ve seen where:
NT: 5, Globe: 3, Royal Court: 2, Donmar: 1, Wyndhams: 1, Duchess: 1, Old Vic Tunnels: 1
Since both “Chicken Soup with Barley” in the Royal Court and “Luise Miller” in the Donmar have finished, I won’t review them but they were superb!
Royal Court Upstairs, runs until June 23. Director: Maria Aberg. Cast includes Rafe Spall, Fiona Wade, Thomas Morrison, Christine Bottomley
Alaska, the debut play by the young playwright DC Moore, closes tonight at the Royal Court Upstairs. It deals with the mechanisms of power, race and sex within the young staff of a blockbuster cinema. Frank is an university drop-out who justifies his blatant racism through his interpretation of the bible. His colleague Emma, who gives him a “sympathy fuck” explains his behaviour with his hard upbringing and the fact that he lost his father in the Falkland War. The young Chris adores him and plays Dictators Top Trumps with him in their break. When the young Pakistani Mamta joins the staff, the heady mix is set to explode but not necessarily in a way that you expect. At first, it seems as if the plot will follow My Beautiful Laundrette where the racist falls in love with the Asian and the wound of the world is healed. There is a brief moment in Alaska where this seems to be also possible. Mamta declares her love to Frank and takes his hand. For the fraction of a second, Frank seems to be confused what to do next, embarassed by her gentleness and closeness. “What you doing?”? he asks, smiling. But instead of kisses and salvation, he decides to withdraw his hand, “I don’t need you. Touching me”, and lunges into a full blown attack on Mamta who is bound to become his supervisor. Later in the play, he will chillingly fantasise of beating her up, crucifying and finally raping her dead body. But this is much later in the play, when her brother has reduced his face to pulp…. The play is especially strong in describing how sexual and social rejection leads to aggression, not only in the case of Frank but also Mamta who comes crushing down on both Frank and Emma in the end. However, the final revelation that Frank’s father is still alive and that he is in fact a posh kid feels like a major let down. I had the impression that DC Moore didn’t want us to feel too sorry for Frank in the last scene – lonely, unemployment and beaten up – so he invented this final twist which makes Frank’s character rather inconsistent.
Still, this is a remarkable debut for a playwright who is under 25 and a remarkable performance by Rafe Spall who plays Frank. From the moment he enters the stage he is electrifying, capturing the aggression and vulnerability of his character on the dot. His enormous sexual charisma reminded me of Marlon Brando’s performance in A Streetcar named Desire. Aggressive and alluring, he is a character you love to hate. Fiona Spade is weaker as Mamta, only coming into her own in her final confrontation with Frank, shouting that “Emma was genuinely mad for letting you and your tiny white cock anywhere near her.” Christine Bottomley as Emma and especially Thomas Morrison as the besotted Chris give solid supporting performances. The director Maria Aberg chose to overlay the different scenes in the tiny space of the Royal Court Upstairs which works very effectively, especially when Emma and Mamta discuss Frank in the penultimate scene who already lies bruised and battered in the background for the next scene.
Royal Court Downstairs until July 21. Director: Dominic Cooke. Cast includes Matthew Mcfadyen, Sara Stewart, Peter Sullivan, Andrea Riseborough
I don’t know what it is with American plays and films about dysfunctional families, but they always seem to play at Thanksgiving. The ultimate festival of family reunion seems to be the perfect backdrop for a family falling apart. This is the case with Bruce Norris’ play the pain and the itch that first premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2004 and is now shown in the Royal Court. A liberal couple with two small children invites the husband’s socialist mother and his plastic surgeon-cum-republican brother with his Russian girlfriend for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon things are starting to go wrong, or rather they have been wrong all along, with strange teeth marks on avocados and the itchy pants of the little daughter Kayla. The pain and the itch is a deeply symbolical play about the repressions of the so called liberal and progressive middle-class American who is revealed to be as angst-ridden, money driven and hypocritical as his Republican counterpart. Despite its sometimes annoyingly didactic impetus, this is a beautifully constructed play that slowly reveals the story it has to tell.
However the Royal Court production (Dominic Cooke’s premiere as its Artistic Director), although dramatic, entertaining, well acted and at times moving, does not seem to be able to fulfill the full potential of Bruce Norris writing. In my view, this has to do with the way satire and realism are balanced in the play. Cooke puts the emphasis right from the beginning on satire, to the point that the couple played by Matthew Mcfadyen and Sara Stewart appear as caricatures of a liberal couple – he as a wimp, she as a career woman. Later on in the play, Stewart is able to break out of the stereotype but Mcfadyen plays Clay ( I said this was a highly symbolic play) as too much of a buffoon that we could care from him. The point about the play is that these people are meant to be on the fine line between realistic characters and caricatures, likeable and politically aware and at the same time angst-ridden and hypocritical – in short: that they are us. But what we actually see on stage is a couple you wouldn’t want to invite for thanksgiving yourself. So the whole idea of satire as a mirror to the audience is lost as we can’t identify with them. Thankfully, the other roles are played with much more understatement. Clay’s Republican brother Cash (Cash and Clay, gedditt?) is played with wonderful sarcasm by Peter Sullivan, an Art Garfunkel lookalike. Andrea Riseborough gives a moving and funny performance as the Russian girl Kalina in a role that could have turned into pure cliche and Amanda Boxer is tone perfect as the forgetful and chatty grandmother Carol. Abdi Gouhad gives a dignified but slightly cliched Mr Hadid, whose questions both inspire and disrupt the narrative of the thanksgiving dinner.
Filed under "the pain and the itch", bruce norris, dominic cooke, itch, london, matthew mcfadyen, pain, pain and itch, review, royal court, theatre