Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fatal Attraction, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction was a pretty nasty piece of a film-making, but a coldly efficient one; it set out to hit nerves and it succeeded. The character of Alex, as played by Glenn Close, single, childless, superficially confident but deeply needy, tactical self-harmer, a wrecker of homes and a boiler of bunnies, was written to put the fear of god into men of a certain age, and it worked, speaking to the social anxieties of the time and becoming the highest grossing film of 1987 in the process.

And now it’s here in the West End. Not an update, not even an adaptation really. Just the screenplay served up on stage. Very, very little has been done to address how the material might work in a theatrical setting. The biggest change by far is the reinstatement of writer James Dearden’s original ending. Alex was supposed to kill herself at the end of the movie, implicating Michael Douglas’ philandering New York lawyer Dan in her death. It was downbeat, bleak, made much more sense from a psychological perspective (at least within the universe of the movie), and – famously – went down like a lead balloon with audiences during test screenings. So a new ending was shot, in which Anne Archer’s betrayed wife got to blow the bitch away in the bathtub, although evidently neither Lyne nor Dearden were ever particularly pleased with it.

Given all that, it’s possible to see why Dearden might want to revisit the material, if rather harder to grasp what might be in it for anyone else. And because it follows the film so closely (up until the end at least), it’s impossible not to play the scene-by-scene comparison game and to find Trevor Nunn’s stage version wanting. For one thing, the attraction – kind of a crucial element – is pretty much absent. The early flirtation between Mark Bazeley’s Dan and Natascha McElhone’s striking, stylish business woman, Alex, is one of the better realised scenes, but it still doesn’t suggest the kind of heat that would make Dan risk so much so quickly. There’s also very little sex, bar a bit of heavy petting in an elevator: there’s no sweaty bed-sheet action, Bazeley doesn’t get to do that awkward trouser dance round Alex’s glamorous Manhattan loft and her kitchen sink, perhaps mercifully, remains buttock-free

The production is also curiously difficult to locate in time. A decision has clearly been taken not to set the thing in the 1980s. No-one sports a poodle perm, no one smokes, and the clothes are contemporary. But it’s a very odd kind of update. There are a couple of references to email and even one mention of Facebook, but no one has an iPad, no one sends a text, even the iPhones have the tinny rings of much older mobiles. Hardly any attempt has been made to explore the role the internet might play in Alex’s insertion of herself into Dan’s life – the one thing that might have given this production an edge of interest, instead it inhabits a sort of weird half-way space, a feeling only enhanced by the fact the characters spend so much time on the phone, calling – or failing to call – one another, having bitty, broken conversations while standing on opposite sides of the stage.

And then there’s the sexual politics. Obviously extramarital affairs were not the preserve of the 1980s, and the film was pretty ugly and reactionary even for its time, but it was reflective of a certain social, urban unease. Here, again, the production doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself. “Girls like sex as much as boys,” Dan’s sweaty-palmed and recently divorced friend excitedly informs him, as if Sex and the City had never happened (though for all Kristin Davis’s Beth gets to do, it may as well not have done). The suggestion that Alex’s age and childlessness, coupled with the trauma of a past miscarriage, might be the root of her unbalanced behaviour – which is if anything emphasised here – is pretty dizzyingly offensive, regardless of when it’s supposed to be set.

McElhone has a degree of poise and presence as Alex, playing her as a more vulnerable, damaged character than Close did, but if anything her metamorphosis from being a woman rightfully pissed off at Dan’s abandonment to a stabby pixie dream girl is even harder to swallow as a result. Bazeley, meanwhile, just about convinces as a man in too deep; he gets across the character’s spinelessness, but lacks Douglas’ charisma. Occasionally he gets to deliver a few lines of soliloquy/voice-over but these feel as if they’ve been designed to paper over the set changes rather than to offer any psychological insight.

The set changes quite a lot by the way. Sometimes a few moving electric blue panels are used to convey a sense of the city, other sets are more detailed and realist (and fiddly to assemble). There’s also a very large cast for what could well have been played as a two hander, like they’re justifying the high cost of tickets by populating the stage. People are forever strolling purposefully from one side of the set to the other or standing in little whispery huddles that are meant to convey that we are in a “hot new bar” or a busy Manhattan law office.

Nunn seems to give up completely on making the piece theatrically viable towards the end; when Alex makes off with Dan’s daughter and a frantic Beth crashes her car in pursuit, it all happens off-stage, complete with comedy car crash sound effect. The final confrontation between Alex and Dan, in which he’s so incensed he comes close to killing her, plays out as one lumbering clunky fight scene, utterly lacking in momentum. And when the police come for Dan in the concluding moments one of them brings the bloody knife with him in a handy backpack, for the benefit of those who may have dozed off.

In the ending that was originally filmed, Close’s Alex slits her own throat, falling out of frame just as the blood starts to flow, with a few strains of Madame Butterfly playing in the background. Here Nunn has her bathed in red light, wearing a flowing kimono, plunging the knife into her belly, with Callas in full belt. All told, his production has the effect of ridding a thriller of the majority of its thrills (even the bunny boiling is fumbled), stripping the character of Beth of what little agency she ever had and making Lyne’s film feel like an exercise in taste and restraint.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Major Tom, BAC

Though hers is ostensibly a solo show, Victoria Melody is never alone on stage. She shares the space with her beloved basset hound, the Major Tom of the title, a magnificent beast; a creature of melancholic dignity – which he maintains even when being reluctantly made to parade around the stage. Rumpled and stumpy, his snout is framed by a pair of silken conker-coloured ears; he regards a proffered dog treat as if it had disappointed him in some profound way before curling up on his cushion and falling asleep, a state in which he spends most of the show.

The presence of her canine companion adds an extra element of liveness to the piece – every mildly inquisitive lift of his head, every tentative stretch and lumber into a more comfortable corner of the stage, is met with coos and giggles from the audience. This is never disruptive though; his presence is a pleasure, it adds to the show’s charm and warmth, and proves rather fitting in a piece which is, after all, about the culture of display.

Melody is interested in tribes, their codes, rules and rituals. She immerses herself in worlds, allows her life and her work to intersect and overlap in interesting ways. In the case of Major Tom, it’s the world of championship dog show handling she’s exploring while at the same time charting her active involvement in the beauty pageant circuit. She spent a year as Mrs Brighton, attending functions, cutting ribbons, teetering in vertiginous heels across rain-swept car parks, jiving in a tiara at Brighton Pride, before going on to compete for the title of Mrs England. Major Tom meanwhile proves such a hit on the amateur dog show circuit that Melody decides to enter him for Crufts.

The two strands of the show feed on one another. Melody juxtaposes her own physical transformation into beauty queen material – hair extensions, spray tan, endless sessions in the gym to shift the weight she had purposefully piled on over the ‘best Christmas ever’ – with her attempts to break into professional dog show handling with Major Tom. Both are subject to a ridiculous amount of physical scrutiny, prodded and poked, assessed and found wanting. He is deemed to have too big a rib cage, while a plastic surgeon tells Melody her mouth is upside down.

Melody intersperses accounts of her experiences with video footage – including a hilarious montage in which both herself and Major Tom are subject to an intense and somewhat extreme grooming regime. At times there seems to be a dash of Louis Theroux to her approach, though she gets far more deeply immersed and enmeshed in the worlds she’s exploring than he does, rather than remaining a wry outsider. This makes the show more personal, but also in some ways less bladed. The people she meets along the way – the beauticians, her fellow contestants, the various “Brians” of the basset hound world – remain sketches, briefly glimpsed, rather than emerging as characters in their own right. The piece focuses more on the codes and processes, the subtle hierarchies, rather than the people who participate and their motivations for doing so. It’s much less exploitative and uncomfortable as a result but also creates a degree of distance. We’re viewing these universes through her eyes, through her lens.

While I found myself wanting more analysis, I recognise that’s not what Melody was out to do here. She engages with these worlds on their own terms and presents us with their quirks and absurdities as she encounters them, without passing judgement, without drawing conclusions, leaving it all out there for the audience to digest. And as an exercise in light-shining, in briefly granting us a glimpses into shadowed and closed corners of British life, the show is never less than engaging. Melody is an affable, generous performer, funny and honest – and of course she has Major Tom as her stage-mate and sidekick, whose very presence – even while dozing, which he does for roughly 83% of the evening – is brightening.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

Coriolanus is a man of the battlefield. War is a language he speaks with fluency. It is the way he has been raised. But what makes him such a potent force in a time of conflict, a fire-eyed, driven machine of a man, doesn’t translate to the political arena. And this proves his undoing.

Making his return to the Donmar stage, Tom Hiddleston revels in the knottiness and complexity of the character. He last performed here as Cassio in Michael Grandage’s Othello, in which he more than held his own alongside the magnetic, magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor and in many ways eclipsed Ewan McGregor’s Iago. Now – following his Asgardian interlude – he confirms what a capable and engaging stage actor he can be; his performance is one of clarity but it’s also layered: he is proud, courageous, arrogant and vain all at the same time. It’s a very physical performance, he struts and grapples, simmers and winces, and yet he always keeps something back; he won’t give of himself to the people, won’t use his scars as trophies. He bristles at the position into which he has been pushed and fumes at the people in front of whom he must display himself and lay himself bare.
Josie Rourke’s production is an intensely corporeal one, all skin and sweat and blood. It contains some striking imagery: at one point Hiddleston stands before us green-garlanded with blood rivering his face like a red masque of death; later, as the adrenaline of battle dissipates, he flinches and grits his teeth as he bathes the blood of others from his ravaged body. The choreography of the early fight scenes is slick and physical – Coriolanus and his enemy hurl each other about the stage, dashing each other to the floor – but it’s almost too slick, and there are times when you find yourself marvelling at the technical effort involved, at the clank of cutlass on cutlass, at the force with which the punches appear to land, rather than feeling any sense of the rawness and mess of warfare. (Though, at least, when they finally cast their weapons aside and grapple on the floor you do get a glimpse of this).

The cast wear a mixture of leather breastplates and tight black jeans, with neckerchiefs tied at their throats and clothing which is intentionally asymmetric. They wouldn’t look entirely out of place hanging out with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in the subways of 1980s New York. Later the banished Coriolanus wears a cowl so precise in its raggedness that you can almost see the kiddie scissor marks. And, yes, there’s more than a dash of Loki the trickster in these later scenes, as he twists and infiltrates, smiling his enigmatic smile.

The supporting performances are also very strong. Coriolanus’ formidable mother Voluminia is the kind of woman who swells with pride at the thought of her son being wounded on the battlefield and Deborah Findlay gives a fittingly impassioned performance though she doesn’t have the ice-eyed majesty of Vanessa Redgrave, who played the role in the 2011 film (but, then, who does?). Mark Gatiss is soft-spoken and delicately paternal as Coriolanus’ advisor Menenius and the scene of his rejection is one of the play’s most moving, while Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen does what she can with a role that says so much with silence, as the cast-aside wife.

The back wall of the stage is strewn with graffiti (of the actual, spray-painted kind) to which more is added digitally, the slogan “grain at our own price” multiplying and spreading as the soundtrack thumps and pounds. This feels like a misstep, a half-hearted way of insisting on the play’s ‘now-ness’ while also undermining it, and, much like the choice of costumes, making it feel oddly dated. The sense of hunger and want which underscores the text and its exploration of power and the reasons people lead don’t really need to be underlined quite so heavily.

In the end these things don’t really get in the way of what is an engaging production. Hiddleston is a compelling central figure and the visuals are very often memorable, but there’s a gloss and polish to it all, a sense of engineering which subtly undercuts its potency.
Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, November 08, 2013

Blueabeard, Soho Theatre

We do love a monster. It's a recurrent cultural trope - Lecter, Dexter, Dracula - men who can rip you to pieces, who can make you bleed. Hattie Naylor’s monologue dives deep under the skin of one such man as he seeks out submissive women for sexually violent encounters. If the women ask too much of him, if they dare to dig into his past, the encounters are fatally terminated.
Lee Lyford’s production is a pitch black trip into the bloodiest of chambers. Paul Mundell’s performance as this killer of women, this wolf in sharp clothing, is a thing of precision, every word weighted, every vowel relished, every smile controlled and loaded. Though superficially charismatic, there are times when even his eyes seem to blacken with hate. In the middle of this Lyford lets him cut loose and suddenly this measured man is dancing like a wild thing, fists pumping, arms twirling, breath heaving from him in ragged bursts.
Hayley Grindle’s design accentuates the sense of unease, with six slender strip lights glinting like neon ribs and a seventh suspended from chains up above. A leather armchair sits in the centre of the stage like a throne and beneath Mundell’s words there’s a constant ominous under-pulse, enhancing the sense of claustrophobia. The piece loses its footing a little as it nears its resolution and there’s a sense that, in some ways, it feeds the machine it sets out to critique, but for all this it’s still a gripping and incredibly intense experience.
Reviewed for The Stage

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fatherland, Battersea Arts Centre

A circle is chalked on the floor, a space for spell-casting and spirit conjuring. Then the drums begin to thunder, louder, louder, and the woman in the grey suit starts to dance, a series of ritualised movements, toe and heel, arms aloft, the dance of her fathers.

Nic Green’s new show is an exploration of absence, the spaces between people. Can a relationship exist with someone who is not there? Who has never been there? Inspired by Green’s own experiences of meeting her Scottish father for the first and only time as a sixteen year old, Fatherland is about the space we create for ourselves in the world and the way we define ourselves in relation to others, even if they have never really been present in our lives.

We are played into the room by bagpipes and sit arrayed on all four sides of the space. Green begins by assembling a choir of ‘fathers’ from the men in the audience and engages them in a poetic pre-scripted exchange, a refracted conversation with a man she met only once and who she struggles to recall in any real detail, what he looked like, which pub they went to; he’s the ghost in the room, the ghost within her. Her approach is delicate, the man, and the land from which he came, are like invisible tethers tying her to something which is hard to pin down; there’s a drifting quality to the show in the beginning. At times it’s almost too cobwebby, the lilting language cloudlike and lacking in solidity. That’s perhaps the point, the absence of anchor, the sensation of floating free, but from the audience’s perspective there’s not a lot to grab onto; we drift too, but not always with her.

And then the drums kick in. A wild, tribal heart-thump; a primal, pounding sound. Green starts to dance, shedding clothes as she does so. First her jacket, than her shirt, than her trousers, until she’s bare except for her Louise Brooks bob and her tartan-tailed knickers, blue as woad. She dances with her head high, cheeks colouring with the effort and a single streak of sweat licking down her back like a second spine. Her dance combines the quality of a battle cry with the abandonment of dancing around in your bedroom when you know no one is watching, breasts bobbing, flesh quivering with each rhythmic stamp. I look around the room and people are beaming.

Then, as she slows, as the drums still, the whisky bottles emerge. Single malt. Islay. A peaty smell fills the air as we fill our glasses, passing the bottle from hand to hand, row to row. A toast is raised. A couple of people clink their glasses. Then another two, then another, and suddenly the room is filled with the music of the charged glass, as we, smoke- throated, are invited to connect with each other and with her, to share this moment.

Even when the piece is elusive and remote, as it sometimes is in the beginning, there’s a warmth to it, a sense of invitation. This is something Green excels at, having created Trilogy, a three stranded piece exploring contemporary feminism that centred on a celebration of the female form, a gloriously naked dance sequence in which Green, her fellow performers and a whole host of volunteers bared all and invited women in the audience to do the same. While the piece as whole was messy in places and somewhat front-loaded (so to speak), there was something inescapably joyous about that dance: all that jumping, stamping, shaking. The beauty of bodies in motion.

And I was up there with them, one of a hundred or so, naked on the Barbican stage, roaring and leaping, arms in the air, skin bright under the lights. It seems trite to say it, but it was freeing, putting yourself out there like that, letting yourself go; the sense of unity between the participants was strong and Green made sure that the experience was a positive one for all involved, easing us into it, making sure everyone felt comfortable. For someone who finds the idea of public speaking anxiety inducing it was as unexposed as I’ve ever felt in front of an audience and it genuinely made me examine my relationship with my body.

This piece has a similar strength, though this time Green stands alone – dances alone. It’s a more personal, inward piece, but in its roar, in its thunder, it draws its audience together.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, September 28, 2013

London Stories, Battersea Arts Centre

A dialogue review of BAC's new 1-on-1-on-1 festival between myself and Catherine Love. We went on different nights and experienced different routes and a different collection of storytellers.

The full piece is over Exeunt.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Edward II, National Theatre

If Dexter has taught us anything it’s that when the heavy duty plastic sheeting starts gets rolled out things are bound to get messy. Yet in Joe Hill-Gibbins production most of the mess comes before this moment, the cacophony replaced by a quiet, desperate tension, the appalling gentleness of Edward’s inevitable demise made all the more powerful by the noise and excess that came earlier.

Hill-Gibbins’ take on Marlowe has a similar chaotic, near operatic energy to his recent version of The Changeling for the Young Vic. But just as that lost some of its focus and intensity when taken from the smaller Maria studio and blown up and out to fill the Main House, this too feels a bit hyper-aware of the size of the space it’s required to fill.

The opening sequence has a kind of familiar gloss, an almost Donmar-ish aesthetic, as John Heffernan’s king sits upright on his throne, his crown gleaming against a cloth of gold. But when the curtain lifts we’re instead presented with a series of stage flats, MDF battlements, stripped-down, fragile, transitory. Lizzie Clachan’s design takes full advantage of the depth and height of the Olivier with Hill-Gibbins again making interesting use of closed doors, spaces into which we can’t quite see, rooms in which conspiracies can be hatched amid silver curls of cigarette smoke.

After the opening coronation scene, the production becomes increasingly stylistically layered, making much use of Brechtian title cards and video, running Headlong into Katie Mitchell territory. It’s an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, chock-full of references. Live recorded footage is used to convey a sense of up-the-nostril Blair Witch proximity to a world that might otherwise seem remote on the cavernous stage. One memorable sequence, which recalls the meta-theatrical playfulness of Rupert Goold’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, uses the external architecture of the National Theatre itself – its turrets and stairwells, its blocky concrete eminence – as a backdrop for the introduction of Spencer and Baldock. The cry of ‘drums’ becomes a defining one, with a throbbing, pulsing, humming running through things.

Yet at times it feels more like a tick-list of directorial influences rather than a cohesive universe. There are sinister helmeted henchmen – Three Kingdoms by way of Knightmare – and much gleeful anachronism. But this approach pays off in the end: as Edward’s balsa wood kingdom is toppled, the production stills itself too and the final scenes have a chilling and bleak power.

When fully robed in the opening scenes, Heffernan’s Edward combines the studied regal air of Eddie Redmayne’s Richard II with something of Disney’s other lion king; in the beginning he’s bratty and petulant, a foot stamper rather than a thumb-sucker, albeit one with a massive hard-on for Koyle Soller’s Gaveston, a drainpipe-jeaned yank outsider who makes a parkour-style entrance from the stalls, bounding onto the stage, wrapping himself around Edward’s body, locking lips. In an apt yet poignant piece of mirroring, Soller will later be the one to finish Edward when he returns as the assassin Lightbody. Despite the ominous expanse of plastic sheeting, there is no blood, just one lone broken man, the life leaking from him.

Good as both Heffernan and Soller are, they’re matched by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s deeply charismatic Mortimer and by Vanessa Kirby, whose crimson Isabella has the calculating aspect of Cersei Lannister. Near mute in the first half of the play and wearing a wig last seen on Guy of Gisbourne in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, Bettrys Jones’ Prince Edward really comes to life in the last few scenes, to unnerving effect; there’s strong support too from Kirsty Bushell and Penny Layden in some creative examples of cross-gender casting.

The production might well place the visual ahead of the lyrical, it might take a craft knife to some of those ‘mighty lines’ but these plays aren’t going anywhere, they can take it. It does however fall short of the queasy, bloated brilliance of Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling, but that’s perhaps because it keeps its foot hovering just over the brake, it never quite lets rip, it never quite floors it, even though it threatens to on occasion.

Reviewed for Exeunt