Friday, 29 May 2009

Friends like these

From the advertising blurb it sounded very God of Carnage – y, so I was keen to take a look, but our visit to Amongst Friends at the Hampstead Theatre was a bit doomed from the start. Firstly the Jubilee line was closed so we had to take a circuitous tube journey, wading through a tide of homeward bound football fans. Then, when we arrived at our seats we found a trio of pensioners complete with walking sticks and hearing aids already installed. Upon investigation, yes, Hampstead Theatre had managed to sell the seats first to me, then again to the interlopers. As they had possession, there were only two seats remaining in the whole theatre, and to wrestle them out of the place altogether would be a bit undignified, we decided to accept the compensatory half time G&Ts and back row of the stalls as a bit of a result overall.. Until the play started that is, when it became apparent that the main theme here was going to be good actors brought to their knees by a dodgy script. We silently willed them to make the best of it, but by the second half it was clear there was nothing that could be done.

So, what was the problem? Well, the biggest issue was the script stuffed with every storyline that could be squeezed in. There was an interesting basic plot of two marriages under strain, and added to this were affairs, death of a (possibly fictional) child, an MP and Iraq scandal, hastily added lines about expenses, violence and crime, nervous breakdowns, drug addiction, blackmail, the angst of the real-wood-flooring classes, the scariness and pathos of the lower classes, ethics of publicity and privacy, agoraphobia, grief, suicide. The really sad thing is that there was an interesting play struggling to get out, but dying for lack of a good editor.

The actors all did a fair job actually… Helen Baxendale was wearing her brittle persona, which was fine for her character, and James Dreyfuss was impressive, with a real stage presence. Vicki Pepperdine did her best but her character was just not believable, irritating rather than catalytic, simplistic and just patronising.

My main feeling at the end was that this was a waste of a great cast, theatre and set. But overall, not a waste of our time, as our fantasy redrafting and editing kept us occupied all the way home.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Frontline

The Frontline at the Globe is sold as an edgy piece of theatre, suitable for the young, hip and happening*.

The Globe wasn’t full when I visited, and that always affects the dynamics in this theatre, making it harder to get everyone warmed up . The play is set outside a tube station, and we quickly meet some regular characters, including a hot dog salesman who performs the function of narrator and interpreter at key points. The ‘turn off your phones’ message is delivered as a rap, and the opening scene includes a happy clappy gospel number which, combined with the leaflets being handed out to the groundlings, makes the exhortation to come and be ‘saved’ feel suitably appealing and uncomfortable at the same time. There are some pretty stock characters, the tart with a heart, the young wild lad heading for trouble (actually there are a few of them!) and an aspiring actor using a phone box to make increasingly desperate attempts to get someone to attend his performances. The simultaneous storylines and overlapping speech do a good job of simulating the experience of standing in a busy street corner, catching odd sentences as they come into earshot. This certainly means you have to concentrate but made it more interesting and rewarding when you did actually catch what was being said on the other side of the stage. It reminded me a bit of Market Boy at the National theatre, but the use of the Globe performance space did take things to a new level. This is definitely a play that would be killed dead by a proscenium arch.

The programme includes a mini introduction about British imperialism and it tried hard to discuss the plight of people pitched up in the middle of London as flotsam and jetsom far from families and familiar cultures. Despite the obviousness of the some of the agenda, overall it worked, and the effect was to get me interested and involved so that I did care about the characters and what happened to them.

So, an enjoyable and interesting night out. What also struck me though is that although this play was discussing many themes similar to England People Very Nice, it largely reinforced my own views. This made it quite comfortable and reassuring, and much as that is very nice, it didn’t really challenge me in the same way. Overall, I think that is a bit of a shame.

Another thing that made me really sad was that when about half a dozen young black lads in hoodies wandered in to join the groundlings I immediately thought that they must be part of the cast. Even worse, I was right. Wouldn’t it have been great if I was wrong, and all I had to confront was my own assumptions?

*these choices of phrase may highlight how near (or possibly how far) my own finger is from the pulse of contemporary culture.

Monday, 4 May 2009

England Person Still Bemused

Well, I've been mulling it over for a few weeks now, and I'm still no closer to a conclusion on England People Very Nice. So, I've decided just to put my thoughts down anyway.

The play we see is ostensibly written and acted by some immigration detainees awaiting letters to tell them whether they can stay in Britain, and this device is given a little shake every now and then to remind us that this is just a play and an interpretation of events.

The first half consists of a series of short episodes showing waves of immigrants to Bethnal Green being persecuted, falling in love and integrating, with the same actors playing similar characters in each scenario. Racist language and viewpoints are given plenty of airing, as are pretty much any racial or cultural stereotyping you can think of, and this is both unsettling and very funny.

The second half settles down to tell the story of immigration during and after the second world war, using similar devices as during the first half, with another series of cross cultural romances. However, this time the integration is portrayed as stuttering along, and I didn't quite know what to make of that.

Another thing I couldn't quite decide about was the drama workshop feel about some of the scenes, as if the characters and situations had been given to a group of 6th formers in Surrey to see what they could make of it. As the play is ostensibly workshopped by the immigration centre detainees, at one level this could be quite clever. That didn't stop it feeling a bit clunky though.

Does the play use unacceptable stereotypes? Yes. Does it intend to be racist? No. Is it unintentionally racist? I still don't know.

The intention seems to be to show the wider sweep of immigration and how the same pattern of the shock of the new, followed by intermingling, followed by integration and new waves heading out to Redbridge and the suburbs is followed by each succeeding group. I can see that we were supposed to put the various stereotypes in context, and the fact that this often felt very uncomfortable is probably quite important. It felt uncomfortable because many of these stereotypes are still live, but at another level it could equally be misinterpreted as revealing some kind of (quite banal) truth. And therein lies my difficulty. I can quite see how this could be taken as an attack on immigration or on various cultures.

On balance though, although (or perhaps because) the play has plenty of flaws, this was something well worth seeing. It has made me think through my cosy lefty views, and although I have ended up where I started, I have been on an interesting journey.