[Theatre review] How The Other Half Loves

How The Other Half Loves, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

How The Other Half Loves

It would barely be an insult to say that the cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s ingenious farce is out-acted by the set. It wouldn’t be true – every one of the six parts is sharply delivered by the actors, whose acute sense of timing makes ever punchline a fresh surprise and every character something more than a cog in the comic machinery. But, when the stage design is this good, it couldn’t be considered a slight on anyone’s skill.  

Performed in the round, this extraordinarily funny play demands that two different domestic sets – one immaculate upper-middle class, one untidy lower-middle – can be created from the same props in the same scene. On the half-lit stage, furniture is dismantled and recombined in strange cut-and-shut shapes with an easy audacity that matches the outrageous (yet precisely designed) separations and attachments that take place (or are assumed to take place) between the three married couples.

For a farce, the problem is to push the characters embarrassment to the point where it’s excruciating for the audience, but never so far that things can’t be put back to how they were for the end of the final act. Here, it’s a well-crafted magic trick – the audience never quite knows where things are going, but Ayckbourn has every angle covered. 

The ecstatic laughter comes, not just from the characters’ sly and increasingly frantic evasions, but also from the play’s daring escape from every seeming impasse of the plot. (The slapstick gag that ends the first half and unites the two onstage rooms is a perfectly-executed example.) How The Other Half Loves plays its audience hard, but never cheats – or, if it does, the rippling pleasure of the constant laughter it gives you is enough to make you embrace it anyway.

*****

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Theatre review: The Caravan

The Caravan performed by Look Left, Look Right at the Ustinov, Bath

the caravan

Look Left Look Right bring their audience onto the stage with them. Performed in a rickety-looking caravan by a cast of four to groups of six, the actors are never more than a few feet away from the playgoers seated on the built-in sofa, and are always performing with rather than to them. The interaction is subtle – the actors look you in the face as they speak, offer round a plate of custard creams, and occasionally brush against you as they move around the tiny space – but profound.

The Caravan, you see, isn’t a fiction: it’s theatre-verité, the script drawn from interviews with those affected by the 2007 floods, and delivered in extraordinarily conversational style (possibly directly imitating the original recordings, which are available to listen to before the show). There’s an incalculable tension is every hesitation and forgetful second, and you wonder how the actor will get to the end of the line.

It’s in the bathos of small losses that the grave horror of losing home and security is revealed: the possessions that are rediscovered washed halfway up a tree, the laminate that’s relaid in the wrong direction. In the intimate world of The Caravan, you feel those losses too. Superb.

stars copy

Edit 11 August 2009 Related: “Washed out”

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. This piece originally appeared in Venue, issue 877.

[Theatre review] If I Were A Carpenter

if-i-were-a-carpenterOriginally published in Venue, issue 855. It’s not quite a kicking, but it’s a fair summary of the least enjoyable experience I’ve ever had to slap a number on.

The Provocation company takes a hammer to the idea of social mobility in this new play by Dougie Blaxland, and most of the blows fall short of the target. If I Were A Carpenter presents three families (aspirational upper-middle class, beleaguered working class, and miscreant underclass) facing various cultural and economic crises, all ending in almightily signposted tragedy.

The five-actor cast makes game work of portraying multiple interlinked characters, though the sudden shifts can be disconcerting with only the adoption of some wobbly northern accents to steer the audience through (because the poor are always with us, and they always come from Yorkshire). Additionally, the cast take on the role of chorus, declaiming awkward couplets in the person of various institutions: government, NHS, DVLA (not really), UCAS (really).

But by presenting the instruments of state as the impersonal agents of social repression nurturing what one character calls “the conveyor belt generation”, the play misses the most potent satirical point: institutions fail most often by cock-up, not conspiracy. The flat characters fail to ignite any feeling for the stereotyped issues, and in the end, carpentry doesn’t even come into it. It’s just used as a cipher for honourable manual labour, but the play is so clumsy there’s no sign of workmanship at all.

**

IF I WERE A CARPENTER, RONDO THEATRE, BATH, WED 4 FEB TO SAT 7 FEB.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Image from Provocation.

Theatre Review: Romeo And Juliet

Originally published in Venue, issue 829. Venue’s teaser for Globe Touring’s upcoming performance of A Winter’s Tale in Bristol describes the show I review below as “triumphant”, so apparently my editor would have bumped the final score up by a star.

Globe Touring: Romeo And Juliet

The play might have a rep for romance, but the love story is the palest part of this outdoor Romeo and Juliet. Alan Morrissey and Dominique Bull in the leads come off second best to the physical comedy of their respective foils – a dashing, clowning Mercutio in the shape of Nitzan Sharron, and Marsha Henry’s bawdy, bustling nurse (although by casting the one black actor as a big smutty servant, the production picks up an unsavoury tang of Gone With The Wind). An emphasis on broad comedy and low violence keeps the play brisk and sharp, even though the lovers’ lack of spark means you occasionally forget just why everyone is rushing headlong to the crypt.

After nightfall, the production picks up atmosphere for the last two acts. The staging (featuring a VW Camper and two strings of fairy lights) becomes transformative in the dark, and the venue – an old bowling green, sunken and secluded – comes to life. The leads’ awkward imitation of teenage infatuation gives way to a much more satisfying portrayal of desperation, and the pall-bearing finale is almost a tear-jerker. But so long as you remember the umbrella and the picnic, there’s really no need to cry.

***

ROMEO AND JULIET, BRANDON HILL PARK, BRISTOL, THURS 31ST JULY – SUN 3RD AUGUST

Theatre Review: Trade It?

Originally published in Venue, issue 824. Since I wrote this, Show of Strength have received word of a recommendation to Bristol City Council to cut completely the funding they receive. SOS are urging people to show their support for the company by writing to the council (postal and email addresses on the SOS page).

Show of Strength: Trade It?

Show of Strength’s newest piece turns the back alleys and open spaces of Bristol into impromptu stages for a series of ten ten-minute vignettes on the Fair Trade City. Bristol became great through the brutal iniquities of slavery, but the port which once made its money from the buying and selling of people has now become just the place to pick up some ethically produced groceries and organic textiles. Some pieces (the haunted monologue of “Noah”) reinvest the city with the horrors of its past; others (the thrillingly demented “Bag And Baggage”, with Nadia Williams) confront the idea that post-emancipation, slavery has only been displaced to other victims on other continents under the guise of market forces. It’s uncomfortable viewing at times, and not just because the first hour is spent walking the city (alternatively, the Saturday matinee is presented entirely at Temple Church Gardens), but with a satisfyingly rude wit and charismatic performances, Trade It? moves nimbly around subjects which too often invite worthiness.

Having only a short time to establish each character, and a complicated set of issues to hang on them, Trade It? runs close to cliché a few times (one piece, “Original Skins”, loads up the telling details a little too high and sacrifices theatre to theory). However, a sharp sense of drama and a keen eye for the ironies of exploitation ensures that the show almost never stumbles into predictability. Covering a riot of genres – absurdist allegory, kitchen sink drama, huckster sideshow (with expert tumbler) – Trade It? keeps the audience on their feet throughout. But disparate as the pieces may seem, there are powerful associations at work between them. “Big-Mouth Strikes Again” threatens to be a straw-man portrait of a white racist, but Dan Winter’s performance takes a swerve from antagonism into pathos, and the segment becomes even more interesting when “Calling A Spade A Spade” dissects the etymology of racial insults and empties them of meaning.

Under the direction of Robin Belfield, the actors combine naturalism (early on, there are moments of exciting hesitation as the audience gauges whether the latest person to wander along is an actor, or just an unfortunate pedestrian passing through) with the vigour it takes to fill an open space. And throughout, viewers are called on to participate: chanting to summon a zombie, calling out the punchlines to politically dubious jokes, playing the guests at a tense inter-racial wedding – it’s impossible to be a passive spectator. So when the evening concludes with a painfully funny skit on the ethics of global trade, the audience is already a part of the action, and ready to take home the play’s fair-trade moral along with the fair-trade goodie bag. ****

Trade It? Bristol City Centre (starts at Horse and Rider statue, Lewins Mead; finishes temple church gardens), Tues 24 June-Sun 6 July.