Nuclear War, Royal Court Theatre

Nuclear War, Royal Court Theatre

In his playtext introduction, Nuclear War writer Simon Stephens talks about the tyranny of authorial intent, sharing the responsibility of interpreting the text amongst the cast, and “kicking the shit out” of what’s been written to produce something like a true artistic collaboration; a licence to free associate on paper and on stage. This long Pseuds’ Corner entry, roughed up with a little swearing to vouchsafe the author’s edgy credentials, transfers to the performance, talk of entropy and existential angst peppered with asides on fucking, the playwright’s word. Orgasm negates death, we learn. But what’s really been negated here is intellectual coherence.

At the end of Nuclear War we’re left with a circle of bricks, some tea cups, a plant, the last of someone’s digestive biscuits, and a lot of questions. Bewildered faces, bored faces, solemn faces; that’s the audience’s contribution to this collaborative interpretation. What was this fifty-minute trawl through one sombre woman’s id (Maureen Beattie) actually about? Is the titular war just a metaphor for anomie, dislocation, the fag-end of mortality and psychological desolation? Or might the landscape of her troubled mind be a reaction to a literally devastated environment – one in which the species is indeed under threat, hence the need for all that fucking? Where a taunting chorus dress in black, as though burned, and the artefacts of a broken civilisation litter the scene – bricks, the last of the food, overturned furniture, old china.

We don’t know and can’t know. Instead, Imogen Knight’s production invites us to sample the mood, imbibe the nightmarish atmospherics, reel from the hallucinogenic sound and lighting, and submit to the performance’s  appropriation (play seems a strong word) of troubled cognition – a world of ideas and ponderables, rather than anything passé like thematic coherence and characterisation.

Nuclear War’s a spectacle; a study in anxiety that produces some vivid tableaus. But this is the kind of show that’s done to you, rather for than for you. The staging means blindspots for choosing a seat in the wrong part of the studio, but it hardly matters. You’re either going to get off on lines like, “the balletic possibility of embarrassment” and other cliché overkill like “kiss my eyelids”, or you’ll be decidedly unmoved.

Stephens might have added something like a narrative to anchor all this philosophic reflection and voiding of emotions, but one suspects that would have narrowed interpretation, liberating critical reaction. “I don’t want to talk about themes and content” he writes in the aforementioned introduction. One can see why.

The Kid Stays in the Picture, Royal Court

The Kid Stays in the Picture, Royal Court

Bringing the memoir of Hollywood Legend Robert Evans to the stage was always going to be a challenge. How to do justice to the sweep of the story, from lowly women’s clothing salesman to tinseltown mover and shaker, without the infinite temporal and spatial possibilities of the man’s signature medium?

The answer is Simon McBurney’s Complicite; a company that takes live video, text, audio and performance and folds them into one mesmerising package. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a breathless, kinetic piece of theatre that takes its thematic cues from film, not least Evan’s signature work – Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, here employed as thumping great metaphors for his private life and business practices.

McBurney’s production uses the mantra impressed on Evans by Hollywood heavyweights like Darryl Zanuck and Charles Bluhdorn as its starting point – namely what’s real isn’t nearly as important as what looks real. This is the structuring principle of American cinema, the philosophy of “printing the legend” as famously espoused by John Ford.

Evans’ career began in the shadow of the Golden Age and reached its peak with the American New Wave. In between, there was the counterculture and blowback like the Manson Family murders, which Evans narrowly avoided on account of being too busy to attend Sharon Tate’s fateful social. It’s a story full of colour, noise, monstrous egos and big money, serving magnificent artifice. Complicite’s approach, a great audio visual showcase, is therefore styled in tribute rather than born of any desire to deconstruct or strip back the man under glass.

The legend is what you pay for and the legend is what you get, with all the zing and brio preserved from the page. The myth maker is given his own all-American myth, Complicite’s complicity signalled with heightened recreations of all the key figures, as Evans recalled them, including one-time wife and actress Ali MacGraw, here indistinguishable from her Love Story persona.

It’s fast, perhaps frivolous; a show with no time to ponder the more tragic elements of Evans’ life – his legacy of relationship failure, the drugs, the murder of Roy Radin – but in a life this packed and dedicated to illusion, who’s got the time or the information? Ultimately, McBurney puts on a great show and leaves the audience basking in the aura of a self-mythologising honcho. One imagines the man Joe Eszterhas called “the devil” will have no complaints.

Wisdom of a Fool, Lost Theatre

Wisdom of a Fool, Lost Theatre

You remember Norman Wisdom don’t you? A music hall colossus, a lovable Gump, Britain’s answer to Jerry Lewis, Mr Grimsdale’s nemesis and the genetic material from which Lee Evans was later grown in a lab. He’s an entertainer remembered with great affection, perhaps by none more than Jack Lane, who’s built a one-man show around the great man; a whistle-stop tour of his life and career.

Lane’s high energy performance is a great act of reverence. The danger for a show like this is that it’s little more than a tribute act, but what Lane’s managed to achieve is something like a theatrical autobiography. This is Wisdom’s story but told his way, pitched to his audience. The real world, in terms of characterisation, takes a back seat to a heightened music hall reality of comic exaggeration, prat falls, sight gags, song and word play.

Lane inhabits Wisdom and has given serious thought to how the funny man would present his own backstory. Not with sombre interludes or moments of gritty realism, but with the kind of verve and silliness his audience came to love. Consequently, it has the feel of something like an audience with the young Norman. The lows are there but so is the Gump, there to pull back and keep it light when necessary. That well-observed regard for audience sensibilities makes such moments more poignant, somehow. Lane knows that for Wisdom it was all about keeping the crowd happy.

This feels like the appropriate register for this particular story; after all Wisdom was his own creation – a non-threatening, non-cynical, innocent entertainment persona who, the play notes, provided escapism both for audiences and the man himself. Psychoanalysing Wisdom carries the risk that all judgements are retrospectively applied, too clean, but supposing that he became a workaholic from fear of returning to poverty and embraced audiences as a means of making up for the lack of love and attention in his childhood, feel like safe bets.

Ultimately, it’s easy to see why Wisdom of a Fool has been wholeheartedly endorsed by the entertainer’s family. It’s a warm and funny celebration of the man’s tenacity, work ethnic and talent. Fans of that period – the era of Rank Films, variety theatre and their import to film and TV, will find Lane’s show highly evocative. Those wishing to introduce their kids to Wisdom’s oeuvre won’t find a better introduction.

To complement the run of Wisdom of a Fool the Lost Theatre (in association with the BFI) will present Norman Wisdom Show [Saturday Spectacular] ATV 1957. A long-thought lost recording of a Norman Wisdom variety show which will air complete.

The screening will be supplemented by further clips and will be introduced by BFI TV Historian Dick Fiddy and Norman Wisdom’s biographer Richard Dacre. TRT 90 mins

Date: Saturday 11th March

Time 12:30pm

Tickets: to buy tickets either call 020 7720 6897 or click here (bkg fees apply)

The Missing Article on Theatre Etiquette


Curmudgeonly Imelda Staunton, currently appearing in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, caused a stir when she convinced the Harold Pinter theatre to slap a ban on patrons eating during the show. “Out of consideration for the actors and fellow audience members, we ask that no food be consumed during the performance,” they intoned. And Staunton followed it up with a terse statement, of the kind given when people haven’t eaten properly, in which she decried the propensity of the herd to munch through her performances, as if their lives depended on their bodies being supplied with sustenance at regular intervals. Naturally, a debate on theatre etiquette, elitism and snobbery followed, which was going nowhere until I tapped out this shit.

Let me declare my interest. I’m a product of all that 19th century intellectualism and its mission to exclude the masses from culture that…

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a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), Royal Court Theatre

a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), Royal Court Theatre

Why is the title of debbie tucker green’s play just love’s definition sans the word? Well, Green, who I capitalise because I demand a certain discipline with language, like the patriarchal pig I am, doesn’t like capital letters. Calling the play “Love” would mean the horror of upper case, a masculine take on a universal. Why are we talking about gendered language? Because it’s the play’s structuring theme; conversations between men and women in which three couples, forming a lineage of relationship failure, fall victim to cyclical forms of misunderstanding – men vying for status and full-spectrum dominance over their circumstances; women complaining they’re not listened to, never apologised to, not understood. And this pattern, though repeated in one couple after the other, across a generation, isn’t a strict binary. The arguments overlap and intersect, the generations mirror one another. To underline the point, the actors draw overlapping circles and mirrored symbols on the three walls of a peninsular platform.

It’s a frustrating evening, not least because one’s forced to sit on one of several hard swivel stools lining the studio’s corridor. You’re forced to choose a side, take a position, with the actors talking across the audience from opposing walls. Only Anthony Head, it seems, had the optimal all-seeing view on press night, so let’s call that sweet spot the Head space.

Assuming you only plan to pay once, do you need to see both sides of each argument? Controlling the audience this way compels them to focalise on a single character’s perspective, or the lyrical dialogue behind them with its verse-like patter and elisions, or indeed the chalked walls, that offer that symbolic representation of the play’s design. This alienation complements the play’s level of abstraction. As the title suggests, green’s more concerned with how love manifests itself and is defined in situ, rather than reducing it to a thought terminating cliché or concept fart.

One has to approach the piece like the long three stanza poem it is. The meaning’s embedded in dense, conspicuously compressed language that’s occasionally dotted with the odd undisciplined line of realist dialogue, to vouchsafe its sponsorship from the world outside. It looks better on the page than it does when spoken; it’s showboating; but it can also be poignant, harrowing and truthful, when it forgets to dazzle the audience with linguistic pyrotechnics. Consequently, we intuit the themes of loss, breakdown and legacy without having the time or information to linger on the details. You’re forced to work for something like melodrama, repackaged as a thing of substance.

The performances are uniformly excellent, not least from Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Lashana Lynch whose troubled family life is the spur for what follows, but plays like a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun) aggressively hold you at arm’s length, forcing you to reflect, while removed, on how complete a work you’re witness to. The conclusion here is that we’re simply not given the orientation or the depth of characterisation required to gain anything other than a melancholy impression. That’s the definition of deficient.

Will Power, Theatre N16

Will Power, Theatre N16

Warning: This review alludes to the play’s ending.

Any man who chooses a life treading boards, in whatever form, knows a little something about masculinity in crisis. Real men, it’s understood, have very limited cultural horizons, are not interested in self-expression beyond socially acceptable norms like brawling and aggressive, animal-like fucking, and see women as props rather than people; certainly not an emotional being you’d interact with and learn from – a whetstone for one’s character (sorry, I can’t help objectify, curse my loins).

Toby Boutall’s play recreates this psychic prison with such fidelity that one can almost touch the walls and smell the faeces smeared thereon. It begins with the quintessence of boorish blokishness; men screaming “fuck off” at the audience, singing football songs and circling like pack animals. You hope the irony and self-awareness will soon spill forth and liberate you from Danny Dyer’s tortured id. But when the narrator and chief William, in a quartet of Wills – a band of brothers, a gabble of geezers, forces himself on an audience member (fingered as the boys’ mother) and the only female character is an unreconstructed flake, swooning at our reluctant hardon, we start to wonder. We’re right to; this is theatre, so there’s bound to be some learn’d middle class insight coming down the pipe, but curiously Boutall’s in no hurry to share it.

For much of its running time, Will Power looks and sounds like a theatrical recreation of one of those nineties’ Brit-Pop movies; wide-boy fests like Human Traffic. There’s a cheeky narrator, broad comic types as friends, a love interest, out of touch parents, and an eclectic soundtrack. It’s turgid and later we learn it was meant to be thus; just the repressed imaginings of a preening cock of the walk, who wants more, needs more, but doesn’t have the support network or emotionally literate friends from which to draw strength. He’s a typical man in the worst way; stifled and hopeless, without really understanding why.

But the structure of Boutall’s play, with this fundamental insight withheld until the very end, works against the material. Identifying with the narrator is tough, because for so long there’s little sense of the conflict between his persona and his inner monologue; there’s no incongruity. Boutall will say that’s the point – he can’t talk about it, but that lack of signaling makes much of the play seem shouty and superficial.

There are moments of high emotion in the events portrayed but they’re a tough sell when our storyteller’s so disengaged. By the time we learn the truth, we have nothing invested in that character, so feel nothing. Adopting flippant as the play’s emotional register may accurately reproduce the tenor of some male lives, but it robs the audience of its opportunity to see past that lie, become involved and ultimately share the pain.

One’s left with the feeling that the play, ironically, is stifled by its inability to speak truth to its audience.

This Is Not Culturally Significant, Vaults Theatre

This Is Not Culturally Significant, Vaults Theatre

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Does Adam Scott-Rowley need to be naked for the duration of this absurdist monologue, as he shapeshifts between comic grotesques for a state of the nation dickaround? Is it a patron baiting gimmick or redundant, like my man gland?

Well, the nudity literalizes the conceit that Rowley is raw human material, repurposed as required. Other performers become with their clothes on of course, but not all are attempting to strip back their characterizations – yes, this is one of those reviews where the metaphors write themselves. There’s little time for anything more than broad strokes; these caricatures are dangled in front of us. Look, you knew a review about a show featuring a flaccid penis was going to be like this, so just suck on it.

Of course, Rowley being naked also changes the power dynamic in the room; it produces a certain tension, and this too is fundamental to the show’s design. These characters, ranging from a masturbating cam girl to a Scottish junkie picked up and raped by police, are types captured at their most naked and vulnerable. So here, Rowley’s wang (and simulated fouf) heighten that exposure. The audience is kept on edge. It’s a no-win situation; your eyes drop to avoid one penetrating eye only to be confronted by another. But who said sitting in the dark was easy?

The big, hanging question is the one suggested by the show’s title – is this culturally significant? Well, those on rebel watch should note it’s a safe show, one that maintains boundaries, unlike other naked fringe poinswatter performances like Kim Noble Must Die. The audience are allowed to stay to the end of this one, they’re not forced to be intimate and no woman’s left sitting alone with the performer holding a tub of his semen. There’s worse than a flapping ramburglar.

Rowley’s performance, unarguably ballsy, might be a spiritual successor to Gethin Price, the angry stand up/performance artist from Trevor Griffith’s Comedians. One’s tempted to assume the role of Eddie Waters and ask, where’s the hope? The culture imagined here is ugly, atomized, narcissistic, degenerate and dishonest. In character, as a dusty academic, Rowley asks the audience if we think he’s damaged. It gets a laugh, after all the man standing in front of you has his Reece Shearsmith on display, but ironically there’s nothing of Rowley, no personality to interrogate, just notes of others. The other.

It’s said academic who suggests that this is indeed culturally insignificant; a source we’ve been groomed to dismiss. Rowley’s ignorant Drury Lane compère, tells us there’s no magic in the mainstream, that not all theatre has to be a narrative. The show’s playful disavowal of its own artistic credentials is all good sport, but I did wonder, watching with all the veiled schlongs and mimsies in the audience, how much real magic there was in the fringe when there’s very little left to shock audiences seeking a subversive hit.

The trap with naked theatre – stage and actor – is its potential to be reductive. In the world of Brexit and Trump, where we’re being bullied into seeing people as types rather than the nuanced beings they are, perhaps there’s value in studying the layers people acquire and why they wear them.