Posts Tagged ‘ Royal Court ’

Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre: review

Tiger Country Nina RaineWritten and directed by Nina Raine
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Tiger Country: no safety net, alone, trusting your instincts. According to Nina Raine’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, this is terrain familiar to the NHS surgeon, ‘Once you open the skin you’re on your own.’

Raine’s play – which she directs herself – is a high-octane, unflinching fly-on-the-wall examination of life in Accident and Emergency. We meet Emily – a fresh-faced new arrival on the hospital’s staff: through her eyes we see the chaos, the maddening bureaucracy, the trauma and the apparent cold-heartedness of her colleagues. We meet patients and doctors – and in an effective bit of doubling, the same actors take characters on both sides of the clipboard. Raine draws us into one patient’s story and then wheels them off, just as we began to feel for them – mirroring the situation doctors face every day. We learn about the private woes and worries of the surgeons and all the while the NHS is hanging by a thread in the background.

Emily, played by Ruth Everett is the naïve new arrival: one registrar realises instantly she’s new because she’s ‘still worrying about people dying’. Everett minutely copies the mannerisms, the tone of voice, the slightly desperate frown of the newly qualified medical student. She is over-eager to please and petrified of making a mistake. More importantly for this drama, she cares and feels each case in a way which is clearly unsustainable.

Vashti is Emily’s polar opposite. In Thusitha Jayasundera’s hands she is hard-nosed and up-tight but not unlikeable. She has worked hard to get to where she is and had to change a lot to be accepted: her accent, her clothes, and, one suspects, her personality. Hers is the most fascinating story in the play and Jayasundera’s is one of the stand-out performances.

Her counter-part is John, played by a brisk Adam James, who gives a brilliantly realistic portrayal of an experienced, professional registrar: even when exhausted and at breaking point, he carries on. There is good work from Pip Carter as surgeon Mark, and Joan Kempson as senior nurse, Olga, quietly steals a couple of scenes.

Raine’s dialogue is sharp and – clearly – a joy to speak. Some of the monologues are brilliantly written, though it perhaps feels like we’re hearing the playwright’s thoughts rather than the character’s. Although informed and influenced by TV hospital dramas like Green Wing, Scrubs, House and Casualty, (it in fact shares a plot line with Green Wing), Tiger Country manages to be more than simply a hospital TV series for stage. The play examines what it means to care: whether we can care about each other, whether a doctor can care for a patient they hardly know or even one they have never met and whether caring matters. This is a vital play, born of its time: the NHS is being much debated and this is an eloquent voice to add to the mix.

4Comedy Masks

Until 5 Feb

This review was first published in the Willesden and Brent Times

Exclusive interview with Enron writer Lucy Prebble

Mark-to-market, hedging, special purpose entities and actors in dinosaur masks. Lucy Prebble’s play Enron confounded expectations and made the complex, number-driven world of global finance dramatic, comprehensible and even funny.

Enron opened at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester to ecstatic reviews in the summer of 2009, propelling Prebble to fame. The play transferred to the Royal Court, then to the West End and has just completed a national tour.

Lucy Prebble Enron

photography by Jordan Bassett

When we meet in a small coffee shop in Soho it’s hard to believe that the bright, brash West End show, came from the pen of such a polite and composed young woman – but that’s what makes Prebble so fascinating. Her main aim in writing the show was not, she tells me, to pass judgement or explain the complex financial camouflage that brought the company down – although it did both of these – but simply not to be boring.

“I felt really passionately that it would be very easy to write a play that says ‘we all know how this ends, we all know it’s terrible, aren’t all these people bad.’ We decided very early on it mustn’t be boring at any moment, because that’s what people expect of a play about corporate finance. But it is really fun, to work on a trading floor – it is really glamorous and it is really really profitable if you do it well. And those are all things human beings are drawn to and to pretend that we’re not is what perpetuates the cycle.”

Anyone who has seen the play will recall the “Raptors” – business entities which gobbled up Enron’s toxic debt. “It seemed completely appropriate,” explained Prebble, “to have dangerous financial instruments – financial instruments that have hurt people and broken their lives – come alive and be portrayed as vicious creatures, in this case velociraptors. So once you’ve decided that you’re essentially going to dramatise the theoretical and make it real, you’re already entering a slightly absurdist world, that’s not dull.”

EnronEnron opened at the height of the global credit crunch – although Prebble has always insisted this was down to luck rather than a gift of foresight. But she has become the go-to-girl for scripts on finance. “The last thing I want to be is the “money” girl or the girl who writes about finance. I find it really interesting and I wrote a play about it but now I find other stuff interesting.”

The stuff she finds interesting is, by her own admission, quite “full-on” – she’s currently working on a film about the Stasi and another play about humans used in drug trials. But what drew her to Enron was, she says, the macho aspect of the story.

“You can’t avoid the link between testosterone and risk-taking – it’s medically proven. In the locker-room world of the trading floor, you’re as big as your bonus is. It is quite phallic and aggressive and that’s part of the fun of it. The masculinity of the world never consciously entered my mind although I’m certain that subconsciously I was drawn to it because of that.”

When I suggest a parallel with what seems to be a male-dominated world of theatre writing, Prebble pulls me up. “You’ll find a lot of women writers – in the theatre – who do one or two plays and then aren’t seen much more. The reasons for that aren’t necessarily related to gender specifically but more practical. You’ll find a huge amount of women who started off in theatre but move into film and television because it’s much more financially rewarding and it’s a child friendly profession. Women writers are still writing, they’re just writing in a different medium, in a way that suits them better.”

Secret Diary of a Call Girl Billie PiperPrebble knows a thing or two about the medium of TV: she created the series Secret Diary of a Call Girl after coming across the Belle de Jour blog. The Belle character, who chose to become a high-paid prostitute and document her exploits online, proved as controversial as she was popular and Prebble, who left the series after writing the first 18 episodes, admits she had trouble with the character and the kind of scripts she was being asked to write.

“I left the series because I felt that, unfortunately, I wasn’t really being allowed to write what I wanted to write – more ambitious, complex drama. That’s the problem with Television really: yes you get paid more and yes you probably get more consistent work but you’re really not in control of your product at all.”

And this is a constant dilemma for Prebble: writing for TV is consistent but often comes without recognition; writing for theatre is respected but comes with intense scrutiny. After her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, was put on Upstairs at the Royal Court, Prebble struggled with a lack of self-confidence and after she had a play rejected in what she calls “the worst meeting I’d ever had in my life”, she turned to television.

“In TV no one knows who writes their favourite shows, no one even knows who’s written their favourite films, so I found that strangely helped me because I didn’t feel a lot of pressure on me personally. I felt like I was contributing to something that was bigger than me. Bizarrely, even though theatre’s the place where you get the most respect as a writer, it’s the place where you also get the most attention, the focus. And if you’re not the sort of person who necessarily wants that, it can be quite intimidating.”

As she talks it becomes clear that although Prebble has had enormous success as a writer, she has also been through the mill a bit to get there. She speaks of the loneliness of the writer, her self-doubt and the huge amount of will-power needed to get something on the page. “Writing is honestly, a depressing experience and it’s an act of getting over your own lack of self-confidence to write something. Mostly I have to get myself to a place of such self-disgust in how depressed I am about how little I’ve written that I’m then forced into writing something.”

But then, I suppose no one ever said being a critically acclaimed writer was easy.

Clybourne Park, Royal Court: review

Dir: Dominic Cooke

Since every superlative in the dictionary had been applied to Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at the Royal Court, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

This razor-sharp, lightning-quick comedy constitutes two Acts, which take place in the same house in Chicago, fifty years apart. In both halves, racism is the issue – or rather the attempt to skirt around racism. A white middle-class family of the 50s sell their house at a cut-down price to a black family, to the consternation of the local housing association. Fifty years later, a white family are buying the same house – in what is now a predominantly black area – and want to make changes to the building. The neighbours (who are black) object on the grounds that the house represents part of the area’s cultural heritage.

Sophie Thompson is both touching and hilarious as 50s housewife Bev, the epitome of politeness: her only weapon against the world, a fixed smile and canned laughter. Husband Russ, played by Steffan Rhodri, is a man on the edge who tentatively starts to break the rules: “what I think I might have to do is…uh…politely ask you to uh…well, to go fuck yourself.”

Martin Freeman is the excruciating Rotarian Karl in the first half (and the even more excruciating Steve in the second): stretching out each awkward moment with exquisite comic timing. His deaf wife, Betsey, (played gamely by Sarah Goldberg) provides some brilliant moments and although Norris has been criticised for creating humour from her disability, I would argue he was making an important point about levels of difference this middle-class white society is prepared to accept.

Goldberg switches to super-super friendly Lindsey for the more fast-paced second half, while Thompson becomes the highly-strung lawyer, Kathy. With their modern, liberal sensibilities, racism quickly becomes the elephant in the room – until someone pulls its trunk. Politeness is out of the window quicker than Lindsey can say “Half of my friends are black!” Lucian Msamati’s Kevin, although perhaps not as finely drawn as the other characters, does a good line in understated humour, while Lena is played caustically by Lorna Brown – and is rewarded with the biggest shriek of the evening from the audience.

Norris’ play, though, is about so much more than racism or “political correctness”: it is about politeness, evasion, hypocrisy and the invisible but treacherous moral trip-wires drawn across society. Dominic Cooke’s direction brings all this out wonderfully: awkward pauses, hesitations and meaningful glances are eerily familiar and exaggerated. The ending disappoints as it feels out of keeping with the rest of the piece – overly sentimental and superfluous but it at least gives the impression of tying off a loose end.

There are deliberate echoes of the first half in the modern second act which Norris invites the audience to spot: not just similar patterns of dialogue and furnishings but social norms and tensions which are still present – perhaps even more so – today. Either half in isolation would be moving, amusing and brilliantly written but seen next to each other, they make Clybourne Park a vital piece of political theatre.

Just the ticket: the dizzying world of theatre discounts

Since moving to London last December I have got to grips with Oyster cards, am au fait with engineering works and know where to buy the best cup of tea.* But one aspect of life in the capital still confounds and frustrates: theatre ticketing.

Of course, actually getting a ticket couldn’t be simpler – there are countless websites, ticket booths and touts – not to mention the theatre box offices themselves. But for those of us without a considerable disposable income – for those of us who have had to stoop to the level of Sainsbury’s basic curry sauce (9p a jar) – turning up and asking for whatever’s available is not an option.

And yet, for anyone who knows their Coward from their Chekov, living in London is like being in a giant sweet shop: where all the brightly-coloured goodies are tightly sealed in seemingly impenetrable glass jars.

And so we enter the dimly lit, badly sign-posted world of cheap theatre tickets. (As a guideline: I aim to spend no more than £10 per ticket.)

Widening accessibility to the theatre is not a top priority for this government. And given the mammoth task they’ve set themselves of decreasing the deficit by slashing public spending, one can understand, if not support their view.

But sitting in the audience for Laura Wade’s “Posh” at the Royal Court, I was struck by the uniformity of the audience – in fact, many of them would not have looked out of place in the play itself.

Theatre is a powerful means of communicating, stimulating debate, arguing a point or simply of stirring the emotions, but its voice is muffled and its effect muted if the audience is drawn from a narrow section of society. Cheap tickets not only broaden audiences but they also serve to give theatre back its voice.

Since the government announced the “curtailment” of the A Night Less Ordinary scheme, back in June (which offered free theatre tickets to the under 26s), things have become more challenging for the intrepid ticket hunter. But then this scheme always seemed too good to be true and indeed neither the theatres nor the theatregoers seemed to be entirely sure how the thing worked. So, although I mourn its passing, I rarely used it and am not surprised it is winding down (it will close completely in March 2011).

So where to from here? The good news is that ANLO was only one of several ways of getting into the ticket sweetie jar. The bad news: even Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent suave incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – complete with iPhone – would have difficulty keeping track of the options.

Charlie's dream come true: £5, non restricted view

  • The National Theatre is one of the best for cheap tickets. Their version of the ANLO scheme is called Entry Pass and once registered 15-25 year olds can get £5 tickets for all shows. The downside: it took them about a month to process my application.
  • More reliable are their day tickets (£10) – released each morning at 9.30am (but people in anoraks start queuing much earlier…). And standing tickets (£5) are usually still available at lunchtime – although the obvious drawback is having to stand, unless you manage to spot a spare seat. (This is technically NOT ALLOWED, but I won’t tell.) The NT’s Travelex tickets for £10 are a nice idea and beloved by their own publicity department but they’re snapped up quickly for most shows.
  • The Globe sells all groundling tickets for £5. Three cheers for simplicity and generosity!
  • Student discounts can get you so far but are sometimes only a matter of a couple of pounds. And many commercial theatres only decide on the day whether to offer these discounts.
  • Almost all theatres, however, have seats they have to sell cheaply because they are “restricted view”. Those two sweet words have served me well in my quest for affordable tickets. Sometimes this is only a matter of a safety rail intruding on your view and in other cases, it means you’re lucky if you glimpse the actors.
  • The Royal Opera House has £7 restricted view tickets but over half of the stage is hidden. At the Almeida on the other hand, my view was more than passable and at the Noël Coward theatre, to watch Enron, I soon forgot about the rail in front of me.
  • My prize for the best offers, however, goes to my local Tricycle theatre, who not only offer student discounts (though only on a Wednesday) but also Pay What you Can performances and discounts for residents. For anyone who qualifies as a concession (student, disabled, unemployed, OAPs), you can go to the theatre first thing on Tuesday and Saturdays and pay – well – whatever you can afford for a ticket.
  • In my experience, any website offering CHEAP THEATRE TICKETS is not worth a second glance and the traditional techniques of booking either well in advance or last minute are not by any means water-tight. You just have to know what is out there and be quick off the mark.
  • The Holy Grail, of course, is to befriend someone ON THE INSIDE. People who work for the theatres and theatre companies may have access to cheap tickets and might be allowed to pass them on. I live in hope.
  • Unfortunately, almost none of the above applies to the West End – despite seeing a show almost every week I rarely make a foray into the commercial theatres because the prices are just too darn high.

It only remains for me to wish you luck on your explorations and keep spreading the word on those deals…

*(V&A tea rooms IMHO).

Posh, by Laura Wade, Royal Court Theatre

Dir: Lyndsey Turner

Anyone would think the Royal Court had deliberately planned the clash. Laura Wade’s ‘Posh,’ which examines life in a Bullingdon-style elite drinking society, is currently playing at the famously political theatre. The closest election since 1997, featuring ex-Bullingdonite David Cameron, is mere days away. Coincidence?

‘Posh’ follows the exploits of the fictional ‘Riot Club’ during one of their termly dinners. The plan is eat, drink, drink some more, then trash the place: as one member says, ‘this is a club for getting fucked and fucking stuff up.’ But, as the adage goes, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men…’ The president is late, there are only nine birds in the ten bird roast and someone’s tipped off the landlord about the prostitute. Their evening, in short, ends rather differently to how they expected.

In one of the many interviews she did prior to the show’s run, Wade said she was fascinated by the mentality behind the club: “The idea that I can go somewhere and do as much damage as I like because I can afford to pay for it afterwards seemed completely alien to me as a person”. Wade also hinted that the play would show us that “posh” people had problems too – “I think it’s disingenuous to believe that being born into a privileged world means you feel like you are having an easy time.”

Unfortunately, however, the play doesn’t live up to its promise. The dinner party format results in a dull first half. Wade is fascinated by the “Posh” boys’ language, attitudes and backgrounds and assumes her audience is too. Curiosity is a fragile foundation on which to build a play: with characters flatter than the be-wigged portraits on the walls, the conversation descends into cliché and pointless, tired vulgarity. As for the promised nuance, the greatest of their problems seemed to be that they’d forgotten the cocaine.

There are, however, some very funny moments. On discovering that their president had done work experience at the Co-op bank, one member sneered the words “ethical finance” in the tone most people usually reserve for talking about vomit. Yet, on the whole, it is the production that shines rather than the play. Lyndsey Turner’s decision to get the cast to sing a cappella pop songs to cover the scene changes is, if a little unexpected, inspired. Their version of Wiley’s ‘Wearing my Rolex’ deserves a special mention. Similarly, Anthony Ward’s design cleverly incorporates the voyeuristic basis of the text and literally creates a window onto this other world.

The cast do a wonderful job – David Dawson plays the camp Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt as a wannabe-Byron figure, languishing in his velvet chair and reciting corrupted Shakespeare (‘Once more unto the drink, dear friends, once more’). Alistair “fuck you – we’re the Riot Club” Ryle – the only utterly vile character – is acted brilliantly by Leo Bill. Yet, each actor gives the impression that he is doing little more than an impersonation. The characters are stereotypes – they none of them elicit our empathy and none of them is interesting. They are nauseating. Which is, of course, Wade’s intention. But for a play which promised to probe, it’s a something of a let-down – a bit like the ten bird roast.