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Home Discomforts

THE HOMECOMING

Trafalgar Studios, London, Thursday 7th January, 2016

 

This production marks fifty years since Pinter’s play was first staged but the script seems fresh as a daisy. Soutra Gilmour’s design suggests an old-fashioned box set with a red frame delineating the limits of the room in which the action takes place, while the sparse furnishings clearly belong to the era in which it is set. We’re back in the 60s but it’s a highly stylised version. Director Jamie Lloyd intersperses Pinter’s more naturalistic aspects with scene transitions of heightened emotion, where Richard Howell’s expressionistic lighting shows us the characters’ internal lives – moments we can only intuit from Pinter’s dialogue. The lighting is accompanied by George Dennis’s loud and dissonant sound design. It’s unsettling, disturbing – almost an aural representation of Munch’s The Scream.   It works to emphasise the horror and agony of existence for these people, complementing the air of menace Pinter concocts through words and silence.

Max (the formidable Ron Cook) rules the roost as patriarch to three grown-up sons, two of whom still live at home, along with their Uncle Sam (not that one!). It’s a little world of men without women, angry domesticity and bitter recriminations. Into this dark place, eldest son Teddy (Gary Kemp) brings his elegant wife Ruth (Gemma Chan). What begins as an ‘into the lions’ den’ scenario, deftly develops into a ‘cat among the pigeons’ situation, as Ruth joins the ongoing power struggles and plays the men at their own game. Chan is perfectly cast; cool and aloof, reserved but readable. Kemp is good too, as weak-willed, middle-class prat Teddy, contrasting neatly with his brothers: John Macmillan is aspiring boxer Joey, his speech and thoughts slowed by too many blows to the head, and John Simm is charismatic as slimy Lenny, a dodgy geezer and no mistake. Simm is perhaps a little too likeable; his Lenny doesn’t seem quite dangerous or unpredictable enough. Strong as this lot are, for me it’s Keith Allen that shines the brightest as Uncle Sam, subtly effeminate and arguably the only ‘decent’ character in the piece.

Above all, Pinter’s script reigns supreme. Dark and funny and darkly funny, it utilises naturalistic speech patterns and idioms to hint at and tease out character and back story, leading us to clutch at meaning and significance. The sudden outburst of violence still surprises as much as the use of language delights. The play is well-served by this stylish production, although I would have liked Max’s collapse and capitulation to be more visceral and complete – Ruth usurps his throne, before our very eyes; we should be left with the idea that there is no going back. You can’t go home again.

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Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan (Photo: Marc Brenner)

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We’re All Going On A Soma Holiday

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 5th November, 2015

 

Aldous Huxley’s visionary 1930s novel is doing the rounds in this new adaptation by Dawn King, and it’s refreshing to see serious science fiction being tackled live on stage. It turns out Huxley’s ideas have lost none of their sting or pertinence. In fact the brave new world he depicts seems frighteningly close, given the technological advances and ideological backwards moves that have happened since his day.

We begin in the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where its Director (James Howard) addresses us as newly arrived trainees. It’s a nifty means of exposition, detailing how this society operates and Howard is smarmily splendid in his PR spiel. The alphas and betas in society get the cream, while further down the social scale, the epsilons would be lucky even to glimpse the carton.   This caste system is achieved mainly by genetic engineering (natural reproduction has been eliminated) in vitro and then social conditioning brainwashes the resulting children into a narrow way of life that promises them Order, Stability, and Happiness – this latter comes in the form of a freely available drug called Soma. Take four and you can have a holiday, just zonk out for a specified period, truly getting away from it all.

Bernard, though, is a bit of a misfit. Not quite alpha enough, he isn’t accepted and is excluded from the general promiscuity all around him. Until he takes popular Lenina (Olivia Morgan) to visit the Savage Reservation where people live like beasts, drinking, reproducing, and practising religion. Imagine! They bring back John, who turns out to have links back home. John finds it hard to accept his new way of life and becomes something of a celebrity, a novelty act, stirring ‘inappropriate’ feelings within the impressionable Lenina.

As Bernard, Gruffudd Glyn is a sympathetic figure in this alien way of life. Olivia Morgan convinces as the thoroughly conditioned Lenina (and I’m not talking about her hair), while William Postlethwaite’s savage John is a commanding presence – he gets all the best lines, quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity. Ironic that a literary figure we regard as a pinnacle of human endeavour is banned and derided for his ‘tricky emotional content’. In charge of it all is an icy Sophie Ward as Margaret Mond, chilling in her detachment but not entirely inhuman, contrasting with derelict Linda (Abigail McKern making an excellent drunkard and invalid).

Director James Dacre keeps the action clear, using cross-cutting and freeze-frames to zap us from scene to scene and back again. Naomi Dawson’s design is deceptively simple, making effective use of TV screens and projections to give us glimpses of the world beyond the windows, aided by the precision of Colin Grenfell’s lighting and George Dennis’s sound. There is evocative, original music by These New Puritans.

It’s an absorbing, thought-provoking and scary piece. The society on stage is divided by genetic interference. Here we see social engineering at work, pricing the poor out of London, while certain politicians promote division based on cultural and racial differences. In Huxley’s day it was the rise of Nazi Germany. We are more in peril of surrendering our freedoms to corporate overlords. Suddenly the advent of the Coca-Cola lorry does not seem so cosy. All right, it’s not exactly delivering Soma but the way people profess love for this symbol of rampant capitalism should be a warning sign…

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

All the feels: Olivia Morgan and William Postlethwaite (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Back to (the) Front

REGENERATION

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 5th November, 2014 

Officers suffering from shell-shock were sent to Craiglockhart Army Hospital in Scotland in order that they might be made well enough to be sent back to the trenches to be killed.  This is the absurdity that underscores Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.  It’s like taking a pit-stop during a demolition derby.

With the First World War at the forefront of our minds in this centenary year (rightly so) there is a danger that we shall reach saturation point and desensitised to those terrible events.  Things, I find, are beginning to lose impact.  Certainly Catch 22 makes many of the same points as this play (albeit in a WW2 setting) and makes them sharper and more absurd.  Here, rather than a Yossarian, we have the poet Siegfried Sassoon quite understandably speaking out against the barbarity and senseless horrors.  For his pains, he is squirrelled away at Craiglockhart because his sane opinions are regarded as lunatic.  If he recants, he will be declared fit and sent back to the front and almost certain death – only a madman would want that…

Tim Delap hits all the right notes as the handsome and smug Sassoon, contrasting with Stephen Boxer’s quiet authority as army shrink Dr Rivers, who recognises the absurdity of his position of making men fit to be shot, but does it anyway.  With sturdy support from Garmon Rhys as Wilfred Owen and Christopher Brandon as Robert Graves, the story blends figures from real life with fictitious characters, but it’s not drama-documentary; perhaps it might be more hard-hitting if it was.

Jack Monaghan is excellent as Billy Prior who snaps out of his mutism to relive his nightmarish experiences.  It’s all very well done: Alex Eales’s set is suitably institutional and dour and both the lighting design (by Lee Curran) and the sound (George Dennis) enhance the men’s various ‘episodes’ and recollections.  There is a grimly distasteful scene involving electrodes – torture as treatment – that is still making me squirm.

Director Simon Godwin lets a creeping sense of doom have the upper hand but without the emotional or visceral punch of something like Birdsong or Journey’s End. Regeneration is well-made cannon fodder for the unstoppable and ubiquitous WWI nostalgia machine.

TIm Delap (Sassoon) and Garmon Davies (Owen) - (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)

Tim Delap (Sassoon) and Garmon Rhys (Owen) – (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)