Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Open Day and What We're After!

We had a cracking open day today and it's hard to believe that we're now recruiting the third year of the re validated programme. This time next year all students will be on the same degree and we can really begin to assess how well the changes have worked.

Kasia, Ian and me led the talks today and re explaining what we do and why we do it gave me a reminder of how unique St Mary's is. X-factor we ain't!

Against received wisdom we've abandoned the supermarket freedoms of a modular structure and instead offer rigorous core training. It's a bold statement of intent that takes an element of choice away from students, but asserts our confidence as lecturers, who know what should be in the curriculum. By taking responsibility in this way and cutting options we've doubled the contact time between lecturers and students. Most have understood and responded well to the coherence of the new programme.
At the same time we've introduced modules designed to help students to think and learn - so that we're not just factory farming performing puppets, but genuine independent artists who are geared up to go out challenge, refine, liberate, advocate or make a revolutionary impact in the creative industries and beyond. There are a million and one ways to fly...

For us, back on the ground, the ideal situation will come when, as in drama schools, assessment is hidden and all of us are focusing on improving through work. I can see a future where our 300 or so students are operating like a large theatre company, off shooting into year group or pathway projects, but all contributing to a yearly programme of public performances and sharings, evolving from workshops, classes and rehearsal periods. Other needs would arise - for box office, marketing, review writing, education and outreach perhaps even catering and merchandising, but these could be developed expediently to the growth in confidence in ourselves as a creative powerhouse, with continuity assured as each year graduates into more responsible roles before flying the nest to do us proud in the industry itself and being replaced by the next cohort of potential artists, who themselves will evolve and adapt to tell the stories relevent to their generation.

We're getting closer.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Tale of Two Theatres.

Went with Level 1 on a whistle stop tour of the Royal Opera House this afternoon, made doubly entertaining by the eccentricities of the guide, who seemed petrified that we'd get lost in the rabbit warren of corridors, studios and offices hidden away behind the vast auditorium and stage and rather panicked whenever we seemed to dawdle or want to explore.

I have to admit I'm not drawn to the Opera - to me it has a musty Victorian air, as extreme as an intoxicating potpourri. For all the undoubted technical virtuosity, the vocal dexterity of the great singers and the breast swelling, cleavage raising, passion of the arias, I find it slightly ridiculous.

There were some fascinating moments as we trawled around the building, however. A window into the Fredrick Ashton studio, allowed us to watch a ballerina work through her impressive paces and admire the strength, precision and control of her work. The beautiful ironwork architecture of the old floral hall, raised a level from its original foundations offered a whiff of bright nouveau opulence and the gilded glory of the auditorium, huge and expectant waiting for the evening's performance of Mayerling.

Afterwards I travelled East to catch Cosh Omar's new farce The Great Extension at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. It was great fun and, along with a brave plot, the show seemed to play homage to the style of performance that Joan Littlewood pioneered here back in the fifties. Then, as now, the playing was broad, clear and compared with the psychological realism of their theatre rivals at the Royal Court, unambiguous. In some ways it was the fore runner of the great sitcoms of the late sixties and early seventies. The Rag Trade, George and Mildred, and Steptoe and Son, all featured actors and actresses, who cut their teeth on the stage here. It's hard to find this kind of performance in the mainstream.

If the style harked back, the narrative theme was bang up to date.

Omar, himself plays hero Hassan, a second generation Turk and secular Muslim Sufi, living
with transexual houseboy Sanjay, is trying - in a neat metaphor for EU expansion - to build an extension on his house. Ranged against him are his racist English neighbour Mr Brown, who disputes the land, Dave, a Jewish builder, hiring Polish workers and the orthodox Salafi Khan family, who have turned up to rescue their sister Jamila, from an accidental drunken marriage to Hassan, carried out, under influence, the previous evening. Insults, profanities, jokes and slurs fly about the stage in a glorious attack on the linguistic taboos of political correctness as each cultural stereotype is destroyed in turn. No sacred cows here. Eventually an Uber positive policeman, bearing a cunning resemblance to President Obama enters and delighting in the gathering of the creeds, forces everybody, against their will, to celebrate multi culturalism.

The local audience as culturally diverse as the characters on stage, laughed until they cried and went home delighted. There's an advertising campaign for the Olympics that proudly asserts the world is coming to Stratford in 2012. The truth is they're already here.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Our Own Little Piece of Shit Paradise.

Went to see Stef's show Our Own Little Piece of Shit Paradise in an awesome octagonal hall at the Lillian Bayliss Old School, tucked away on a housing estate just off the Kennington Road. Stef had worked the piece in response to Shooting Rats, a play originally written in Austrian by Peter Turrini in 1967, but brilliantly updated and transposed to contemporary London. The work has been programmed as part of Oval House's Elsewhere season, which seeks to explore some of the disused and hidden spaces in Kennington, Vauxhall and Lambeth.

Both pieces explore ideas of worth, value and reputation and paint rather depressing pictures of young love at the end of the decade. In Shooting Rats Ads takes Evie on a date to the rubbish tip, to shoot the rats that live there. Through a series of flirtatious exchanges and come clean admissions they begin to strip away, literally and metaphorically, the inhibitions, games and possessions they've affected to assertively define them. Their descent together towards a form of innocence offers protection, even in the face of the original expectations that both of them started the evening with. For all the lack of self -belief and the pessimistic sense that the tip is an inevitable destination, it's a tender end.

Stef's piece interlinked five characters in a series of hopes, betrayals and disappointments, with the real weight coming through excellent performances by Monsay, back working with Stef a year on from Yard Gal, and Natasha Sparkes, who seems a real talent. Stef's great skill, as a director, comes in her uncompromising ability to get performances of total physical commitment from her cast. The energy at the heart of the work hints at self destruction and whilst this is, in itself, disturbing, the investment and immediacy of the action makes for an almost electric theatrical experience.

In the pub afterwards Mons told us slightly more positive stories of her experiences at the BBC (She's been filming recently for Holby City and a new drama AWOL, to be broadcast next year.) Although she's unfazed, and certainly unchanged, by her new found success it does sounds as if she's eating producers alive. It's great to see recent graduates making an impact.

On Location.

Great session at Ham with Harvey Eddington, who heads up the National Trust's Film Unit. His job is to liaise with location managers and directors to source the right venues for different shoots. These hires and the free publicity a beautifully shot film can bring, are a big part of the Trust's income, but it all need incredibly careful risk management. Camilla, who looks after this end of things specifically at Ham, also came in to talk through the conservation issues.
In the new year Disney are swooping to make a new movie of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel John Carter of Mars starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Morton and James Purefoy. I could see the third years ears prick up when they heard the news. Just as Shakespeare hung around the travelling players, until they took him to London, so perhaps a film crew might just pick up a couple of rookie graduates who are prepared to make themselves useful and do some of the dirty work.

We're starting to look forward to Christmas now and the storytelling weekend we have at the house which begin in early December. We want something more flexible than last year, with stories being told by one or just a couple of actors, mingling with the visitors and choosing the moment. It needs to be short, light, but full of impact and colour. The question for now is who tells the stories? and why do they tell them? Travelling players? Ghosts? Statues? Magicians? It's all up for negotiation and the only risk seems to be that we swamp the event.


Spotting the Danger.

The big national drama this week has been the appearance of Nick Griffin, of the British National Party, on last Thursday's Question Time. It's spawned more immediate debate and commentary than almost any other single event that I can remember.

I watched the programme with a growing sense of disappointment - not with the BBC for broadcasting, but rather because of the rather smug way in which the politicians lined up to put the boot in.

I'm not in favour of giving racists the oxygen of oxygen, let alone the oxygen of publicity, but in a democracy once a critical mass has passed -and the BNP did pick up a million votes at the European elections - it's time to scrutinise and deconstruct the arguments. TV can do this, provided it retains an objective.

My worry was that the politicians' anger (although justified) and the orchestrated collective attack only plays directly into the mythology of the underdog, fighting the complacent arrogance of those in power - Robin Hood's merry men, Henry V's troops at Agincourt, the Spitfire pilots at the Battle of Britain. It's the very folk mythology the BNP are constantly trying to appropriate.

The BNP is a party that stokes up our fears of 'the other.' It exploits our weakest emotions and our laziest thoughts. It offers security in the tribe. The programme may have exposed Griffin in the eyes of the cosmopolitan media but I'm not sure how it played out on the sink estates of Burnley, Dagenham or Bradford, where it's easy to target immigration and Islam as the cause of unemployment, poverty and deprivation.

As as leader Griffin is more of a ridiculous clown than a reincarnated Hitler and, although the protests outside the Beeb were welcome, I don't believe that violence is needed to bring down the BNP in its present format. As Bonnie Greer, the best of the panelists, demonstrated, for now, the best attack is honesty, intelligence and humour. Clowns can be nihilistic though and do need watching.

If there is a parallel then the rhetoric of the BNP reminds me of Milosevic's early nineties defence of Serbian nationalism, against the perceived threats from Bosnian Muslims; a rhetoric which, unchecked, caught fire and ended up in the genocides and ethnic cleansing that split the former Yugoslavia. It wasn't just Slavic temperament or unfinished business that caused this, it was the false fear multiculturalism. It's rhetoric which still echoes in the Balkans today. Karadzic's trail in The Hague opens on Monday, it'll be a reminder to the world of the what can happen when we stop wanting to live and learn from each other. For anti-racists, controlling the pitch is as important as asserting the true narrative.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Freudian Slips!

Tonight was the first preview of Katie Mitchell's new production Pains of Youth at the National. Love it or hate it- with Katie there's rarely middle ground, her work is always an event and she's one of the few directors working in British theatre who consciously re invents text. She is a supreme auteur, the arrowhead steering both Ferdinand Bruckner's play, written in 1928, and Martin Crimp's translation into a strange, eerie, semi conscious reality. It's no surprise, given her experimental track record, that several people walked out before the interval.

The play itself is perfect material. Set in inter war Vienna, six bored young medical students explore their desires in a complicated entangled game of power, attraction and submission. It's a sharp display, with carefully sequenced scene changes, suggesting a reductive view of emotional connection and a clear, forensic rather than erotic, focus on the role sex plays in constructing and controlling adult relationships.

The whole piece is dimly lit and continually underscored by a creepy, paranoid percussive score, which highlights the menace and fear of every movement, gesture or knock at the door.

So where is the brilliance? Well in all honestly it's in the acting - wiry, intimate and precisely observed. It's untheatrical in a conventional sense, but breathtaking in its behavioural authenticity. Geoff Streatfield is wonderful as the predatory Freder, directed to play most of his action upstage, adding to his alluring sense of confidence and ability to break the rules for his own means. He's brilliantly supported by Leo Bill, as the weak willed Petrell and Lydia Wilson as the self-assured and curious Desiree.

At curtain there was a luke warm reaction from the audience who seemed unsure whether the attention to detail had bored, challenged or fascinated them. It'll be interesting to see what the critics think after press night next week.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Cameron Direct

David Cameron breezed into Richmond this evening for a town hall style meeting, face to face with the electorate of Richmond Park. It's an idea borrowed from America and a tactic used brilliantly by Obama in his campaign last year. It's clear that the Surrey side of the river is going to be a key battleground for both Tories and Liberals in the months leading up to the election with the Tories putting up environmentalist Zac Goldsmith to take on right leaning Liberal Susan Kramer. It'll be a fascinating contest. The Labour party will do well to save their deposit.

Cameron is certainly slick, well staged managed, jacket off, composed and confident in this kind of informal forum. In many ways it's a perfect work out for the more publicised exchanges in the media boxing ring and he used the time to test his command of brief and hone the message.

He's genial, but scratch the surface and there's some pretty unreformed right wing intolerance hiding away - particularly on Europe and immigration. He also floated an idea which I've not seen in any policy discussion or document of a Citizenship camp for all sixteen year olds. It felt like a soft form of National Service - safe enough to mention as an aside in Richmond, but unlikely to see its way to manifesto.

On my way out of the hall I bumped into my friend Chris, who writes for the Richmond Times. We both looked a bit embarrassed about the company we were keeping.

'Hello Mark,' he said 'I didn't know you were a... a... a... I didn't know you ... I didn't know you voted... I didn't know you were a... a.... a...'

'Don't worry Chris,' I said putting him out of his misery ' I'm not!'

Looking Forward. Looking Back.

Had a Soho Sunday planning with my old friend Liz. The European School, where we were both flung up is about to close after nearly forty years of business, reinventing itself as an academy. Both of us feel a need to preserve something of the maverick education we were lucky enough to benefit from.

Looking back now, my take is that we were a very successful experiment in anti-racism. In the year I left there were twenty eight nationalities and five working languages. Confusion and moments lost in translation occurred on a daily basis, but despite - in fact because of - the chaotic cultural and linguistic jungle, we all found innovative, artistic, imaginative and tolerant ways to understand and be understood.

Liz began a facebook group and alumni site in the spring, which has spawned a wonderful pictorial archive and reunited over 400 ex-students, to create a fabulous and democratic reminiscence.

Today we talked of taking the project on. For me the next, and possible final phase would be to create a huge community event. Possibly working inter generationally with current and former students of the school over the course of a dedicated month to produce a weekend festival of celebration. This might include a number of events, but my focus would be on creating an oral history of the school, with stories and memories prompted by the bricks and mortar. It's a move from the democratic nature of sharing on the web to shaping some of this material into a work of art.

Liz shares the evocative idea that the walls, the thick wooden doors, the hundreds of secret cupboards, stairwells and corridors should perhaps tell the stories.

Its a tantalising idea and perfect project management material for some of our St Mary's students. It has some parallels with the 400th birthday celebrations we're planning for Ham House, just with a different shape. We'd need to look for funding, but the technology isn't impossible to manage and wouldn't it be a fantastic way to mark the transition? We'll see.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

New Girl At St Mary's and news.

Charlotte, Zoe, Ed and Briony went off to an Amici workshop at the Lyric last night and came back full of excitement for the work. Zoe's blog gives a flavour of the evening and I hope this initial contact will lead to some more exciting opportunities for our students.

The third year Drama in the Community students have all begun to blog their experiences, particularly of our Friday morning sessions at Ham House. Their links are in the left hand margin of this blog.

Patsy has also begun her blog New Girl at St Mary's, which I'm sure will give a very different view of the department's work. Hooray!

There's so much going on just now - projects in Spain and Malawi to follow through. Offers from Amici, Kingston Youth Arts festival, a health care trust in Wimbledon, Richmond Crime Prevention Unit and all of the work with the National Trust to pull together. Not to mention Matt's ongoing work with the Robben Island project, Kasia's Lost Banditos and new MA preparations ... as well of course as the in house productions, the teaching and learning.

Popped into Al, Paul and Tina's first year Production course to see some really impressive tech work from Level 1. As usual Al had them marshaled and learning fast on the job whilst Tina and Paul chipped in, correcting, supporting and giving expert advice. Exciting to see how much has been picked up already in three short weeks.

Afterwards I had a long chat with Orode, she's heading up the Schools Based Project for this group which begins after Christmas and is already putting in a lot of thought about the scope and potential impact. I'm seeing signs that this cohort are up for a challenge.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Love is a Battlefield.

The day ended back at The National to see Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage in the packed Olivier. The technical complexity of the production had delayed it's opening and even now two weeks late and beginning to settle down it still has a bit of a dog's dinner feel to it. It's doubtful that we'll ever really find out why the Creative team so disastrously mis-timed the rehearsal period. What's clear is that the sprawl of this production must have made it a nightmare to negotiate.

I wonder if the problem isn't commercial compromise? All over the country sixth form Theatre Studies students are forced to study a compartmentalised version of Brecht, ticking off each of the various techniques as they go (and often staying well clear of the inherent subversion or Marxism.) So do we have montage? Check. Do we have actors playing multiple roles? Check. Are the placards in place? Check. Do we have discordant music to break up the action? Check. Can we see the technology? Check and so it goes . . .
Thus the conspiracy between the theatre and the reading lists is completed only if the A-level syllabus is performed to the letter on stage. Even given director Deborah Warner's imaginative and bold work, complete with rock band, it's a choking death by assessment.

The best moments of this lengthy show come when the flashing lights, the mics and the amplifiers (that at times turn Fiona Shaw into a kind of early twenty first century Pat Benatar) have been turned off and we boil down to some seriously slick acting.

As ever the scene where the deaf mute Kattrin (Sophie Stone) is shot down from the roof, whilst rousing the village, is heartbreaking and no amount of tick boxing can strip this most brilliant moment of theatre of its power.

'Shit man!' said one of the seventeen year olds in the schools party behind me, as the machine guns rattled, 'I thought I wasn't meant to get emotionally engaged!!!'

Learning to pass exams? Check.

Bones and Darkness.

London has a dark underside. For all the flash commercialism of the modern city, mysteries are also encouraged and superstitions up held. The relics of St Terese have arrived in Westminster cathedral and thousands of worshippers have been queueing to venerate her bones. There's a medieval feel to this side show ritual that leaves me slightly uncomfortable.

Meanwhile on the South Bank Miroslaw Balka's How It Is has been unveiled at the Tate and after our National tour I walked down with some of the students to see it. The work is overwhelming, immense and sinister. You walk up a ramp, away from the light, and into the darkness of a huge black cargo crate which swallows you up. Eventually you feel the far wall and turn to face the silhouettes of other travellers entering or leaving the space. The sensation is melancholic and potentially devastating, like the loss of sight, comprehension or hope itself.

The piece is named after Samuel Beckett's novel, but conjures up a whole host of associations from the cattle trucks that transported victims to Auschwitz to the dancing shadows in Plato's Cave. It's sombre, solitary and beyond reason but within the vast space there is some form of solace and release. The return to the light offers relief and realignment. It's difficult not to be profoundly moved.

Through metaphor, Art has an incredible power to carry meaning in a way that the literal reality of a corporeal presence simply cannot.

Purpose in the Corridors.

Went with the first years on the National Theatre tour this afternoon. I've done it before, but not for many years and I found it really fascinating.

The building works like a factory with near on a thousand employees scuttling around doing everything selling tickets, devising pyrotechnics, painting sets, rehearsing etc etc - there's even a counselling and welfare office. It's intriguing to be amongst the normality of a working morning in the daily build up to welcoming the 2,400 visitors who attend the theatre in the evening, and to see in action the professionalism and efficiency of the workforce. The energy seems to mirror the dynamism of artistic director Nick Hytner -jobs are done quickly, focused, with direct and good humour. Nobody gossiped in corners, dawdled or sulked. Self confidence and curiosity abounds.

Coming out of the Cottesloe into a corridor I was stopped by a young actor rehearsing Terry Pratchett's Nation, which opens in a couple of weeks. He was on a quick break, but asked me all about the College and the students. I didn't catch his name and had to hurry to stay up with the tour, but he did tell me it's his first job with the theatre and he said he was loving every minute.

Afterwards I wondered whether there was anything that we could learn from the NT. We're a very different department, of course with 13 members of staff and almost 300 students - but I'm taken with the culture of the place, the lack of doubt and the sheer joy of being part of an organism so creative and constantly re invented. These are things that are well worth aspiring to.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Led Easy.

Our friends Cardboard Citizens came in tonight with their hostel tour trilogy Led Easy, which has been on the road for a couple of weeks. My mate Jo Allit, who I went to Uni with many moons ago, was in the company, which was a lovely surprise. She was a top actor then and really hasn't lost it in the interim. Not much changes.

This was a return visit following successful shows here last year, which although very good, didn't quite hold together as well as tonight's brilliantly written offerings. As last year Joker Terry skillfully took us through three stories - one about a black teenager growing up in a Hackney estate, the second about a young graduate from a well off family with big dreams and a desire to change the world and finally a single Mum recently released from prison trying to reconnect with her daughter. She asked us to vote for the one we'd like to forum further.

Interestingly the audience plumped for Leonardo's story. A young artist, trying to justify his passion for drawing, painting and tagging, against the indifference of his parents and the peer pressure of the other young men in his hood.

An hour later after over twenty different interventions the evening finally came to and end, but not before the students had given the actors a brilliant run out. At times it was a real battle of ideas, strategies and prompts as slowly all of us tuned into the situation and began to explore Leo's options and choices.

Over a well deserved pint in the Union afterwards the company were really impressed with the quality of the challenges and by the enthusiasm of the audience. I was too, particularly as many of them stayed around afterwards asking questions and finding out more about the courses and work that Cardboard Citizens offer. It was great watching Jo sharing these conversations and remembering a time twenty years ago when we ourselves were hungrily sponging knowledge and advice from visiting companies, post-show in the Union bar.


Went to the Soho on Saturday afternoon to watch Dennis Kelly's acclaimed Edinburgh hit Orphans. It was really good, brilliantly acted, completely engaging and beautifully written. A great clunking fist of a morality play.

Earlier in the day Michael Billington, in his Guardian review, had said he'd been disheartened by a young talent like Dennis 'aiding and abetting' David Cameron's rhetoric about a broken society. It's an interesting take, but my reading of the show was totally different.

I saw it as a tragic drama on an epic scale, that questions that very limits of familial responsibility. The fates roar and lead us to the abyss.

Liam (Joe Armstrong) turns up on his sister Helen's doorstep covered in blood, with an implausible story of helping the victim of a violent racist attack. Helen's husband Danny (Jon McGuiness) asks questions, at first to try and work out what's happened and with the intention of helping the victim. Liam crumbles and eventually admits that the blood comes from his rage infused torture of an Asian man in a lock up garage.

Helen (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is torn. Repulsed by her little brother, but also protective of him - they are the Orphans of the title, having lost their parents in a house fire- she tries to find a way out. Firstly she blackmails Danny by threatening to terminate her pregnancy if he doesn't support the alibi, before persuading him to join Liam in a second round of violence to scare the victim from reporting the incident to the police.

With Danny destroyed, Liam is disowned, expelled from the family, he hands back the key to his sister's house and walks out to await arrest. The final moment comes when Danny, now unable to conceive of himself as a father, tells Helen to abort the unborn child.

To make sense of Billington's review you'd have to reduce this soaring arch into a sociological metaphor for contemporary Britain, when actually the play is more a universal psychological study on the fear of losing something that you love and the descent into chaos that blind loyalty leads to. Like Hamlet, Long Day's Journey into Night or Antigone, Orphans is domestic and epic in one swoop and not even the modesty of the Soho can hide that.

Ebbs and Flows.

I've really enjoyed the start of term. The Level one students seem, in the main, to have settled quickly. The Level two are up and engaging in project work and Level three seem ready to take a positive lead. It's the first time we've had dedicated cohorts for Applied or Community Theatre across the years and I'm trying to think of ways to harness the energy of the seventy or so students so that we can actively pursue all of the projects. The new tutor group arrangement seems to be nipping any potential problems in the bud and this is allowing us now to focus much more of our time and energy on planning and delivering really exciting courses.

My new house has rapidly become an office extension and the big kitchen table now houses regular planning and production meetings, as well as the hosting the occasional meal for the underfed. I like the flow of it all. Tina and Al came round on Thursday night at the end of their marathon teaching day with all 100 first years, for food and a catch up. Carolina, carrying warm fresh bread from the German bakery, rolled up on early Friday morning on the way to our session at Ham House and afterwards, that afternoon, Stef O'Driscoll and Matt came over to do some further planning on the Bosnian short stories we're hoping to develop next year. All ideas are nurtured with either coffee or wine, depending on the time of day at which they appear.

It's beginning to feel like a really creative working environment - with plans and ideas finding the right working group and companies contacting us all the time to offer work placements or opportunities.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Catching up with Chris.

After work I managed to grab a coffee with Chris White, whose co-convening the MA Directing course here at St Mary's. On and off we've been working together at various places for the last six or seven years and it's always good to see him and catch up.

We talked a bit about theatre and heritage, particularly in light of the work Drama in the Community are building at Ham House. Chris felt we were on the right lines with our approach as more and more theatre is devolved from buildings the search is on for non conventional sites supportive of storytelling. He'd been to see Goat and Monkey's A Little Neck at Hampton Court last week written by Ali Taylor. It sounded fascinating. As is the vogue, the audience are divided and accompany one of four characters through the palace to relive the downfall of Anne Boleyn - occasionally crossing the path of another main character. Nobody gets the full story, but everybody is brought into the intriguing world of Tudor politics.

It made me think about possibilities for Ham House. It was a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War - but somehow wasn't requisitioned during the protectorate. Some rumours suggest that the Countess protected her property by becoming Cromwell's lover whilst also being a leading member of the Sealed Knot, the secret society committed to the restoration of Charles II. There's a cracking story here isn't there? Next stop is A Gambling Man, Jenny Uglow's new biography of Charles - which I've heard draws heavily on the machinations of his court - in which the Dysarts' played a prominent role. Do their Scottish roots and monarchist sympathies also suggest an underlying Catholicism? More research is needed.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The 39 Steps.

Went into town to see The 39 Steps, which we're going to talk about in London Theatre Now this week. It's fun, fast paced, self referential and very playful. Similar in fact to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, which was in residence at The Criterion prior to this show going in.

I left feeling a little un rocked by the two hours, as though I had spent a pleasant couple of hours sleeping. Nothing had moved, nothing had changed - not even my mood. For me this is factory theatre - a show that has run and run and now drifted past its sell by date.

The technique is straight forward - tell an epic story imaginatively using low tech staging and as few actors as possible to represent the multiple locations and characters. It's a great exercise in simple storytelling.

The problem is there is just better work of this kind out there both from NIE (visiting Drama St Marys on Wednesday), whose post-Brechtian clowning is faster and more inventive and from Kneehigh, whose Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life and Death interweaves the very English sense of nostalgia for the romance of classic movies with a poignant questioning of our own sense of happiness.

So what's wrong with work that is popular, safe and family focused? I just want it faster, slicker, more gags and a sense that the world of play might somehow - link to our own. In short I want it to mean something. Theatre can be many things but it always needs to be vivid. In truth I could have read a paper on Hampstead Heath, had a coffee in Soho, stayed home and facebooked, fed the birds in St James' Park or done a hundred and one things to pass a Saturday afternoon in late Autumn. Two hours in the theatre has to be worth more, doesn't it?