Sunday, 7 June 2015

Five Plays

Last week I saw five plays. I know that's a bit much but I saw three of them in the space of 55 minutes so it wasn't really that extreme. I saw 'High Society' at The Old Vic, 'American Buffalo' at Wyndham's Theatre and the trilogy of short pieces 'Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby' by Samuel Beckett as part of the Beckett festival at the Barbican.

First up was 'High Society', the stage version of the classic film with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. The stage is set in the round for some obscure reason which makes the stage even smaller, especially when they do some big dance pieces. It's nice that they use the whole space but I couldn't see why it was needed. I liked the minimal staging with grand pianos rising and falling through the stage at different times and the only constant was a small bar that doubled as a breakfast bar and trebled as a cupboard to display wedding gifts. For, of course, this is about a wedding.

Tracy Lord used to be married to Dexter, a rich playboy and yacht designer but is now going to be married again from her parent's home on Rhode Island. And Dexter turns up the day before the wedding with news that two journalists will arrive to cover the wedding as part of a deal to keep her father's latest affair out of the newspapers. Tracy decides to play the outrageously privileged daughter of wealth and go over the top for the journalists before getting sloshed at the evening's party and swimming naked with one of the journalists when her husband-to-be appears. Could it get any worse? O yes, of course it could.

It's fun as far it goes, lots of music and movement, lots of laughs and dancing. But it didn't make me interested in the characters or like them or care what happened to them. I don't particularly care whether a rich heiress marries the journalist, the bore or the yacht designer and I should. Why was that? I like the film and the characters but that didn't follow through to this play. It wasn't helped by Kate Fleetwood's accent being unintelligable some of the time so I couldn't follow what she was saying or by the loudness of Jamie Parker as the journalist - a bit of subtlety goes a long way sometimes. Something that really irritated me was the long dance sequence that opened the second half - all dancing with little of the main characters to help the story along.

Yes, it was ok, and I'm pleased I've seen it but I won't be going back for a second glass.

The second play was 'American Buffalo' at Wyndhams with the star turns of Damian Lewis and John Goodman. It's a small story set in a neighbourhood junk store in New York or Brooklyn or somewhere where the shop owner has just sold an old coin for a comparative fortune that makes him plan to steal another one from a house around the corner to make another good sale. And that's sort of the story but there are lots of twists and turns along the way along with some laughs.

John Goodman is the amiable store owner with a good word to say for everyone, including the local junkie kid who hangs round the store. Then in comes Damian Lewis as the typical loud-mouth with his 70s porn star moustache and cheap suit. He'll help with the robbery and brings along a gun. But it all goes wrong when the junkie needs money.

I suppose that's the whole story. I didn't get any more really and I wasn't terribly impressed. It was ok but... and that's where I get stuck. The continuous repetition of phrases and questions got irriatting after a while (y'know, the Robert de Niro 'you talking to me?' thing) and that's all Damian Lewis's character seemed to do. I'm sure I missed a lot of very clever acting by being distracted by the repetition and that's the play, not this production or the actors. Wyndham's seems to specialise in working class American plays, with 'A View from the Bridge' a few months back and now this. I'm tired already.

It was good to see John Goodman and I really liked his cool, gentle portrayal of the junk shop owner with his basic trust in humanity. His is a nice character in poor circumstances. I was less keen on the rapid-fire and repetitious porn star of Damian Lewis and the annoyance of Tom Sturridge's junkie.

The third was a trilogy of plays performed as part of the Beckett Festival at the Barbican. Now, I'm not a particular fan of Beckett but sometimes it's worth seeing things you wouldnt normally go to see if ony to open up the mind a little bit and that's what these plays did - illustrate that the theatre and the stage can be many things and don't have to be the same old same old. The trilogy was 'Not I' followed a few minutes later by 'Footfalls' and then by 'Rockaby' all performed by Lisa Dwan and completed in 55 minutes.They were staged in The Pit theatre, many levels underneath the Barbican - so many stairs going down means we must have been close to the centre of the Earth. I was slightly conscious of the sheer weight of building above us.

We were let in to a dimly lit theatre with no lights on the stairs and with emergency exit signs covered up. It's to be seen in pitch black with very few lights, sensory deprivation and atmosphere, just words and some movement. First up was 'Not I' with a totally blacked out stage with a spotlight on lips and teeth spouting words high up above the stage. Speaking at an incredible rate, so fast that I couldn't follow what was being said and, every now and then, she'd slow down and then speed up again, a chatterbox just needing to get the words out. A stream of conscious internal monologue taken to extremes. How on earth could she learn so many, many words and spew them out so quickly? Most impressive!

Beckett had obviously used up his quota of words and the second play, 'Footfalls', replaced many words with the character of Amy pacing slowly back and forth as she carried on a slow dialogue with her (dead?) mother. Pacing back and forth, back and forth, setting up a conscious rhythm to the play. There was slightly more light in this one as Lisa paced across a lighted strip on the floor and her shoes echoed.

The final piece was 'Rockaby' with Lisa in a rocking chair rocking slowly back and forth while listening to her life retold by either herself or someone she knows, I was never sure, every now and then shouting out for 'more!' that keeps her story and her life going and developing until ... the end.

My favourite of the three was 'Not I' and that was also my favourite of the week's worth of plays. It did it's job admirably. It challenges the convention of the play and the stage, the glam and glitz that are totally absent, even the actress is absent other than her mouth and voice. It was most impressive - and so was Lisa Dwan. I'll be watching out for her name in future.

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