Sunday, January 24, 2010

'Six Degrees of Separation' at the Old Vic

‘It all depends on the production’, said the programme seller when I expressed my dismay. Gone was the lovely theatre-in-the-round space created for the performances of Alan Aykbourne’s Norman Conquest trilogy, still in place for ‘Complicit’, starring Richard Dreyfuss. In its place was an awkward three-tiered horseshoe.

A recent TV advert for American Airlines shows the theatre’s artistic director Kevin Spacey in what I assumed was a pre-conversion Old Vic. Cooing about how he appreciated good service his onscreen persona transferred from the dress circle to his seat in AA business class (Currently to be see in the new George Clooney ‘comedy’ ‘Up in the Air, in case you didn’t catch Spacey) I wish I could say the same about my own experience at last Thursday’s matinee for ‘Six Degrees of Separation’.

Instead, my seat on the right hand leg gave me an excellent view of the audience on the opposite side. To see the stage I had to turn through ninety degrees. I wasn’t too far from a kind of a red-coloured bowl sliced down the middle, which was to be the acting space. Maybe the symbolism was apt to suggest the cosseted world of the Manhattan art-dealing protagonists in their apartment high above Central Park. It did nothing at all for the sound, which seemed to be absorbed by the walls, but then I was hardly giving it both ears, skewed round as I was.

I’d seen the 1993 film of the same name, and remembered it as a chatty but intriguing piece. The ‘six degrees’ of the title, refers to the notion of the interconnection of everybody through six steps of acquaintance, like a giant facebook matrix. Based on the true story of a con man, also suggests the rich easy prey to those who’d take advantage of their gullibility.

A young man (Obi Abili) turns up at the apartment claiming to know their children at Harvard. He certainly seems familiar with the details of their lives. Further he says he’s Sydney Poitier’s son so can get them into the movies. The Kittredge’s (Anthony Head and Lesley Manville) fall for his story and they are not the only ones.

Slick direction and acting carries John Guare’s clever critique of several targets: the commoditisation of art (there’s a huge Kandinsky on display throughout) the ingratitude of pampered offspring, contemporary celebrity-worship and how privileged guilt makes the rich vulnerable to scams.

It's enjoyable and witty enough if you haven't seen the film, which is better. Just make sure your seat points towards the stage.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Literary Listings

Faced with a nine hour wait at frozen Gatwick, I was glad of Writing Magazine in my hand luggage. Time to peruse fifteen pages about Book Festivals and Writing courses on offer in 2010.

My Fantasy Holiday Programme consists of alternating Book and Film Festivals. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be in a city when a film festival’s on, but in fact I find the October London FF is more than enough. I always end up too traumatised to ever want to see a screen again. It once took a week to wear off.

A first glance at the magazine discounts some of the literary events straight away – too far, too posh, too expensive, and too crowded. I don’t want a gala dinner. I don’t want to hear the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire talking to David Blunkett. Too many places feature Margaret Drabble and/or Gervase Phinn. The dedicated-to-one author ones look attractive, and likely to attract enthusiasts instead of poseurs – Dickens at Broadstairs, Grahame Greene at Berkhamstead, My top favourite would be the Harrogate Crimewriting Festival, except it’s in one (at least) of the discounted categories .

The separate list of courses and workshops is even fancier. People would get on my nerves, so anything residential is out. If I want to walk between writing sessions or retreat to the Tuscan hills I can arrange it myself. I’d rather hire a caravan in Whitstable. Hot weather and scenery give me writers’ block.

So maybe it’ll be a case of one-off events at the LRB bookshop again. Hilary Mantel on the eve of winning the Booker Prize, AS Byatt being taught how to suck eggs by some whippersnapper, Ma Jian reading from Beijing Coma – all memorable in 2009.

But what’s this? An email on my return, telling me about a free Literary Festival in London, with top-flight authors and fascinating topics, ie 'How would a Robot Read a Novel?'
It's the Space For Though Literary Festival, at the LSE. Well, that’s made my mind up. And it’s even happening soon, in February.

Monday, January 04, 2010

A Daughter's a Daughter, at the Trafalgar Studios

'Aarghh! Not Agatha Christie!' was R's reaction, when I told him I'd been offered tickets for a new play at the Trafalgar Studios, 'A Daughter's a Daughter'. It seemed to me a perfect Christmas Eve treat, especially since it had such good reviews.

I know what he objected to about Christie's work, because he's told me before - the upper-class milieu, cardboard characters and stilted dialogue. I couldn't drag him to 'The Mousetrap' when my sister visited from Australia.

When Sarah Prentice, Honeysuckle Weeks returns from overseas military service in November 1945 it’s just in time to scotch her mother Ann’s plans to re-marry. ‘I hate change’ she declares, moving the furniture that has been changed round in her absence. Not to give away the plot, the rest of the play revolves round the consequences of her selfishness and her mother’s wish to please.

This play was first written under Agatha Christie's pseudonym Mary Westcott, and opened for just one week at Bath Theatre Royal in July 1956.

As the premise is somewhat dated, interest centres round the recreation of a social milieu and its customs. Apart from the single set, there’s much in common with the TV ‘Poirot’ series as well as ‘Foyle’s War’, in which Honeysuckle Weeks starred as a war-time chauffeur. Her Roedean accent and manner limits her range but the part of the spoilt upper-class daughter suits her well. Jenny Seagrove is superbly moving in the more challenging role of the mother.

The single drawing-room set, with paintings reflecting changes in taste from 1945 to 1949, works very well, as do the costumes and hair styles. While the mother’s suitor is made sympathetic by Simon Dutton, the minor characters jar, including the ‘stock’ female family retailer and the straight-talking titled family friend, reminders of Christie’s penchant for caricature. The clichéd dialogue works well enough in a context where the characters' social conditioning constrains their ability to express themselves.
The talk of cocktails parties, the quaffing of gin and disdain for employment is a long way from the world of post-war rationing and making do, but reflects Christie's own social circle. Despite the lack of wit, it’s closer to the writings of Terrence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham than to the style usually associated with the ‘Queen of Crime’.

For these reasons and because the ‘arena’ style venue is particularly suited to psychological drama, the play works surprisingly well. Even R admitted he’d been wrong to dismiss out of hand a play that offered pleasant, if undemanding, Christmas entertainment.