Thursday, October 02, 2014

Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet at The Playhouse Theatre

It has to be first - laminated summaries left on tables in the bar, so the audience know what’s happening onstage.  

The afternoon had seemed promising; I had a low priced short-notice ticket from an online group, the theatre was five minutes’ walk from Charing Cross, David Mamet is  playwright with a reputation for witty social comment. (His Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) won a Pulitzer prize).  The celebrity name set off vague alarm bells, but I’d been impressed by Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess Theatre recently. (see below)

 Come the interval, though, I was retracing my steps up Northumberland Avenue. I talked myself round, and went back just in time to get a black coffee before the second half. After all, I told myself, I’d paid £4 for a programme.

 In the first act a lacklustre, barely audible Richard Schiff portrays  a newly -appointed Hollywood studio Head of Production, Bobby Gould.  His one- time assistant and rival, Charlie Fox, a convincingly brash Nigel Lindsay, makes you  hurt for every minute of the eleven years he’s spent toiling in the industry. By a stroke of luck he’s been offered a 24 hour option on a film script, a sure-fire box-office hit, and brought it along to his erstwhile partner in return for co-production credits. He knows Bobby is a ‘film whore’, interested only in a script’s money-making potential.  The two of them begin to speculate about the wealth the film will rake in.

Bobby’s temporary secretary, Karen, (Lindsay Lohan)  serves coffee and says a few lines in a voice as low and dreary as her boss’s. When she’s gone, Charlie bet Bobby that he wouldn’t be able to sleep with her before the following day.  On that gratuitous and unexpected  note the lights went down for the interval

The second half improved, mainly because Charlie had most of the lines, and some were memorable.  Karen the secretary has her own agenda, and is described by the disapproving Charlie, as ‘A tight pussy wrapped around ambition’ when he finds she has persuaded Bobby to give ‘the green light’ to a worthy but dull work with a downbeat theme. ‘I like Yellow Pages’, but I wouldn’t want to film it,’ says Charlie, as he senses his dreams of wealth are about to evaporate.  ‘Don’t let your dick run your office,’ he advises the smitten Bobby. For the final twenty minutes the theme of ethics  versus profit  emerges as the conflict between the two men develops;  there’s even a twist ending. Sadly, it’s too late.

Lindsay Posner’s direction is brisk enough, but Karen’s character is implausible and Lindsay Lohan quotes the book as if really is Yellow Pages. The two sets lack detail –a room with desks for Bobby’s office, and a room with a sofa and city-at-night backdrop for his apartment. Maybe the paperback play, offered for £7 when you buy the programme, would prove more entertaining. Otherwise, you could skip the first half and just read the summary in the bar.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Culture Clash: Bakersfield Mist at Duchess Theatre, Aldwych .

I’ve too many bad memories of  West End theatres on hot afternoons.  So the cool freshness of the Duchess Theatre was a pleasant surprise, especially on a day when record temperatures were expected. Quite a contrast with the sun-drenched swelter of the Aldwych outside. 

Tom Piper’s somewhat spacious ‘trailer’ set  is stuffed with broken-down, mismatched furniture. At its  centre is an arm chair covered in a crocheted throw. Vaguely arty  coffee tables bearing  ‘objets’  crowd the floor; shelves and walls display painted plates and bright, tasteless paintings of clowns and weird seascapes.  It’s the home of loud-mouthed Maude (Kathleen Turner). ‘I decorated it myself, all from thrift shops’ she declares, in front of the horrified gaze of up-tight New York art connoisseur Lionel, (Ian McDiarmid) called in to evaluate a ‘find’. Maude is sure she’s bought a genuine Jackson Pollock for $3. If authenticated by Lionel, it’s worth millions. 

What follows is an hour and a quarter’s master class in how to deliver a two-hander, under Polly Teale’s smooth direction. Characters of different class, education and temperament are a good start.  The actors deliver a lively polemic on art while reliving the ups and downs of their respective careers in art-criticism and bar-tending.  Lionel’s demonstration of Pollock’s painting method, from arm-swinging flourishes to catching a coffee table he’s sent flying earns a round of delighted applause. A witty script does justice to the energetic performances.

I’d recommend buying the programme, which includes interviews with Kathleen Turner and Stephen Sachs as well as an eye-opening article about fakery in art, pictures, what’s-on news, a topography of Bakerfield and even a theatrically-themed crossword.

A cool experience in every sense of the word.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Playing at it: The Pajama Game at the Shaftesbury Theatre

A musical based on a strike in a pajama factory where a manager falls in love with a union rep  sounds promising. Its first production in 1954 won countless awards and ran for three years.  'The Pajama Game' at The Shaftesbury Theatre has some excellent numbers, including ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, ‘Hey there (you with the stars in your eyes) ’ and  ‘This is my Once a year day’. What  a shame the storyline doesn't live up to  the music.  Factory work isn't a game, at least not for the employees. 

Writer George Abbott based the script on a novel by Richard Bissell called 'Seven and a Half Cents'. The author says he was inspired by the warmth and liveliness of his family's factory in small-town Ohio, where he worked as a manager. The storyline follows the progress of an ambitious young man from Chicago, Sid Sorokin. Michael Xavier looks perfect as Sid, with something of a John Wayne manner and a strong voice. He’s also nifty on his feet, important in a show which excels in the choreography department. Joanna Riding as Babe, the feisty union leader, is suitably cheerful and flexible when it comes to dancing but her role is less convincing. There’s strong support from minor comic characters.

If the romance seems unlikely, the factory scenes have an undercurrent that works against the intended humour. The floor manager's efforts to speed up production with a stop-watch (‘Hurry Up!') as an opener,  robotic workers all flustered,  engage the audience from the start . However, the ‘Seven and a Half Cents’ number, where workers  imagine in turn what twenty years of the tiny pay rise could bring, mocks their aspirations and desire for consumer goods. The staging reduces them to cartoon-like figures. 

Richard Eyre’s direction is faultless and the songs are brilliantly staged. I can’t imagine a better production of the show. Arguably the theme has relevance, if only one of contrast  in an era where workers’ rights hardly exist, thanks to erosion of union powers. It’s a shame that real-life disputes aren't so simplistic, or settled so easily, as in ‘The Pajama Game’. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cityreads Quiz at Manor House Library

Teams  representing library reading groups and a library staff team met at Manor House Library on Tuesday 20th May at 7.30pm. We were all set to be tested on our knowledge of Louisa Young's My Dear, I've been meaning to tell you... and, incidentally,  on our knowledge of WW1 battles and artists. Wines and light refreshment were much appreciated.

The novel is a harrowing account of a young man's experience of  recruitment, fighting and injury  in WW1. That's about as much as I can say without spoiling the plot,  but the background story  is an inter-class romance. That is all established before the young man joins up, but it's the part I found rather dull and not very credible. It's when the fighting starts that it picks up. The author's research into a relatively specialist aspect of the conflict is impressive but very well integrated into a dramatic narrative. 

We'd already discussed the book in the Lewisham Main Library reading group that meets at 10.30am on the first Saturday of every month and agreed it was a worthy choice for the annual contest.

We were : Chris (in the spotted top) Sarah, Shirley and me. Like me, Chris is an ex English teacher but she has more of a memory for details than I have, down to the name of the hospital where the hero was treated, which helped us score well on the section about the text. Shirley is an ex Art teacher so was particularly good at identifying artists and titles in the section where we had to identify paintings by artists of the time. Sarah, the youngster of the team - was good at anagrams of WW1 battles and at saying things like 'Just a minute. Is that the real answer? ',  as well as supplying plot details.  To my surprise, recent visits I've made to Belgium, where my son worked for a while,  came in useful because I recognised scrambled names of towns I'd visited but the others didn't know. 

At  half-time  another team was in the lead, but  I have to tell you, dear reader, that we won. 

On Saturday we'll be discussing another book with a similar theme - Erich Maria Remarque's  horrific  account of the Great War told from the point of view of a young German soldier: All Quiet on the Western Front. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Art of Horror: Paul Bryers at the Writeidea Festival 2013


Lucky me.  Paul Bryers drew on his considerable experience as a film maker and writer on November 17th at the IdeaSpace in Whitechapel Road. (It's really a huge modern library near the Whitechapel tube station) His presentation was  called ‘The Art of Horror’.
A range of examples, from Bram Stoker to Stephen King were combined with  personal anecdotes. A sense of mischief is essential for a writer of horror, he said, referring not just to Roald Dahl’s short stories but his own childhood game of frightening himself by projecting a shadow with a torch onto his bedroom wall and then walk  backwards  so it loomed  larger and larger.

Location plays a prime role in horror stories, typically the archetypal haunted house, but a landscape can be as eloquent as a building. EdgarAllan Poe lived for a while in nearby Stoke Newington, and projected images of the place were overlaid with quotations that summed up Poe’s feelings when he lived there:
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”  He also had ‘tendency to see demons’

According Stephen King:   ‘We make up imaginary horrors to help us cope with real ones’. King’s film The Shining, set in a remote hotel in the wilderness of Maine, encouraged Bryers to spend three months there on an Indian reservation whilst preparing to write his own book, a firm believer in the theory that  ‘A lot of the things you write about come from places you visit’.
‘The essential of horror is coincidence’, he said mentioning the bizarre road accident that nearly killed King, when he emerged from a wood onto an almost deserted road into the path of a drunken truck driver. ‘Every moment we deal in chaos’

Paradoxically, Bram Stoker found the ingredients for his classic Count Dracula from his Summer holidays in Whitby, where he was inspired by the ruined abbey, and   house that suggested the home of solicitor John Harkness, and even two women at his digs who became fictional female victims.  He found the idea for his villain from a book about a Russian tyrant called Vlad the Impaler.
An exploration of Charles Perrault ‘s (1628-1705) classic fairy tale, Red Riding Hood showed the potent influence of a shape-shifting wolf on writers like Angela Carter Thomas Harris and Daphne Du Maurier.

The essential ingredients for the writer of horror stories could be summed up as: haunted locations; myths and fairy tales; evil characters; innocent/vulnerable victims; irony; predestination and coincidence; paradox; one’s own life experiences; a sense of mischief.

I’ll definitely be attending this weekend-long festival in 2014 and would recommend the talk if you see it offered elsewhere. It’s the best I’ve seen all year, and  especially good for aspiring  writers (like me).