Friday, 27 October 2006

The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Roundhouse

If I love anything, I love free stuff most of all. Especially if that free stuff is booze and finger food. I'm mad for that shit. Last night's The Good, The Bad and The Queen gig, part of the BBC Electric Proms was notable mainly not for the return of Damon Albarn to the live fold; notable not for his newly-assembled band, including Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and Clash bassist Paul Simonon; notable not even for the newly spraunced-up Roundhouse. No, it was notable for the free booze and finger food.

Armed with a pink wristband, to denote how much better than everyone else we were, we marched into the VIP holding pen at about 6.30pm, giving us a full hour's worth of drinking before the first support. I chose beer, my friend chose white wine. There were some nice hors d'oeuvres as well - butterflied king prawns atop little bread, beef atop little bread, and the audacious sundried tomato filled with mozzarella. The best tactic for eating the sundried tomato was to whack the whole thing in your gob and then manage somehow. Those suckers were juicy. As I was wearing a white shirt, I decided that spillages on that white shirt would not be a good look for the night. More on that later.

The bar was filled mainly with disgusting liggers like myself. One poor guy in a sweatshirt was actively trying to network. What a loon.

At 7.30pm, the first support act started. His name was Young Tiger and he was neither young nor tigerish. He was 85, sat in a chair, walked with a stick, and read his lyrics off sheets of paper. He was accompanied by a six piece band, called the London Is The Place For Me Ensemble (crazy name, crazy guys!), who played the sort of music that only Damon Albarn and well-meaning women in tie-dye like. Apart from his final song, which was very catchy. It was called "At the Coronation" and the chorus went "I was there! / At the coronation / I was there! / At the coronation / Were you there? / At the coronation / Millions there! / At the coronation". The song was so catchy that if you cut me in half now, the words would be written through my torso like I was a stick of rock.

After Young Tiger, more drinking. The hors d'oeuvres had mysteriously dried up. My companion spilt his white wine all over a mirrored plinth and spent much of this break trying to mop it up.

Next up, Jamie T. Described as a white, British, urban rapper, I was disappointed to discover Jamie T sounded almost inseparably like the Arctic Monkeys. We lasted but three of his awful tracks, before sloping off to the bar, commenting that the songs would have really been improved by some sort of tune.

There were less people in the bar than in the interval, but not much less. Jamie T's howling was obviously not to everyone's tastes. Still no hors d'oeuvres, but by now Edith Bowman had turned up. I think she'd lost quite a bit of weight. She didn't look so good.

After Jamie T had finished, the bar filled up again. By this point, both myself and my companion were - not to put too fine a point on it - pretty drunk.

We took our seats for The Good, The Bad and The Queen. You know, every time I type that name, I want it to be better. It's a really shit name. In fact, whenever I type that name, I really hope it ends in a different way. "Please," I think, "let this end differently." I feel the same way when watching "Othello". This is a marker of how awesomely tragic this band name is. It's a total howler.

I'm not even kidding. If this band name was a kitten, I would throw it from some castle railings onto a spike.

But never mind the band name, what do they sound like?

I mean, seriously? What a shit name. It even makes an ugly-looking abbreviation. TGTBATQ. Bleurgh.

The band sound pretty much as you'd expect when half your band is Damon Albarn and Simon Tong, the guy who took over live guitar duties from Graham Coxon for "Think Tank"-era Blur. It sounds like the more droney aspects of Gorillaz, the sort of songs that - though you can't hear the lyrics through the fug of toothless Anglicised Afrobeat - are probably about how bad war is. Like, duh. One of the songs started something like "I wrote this song two years ago / Upon the Goldhawk Road". Blee. Why doesn't Damon tell us about the Nandos at Shepherd's Bush, or that time he went to Homebase?

Tony Allen's drumming is a huge non-event, with him soporifically padding his way through the songs, without ever truly kicking them into any kind of life. Paul Simonon throws punk shapes, whilst his bass fuzzes ineffectually away. At one point a rapper comes on, speaks unintelligibly for about twenty seconds, and then leaves. He isn't really part of the band. In fact, he might have been a lone stage invader. It was difficult to tell.

The gig is momentarily livened by Albarn stopping a song twice, telling the rest of the band off and saying "We can play that song better than that!" before jumping around. Tony Allen looks amused at his petulance. Albarn is wearing a top hat. I haven't liked Damon since his po-faced interview in the Britpop documentary "Live Forever", in which he morosely plinked away on a ukulele whilst trying to dodge the fact that he was largely to blame for the "Country House"/"Roll With It" shenanigans. This gig didn't change my mind.

The main problem with TGTBATQ, is that old chestnut: tunes. Actual Tunes were sorely in absence, with emphasis instead placed on turgid loops wobbling onto a stage, then falling off it again with almost no difference to the world. These were songs that made you realise the pointlessness of music. Why did these things exist? What did they come here for? Why were they hurting me?

After the gig, the liggers pour back into the bar. Weirdly, the staff bring round little bowls of beef stew and mash, which I really really wanted badly. The fork was way too big for the bowl, though, and as I took it, the fork catapulted beef stew at my white shirt. As I changed my shirt in the gents, someone accused me of being gay entertainment. By this point, my companion could barely stand. Having drunk only beer, I was marginally more in control of my faculties, so it was my job to get him home. In the end, he went to his girlfriend's, and I was left to ponder the gig.

Most heavy nights of drinking make you never want to drink again. Last night made me want to only drink again, just so I can blot out the bitter truth that I live in a world where music as unquestionably balls as this is actually applauded. Now, you could argue that it was the drink that made me not enjoy this gig, but I would argue that it was the gig that made me not enjoy the drink. That, and that the music was unquestionably balls. It made me want to call my ears liars, as no sound could possibly be as bad as it sounded like to me. It couldn't have been that bad.

Still, did I mention there was free food and booze? Whichever genius thought up that diversionary tactic deserves a raise.

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

On The Third Day, New Ambassadors Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

On the first day, God made the light and the dark, and saw that it was good. On the second day, a camera crew turned up at God's house. 'What's going on here?' said God. 'And who's that guy?' 'Him?' said the producer, 'That's Graham. He's from Kent. We're here to film a reality show called "Can You Make The Light And The Dark Better Than God?" It's reality, but - you know - highbrow.'

For avoidance of all doubt, that's not the play. That's my silly little joke. On The Third Day is, of course, the winning play from Channel 4's theatrical reality TV show The Play's The Thing. I was sent to see this play because Culture Wars knows that I am simple-minded, that I appreciate the lowbrow, and that I love tacky gimmicks and TV tie-ins. I had some time free before the show and I ate hamburgers! From Burger King! I couldn't be more suited to watch this play! I entered the theatre expecting (hoping! praying!) for the theatrical equivalent of Steve Brookstein! Or Gareth Gates!

Anyway, here's the plot of the actual play. Claire is a presenter at Greenwich Planetarium, who goes to a bar one night and brings back Mike, with whom she wants to lose her virginity. Unfortunately, he turns out to be Jesus. Whoops! I don't think He's putting out on the first date! Mike's presence forces her to confront the death of her parents, her troubled relationship with her brother, and, like, whether the Jesus dude is crazy or not.

It's important to get this out of the way: the play is not a disaster. (Oh, you can smell the disappointment from the bitchy elements of the audience! It's almost worth going just for that.) It's a mess, but it's not a disaster. The main problem with On The Third Day is - predictably - the immaturity of the playwright. Betts is wildly ambitious in the way first-time playwrights can be, chucking ideas at the stage without ever knowing quite how to make them pay off. Divinity, delusion, insanity, self-harm, incest, guilt, suicide, ghost rape, potholing, Elvis - it's a busy, restless piece which never achieves the cohesion it needs.

The first half almost - almost! - works, mainly because it is built around the relationship of the central characters, Claire and Mike. Maxine Peake gives a very nice performance of the timid side of Claire, drunkenly attempting to seduce Mike (Paul Hilton) after dragging him home from a bar. Kate Betts writes a nice line in snappy dialogue, which Peake and Hilton have fun with. In particular, Betts is a fan of coy one-liners alluding to Mike's past life as Jesus. There's a lot of these. In fact, you could probably play 'Jesus Joke Bingo', just by sitting there with a copy of the New Testament and ticking them off as they came out. When Mike referred to some overcooked fish being 'a burnt offering', I think I got my full house.

The flashbacks to Claire and her brother Robbie as children interested me much less than the present day, domestic business. I don't think I need to tell you, oh intelligent reader, that there are subtler ways to impart exposition than the flashback. One episode of The Play's The Thing I saw involved the playwright Stephen Jeffreys telling the finalist writers about the three unities of time, place and action. I wish he'd pressed his case a little more firmly, as the second half takes much of the nice domestic stuff that I liked a lot and trashes it, in favour of massive caves, food fights, singing, and some more rape. It's scrappy stuff, and unsatisfying. Like Russell T Davies' 2003 ITV drama The Second Coming, Betts has the problem that she has brought Jesus into a modern world and now doesn't know what she's going to do with him.

Davies had the temerity to kill off Our Lord (how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice, right?), but Betts opts for that old classic: he just wanders off. Probably to Heaven. The performers find it difficult to attain the dramatic peaks that the histrionics in the text demand, because of dizzying leaps in the text from high drama to subtle comedy and back. In the climactic restaurant scene there's some horrible stage direction, and the mere presence of Elvis at the dinner table turns it into exactly the sort of cheaply absurd play that I imagine producer Sonia Friedman set out to avoid. Revelations happen at a pace that suggests the characters are eager to get to the end of the play. How meta-theatrical! It's such a shame. The occasional glimmers of promise in the first half are all squandered.

Thematically, there's no real sense that Betts is engaging with her subject matter. She's assembling An Important And Symbolic Play from a list of variables; writing not what she feels, but what she thinks theatre is. I have no idea what Betts actually thinks about God, or Jesus, or even Christianity. I have no idea what she wants us to think about these things. In fact, I think the moral of the story, to paraphrase Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, is 'Be Excellent To Each Other'. The other strands of the story are somehow even less clearly defined. Claire's self-harm is gratuitous and a cheap device to show that she is, like, really upset. Claire's brother Robbie is so unsympathetic, I was left hoping Jesus committed murder by snipping his potholing ropes with scissors, which would have been out-of-character for Christ to say the least.

Theatrically, we get vaulting ambition. Throughout the series of The Play's The Thing, Sonia Friedman fretted that the final chosen play wouldn't be big enough for the West End. She disparaged plays for only being suitable for the Royal Court and encouraged her writers to think boldly to escape the deadly trap of… shudder as you say it… fringe theatre. The net result is a play punching above its weight. The design of the play is all huge projections and sofas floating onto stage mysteriously pushed by no-one; the sound design is big whooshy noises and Holst; and the script is more, more, more! It's a lie, anyway, this notion that the West End can only cope with big plays. The last play I saw on the stage of the New Ambassadors was Frank McGuinness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, and that's just three blokes chained to radiators.

It just saddens me. Given a proper dramaturgical going-over, this would probably be quite a good play, if shorn of flashbacks and given a tighter, claustrophobic focus. Because of the time constraints of the programme, the play has been rushed onto a stage, publicly, painfully, and I don't believe it's ready. There are glaring things in the play that could have been sorted out really easily by a skilled dramaturg - like Young Claire having a bossy character that diametrically opposes her timid older counterpart. The characters need a lot of psychological fleshing-out, and factual definition - the writer is dealing with huge, complicated human issues, and has no real idea of how to make a subject like incest both dramatically viable and psychologically 'real'.

The point of this project was to offer someone a chance to put their play on in the West End, but the script selection process used by theatres and literary agents is there for a purpose. It guarantees a play is stage-worthy by the time a paying audience sees it. The Play's The Thing promised support for a new writer, but it has actually given the writer less support, and placed more pressure on her to make something extraordinary. This doesn't seem like much of a prize.

I really hope Kate Betts gets another play put on soon, and is not crushed by this ludicrous, unreal pressure upon her as a first-time writer. As it is, the whole project seems like an immense effort for scant reward. Too silly to be appreciated by sniffy regular theatregoers, with too much incest for people who watched The Play's The Thing while waiting for Big Brother to come on, On The Third Day is a bit of a curio; a play that manages to miss every target market. This play isn't the thing - it's not good, but it's not a pleasingly-trashy disaster, and it's all a bit upsetting, really.

Monday, 13 March 2006

Masha & The Bear, White Bear Theatre

(Written for Culture Wars)

One of the most justifiably despised genres for new plays is the Unofficial Sequel. Do you think I care what happened to Beatrice and Benedick after they got married? Or where Godot has actually been all this time? No. Stoppard has a lot to answer for.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I approached Pitch Dark Theatre's Masha and the Bear; a look at Chekhov's Three Sisters before and after the events of his play. One of the pitfalls of the Unofficial Sequel is the presupposition that the audience knows the minutiae of the play you are riffing on. Masha and the Bear is admirably restrained in its use of the original text. Yes, the references and in-jokes are still there, but writer/director Abbey Wright focuses wisely on the characters of the sisters - Olga, prim and maternal; Irina, young and clearly in awe of her sisters; and the titular Masha, bold and imaginative, and suffocated by loveless marriage.

Rather than concentrating immediately after or before the time of the play, Wright pieces together a story flip-flopping between past and present - offering scraps of the lives of the three girls in reality and memory. Having done away with the intimacy and claustrophobia afforded by Chekhov's adherence to a single setting, Wright instead mines the intimacy of moments shared by sisters -a boring dinner, folding a sheet - with Chekhovian subtext shimmering across snatched glances.

The four performers - there is a brief role for Melissa Charlton as Masha's maidservant Sophia - are uniformly strong. Kathryn Daw plays the balance between stern and sisterly to a tee, with a tut rarely far from her lips. Her gravitas is particularly well used in returning to Masha's empty house, playing the unspoken feelings of loss, whilst distracting herself with busying herself over tidying, or fussing with spindly fingers over a box of receipts. She also gets given a perfectly weighted Chekhovian line - 'I'm not sure this is fun' - which she uses to drolly puncture the hyperactive tendencies of her sisters. Sparking effectively off Daw's Olga, Josie Daxter makes her Irina childlike and wide-eyed, with her maturity late in the play subtle and poignant. As Masha, Rosie Mason marries the emotional weight of her desperate situation with the manic energy of someone driven to reclaim her vitality from those that would take it away.

Masha and the Bear is a subtle and suitably restrained affair that can prove challenging narratively - much is left for an audience to assume or work out in their own time, but the ambiguities are rarely frustrating or impede one's understanding of the characters themselves. The sisters are key; they invite the audience into the sisterly clique, aiming to reveal nothing, but revealing everything. Pitch Dark Theatre's attention to detail and specificity in the subdued and subtextual moments should be commended, as should the focus and restraint of the writing of the piece. It is a fringe show of genuine quality, and exudes an intelligence rarely seen in London's smaller theatres.

The website of Tom Wateracre

About Me

My photo
London, United Kingdom
Writer, Screenwriter. Born in the late Seventies. Likes marzipan.