Bloody Mess / Tropicana / Forty Winks / Dead Hands / Becket / Simply Heavenly /
Ying Tong / How To Lose Friends And Alienate People
Various venues
October / November, 2004

We are, we Brit-critics, predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class and male.  A number of us – meaning no disparagement to their femininity – are to all intents and purposes honorary males; a number of us are flatteringly still referred to as middle-aged despite the advances of Father Time; some of us (myself included) are “scholarship boys”, not middle-class by background though firmly so by acculturation.  In terms of perspective, though, we come pretty much from the same mould.

How, then, do we react to work which is outside our more accustomed province?  It’s an interesting matter to consider, in a fortnight when we’re presented with new pieces by both Forced Entertainment and Shunt, each a collective dedicated to presenting non-scripted, non-linear work.  Forced Ents marked their twentieth anniversary with a mini-season in which their main show Bloody Mess was shown in parallel with a number of other pieces from their history; Shunt have just made the transition to a new phase of semi-permanence with Tropicana, the opening presentation in their semi-subterranean home for the next three years.

Compare the reviews given to each, and evaluate these twin hypotheses: 1) A greater number of reviewers turn out for Shunt because they carry the imprimatur of the National Theatre, 2) Forced Ents get more respectful write-ups because they’ve been going longer.


To take the second theory first: every review of Bloody Mess takes pains to aver that it does have a point; none, however, identifies that point.  (Dominic Cavendish speculates upon it, but also hedges his bets by means of a conditional; much virtue in “if”.)  The press night also had an astoundingly high proportion of college-age people in the audience, on their own bat or in organised parties; Tim Etchells & Co may in general be prophets without honour in their own country, but it seems that in a certain constituency they’ve been elevated to the kind of pantheon that they profess to have no time for.  What was also noticeable was that, some fifteen minutes before the end of the piece, the biggest of these student parties – some 40 to 60 people – walked out.  It’s possible, I suppose, that they had a 10.30pm curfew, but there was little or no discernible reluctance or regret from any of the departing.

I do seem currently to be in a phase of blunt intolerance for the “It means whatever you want it to mean” school of cop-out pseudo-justification.  Certainly, as the Forced Ents company cavorted to the sounds of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine”, what it primarily meant to me was that they weren’t in fact as wacky on stage as space-rockers Hawkwind had been some thirty years earlier, without any pretence to performance radicalism – Lemmy et al. had simply been off their tits on acid.
Yet, despite this oppositional streak in me, I responded positively for the first half or so of Shunt’s Tropicana, largely as a result of what I was bringing to the table myself.  I appreciated the cheeky games the company played with claustrophobia in the opening phases of the piece; during the main central sequence, as we sat in the dark and various fleeting actions were vouchsafed to us through brief, partial shafts of light, I felt we were being shown a new way of seeing things, where the bizarre (sideways lift-shafts, exotic dancers scuttling like startled fauna) and the banal (a pineapple being hammered to pulp) could turn out to be equally intriguing.  This, I suspect, is the kind of experience described in those reviews which compare Tropicana unfavourably to John Berger and Simon McBurney’s 1999 The Vertical Line, which I didn’t see; if I had, possibly I’d likewise feel that the insights offered by the Shunt show were slim in comparison.


Curiously, the more demonstrative Shunt’s material grew (from a steampunk voodoo funeral sequence through to a mock-autopsy), the more my interest declined.  The evening seemed to diminish from a mystery into a puzzle, or possibly a pseudo-puzzle designed to be insoluble.  Rather than the simple cop-out of “It means whatever you want it to mean”, this seemed to indicate that sometimes it’s better to leave things entirely unexplained than to make vague gestures that never cohere.

And so the more opaque elder statesmen of Forced Entertainment were indulged more in review: surely, the reasoning seems to have run, they must know what they’re doing by now, and therefore we can take that as read.  Yes, but what if what they’re doing is in fact lazy noodling?  I’m not saying it is; a fortnight after seeing the show, I’m still bewildered.  But it does seem to me to be a real possibility.


It would be novel to see what the most disjunct of reviewers make of such productions.  Compare others’ trouble tolerating even a play like Kevin Elyot’s Forty Winks: “You can get away with this sort of thing in subsidised theatre, I suppose,” writes one reviewer, thus dismissing both the play and an entire sector of theatre which includes the country’s flagship companies.  I find that Elyot’s piece has grown on me in the week and a half since I saw it: what at first seemed slight, brooding but ultimately inconsequential, has grown softly eloquent about its subject: the way one’s life can spiral back in upon a defining moment unrealised at the time.  Whether this is worth the repeated recapitulations that Elyot has made of it in various plays may be open to debate, but it’s a common enough sensation, even on a subconscious level.  This week it was announced that the school-reunion website Friends Reunited has more than eleven million active members; no-one’s going to persuade me that this is a result of mild curiosity or vague nostalgia.  It’s also heartening to see Dominic Rowan continue to show what first became undeniable in last year’s Mourning Becomes Electra, that his early strengths as a deadpan comic actor have now been more than complemented with a quiet gravitas that perfectly suits roles such as he has here.  Wait a minute, though: Elyot’s play is a slow, silent grower… and he keeps re-stating the message in play after play… it’s not just a play, is it?  It’s a practical demonstration of this thesis as well.

Leonard Cohen

Nick Stafford’s Love Me Tonight (to which you can see on the main reviews pages I was better disposed than most) I think tried for similarly understated power – Stafford has great skills as a forensic writer about events which evoke major human emotions – but kept slipping up on its own excessive polish: overwritten lines, over-neat characterisations.  However, I found that it proved the better when considered as part of a diptych on grief together with Howard Barker’s Dead Hands.  Barker, as usual, approaches from the other end: extreme over-articulation of both situation and dialogue, in the hope not so much of illuminating thoughts and feelings as of pinning and mounting them like dead butterflies.  However, Dead Hands is unusually light going for Barker.  Coming as it does after the similarly not-unrelenting 13 Objects, it leads me to speculate that perhaps Howard Barker is now at the kind of position Leonard Cohen found himself in around fifteen years ago: the rest of the world has gradually come to realise that the bleak figure of popular legend is only part of the picture, and that there’s a lot of discreet humour in there too, which the artist in turn feels readier to allow overt manifestation to.  I certainly found myself responding to the play in the same way I do to the music of laughing Lenny: appreciating the self-deprecating chuckles, realising that they add to the more profound concerns rather than distracting from them.


Chuckles aren’t thick on the ground in John Caird’s revival of Anouilh’s Becket at the Haymarket.  I’ve nothing to add to the main substance of the reviews on these pages, apart from a couple of observations.  I recall a pre-publicity interview in which Jasper Britton fulminated that anyone who played homoeroticism as the defining feature of Henry II’s relationship with Thomas à Becket was stupid, lazy and generally wrong; lo and behold, how little of significance is discerned in Britton’s performance beyond that single note.  And I wonder whether Frederic and Stephen Raphael were trying to make a point with their translation, accurately fingered by Charles Spencer as downright vulgar: since Anouilh invents an ethnic tension between the Norman Henry and the Saxon Becket, are the Raphaels trying to imply the deeper victory of Becket by putting so many Anglo-Saxon turns of phrase – not just the expletives, but virtually all the modern colloquialisms – into the Norman’s mouth?  In all honesty, probably not, but it would be nice if that had been the case.  The show’s early closure has already been announced; it will have run for seven weeks.

Little space left to join in the chorus of delight at the return of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s production of Simply Heavenly to the Trafalgar Studios, featuring the awesome coupling of Clive Rowe and Ruby Turner.  (And that’s not just an expression of solidarity amongst the generously-built.)  Still less to praise Roy Smiles’ Ying Tong, which seems to begin in the mould of the current Round The Horne show then splinters into an imaginative examination of Spike Milligan’s relationship with The Goons and his terrible nervous breakdown of 1960.  It’s co-produced by Michael Codron, though, so if there’s any justice I’ll be able to muse on it at greater length on a West End transfer next year.  Such transfers, paradoxically, are one way of establishing the profile of a smaller originating venue.  Producer David Babani early spotted the potential of the Menier in Southwark, as have Paines Plough with their arrangement for a residency there next year; but what marks it indisputably on the map is the transfer to the Arts of Mark Setlock’s whirlwind solo piece Fully Committed.


That’s now playing in tandem with the West End performing début of Spectator reviewer Toby Young.  I’m afraid I’m not able to pass an opinion on Toby’s show, as a result of a) his getting the dates wrong when he phoned to make sure we had the openings properly listed on our Next pages, b) TR never receiving the e-mailed press release from his publicist which would have corrected the dates; c) said publicist accepting with a cheery “No problem!” my request to come along and see the show on a night when there wasn’t in fact going to be a performance; d) this only coming to light two working days before the evening in question, by which time I had no other free slots left in my diary.  I may not have seen the show, but I do feel that in an intangible way I’ve had the in-performance experience of How To Lose Friends And Alienate People.  In any case, Toby gave himself a glowing review (reprinted in this issue) some time before the show opened.  He seems to have expected much more sniping than in fact he received; from my own experiences as a critic-performer, I could have told him that one’s fears in that respect are seldom fully realised.  Indeed, my 1998 Edinburgh Fringe show garnered the wonderful quote, “You can’t survive the Festival without seeing this show!”… which I always quote in tandem with the other outspoken verdict: “Like a dog returning to its own vomit.”

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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