Elmina's Kitchen / How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying /
Henry IV parts 1 and 2 / The American Pilot / The Birthday Party
Various venues
April/May, 2005

I’m a great believer in eavesdropping at the theatre.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything to match the classic example of the blimpish figure overheard at the Royal Opera House asking his companion, “What are they givin’ us tonight, darlin’ – singin’ or dancin’?”  But third-party remarks can unexpectedly illuminate one’s own views about the play in question.  Oddly, major press nights are in fact less fertile ground for such furtive harvesting: those audience members who aren’t engaged professionally and thus observing our critical omertà are in all too many instances there for the event rather than the play, as it were.  (Moreover, at least nine out of every ten remarks I overhear from “civilians” in theatres consist of people in the seats behind me asking each other whether they can see past me.  Absolutely true, alas.)  But every so often, up pops a line that serves to throw the whole evening into focus.

One such, for me, occurred recently.  As I edged through the throng in the theatre foyer (in as much as I can edge anywhere), I encountered a couple of well-heeled first-night habitués intent on having a conversation across my path.  The remark I caught was, “Ah, at least you know how to dress properly!”  Now, at almost any other opening, this would have been mere snobbishness.  But this was the West End press night of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, which as Caryl Phillips notes is the first West End opening by a black British writer in thirty years (others claim the first ever); as a result, it attracted a number of young black Britons, dressed smartly but not always in keeping with the more conservative codes still expected in some quarters.  In such a milieu, it’s hard  to avoid the suspicion that the remark might have been outright racist.  I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask the gentleman in question whether he was being snooty on an equal-opportunities, colour-blind basis.


Conversely, mind you, it’s all too easy to make the standard white liberal noises about Elmina’s Kitchen and still emerge sounding like a well-meaning but uncomprehending, faintly patronising pillock.  (I suspect I’m about to do precisely that.)  I’m not sure that, in his story of three generations of men in the same family, Kwei-Armah is offering an indictment of failures in parenting.  In a cultural context in which the idea of the nuclear family is far less prevalent as an ideal, it makes little sense to lament its absence.  These are individual male relationships being portrayed, but set within what is also a culture of machismo.  Reduced to its basics, it’s hardly revolutionary: a stifled father/son bond in conflict with peer pressure to conform to a more fast and loose lifestyle.  Its power is in the freshness and directness with which the writer locates it in this particular environment – one which is part of everyday urban British life, but seldom given such a natural treatment.
That’s “natural” in social terms (and linguistic ones – if Billy Elliot gets stick for providing a glossary of Geordie in its programme, pity the poor ras claats who can’t get by without a Caribbean lexicon), rather than dramatically natural and fluid.  As I suggested with regard to his subsequent play Fix Up, Kwei-Armah is skilled and sensitive at asking questions, less so at finding plausible paths for his characters once he has placed them in dilemmas.  The combination can feel at times like a counsel of despair.  I don’t think his own performance in the central role of Deli helps, either: he is more stilted on stage than on screen, and director Angus Jackson lets him get away with too much by way of playing Deli as a noble hero doomed by external forces; we don’t see enough of the faults that Deli himself brings to the mixture.  (And that gag line, “You been watching too much Casualty, mate!”, is almost unbearably knowing when it’s delivered to a man who is both the author of the play and a star of said television series.)


Michael Obiora has garnered deserved plaudits as Deli’s conflicted son Ashley.  In Obiora’s performance, you can believe Ashley’s sincerity when he claims that he’s finding an identity for himself, even as you see that he’s simply giving himself over to be the creature of hoodlum godfathers.  It’s a far stronger performance than those of a couple of other young men during the fortnight in question.

In panto season, I noted that Joe McFadden is a natural Wishee Washee; unfortunately, he was cast as Aladdin at the Old Vic.  He brings the same wide-eyed gee-whizzery to J Pierrepont Finch, the protagonist of Frank Loesser’s How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and consequently blunts the savagery and cynicism of the script: he’s not so much a dedicated go-getter following the amoral manual of the title as a decent guy led astray by its excessive callousness.  Tim Walker is the only reviewer not to compare Loesser’s and librettist Abe Burrows’ work here with their earlier triumph in Guys And Dolls – it’s a lesser piece, not simply in comparison to that classic, but pretty much in absolute terms.  Nevertheless, Martin Duncan gives it his characteristic musical pizzazz (without, as he does on occasion, going over the top), Beverley Klein reprises her now-standard characterisation as a pocket battleship, and David Langham gangles and lopes to an extent that his namesake (and relative?) Chris would be proud of.


From McFadden to MacFadyen, and Matthew of that ilk’s performance as Hal in Nicholas Hytner’s Henry IV diptych.  I’m afraid I fail to see the cold calculation that others discern in this Hal’s low-life scenes; I simply see someone who can’t roister plausibly on stage.  No matter if it’s all an act that Hal’s putting on – he should still put it on; otherwise Falstaff, so sharp in so many ways, comes across as a complete idiot in his persistent attachment to someone who, in this performance, shows little or no warmth in return.  The disavowal at the climax of part 2 – “I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers” – is chilling in its venom here, but it’s no surprise that the new king says it; his soliloquy early in part 1 revealing that his heart isn’t in the Jack-the-lad business – “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/the unyoked humour of your idleness” – is no more surprising, and far less potent for its measured, introspective delivery.

MacFadyen’s failings mean that, for me, the broader thematic thrust of the plays is also lacking in oomph.  His Hal is better at the courtly stuff than the tavern scenes, so the prince/king scenes tend to work better than the prince/Falstaff ones... but with such an imbalance, the tension between the real and the surrogate father never goes taut, and so these plays about fathers and sons never come into proper dramatic focus.  Similarly, the “as above, so below” sense of the country as a whole – or large parts of it – torn between true and false kingly “fathers” doesn’t quite come off, although there’s certainly a feel for the depredations of war in general.  David Bradley’s King Henry IV, too, is compelling as a man grown brittle with age and monarchical cares.  (Has Bradley ever played Lear?  If not, why not?  If so, what kind of fool am I for having missed it?)  As for Gambon’s Falstaff, it’s all in the reviews: the protean accent (which lends his “honour” soliloquy so much more power for being the one point in the plays where he’s not putting on an affected voice of any kind) with its occasional unintelligibility, the sense of “all-hallown summer”, the perfect coupling with John Wood’s Shallow, the lot.


Hytner doesn’t remake the Wars of the Roses in a topical image the way he did with the French war in his Henry V a couple of years ago. David Greig more or less does the opposite in The American Pilot, turning contemporary conflicts into a more abstract situation.  It’s not just the deliberate lack of specificity about the territory in which the pilot crash-lands, and the usual Greig tropes of language and ideas.  I’d argue that it goes much further even than exploring the image of America 9deliberately beginning by suggesting that the pilot may be a virtuous, even heroic figure, then modulating the impression repeatedly).  I think he’s using audience preconceptions about America and its role in the modern world as both a symbol for his more conceptual preoccupations and a test of our own acuity: can we see past the stars and stripes to the more nebulous issues that are, as ever, at the heart of Greig’s work?  We see a local warlord captain who has almost lost a sense of ideology to underpin what he does, who can’t explain the basis of his conduct but continues to try to act in the best interests of his people; we see his lieutenant, driven by ideology but likewise unable to articulate it, and who in the most telling speech of the play recounts his experiences of America as if it were both heaven and hell at once; we see the farmer’s daughter with her home-brewed mixture of young love and religious fervour.  In every case, it’s suggested to us that there are great concepts here which lie just outside the grasp of these people – and perhaps of any of us – to pin down in words.  As such uncertain ideas go, the notions of “America” and its values are probably the biggest around at the moment.


And as uncertain ideas go, consider The Birthday Party.  Twenty reviews, and pretty much as many interpretations of what’s going on in there.  The most salient viewpoints may be Sheridan Morley’s story of a young actor named Alan Ayckbourn daring to ask the author what it was about, and Toby Young’s speculation that Pinter’s writing was here driven more by an immediate contrarian streak to the plays around him than by any grand concept of the authority represented by Goldberg and McCann.  I’m afraid that the strain of begrudgery running through this issue’s Prompt Corner extends also to Henry Goodman’s performance as Goldberg.  I’ve long had a problem with Goodman, which is that he always seems to be “on”, always working the audience, even if out of the corner of his eye.  It worked a treat with his Charles Guiteau in Sam Mendes’s production of Assassins years ago; it sank his Richard III more recently; and here, I fear, it saps the venom of Goldberg.  His urbanity is never quite hollow enough... or it’s hollow in the wrong kind of way, in an “actorly” rather than a “characterly” way, so that the contrasting menace never has a chance to assert itself.  As against that, Eileen Atkins is beautifully unsettling as the too-solicitous landlady Meg, and Paul Ritter shows what he hinted at in Lindsay Posner’s Bristol production of The Caretaker a couple of years ago, that he was born to play Pinter.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2005

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage