Every so often I find myself grateful to have seen a play, not because of its inherent excellence or otherwise, but because this is the one that pins down in my mind an individual’s shtick – be they writer, director, performer, whatever – to the extent that I don’t feel obliged to keep so close an eye on them in future. It’s a rebuttable presumption, of course – no critic should ever consider any of their subjects as definitively pigeonholed – but none the less useful: since there’s always too much for one to see it all, every opportunity to turn to fresher pastures is welcome.
One such epiphany for me this month has been Douglas Maxwell’s Mancub. (You thought I was going to talk about Neil LaBute’s plays, didn’t you?) Maxwell specialises in rites of passage of maladjusted boys and those around them: from his first hit Decky Does A Bronco, through Our Bad Magnet and Helmet, all his central characters (though this is not the same as “viewpoint characters”) are male youths with a view of the world that is never less than idiosyncratic, and their difference of viewpoint is the direct or indirect cause of the play’s climactic event. Even in his recent If Destroyed True, it can be argued that the characters of Vincent, Ty and Michael have simply carried their adolescent traits on into adulthood for belated resolution, and in its other plot strand, Norman falls squarely into the usual young constituency without any gerrymandering.
So, even though Mancub is not Maxwell-originated material – being an adaptation of John LeVert’s 1986 children’s novel The Flight Of The Cassowary, with the action transposed from the US to Scotland – it provided that moment of clarity as regards this particular playwright’s preoccupations. Fine performances, certainly, from all three actors: Paul J Corrigan as protagonist Paul (and there’s interesting in itself: John LeVert’s protagonist is John) steps in and out of the action to narrate, Sandy Grierson relishes morphing between characters, and Claire Lamont is probably a few years too young to appreciate that the voice she uses as girlfriend Karen is uncannily like that of film critic Mark Cousins. But the delights of the moment pale in the knowledge that Maxwell has offered pretty much the same bill of fare several times before, and is unlikely to stop doing so now. It’s not that he’s bad at it – far from it; I just wish he’d break fresh ground. Indeed, on looking back over my own old reviews, I find I’d already said almost exactly the same thing as far back as Our Bad Magnet’s 2001 Edinburgh Fringe run.
A similar feeling arose watching the two latest openings from Neil LaBute. (Ah, I couldn’t let it lie after all!) My Financial Times review of This Is How It Goes is contained in the body of this issue, so normally I wouldn’t rehash the same material in this column, but it’s difficult to avoid in this instance. In both that play and Some Girl(s), LaBute seems to be consciously ringing the changes on what is perceived as his dramatic approach – distanced, astringent, regarding the extremities of human thought and behaviour with dispassion but perhaps some subconscious misogyny – yet in both plays the superficial differences serve inadvertently to highlight the same fundamental approach, which is this: he never damn well commits himself. He neither resolves his intellectual games nor offers a standpoint of his own. That, of course, is part of the point of This Is How It Goes, but it gets taken to altogether smug lengths. The play is dedicated to Harold Pinter, who, although he may not have explained all his dramatic situations, left little doubt what he thought of the goings-on he depicted. With LaBute it’s hard to see past the figure of the author… even more so in these two plays, as the unnamed male protagonist is in each case a writer.
I kept imagining Man (yawn) in This Is How… played, as he was in its New York première, by Ben Stiller. It would, I think, have been a significantly different evening. I like Ben Chaplin as an actor, but here he came across as too stolid, a little uneasy and altogether easier for us to suspect his word; when the is-it-the-truth-or-isn’t-it games become explicit, it’s not that much of a shock to find Chaplin in an ambiguous position, whereas I imagine that Stiller’s charm would have posed more of a challenge to an audience in this respect. It’s a perverse tribute to Moisés Kaufman’s direction that he adheres scrupulously to the author’s ambivalent, almost mocking tone.
One thing, though: there’s no mileage in arguing that the differences between the UK and US in the historical background to the race issue mean that it’s irrelevant to this country. Even anyone in denial of the continuing reality of racism in Britain need only keep half an ear open during the performance to hear the audience gasp at several points – not just at the taboo word “nigger” – to realise that LaBute may be deliberately pushing our buttons, but they’re buttons that are still connected to very live circuits.
As for Some Girl(s), there’s really not that much to say. It’s moderately amusing, not especially enlightening, pretty formulaic. David Schwimmer acts exactly as you’d expect David Schwimmer to act; Lesley Manville continues her bid to overtake Frances Barber in the ice-queen stakes; and it’s nice to see Catherine Tate back in the West End for what I think, though I’m not sure, is the first time since the RSC’s A Servant Of Two Masters in 2000 – she’s becoming famous as a comedian, but her character comedy is always based on an actor’s skills of sharp observation and precise reproduction. Apart from that, it almost seems a limbering-up exercise for the Donmar’s piece.
Almost a page into the column and no mention yet of the biggest opening in an age, and the issue’s cover story? (Sorry about that rather static cover image, by the way: for some reason, no actual production shots were offered to us.) Well, that’s because I’m afraid I can’t be particularly fervent one way or the other about Michael Grandage’s revival of Guys And Dolls. I kept feeling… well, not exactly underwhelmed, but not overwhelmed either: just sort of mid-whelmed. My strong impression was that it was a case of a magnificent show – I’m with Charles Spence in considering it “the greatest of all the great Broadway musicals” – carrying the main performances rather than the other way round.
I wonder whether my response might have anything to do with being seated almost at the back of the Piccadilly’s stalls. This isn’t an oblique gripe about not getting good seats, because it may contrarily have given me a better impression of the production: if the oomph and pizzazz discerned by a number of other reviewers didn’t penetrate back to row R, then that surely says something about the staging. Certainly, I wouldn’t have heard a musical peep out of Ewan McGregor without a mike; he has a smooth, reasonably sweet voice, as he showed at the end of the 2003 movie Down With Love (although, to be frank, that’s not likely to stick in the memory), but without amplification he’d be hard pressed to project it past the pit. Jenna Russell’s Miss Sarah seemed to be a collection of convenient responses: surely we should see her slowly unwinding through the Cuba sequence, not suddenly unloosed by her first taste of dulce de leche. The word “goofy” has been rightly used in several reviews to describe Douglas Hodge’s Nathan Detroit: play him as hapless and not the sharpest knife in the drawer by all means, but not as a Bronx Bernard Bresslaw. My view of Jane Krakowski’s Miss Adelaide is, I’m embarrased to admit, coloured entirely by my childish disappointment at her not using the (I thought) mandatory Brooklyn twang; when Krakowski refrained from instructing the subject of her second Hot Box number to take back his poils because she’s not one of those goils, I felt positively robbed. The overall impression, though, as I say, was that such energy and verve as was there didn’t communicate, and in the absence of big spectacle, the audience to the rear of an indeterminate point may well have derived rather less from the show.
What unsettled me most about The Home Place, however, was neither
Brian Friel’s laboured writing, from his ostentatious Chekhov allusions
to the downright ogrishness of cousin Richard’s anthropometrics (far from
the outré preoccupation it’s assumed in many reviews to be:
pre-1914 Winston Churchill was a vigorous advocate of eugenics, a different
aspect of the same nexus of notions about human bloodstock), nor Tom Courtenay’s
performance which seems to have irked so many (his phrasing, with its odd
breaks in mid-sentence, struck me as no more odd than Michael Foot’s),
but the possible political allegory of its ending.
The play concludes by showing the villagers of the fictional Ballybeg of 1878 (under pressure from nationalist extremists) and the Brits in the big house more or less severing ties with each other, as even the moderate characters of landlord Christopher and his chatelaine Margaret are pulled towards their respective extremes. Now, Friel has always been keenly aware of the dual traditions of the people of the island of Ireland; in many ways he embodies them himself, as a Northern Ireland-born man who lives in the Republic, albeit just over the border. This ambivalence and liminality is in his blood, and in much of his drama. An ending such as that of The Home Place, coming at a time when Northern Irish politics have polarised with a flight of voters from the centre ground to the extremes of Paisleyite Unionism on the one hand and Sinn Féin on the other, strikes me as a counsel of despair. More than the Chekhovian passing of an age of gentry and their large estates, I felt Friel hinting at the passing of my own age, one in which there was any hope of meaningful common ground, in my homeland or the wider world.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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