Blue Eyes And Heels / Road To Nowhere / Ducktastic!
Various venues
October, 2005

Twice during this period, shows reduced me to a state of almost blind fury at their having – I don’t think the phrase is too strong – pissed away their achievements in the closing minutes.  The two shows could hardly be more different in other respects: Blue Eyes And Heels a taut three-handed drama set in the Soho medialand of its host venue, Road To Nowhere not even theatre in any real sense, its intellectual and emotional content arising from the reverberations between the rock songs being sung and the septua- and octogenarian members of the Young@Heart Chorus doing the singing.  But in each case I found myself being drawn in over the course of an hour only to be contemptuously slapped around by an almost unspeakably crass final 15 minutes.

In Toby Whithouse’s drama about a planned revival of TV wrestling, Martin Freeman’s association with The Office is at first inescapable, although the role he plays here, middle-ranking TV man Duncan, is is less like Freeman’s screen character than Ricky Gervais’s David Brent.  We move beyond these easy associations as it becomes clear that Duncan is a sly, two-faced git who will stop at nothing and sacrifice anybody to get ahead, and as both ageing grappler Victor (John Stahl, magnificent as ever) and production assistant Emma (Serena Evans) reveal how fervently they respond to the prospect of the series: it’s all he has left, but she’s appalled by it.  In Emma’s case, the link with domestic violence may be trite in itself, but is neither tritely written nor tritely played.

Then, with the climax, the most impassioned part of the play, comes the clunkiest writing, the most pointless melodramatic delivery and the most hackneyed pair of opposing mentalities imaginable, as Duncan and Emma start arguing about quality versus popularity in culture as if these ideas had never even been formulated before (never mind the illusory opposition between them banished 30 years ago by John McGrath’s theories and practice), and as if these two could somehow settle the matter between them.  That was what it had all been building to?  I felt insulted by Whithouse, and I felt he had also insulted the actors to whom he had given such tired hysteria.  I felt like flinging the writer around the wrestling-ring stage much as Victor does to Duncan a few minutes later, roaring to the audience, “What shall I do with him?” When the audience roared back, just like the crowd at a real wrestling match, it might have constituted a final clever object-lesson in Duncan’s cultural argument – that, at bottom, we do just want no-brain action –  but it just hacked me off.


As for Road To Nowhere, it’s a joy “reading” the main body of the show.  Rolling Stones numbers such as "Mother's Little Helper", "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "Ruby Tuesday" can contain new insight in their self-deprecation and anger from folk a generation older even than Mick Jagger, and can find an elegiac strain in the most unexpected places as "Paint It Black" becomes a lament against the dying of the light.  Nor do the company tackle only baby-boomer-era material.  U2's "One" becomes a cry that we need to feel love at any age, and Pat Linderme (75) brings a rasping, late-period Marianne Faithfull "seen it all and tired of it" quality to Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees".  Running through the show is a current of sadness and sometime fury that these days the quotidian grind just never ceases.  The Clash's "Lost In The Supermarket" grumbles at continuing consumer banality, and The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" is transformed into a searing indictment of seniors having to take McJobs just to subsist even in their twilight years.  David Byrne would surely love the curmudgeonly directness with which the title number becomes infused as they sing "We're not little children/And we know what we want".  If it seems odd that Young@Heart are appropriating the songs of their descendants' generations, think on this: of the evening's composers, John Lennon, George Harrison, Joe Strummer and three of The Ramones have already predeceased those onstage.

And then it all gets squandered.  Now and again in the main show, one wonders whether the fundamental impulse on the part of (middle-aged) directors Bob Cilman and Roy Faudree is simply the novelty of incongruousness (they’ve said the group was founded as “a lark”), and whether the deeper content just grows out of that flinty soil with its shards of patronisation and even a germ of unconscious derision.  The encore, alas, confirms it.  After 60 minutes of sometimes almost Chekhovian musings, they shatter the mood with a segue of mindless feelgood numbers: a coy cough on the "giving head" lyric in "Walk On The Wild Side" signals that it's only a lark.  92-year-old Eileen Hall, who earlier brings an affecting tristesse to "Ruby Tuesday", bigs up her native city with "Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner" and takes the lead on a fun-fun-fun rendition of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go".  Dylan's "Forever Young", which if placed earlier could have provided a climax of the evening's integral poignancy, is reduced to weepie-exploitation.  This is one of the few musical shows I've ever seen that I have felt actually deserved an encore, but the one programmed by Silman and Faudree taints all that has gone before, turning it to no more than diverting dross.


Similar, though more muted, disappointment with Ducktastic!  I’ve long been a fan of The Right Size, holding their mid-’90s show Stop Calling Me Vernon (later cannibalised for the opening segment of The Play What I Wrote) to be the most fun I have ever had in a theatre.  But this time it simply doesn’t come off.  Part of it, I suspect, may be due to director Kenneth Branagh, who hasn’t shown many signs in his career of understanding broad comedy: there’s a palpable difference here between Sean Foley and Hamish McColl’s delight in Bad Gags, with capital letters, and jokes that are just not very good at all.  Part of it may be that we neither know nor care anything about the lampooned Siegfried & Roy beyond their names, the fact that they’re magicians and worked with tigers.  We’ve never seen them, they have no iconic status in our culture; in this respect, it feels worryingly as if the West End is being used as a pre-Broadway tryout venue.  Most tellingly, though, all McColl and Foley’s best work has been not just as a double act, but essentially about being a double-act, whether Morecambe and Wise in The Play What I Wrote or two blokes stuck in a bathroom for 25 years in Do You Come Here Often?  Here, there’s no sense that Sassoon and Roy are bound together by anything other than temporary circumstance, or have any deeper archetypal dynamic than what the next bit of the show requires.  It feels as if they’re going for commercial success but losing sight of what it is that makes them so very special.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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