Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? / The Soldier's Tale / The Schuman Plan / The Creeper
Various venues
January / February, 2006

I’ve written once or twice about making allowances when assessing a performance, of evaluating it as “good, considering…”.  I’m against it: I think what I said was that audiences don’t pay to make allowances.  External considerations shouldn’t bear on one’s opinion of the quality of a production, any more than whether it was an unpleasant journey to the theatre.

And yet (1): I increasingly find myself, when seeing a show with modest beginnings that has subsequently come into the West End, thinking that it was probably fine in its more limited original context but simply can’t claim a place in the most exalted rank.  Most often this is a matter of value for money: is a show worth West End ticket prices?  Is any show worth some West End ticket prices?  It was only a couple of years ago that, if I recall aright, Jerry Springer – The Opera broke the £50 ticket barrier.  Shortly afterwards, Acorn Antiques The Musical upped the ante to £65… to pay for the names involved, I hope, rather than the uncertain production.  In April, the latter show’s venue, the Haymarket, is reported to be ready to break the ton: top-price tickets for Judi Dench in Hay Fever, £100.  Sure, this will include complimentary programmes (so that will be, what, a £3.50 value) and what is described as “V.I.P. service”… which, frankly, for my hundred quid, would have to be the kind of service once legendarily given and received in one of the boxes at the Victoria Palace during a performance of Jolson.  In any case, what’s the difference between evaluating a production in terms of ticket price and, say, in terms of a company’s professional qualifications or whatever?  Moreover, it won’t be my hundred quid: since reviewers get free tickets in any case, how hypocritical is it of us to gripe about what others pay but we don’t?


And yet (2): sometimes there are circumstances which are hard not to set on one side.  When Strathcona TC staged Notre Dame de Paris a few years ago, it was clear that the theme of judging by appearances was one that chimed deeply with this company for people with learning disabilities.  The result was a richer, more complex and far more satisfying reading than the hollow spectacle of the same tale’s musical treatment a little while earlier in the West End.  There have been instances, some of them recent (one of them, indeed, not yet published), when experience or knowledge of an actor’s circumstances has led me to see a production from a perspective not available to most of its viewers.  How far should such things be deliberately ignored, or how much used to give a more informed review?

Even when such a factor is widely reported and known, how far should it impact on the way we watch a play or a performance?  This is where the general musings become particular with regard to one of this issue’s shows, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?  I’m in the minority on this one, along with Rebecca Tyrrel and Aleks Sierz: I reckon this was a very good production indeed, but ultimately it didn’t excite me.  In particular, I was not excited by Kathleen Turner’s performance as Martha.  The best Marthas I have seen have carried an air not just of undeniable physical presence, in boozy, blowsy seduction and whatnot, but of suppressed physical threat… as if, when George gained the psychological upper hand, Martha might just conceivably change the rules and floor him with a roundhouse punch.  Turner’s Martha had no such air: her movements were economical, almost languid.

Jazz hands

Now, here’s the thing.  Turner has for over a decade now been living with the pain and damage of rheumatoid arthritis, and in recent years has addressed it publicly on a number of occasions.  I found that I simply couldn’t help wondering to what extent the physical aspect of her performance was determined by this condition.  Let’s take one particular moment as an emblematic example.  There’s a set-piece in which Martha explains to George that she has lost the last of her patience with him; it contains the repeated motif, “SNAP! It went snap…”.  The first of these “snap”s is explicitly, in a stage direction, a snap of the fingers; the rest are implicitly so, and I can’t recall seeing a production in which they weren’t played as such: finger-snaps, with the suddenness and almost the sound of slaps across the face.  Turner, instead and almost grotesquely, made sudden “jazz hands” gestures, flinging her arms out.  In other circumstances, this could have been made to look like feinted lunges to attack George; here, to me, they simply looked as if she needed to find something else to do because the arthritis prevented her from snapping her fingers.

I may be wrong; these physical points may all be actorly and/or directorial choices with no relation to Turner’s illness.  But it’s all part of the same issue.  To what extent should I have set that knowledge on one side when considering her performance?  To what extent might it have informed the way I watched the production and, now, have written about it, or to what extent might it have sent me striding up a blind alley?  When and how can information lead to condescension?  I don’t know.  What I know for certain is that, for me, Turner wasn’t fully there on the stage of the Apollo.


The Soldier’s Tale wasn’t fully there, either.  Ian Herbert writes about it in this issue’s …At The Back column, and I agree with him and pretty much every other reviewer whose main criticism was that there was altogether too much of it there, and that in effect performing the originally spare and angularly elegant piece twice over made for a laudable gesture but a leaden evening in the theatre.  However, in one crucial respect there was a conspicuous absence.  Director Andrew Steggall staged the piece by placing his musicians on either side of the stage, beyond the proscenium arch.  This is a piece of music theatre; the musicians, whether simply playing their instruments or taking an active role, are a crucial part of the proceedings.  We reviewers, seated as we were by convention on the aisles down either side of the Old Vic’s auditorium, were simply unable to see one or other group of musicians, British or Iraqi, depending on which side we were sitting on.  It seems not to have occurred to Steggall to do something as basic as checking his sightlines.

This is not nearly as rare a complaint as it ought to be.  Last summer I grumbled that a director as experienced as Lucy Bailey had failed to take account of the difference in sightlines when moving The Postman Always Rings Twice from the open stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry space to the pros-arch environment of the Playhouse on London’s Embankment, with the result that the production’s big name, Val Kilmer, was invisible from several dozen seats during two climactic scenes.  Once, on the Fringe, I pointed out to a director that the wide but shallow staging she had opted for meant that, playing as the show was to an audience on three sides, half the house had their view of most of the actors entirely blocked by the body of the one nearest them; she replied that yes, she was aware of this, but she had chosen this staging.  It didn’t seem to occur to her, even with such prompting, that the audience of a theatre event was a party worthy of consideration.  It shouldn’t need saying, but alas it seems to, that the audience’s experience is the point.


And… breathe…  The Schuman Plan was not quite there in terms of drama.  A decade or so ago, Tim Luscombe suggested in EuroVision that the universal language was music; here, he seems to be arguing that it’s fish.  But for the programme notes, it would never for a moment have occurred to me that Luscombe originally set out to write a play lauding the European Union but that his attitudes grew more ambivalent as the process of composition continued; to me, it looked as if right from conception it had been a rather trite polemical piece in which callow youthful idealism was repeatedly tempered by iniquitous reality.  Personal disagreement with a play’s ideology is, of course, something to put on one side; what can’t be discounted is that he has simply written great unwieldy slabs of exposition and debate.  Meaning no disrespect to the intellectual powers of Suffolk fishermen’s wives, but I doubt I’d ever hear one of them casually use the phrase “commercial extinction”; it’s just not the way the idea would be phrased in conversation, even a conversation with a reporter and an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.  That, for me, was the emblematic moment – the “jazz hands” moment – of Luscombe’s play.

The Creeper was hardly there at all as a play.  There’s generally a broad consensus among reviewers, but seldom such a degree of unanimity as here: even raves and pannings don’t usually march so closely in step as the reviews of Pauline Macaulay’s revival (with the sole, inexplicably generous exception of John Peter).  Every single star rating I saw was two-star, and when I finally saw the show I couldn’t find any reason to disagree in the slightest.  Alan Cox’s performance is amusing, especially if one knows Alan Cox; other than that, nada, zip, zilch.  Ian Richardson’s performance could have been phoned in on a heavy, period, Bakelite apparatus.  As You Desire Me temporarily lifted from the Playhouse the stigma of being one of the West End’s blighted venues which seem seldom to house successful or long-running shows; with The Creeper, it’s not just Richardson who is cast once again to type, but the venue itself.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2006

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage