That Face / The Big Brecht Fest 2 / Rafta, Rafta...
Various venues
April / May, 2007

When Dominic Cooke heralded his first Royal Court season with remarks about re-focusing the subjects of its plays on more middle-class strata, I said nothing here (principally due to lack of time and space).  Obviously, it was ridiculous to fear that the Court would suddenly transform into an SW1 version of Chichester (Michael Billington delights in recounting his experience of seeing the lights go up on a play set and hearing a delighted voice near him in the audience declare, “Oh, goody, a chaise longue!”).  But fears are irrational, and I have to admit that a little germ of some kind of that worry did remain.  It has been easy for those so inclined to poke fun at the disjunction between the Court’s perceived dramatic programme of in-yer-face extremities and it’s-grim-on-sink-estates privation and its audience drawn from among the chattering classes, not least in its immediate geographical environs of prosperous, comfortable Chelsea.  But it’s always possible to over-correct, and that was what was making me uneasy.

However, after seeing the Court’s current offerings, That Face upstairs and My Child in a radically refashioned main house (reviews next issue), I’m more than reassured.  I would even hazard a guess that Cooke’s remarks might not so much have been a policy announcement as a rationalisation of programming decisions which seemed to offer him a convenient conceptual way to bundle them together for marketing purposes.  It will probably seem odd to link the Royal Court with Alan Ayckbourn in this way, but I was reminded of Ayckbourn’s response to the glib accusation that he writes about and for the middle class: that his middle class is the contemporary, broad middle class in which we almost all identify ourselves.


Admittedly, it’s rather harder to sustain that argument in the case of That Face: while private education is increasingly common in Britain, and atomised families are all but the statistical norm, it’s scarcely an ordinary experience to offer Mummy the choice of checking herself into a private mental institution before Daddy flies in from his second family in Hong Kong to have her sectioned.  But writer Polly Stenham is concerned with the children (and not in a “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” way), with showing that the stresses and deprivations which screw us up need not be material.

Taking that view to its extreme would be endorsing the kind of position taken several years ago by former Eurythmic David A. Stewart, who tried to claim he suffered from something called Paradise Syndrome, suffering depression precisely because he had everything he wanted both materially and creatively.  Stenham, of course, gets nowhere near such a position.  It really is a remarkably assured piece of writing fro someone who was still in their teens when it was composed.  What we must do now, of course, is restrain ourselves from pushing her too far, too fast: she has an evident and considerable gift which it’s our duty not to burn out.


The second half of the Young Vic’s Big Brecht Fest was more than welcome, too; Dominic Cavendish is right to wish that the double bills spanning the Maria and Clare studios had been twinned with a main-house production.  Sandy McDade in Señora Carrar’s Rifles is not simply an excellent Brechtian heroine but one that manages to evoke at once Brecht’s own flinty Germanism, the Celtic forebears of the play (in particular Synge’s Riders To The Sea) and even the Spanish setting: McDade has twice played Angustias in The House Of Bernarda Alba, including once at the Young Vic, but in a few years’ time she will make an excellent if unorthodox Bernarda.  We do not see enough of McDade south of the border, and do not recognise her talents enough when we do.

And yet something about this particular pairing brought out reservations in me – not quite to the extent voiced by Sharon Garfinkel in her Tribune review, but nevertheless…  It’s comically obvious to note explicitly that Brecht was a writer of immense political commitment, and indubitably it enriches our understanding to see such naked agitprop pieces revived.  But does my discomfort increase because ours is an age beyond such simple protests, or rather because we continue to feel chastened by these kind of direct exhortations even at a lifetime's remove?

Both pieces are punctuated by basso rumbles and tremors which both sound warlike and remind us of the double-bill's subtitle, The Earthquakes To Come.  And yet the unambiguous mentality of "If you are not with us, you are against us" so exalted here – explicitly stated by a character in the Spanish play, and so stridently the theme of the parable against Swedish neutrality in the face of the Nazis, How Much is Your Iron? – is precisely the attitude I had seen on the very previous night being dissected with regard to Bush and Blair's Iraq policy in Called To Account.  Commitment is laudable when we agree with it, otherwise it is deplorable fanaticism; and hindsight is one of our most precious gifts.

Afternoon movie

Finally, another of my periodic “I’m astounded that…” comments: are Paul Taylor and Rachel Halliburton really the only reviewers (apart from me) to remember what I have always understood to be a classic of 1960s British cinema, The Family Way?  Everyone dutifully notes the source of Rafta, Rafta… in Bill Naughton’s comedy All In Good Time, but scarcely anyone points out that that play began its life (under yet another title) on the small screen and is best known as the aforementioned film, with father and daughter John and Hayley Mills playing father and daughter Ezra and Jenny Fitton.  Well, for anyone who has managed to miss it in an afternoon movie slot on television, the DVD is under £10 on Amazon.  None of which is to detract from Ayub Khan-Din’s wonderful British-Asian update of it; Nicholas de Jongh of course entirely misses the point by assuming that the play must share dominant metropolitan attitudes towards homosexuality, and more to the point by not cracking a single smile.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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