The Cherry Orchard / The Common Pursuit / Piranha Heights / The Pitmen Painters
Various venues
May / June, 2008

I seem to recall that when Peter Hall revived Shaw’s Heartbreak House in the early 1990s, the marquee outside the Haymarket had no fewer than eight actors’ names above the title.  My head was similarly turned at The Cherry Orchard in Chichester, as you can see on the reviews pages of this issue; I spent more time revelling in seeing so many notables sharing the same stage that I too blithely dismissed the fact that what they were doing on that stage was nothing special.  A good journalistic critic would have paid more even-handed attention to both aspects of the production; on this occasion, I’m afraid I was more journalist than critic.

Well, nobody’s perfect, and Lord knows, it’s been an intense season of late.  During the month of May I saw 30 shows, and that was with several others dropping out of my schedule.  (The Financial Times decided its readership could live without coverage of Never Forget, the Take That compilation musical; I love my arts editor!)  The volume of openings has eased off somewhat as I write, but there’s still a phenomenal amount of theatre out there.


One or two shows have divided opinion sharply.  The Common Pursuit seems to have split reviewers principally along generational and/or Oxbridge lines.  (Maddy Costa, a female thirtysomething Cambridge graduate, is the conspicuous exception to this tendency; although compare the review of Simon Edge, who was at least as much of an initiate to the culture portrayed.)  Possibly the play and its author simply belong to another era.  A few weeks ago at the West End opening of That Face, I noticed a number of young media folk shouting cheery greetings of “Simon!” to a chap sitting a few seats along from me; I presume he was one of the directors of Skins on Channel 4, or something.  And at each shout, the man in the seat in front of me would half-turn and then subside back as he realised that it wasn’t him they were greeting, because that evening’s crowd was a demographic that wouldn’t have recognised, or perhaps even heard of, Simon Gray.

Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights is the issue’s other hot potato of a show.  Some readers may remember that a few years ago when his Mercury Fur opened, I wrote a long and involved comment about it in this column which, unusually, drew comment from the playwright himself.  I’m not so exercised this time.  As almost always with Ridley, it’s the concept of story which is paramount: characters craft their own narratives, and exercise power by bending others to conform to their version of things.  But there are worlds outside the play as well as within it; a world, for instance, where a character spouting vaguely Middle-Eastern gibberish which is meant to be Arabic prayer is going to be seen with some justification as insulting – not because we’re living in sensitive times and need to be politically correct or whatever, but simply because it has all the unsubtlety and laziness of those 1970s TV sitcoms where Europeans or Mexicans were inherently funny simply because they sounded different, and any stereotypical different sounds would do.  That character has a point inside the play, but also has implications beyond; and I think it’s too easy to give the writer a free pass because of claims that he’s being bold or challenging.  Challenges can still fail, or be wildly misdirected.  I wonder whether I’m facing up to Ridley’s challenge, or wimping out before it, when I say that often he doesn’t know when to stop.  I suspect he’d say I was failing, but in the words of James Thurber, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.  (Simply on a practical staging matter, too, I’d bet it didn’t occur to writer, director or actor before dress rehearsal that delivering a long monologue whilst wearing a niqab means the veil is going to be dripping with spit by the end.)


And one show, for which I wasn’t on review duty, made such an impression that I want to testify here and now.  Twenty years ago in Cambridge I saw a student production of David Edgar’s two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby; in it, Nicholas was played by Ian Kelly, who currently takes the role of Robert Lyon in Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, and Smike was played (with fearsome physical dedication) by Hall himself.  But my warm glow of nostalgia at seeing the pairing reunited again (after a fashion) is barely a single match’s flame compared to the brazier of the play itself.  A lot of nonsense is written about a left-wing consensus pervading theatre; liberalism is not left-wing, it’s simply a matter of giving a damn.  But Hall is proud to be both liberal and leftish, and both in Billy Elliot and here he finds a stirring combination that makes the heart rise in acknowledgement and praise of the values he hymns.  Those values are social, political, ideological (which is not the same thing), emotional, intellectual and – in its most human, least abstract sense – spiritual.  He cares immensely that people be allowed opportunity, that they be treated with that basic respect, and the case he makes for it in each of his works is unassailable.  Quentin Letts asks towards the end of his review, “would a group of young manual labourers today ever plug into art in such a way?”  The answer is of course no, but that is because there is no modern equivalent of the Workers’ Educational Association – an organisation driven by grass-roots impulses for knowledge and learning – which is in turn because our culture, driven this time by the media for which we both work, has devalued these things as desirable in themselves, preaching instead that money and/or fame are all that matter.  I prefer the worlds that Lee Hall writes about, and I’d like to see them back before I die.  I’ve spent years rather proprietorially thinking of Lee as a university contemporary of mine; I’m now honoured to think of myself as a contemporary of his.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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