The Theatreguide.London Reviews
The Accused - The Blue Room - The Country - Cressida - Dublin Carol - Enigmatic Variations - In Flame - Madame Melville - Mindgame - Mother Courgae - Passion Play - Side Man - Wit
The Accused Theatre Royal Haymarket Winter 2000-01
The scene: Old Bailey Court No. 1
His Honour the Judge: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will hear charges made against this man that not since Lord Lloyd-Webber's The Beautiful Game have we seen in the West End such blatant manipulation of old rope to fill already overflowing coffers.
M'Learned Friend for the Prosecution: (with a glint in his eye) Your Honour, I put it to the court that the defendant Mr Jeffrey Archer has piled contempt doubly upon the good standing of the theatre. Not only has he written a play filled with courtroom cliches and devoid of dramatic device but he has sought to compact the crimes of which he is accused by presuming to act a role in this selfsame 'dramatic' work, a role which the court will note is no less than the eponymous accused.
M'Learned Friend for the Defence: (snorts contemptuously) I find my learned friend's own presumptions worthy of criticism in the extreme. Come now, do we not see before us a man who is a succesful and exceedingly popular storyteller, novelist and dramatist in his own right, a man who all too clearly has the common touch.
Judge: (interrupts) Would that be what once was termed 'low-brow'?
Defence: (laughs obsequiously) Of course, your honour. Should we therefore hold this man accountable for his great talent. Surely millions of readers, television viewers and theatregoers cannot be wrong.
Prosecution: (warming to his theme) I cannot deny that. However, is not Mr Archer also a disgraced politician with a reputation for telling stories of a very different kind. Is it not also the case that he is shortly to find himself in the dock to face very real accusations of perverting the course of justice? Surely this play makes a mockery of the due process of justice and is, as such, little more than a satirical device with very little artistic worth in itself? We, the audience, are party to an in-joke about this man's politica and personal trials and tribulations, one to which we have paid good money for the privilege of witnessing.
The Accused Mr Archer (for it is he): (interrupts from the dock) Yet my gripping tale of a respected surgeon accused of using my medical knowledge to make my wife's death look as if it were a heart attack is, if I may make so bold, a ripping, indeed gripping piece of theatre. The public love it! They even discuss the proceedings animatedly between scenes!
Judge: (bangs gavel) Order! That may be so, but, Mr Archer, there is more to the process of theatre than bums on seats. This is not some sort of spectacle, you know. My court will not be a sideshow!
Defence: Your Honour? If I may have a brief word with my client?
Judge: (irritably) Very well.
Defence: (sotto voce) Look, can't you do anything to prevent your respected co-stars - the likes of Edward Petherbridge, Michael Feast and Tony Britton - from appearing bored, reading from scripts disguised as legal briefs, still fluffing their lines and mentally working out their Equity rates in between cues? And your own wooden appearance - can't you spice that up? This is not your local Conservative party meeting!
Mr Archer: (smiles mysteriously, waving a hand at the bejewelled and beBurberryed stalls) You don't think so...?
The Blue Room Haymarket Theatre Autumn 2000
Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play Reigen, better known as La Ronde, presents a shocking sequence of casual sexual encounters. In the first scene A sleeps with B; in the second, B sleeps with C, and so on until at the end K sleeps with A.
David Hare's 1998 adaptation sets it in modern Britain and structures things so that one actor and one actress play all the roles; and this new production, transferred from Chichester, returns the play to the West End shortly after its debut last year.
focus was not just sexual, but social. By arranging his couplings so
that they included every aspect of society, he was able to comment on
the values and hypocrisies of various classes and professions.
Much of that is lost in Hare's updating - a kitchen table quicky between a university student and the family's au pair doesn't have quite the overtones of sex between nineteenth-century master and chambermaid, for example; nor is the infidelity of a middle class wife quite so shocking.
In its place,
Hare offers some effective if not especially original insights into the
psychology and power politics of modern mating. In every one of his
encounters there is one who kisses and one who allows him/herself to be
kissed - that is, one who has more invested in the sexual act, be it
love, sentimentality, idealism or desperation.
In some cases the point is ironic, B being in control of A but the needy partner with C, while in other cases B plays the same role with both partners.
The other running theme is that in almost every case it is the men who want to talk, to invest the experience with some romantic or philosophical significance, while the women just want to get down to it.
Some of the encounters have comic overtones, be it the shy student's helplessness before the rapacious au pair or the aging-hippie playwright's bouncy enthusiasm with both his partners. Others, like the politician's attempt to draw closer to the wife we've just seen betraying him, are meant to be more touching.
Loveday Ingram's direction, neither end of that spectrum is stressed
enough, as the scenes are somewhat homogenised into a very narrow
Some of this may be limits of the performers. Michael Higgs is noticeably more comfortable with his older characters than his younger, while Camilla Power is better at her more gamin roles. They are therefore rarely both acting at full power at the same time.
Still, there are moments that hint at greater humour or deeper insights, and the running joke of blacking out for the actual sex and projecting a sign indicating the amount of time passing gets its laughs. And staging things so that we catch glimpses of the two performers changing costumes between scenes reminds us nicely that the characters, as well as the actors, are playing roles in each of their pairings.
Don't go to The Blue Room expecting erotica, though there is some nudity. It is a strikingly unerotic evening, more about the sad emptiness inherent in both casual sex and sex that wants to be more meaningful than it is.
The Country Royal Court Theatre, Spring 2000
Martin Crimp's new play is a fascinatingly enigmatic picture of a marriage in crisis, and of the constantly shifting realities of love, power and betrayal.
A London doctor (Owen Teale) has moved to the country with his wife (Juliet Stevenson) and children, and we find them in their still-only-barely-furnished new home. He found a young woman unconscious on the road, and has brought her here, but her presence makes his wife oddly nervous and threatened.
Under her probing his story changes; the girl was a casual pick-up who somehow passed out. But when the young woman (Indira Varma) appears, peculiarly confident and assertive, she has yet a third story that seems to destroy the marriage. And then she disappears and things return to as they were before, or do they?
Meanwhile, there are repeated references to an offstage figure, the doctor's senior partner, who keeps turning up, with an air of understated menace, at the oddest moments.
If I am making
this sound vaguely like early Pinter, that's deliberate. Martin Crimp
has obviously done his homework, and has immersed himself in both Pinter
From the latter, he has absorbed a sensitivity to the nonlinear way people speak, interrupting a sentence in mid-flow to start it again, until it ends up somewhere unexpected. (To that, he has added a trope of his own, as characters revert in mid-sentence to a subject dropped a few seconds ago, giving their thoughts and words a spiral quality).
There are verbal echoes of Pinter, too, and even a homage to The Homecoming in an oddly-charged exchange about a glass of water. But, aside from the vague air of menace and the recognition that people often lie, the most important lesson Crimp has learned from the master is the depiction of people who live their entire lives in subtext, so that even the most casual conversations are charged with unspoken passions.
Juliet Stevenson has the most difficult role in the play, just because she must, from the start, live on a level of intensity that the situation doesn't appear to justify. Only gradually do we come to understand the justifications for her nervous energy, and it is very much to Stevenson's credit that she holds our sympathies through the process.
Indira Varma has a parallel challenge, to convey the young woman's confidence and power while leaving ambiguous the source and nature of that power, and she masters it brilliantly, completely dominating her two short scenes. Owen Teale's character is the least clearly defined of the three, and he is less successful in suggesting depths beneath the puzzles.
All have been directed by Katie Mitchell with the same understated but raw emotional energy and sensitivity to what remains unspoken that Peter Hall brought to the classic Pinter plays.
Like Pinter, Crimp doesn't give us as much surface information as we, in our laziness, would like. But in its place he takes us to levels of emotional truth that are more than a little disconcerting.
Cressida Albery Theatre, Spring 2000
Cressida is an opportunity to see one of England's greatest actors, though at far from his best, and in a very weak play.
is the nearest thing the British stage has to a star in the
Olivier-Gielgud-Richardson mode. (If you don't know his stage work,
recall that he starred in The Singing Detective, the greatest TV
mini-series ever). In the past he has made me weep or gasp with his
intense characterizations, though I've also seen him out of his depth
(as in his premature King Lear some time ago).
Here he's given very little depth to work with, and seems unable to do much with it.
Wright's new play is set in the waning years of the Renaissance London
theatre, with Gambon as an ageing actor with a sideline in training boy
actresses. Deep in debt, he comes upon a fresh but untalented new boy.
If he can teach him enough to pull off one halfway-decent performance (as Shakespeare's Cressida), he can sell his contract and get out of debt. But several ironic, unlikely and ultimately unbelievable things happen instead.
Nicholas Wright has evidently researched the period thoroughly, and can footnote every character and topical reference. As is sometimes the case with such heavily-researched works, he has neglected to provide a real play to put them in. The various plot twists are all mechanical (e.g. an offstage character conveniently goes bankrupt so that Gambon's character, who invested in him, will be in debt), and the characters have no reality.
Much is made along the way, for example, of the fact that boy actresses have short working lives, and we are meant to care that the current star is likely to have an undistinguished career as an adult actor. But Gambon's character, a former child star, is still playing leading roles, like Shakespeare's Bottom, and his first pupil is now running the company.
Similarly, we are repeatedly given to understand that the new boy reminds Gambon of a dead friend, presumably to create an emotional complexity to their relationship, but we're given no evidence of either the resemblance or any effect it has on Gambon.
Faced with such inconsistencies, and the need to feed us lots of expository and background data, Gambon just goes through the motions, giving his character no emotional depth. (Granted, I saw him on what seemed to be an off night, when he blew a couple of lines and seemed mechanical. But great actors should not have off nights.)
The big scene,
the one that should thrill us, comes when Gambon coaches his new
protege, who only knows how to recite and make a few stock gestures.
Working with what he's got, the teacher shows the boy how to modify and
develop his limited repertoire until something like real acting results.
But it doesn't. Neither Gambon nor Michael Legge makes the speech being rehearsed get any better, so the moment of theatrical magic just doesn't happen.
Director Nicholas Hytner hasn't helped any of his actors find any reality, so their characterizations are either empty (Gambon and Legge who, playing an untalented actor, merely seems of limited talent himself), unbelievable (Malcolm Sinclair as the government censor who is himself stagestruck) or just cliches (Charles Kay as a self-styled old queen).
There might be an engrossing play on this subject. Nicholas Wright hasn't written it, and a number of talented people are unable to do much with what he has written.
Dublin Carol Royal Court Theatre, Spring 2000
Dublin Carol is by Conor McPherson, author of the award-winning (and excellent) The Weir. Like that play, it is Irish to the core, it is built on monologues more than real interaction, and it is about the soul-shaking gap between Irish blarney and real human emotion. If it is not as successful as The Weir, it is still clearly the work of an important writer.
John (Brian Cox) is a 50-ish alcoholic undertaker. He gets through the better part of a bottle of whiskey in the course of a day but, as he points out, he remembers to eat, he has a bed, and he shows up for work each morning. He used to be much worse off, barely a step above a street drunk.
His way of dealing with those painful memories is to make them the material for his stock of tales. Chatting with a young assistant, he can illustrate any point with an honest but clearly oft-told anecdote from his days of degradation.
But then a visit from his estranged daughter makes him face the reality of that period in his life -- that he caused actual harm and pain to himself and others. As in The Weir, the introduction of real human emotions into a milieu partly sanitised by story-telling comes as a powerful shock.
Keeping Dublin Carol from being as successful as The Weir are limits of construction and presentation. The play is an almost uninterrupted monologue by John, and although Brian Cox gives a virtuoso performance, it lacks the variety and rhythm of The Weir. It also challenges audience concentration: even at 90 minutes the play goes on a little too long, with one or two too many anecdotes of John's drunken past.
Ian Rickson's direction doesn't conquer these flaws, not finding any clear forward flow to the action. He has particularly failed his supporting cast. Andrew Scott and Bronagh Gallagher, with little to do but stand and listen, betray a discomfort that is the actors', not the characters'.
Rae Smith's set is a nondescript office with none of the sense-of-place she gave the Weir set. For some reason not called for in the text, she has made it a basement, and an undertaker with a cellar office seems a bit ghoulish, even for Ireland.
Incidentally, Dublin Carol reopens the venerable Royal Court Theatre, closed for the past two years for major renovations. The building retains its old, slightly seedy charm with a little more comfort (Check out the new underground restaurant). If McPherson's play is not the best the Royal Court has done, it is worthy of the honour of reviving the theatre's tradition of presenting important new writing.
Enigmatic Variations Savoy Theatre Spring-Summer 2000
This is film star Donald Sutherland's first stage appearance in twenty years; and the news, which shouldn't be the surprise that it is, is that he's good. He holds the stage and sustains a character through a powerful emotional journey. And the irresistible Sutherland charm is intact, and as beguiling on stage as it is on screen.
Enigmatic Variations, by the French writer Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (and translated by Sutherland's son Roeg), presents the star as a Nobel Prize novelist contentedly living in luxurious isolation on a Norwegian island. A rare visit from a journalist disturbs his comfort and shakes up his perception of his entire life.
John Rubinstein, as the visitor, has a long history of solid theatrical performances, so it is no surprise that he gives another here, taking his character through his own emotional changes, and comfortably holding his own against Sutherland's star power.
At first Sutherland's character treats his visitor with the witty disdain of the confident egotist ("Don't you get bored here on your own?" - "Why? I have me!"), and is contemptuous of his interview questions. His latest book is about a passionate love affair carried on almost entirely through letters, and the reporter is sure that it must be based on a real-life romance.
At this point a series of surprise plot twists begins, which I must not reveal. It is safe to say that Rubinstein's character is right, that under his persistent probing the identity of the woman is revealed, and that the affair played a greater part in the novelist's life than he is willing to admit, even to himself.
The string of surprises and revelations holds our interest, and at the same time allows the play to touch on some fascinating questions, such as the relationship between life and art, the difference between love and passion, and the degree to which a love affair depends on the imagination.
These philosophical issues aren't explored terribly deeply - this isn't as intellectual a play as, say, Frayn's Copenhagen - but they are at least touched on, stimulating our own thoughts without ever interfering with the entertainment.
Enigmatic Variations is in some ways a nice old-fashioned play in which skilful writing and involving performances combine with just enough weighty matter to produce a thoroughly satisfying evening.
In Flame New Ambassadors Theatre Autumn 2000
This occasionally dark comedy by Charlotte Jones, transferred from a fringe run last year, offers an odd experience. I enjoyed almost every individual minute of it, but the play as a whole was not successful.
This is one of
those plays with a double time line, events in the present alternating
or sharing the stage with another story from the past.
In the present, 30-something Alex is hearing her biological clock while convincing herself that she enjoys her no-ties affair with a married man, and at the same time wrestling with the guilt of not loving her lapsing-into-senility mother. Her flatmate Clootie swings wildly from ironic depression to sexual ravenousness.
A hundred years ago, country girl Livey must choose between a gormless local lad and a dangerously sexy travelling photographer, while coping with her stern grandmother and cheerfully dim-witted sister.
Alex and Livey are played by separate actresses, Kerry Fox and Emma Dewhurst, while all the other roles are doubled; and quick switches of time lines, sometimes in mid-scene, make for some impressive and entertaining displays of virtuosity.
Cavaliero is particularly impressive jumping between the lovably dreamy
sister of the past and the foul-mouthed sexpot of the present; while
Marcia Warren takes a different tack with the two old women, letting the
warmth of the mother and strength of the grandmother colour each other.
Actually, all the acting (including Ivan Kaye as two philanderers and Jason Hughes as two losing suitors) is faultless, and much of the play's pleasure comes from the cast's uniformly impressive and engaging performances.
The writing is also frequently very impressive, with touching moments of poetry or character revelation alternating with sharply comical lines. Indeed, Jones always knows when her writing is threatening to get a bit too purple, and undercuts herself with an ironic zinger before she goes too far.
You will laugh out loud a lot, and chuckle even more.
The problem is that the whole point of a double plot like this has got to be the growing awareness of some connection between the two halves, and that never happens.
In a programme note, Charlotte Jones suggests that we are to see a contrast between a world in which women had few choices and one in which they have too many, but none of that comes across in performance. Nor does any sense that the modern characters learn from or inherit any strength from their ancestors.
So you wait in vain, and in mounting frustration and confusion, for the two halves of the play to come together in any way. For a script that talks repeatedly about epiphanies, Jones stubbornly refuses to provide any.
Ask me what happens in the play, and I can tell you. Ask me if I enjoyed it, and I will say that I laughed a lot and was occasionally moved.
Ask me what it was about, and I can't tell you. And that has to be a very basic failure of some sort.
Madame Melville Vaudeville Theatre Autumn 2000
It has happened in the past, but recently we seem to have had a lot of examples of an amusing pattern. American film stars, facing what might euphemistically be called a professional lull, come to London for a limited run in a West End play. If it's a hit, it re-establishes their cred as serious artistes; if it's a flop, no one in famously insular Hollywood will notice or remember.
Latest in the parade is former child star Macaulay Culkin, whose first acting job in six years is a co-starring role in Richard Nelson's new play. He can take comfort in knowing that no one in Hollywood will notice or remember.
But first the play. Nelson, author of several well-received plays in the past, has indulged himself with the masturbation fantasy of all 15 year old boys and middle-aged men - the attractive young teacher who sexually initiates her teenaged student.
Yawn. In this version, set in 1965, the boy is an American in Paris, and the teacher is French, and after taking him to bed she takes him to the Louvre, and they read the Kama Sutra together, and she introduces him to French cinema and classical music, and although it was only a one-night stand, the memory sentimentally haunts him for the rest of his life. Yawn.
In other words, there isn't a single element in Nelson's play that isn't a cliche, and there isn't a single moment that rings true. And, acting as his own director, Nelson makes sure that there isn't a bit of erotic charge or emotional resonance, either.
us back to Macaulay Culkin. He is simply out of his depth up there, and
he seems to know it.
He is wooden
and awkward throughout, unable to make the play's narrative sequences
(which admittedly are written in a self-consciously literary style)
sound natural, and unable to bring any life to the dramatised scenes. He
doesn't seem to know where to put himself on the stage, or what to do
with his hands.
Irene Jacob seems equally uncomfortable as the teacher, though in her case it takes the form of turning her lines into rapid gabble.
Yes, the thought did occur to me that it was the characters who were nervous. But trust me, it was the actors. And the fact that there is absolutely no chemistry between the two adds to the sense that this is as much the director's failure as the actors'.
For no clear reason, the play brings in a comic neighbour (Madeleine Potter) with her own bizarre soap opera, and there are unintegrated stabs at an anachronistic feminist sensibility, and there's a long digression while the teacher describes her unpublished novel about a pregnant Joan of Arc, but these just help pad the thin play out to 90 minutes.
No one in Hollywood will notice or remember.
Mindgame Vaudeville Theatre, June 2000
I did so much want to like Mindgame. The West End used to have one or two thrillers of this sort every season, ultimately forgettable whodunits that provided a satisfyingly puzzling two hours' entertainment. We haven't had one for years (not counting The Mousetrap), and it would have been nice to have something to recommend to fans of the genre.
But Mindgame isn't it, alas.
A writer comes
to a hospital for the criminally insane, asking the psychologist's
permission to interview one of his gorier serial killers for a book
about him. Hands up, all those who haven't figured out the whole plot
All right, to help you along, the shrink seems a bit distracted and unfamiliar with his own office. No? Well, there is considerable talk in the first few minutes about psychodrama and role-playing sessions. And for those still not catching on, the nurse who appears after a few minutes is wearing high heels, fishnet tights and a low-cut uniform.
All right, guys, we get the message. Things are not what they seem to be.
It then takes two hours of unconvincing talk, unlikely action and unbelievable personality shifts for the play to spell out what it telegraphed back in the first few minutes.
Author Anthony Horowitz has written several competent TV cop shows, so even if he's a little out of his element here, you'd expect more skill to have gone into the mystification and gradual revelations of the truth, and a few hints of psychological believability in the characters.
Director Richard Baron has a lengthy resume, so you'd expect him to be able to get some flashes of conviction out of his cast, and to stage events with some finesse. But the blocking is awkward and every scene involving action is as clumsy as a first day of rehearsal. There's one sequence, seen in silhouette behind a screen, that is mortifying in its ineptitude.
I have seen actors with flop-sweat in the past, that pitiable look of panic when they know they're in a disaster and aren't sure they'll make it through the evening. But I can't remember ever seeing a cast of professionals as obviously embarrassed to be on a stage as Simon Ward, Christopher Blake and Helen Hobson.
(Footnote: the show closed in a month, so I can fill in the rest of the plot. We discover early on that the doctor is really the madman, who has escaped and taken over the asylum. He torments the writer for a while, and then finally we are told that he really is the doctor, and the writer is the madman, and this was all a role-playing exercise. How they got the madman to play, why he thought it was real, and what they learned from the experiment are never explained.)
Mother Courage And Her Children New Ambassadors Theatre, Spring 2000
Berthold Brecht is not everyone's cup of tea, particularly for audiences of today when much of his deeply personally-held political agenda can be obscure at best and inaccessible at worst.
The music that accompanies the plays has always been a safer bet than his full-length plays (even the youth theatre-friendly Caucasian Chalk Circle) since music is more open to reinterpretation and, after all, comes in smaller, more digestible lumps.
One is therefore forgiven any trepidation at the prospect of a three-hour play written over half a century ago about a woman wading and trading her way across war-stricken Europe on a cart pulled by her half-idiot children. Funnily enough it works.
Something of a rarity, because conflict is viewed through the eyes of the camp followers, the plot is simple: Mother Courage braves even the worst excesses of war to make a fast buck from the armies as they attack, lay siege or retreat. In fact, she'll turn coat, religion or creed to suit the prevaling tide of fortune. But in her relentless quest for profit she fails to protect what she claims mean most to her - her children - and the maverick soldiers she rips off exact their own terrible price.
There's some fine comedy here that plays off the absurd situations created by warfare and some excellent performances. Shared Experience Theatre clearly have a knack for this sort of thing, and they push Brecht's meandering picaresque into an in-yer-face tragi-comedy with loads of action and stirring oom-pah-pah songs whose attitude and structure reveal them to be direct ancestors of modern rap.
The company doles out the welter of characters amongst themselves with precision, and director Nancy Meckler should be proud of the way pint-sized Kathryn Hunter proves to be a mesmerising focus of energy in the title role.
God knows what Mother Courage And Her Children actually means, but this production has quite a hold if only for the cast's handling of Brecht's unpromising material as well as their phenomenal exuberance.
Passion Play Comedy Theatre Summer 2000
It has been an interesting year for revivals of not-so-old, not-so-classic plays: Stoppard's The Real Thing, Mamet's Speed-The-Plow. And now Peter Nichols' Passion Play, directed by Michael Grandage to make it much more impressive than it seemed back in 1981.
This story of a comfortably settled middle-aged couple shaken by the husband's affair with a younger woman came across in 1981 as the transparent special pleading of a middle-aged playwright trying to justify his own midlife crisis, giving all the best arguments to the man and making the wife seem unreasonable and repressed.
Grandage and his excellent cast have somewhat redressed the balance, so the husband's folly is more apparent, and the wife's final action becomes an empowering assertion more than a defeat.
I won't give away what that action is, except to say that it makes very powerful use of a theatrical device that had been up to then little more than a gimmick, the division of the two main roles into two actors each, playing the inner and outer selves.
That device wasn't original, of course, dating back at least to Brian Friel's Philadelphia Here I Come in 1964. Nichols uses it mainly for comic effect, contrasting the outer actors' self-control with the rampant interior passions.
This has the incidental effect of making the interior roles more flashy and fun for the performers. Nicky Henson plays the inner man as raw id, bouncing from slavouring lust to babbling panic, while Cheryl Campbell swings from avenging harpy to the depth of despair.
The outer characterizations have to be more subtle, since it is central to the play that the couple are settled and ordinary. James Laurenson plays a man astonished that a younger woman finds him attractive, turned into an awkward teenager as he attempts to play a game he hasn't played for decades. And Cherie Lunghi pulls off the difficult job of being the most sensible character onstage and still making the wife complex and surprising.
As the younger woman, a role that is really more plot device than character, Nicola Walker sensitively plays the negativity, so we see that her effect is the product of everyone else's projections of their feelings on her.
(Incidentally, the play is dated in one very specific way. A man married in the 1950s seduced by a child of the sexual revolution encountered a generation gap of sexual and moral attitudes not present in characters of similar ages today.)
What the play has to tell us - about the susceptibility of middle-aged men, or the complex psychology and politics of marriage - is not especially new. But distanced from the sense of the playwright's own yearning that it had 20 years ago, it carries a sense of truth and wisdom. And it certainly allows a skilled and sensitive cast to give some very entertaining performances.
Side Man Apollo Theatre, Spring 2000
There is a moment near the very end of Warren Leight's lightweight play in which the son who has relived his father's career as a minor jazz musician speaks eloquently of that generation who loved and lived for their music. Nothing else in the play comes close to evoking that world or the author's appreciation of it.
Instead, we get every possible cliché you can imagine in a play about jazz musicians. There are the colourful, usually unemployed players, each with their own loveable quirks (One is a Romeo; one has a lisp, about which a few too many identical jokes are made; etc.). There's the casual use of marijuana and the one tragic heroin addict. There are accounts of mythical jazz sessions in which they played above themselves.
There are optimistic predictions that Las Vegas is a dead end and rock & roll a fad. There is the indignity of having to work for Lester Lanin (an easy-listening band leader of the 1950s, symbol of all the true jazz player hated). There is the child who has to be the grown-up in a dysfunctional family.
Have we missed anything? There's a wise-cracking waitress who turns out to have a heart of gold, and a Boston convent girl (the narrator's mother), so innocent that she doesn't recognise pot while she's smoking it, who turns into a drunken, suicidal harridan (and oddly develops a Bronx accent along the way).
In fact, the only surprise is the very striking absence of black faces or even mention of black musicians in the entire show.
All these clichés might be bearable if the play conveyed any sense of reality or evoked the warmth of the jazz world. But, except for that brief speech at the end, and an earlier moment when the players listen in awed silence to a recording of a friend's transcendent performance, everything is one-dimensional.
I had hardly heard of Jason Priestly, so I don't hold the fact that evidently he starred in Beverly Hills 90210 against him. I can just report that he is wooden in the narrative sections and embarrassingly inadequate when he tries to act.
Edie Falco gives the kind of loud, braying performance as the mother that looks like a lot of acting is going on, and thus wins awards, while Frank Wood as the father underplays to the point of near-invisibility. The rest of the cast, almost all from the Broadway production, give external, gimmicky performances, each built on a signature twitch or quirk.
Side Man won the Tony for best play in what must have been a very slow season on Broadway last year. The half-empty house on the third night suggests that it will not be the same sort of sleeper hit in London.
Wit Vaudeville Theatre, May 2000
Margaret Edson's Wit (or, as the posters would have it, W;t) won the Pulitzer Prize and a dozen other awards, and star Kathleen Chalfont won a handful of awards herself, which proves that a play about cancer and an actress willing to shave her head for a role will automatically seem deep, brave and meaningful.
Chalfont plays Vivian Bearing, distinguished professor of English literature and specialist in John Donne, the sort of pedant who can explain the significant difference between a comma and a semicolon in a poem, and who holds her beginning undergraduates to the standards of PhD students.
When she develops ovarian cancer and embarks on a debilitating regimen of chemotherapy, she finds herself not in control for the first time. As she experiences the casual cruelty of doctors, the indignities of repeated examinations, the loss of hair, the nausea, the unbearable pain and eventually the inevitable failure, she learns things about herself and the way she has conducted her life.
The problem is
that, now that I've given you that outline, you could write the play
yourself. Just think of every cliche of hospital dramas or TV movies,
and they're here.
For example, I'll tell you that the cast includes an older doctor, a bright young doctor and a nurse - you tell me which one is crusty at first but develops a grudging admiration for her, which one is a pure technician fascinated by her chart but unable to deal with the person, and which provides the warm human sympathy she discovers she needs.
Or when I tell
you that she comes to realise that the doctors see only her cancer and
her organs, and never have any sense of her as a human being, do you
need to be told that she makes the discovery that her life-long analysis
of Donne's poetry never really captured the man?
The revelations, such as they are, go the other way as well: a classroom flashback shows a student speculating that Donne used all the intellectual complexity of his poems to hide from the scary emotions he was writing about, and we are to recognise that she has been using her intellect to hide from life.
Edson tries to cover the cliches by admitting them, as Vivian adopts an ironic stance in her addresses and asides to the audience. After a sweet moment in which she breaks down and the saintly nurse comforts her, she dismisses the moment as maudlin sentimentality and melodrama, but then acknowledges that maudlin sentimentality and melodrama are real parts of life she has hitherto ignored.
Kathleen Chalfont has been playing this role in various cities for three years or more, and whatever human warmth her acting may have once had has been replaced by a purely technical and external performance. Malcolm Tierney as the older doctor, Ed Stoppard as the younger and Jaye Griffiths as the nurse do what they can with their one-and-a-half-dimensional characters.
The play is not without merit. Any dramatic treatment of dying has to have some emotional power, and there are occasional flashes of the eponymous wit in the writing, as in Vivian's comment on the irrelevancy of her scholastic career: Publish and Perish. But Margaret Edson has not really found very much new to tell us, and Kathleen Chalfont's performance is more showy than evocative.
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