Thursday 2 June 2011

Another Acykbourn?

The Acid Test, Royal Court, London

This review was meant to be a tirade. It set out to skewer, to burst the bubble of acclaim that surrounds Anya Reiss. As it so happens, it hasn’t turned out that way. While sharpening the knives, it occurred to me that Anya Reiss might just be the next Alan Acykbourn. The question, which I will leave you to answer for yourselves, is do we need another Acykbourn?

First though, let’s go back a bit. Allow me to explain my initial impulse to make a sacrificial lamb of a sacred cow. Let me, in other words, copy and paste some of my first draft:

We all know Anya Reiss by now, right? The 19-year-old product of the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme deemed more promising than Nick Clegg in a student union. Her first play, Spur of the Moment, picked up Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and TMA awards, despite being little more than a Daily Mail editorial dressed up as a play. Now, I should admit to only having read Spur of the Moment, so I can’t really judge it from all angles. Nor, I should stress, would I wish to dismiss it out of hand. The play achieves a lurking unease; the slow queasiness that accompanies transgression and taboo. It demonstrates a magpie’s instinct for the rhythms and disguises of everyday speech and subtextual currents.

Yet it strikes me that those falling over themselves with praise were blinded by Reiss’s youth. (She was 17 at the time of writing.) These praiseworthy qualities are technical, and technique alone does not an artist make. Polly Stenham – a comparison that, for both age and subject matter, cannot go unmentioned – broke the mould with her debut play That Face. By 2010, Reiss was swimming in chartered waters. If Spur of the Moment marked the emergence of a new voice, it was one that said nothing that we hadn’t already heard. Albeit it rather well.

Admittedly, this seems rather mean-spirited. After all, the ability to write well is probably more than enough to justify celebrating a writer’s promise. As I say, I set out to damn and, with that in mind, I wrote the following:

I’ll start by admitting to scepticism and, as such, will attempt to balance any criticism of The Acid Test, Reiss’s highly anticipated tricky second album, with comparison elsewhere. You see, I intend to begin harshly on two counts. First, that The Acid Test has no more to say than Spur of the Moment, and second, that it survives largely on account of its superficial aspects and sleight of hand.

Though my stance has softened, I stand by both statements. While the second represents problems inherent in the play itself, however, I will temper the first with an admission of preference. In other words, Anya Reiss simply hasn’t written that kind of play. She’s written an Alan Acykbourn kind of play and maybe, just maybe, that’s OK.

The Acid Test shows us three girls in their early twenties – Ruth, Dana and Jessica, points on a personality triangle – who live together in London. They clearly all come from the same affluent middle-class background that allows them to co-habit in comfortable poverty. Their flat is a generic grad-pad; a long way from discomfort, but equally far from those of their childhood. They have a flatscreen TV, but its only small. Their sofa is standard-issue Ikea and fairylights serve as moodlighting. The drinks cabinet, however, is well-stocked – Raspberry Absolut and mini-cans of tonic water – which is rather useful since The Acid Test centres on an impromptu drinking session.

Into this room, which any middle-class mother would term a bombsite, steps Jim, Jessica’s father, freshly turfed out of the family home on account of his wife’s affair with their roofer. Far from interrupting proceedings, however, he rather enlivens them, joining in with the navel-gazing and guzzling to the point that you fully expect him to cop off with one or other of his daughter’s mates.

There is, in all this, plenty of contemporary concern. Reiss looks at class, for starters, and, in throwing a Babyboomer into a roomful of Echo Boomers, generational difference – my favourite topic du jour. Mostly, she addresses the predicament of youth, both as a perennial and more specifically, whereby the world seems stacked in favour of the older and already established. She flags up particular prejudices, aspirations and anxieties.

Nevertheless, The Acid Test is not about any of these things. If it is about anything, we might refer to the blurb’s reductive description – ‘An unruly new comedy asking if age equals maturity’ – which, in itself, is just not particularly interesting: ‘That click moment and you always think it’s just around the corner…’ Blah, blah, blah. Rather, The Acid Test is not about a particular issue because it never really hankers after anything. Unlike the vast majority of young(er) writers – James Graham, Mike Bartlett, Ella Hickson, Nick Payne, say – there’s no itch to Reiss’s work. She doesn’t refract her words or ideas through a particular vocabulary, as Graham does with The Man or The Whisky Taster (see also – and primarily – Simon Stephens). Instead, she just has people talk. Inevitably, they touch on such issues, but none of these ever becomes a dominant strain.

Rather than attack a specific issue or idea, Reiss grazes a number of them. It’s almost like she checks them off, touching base and flitting elsewhere. The upshot, however, is that The Acid Test (and, it now seems, Spur of the Moment before it) reflects a portion of our society rather than commenting on it. In short, just as Acykbourn did, Riess is showing us a species in its (almost) natural environment. She writes without moralising and without judging her characters.

Reiss writes people, rather than symptoms. They are neither a warning nor an example to us. Rather, they are us: frustrating and fragile but sympathetic. At times we want to slap them, but we understand why they behave as they do. That’s reflected in her sparkling dialogue, which is, more often than not, very funny and very heartfelt. It does, however, mask a deeper problem: plot. The Acid Test doesn’t so much lack a plot as have one imposed upon it. It’s striking that almost every turning point is spurred by an offstage event: the attempted suicide of Ruth’s ex-boyfriend Twix, Dana’s one-night stand with her boss, Jim’s roof collapsing. The last of these, which allows Jim to leave the no man’s land of the girls’ flat and demonstrate maturity, is forced to the point of resembling a deus ex machina. All Reiss needed to do was have him head to work, leaving the girls to their unemployment. These events do not come from the situation presented; they knock it off course. As such, The Acid Test entirely lacks centrifugal force and grows tiresome.

What keeps it alive is the phenomenal work by both cast and director Simon Godwin. Between them, they have injected a huge sense of play into Reiss’ text. The three girls – Phoebe Fox, Vanessa Kirby and Lydia Wilson, all giving fantastically gregarious performances – twist their lines into something unexpected, exploiting odd rhythms and tones. They have created a vocabulary of in-jokes and play to each other, sometimes mockingly, sometimes self-parodically. The sense is of constant performance to one another. Fox, in particular, loses none of the humour despite never lazily signposting gags; she throws punchlines away with a slurred mumble in favour of a deep-rooted character comedy. Wilson, the best young British actress onstage at the moment, manages to find something unattractive in the absolutely sympathetic and grounded Jessica. Its as if she’s calcium-deficient, brittle and malnourished, in spite of her worthiness. Godwin and his cast deliver a masterclass in playing against a text. It is to their credit that, in spite of being a series of concurrent and melodramatic events, The Acid Test fizzes along for as long as it does.


Till 11 June 2011


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