Friday 6 March 2009

The power of mothers

The Parallel of Paul, Theatre 503, London

In a society in which people not only live longer and longer, but also spend more and more of their time being open about their feelings and discussing them with their families, it was to be expected that the issue of how sons and daughters deal with their elderly, perhaps no longer so lucid parents would become an increasingly popular and relevant plot engine.

In the last few months only, many London theatres have successfully staged plays on the issue: above all others, Polly Stenham’s sensational first work, That Face, which moved from its original home, the Royal Court, to the Duke of York, in 2008; Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, which was transferred from Broadway straight to the National Theatre, where it doubled the positive reception it had had in New York; and even Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests trilogy, brought back to the London stages for the first time in 34 years at the Old Vic – a play in which the ill, bedridden mother of the protagonists is an unseen but profoundly influential presence. Dominic Mitchell’s new play The Parallel of Paul, staged at Theatre 503 and directed by its programming director Gene David Kirk, falls into this category, too.

The play opens as Paul, an assistant manager at a Shell garage in the North of England, arrives at his parents’ place to find his disabled mother, Trudi, lying on the floor in her dirty and unkempt kitchen. She has, she claims, just come back from the past, to which she travels through a wormhole in the caravan she keeps in her back garden. But she is very keen to go back there immediately, because she is firmly convinced that through her addiction to time-traveling she has ruined her son’s life – ruined it from what was, in the original ‘parallel’ dimension, a fairy-tale story of thespian success and Hollywood fame, to the situation they are in now.

Thus begins and evening of discussions and recriminations, with Paul trying to bring his mother back to reason, and Trudi insisting that he help her get back to the past to fix things, so that he (they) can have the wonderful life that he has never known in this dimension. In that life, Paul was accepted into RADA, moved to London, was talent-spotted by the RSC and then worked his way to the very top, becoming a movie star and winning an Academy Award; in this life, Paul did move to London, too, but only to attend a minor theatre studies course, from which he came back with a nervous breakdown in the middle of the first year, and to which he never went back.

There is, of course, a universal situation behind this: Paul and Trudi are not that different from most mothers and children; they remember a different past, even though they lived through the same one. Trudi thinks that Paul failed because she did not push him enough, and Paul thinks that he failed, if he did, because she pushed him too much, instead of supporting him. Trudi believes that Paul was a lonely teenager because he hated the town where he grew up and he dreamed of moving to London, and Paul remembers how his hippyish, overbearing mother drove his only teenage best friend away by accusing him of being a ‘heartless, soulless monkey-murderer’ because he ate at McDonald’s.

If it wasn’t for the time-travelling aspect of her delusions, we would not even suspect that Trudi is anything but normal. There is something, in her, of Richard Yates’ deluded mothers, who stubbornly believe in their and their children’s artistic genius, and are willing to flex reality so that it conforms to their ideal vision – regardless of whether their children share this ideal or not. In this case, Paul is quite content with what he has managed to achieve, and it is only when confronted with his mother’s fantasies (or alternative reality) that he feels inadequate. Every mother has this power, of course, but Trudi’s illness and her obtuse convictions make her particularly ruthless – probably also because of her own failed aspirations. At one point we learn that when Paul was young she had written children’s stories about time-travel, which never got published: it is regrettable that this aspect of her character is only mentioned as a nice things-falling-into-place touch, and never fully questioned or developed.

The best scene of the play might be the one in which Paul, having finally lost his temper and accused his mother of cruelty and selfishness, goes on to tell her that he will show her how good he is by having his script produced – this is the first time we or Trudi hear of the script, and as Paul goes on to explain what it is about, at his mother’s insistence, we can clearly see his confidence wearing out, his initial belief and enthusiasm fading as he himself realises that this script is not as good as it sounded in his head. One single comment by Trudi is enough to destroy the whole project.

A very physical, violent scene ensues, which brings about the final twist – and this twist turns out to be the weakest part of the text. It is easily imaginable and expected, and it shutters the tension from the emotional and dramatic climax that had been reached in the previous minutes. It also forces the audience to choose one and only one solution to the evening, one specific interpretation, which is particularly unfortunate given that Mitchell had so far managed to mostly avoid easy answers and excessive sentimentalism, also thanks to frequent incursions into black comedy.

Ultimately, both the text and the actors work much better as long as they remain in naturalistic territory. Frances Iles achieves a fine balance in the role of Trudi, tragically funny but also aggressive and controlling; Philip Goudal, who plays Paul, is at his best in the final scenes – not only during his enraged outburst, but also and especially when fiddling at the kitchen sink, as he reluctantly describes the script he had seemed so convinced of a few minutes before. And while obviously neither the scale of the production nor the ambition of the text can be compared to the works of Letts or Stenham, The Parallel of Paul does have something to say about the dynamics of parenthood and the cruelty of imposing aspirations – as long as it focuses on saying it, rather than on including special effects.

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