Matt Trueman: co-editor, theatre
Matt Trueman is the winner of the 2009 and 2010 Allen Wright Awards for the best reviewer aged 30 or under at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
And what a pleasure it is to mull such vagaries in Fletcher’s company. He has an extraordinary capacity to engage, doling out eye contact around an audience in such a way that makes you feel certain statements are intended for you alone, sometimes accusatory, sometimes almost a gift.
The more he talks, the more rational he seems. If madness is simply being out of step with the majority, then, yes, Malvolio is mad. But what if it is the majority that are themselves mad? This is how Crouch positions Malvolio; a man stood alone at the top of a slippery slope down which everyone has tumbled.
Phoebe Fox’s Cordelia is absolutely her father’s daughter and her sisters’ sister, matching their mettle whenever necessary. Fox can be stand-offish and sharp-tongued, where Cordelia so often simply wilts. I couldn’t help but wish for more of the same invention and invigoration elsewhere.
Time and again, McCraney seeds an idea two or three scenes before bringing it to fruition, allowing each plot device to bed in and become integral, before twisting the tale. By the time his whodunnit arises – as Pharus is physically assaulted – he has fishy tales and red herrings lined up and waiting.
For a long time, I ♥ Peterborough is harder to pin down. That’s largely to do with Horwood’s direction, which – watched in a certain way, probably the wrong way – makes his text seems more slippery than it actually is. In fact, for the first half, I was utterly adrift in this little shot of bleak tenderness.
Both Watt and Bye want to reclaim the world, to regain control, civility and basic human respect. Bye tried out some random acts of kindness – buying coffee for the person behind him in the Caffè Nero queue, littering a shopping mall with £20 notes and instructions to spend it on a gift for a stranger – and found his faith in fellow man rather dinted.
At its centre is Stephanie (Scarlet Bilham), a 17 year-old girl with no trace of basic human compunction or compassion. She does what she feels like with a flicker of thought for others or impact. Part of the golden-ticket generation, she expects bailing out as a birthright and that natural talent (sketching in her case) will see her through.
That script turns backflips with the reflexive flair of Charlie Kaufman. It has three separate layers: Daniel, to be played by Daniel Kitson, sat in an office struggling to write a play; Dan, the subject of that play, ‘a fictionalised version of me played by an actor who is not me,’ who is struggling to write a play with his co-author Jen
Over 90 minutes, these nine children and their little button-noses will run the gamut of human existence, zipping through the aging process at warp speed and hurtling towards the grave. You see the formula? Cute young kids + life’s brief candle = coolly distant existential humour + inevitable lump in throat.
We’re used to finding the story of the show itself in Forced Entertainment’s work; the narrative of the theatrical event as it breaks down. Brilliantly, here even that story bamboozles itself; any ordinary sense of dramaturgy, whereby elements recur and illuminate one another, slips away and the whole frustrates our sense of story precisely by not conforming to those rules laid out at the start. It’s like theatre with Slowly Progressive Dementia
Without wanting to sound snobbish, though inevitably immediately doing so, the fable lacks the sophistication that this particular audience (I generalise, of course) craves. Yet Brook aims to provide, as best as possible, just the story. He aims to do away with the game of hide and seek, of coding and decoding that characterises most theatre.
Ninagawa locates the Royal family’s reunion under a single pine, changing the text’s cedar to echo the single tree left standing after last year’s tsunami. It puts a real gloss on the final chink of optimism. In March, a year on, there were still more than 3,000 missing persons in Japan. As the clouds clear, the very absurd improbability of Cymbeline’s plot serves to increase the hopefulness of the final reunion.
Lee Mattinson’s characters and events are larger than life. Its gags are slick and its sentiment is unabashed. Characters often voice the themes of the play. All this smacks of a writer siding for flair and entertainment over truthfulness. That’s fine; there are good plays like that. But they can’t make nuanced, near-contradictory sociological points.
Melanie Wilson makes theatre as spa-treatment. Her work seeps through you, washes over you and leaves you refreshed. You exist alongside it, surfing moment by moment, completely outside out of everyday time. Autobiographer is experienced entirely in the present, just as the Floras (and the rest of us) live life.
Lucy Osborne’s set, which makes a wooden barn of the Donmar’s extraordinary auditorium (once again, the real star), is similarly decorous. All twinkling candles and powder-blue sky, its chocolate box charm only adds to the quaintness and the whole comes across a courtly and civil recreation of the Globe stage. It’s all a bit luxurious and cosy.
The story is told simply, without narration, and remains engaging enough throughout. Besides, there’s plenty to watch: film, puppeteers, musicians, instruments, audience, set. There are, admittedly, natural limitations to the form and once or twice Paper Cinema shirk Homer’s details. The Cyclops, for example, is detached with a stalactite to the eye and a quick scarper.
To refine it, male arrogance is on trial here. Paul thinks himself a sports star; John, a comedian; and Colin, the first to know true love. As Kara Tointon’s stony-faced Evelyn – Paul’s one-time mistress – suggests, ‘All men think that they’re experts with women. By the time they are, they’re too old to do anything about it’.
Shallow Slumber is no mere in-yer-face exercise. Beneath it are nuanced social points about class and the co-dependence of the care-system and its clients. Not only is Dawn aware of the injustice behind the assumption that she needs a social worker, deep down she knows that, in her case, it’s a fair one.
Certainly, the text is delivered with all the tonal variation of Morse code. Reported back, it is stripped of emotion and, to a certain extent, intention. Punctuation becomes garbled, replaced with a steady, but stuttering, flow of words; pauses are scrapped as they struggle to keep pace; language warps. But do we not learn more from a fingerprint than from the lines on a palm, even though the contours offer less contrast?
Payne isn’t conclusively determinist. His characters still act freely, but their freedom is more limited than either would like to believe. Everything here is contingent: every decision, responsive; every happy ending as sweet and brittle as honeycomb.
L’Autre is an advocation of play. Stellato defies the accepted order of things, the one that says square pegs belong in square holes. He encourages us to see with fresh – often quite disbelieving – eyes. At several points, gravity seems to stand back and gift Stellato the floor. He walks a plank that oughtn’t support his weight, until, in a hauntingly tranquil final image, he dissolves into darkness.
The ladder, handily placed by a stagehand at the back of the stalls, is hauled through the audience, fast-ducking as it swishes overhead. Placed upside down, apparently unwittingly, it becomes an object so unusual that it is capable of surprising us just as much as them.
For long swathes, he stands stationary, but when he moves, each action chimes perfectly with its surroundings. Despite the fact that Umeda could teach Peter Crouch a thing or two about ‘the robot,’ he rejects the virtuosic for the maximum effect. Sometimes its as simple as shifting his weight from one foot to another.
McRae doesn’t so much speak the words as dance them, tapping out syllables like expressive footfalls. His voice is a drum kit; it can rasp like a snare or clatter like cymbals or swish like a soft brushstroke. The moment he hits upon the crucial detail – ‘That was it,’ he says – his vocal chords seems to have become corroded by an upsurge of stomach acid.
Same Same is elegant, eloquent and hugely empathetic, leaving a strong impression of the parent-child connection that exists only as an abstract idea and an ineffable sensation of longing. It captures mother’s need for daughter and vice versa, but also the fear that holds them back from acting upon it.
Its advantage over other media presentations on the subject is that The Riots happens outside of everyday, real time. In other media, an issue intrudes into life momentarily, whereas theatre puts life on hold for the sake of that issue. The Riots open up a space in time, a window of two hours, in which we might properly and purely consider its subject
That a musical should have a message is rare these days. That it should have several – about standing up for yourself, intelligence and the fallibility of adults – is nothing short of astonishing. Matilda never patronises its audience, nor its young performers.
Greg only seems good because he does no wrong, but he doesn’t really ever do right. His one lie is to cover for Kent, but he never tells the whole truth, because - exactly as Kent accuses – he ‘hates not being liked’. The secret of Burke’s performance (and LaBute’s writing) lies in letting the intricacies of this dichotomy seep out so gradually; he gradually opens our eyes to Greg and, by extension, ourselves.
Tim Price is very strong on both atmosphere and character. Helped by Chloe Lamford’s design – a breaking wave that sometimes glows to become icy veins – he unnerves from the very first moment. Iola and Anest, tethered together, twirl and babble with one another like a pair of Wyrd Sisters.
Woodcock’s point is that the nature of overseas aid, not to mention the motivations behind it, is as important as the mere fact of it. To borrow momentarily from Brass Eye, there exists good aid and bad aid. It is remarkably easy for the hand that giveth to be the same one that ultimately taketh away.
Chris Goode’s ‘The Loss of All Things’ (Philippians) finds in St Paul’s activity echoes of a peaceful, but provocative, revolution against an old order, as two gay schoolboys wear down their teacher with passive resistance during his detention. Stella Duffy’s ‘The Book of Ruth (and Naomi)’ humanises the text with an empathetic and emotive version told from inside rather than out.
This brute force makes for a feisty watch, but Ervine’s play can’t be granted heavyweight status. It is too sluggish for that, too naïvely absolute. Ervine sees the world in black and white and, while such clashing rival forces produce explosive bouts, they do not belong to the real world. To be worthwhile as well as watchable, it needs a little compromise.
On arrival in the countryside, Kate is served not a fine meal which is then dismissed ‘in reverend care of her’, but a microwaved lasagne dished up in its plastic packaging. Worse still, it’s actually burnt. Is it any surprise that she has trouble sleeping, given that they all seem to be kipping down in sleeping bags?
As drama it may be stillborn, but the ideas behind Grief, so finely expressed, are gently horrifying. It is a slow-motion car crash that you can’t tear yourself away from, yet I maintain that, with careful consideration, it could have been distilled into a single image without the slightest loss.
Poking about might feel ridiculous, but there’s enough momentary magic – scrawled memories materialising in toilet cubicles, unexpected pubs where kitchenettes should be – to lance the cynicism and the journey itself is well-constructed, building a crescendo as the gravitational pull to the stage increases.
Decade is a collage of responses from almost twenty prominent writers and, defying the singularity that might be said to characterise 9/11’s legacy, its strongest suit is its plurality. Taken together, like wide-ranging articles pinned to a noticeboard, they offer a panoramic view, while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of anything comprehensive.
The Faith Machine is a play of accumulation, all the better for revealing its purposes gradually and, even then, never head-on. Campbell steers clear of simplified taglines, but it becomes apparent that he believes God to be dead and society non-existent.
Faustus and Luther make a cracking odd couple; the one a swaggering silver fox, the other a constipated bore. Sean Campion and Andrew Frame spar with just the right combination of affection and animosity. Of course, the dice are loaded in favour of Faustus’ humanism, and that in itself entails pointed accusation.
The London Snorkelling Team, a music and animation combo, offer a deliriously goofy gig, while Frauke Requardt and Makiko Aoyama present the pleasure of dance for dance’s sake. Lewis Gibson, my favourite half-hour thus far this Fringe, goes beyond show and tell, instead treating us to a carefully constructed experience of blissful empty-headedness.
The overwhelming problem with The Invisible Show II is that it would be visible from space. Leaving aside the chunky, albeit flesh-toned, radio mics, its repeated re-use of the same four actors means it’s less a case of syncing audio with appropriate visuals than a round of Where’s Wally.
McLaren spent a month singing instead of speaking, just as they do in Doris Day musicals, recording every encounter on his trusty lapel microphone. That decision makes him a social pariah: people stare at him or walk away, unable to make head nor tail of him.
Bowden makes a welcoming, sometimes impish, narrator with a slight overreliance on kooky charm. It’s his writing, however, pristine and fragile, that really deserves plaudits. As his tale gains matter, his text finds a purity, particularly where love is concerned.
Catalina, always pregnant but never with child, becomes a model of regeneration. She must pop out kids like a vending machine, unconcerned about their upbringing. Yet, like the Ark itself, everything remains entirely potential and, being unfinished, potential always contains doubt, the danger being that it will not be reached. Hence, the crash that blows the system.
There’s a nagging suspicion that the Paper Birds want it both ways. After wheeling through a panoply of pissheads, they can get away with the hackneyed old binge Britain idea because they never meant to, honest guv. The show pulls them in its own direction, it runs away of its own accord.
Theatrical explorations of memory are often fragmented and scruffy, padding around the subject rather than pinpointing the core. Molaison’s case, told by crossfading between his life before and after the operation, allows Analogue to approach a prevalent subject with a rare neatness.
Told through intersecting monologues, A Slow Air is as precise a piece of writing as you’ll find. Its primary narrative is engaging enough, but, thanks to Harrower’s eye for metaphor and symbol, it’s the currents underneath the text that really make this special. Almost every moment is loaded with a hidden significance.
Four young writers, two young directors and a predominantly youthful cast make Double Feature something of a rarity for a theatre dominated by absolutely established talent. These are the artists that usually go unseen in the National’s ecology, tucked away in the safety of the National Theatre Studio, so it’s rather great to see them pushed into the public arena with all its challenges.
McDonagh’s dramatic irony is thicker than Mag’s Complan. It is a play full of Ibsen’s famous hanging guns, largely because the implements of torture (hot oil, poker, Complan) are so tantalising, not to show them used would be negligent. It feels too pristinely constructed – all polish, no turd - not that it prevented the youthful first-night audience from gasping along.
Wunderkammer is different. It moves by dint of vulnerability. Not the sort that depends on danger, but simple, honest, human frailty. After 85 minutes of tumbling and trapeze, the six performers strip down to their smalls and stand facing us, frank and self-assured with natural, gawky beauty.
Gill’s family portrait is more barbed than the usual Royal Court fare, largely because its sneer is overt. Dad trades arms and Mum is terrified of ‘the Ethnics’, presuming all but one – a nice chap who works in the bank, who ‘has been naturalised…taken on our culture’, – carry as much threat as Somali pirates. Son and Daughter, meanwhile, bristle with an open sexual tension
It is a voice that grazes ear-melting beauty, only to fall short and plummet away from it. His syllables warp like melted metal and a scratchiness riles as fingernails on the underside of a mug induce squirms. Scott’s is a voice that rings in your ears for days afterwards.
Chainsaws rip through cartilage, electric drills bore into brains and sickles hook intestines like rubber ducks from a fairground stall. Thick strands of arterial blood loop through the air. It’s almost graceful in its brutality, haunted by the spectres of Kubrick, Hitchcock and Tarantino.
That strain of sentimentality is the chink in the piece’s armour. It needs the present-tense tinge of sadness of golden-hued nostalgia and that, of course, fades from view. Leave the theatre and the surrounding city feels, for a while, unnatural and all-pervasive, unstoppable, but it will not do so for long.
Two friends, a boy and a girl, gather round the coolbox, gorging on beer and ice-lollies, almost to the point of choking. They talk in that wry tone of smartass teenage irony that sees every sentence, like, broken up and, um, rising at the end. As if they’re, you know, afraid to commit or incapable of caring. Any sincerity is pockmarked and punctured.
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.
It posits history and, with it, current affairs, as mere entertainment, fulfilling a basic human need for narrative. The macro cannot be mined from the micro. History becomes an empty vessel. Or, as Rapley emphatically puts it, ‘a wrinkled old woman dressed as a young seductress wearing too much make up’.
Commedia is, like end of the pier, essentially a structured series of turns (here, we get front-curtain musical numbers from each of the cast) and Goldoni’s servant will always be best when pulled in two directions by conflicting and easily confusable tasks. Corden, then, is perfectly cast as the hapless go-between.
If the terrorist has become a cultural staple, Told By an Idiot are determined to chip off the old schlock. Torn from their original settings, these examples no longer seem stock villains. They stop functioning as plot-driving antagonists; those that afford heroes their heroism.
The pentagram through which Judge is drawn is still a pentagram and the words in Rob Glover’s soundscore, which includes preaching form occultist Aleister Cowley and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, invoke the devil in spite of being recordings. How fake, one has to ask, is this? The niggling idea that it’s symbolism and conjury retain their potency.