A little bit of Chekhov (I’m not going to do the “nuclear wessels” joke again), reimagined by John Donnelly and staged by Headlong Theatre / Nuffield and directed by Blanche McIntyre. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it, frankly.
I like it. I do. It has some laugh out loud moments, and the cast is slick and, on the whole, convincing. There are a couple of standout performances too. I particularly liked Jenny Rainsford in the relatively minor role of Masha, a fucked up dypsomaniac who is in love with the wrong man and who marries a different wrong man and who spends the entire play in a boozy dwam of spite; even as they take their curtain call, Rainsford looks pissed and furious. Pearl Chanda as Nina appropriately lacks gravitas as the young and flighty Nina, but, after being shat upon from a great height by the odious Trigorin (Gyuri Sarossy) falls apart to Kostya in a final scene of real pathos. Abigail Cruttenden is waspish as Arkadina, meaning the best performances of the night, for me, all come from women, other than one memorable soliloquy from Trigoron about the trials of being a writer (“You think this is easy?”). The set is sparse and worked well by the cast, Donnelly’s rewriting is economical and punchy and the plot is never obtuse. But…
It does retain that big Russian melodramatic feel with lots and lots of talking and talking and yada yada yada. Consequently, I feel a bit weary at those times I’m meant to engage myself emotionally and I can’t help feeling distant from characters I want to feel more for. And of course, it’s an ensemble piece: I suppose we are meant to see Kostya as the centre of it all, yet it is Nina who is the seagull and Trigorin and Arkadina who are the catalysts for all that happens, and then Masha’s love for Kostya drives the subplot of her disastrous marriage to Medvedenko, and there’s the doctor’s affair with the estate manager’s wife going on and… and by the time Kostya shoots himself, quite frankly, I don’t really care. My patience has already been stretched by all these callow young and youngish things going on and on about theatre and new theatre and the torture and joy of writing when they’re not having pointless arguments about horses, and everyone at the drop of a hat is a failed writer or a successful writer or wants to be a writer or knows a writer or has shagged or is shagging a writer and is being miserable about it. Gimme peace, being a writer is neither that important nor that glamorous. The characters have all the sincerity and zeal of the best East European Anti-Bourgeois Revolutionary Theatre, and it’s just so bloody, bloody tiresome.
So, a worthy and worthwhile play, but at the end of the day, as much as I’m glad I saw it and as much as I admire it – it leaves me a little colder than it should. Russian drama aint really for me, it seems.
This is a retrospective of last year’s smash Danny Boyle production which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the main roles as the good Doctor and the hideous Monster; this time round, Cumberbatch gets to do ugly.
Frankenstein isn’t a story I feel particularly strongly about. To me, it’s too old-fashioned, despite all the connections people make with genetic engineering. Naa… it taps in too much to the ethic of the travelling freak show for me, and it was quickly left looking outdated by the real breakthroughs in science, medicine, evolution and psychology that thundered through the rest of the 19th century.
I have to confess, too, that I don’t particularly enjoy Miller or Cumberbatch as actors; Miller has been in some clunkers like Dracula 2001, while I found the rebooted Sherlock really irritating and a terrible under-usage of the excellent Martin Freeman. I’ve also not really got into Danny Boyle films either – it’s heresy in Scotland to admit you can’t stand Trainspotting – so I have to say I wasn’t convinced I’d be blown away in the way the critics and last year’s audiences seem to have been.
However, faults aside – and there are a few – this was pretty damned good. The central role is clearly the monster, with Frankenstein reduced to a bit of a cardboard cutout sexually inadequate egomaniac. There is much to admire about Cumberbatch’s performance (and, presumably, Miller’s on the nights he got the role) in that it generates real sympathy, and there are moments when creation appears far more wise and mature and intelligent than the creator (“Don’t be so… inconsistentttt…” he admonishes the Baron at one point). In his erratic pleading and threatening and wheedling for the mate he so desperately needs to make him whole, he captures the emotional fragility of the man /child /monster very well indeed. Especially good, though, are his scenes with Karl Johnson as De Lacey, the blind, impoverished university professor who teaches him to read Paradise Lost and introduces him to the concept of morality and who inadvertently unleashes his taste for revenge.
It’s a little unfair to describe Miller as a cut-out. There is a definite sense of the maniacal self belief that he feels gives him the authority to pull everyone’s strings, including those of his fiancée Elizabeth as he baits a trap for the monster, in his barking, flat prose. The two actors obviously work well together, so much so Miller is appearing in a future Sherlock storyline.
But there are significant issues, I feel. The long opening spell, with the monster rolling around the stage as it learns to control its limbs, is overwrought and far too long. I also think it weakens the story that the Baron doesn’t appear until that process is almost over; the monster should imprint on his “master” the way a bird imprints on its mother if we are to believe his investment in and connection to Frankenstein.
In addition, the staging is far too filmy, I feel. There are big effects that are so underused they seem intrusive, especially a steam-punk train that represents the industry of the town the monster first flees too (I think) that appears onstage for about two minutes, then chugs off. Not enough bangs for very big bucks. And there are some clumsily stereotyped stagings, such as a grinding rock track to represent the city immediately followed by a pastoral choir to indicate a change of setting to a countryside complete with flocks of birds flushing from hayricks. The set is also dominated by a huge cone of lights suspended over the stage which does various things from twinkling starlight-like to burning achingly bright, and I kept being reminded of Boyle’s sci-fi acid-trip borefest Sunshine.
The central characters totally dominate the play, and so other actors don’t really get a look in. Even so, some of them don’t convince, and the part of Elizabeth is a shockingly inadequate vehicle for an actress of the quality of the beautiful Naomie Harris. Finally, there are some moments of real humour but some badly misjudged episodes, including a teeth-grindingly offensive caricature of a couple of Western Isles yokels.
All in all, though, this was a quality production that didn’t reach the heights for me that it seems to have done for many others. There is a huge number of teen thesp types in the audience tonight – I overhear one saying she hadn’t been to see anything in the theatre she wasn’t in herself for ages, and one lad goes out the door dreamily saying “Ben, what a man he is, what a man, what a man…” – and I get the sense they are encouraged here by the triumvirate of the three big names from TV and film, Boyle, Miller and Cumberbatch. That’s fine, and they all deserve big plaudits for this; but, really, they didn’t quite carry it off, I think.
Whoa. If David Hayman’s recent “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.
I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth. As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus. Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly. One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play. Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.
This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming. Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape. Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat. There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed. I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.
What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well. Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play. Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.
The staging is fantastic too. Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell. However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life. In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen. Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.
There are a couple of oddities. That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head. I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth. I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.
But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland. And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it? It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is. It is Macbeth? In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end. But if it’s not, then who is he? Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex? If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth? What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.
But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.
My second King Lear in just over a year, after 2011′s fantastic Derek Jacobi version. That was a very traditional take, all pagan standing stones and a venerable king thrown on the mercy of Dark Age gods. This is something else.
It’s a sign of Hayman’s ambition as an actor that he felt ready to tackle a part most others shy away from until they are in their 70s. Hayman is 64, ten years younger than Jacobi, and was therefore never going to be able to play Lear as the petulant old man on the verge of dodderiness. In keeping with Hayman’s oeuvre, this is a much more dangerous beast. And that, I think, is the problem I have with this.
It’s a memorable production, a way of doing the play I’ve never seen before. That’s the thing about Shakespeare: with stage directions that consist of “a heath” or “a tempest”, you can do much anything you want with it. That has validated some absolute shite over the years that usually entails a company digging around in its military uniform box to come up with a mish-mash of all sorts of periods; the Citz’ ”Macbeth” of a couple of decades ago which was set in a post-apocalyptic world complete with enormous wind machines blowing actors across the stage and a Lady Macbeth who ate Duncan’s heart springs to mind. I’ve never seen Lear tackled this way, though, so off the straight and narrow. Generally, it works, largely because of Hayman, and, though I’m not quite sure I loved it, I certainly applaud its verve and intelligence.
The problem is that Lear scares me. This is a king who is a Glasgow gangster, a hard-drinking, fur-wearing, sexually abusive ned who has been elevated to the crown because he is the badass of the country. His treatment of Goneril (a voluptuous Kathryn Howden) is actually completely repellent, and the revelation of his hundred knights as the drunkenly obnoxious, arrogant squad of utter yobs that would make you walk out of any pub they happened to be in (a decision, I feel, is a directorial error), means that, quite frankly, I actually have no sympathy for this guy. His rantings against his daughters that, in any other production, are the tetchy ravings of a foolish old man 0n the verge of senility are here the explicit, chilly threats of a psychopath. As such, I don’t care if he’s murdered by exposure on the heath or shot up the arse in a car outside an east end pub. And what that does is it legitimises Regan’s and Goneril’s complaints against him and makes you wonder just what sexual abuse he has delivered on Cordelia that makes her so in thrall of him and what dark contracts he has made with Kent to earn his loyalty.
But there are big plusses. Hayman is always fantastic and does what he does impeccably. There are some great moments, and he is capable of making himself appear so much less than he is as madness descends; I have to say, though, I find his fractured, nasal delivery of many of those lines of madness curiously old-fashioned. Paul Higgins as Kent is solid and generally convincing (though, again, his onstage suicide at the end is, I think, a mistake, pulling attention away from the death of Lear). I liked Ewan Donald as Edgar (a great part for any actor) and Kieran Hill, while unconvincing as Edmund, is terrific as Poor Tom.
Shauna Macdonald as Regan is red hot sexy in a way that becomes outrageously vampish, the inappropriate fondlings of a child who has experienced crossed boundaries that befits the rampant sexuality of the whole production, and her death performance is something else. As well as oodles of sex, there’s also buckets of blood, arterial spray soaking the stage; the blinding scene is torture porn aesthetic, Regan taking out Gloucester’s second eye with the heel of her stiletto shoe. Lastly, the final image of Lear piled on top of all his dead daughters and wheeled out on a hospital bed is inspired: just what has this total bastard done to these girls to bring the whole family to this? I’d never noticed before, but there is no mention of a mother in King Lear. Where is his Queen? And how did those girls replace her in this chilling man’s life?
I don’t quite warm to Lynn Kennedy as Cordelia, feeling she lacks the necessary gravitas to stand up to her father and sisters, but it was a stroke of genius to have her pregnant in the final act. It occurred to me a full day after seeing the play. Lear demands that he spend one month with Reagan and Goneril each. The crisis comes before even a month has passed, since he has not had time to visit Reagan for the first time. Given that France accepts Cordelia after Burgundy rejects her, and has therefore had only a few weeks with her, how then does she appear heavily pregnant? Who is the father? If it can’t be France (who we do not see again) – then who?
I’ve never read the play like this before. Is it a sexual abuser’s tale? Is this a take on Shakespeare in the mould of Tim Roth’s “The War Zone”?
This version of the play has disquieted me, and dammit that’s a good thing. I’m not sure, though, if I can forgive it for not letting me weep at the awakening scene, or when Lear carries his hanged daughter onstage (here, he drags her like some piece of meat). I’m not sure I want to notice just how self-centred all Lear’s madness is, how possessive he is of what he is to and has had with his daughters. But, hell, do you know, maybe Hayman and artistic director Dominic Hill are just showing me what’s in the text.
And that is undoubtedly a good thing. Shakespeare would surely have wanted that: I’m just not sure I do.
ps By the way, I have to say thanks to my lovely PGDE English class, who took me along on their night out. In twelve years of working with student teachers, this is the first time that’s happened; sweeties every one, especially fetchingly floppy-haired Scott who organised it all. Thanks, guys, I had a lovely time.
Nancy Harris’ adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novella of jealousy and murder is a wee tour de force by Hilton McCrae, probably best known recently for his chilling portrayal of Gary Glitter in “The Execution of Gary Glitter”. Playing Pozdynyshev, a civil servant just cleared of murdering his beautiful wife, he delivers eighty minutes of absolutely convincing monologue. On a train, he shares the story of his marriage with the audience, the conceit being that people reveal themselves to total strangers on trains.
And it’s a thoroughly recognisable story. Pozdynyshev lacks the ability to emotionally engage – as many men do – and so decides to fall in love with his wife, resolves to propose to her simply because she is somehow objectively better than the many women he has had before. This reckoning up continues until he is consumed by disgust for her and for the minutiae of married life with her, from the way she taps a spoon to the noise of her swallowing. Freed from the burden of child-bearing, she blossoms and takes up the piano, a gift he gave her eight years previously and which has lain dormant throughout their marriage, a constant rebuke to his sexual demands.
The arrival of Pozdynyshev’s old friend, the violinist Trukhachevski, prompts him to set in motion the events which will result in tragedy. Pozdynyshev virtually throws them together, nurturing and at the same time resenting the sexual attraction which is obvious between them. Torturing himself with visions of their affair, he travels back from business unexpectedly to catch them together.
What is so convincing – it is Tolstoy, after all – is the complicity of Pozdynyshev in the whole story. He engineers his escape from a marriage he has obviously grown tired of, and yet his jealous fury is utterly real. It’s a terrific psychological premise, and McCrae delivers it beautifully.
The set in the tiny Gate theatre works well too, the 19th century railway carriage realised with just a couple of button-backed bench seats and opaque windows through which violinist Tobias Beer and pianist Sophie Scott are backlit to provide the sound and the images which haunt Pozdynyshev from the glass he stares into. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking, tense and intriguing: a terrific achievement for such a tiny company, especially from McCrae. A very satisfying evening.
A very effective mini family saga, “Missing” tells the story of two brothers, Luke (Rob Heaps) and Andy (Joe Robertson) as they attempt to find their way into adulthood in the 19080s. Bright, confident and supercilious, Luke has little time for his younger brother, Andy, a lonely, limited boy who feels his only escape from his damaged mother is to enlist in the Army. It works well, particularly in the claustrophobia of the one shared bedroom which simply seems to drive the boys apart. Their tragedy is their total lack of a common narrative. Luke, an obsessive taper of chart shows from the radio and about to leave the family home for university, has nothing to say to Andy, a boy who latches on to friends at school who may or may not have plans for a band. The depth of Andy’s worship of his bad tempered brother is only revealed when, years later, Luke discovers Andy has continued to make the tapes as a penance for an earlier argument.
Both Heaps and Robertson portray the warring brothers very well, the latter giving the subtlest of hints through looks and shrugs that hint at the dark turmoil beneath the surface. The banter is good too, the cheekier Andy besting his more cerebral brother with a “whatever” attitude that always has the right answer. The play ends on a heart-rending note as Luke realises too late just how little he knows the boy he has shared a room with all his life, a feeling I’m sure most brothers will recognise.
I think I would have liked more of a sense of the hinterland that lies outside the room – just why is it so important that this takes place in Thatcher’s Britain isn’t all that clear, and I would have liked to have heard the mother’s voice as she seems to drive the drama – but writer Barney Norris (a charming young guy who I chat to before the show) has an obvious talent for capturing the dynamic of an intimate two-hander.
Derek McLuckie was a contemporary of mine in the fabulous Paisley Writers’ Group of the 1990s. This was a weekly meeting of some of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with, including Suhayl Saadi (a good friend whose “Psychoraag” is one of the most imaginative Scottish novels of the last 15 years), Graham Fulton (more of him later), Margaret Fulton Cook, Marion Arnott (A Silver Dagger winner) and Alasdair MacKinnon (one of the most elegant poets I’ve read).
Led by Agnes Owens, Gerrie Fellows, Kathryn Heyman and, finally, Ajay Close, it was an absolute hot-house of intense productivity. Work was torn apart, fought over, picked to pieces – and always came out the other end of that process at least twice as good. I’d never have written what I have written if it wasn’t for their influence, and I’ve never found a group like it since. Truly exciting times.
Derek appeared in the mid-90′s. He brought a different twist to the group perspective, which was pretty much embedded in a brutalist realism. Derek’s was a world of violence and sweat and sex that was unflinching and vivid. It was so out there, so in your face, and Derek’s dramatic core simply emphasised that. Gay orgies, casual sex followed by casual beatings, grubby rites of passage, industrial quantities of illegal substances: nothing was beyond him. I always thought I was an honest, frank writer: Derek took the biscuit, shoved it into his gob, chewed it up and spat it back out at you. He was a fantastically promising talent.
I haven’t seen him for over ten years, so it was with huge interest I accidentally discovered this performance at the Tron. It covers many of the issues he dealt with in his writing back then, developed into a powerhouse monologue that was his trademark style when I was on the same bill as him. Nowadays, every writer who can read from a sheet of paper advertises themselves as a “performer”: I’ve always considered myself a pretty good reader, and Derek, as a trained actor, just wiped the floor with me because he knows what performance is all about.
This is a terrific hallucinogenic roller-coaster ride, full of wild buzzing involving Greek myths, religious iconography and a fair dash of Barbie. The adolescent pull of glue is really well done, not so much an escape as a heightening. There are lots of real laughs that point to real truths, as well as blood in bucketfuls. Of course, though, it’s all about sex, the gay teen tortured by desire for his pals; it’s not the glue that woos the narrator away from the Evangelical religion of his family, it’s the boys.
That is the source of the greatest poignancy in the performance. A teenage pyjamaed fumbling with the one pal he truly loves is genuinely touching, while the other – more dangerous and full of testosterone – attempts to rape him using Germoline as a lubricant. The final minutes of the performance, as the narrator sits torn and bleeding in a bus shelter and invokes the spirit of Judy Garland as his saviour, are quite something.
Good to see Derek in fine form, as ever.
I’ve written about Edwin Morgan before, one of Scotland’s greatest writers, and one of humanity’s most humane men. This new play about his last days in a Glasgow nursing home is written by his friend and successor as Makar, Liz Lochead, herself a great poet and quite brilliant dramatist.
It centres on Morgan’s final days in a Glasgow care home and his relationship with his biographer / friend James McGonigal. As the physical and mental frailty take hold, Morgan is tortured by fears that he is losing the ability to write and by constant nightmares. In a life-affirming act of artistic defiance, McGonigal and Morgan shape and beat those terrible symptoms into a final triumphant collection of poetry, “Dreams and Other Nightmares.”
It’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a play (although it is described in the programme as a “new piece for theatre”, which suggests it isn’t meant to be looked at in any traditional sense). As Morgan’s past unravels before us, there are undeniably poignant moments: Morgan’s brief encounter on a bus with a half-drunk tough which promises so much but has to end after fifteen minutes because his ticket won’t take him past the next stop; watching “The Golden Shot” with his long-time lover, John Scott; the utterly bereft grief he suffers when he learns of Scott’s death a year after they had separated (again). Many of these moments are built around Morgan’s poetry (“Strawberries” features heavily in a scene with Scott), as are those moments when we glimpse the risk-taking Morgan, the man who trawled gay meeting places like Green’s Playhouse or Glasgow Green; “I couldn’t not take risks,” he says, even after the nightmare of the rape scene which sent shock waves through Scottish society when it was published forty years ago. You can see Morgan reading it to secondary students here: Glasgow Green.
However, it suffers a little from the same issues I noted in “Hit Me!” last year. The character of James speaks directly to the audience, revealing biographical details, dates of publication, etc. that are all interesting but, for me, rather mediate the dramatic experience for the audience: as such, we see Morgan through those eyes and not through our own. I wanted more of Morgan’s dreams and nightmares, wanted to hear more of his voice, wanted to become better acquainted with his “life force” that tops and tails the script, and I wanted him to speak directly to me.
But it’s a solid, interesting memorial by a fine dramatist. The production is thoughtful too - Morgan’s care home room looks more like a Soviet era prison cell – and the actors are well up to the job. Davie McKay as Morgan brings out an innocence and occasionally irritating vulnerability that no doubt characterised the poet at the end of his life, and there are glimpses of the tetchiness and ego that members of the public like me rarely saw. It’s also nice to see two actors I’ve worked with. Lewis Howden, who plays James, has a lovely, authoritative presence on both stage and film: he played Tulloch in the BBC Education drama I wrote on “The Cone Gatherers”, and I thought he captured the character’s humanity and solidity very well. You can see him in the programme here.
Great too to see Steven Duffy, who played a central role in “The Practicality of Magnolia”. Steven was terrific, and the on screen relationship he struck up with Sheila Hancock was utterly convincing. You can see him in a clip from it here. Steven and Sheila and the wonderful work of Clara Glynn and the crew created a film that was a hundred times better than I could ever have imagined: I owe them eternal thanks. Steven is also a terrific stage actor: I last saw him playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman”, a hugely difficult part he tackled with ease. In this play, he multi-tasks various characters – John Scott, Morgan’s final “muse” Mark Smith, various shady men, care home employees – and as such provides the texture necessary to hold the drama together, which means he has a tremendous influence. It’s no exaggeration to say that the audience watches him whenever he appears, which is evidence of his powerful stage presence.
Two excellent innovative theatre productions in a couple of months – and both inspired by a serial killer.
Like “London Road”, “The Missing” – the stage version of Andrew O’Hagen’s seminal award-winning non-fiction bestseller – looks at the effects of horror on those who are peripherally involved. In the former’s case, it is an ensemble piece that examines the lives of those living in the midst of the Ipswich stranglings; the latter, another ensemble piece, begins with the nightmare of the serial killings by Fred and Rose West and spins off into a meditation on those who are left bereft by disappearances.
There are other similarities. Both are considerations of the relationship between awful events and the journalists who report them. While the media pack who invade London Road are central to the play, here O’Hagen’s journalistic journey begins after the scrum has dispersed, but is no less an analysis of the relationship between the reporter and the event. At least in O’Hagen’s case, his story is one of involvement and engagement, of discovery rather than prurience; in the after show discussion, O’Hagen talks of the “pornographic” attitude of the press to sex murders, and we sense a little of that at the beginning of the play, when the O’Hagen-like character – deftly played by Joe McFadden – tortures the mother of Lynda Gough with insensitive questions and thinly veiled accusations of negligence for not having reported her missing. However, by the end, the character has invested much in the unfolding tales of those left behind, including that of the sister of Helen Puttock, the third victim of Bible John.
The play – and the original book – sensitively explores the notion of “killability”, a phrase offered to O’Hagen by a lone policeman at the West house in Gloucester. O’Hagen’s persuasive premise is that certain people are more inclined to go missing than the majority of the population, and they are vulnerable in some way; the young, the poor, those in the sex trade, the mentally ill and socially incapable, the itinerant, women. One baulks at this assignation of victimhood, but, as he points out to an audience member who raises the case of Martin Amis’ cousin Lucy Partington, exceptions do not disprove the rule. In a society where, especially in the 1980s when the book is set, “care in the community” has become a euphemism for abnegation of responsibility, it is undeniable that there are many who simply drop off a radar they were barely on in the first place.
The cast is excellent. McFadden is charming, and it’s nice to see Brigit Forsyth (of “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads”) performing so powerfully. Myra McFadyen, in her introduction to the final song (The Cocteau Twins’ gorgeous “Song to the Siren”, perhaps a little clumsily used since it featured in the similarly themed “The Lovely Bones”), reveals the most beautiful voice imaginable.
This is terrific theatre; it is short (90 minutes) but wholly gripping, and leaves one wanting more. It’s another notable success for the National Theatre of Scotland. Bless it
The Ipswich stranglings around Christmas 2006 were a shocking insight into the dangers faced by vulnerable young women who work the streets as well as a media event unparalleled since the Yorkshire Ripper. That it scarred those touched by the case is beyond doubt; in 2010, there was an outcry when the BBC broadcast “Five Daughters”, a drama about the victims and their families that may well have been “too soon”, but was nonetheless the best, most humane, most heart rending television drama I’ve seen in the last twenty years.
You can imagine the furore when the National Theatre announced they were putting on a musical about the case. A musical? Surely nothing could be more distasteful than making a frothy singalong about such real life horrors?
Well, it isn’t really about Steve Wright, nor about the girls, though of course they loom large. The “stars” of this show are the forgotten chorus of the tragedy, the residents who saw their street demonised every night as a “red light district” by the media circus that trampled over their gardens and their sensibilities for the sake of yet another shot of number 79, where the murderer lived. The drama charts their various projects – raffles, quiz nights, garden competitions – that they hope will restore their fractured community. The libretto really is their words; all the speeches and songs are verbatim transcripts gathered by playwright Alecky Blythe, who has burnished and beaten the base metal of”ums” and “ermms” into a script that shines with the rhythms of real language.
First, the problems. I feel a little uncomfortable about the representation of ordinary working class Suffolk folk to a spruced up, sophisticated London theatre audience. There are lots of genuine laughs, but some border on the way we used to mock The Beverly Hillbillies. In addition, other than one brilliantly excruciating extended silence when three street girls peer out from the freezing fog to challenge the audience’s cosiness, there’s no voice for the people who really lived at the heart of the terror, leaving everything to be said by the understandably hostile people they plied their trade around.
Other than that, this is undeniably wonderful theatre, and I loved it. It’s an ensemble piece, and some of the ensemble singing is astonishing, such as in complex songs with catchy titles like “London Road in Bloom” and “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. With over sixty characters, there’s a lot of doubling (even quintupling) up, yet the actors manage to invest each and every one with individuality and humanity. However, there are some standout individuals on stage, and they are all women. Among the best for me is Kate Fleetwood, who I saw play Lady Macbeth opposite Patrick Stewart a few years ago. She is fantastic, especially as Neighbourhood Watch Events Organiser Julie, who chills the blood with the key speech of the whole play when she talks of shaking hands with Wright to thank him for ridding London Road of the prostitutes. A Lady Macbeth moment, she nevertheless manages to invest such a horrific sentiment with something touching. Neck and neck with Fleetwood in the charisma stakes is Clare Burt, whose face beams out loss and confusion as Jan, carer for the elderly, incompetent gardener and motormouth wife. Both actresses are wonderful.
Others catch the eye, such as Rosalie Craig, uptight as a retired teacher, zizzy as a teenage girl and heart wrenchingly vulnerable as a street girl. Nicola Sloan has a number of stunning moments, and Nick Holder is a genial giant who gathers the community around him.
Honestly, it’s great. I have never been into musicals, but this is so much more. It’s ground breaking theatre at it’s very, very best. There’s a CD of a cast recording available – I’m seriously thinking of getting it. If you have any chance of getting to see it, do so; hopefully, it’ll be an NT Live broadcast next season.
At the end of the performance, cast members are in the lobby collecting donations for the Iceni Project, which aims to help sex workers off the street and off heroin. A lovely thought, and for that reason, this review has to end with a recognition of the girls who died. This production made me sorry for the loss of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell.