Theatre FootNotes for March 2020 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

STICKS AND STONES by Dameon Garnett, seen at The Tristan Bates Theatre on Sat 7 March (matinee)

Charting the conversations between a white school-dinner lady and the black school deputy head, STICKS AND STONES boils down to two extended dialogues. There was a lot in the show that was interesting; how social media is something we take far too casually, not thinking about implications or offence, as well as addressing deeply ingrained societal racism. The two actors do good work in bringing the script to life. I felt that there could have been more exposition to make the relationship more solid (before ripping it apart), and also the structure felt somewhat unfinished. Also the staging, in a weirdly lopsided traverse configuration, with a stage management person moving the set sitting in full sight for the duration of the play, felt not only ill-considered but also distracting. Nevertheless I was sorry to see the show’s run cut short by the blanket theatre closures later in the month.

Theatre FootNotes for October 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE at Hampstead Theatre.

Jordan Tannahill’s interesting but muddled play makes some good points amongst layers of inconsistency. But it doesn’t add up – the parallels between the Renaissance Florence and our current times (bridged by using modern technology, amongst others) doesn’t really work. As to the art, it never assumes its place as being almost a life blood, important enough to shock as canvases are wilfully destroyed. I have seen Dickie Beau, who plays Botticelli here, do some terrific work, particularly in a featured role in Somerset Maugham’s SHEPPEY a couple of years ago at the Orange Tree. Here, fronting the whole show, he seems miscast to me. Set design was clever and intriguing and the performance of Hiran Abeysekera as Leonardo was a low-key delight, fragile, tender and vulnerable, well worth sitting through the rest of the play for. But as to the Allan Carr-esque Disco Venus……

Daryl Griffiths’ ZOMBIES – THE MUSICAL at The Other Palace.

Good music, great orchestrations, great cast – shame about the book and lyrics. The concept was fine and more than interesting enough (search for cure to ageing leads to accident in lab which produces new strain of zombies, separated lovers search for each other). Although presented here in this workshop presentation are mainly the musical sections of the final show (supported by fun and lively screen interjections to move the plot along and give indications as to ambitions for the fully-staged production) the book appeared to need much work. Music was superbly orchestrated and sounded great, lifting the compositions which were rather along the lines expected for a musical comedy. Lyrics were unambitious and rather smutty for my taste. It is stated that inspiration came from shows such as Book of Mormon. I wish them luck in achieving similar heights, but before then the whole book and lyrics need to have more “smart” and less “smut” to work for me.

Theatre FootNotes for June 2019; A summary of other theatre events in my diary

13th June – GLOBAL INDIGENOUS VOICES at the British Library. Third in a series of Global Voices Theatre events, this was presented in association with Border Crossings as part of the tenth annual Origins festival 2019 . Fifteen-minute extracts from five plays from New Zealand, Alaska, Canada, and America were given a rehearsed reading for an audience of around 150. The event was guest curated by Madeleine Sayet and presented by Global Voices Artistic Director Lora Krasteva and Producer Robin Skyer. Global Voices Theatre is now an Arts Council funded organisation, yet another reason to celebrate their continued development.

18th June – CASH COW by Oli Forsyth. At Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 20 July.

Tennis is a dynamic and exciting visual game. CASH COW, as presented here, is. so static and non-visual that it could play on radio with no loss whatsoever. A smart set and some fancy lighting does not change the fact that this is a talk-heavy, resolutely un-visual show.

The play’s viewpoint is rather belied by the title. Two parents are told that their ten-year old child is exceptional at playing tennis, so they invest effort and resources into honing her talent. So begins a 20-year journey studded with tennis coaches, globe-trotting, using drugs to manipulate natural development to fit the rigid playing schedules, separation on different continents, and much more. Money is the driver, and the child pays the price.

So at what point did that ordinary, hopeful parent become too pushy, and then manipulative and then all-consumed? We see the slide down the slippery slope of good intentions, as the parents lose control of – and contact with – their daughter. At what point did their child become artificially induced into being a product? At what point did the parent start to refer to himself as the manager and promoter? And at what point did the parents sit down and agree “I made her” and “she owes us”?

Anyone can see that the extremes that the parents go to seem bound to engender damage in youngsters who need space and help in exploring themselves. What is very telling is that every discussion with the child featured in the play is dominated by the parent – and the (unseen) child’s answers are always one word- OK, no or yes. The child, as far as I remember, is never even given the respect of a name- always referred to as her, she, love or honey. So at no point in the whole 20 year span of this story do we ever hear the parents having any sort of discussion with the child, asking for her own ideas and what she wants to do.

At one point it is suggested that the coach is physically abusing the child, and the parent’s rightful initial revulsion is rapidly distorted by the calculation of the effect that any action will have on their investment, causing the audience to draw parallels – so surely both the coach and the parents are abusing the child, just in different ways?

Escalating dramatic distortions of relationships climax with inter-familial lawsuits and the ending is effective, suggesting the price of “success” is not worth the paper its written on.

As the distortions in behaviour happen incrementally over time, the play’s jumping about in time helps us to see the differences in a more marked way, but the audience have to do a lot of work in placing the pieces. Where it backfires is that the scenes are so short and bitty that one tires of the monotony of the concept, trying the audience’s patience and making the show feel much longer than its 90 minutes.

The fact that I have not been a parent or a child prodigy may colour my take on this, but I found it impossible to care for any of these characters, or to be particularly drawn in to this long 90-minute piece that a lot of the audience watched with their eyes shut.

Perhaps this show will be a wake-up call for those countless parents out there who are driven to push their child harder than they once pushed themselves. Perhaps it will cause them to consider the price that will be paid by all parties. And whether kids should just be allowed to be kids.

21st June – Royal Central School Graduation show – a musical A PERMANENT STATE OF EMERGENCY. Final year students in a specially-commissioned new musical, directed by Sue Dunderdale.

27th June – THE BASEMENT TAPES – seen as part of the Incoming Festival at New Diorama Theatre in London.

It is always exciting to see new work from other parts of the world visiting the UK and so I was intrigued by this New Zealand originated show which sounded full of possibilities. Sadly, most remained unrealised after this disappointing, overlong hour.

You spend a lot of time in the dark during this show. About half of the running time, in fact. Listening to a taped voice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for great theatre, in my opinion.

We are in a basement of a house in New Zealand. A teenage girl rummages around in boxes of her dead grandmother’s belongings in a superficial attempt to sort things out, making more mess as she goes. The piece gradually morphs into a kind of spook story as the discovery of a cassette tape player and some significantly labelled tapes reveals the voice of the deceased grandmother describing in dreamlike detail a murder that she may have committed.

There were significant moments of potential when I hoped that the show would spark into life, with the discovery of the tape machine and tapes: the smell of a garment embodying the sensory memory of the grandma was also a telling moment: also, the first notes of the dead grandma’s voice. All had much more potential but they appear to have just been used as punctuation.

However, the indulgent dancing to loud music which occupies the first five minutes, the poor and immature jokes, as well as what felt like padding to fill out the hour started to try the patience.  When we strayed into spooky territory with weird lights and sounds, it all just got a bit daft. Miserable old sod? Maybe. But it appears I was not alone. The teenagers sitting just along from me were checking their twitter feeds repeatedly while all this was going on. A group listening to a voice in the dark can be a very interesting experience, but here it just didn’t seem to ignite. Mind you, the illuminated exit signs and phone screens dotted around the audience didn’t help.

This could have been a very touching examination of teenage experience of bereavement, but it proved very hard to care for this careless teenager in this teenage Stephen King mash-up. The soundscape created was just OK but could have been a lot more textured and interesting (and scary!).

I was sad to have left feeling disappointed.