Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien @ The Arcola

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There’s a lot of testosterone boiling under the roof of the new Arcola as two short works by David Mamet are staged in a double bill. Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien are intriguing companion pieces; written early on in Mamet’s career both are embryonic works but their paring throws up no direct connection, apart from the fact that they are both overwhelmingly masculine in tone.

First up is Lakeboat (later developed into a film in 2000); it’s a compact and fast number in which the audience get to peak through the portholes of a barnacled boat and into the lives of ‘the floating home of 45 men’.  Mamet delights in rapid-fire language, in words delivered so quickly it takes a few minutes to settle into its rhythms and cliquey references. This is a closed boys club but not a particularly interesting one, the characters bob about on a sea of undulating aggression, mouthing off about past conquests, future annihilations and lost opportunities.

Through the eyes of newcomer Dale (sweetly played by Steven Webb) we are led through a sequence of expositions and sociological descriptions about life on board the lake boat. The always watchable Nigel Cooke tries his hardest with the character of suicidal Joe and brings a level of psychological intensity to Mamet’s bluster. But this is a banal script which entraps every actor into an endless loop of strangely inconsequential reactions and long-winded stories.  For all its surface angst, this play is essentially about men talking – and then more men talking.

Whilst it’s difficult to grasp why she may have chosen this particular script from Mamet’s back-catalogue, director Abbey Wright does a smooth job and the cast battle valiantly on. Helen Goddard’s set is redolent of decaying male endeavour; the innards of the ship projecting the lost hopes and frustrations of those incarcerated there.

This is followed by the shorter but far more intriguing Prairie Du Chien, a ghostly moment of storytelling that builds to a shockingly explosive conclusion. Here Mamet has used his undeniable precision to create a theatrical time bomb waiting to go off. Two card players spar in a smoky train compartment as a porter whistles quietly and the sound of a scratchy record spins interminably on. Against this thick soundscape Cooke makes a compelling narrator, spinning his eerie tale of adultery, spirit possession and murder.

This short play has a tightly wound quality which is emphasised by Wright’s production, the card players and porter underpinning and occasionally counterpointing Cooke’s velvety delivery. There is a sense of ‘otherness’ hinted at and alluded to in Prairie Du Chien and this adds a texture to this piece that eluded the previous, more brash offering. Mamet explores the idea of civilised man verses beast without feeling the need to produce pithy, easy conclusions or introduce comedy escape valves. It’s a rare moment of subtlety from a playwright who appears disdainful of subtext; what a shame it’s partnered with so much hot air.

Runs until 7th May


Review: The Country

Written for What’s On Stage

The CountryThe Country is a taut psychological domestic horror here performed with cutting elegance in Amelia Nicholson’s intelligent production. New country doctor Richard has brought an unconscious woman home, ostensibly under honourable pretences. His wife Corinne remains unconvinced and when the predator like Rebecca awakens dark truths are revealed. All the while Richard’s Lynchian colleague Maurie’s disembodied presence turns this threesome into a four way balancing act of power and control.

Martin Crimp’s hyper naturalistic dialogue could, in a lesser company’s hands, seem portentous but here each repetition and arch silence is delicately delivered with an integrity that makes these pronouncements compelling. Simon Thorp as Richard, the black hole each woman orbits, smoulders nicely doing as much as he can with a purely reactionary character.

But it is the women who are the stars here. Amanda Root whose flashing eyes and occasionally clipped hysteria alone reveal Corinne’s all encompassing desperation and Naomi Wattis as the volatile Rebecca, a rolling hipped wounded animal of a girl, whose lashing out does nothing to hide her vulnerability, give truly commanding performances.

Anna Bliss Scully’s sparse design makes us feel like we are peering in through glass windows at this implosion of safe family values and one gets the distinct impression that we are surgical students being shown how to perform a dissection. We are in a place of acute voyeuristic pain but there seems to also be a sense of instruction in the spaces around each cut. But there are no clean lessons to be learnt at the end of these demonstrations, only the experience of the potent moment to moment conquests and losses that make up our existence.

Runs from 28 September 2010 to 23 October 2010

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire

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In his book State Of The Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington mentions a number of plays which, whilst seminal at the time, have not as he gracefully puts it ‘aged well’.

He posits Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire as one of the few exceptions to this rule; so why then is it so under produced? Perhaps to right this wrong The Arcola is housing Polly Findlay’s sturdy yet impassioned production that more than highlights the timelessness of Churchill’s text.

Set in Putney in 1647, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire takes a comprehensive look at the debates and tussles for power within the Puritan New Model Army. The ‘Grandees’ Oliver Cromwell and his right hand man Henry Ireton are at logger heads with the Agitators and Levellers, ordinary officers representing their regiments. 

The revelation that nothing is to change for the poor is being brought home with devastating force to the Agitators. Their liberal and (even in this day and age), forward thinking Agreement of the People is refused at every turn as the ‘Silken Independents’, worthily represented by Ireton, refuse to acquiesce to the idea that all men are equal, fearing that to do so would attack the very foundations of a landowner’s right to hold property.

  It is not only the political infighting and squabbling that rings so true in today’s coalition landscape, but also Cromwell’s betrayal of the ideologies he held whilst in opposition. This is something that any modern voter will painfully recognise.

Churchill avoids allowing the text to become nothing more than dry intellectual debate by tempering the theory with a rising amount of emotional and religious fervour. Whilst societal revolution is imploding, a religious revelation shines through as a hippy mania of free love and reclaiming sin grips the increasingly maligned Agitators.

Findlay brings out the desperation of the ordinary men and women at play here with a painfully acute flair and her staging fully encompasses the audience as members of these community meetings. 

Performed with a full-blooded zeal by a stellar cast, including Kobna Holdbrook Smith and Michelle Terry, at moments this production is truly hypnotic; Helen Lymbery’s final ecstatic seduction into religious escapism is an almost Bacchic conversion and one we all feel whipped up in. After all their effort, we are left watching people scrabbling for a saviour; soaked in the sombre realisation that these moments of revolutionary potential, whether they be in 1647, 1997 or 2010, invariably come to nothing.

Runs until 7th August.

Written for Whats On Stage

Knives In Hens – another hit for the Arcola

Written for What’s On Stage

The title of David Harrower’s 1995 debut Knives in Hens is an acutely powerful one prompting a reaction in people that cuts through understanding to a basic human shudder. It is a response that is in keeping with this play, where the written word is made sacred and the divine in nature is poetically evoked through the seemingly pedestrian act of naming.

Language is under the microscope here as sentences that have no space for florid ‘artistic’ themes transcend their mundane purpose to become detailed descriptions of greatness. A ploughman’s wife talks us through God’s omnipotent signature on nature with glistening eyes as she is tempted away from her husband ‘Pony’ William, his nickname darkly hinting at a stranger more primal connection than just owner and animal. Her temptation comes in the form of the local Miller, hated by the village for his lazy appropriation of their hard earned corn.

Darkly hinting could be Harrower’s tag line. As with Blackbird, his massive Edinburgh hit, Knives in Hens defies a standard explanation. He is bold enough to leave massive spaces around his lines, so that what hits one most tangibly, especially within this piece, is an incoherent and ephemeral feeling of the unknowable, of the omniscient presence of the ‘other’ that surrounds our seemingly normal characters. Maria Rijo’s warm cello playing and vocal work hauntingly underlines this presence throughout the piece.

Serdar Bilis’ shadowy but dynamic production lives up to its forceful, enigmatic title; the impressive creative team and cast once again proving that Studio 2 at The Arcola is surpassing its black box restrictions to become a 50 seat powerhouse.

Hannah Clark’s design crunches under foot with a thin green line representing a bare horizon that could mean either freedom or the wall of a cage.  It is a blisteringly potent cast that is trapped within it. As ‘Pony’ William Nathaniel Martello-White’s every amorous word is dripped in contempt and Phil Cheadle Gilbert brings a bewildered softness to the tempting devil of a Miller who sets the young woman free. In this role Jodie McNee is enthralling, being at once earthy mother and impish fawn and each twitchy nerve ending in our own bodies tingles with her experience.

 By marrying poetic abstraction with a visceral tale of betrayal and awakening, Harrower has created a compelling and driven piece of psychological study made of sturdy stuff.  In this production at The Arcola, it has been given a rendition well worth its mettle by an outstanding creative team.

Running until the 27th February 2010. For tickets click here

The Line – argue, make up, repeat.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line should to all intents and purposes be an engaging and enthralling drama.  Based on the tempestuous relationship of a fiery and sexy woman and her infamous teacher, Edgar Degas, The Line could have been a vibrant and passionate exploration of the master, pupil relationship or furthermore questioned the ideas of art itself.  Instead what results is a tedious repetition of conflict and resolution which carries neither party further forward apart from in years.

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Origin of The Species at The Arcola


Bryony Lavery’s unique voice rings out clearly in this richly feminine exploration into the origin of the species. A fantastical hybrid of past, present and future, her two protagonists, Molly and Victoria, meet in extraordinary circumstances and form a bond which spans mother and daughter, teacher and pupil, ancestor and progeny. Lavery’s piece succeeds magnificently in giving a tangible sense of the immense expanse of time with which these two women are separated whilst also highlighting the threads which make up humanity, unchanging from our inception to now.

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