Review: Chalet Lines

Written for Exeunt

Chalet Lines, Madani Younis’ first production as Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, explodes the constricting nature of family ties. Lee Mattinson’s fraught comedy, with its feminist undertones, emphasis on emotional and sexual disappointments, and exploration of  societal pressures,  appears influenced by writers like Caryl Churchill and Charlotte Keatley. Mattinson is a Newcastle-based playwright (his monologue, Donna Disco, was recently seen on the Live Theatre stage) and Younis now introduces him to a London audience.

It’s Nana Barbara’s seventieth birthday and Loretta, her caustic eldest child, and her two granddaughters, Abigail and Jolene, have returned to the site of her wedding, Butlins in Skegness, to celebrate the occasion. Perhaps not unexpectedly the atmosphere soon begins to deflate quicker than Nana’s birthday balloons as it becomes clear Loretta’s estranged sister Paula isn’t going to be coming and the one liners become ever more lacerating. Mattinson’s play hops back and forth in time, between birthday, hen do and wedding day, unravelling each key moment of betrayal that has brought us to this point before returning us to a present where the emotional cracks are more like crevices.

Mattinson’s humour is brash yet sharp, if also a little obvious in places and it is not until everyone’s wounds are fully laid bare that Chalet Lines really starts to take shape. The play becomes darker in tone and there are some moments of heartbreaking cruelty from Loretta, especially towards her own eldest daughter, Abigail. Loretta may be a little over-the-top at times but she is a wretchedly vivid portrait of a woman trapped by her own fears.

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Belief walks in from the wings.

Written for the Church Times

In the spotlight: Messianic John (Trystan Gravelle), centre, with Stephen (Danny Webb) and Ruth (Geral­dine James) in the National Theatre production of 13  NATIONAL THEATRE/MARC BRENNER

“I HAVE always thought that the theatre is a kind of surrogate reli­gion,” The Guardian’s longest-standing theatre critic, Michael Billing­ton, says. “It has its disciples and its adherents.” He’s laughing, but we both know that there is some truth in this.

Western theatre is rooted in the miracle and morality plays of the 13th century; so religion and the stage have long been entwined. Billing­ton, per­haps one of theatre’s most devoted disciples, is not alone in seeing paral­lels between the rituals and roles of church and theatre.

For the new incoming artistic dir­ector of the Donmar Warehouse, in Covent Garden, London, Josie Rourke, her love of theatre was fuelled by her Roman Catholic up­bringing. “[It] is born from hours and hours spent in church. . . I read in church as a child, and the act of reading out loud and listening to others read out loud pro­foundly influenced me.” Her journey into storytelling began with perhaps the greatest story of all, that in the Bible.

Interpreting faith: right, left to right: William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Forde Davies) wrestle with the Bible in Written on the Heart

This influence works both ways; some find that their love of theatre develops into an appreciation of the rites of faith. This was certainly the case for my father, who started out training as a theatre director and ended up as the Bishop of Hertford.

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Review: Sixty-Six Books

Written for Whats On Stage

If this first 24-hour performance of Sixty-Six Books felt like a pilgrimage for those of us who witnessed every second, it must have seemed even more so for the team at the Bush Theatre. After three years of planning Josie Rourke and her crew have produced not only the rebirth of a religious text but the rebirth of a theatre.

In this inaugural performance in their new library space, 66 writers have created contemporary responses to the books of the King James Bible, this year celebrating its 400th anniversary. The scope of their ambition is astonishing with the Bush gathering together one of the richest artistic ensembles in decades.

Neil LaBute sits side by side with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there’s something magical about seeing Juliet Stevenson perform for ten minutes at 2:45am in the morning or watching Billy Bragg strumming the sunshine in around dawn.

Sixty-Six Books is a rich tapestry of literature that mirrors the Bible both in its brilliance and opaqueness. From Jeanette Winterson’s Godblog (starring Catherine Tate as God, a wryly Jewish dame from the Bronx who declares magnificently “In the beginning there was the Tweet.”) to Kate Mosse’s apocalyptic Endpapers, all human life is here with family at its heart.

Very foolishly I never realised the Bible focuses so strongly on parent child relationships;Sixty-Six Books opens the eyes to the human connection within this Christian text.

The event makes you look at the Bible afresh but sometimes it’s necessary to shrug off attempts to place the original over its modern reincarnation. The best responses are those that only echo their Aramaic counterpoints; stories like Fugitive Motel, that break off into different directions or scenes like The Loss of All Things that bring a new twist or make a contemporary comment.

Responses range from the short and sweet to verbose 30 minute solo pieces, from comedy sketches to intense provocations. Music plays a glorious, if sporadic part, particularly in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s When We Praise. When Salena Godden replaces ‘God’ with ‘story’ in The Chronicles a genuine moment of transcendence occurs.

Perhaps there is too much reliance on monologues and spoken word third person retellings, but the stories being told feel important and the performances without exception all potently committed.

For the next two weeks you can see several different groupings of these texts. But whether you attend an eight-book session for one night at the Bush, experience its 12-hour run at Westminster Abbey or tackle the last 24-hour marathon at the end, you will be engaging in something that is not simply a theatrical production but an epic event.

Sixty-Six Books is an incredible achievement and a one off experience that it would be sacrilegious to miss.

For listings information go here.

Will the real ‘self’ please stand up?

Here’s a little something I made earlier.  Written initially in response to Stefan Golaszewski I’ve been sat on it for a while, but after seeing Kim Noble last week it got me thinking about it again and so it seemed a good time to dust it off and let it see the light of internet day…let me know what you think.

The old adage ‘write what you know’ has been prescribed haughtily to young writers for an eternity.  But in spite of its inherent restrictions it makes sense that experience breeds understanding.  For proof of this look no further than Stefan Golaszewski’s double bill at The Bush Theatre. Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved astutely voices a collective experience within the words of an individual.  The second memory infused Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower lacks this symbiosis; Golaszewski has clearly been in love, but he hasn’t been old yet and it shows.

I’d been a fan of Golaszewski since 2008 when his first piece hit the Edinburgh Festival with an aura of the ‘genuine article’ about it; it had been pegged as revealing autobiography.  Write what you know had been gazumped by ‘write what you are’ and the excitement was palpable; as was the betrayal upon realizing that it had all been a big hum dinging lie. Golaszewski had made most of the detail up; it was a marketing ploy that we fell for hook line and sinker.

Why would they do this and why would I care so much upon realizing it wasn’t true? There is a frisson of excitement about truth in theatre because by its very nature it is a medium that demands a suspension of disbelief.  In 2009 critics are still bowled over by Golaszewski’s ‘emotional integrity’; it would appear even as we are told it is fiction we still long to believe it as fact.

I don’t believe that Tim Fountain’s hit 2004 show Sex Addict (where each night the audience pick a random man for him to sleep with and then hear about his previous night’s exploits) would have been such a success if it hadn’t been true.  If he had lied about his sexual adventures, we would have been less interested.

Since Spalding Gray dazzled audiences in 1980s New York with his minimalistic autobiographical monologues, our ‘selves’ have taken centre stage. But who exactly is the ‘self’? Artists such as Bobby Baker and Tim Miller use their own lives as the basis for their work; flickering between their ‘real’ and ‘performance’ selves with no overtly external indication.  It is sometimes impossible to know what is true and what isn’t: will the real Bobby Baker please stand up?

Frantic Assembly’s early work also begged this question of the audience.  Using their real names and speaking in such naturalistic dialogue that audiences thought their pieces were unscripted, it became increasingly hard to distinguish between performer and person, between character and actor.

In work such as this the most interesting moments come in the space between the truth and fiction, as the audience attempts to define what or rather who they are watching. But even as we accept the blurring of selves it cannot be denied that whilst writing what you know is good, the promise of exploring who you are is more titillating, and something that in theatre, we all fall for.