Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theatre Review : One Man Two Guvnors by Richard Bean - Lyttleton Theatre (dir Nicholas Hytner 23/5/11)

For me, the acme of theatrical comedy is Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a structural masterpiece which takes a mundane farce, turns it inside out and builds into a magnificent finalé which cannot be beaten. All other modern comedies are measured against this, and usually fall short by a long way. One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre, however, came very close.

The play is a reworking by Richard Bean of Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters”, itself a very funny late commedia dell’arte piece – but don’t let that put you off. One Man Two Guvnors simply uses Goldoni’s basic plot – a cheeky chappie with an insatiable appetite gets hired first by one master, then another and has to keep them both going without each other’s knowledge so he can be paid twice. Needless to say, confusion ensues.

One Man Two Guvnors transposes the action from Venice to Brighton, with Francis Henshall (James Corden) in the employ of gangsters Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Roper), disguised as her twin brother, who was due to marry Charlie "The Duck" Clench (Fred Ridgeway)’s dim daughter Pauline (Claire Lams) (though she loves actor Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby)) - and Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), who has killed Rachel's brother and is in love with Rachel. The plot is taken directly from A Servant of Two Masters, it's complicated and completely irrelevant.

The action revolves round a series of activities that Henshall is asked to do first by one guvnor and then the other. This reaches a crescendo as he tries to serve the same meal to each of his bosses in separate private rooms in a restaurant, with help from a very shaky 87-year old waiter (Tom Edden) and an audience member, whilst satisfying his own insatiable appetite. The result – without giving too much away – is one of the funniest set pieces I have seen for a long time, a masterpiece of timing, slapstick humour and surreality as Henshall gets pulled between one room and the other.

The second half isn't as good as the first, but its still very funny. As in all good farces, the lovers end up with their trousers round their ankles - as in all good Commedia del'Arte, the loose ends all get tied up in the end. There is a bit of self-referentiality when James Corden muses on how his Harlequinesque character traditionally uses the satisfaction of his baser urges to drive the action forward, but this is not aimed at theatrical historians, instead it's just an excuse for lining up another set of gags.

What the line does highlight is that this is not just comedy gold, but actually very clever theatre. Goldoni's original play is never overt, but in fact the plot sticks to its outlines very closely and maintains traditions of Commedia del'Arte - character stereotypes, the breaking down of the fourth wall, the asides to the audience and improvisations (some intentional, some not). The Brighton pub is The Cricketers Arms, from Brighton Rock.

The performances are without exception sensational. I loved James Corden in The History Boys, despaired at some of his subsequent career choices but he is charming, charasmatic and very funny in the lead role. Oliver Chris as the posh gangster Stanley has all the best lines, delivered to perfection, and Daniel Rigby overacts superbly. The skiffle music by Grant Olding and The Craze, ably supported by members of the cast (Daniel Rigby topping everything) is excellent, but the show is stolen by Tom Edden as Alfie the elderly waiter.

This may not be to everyone's taste. If you don't enjoy slapstick, farce or general silliness then it may not be for you. But I don't think that spare tickets for this superb production will be on sale for long. I laughed so much my sides hurt, the man next to me even more so. I hear that addional tickets are coming on sale soon, so I urge you to book up immediately for one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at a theatre for quite a while.

Book Review - The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (Canongate 2002)

This is a Victorian novel, both in subject and in scope - though emphatically not in content. It tells the stories of Victorian Perfume manufacturer Henry Rackham, his wife Agnes and his mistress Sugar, a prostitute whom Henry removes from her brothel and installs her own house in Marylebone, not far from his own house in Notting Hill.

Henry has been brought to his wits' end by Agnes, whose behaviour is becoming progressively more eccentric - indeed, the menacing Doctor Curlew recommends that she is sent away to a asylum. Henry is also concerned about his brother William, a repressed religious obsessive who with his ladyfriend Mrs Fox is attempting to rescue fallen women. Meanwhile, he is becoming more and more reliant on the insight and business advice of Sugar, who despite her trade is both intelligent and well-educated.

This is a book of themes and contrasts, of the gulf between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated, the principled and the hypocritcal and the rigidity of the class system. However its principle theme is the exploitation of women both on the streets and in the brothel, but also in the bosom of the Victorian family. Agnes was raised to be proficient in social accompishments, but her education did not stretch as far as to explain the monthly demonic affliction which caused her insides to discharge blood. Eventually her behaviour is such that she becomes that Victorian cliche, the Madwoman in the Attic, restrained at the whim of her husband and her doctor.

Sugar, meanwhile, fares better than her fellows on the street - partly as a result of her accomplishments, but mainly as she will do "anything, anything" that is asked of her. Henry Rackham installs her as his mistress, and she seems to develop a genuine tenderness for him - but she is always aware that she is there at his whim and could just as quickly find herself back on the streets. It is therefore yet another unequal relationship being played out, and Sugar must work on attempting somehow to restore the balance.

In fact the only equal relationship in the book is that of William Rackham and Mrs Fox of the Rescue Society. Mrs Fox is a widow, which gives her a certain advantage, and William strives to remain celibate - but sex, or the absense of it - is always lurking in the background.

This book has recently been televised, and I have read it in readiness for watching the series. If the book is anything to go by, it should be highly entertaining, attentive to the detail of Victorian society, sexually very explicit, but also a deep and nuanced examination of the fissures and hypocracies of Victorian England.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Theatre Review : The Cherry Orchard - Olivier Theatre (dir Howard Davies 16/5/11)

It’s not the plot you remember from Chekhov plays - it’s the tone, the suffocating sense of loss. You think they all take place on still summer days when no air moves – but they don’t, the plays are all spread through the year, but you are left with a feeling, an impression…

More than any other playwright, Chekhov was a visionary. He saw the changes in Russian society hurtle towards him, yet he wrote before the Revolution of 1905 when Tsarist power remained monolithic. It is difficult to watch his plays without the prism of the events that followed, since The Cherry Orchard is a revolutionary play. Ranyevskaya is an absentee landlord, a frivolous, vain woman. She has returned after ten years to her estate simply because she has run out of money – hence the necessity of the sale of the cherry orchard. The new order that replaces the old is a product of economic determinism as much as that of individual will.

Yet Chekhov never preaches. No character is sympathetic, but none are entirely unsympathetic either, all their failings are gently and humorously picked away. You want to give most of them a slap, tell them to get their act together. Its that indeterminacy which is the greatness of Chekhov – you don’t have the bleakness of Ibsen, the characters railing against the moon, or the screaming moral turmoil of Strindberg.

This production captures much of the lightness of Chekhov, but without the suffocating tone. Howard Davies tries to retain the historical context, whilst eschewing Chekhovian clichés. The result succeeds up to a point – it is a clear, lucid production but without anything that sets it apart as being magical. The same can be said of the cast – Zoë Wanamaker is well suited for the role of Ranyevskaya, the headstrong romantic helpless in the face of economic necessity, unable or unwilling to make the decisions she needs to take. Conleth Hill is very good as a ranting Lopakhin, exultant and despairing at his purchase. Best coup de theatre of the evening is courtesy a startling Sarah Wooward as the performer Charlotta, and Kenneth Cranham captures the pathos of the forgotten Firs. All are very good, but the heights remain elusive.

The Cherry Orchard will always fascinate. This is a good production, ideal for someone coming to it for the first time – but it lacks anything to set it above and beyond the several other productions of this play that we have seen in London in recent years.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review - The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury 2009)

In 1860, the gruesome murder of a small boy in an affluent middle-class household gripped the nation. The four-year-old child had been taken from his cot in a room where his nurse slept, carried downstairs and out of the house where his throat was slit and his body bundled into a privy in the garden. All members of the household were under suspicion - the father Samuel Kent, unpopular local sub-inspector of factories; the mother of the boy Mary Kent, who had been governess to Kent's older children before their mother died and she married Kent; the children of Kent's first marriage; the nursemaid and other servants.

The crime took place in the village of Road, on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset, and was investigated by the local Wiltshire police. However, such was the national interest that the Home Secretary instructed Scotland Yard's recently formed Detective division to take over the investigation (just as, this week, the Prime Minister, under pressure from the press, has instructed the Metropolitain Police to review the investigation into the disappearance of Madelaine McCann). Commissioner Mayne sent his best man, Detective Inspector Jack Whicher.

This real-life case, one hundred and fifty years on, could have been drawn from the writings of any number of our great crime writers. The suspects are the inhabitants of a locked country house, any number of which could have had motives for killing the child. Class divisions loom large - the factory inspector has alienated the local workers. The local police do not trust the London detective foisted upon them. Suspects are brought before the magistrates, but evidence is inconclusive, the mystery deepens.

Kate Summerscale marshals the story with great skill, patiently setting out layer upon layer of evidence drawn from the court records, the archives of the Metropolitain Police and newspaper reports of the day. But she doesn't just focus on the case in hand. This period saw the development both of the detective force and its corollory, the detective novel. Summerscale places this case firmly in the context of the evolution of the police force, but also shows how its reporting reflected the new genre of detective fiction, and how the case directly inspired the writers who were to create the first great fictional detectives, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who were both familar with Jack Whicher and whose Inspectors Cuff and Bucket shared key characteristics with him.

From her description of the factory system in Trowbridge to the impact of the Oxford Movement on the Church of England, Kate Summerscale fills in the background detail with precision and clarity. Whicher is drawn as a character who could engage in a library-full of detective stories - he even, as in all the books, has his sidekick, Dolly Williamson, his steadier, less-inspired companion (who nevertheless went on to become Chief Superintendant of Scotland Yard). The Kent family, so respectable, nevertheless has many secrets hidden behind the walls of Road Hill House. These are finally exposed in a proper unputdownable manner as is the case in all the great Detective novels.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review - Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation : The definitive gude to the evolutionary biology of sex by Olivia Judson (Vintage 2003)

The premise sounds toe-curlingly trite - animals supposedly writing to a sexologist for advice on what would appear to be their species' sexual eccentricities from an anthropomorphic point of view. The reality is a book that is engaging, funny, and as clear an explanation of the evolutionary biology of sex as one could wish for, with each fact meticulously annotated, despite the light conversational style.

This could easily have been a disaster. However, the writing throughout has a surety of tone which perfectly encapsulates what appears to be the absurdity of some animal mating techniques, as we can see at the start of the alarmingly titled chapter "How to Make Love to a Cannibal"

    Rule number one - Never get eaten during Foreplay

    Dear Dr Tatiana

   I'm a European praying mantis, and I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first...they go into the most thrilling spasms. Sometimes they seem less inhibited, more urgent - its fabulous. Do you find this too?

Apparently, Dr Tatiana advises, male praying mantises are boring lovers. The loss of their head, however, causes them to lose that inhibiting part of the brain, turning them into passionate lovers. The fate of the male mantis seems positively benign compared with that of the species of midge, where the female sinks her proboscis into the head of the male whilst mating, injects him with an enzyme that turns his insides into liquid and sucks him dry. Yet there are very few males who kill the females during mating, for an obvious reason - the male sperm is needed to fertilise the female eggs, and so the females' role in reproduction in many species is not yet over. So if the male were to kill the female, the species would quickly die out.

Judson's starting point is the proposition of  A.S Bateman, who in 1948 posited that males of most species tended to be fundamentally promiscuous, and females fundamentally chaste. Judson effectively shreds this theory. Many of the more extreme examples of male behaviour - such as male bees whose penises explode and break off during copulation in order to block access to the queen from any other male bee, are in response to female promiscuity.

All sexual behaviour has one simple goal - the furtherance of the species. Judson explains how various behaviours may have evolved in order to deliver this goal - even if it involves, as in the case of the mite of the lesser mealworm beetle, both incest and matricide. In most cases, the health of the species is maintained through mixing two healthy sets of genes - but even then there are examples, such as the bdelloid rotifer, which has reproduces entirely through creating clones of itself.

From masturbating Marine Iguanas to homosexual octopuses to dolphins which try to mate with eels (!!) - the natural world has more sexual variety than you could ever hope to imagine. I will leave the scientific explanations to Olivia Jusdon, and applaud her for this wonderfully engaging work, deservedly shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Book Review - Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (Abacus 1997)

where to start..?

In this massive, magnificent study of addiction in contemporary America, it is entirely appropriate that the reader should be compelled to return again and again for fixes of hypnotic, hallucinogenic descriptions of a near-future society bifurcated into political, economic and social haves and have-nots, where broadcasting, sport, advertising and waste-disposal have evolved through their own inherent contradictions into bastardised versions of what they are today.

To attempt a plot summary is to do Wallace a gross disservice. Much of it takes place in the near future in the Enfield Tennis Academy, Boston, founded by alcoholic avant-garde film director James O. Incandenza. Nearby, in Ennet House for recovering addicts, Don Gately has taken the pledge to break away from prescription drugs. Meanwhile, the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, wheelchair-bound fanatical Canadian nationalists are searching for the Master copy of Incandenza's film Infinite Jest, which is so transfixing that anyone who sets eyes on it will never take them off again, and finally expire in a state of neurasthenic bliss.

This is one of these big books that for the first hundred pages you think you've made a big mistake. The many plotlines have no apparent connection, radical concepts - such as the Organisation of North American Nations (Dorothy Parker's canary would have approved) - are unexplained. The novel careens backwards and forwards from plotline to backstory to digression and back - but slowly it comes together and you slip into the magnificent rythmns of Wallace's writing, mainly present tense, immediate, long, loopy, slangy sentences packed with idioms and idiosyncracies, footnotes and uncompromisingly difficult words.

Essentially, this is a novel about addiction and its impacts. J.O Incandenza was an alcoholic. His eldest son Orin is addicted to sex, his younger son Hal to Bob Hope (dope). All the residents of Ennet House are recovering addicts. The viewers of Infinite Jest become addicted to the film itself. Yet it is also a bleak vision of contemporary America. Those addicts of the future are being fucked up - to use Larkin's term - by their moms and dads today, way before the current calendrical system is given over to its sponsors.

Wallace may be likened to Pynchon in many ways, but his vision is bleaker. He itemises but does not glamorise drug use. His descriptions of life on Boston's underside is bleak and disturbing. Many characters come to deeply unpleasant ends as bodily functions break down as a result of their addictions, or of actions undertaken as a result of these addictions. Unlike Pynchon, Wallace's characters are not constantly pursued by figures of authority; in Wallace's Boston, the finest appear only incidentally. Only the A.F.R bear any resemblance to a Pynchoneque conspiracy nightmare. Wallace's characters are more likely to be pursued by demons entirely of their own making.

Don Gately is the most sympathetic character in the book - a recovering addict, but also a burglar and killer with an anger-management problem. He has come to terms with the impact of his addiction, and is now a trusted member of the Ennet House community. The kaleidoscope of characters at Ennet house give scope for sympathy, but most of them are too damaged and fragile for the reader to hold them close. Only Gately lets you get close enough to understand why he deserves redemption.
There are certain key events which stand out, where Wallace's descriptive powers and invention reach a crescendo. The game of Eschaton is one. To call Eschaton a mathematically enhanced game of Risk with tennis balls is to do it a grave injustice. Only Michael Pemulis knows the computer code which can calculate the impacts as the younger tennis players at ENA engage in the ultimate game of global strategy. As Hal, Pemulis and Axford get stoned, J.J. Penn claims that the snow falling on the tennis courts will impact the nuclear weapons he has at his disposal, thus unleashing a breathtaking chain of events which lead to the theoretical annihilation of all life on Earth, and carnage on the tennis courts, in a bravura extended section of writerly genius.

Wallace's satire is not overt. There are some but not many places where Infinite Jest is laugh-out-loud funny - it is too dark for that. The Assassins des Fauteuils Rollent - the Wheelchair Assassins of Quebec - are as sinister as any able-bodied terrorist organisation. The creation of the Great Concavity where all the USA's toxic waste is disposed is a satirical invention, but too close to the environmental catastrophes playing out today to be anything other than disturbing. There will be some marketing executive somewhere contemplating the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and thinking - what a great idea!

This is a massive book of vision and contrasts, of the finest writing and incomprehensible jargon, of brilliance and frustration. Its vision of the future picks at the scabs of America today. It warmly deserves the place in the literary Pantheon for which it is already destined.

Aside : The Referendum on the voting system

First Past The Post is undoubtedly the electoral system that the United Kingdom deserves. Old-fashioned, rooted in the past, not one new democracy in Europe with the benefit of a blank slate and no vested interests has chosen FPTP as their electoral system. FPTP has delivered a complacent House of Commons, where time-serving MPs, confident in the inevitability of their re-election, have no incentive to serve their constituents or to challenge the decisions decreed by their party leaders. In a country which can still come to a halt to celebrate the nuptuals of the fortunate young man who by a quirk of fate will one day give his assent to the passage into law of those Bills approved by his legislators, it is entirely appropriate that these legislators should themselves be selected by a system that largely perpetuates the two-party status quo and effectively disenfranchises all these voters who don't have the good fortune to be cast into a Key Marginal.

The Alternative Vote is not the perfect solution - it is not proportional, it will still favour artificial majorities in Parliament (and if anyone claims that coalition or minority government cannot work, I point them in the direction of mature European democracies from Scotland to Scandanavia to Germany, Benelux and Spain who would seem, by and large, to be making quite a good fist of it). However, it will ensure that all Elected Representatives will have broad-based support, burnishing the tarnished legitimacy of Parliament and effectively ending any electoral aspirations of extremists on both right and left (that AV encourages extremism is quantifiably a bare-faced lie that the No campaign should have been thoroughly ashamed to have propagated). AV fails to enforce intraparty competition like my preferred option, the Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies used in Republic of Ireland General Elections, and Northern Ireland Euro elections where it conveniently generates the correct result for all parties. AV maintains a constituency link but no top-up lists as in Scotland to ensure proportionality.

However, it would refresh political engagement within the United Kingdom. General Elections would be fought across a wider swathe of Britain, as parties adapted their message to engage with second and third preferences. Tactical voting would largely (not exclusively) become something of the past as votes cast their first preference with their heart and their second preference with their head. And yet, the arguments in favour of AV have been poorly articulated in what has basically been a dismal electoral campaign all round. The traditional Labour left has, for reasons best known to itself, cast aside the best opportunity in years to ensure progressive views do not cancel each other out at the Ballot Box, whilst the existing system has served the Conservatives very nicely for years thank you very much, even though they would benefit themselves from AV if UKIP and the far right increased significantly in popularity.

The vox pops on the News tell their own depressing story. Outside the chattering classes, a politically unengaged electorate does not have the energy or wit to examine the arguments on offer, it doesn't see whats in it for them, it has not been confronted with a compelling argument one way or the other. There has been no debate on television, the newspapers have taken their own predictable stances. Meanwhile electoral turnout falls and the level of political disengagement increases. Parliamentary legitimacy will diminish and other means of protest from the politically disenfranchised will be sought. We have seen in Britain and elsewhere how unpredictable these protests might turn out to be.

Theatre Review : Macbeth - Clerkenwell House of Detention (dir Alexandre Wright 28/4/11)

The audience is led through darkened passages past the injured Captain declaiming his praise of Macbeth to a shadowy underground hall where three ghastly, blood-soaked apparitions meet Macbeth and Banquo. The action moves swiftly through the arched chambers as the audience follows, breaking up and reforming like a small flock of starlings as it seeks vantage points. Noises are heard off and some head off in pursuit, but then Macbeth appears, acknowledging the witches' prophesy, and the audience recoalesces around him.

The play is set in the damp and darkened vaults of the Clerkenwell House of Detention, formerly a prison dating back to the seventeenth century. This is the perfect venue for Macbeth, a dark and claustrophobic play, remarkably intimate considering it deals with the affars of Kings. After the opening scenes the witches are lurking in every shadow determining the action of the play, their spirit summoned by the haunting motif that announces their presence. Characters metamorphose from behind pillars and passageways and from within the audience, the darkness and movement conspiring to allow the play to be performed with a remarkable four actors only.

Dominic Allen was the one constant, Macbeth with an evil presence and a sarcastic smile. He was possibly too conscious of the necessity of keeping the up the pace of the production as his lines were delivered slightly too quickly to allow easy comprehension in a difficult space with the shifting audience. He should have followed the lead of James Wilkes' Lady Macbeth, whose pace and delivery was, to my mind, perfect. Wilkes and the other cast members metamorphose easily from one character to another with blood and shadows. The cleverly cut and rearranged text telescopes the action into a mere ninety minutes (farewell to the Porter and to a large part of the interminable scene with Duncan and MacDuff in England). The effect is not to uncover previously unexpored aspects of the play, but to heighten and sharpen the theatrical experience.

The success of companies such as Punchdrunk have made these types of production very popular. They don't always succeed as there is a necessary compromise between comprehensibility, directorial intential and immersive experience. This is as much about the audience's overall experience as the play itself. However Belt Up Theatre succeeded in keeping a young audience largely engrossed and terrified in equal measure in this atmospheric and intelligent production.