Watching Isobelwas much like meeting the kind of aristocratic poseur it parodies. Prepare for a play straining for effect; proud of its insincerity; and vacuous at its core. As with the self-styled toff, the ‘irony’ is obvious, advertised, and a little painful to watch.
Like much new writing, Isobel has a simple conceptual premise: take the Brideshead stereotype of Oxford to an absurd extreme. When you first meet Jack (Frederick Bowerman) – oozing aristocratic finesse as he lolls about in red corduroys – you might not take his oh-so-casual nihilism all that seriously. But there is in fact nothing metaphorical about the back-stabbing in his blue-blooded clique. Jack turns out to be the cold-blooded reptile he claims to be – a serial, unapologetic murderer with a disturbing fetish for grey-hounds. Until the end, the play taunts us with the prospect of peeling back the mask. And in a sense the final act does – only to reveal that there is no face beneath the mask: horror of horrors – ‘Jack’s face is the mask’. What a coup (not least metatheatrically) – until you realise how boring that mask is – as you realise you have been watching a soulless caricature for the whole of the play.
Interest is sustained by Jack’s marvellous voice (think purr not plumb), though unfortunately there rather too much time to enjoy its modulation between caressing sibilants and plosive relish, in what becomes Jack’s audio-book autobiography. Except for the arbitrary flash-back of the second scene (acted out seemingly only because it involves a small number of characters) – the whole of the action of the play is relived through Jack’s myrrh-lifluous tones, as he lounges around an uninteresting set.
It’s a tribute to Frederick that he can sustain the endless monologue – given the story he has to tell. The leaden-footed references to Agatha Christie only go to show up how boring this play’s murder is. Sorry – but this isn’t the kind of plot I need to spoil. The unsatisfying conclusion – symmetrical as it might be – left the audience unsure when (and perhaps whether) to clap.
But the play’s one-dimensionality may actually be for the best. For dialogue comes out all contrived – albeit with the odd flash of brilliance (Oxford politics – the ‘petri-dish of rich and mediocre’!). Quick and slick witted as the characters are – they need to at least make a show of listening to each other if their exchanges are not to sound rehearsed. There’s a problem with the script too – which pedantically points its own wit out to the audience rather than allowing conversation to flow.
Clever as parodying a parody might seem – it turns out that blowing up the already rather boring toff stereotype to ludicrous proportions makes for dull and unsympathetic theatre.
** (2 STARS)
Isobel plays at the Burton-Taylor Studio at 9:30pm until October 27th. Tickets £5.00
Love and Information at the Royal Court is a new play by Caryl Churchill which essentially appropriates the quick-fire format of sketch comedy for dramatic purpose. The play is divided into seven acts of around seven scenes each, with themes blossoming across each act – one focussing on memory, another playing with methods of communication. However, beyond these vague themes there’s no dramatic through line; no two characters are the same, no scene recurs and there is nothing that brings them together into anything as obvious as a ‘A Central Idea’. Repetition, an element that can make or break sketch comedy, is entirely absent from this sketch play and without the hope that a favoured character might return it is that much harder to engage with others who are glimpsed only for a few seconds.
However, those glimpses are compellingly realised. No matter if the scene lasts for ten minutes or just one, there’s a clear commitment to portray a convincing snapshot of real life, from the dialogue replete with repetition and unfinished sentences, to the masterful direction by James Macdonald which brings out every inflection and interpretation through some excellent staging choices. The cast are superb, each playing several different characters easily and without cliché. One particularly moving scene contained eight short lines of dialogue as a man with severe memory problems (Rashan Stone) played the piano, having forgotten that he ever could.
The set, a white cube that looks like a containment cell from a sci-fi film, perfectly articulates the disjunction between the realism of the scenes and characters and the strangeness of the sketch show format. Between scenes black screens block off the set like a camera shutter while loud sound effects or music conceal the noise of the set changes, which are for the most part accomplished quickly and brilliantly. A set piece clearly intended to dazzle included a grassy knoll that was placed vertically rather than horizontally, so that one of the actors engaged in the stargazing scene delivered all his lines upside down.
Throughout the play there existed a tension between the realism of the writing and performances and the aggressively artificial construction of the play and set, which in a majority of scenes emphasised the natural comedy in everyday miscommunication. In the more abrupt or darker scenes this tension was more uncomfortable and made me long for something more than a shared stage and cast to pull the abstract moments together into a more comprehensible whole. The instinct is to treat it as a comedy, taking the unavoidable Depression scenes (highlighted by Churchill in the script as essential to the play, a seemingly deliberately provocative instruction) as they come but otherwise finding laughter in everything else. Certainly that’s an enjoyable approach to a play that deftly captures the ridiculous and true cadences of everyday speech. However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a greater intent behind the play that falls flat. Churchill has written half an hour of superb sketch comedy, half an hour of average sketch comedy, and half an hour of something completely different. So many parts can’t make a whole.
*** (3 STARS)
Love and Information is playing in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court until October 13th.
Hedda Gabler comes as a ray of (admittedly malevolent) sunshine amidst a September darkened with fallen women. Keira Knightley’s disappointing, if extremely handsome, Anna Karenina is both the dull seductress and the dully seduced, whilst the BBC’s latest success Parade’s End has Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens using her sexuality for all sorts of mischievous purposes while her cuckolded husband (Benedict Cumberbatch) looks stoically on. So Sheridan Smith’s Hedda with her resolution to remain faithful - despite a clearly unsuitable husband and tedious honeymoon – is a welcome change.
The set (designed by Lez Brotherston), with its central glass structure, serves to both remind the audience of the intangible ‘fourth wall’ that exists between ‘us and them’ as well as functioning as a sort of visual metaphor for the cage in which Hedda has trapped herself in her unsuitable marriage to George. It is, for the most part, an excellent set piece: throughout the play the continual closing of doors (shutting out other characters both literally and more metaphorically) is effective and the billowing curtains stage left contrast well, creating an unexpectedly claustrophobic atmosphere as unwelcome visitors come and go as they please. The acting, too, was of a high calibre. Though Smith’s performance was almost flawless, the rest of the ensemble was not overshadowed. Daniel Lapaine’s Eilert Loevberg was fantastic – his quick descent into drunken debauchery as a result of Hedda’s manipulation entirely believable and his physical presence on the stage (particularly in the scenes where he and Hedda are alone together) was brilliant.
Unfortunately, however, the older characters Bertha (Buffy Davis) and Aunt ‘Juju’ (Anne Reid)seemed to be appearing in an altogether different play; one of farce and melodrama. Though the hat scene with Juliana aroused perhaps the most poignant emotions of the production, her smothering involvement in the couple, combined with Bertha’s hovering presence only served to detract from the piece. The duo open a play that is dramatically unrelated to that which follows; the initial dialogue is almost painful – I was left with the impression that they are not playing characters but merely stereotypes.
Anna Mackmin’s direction, despite a few flaws, is impressive. Though Hedda’s lap of the central glass prism seems stilted and the music that facilitates scene changes is rather forced, the important parts of the play are all taken care of with flair and Brian Friel’s more comic translation is fantastic, particularly towards the end of the play when intense tragedy is juxtaposed with laughter.
Hedda Gabler is not perfect, but she thrives upon those imperfections. Smith’s composed Hedda with her catlike smile leaves both the other characters and the audience torn between sympathy for her and horror at her “capricious” behaviour. The genius of the play rests on this personal interpretation and therefore, though I immensely enjoyed the production, I suggest you go and make up your mind yourself.
**** (4 STARS)
Hedda Gabler plays at The Old Vic until November 10th, with up to 100 student tickets (at £12.50) available for every performance.
In 1920s America, a craze swept the nation which provided escapism for those languishing in the Great Depression: dance marathons caught the public imagination. Entrants were required simply to dance for as long as they could while being cheered on by an audience, and the last one standing won a cash prize. Simple.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="406"] The North Wall celebrates its 5th birthday with its first first in-house production.[/caption]
The setting for Emmy award-winning Ron Hutchinson’s new play, Dead on Her Feet is some 10 years later, in the 1930s, which adds to this degrading world of entertainment the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. Mel Carney (Jos Vantyler) is a dance marathon promoter who has come to Pulaski Falls in the hope of making a quick buck. After clearing out the old Grand American Ballroom, he employs McDade (Ben Whybrow), a hired heavy with pretentions of becoming a writer, to help him preside over the three couples who decide to compete: Wally (Sam Trueman) and Bonnie (Kelly Gibson), a vivacious down-on-her-luck girl met by chance at the station; Myron, the most educated man in Pulaski, and his emotionally fragile partner Rita (Rowan Schlosberg and Victoria Fisher); and Velma (Sandra Reid), who has travelled for days to be there, but – lacking a partner – persuades Jake (Lloyd Thomas), a fortuitously placed delivery boy, to join her on her quest for the $500 prize.
The rest of play depicts the marathon, dealing with a myriad of themes and questions along the way. These are largely woven in successfully, but its density means that the same conversation is often rehashed to ensure we haven’t forgotten the situation, leading to an over-extended piece. It speaks clearly to contemporary financial concerns, with Carney greeting his ‘audience’ by asking, “Anyone out there having hard times? Well sure, aren’t we all?”. Myron will perhaps seem the most familiar to the student body, rallying against a world where his Ivy League education has not delivered its promised pot of gold: employment. It would be impossible to miss such obviously modern day parallels, and director Barry Kyle’s need to emphasise them with modern dance music and beat-boxing is unnecessary and peculiar. Rather than drawing us further into the world, it reaffirms the artifice – something enhanced by the lack of distinction between characters talking to the ‘audience’ and the more internal, ‘backstage’ discussions about how gullible ‘they’ (we) are to be taken in by such brazen showmanship. The various elements of meta-theatricality alienate the unfolding horror, and a lack of internal logic means that always we remain distanced.
The actors are all strong, with Vantyler in particular giving a performance that is both exhilarating and exhausting. He is the consummate showman, twirling and tap-dancing through the play, dallying closer to the edge of madness as he goes. Reid too, in the few moments when she has our complete attention, brings a startling and refreshing honesty. Fundamentally, though, the production doesn’t quite fulfil the script’s promise, falling from the difficult tight-rope it walks between a pastiche of quintessentially 30s Americanisms and hard-hitting look at the depths to which civilised people stoop for entertainment. Though the events depicted are accurate and reminiscent of a modern Colosseum, we are left with a production which disappointingly fails to reflect the visceral brutality of its source material.
Welcome to Oxford, and to one of the most vibrant student drama scenes in the country. We put on up to 80 shows a term here, ranging from the 50 seat Burton Taylor Studio to the over 600 seat Oxford Playhouse, from the crypts of Oxford Castle to the college gardens. The brilliant thing about drama here is that the system is decentralised, with a huge range of exciting societies, from improvised comedy with the Imps, to experimental theatre with the ETC, to technical theatre with TAFF (the obscurely named techies’ society). Oxford University Dramatic Society is the largest of these, and forms an umbrella body that draws all these drama societies, production companies, and funding bodies in the university together. As a result of this and an extensive pro-rata loan system, the shows that make a profit cover the shows that make a loss, and you don’t need to get into a drama clique to do theatre here; just find other people who are interested in the same thing, which OUDS can help you to do. Its main job is to give you the resources to make the theatre that you want, by providing funding, props, a wardrobe, access to advice from leading theatre professionals, and a centralised community where you can advertise plays, auditions and jobs.
The best way to get involved is Cuppers, the freshers’ drama festival that happens in 5th week of the Michaelmas Term, and is run by TAFF and OUDS. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to put on a play with a group from your college, no longer than half an hour, and with no more than eight actors. You can do whatever you like, from Shakespeare to your own new writing, from dance to mime – we want to see whatever you find exciting! At the end of the week there are awards for anything from best marketing to the much-coveted ‘Best of Cuppers’.
Later in the year OUDS has a New Writing Festival, national and international tours, and a cornucopia of talks and events. If you want to find out more about theatre in Oxford or about Cuppers, please do get in touch with me, Lucie Dawkins, at email@example.com, or with our friendly freshers’ rep, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, at firstname.lastname@example.org. From mid-September we will have a shiny new website at www.ouds.org with lots more information on it, and a list of reps at each college who can help you out. We also invite you to OUDS/TAFF drama freshers’ drinks on the Thursday of 1st week (11th October), upstairs at the Turl Street Kitchen. We can’t wait to meet you!
[Editor’s Note: Of course, the best way to get involved with Oxford Drama is to write about it…]
Writing a rom com is very much like baking a cake; everyone has their own approach to the adornments and toppings, but few dare to tamper with the golden ratio of basic ingredients. Add too much serious emotion and you end up with gooey, heavy sludge, which practically invites ridicule; add too many gags and layers of irony and you are left with a bubble of air, which pops the second after the movie ends and is instantly forgotten. Rather than risk unwittingly creating such monstrosities, many screenwriters today stick to a simple, safe recipe for rom com success. The ingredients are as follows:
1. One man: frank, confident, a touch reckless
2. One woman: highly principled, neat, a touch neurotic
3. Zany friends: One to three per spouse
4. Disapproving Parents: To be added if the man and woman cannot come up with sufficient cause for conflict between themselves
5. A helpless dog/child: To be added if the man and woman cannot come up with sufficient cause for resolution between themselves (Note: this is where rom com transitions into the similar but distinct genre of heartwarming family drama)
But as long as this recipe has existed, it has had its detractors; particularly in recent years when the release of ‘No Strings Attached’ was followed a few months later by the eerily similar ‘Friends with Benefits’. Critics wondered for about the thousandth time whether the power of the rom com was becoming blunted through overuse, whether audiences across the nation were suffering from rom com ennui. If an audience knows the rom com recipe well enough to predict when the jaunty background music is about to slow down to a sluggish crawl, when the movie is going to suddenly turn from tickling their funny bones to tugging at their heartstrings, then the illusion is lost; the poignant moment induces yawns, not tears.
Jaded by the sheer quantity of homogeneous rom coms, it is tempting to look around for someone to blame for it all. The first person who comes to mind is Nora Ephron. Shakespeare may have laid the foundations with the merry, cross-dressing shenanigans of his comedic plays, Jane Austen may have inspired countless authors and period dramas with her incisive satire of the relations between the sexes, but it is Nora Ephron who is credited with tailoring the rom com to modern life. However, a closer look at her films reveals that her influence on the genre is much more complicated and profound; far from instructing us on how to better follow the rom com recipe, her movies hold the key to escaping from it.
Certainly, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is generally taken to be the quintessential rom com, from which movies like ‘Friends with Benefits’ and ‘No Strings Attached’ are directly descended. But that movie does not follow a formula or even invent one; Nora Ephron simply uses the characters and forms that best fit her story, regardless of whether or not they are elements of the rom com recipe. The diversity of her other work is testament to her flexible approach to the genre; both ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘Julie and Julia’ feature passions and interests outside the realm of romance, and more original sources of conflict than disapproving parents. ‘You’ve Got Mail’ is based upon a 1940 movie called ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, but Nora Ephron updates the story by linking it to the contemporary rise of corporate power and decline of small businesses. Similarly, ‘Julie and Julia’ relates Julia Child’s adventures in French cooking to the Cold War and President McCarthy’s red scare, in which her own husband was blacklisted. But the movie that diverges furthest from the rom com recipe, almost to the extent of negating the term altogether, is her earlier and lesser known classic ‘Heartburn’.
Based on her novel about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, the man who broke the Watergate scandal, it is a story that begins with a wedding and ends with a separation. It demonstrates most clearly the quality that has ensured the lasting success of all Nora Ephron’s movies; the way that they seem to capture a slice of real life. Small touches like the incompetent building contractor hired by the couple in ‘Heartburn’, a couple’s difficulty escaping one another on a moving sidewalk in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, a dialogue with an irritated cashier in ‘You’ve Got Mail’, feel like they have been lifted from wry personal observations. Of course, one could argue that rom coms are not supposed to resemble real life, since the whole point is escapism, but unless they capture some part of human relationships or the experience of living that the audience can believe in, they can offer no world to escape to. Perhaps the only solution is to throw away the rom com recipe and take a good, hard look at reality, even at the risk of cooking up a story that is not nearly as neat and satisfying as one had hoped.
The directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have returned to the spotlight to promote their latest creation, a movie called ‘Ruby Sparks’. The excitement surrounding their reappearance is understandable, given the success of their last film, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, which earned two Oscars, two BAFTAs, a score of other international and American film awards, and even a place within that hallowed volume, ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’.
Although built upon the quintessential road movie formula, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ gives the genre its own subversive twist. All road movies are about people following their dreams, but few look so openly and unflinchingly upon the reality of failure. And yet ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ portrays this reality without bitterness; the failures of the main characters are never minimized or sugarcoated by false sentimentality, but neither are they allowed to weigh down the atmosphere of the movie to the point of heavy tragedy. In this sense, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ could be seen as the successful completion of a tricky balancing act, between comedy and tragedy, fantasy and realism, family drama and zany farce. Both the characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves are extreme enough to always be teetering on the brink of the improbable. In ‘Ruby Sparks’ however, that line appears to be finally breached.
But then again, improbability might be the point of the movie. Much of the trailer seems to be spent marveling at the unlikelihood of the scenario; a geeky, bumbling, Woody Allen-esque writer finds inspiration through the creation of a female character, who one day magically appears to him in the flesh. Fortunately for him, this is not a darkly ironic, be-careful-what-you-wish-for type of story; the two of them fall in love, apparently unimpeded by her fictitious nature. In fact, the whole story appears to suffer from a strange lack of impediments; one can’t help waiting for that inevitable ‘but’ moment, waiting for all those slow motion, soft-focus moments of euphoria to cease and the real conflict of the story to begin. But those moments of euphoria appear to be all there is; having recovered from the shock of her existence, the two have a great time doing all the things that reckless young couples are supposed to do, like speeding down the freeway, dancing in clubs, writhing around in swimming pools, and having jolly little get-togethers with in-laws. Granted, there may emerge some overwhelming obstacle to their relationship that the marketers, in an unfortunate oversight, forgot to include in the trailer; perhaps his magic typewriter breaks and he can’t create her any more, perhaps he loses his glasses and can no longer read his manuscript, perhaps he can’t get her to speak English again after making her French.
Contrast this with the approach taken by the spookily similar trailer to the movie ‘Stranger than Fiction’; it too features writer’s block, a character brought to life, and the shock of a creator meeting their creation. The difference is that the trailer introduces a seemingly irresolvable problem; the main character, one IRS agent by the name of Harold Crick, hears the narrating voice of his author-creator announce his imminent demise. From that point onwards, making contact with his author becomes a matter of life and death, in a complex play between the contradictory values of reality and fiction. The movie maintains sympathy for Harold and involvement in his struggles, while never quite forgetting the surrealism of the entire situation; ‘Ruby Sparks’, by contrast, seems curiously enamored of its own fantasy, as if it would like to forget about the impossibility of its premise, forget that Ruby is basically a construction, and just let itself be carried away by ‘the magic of falling in love’. Falling in love is indeed magical, but is the kind of magic that has graced our movie screens a few times before. There is nothing like originality to give a character a real, living presence; without it, Ruby Sparks might as well never have left the author’s head.
Broken Stars is a piece of new writing from directors Zoe McGee and Jordan Saxby, about a group of anarchists (the titular Broken Stars – though that sounds more like a charity for rehabilitating child actors) watching the video diary of a couple journeying in space for… some reason. They are hiding from the ‘Simons’, authoritarian figures, and thus the play opens with a highly stylised rendition of ‘Simon Says’ that borders on comedy, pulling down the fourth wall with as much subtlety as a bulldozer.
Then suddenly I’m an anarchist, along with everyone else in the audience – the kind of anarchist who attends meetings and acknowledges a leader, obviously. It’s all rather confusing and off-putting, but that small logical puzzle aside, the opening scene launches into a decent exploration of a dystopian future, and there are some clever thoughts at work here – however, the writing and the acting doesn’t hold them up.
If these characters are supposed to be our gateway into this future, a point of sympathy, they fail utterly – every single one of them comes across as irritating, manipulative, patronising or plain stupid. Zoe Bullock as May has a few moments of impassioned defiance and both Maeve Scullion and Rolf Merchant occasionally elicit a kind of pathetic sympathy, but in the end it’s not surprising that only very palpable and graphic violence makes me feel even a twinge for any of them. In fact, I’m more sympathetic towards their tormentors, the Simons, particularly their leader, played by Ben Cohen. His stage presence finally brings a point of focus to the disparate staging of the ‘broken stars’, though he later delivers a monologue that appears rather painfully out of character given its audience. The awkward exit that follows it as all the ‘Simons’ file out with their tails between their legs, dispelling any menace they might have had, speaks volumes about the thoughtless direction behind this piece.
The second plot of the couple, Ben and Alice, also has its fair share of problems. JY Hoh is good as Ben, and he and Sophie Ablett do come across as genuinely affectionate. However, the fact that Alice’s lines consist solely of teasing and sarcasm for practically the entire first scene quickly made her character dull and one note. Apparently for the performance there will be a cardboard spaceship on stage, though I’m not sure if that will add or detract from the scenes – in fact, I’m still not sure why the two had to be in space at all, and apart from some dark hinting about ‘them’ there’s no explanation given at all. The anarchist lot seem to be on earth and aside from a ‘3-D holographic projector’ there’s little sci-fi tech in sight – even the policemen are reduced to carrying baseball bats! The disjunction between the two strands of the narrative undermines both: at one point the performance of Hoh makes one of the anarchists sob, an overreaction that makes them both seem ridiculous.
I can forgive a shambolic preview, which is, by the way, what this was. Actors being on script is distracting, as is being in a cramped space with one actor sitting back turned directly in front of me, but it’s not nearly as bad as a bad script complete with hackneyed clichés. When the ‘broken stars’ started singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I wanted them to be beaten. It’s sad, because there are some promising ideas here – the dystopian world sounds interesting, and I wish it could be explored, instead of only hinted at – but in its current form even an ardent sci-fi fan would be better off spending the £6 on a second hand John Wyndham novel, or a copy of Serenity.