Reviews

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons

By Sam Steiner

Review

 

So you might speak about 123,205,750 words in a lifetime but what happened if a new law rationed you? A bit like the 140 characters in a tweet, so you literally aren’t allowed to utter another word, even making love, and when you meet at a dead cat cemetery and fall in love, have to get ingenious.

Think Nick Payne’s Constellations meets Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living (like the Steiner, from 2015) or even Zamyatin’s We.

Sam Steiner’s first play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons in fact prophesied the way he’d develop, as in You Stupid Darkness! (2019) memorably staged by Paines Plough at Southwark shortly before lockdown. There a vestigial Samaritans-type phone centre is being swamped literally by catastrophic global warming and flooding.

Steiner’s taken the short-scenes-punctuated-with-dark method to heart; and here in his first play rendered an intricate two-act dance where some of the first moments of a couple are only portrayed in the earlier part of the second act, counterpointed with scenes towards the end of the narrative.

So it’s not say Constellations’ unfolding fan of possibilities chronologically straight; more an artful holding back of moments neatly counterpointing revelations out of sequence. For instance we first meet the couple reciting the number of words they have left, or used up; a frequent ritual. Then an early scene at the cat cemetery, and then one where they’re patting something on the ground, which you take as a grave. Only later you might recall it, and what it is.

We meet reflective, apolitical if verbally confident Bernadette; a pupil family lawyer. She’s visiting Dennis. Dennis is a cat. And Dennis is dead. Such expansive phrases soon might not be allowed. Publicly extroverted but privately unsure, Oliver, a musician composing jingles and dedicated protester (including improvised musical instruments), is also there, having tried to save the cat being crushed by police. And he’s protesting the Hush Laws. Sounds familiar, something we’re protesting about now? This is even darker. The government rations your use of words and somehow they know. Punishment isn’t specified but clearly it’s not good.

The way we communicate with silence, the way we – as this couple do – end up learning morse code, the way every word counts but meanings might get squeezed out, all are highlighted, and are important.

Steiner though probes something else. How we behave and turn complicit with any government or authority directive, and how we adapt to even the most absurd laws, having protested against them. Own behaviour, especially vital communication, you own the world. And it impacts on how we can relate at all. And we’re already doing it, learning to use 140 characters. Abiding by rules set by technological limits set by capital imperatives. Steiner’s neat ingenuity is dazzlingly true.

Coping with dystopia, rather than ending mere automatons, is now more plausible than a totalising extreme like Winston Smith’s. You can make eye contact. You can rebel and use up all that verbal capital: ‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons!’

This production, set with limited distancing seating in the New Venture Theatre Studiom is a confident directorial debut by Cata Lindegaard. Set design’s by Judith Berrill and Simon Glazier, providing a dark leathery sofa upstage, stage right a simple black square table and chairs, and a beautifully-executed L-shaped surround. This features word hoards from the play; blue and blue bold on white with tear effects on the boards’ design: a striking take on what’s occurring. Straightforward pinpoint, suffuse and fade elements render a clean lighting design by Strat Mastoris, The tick-tok sound design and Props are Lindegaard’s.

Steiner’s appealing, normative characters negotiate an arc of attraction – we see it develop a little in the earlier part of the second act – but because of the structure we only see it rise to a crisis obliquely, in counterpoint and this too is Steiner’s point. There’s flash-points. Bernadette’s working class and middle-class Oliver earning less (which she politely tries to factor in, making things worse) is the virtue-signaller, trying to appeal to her class interest. Bernadette though refuses to be reductively defined by the fact she’s working class. Oliver has an old flame on these marches, Julie, and though he claims she’s put on weight after abandoning the Atkins Diet, we only get an explanation late on as to why they broke up, and then a couple of artfully placed shocks.

All this is set against word-rationing Oliver initially protests against. Beatrice comes with him finally – if only to see Julie. Creating neologisms to reduce the number of characters used, they’re crafting a private language of necessity. But resorting to morse code might help, and is infinite. There’s a touching sense when this happens. Will it be enough?

Both Paris Nethercott-Cable and Rhys Wilson-Plant are recent graduates (he in New York), have agents and are making their NVT debuts here. Nethercott-Cable’s in her fourth annual Fringe, already writing and directing her own work.

The two actors give exemplary performances, by their nature take just a few moments to settle into rhythm (seen on the first night) Very soon though the couple are enveloped in overlapping dialogue, fights, silences and sudden touching affections, making love back-to-back or down on all fours trying to innovate obsolete Morse as a redemptive tongue. Steiner strikes many if not all notes; not in some arc but in this rising counterpoint. Nethercott-Cable and Wilson-Plant grasp their vanishing world in characters: you believe them. If you love new theatre, worth queuing for returns.

Simon Jenner

Bag Lady

by Sarah Davies

Review

After a year’s drought, New Venture Theatre Studio takes up where Quartet (remember that?) left off in March 2020, for a very different show. It’s an occasion, a celebration. This breaks the ice.

You’re temperature-checked on entry, invited to wash your hands and during the performance you must keep masked up. There’s a very few places – again social distancing is essential. NVT prove exemplary in this. There’s no slackening rues here. Arrive in confidence.

Sarah Davies’ Bag Lady co-devised by her, David Tutton and Brenda Bishop and directed by Tutton and Bishop, is given here in its embryonic form – with NVT House lighting and tech support. As NVT state categorically, this is a scent of a show that might be, the try-out to develop, extend, further humanise the vulnerable core lurking just at the edges, as clowning should.

And bag lady Davies is first popping through a window (with a red nose) where there’s usually a door, making a range of hand movements such as being caught from behind or strangled and dropping from hat, all in a Russian muffler hat. And then through another entrance, the bag lady, looking acutely like The Lady in the Van, bowls up. And she has a picnic to tell.

This homage to Chaplin, to clowning and Ivor Cutler with the volume turned down (it gets turned up, but on a tranny) is a casque of fiery invention, a superbly poised artlessness taking Davies’ art to bring off.

It’s smokeless mirrors. There’s a cigar, certainly, though lit with all rules intact: it’s electronic. There’s only one thing else that is. This is decidedly a low-tech show. As for the mirror, well you’ll have to encounter that for yourselves.

Davies rummages about with her black and white shopping trolly, to bring out… well Russian dolls in a way to go with that Russian hat. I fact they’re other bags. Yes this bag lady actually lives up to her self-styling. Pillar-box red, white, black, smaller gold ones, little nondescript parcels, a paper bag with a rice cake in it (I fear for it too).  A rug. A cat. That grey tranny. An equally grey Tribble.

Let me unpack that. You remember the Star Trek Tribble? Ah, so this furry one is dove-grey, and in fact proves to be something else altogether. And there’s a black cat to stroke, remember. But it’s that Tribble that gives all the trouble.

There’s going too far, even with the animal that proves it’s only a part-time Tribble. Desperate remedies are required, even mouth-to-mouth. Again, best discover that animal for yourself. Davies is a dab puppet hand at animal magic.

Davies smiles winningly. In this the first performance an audience member laughs rhythmically so much I almost fear for Davies, but she keeps grinning and delivering – and laughter begets much-needed laughter.

With the show lasting only thirty-five minutes, there may be a temptation to write this off a slight. It isn’t. Davies knows exactly how to keep the show and above all the tone on the row. Laughter’s explosive. If any silent clown can turn the audience up instead, Davies can. She knows how to appeal to a human condition in all of us not far removed from Chaplin, tears of all kinds, homelessness, the exilic laughter of the truly theatrical. Though suitable for children it’s not specifically designed for them. It is though, the voyage out of an enchanter.

The Miser - Review

Its 1677, or 1977, and here’s the farce. Moliere as punk hair and not wigs. It works, if you can believe the 17th century time frame, which is kept, with its parallel Young Ones punk fashion aiding high—octane deliveries.

Perhaps a trick was missed in the generation gap but this is avowedly a joyful all-of—a—piece ensemble play, stripped of the usual Moliere gravitas in the prose original itself derived from the Roman Plautus, and ripe for more frantic adaptations than any other of his works. Freyda Thomas’ updated, slangy version suits perfectly. The watchword ‘economic downturn’ is trolled out drolly, and other passages ‘ailing mother’ force a collective ‘aah’ in this superbly paced production by Steven Adams.

Rich miser Harpagon — Des Potton is commandingly screwed up in face and action ~ wants to marry off his son and daughter to hideous elders so they won’t cost him a sou. Alas for him daughter Elise (Kitty Fox Davies is no shrinking Moliere wannamope) has a suitor in a young man Valere (Nicholas Farr’s a canny dissimulator) who saved her from drowning and has now entered service with the family in disguise to be near her. Son Cléante (Young One Nik Balfe) is in love with — as he finds out — the very same young Marianne his father has eyed up since she’s frugal and pretty. In fact Chelsea Newton Mountney’s sparky thick mockney is occasionally profligate and nearly unclad.

However Kirilly Long’s fantastically trippy La Fleche, valet to trippy Cléante has overseen the miser’s hiding place for his gold and hatches a plan to at least borrow it for the children’s and servants’ sake. Likewise marriage broker Frosine (Amanda Harman) is quickly in on the double marriage plot against Harpagnon whose only mutual surprise is discovering through an intermediary that he’s the money-lender his own son has
come to, to mutual furious confusion. There’s fine support from the excellent Frank Leon as the cook Maitre Jaques taking a holiday from F awlty Towers, and James Macauley’s double act of moneylender Simon and the updated Inspector Sansclou.

There’s always a dea ex machina. This time it’s in the wildly improbable Senoir Anselme — Gerry McCrudden’s scarlet and linguistically OTT suitor for the daughter who turns out to be the father of both the lovers of the siblings, separated in one of the sea-storms that punctuate the work, Plautus’ sea-plots making a rare foray in the Paris-locked Moliere’s oeuvre. Dismissing both the inspector’s foraging for guilt and th miser’s resistance, he ensures everyone leaves for Long’s cheery verse epilogue. This has to be one of the most exciting productions at NVT recently, with hardly a weak link, and certainly the funniest.

Simon Jenner

Miss Julie

Review

 

Strange the suicide of one exceptionally gifted woman, Victoria Benedictsson (1852-88) should inspire both Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Her own play The Enchantment triumphantly premiered at the National in 2000 proved as novelist and dramatist she was way more interesting than even the two characters she inspired.

Deserted by powerful critic Georges Brandes who championed those male writers, Benedictsson was feared because she wrote. Such agency’s never given to Miss Julie or Hedda Gabler. They’re trapped in patriarchy, no way out. The original was more original, almost hounded to death.

Finally NVT can mount their Miss Julie. This version by Michael Robinson is achingly close to Strindberg’s ferocious dissection of real transgression on a Midsummer’s Eve where licence to servants perpetuates the hierarchy that threatens anything more.

This excellent uncut production follows every ripple and twitch of plot, all Strindberg’s febrile switchbacks where many can be smoothed out. It’s as if a thick dark varnish has been removed from a portrait revealing a shockingly tactile flesh. It’s thrilling, with a fresh ratcheting-up of its form invoking Greek tragedy.

Directed by Mark Lester, the Set Design’s by Simon Glazier and George Walter. A black kitchen range and black stove with lovingly sourced copper pots and utensils (props by Gabrielle Bowning excel), soon sizzling with liver, a sink/waste chute stage right, and above the range, various glass jars on shelves. It’s a tight set with, stage-right, a Palladian-style entrance onto Jean’s room, and along the stage right wall in this L-shaped set, that sink, a cupboard above and further along a small red-faced fireplace. In front, slightly downstage set at a slight diagonal, a table set with three chairs and various glasses, is where nearly everything happens.

Lighting Design Strat Mastoris emphasizes light on midsummer’s eve, darkness, streaming morning. Sound designer Ian Black ensures the peasants Strindberg asks for are neatly – once or twice raucously – suggested offstage. At one point the singing rises to a terrible clarity, like judgement.

And period costumes speak in the change or removal of a scarlet livery jacket to civilian Sunday black, the unbuttoning of a waistcoat, the donning of a hat never worn except when leaving for good; the sudden apparition of Miss Julie in full light green/white pattern dress and sage green cape to make anything possible.

It’s this precision of Strindberg’s earlier naturalistic phase than can get overlooked, losing force by broad strokes of the extreme: Strindberg’s intensity is like a scalpel carefully probing a nerve, the wince not the scream.

Nik Balfe’s Jean is unusually urbane. Dazzling with a moustache and Edwardian gentleman’s handsomeness to snare a Miss Julie, though perhaps lacking the rasp of a self-proclaimed working man. There’s an argument a valet like him cultivates his accent, but Balfe’s is the most exquisite Jean I’ve seen, who could blend into a drawing room.

Balfe mixes a sneer of command with a twitch of servility when the bell strikes: indeed he’s literally frozen by it at the end. It’s far cry from his uncorking stolen wine from the Count’s cellar, his love of fine living – in this production Jean flourishes a swirl, demands ‘One of the glasses, this wine demands respect’ then tastes the vintage pronouncing: ‘Excellent. Great depth, but a little too cold.’

With Balfe you see – convincingly – Jean’s mastery of several languages makes him a natural proprietor of a hotel near Lake Como, should he get the chance: the pipe-dream he proposes to Julie. Someone who aspires to another class, crucially not overthrowing it.

Balfe relishes this binary Jean, someone who repeatedly resists Julie’s danger, and in this production is provoked slowly. His suave containment makes a collapse to servility dismayingly real. Balfe only lacks the danger of the greatest Jeans to make his conquest and collapse the more shocking.

From the outset Miss Julie’s presence is signalled by Jean’s reporting her overstepping the bounds by cavorting with the gamekeeper. It suggests that at twenty-five she’s exploding with frustration – personal as well as sexual – and the legacy of her mother’s ferocious actions transmitting themselves. Unlike Kristin and Jean, she lacks even a limited agency, since the only people she’s permitted are titled pauvre types one of whom – Jean reports – Julie ‘made jump over the riding crop’, though deems him handsome enough. That was the lawyer fiancé dismissed.

Victoria Storm’s Miss Julie is volatile, mercurial under stiff manners, shuddering tectonic emotions that’ll pitch her down from the precipice she dreams she’s on. That might suggest someone who loses her aristocratic poise. Storm never does. The stiff sneer persists here, pitched between obnoxious entitlement and trembling need. It’s a Julie less sexy than some, more flinchingly naked: you long for her to stop playing with Jean’s kisses and escape. It’s there even in her own transgressive nursing early on when she removes dust from Jean’s eye. ‘Keep still…Do as you’re told! Oh, you’re trembling, big man that you are – Such arms!’ There’s more than one transgression, one class betrayal.

What Storm brings is an edge of cruelty that can flip to tenderness, a capacity to remove layers of privilege slowly – sometimes it shrugs back when Jean oversteps her sense of what she should; but then sloughs off. The detail of her distress, her explosions, her collapses are impressive; one third-adamantine, one third Amazonian lover, one third child.

This isn’t without her disavowal of Jean, their circling of desire, resentment, betrayal. When Jean dispatches her one living tie to the house she explodes: ‘You think I can’t stand the sight of blood… I’d like to see your blood, your brains on the block… you think I love you, just because my womb desired your seed…’ Jean’s previous refusal to say he loves her ’in this house’ brings its reward. He’d reflect he was right not to humour Julie even that far.

Cata Lindegaard’s Kristin throughout owns an agency and low-key, persistent sexual ownership. She knows her ‘engagement’ to Jean is a casual sexual convenience, it’s how working-class people can enjoy any lassitude in service. Initially she hopes. Kristin though refuses the also-ran. ‘That stupid thing with Jean. I don’t care a fig about that but… if you try to trick him into running away… I’ll stop you.’ She delivers too the coup-de-grace: ‘I’ll tell the groom not to let any horses be taken out.’ She invokes God’s grace where pointedly ‘the least shall be greatest.’ Kristin’s no longer a simple lightning-rod of prejudice and class order, with her triumphant ‘has the Count’s cook ever gone with a stable boy, or the pig man?’ It’s left for Jean in a final dismissing kindness to reverse that edict.

The outbursts, the intimate revelations of Jean’s desire for Julie even as a boy, her revelations of her mother’s arson, all bonding gambits show us another possible side, always defeated by conditioning. From the desperate ‘Kill me… I hate you, I despise you., there’s blood between us now’ which still has Jean command a getaway, after Kristin’s intervention Julie begs Jean to pretend he’s the commanding Count and she’s him. ‘One last service…. will me to do it.’

Strindberg’s excoriating class-reversal has even more kinks to work out after that. In this production you see hope ebb long before that ring heralding the Count’s return. Balfe’s Jean recognizes far earlier in the text how this will fall out, and so does Storm’s Julie, as if she’s leading a posthumous existence, indeed as she says she’s asleep. That’s because we receive this one-hour-forty-five production uncut and Lester refuses the easy ratcheting up and conventional shocker. The end is like life-blood draining away. It’s what Strindberg meant. See it.

Simon Jenner

Reasons To Be Pretty - Review

 

An impossibly romantic play about romantic impossibility is how this four—hander of young working-class misunderstanding through language spins out. LaBute’s trilogy on our obsession with appearances here uses a comment on it as the germ
infecting lives right from the start in a blazing row we’re pitched in the middle of: the break-up of a loving couple, both infected with surface value—systems.

There’s just one caveat that hits you straight off. Despite their capacity to articulate awkwardly, these characters are all far too articulate in their awkwardness to convince us that even these east—coast workers are quite what they seem. Greg, the character who grows and who’s always reading classic early American or British literature, is the one who makes the gaffe about his girlfriend’s face duly reported back that ends their relationship in this firecracker of a row, all overlapping challenge, misunderstanding and even near-blows that become real in their next encounter.

Fintan Shevlin well displays the gawky, intelligent Greg, believably so since he speaks so fast he trips himself up a few times. Steph who wilfully misunderstands him, in prising out what he’s said — she’s been compared off-handedly as regular-featured, not pretty to an off—stage beauty who creates later havoc. Steph flays a complete confession then leaves Greg wincing.

Loud-mouthed domineering Kent - a masterly performance by Scott Roberts - is married to Steph’s friend Carly who reported Greg’s gaffe in the first place. Greg has two reasons to dislike Carly, then, the second being that she grills him suspecting (rightly) he knows something about Kent. Kent’s bedded 23—year-old cutey Crystal who catalysed the disastrous comparison with Steph in the first place.

So it spools out, through meetings, confrontations, always in differing duets till Greg shows maturity by blessing Steph’s affluent life with offstage Tim, standing up to Kent and finally insisting Carly go home and of course find Kent with Crystal This sets the last scene, bittersweet farewell.

Greg and Steph come as close you want to get back together. It’s no spoiler then that LaBute wrote a sequel five years on in 2013, since he too intuits unfinished business in this Mamet—like super-articulate inarticulacy. Pamela Sian Evans acid—etches a fine job of Steph’s anger and soft regrets, Jen Ley’s more hard-boiled Carly sofiens to a tendresse for Greg that might blossom (folks, it does in the next play).

Not plot-driven, these eight tableaux turn on talk; there aren’t surprises. LaBute’s gift surprises through the shock of the ordinary, twists in life and torsions in speech pattern. We care about the four characters: aspirational Greg and Steph (more university types, Greg’s eventual destination), the other two blue—collar — literally, Carly’s blue-collar uniform she feels enhances her considerable attraction. Tim McQuillen-Wright allows them to spool out ending with Greg’s poignant final rebellious two fingers.

Simon Jenner