The Music Man – July 2008

7/10

Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson

Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st July 2008

A number of people had been telling me how much they enjoyed this musical, and that can sometimes lead to disappointment, but fortunately this time it didn’t. I loved the music and the singing, especially Scarlett Strallen as Marian, the librarian. She has a lovely voice, and hit her notes perfectly, without the off-key sliding that is so prevalent nowadays. I also enjoyed the hen chorus, where the women of the town are done up with little mini-bustles at the back that look like tails, and walk around like chickens while gossiping away. The story was good too, with some decent characters and a believable setting.

The set was very good. Wooden facades curved round the back of the stage, with lots of doors and windows, and two bigger doors plumb centre. Telegraph poles stood forward of this on our right, but blended into the walls as they went further back. Apart from this, and a small platform over to our left which served as the porch for Marian’s mother’s house, the stage was bare, and picket fences, benches and the rest were brought on as needed. When the Pony Express wagon arrived bringing the uniforms, I had hoped they’d bring it through the big doors with some sort of horse attached, but sadly they just had the townsfolk a-pushing and a-pulling. Shame.

One other slight disappointment was that having seen Six Characters earlier in the month, we’d had a preview of the finale for this production in the video clip they showed, so there was no surprise for us when everyone turned up at the end wearing their uniforms; in fact I found I was waiting for it towards the end. Also, I didn’t hear all the lyrics clearly, though I did still enjoy the singing, and for once I was surprised to find that I knew a lot of the songs, including Till There Was You, one of my favourites (I’m a mushy sentimentalist at heart). All the performances were excellent, although Steve felt Brian Conley wasn’t quite right for the lead part. Certainly his singing could have been better, but as a character who’s meant to be non-musical perhaps his standard of singing was too good!

I’ll finish with the opening of the performance, as that was my favourite bit. A group of people, mostly travelling salesmen, are sitting on a train, and as it chugs along, they debate the issues of the day until one of them asks if anyone knows the whereabouts of a certain Harold Hill, a disreputable salesman who’s giving his more honest(-ish) colleagues problems by cheating a town’s population out of their money and scarpering. This guy wants to track him down and put him out of business. At the very end, as the train’s about to pull out of River City station, Harold reveals himself, and announces his intention to stay in town and do what he does best. It certainly took me by surprise, and got a good reception from the audience.

But the thing I enjoyed most about this opening was that the train was simply the suitcases placed on the revolve, which turned round slowly while the passengers and guard jiggled about to show the movement. This, combined with the singing, which went from person to person so fast I could hardly keep up, was entrancing, and just the sort of thing I love in the theatre. I’m looking forward to next year’s offering already.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Never So Good – July 2008

6/10

By Howard Brenton

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th July 2008

I found this a bit disappointing, given the good reviews it’s had. The queue for returns was certainly long enough. But even so, I did enjoy a lot of this performance. In fact it was the performances that made it for me – the writing seemed lacklustre at times, while the staging had a few high spots and a greater number of low ones. I was finding the heat difficult today, I must admit, but as I found the opening line funny, I don’t think my state of mind was the problem.

There were four acts, covering major periods of MacMillan’s life. The first took us up to his final wounding in WWI, and introduced us to his mother and the chap who was his best friend, until that friend decided to convert to Catholicism. This section may also have been meant to show us how MacMillan related to the sufferings of the working-class soldiers, but the writing was rather clunky in this area, and we get characters making comments about his attitude rather than letting us see it for ourselves. My main impressions from this section are that he’s a homosexual who never comes out of the closet, and who doesn’t really have any ambition for himself, so his incredibly pushy mother can mould him to suit her wishes. She wants a son who’s a big cheese in the political world, hence her insistence that Harold give up any idea of converting to Catholicism himself as it would make it impossible for him to hold high office.

Jeremy Irons is playing the older MacMillan throughout, but there’s a younger version we get to see a lot of, and in this early part, he’s doing most of the action while the older version dodders about the stage commenting on events. The younger version manages to survive the battle, despite lying in a foxhole for eight hours with no medical attention other than a shot of morphine. He’s psychologically damaged, however, and the exchange between the two MacMillans at this point makes it clear that his younger self is like a ghost haunting him, a conscience who keeps reminding him that he once had great ideals and has failed to achieve anything to justify them. Survivor’s guilt was mentioned in the program notes, and that’s clearly what’s being represented here. From this point on, the younger version wanders around, but doesn’t seem to get much dialogue, which made the character seem a bit redundant to me, and a waste of a good actor. (Having checked the playtext, the character seems to have more to say than I remember, so perhaps lines were cut, or perhaps they just didn’t register with me.)

The second act covered the run up to WWII, and a brief part of MacMillan’s wartime career when he was based in North Africa. While out there he met Eisenhower, and the two men got along well, which would be to MacMillan’s benefit in later years. At this point MacMillan gets the chance to save a young pilot’s life after his plane crashes, and there seemed to be some lessening of his survivor’s guilt, though I wasn’t absolutely sure about this. However, it does seem to be his turning point, when he becomes much tougher and determined to succeed.

Before this, the play covers the plotting that went on in the Conservative party after Chamberlain’s triumphant return from Germany with minimalist stationary supplies, and it was very entertaining. The opening scene shows MacMillan visiting his mother, who is constantly telling him off for his political choices, including becoming MP for a constituency north of Watford. It’s an absolutely hilarious scene, with several very funny lines, impeccably delivered. We also learn about his wife’s affair with another Tory MP, and one whom MacMillan will be involved with closely, as they’re both supporting Churchill in his attempts to retake power. He refuses to divorce his wife, though, as it would be another block to him holding high office. When the inevitable happens, Churchill takes over as leader of the country, and MacMillan finds himself in Africa talking to Eisenhower (see above).

There were warnings about pyrotechnic effects in the production as we went in, but nothing could have prepared us for the actual plane crash. I felt a serious blast of heat in my seat, and I don’t know how they stopped the flames from scorching the ceiling, never mind the actors. It was most impressive. Fortunately they now have the interval to clean everything up.

After the interval, we see the back room shenanigans involved in the Suez crisis. It’s quite good fun seeing the plotting and intrigue, the speculation about what will happen and, more importantly, how the intervention will look to everyone else. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a ludicrous plan, but it does show how the last traces of the Empire attitude lingered after WWII. MacMillan’s also in good form, manoeuvring himself nicely into the top job as Eden nose-dives into oblivion. It’s in this scene that his younger self seems particularly quiet and superfluous.

The final act is a short one, and takes us from MacMillan’s appointment as PM to his retirement. We see him getting to grips with the requirements of the top job, including negotiations with the French and with Eisenhower. MacMillan attempts to get access to America’s nuclear secrets, only to be told fairly bluntly that the Americans think the British have been faking their atomic orgasms. The effect of the new generation of satirists is mentioned, and then the Profumo affair comes along, and it’s Supermac’s turn to leave the political merry-go-round. And with a final reference to Google, he bids us farewell and leaves the stage.

As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the performances more than the writing or staging. The problems with the staging were simple, but first I want to describe the set. It had an angled wall with tall doors to our left. The doors have glass panes, so at first I thought they were windows. To our right, there were three or four rows of storage shelves, filled with official-looking boxes; these were moved about in later scenes to create the setting for the  Cabinet Room. Wooden chairs were placed in front of the pillars on either side. It was too gloomy at the start to see what the back wall was like, but it looked like industrial concrete. There was also a huge panel of windows that dropped down towards the front of the stage a couple of times, complemented with two chandeliers, and this usually represented a posh location – the Ritz ballroom perhaps. For the First World War, there were mounds and wire and suchlike to represent the battlefield – these were moved into place behind the panel of windows. A wall with greenery slid on about halfway back on the right, with a bench, and this was the setting for MacMillan’s country home. The plane crash in North Africa had lots of metal barrels standing around to hold the many flames, and for other scenes there were tables and chairs brought on as required.

Although we weren’t sitting that far to the side (about six seats in), I found I could see right through the shelving on our right, into the wings, and so whenever the stage crew were getting ready to move things around, these people who were clearly nothing to do with the performance on stage would come into my line of sight, distracting me for a moment from the play. It happened enough that it affected my enjoyment of the piece, and shows a sad lack of ability on the part of the designer, creating a set with such an annoying tendency to prevent audience members from enjoying the show! The amount of haulage was also a problem at times, and reminded me of Michael Attenborough’s comments about “theatre of burglary”, where the lights go down and people dressed in black come into your home and rearrange the furniture. The burglars were well active today, and obviously so, as this time the lights didn’t go down.

A number of the changes were covered by dances, usually between the acts. These did have the advantage of letting us know which time period we were in, but they went on for so long that the momentum of the performance was lost. Given that the writing was a bit lacking in interest, that’s not a good idea. Other than that, I liked the set and the flexibility it gave, but I wouldn’t willingly see this production again, despite the good performances.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Crown Matrimonial – July 2008

5/10

By Royce Ryton

Directed by David Grindley

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 15th July 2008

This play covers the events leading up to Edward VIII’s abdication from the family’s point of view, and finishes with a final scene set after WW2, when the Duke of Windsor was hoping to come home. The scenes are all set in Queen Mary’s sitting room, so a great deal of the dialogue is reportage. There’s also a fair bit of clunky exposition for those not so familiar with this story, so I found it took some time to get going.

I wasn’t immediately taken with Patricia Routledge as Queen Mary. She didn’t have quite enough authority for me, more of the middle class housewife done up with a load of bling. However, she grew on me as the performance went on. The other actors suffered from the clunky dialogue, cut-glass accents and lack of animation, which suited the characters but was dreadfully dull to watch. There was one good scene when the king turns up for dinner to find one more sister present than he expected. The awkward silence spoke volumes about how the situation was affecting the family, as well as emphasising why David feels the need for Wallis’ company. They could be a stuffy lot, these Windsors.

The scenes in the second half were better as a lot of explanation had already been done and the characters could get on with it more. I found the third scene very moving, where Bertie steps up to take on the role of king, and my eyes were very wet at times. I also enjoyed the earlier scene, where Elizabeth gets to speak her mind about David’s selfishness and how he’s affecting the rest of the family. It’s entertaining, and David does stand up for himself too, but it did go on a bit too long for my liking.

The debates between the characters were occasionally interesting, as they gave an insight into a time when Hitler and Mussolini hadn’t convinced everyone that they were bad news. David came across as an innovator, determined to bring his country and his church into the twentieth century, and even to build up the armed forces to make the country stronger. The opposite perspective is well represented by the Queen Mother and her daughter Mary, who are staunchly in the ‘no change’ camp, and who won’t even meet, or ‘receive’, Wallis Simpson because she’s divorced. Admittedly, her first divorce looks like misfortune, while her second, underway as the characters speak, looks like carelessness. And opportunism. We may never know.

This play was much more charged when it was first produced, as some of the characters were still living. Now that none of them are alive and we’ve had so many documentaries about this issue, it seems a bit stale, not helped by the lack of action and frequently stilted dialogue. There are some good laughs, and the performances were as good as the text would allow them to be, but it may be wise to leave it in mothballs for a good many years to give it more historical interest. Still, it was a good production, and I enjoyed my evening.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Chalk Garden – July 2008

8/10

By Enid Bagnold

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th July 2008

Wow. Steve and I had seen this play before, but I had very little memory of it, as it hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time. Today’s production was the complete opposite. Totally memorable, with magnificent performances and excellent writing.

The story is relatively simple. Mrs St Maugham advertises for a governess for her grand-daughter, and gets more than she bargained for. Of the four applicants invited for an interview, only one stays long enough to meet her prospective employer, and she seems very unqualified to take the post. The grand-daughter in question, Laurel, is one of those too-precocious-for her-own-good types, with lots of stories about how dreadful her life has been, all told in a causal, off-hand manner. There’s a manservant, Maitland, who appears to be a nervous wreck, and an elderly man who is looked after by a nurse. We never see this man, but he appears to have a strong influence in the household – he was the butler for many years – and the nurse occasionally comes down to pass on messages. Olivia, Mrs St Maugham’s daughter and Laurel’s mother, also makes an appearance or two, as she now wants to give Laurel a home with her and her new husband. She’s expecting another baby, and she clearly wants to get the family back together again.

Miss Madrigal, the one remaining applicant, seems to have some understanding of Laurel, but is reluctant to stay. She’s put off mainly by her own circumstances and is only persuaded to take the job through Olivia’s intervention. Miss Madrigal is also concerned about the garden. It’s a chalk garden, and the butler has been directing operations so badly that he’s trying to grow all sorts of plants, such as rhododendrons, that hate chalk soil. The analogy between the garden plants and Laurel is obvious, especially with a name like that. Within two months, at the start of the next scene, Miss Madrigal has restored order to both the house and the garden. Laurel is behaving herself – she hasn’t set fire to anything for a long time – and the garden is being licked into shape. The old butler isn’t happy at all, but being stuck in his room, he can’t do anything about it. The nurse does glare at Miss Madrigal when she comes down, but that doesn’t trouble her in the least.

Things change when an old friend of the family comes to visit. He’s a judge, and it turns out he presided over the one trial Miss Madrigal has attended – her own. She was a young girl, accused of murdering her younger step-sister, and her habit of telling lies to get attention backfired when nobody would believe her story at the trial. Now she’s naturally distressed to see the judge again, and convinced he’s rumbled her, she blurts out enough of the truth to jog his memory into remembering her fully.

With part of the truth out, there are ructions in the house. Olivia turns up to take Laurel away, and Miss Madrigal supports this. Mrs St Maugham wants to keep Laurel and send Miss Madrigal packing, but once Laurel has left with her mother, she finds the prospect of an empty house too frightening, and grudgingly comes to accept Miss Madrigal’s offer of companionship. The butler chap has died, just at the right moment, so Miss Madrigal can reign supreme in the chalk garden. The play ends with the two women beginning their edgy relationship, one that we know they’ll both benefit from, despite Miss Madrigal refusing to tell the other woman, and us, what we all want to know – did she do it?

Having said this was a simple story, I find I’ve taken a full page to give only a rough précis of the plot. Apart from the humour, of which there was a great deal, the enjoyment lay in teasing out the subtle clues about Miss Madrigal and her background. It became clear she’d been away from society for a long while – she didn’t have references, for example – and her ability to understand and relate to Laurel without joining in her games was a big clue. She wanted to help the child as much as she could, so she wouldn’t end up making the same mistakes as she had, the ones that led to her spending many long years in prison. Her knowledge of gardening was obviously learned there, and there’s one lovely scene where Miss Madrigal speaks out with more passion than usual for her, about taking care of the garden and the plants. It’s moving and very funny, and I must get the text as I can’t remember a word of it. Penelope Wilton played Miss Madrigal, and I suspect I’ll not see better this lifetime.

Margaret Tyzack as Mrs St Maugham will be hard to top as well. She got to perfection the scattiness and hauteur of the character – totally the wrong person to bring Laurel up. Some of her lines were incredibly funny, and impeccably delivered. The others in the cast were also very good, as I would expect from a Donmar production.

We were reminded both of Terence Rattigan and Ibsen in the style of the piece, with its gentle observation and symbolism drawn from nature. I’d certainly go to see this play again, though I won’t expect it to be of this standard.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Quiz – July 2008

8/10

By Richard Crane

Directed by David Giles

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 4th July 2008

I was very much looking forward to seeing David Bradley on stage again, and in a solo performance. As it was a new play, I had very little idea what to expect and the way the play was written, neither did the character on stage.

The set was very simple. Various pallets were arranged to form a small platform and back wall in the centre of the studio space. Packing crates were distributed on either side, with candles stuck in bottles all over them. The candles were very short. Large candle holders stood on either side of the stage, with bigger candles, and a couple of rugs were lying across the platform and the floor in front of it. To complete the picture, a cross made of two strips of wood (probably off one of the pallets) was lashed to the top of the back wall. Simple, but effective.

David Bradley was playing an unnamed actor, who shambled on carrying another bottle with a lighted candle, a much longer one this time, and wearing a robe tied with a rope belt. He was obviously dressed as a monk of some kind, occasionally raising the hood. Underneath he was still wearing scruffy jeans and trainers. This was meant to be a performance of a story from The Brothers Karamazov, which the actor had been doing as a one-man show for many years, but tonight we were getting to see the effects of a serious row with his stage manager who has stormed off leaving him to do the whole show by himself. Fortunately the real stage crew has hung around, so we still get all the necessary lighting changes.

He starts by lighting all the various candles that adorn the set. This takes some time, and in the process he treats us to various candle-and-light-related comments, jokes, songs, etc. The story of his absconding stage manager, whom he refers to as a mouse, soon emerges, as does the whisky bottle, and it’s clear this is an actor who needs plenty of support to get his act together, never mind actually on to the stage. He keeps telling us about other performers who’ve died on stage or soon after a performance, and it turns out that the cause of the argument earlier on was his constant insistence each night that he’s going to do himself in. Go out with a whimper! This approach would deter most people a lot sooner than the ‘mouse’ lady, so she was obviously in love with him. It came as no surprise that years ago they’d had a one-off sexual encounter during an enforced stop-over in the only room the hotel had available at that time of night.

From time to time we get parts of what would have been the ‘intended’ performance. These are heralded by the use of the hood, and the actor taking up position on the stage and ‘acting’. These bits were fine, and showed that the old guy still had it in him, but not for long periods. Soon he’d be breaking off to tell us another story, swig from the bottle, and explain about how he’d always wanted to do a prologue, or an epilogue, but the ‘mouse’ wouldn’t let him. These statements usually led to another long-winded story about some performance where he’d deviated from the straight and narrow, and very entertaining it all was too. He also included a number of Tommy Cooper gags, and these gave us the best laughs of the evening. Not that the rest of it was lacking in the humour department.

The religious ideas were new to me, and I found them pretty odd. The character the actor was playing, the Grand Inquisitor, seemed to be saying that he didn’t want to believe in a god who would make suffering the price for redemption. A Christ who insists on pain as a precondition for heaven isn’t for him. He’d rather feed the needy, cloth the poor, etc, and to hell with god. As a result, when Christ returns, he has him arrested and sentenced to death, and this performance, and the story in the book, covers the night he spends with Christ in his cell before the execution, explaining his point of view. The actor shares this attitude towards religion with his character, whether naturally or from long acquaintance I can’t say, and gives us his own thoughts on the matter as well.

At the end, the actor takes a final swig from his bottle and collapses on the stage, a fitting ending for such an apparently disastrous performance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Six Characters In Search Of An Author – July 2008

6/10

By Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 2nd July 2008

This was a typical Rupert Goold production – a number of really good ideas but patchy in execution. I have wanted to see this play for a long time, as I’m a great fan of Pirandello – I’m still waiting! The adaptation was so wide-ranging that I felt I wasn’t necessarily getting a reasonable picture of the original intention. I may be wrong, but without knowing more about the play, I won’t be able to tell. Even so, there was a lot to enjoy in this production, although it did have some tedious bits as well.

The ‘plot’ is almost irrelevant. The intention of the piece is to explore the nature of reality and truth, and to challenge the audience’s perceptions. The overall idea was of a documentary film team, reviewing their work on a euthanasia story with the executive producer, and then being hijacked by a bizarre group of people who claim to be six abandoned characters looking for an author to help them tell their stories. The performance then unravels layer upon layer of reality, often with disturbing or uncomfortable images, including paedophilia, rape, murder, etc. Pirandello himself even puts in an appearance, to complain that he doesn’t know how to end the piece. He didn’t know what should be in the rest of it, either, if one of the conversations in this adaptation is anything to go by – he wrote six different versions of the play.

The set was a suitably bleak utilitarian office space, with various tables, chairs, computers, etc. spread around. Behind this office, visible through the windows, is a widthways corridor with another office space on the other side of that. The opening scene has the documentary team reviewing the tape, and stopping it a couple of times to make comments. At one point, a doctor who’s speaking to camera puts her hand up to her eye as if she’s crying – well, it’s a sad subject. However, as a long-standing contact lens wearer, I could see that the hand movement wasn’t quite right for an emotional reaction – I guessed she had something in her eye, and so it turned out. Her contact lens had shifted. It was a neat trick, though, reminding us how easily these sorts of things can be exploited in the editing suite to give a completely false perspective of the situation.

The discussion during this phase was full of topical references, and almost constantly referenced the current climate where so many revelations of fakery have led to program makers cracking down in all areas. There was also an explanation of the difference between drama documentary and docu-drama – don’t expect me to tell you now, I didn’t really understand it at the time. A lot of it seemed like splitting hairs, but what did come across, here and elsewhere,  was the definite belief that faking an event can somehow be more ‘real’ and truthful than filming the actual occurrence. (Doesn’t work for sporting events, mind you.)

The executive has left, to the accompaniment of a finger and several gratuitous insults, and the team are considering their options when six people troop into the room. All dressed in black, three of them, the father, mother and one of the daughters, start to plead to be given the chance to tell their story. The other three characters, a young boy and girl, and an older boy, pretty much stay silent throughout this scene, and indeed for most of the play.

The father and the feisty daughter (not actually his, we discover) are at odds, and it soon becomes clear that he’s been doing something he shouldn’t have with her. The mother is a highly dramatic person, very Italian and expressive. Played by Eleanor David, she’s also drop-dead gorgeous, and sings divinely, but more of that later. The basic story is that the father employed a handsome young secretary, the secretary and the mother fell for each other, the father allowed it and even encouraged them to set up house together with his financial support, they ended up leaving town and when the secretary died, the mother returned with her three children – the two girls and the younger boy – and the father knew nothing about it. When he visited a local brothel (twinned with a hat shop), he doesn’t recognise the girl in the bedroom as his step-daughter. The mother discovers them together, and is deeply shocked. The father then takes them all back to his house, where his son, the legitimate one, takes against the new family members with all the resentment of the young. He’s not too keen on his mother for deserting him, either. She felt she was turned out by her husband, and so it goes on, each person having a different view of the events. Actually, the story that does emerge is fairly coherent, and I felt it was only the interpretations and reactions to it that varied, rather than actual ‘facts’, if a fictional story can have any of those.

The producer is gradually won over by this bizarre crew. Not interested at the start, she becomes intrigued by their pleading. She’s initially torn by her desire to do justice to her original story about assisted euthanasia, and she takes some persuading to put that aside and spend some of her precious time recording the details of this new account. She already has a couple of actors available for dramatic reconstructions, so she asks her team to get a suitable set prepared for filming. This takes some time to set up, and instead of an interval, we sit through the cumbersome set construction, with a couple of clips from the documentary footage showing on the screens. The first clip is simply recording the producers feelings as they arrive in Holland, and the second I’ve forgotten the details of, but I think it showed more of the euthanasia stuff. The first wasn’t particularly interesting, the second was a bit better, but on the whole I would have preferred to have taken a break at this point.

The second scene was definitely the most entertaining of the evening. The installed set represents the bedroom in which the father and the daughter are found by the mother in a sexually explicit, though not climactic, situation. The two main participants are concerned to get the room right, while the film crew just want to get on with it. There’s a lot of fun in the way the producer tries to placate the characters, especially when they find out that they won’t be doing the scene themselves. The actors will be recreating the scene for the cameras. This is where most of the ideas about recreations being more faithful to the truth comes out, and I found it hugely entertaining to see actors, playing ‘real’ characters telling another actress, playing a producer, that they could do a better job than the actors because they are the events, i.e. the events are entirely what they are about, and they only live through these events. It’s fun juggling all these different levels of reality, though I can see why Pirandello found this play so difficult to write. Anyway, the characters eventually accept the situation, and after describing their experiences a bit, the actors get down to it.

This was the funniest bit of the play, as the actors do their warm-ups and try to get into their roles. As they attempt to do the scene in the bedroom, the characters fill in more of the details, and it turns out that a certain Mr Pace (pronounce Pa-chay) had been present at the time – owner of the hat business as well as pimp. The hat business employed the mother, and Mr Pace employed the daughter in other ways. The producer asks if they can get hold of Mr Pace, and the characters oblige by summoning him with lots of hats (from the studio’s store). With much grunting and a few other weird noises, Mr Pace emerges from underneath the bed, an impressive trick, and one I didn’t expect after seeing the stuff brought on to build the floor. Mr Pace is what I would call a grotesque, all flailing arms and a weird accent. There’s some sexual action on the bed, which the producer cuts short, and then we get the scene between the father and daughter. Turns out he brought along a child’s dress for her to wear, and since we’d heard he also stalked the girl when she was still known to him as his step-daughter, it’s clear he’s someone who prefers them young. It’s a dark and quite powerful section of the play, strong meat for now never mind the 1920s when it was written. Now they’re into their stride these two warring characters are working together to tell this story, and it’s brought a lot of depth to what was a relatively superficial piece up to this point.

Just as the father is about to get more deeply involved, as it were, the mother bursts into the room, and starts singing. Not any words, just sounds, amazing sounds, expressing her emotions wonderfully. I was taken aback at first, but after a few seconds I realised what was happening and really enjoyed it. I felt in need of something to express the emotions that the previous bit had stirred up, and this was perfect. The singing went on for some time, and the father joined in with a weird barking howl that I can’t adequately describe. It got across both his suffering and his disfunctionality.

I think the interval came just after this, but I don’t really remember the detail. With such a mixed up play, it’s hard to get a grip on the order of things. The second half started with a video clip of the producer talking about how important documentary making was to her, and how she saw her role in that process. There were a couple of screens for viewing these clips. One dropped down centrally, and gave a big but grainy picture, while another was positioned over to our left, and gave a better quality but smaller picture. From our distance, we couldn’t see much detail on that one. When the film crew were working, there were often other screens in the office showing the pictures as well, and I could also see the screen on the camera, for example when they were filming the daughter being interviewed about the bedroom events.

During the interval the installed set and most of the office paraphernalia were cleared, and a large rectangular water tank was wheeled on. Placed centrally, it had what seemed to be fronds and rather milky water in it. Other than that, and possibly a chair or two, the room was bare. The characters arrive, with the producer, who is carrying a camcorder. She doesn’t know where they are, and the father explains she’s now in the story with them. She resists this notion, but he questions her on who she is, even showing her a clip from a much earlier interview where she expresses a completely different point of view about euthanasia from her current one. The father’s argument seems to be that as they (the characters) are unchanging, and she, and all other ‘real’ people are constantly changing, then the fictional characters are more real than the ‘real’ people. It’s a load of rubbish, but he is so convincing, and she is so uncertain that she accepts it in the same way as a rabbit accepts the oncoming car bumper.

The final part of their story is now revealed. With so many negative emotions swirling around in that ‘family’, it’s not surprising that  a tragedy happens. The tank represents a pond in the garden of the house. With the mother and father away, the elder daughter and legitimate son head off to the forest to get to know one another better, leaving the two younger children unsupervised in the garden. First the girl falls into the pond and drowns (she had a hidden breathing tube, so she could stay under for a horribly long time), and then the boy gives himself a fatal injection and dies. The producer is horrified by this. She doesn’t appear to do anything to try to save the girl, but then this is only a representation of the garden – she may have been many yards away instead of a few feet. However, her scream at the drowning is what the other characters hear, and which alerts them to the deaths, mingling the layers of ‘reality’ beyond any hope of disentanglement.

With the boy, the producer tries to get help for him, and picking him up she runs out of the theatre. We know she does this, because the screens now take up the story and show us a film of her running downstairs, across to the main house (oh, of course, it’s The Music Man tonight) running into the main house, into the auditorium, onto the stage (seventy-six trombones, if you’re interested), off again, and back the way she came, still clutching the boy, and still not getting any help, despite the fact that the theatre staff were very obligingly holding doors open for this poor woman who’s carrying a young boy in her arms, clearly distressed. I found this part quite boring. It’s been done before (Fram, Brief Encounter), it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the emotional content of the scene, the attempted layering of realities would have worked better if the theatre staff hadn’t been so obviously present (I’ve always found them very solicitous and helpful on the rare occasions I’ve been in need), and I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why this film was necessary. The boy was just as dead at the end of it as he was before, and she was just as distressed.

Returning to the Minerva stage, the producer collapses in a heap by the back wall of the office, and from there she witnesses a strange series of events. On the big screen, the director’s comments option is highlighted, and we hear a couple of voices talking about the film they’ve just made. It’s about a documentary team who get taken over by some characters, etc. The fun here was in the reshowing of the first scene. All the original characters are there, and apart from the producer, go through the same actions. The voices don’t need to see it all, however, so they fast forward through bits of it, and the actors on stage have to do the scene very fast. It’s hilariously funny. As I recall, the producer stays where she is, but says her lines as needed. Then the back office is lit up, and the same executive is listening to two guys selling him their concept for adapting Six Characters. It’s just out of copyright and they want to get in before the National does its version. The executive goes along with it, finding the idea of the stupid executive in the adaptation very funny, and phones up somebody to get clearance from the estate for this version to go ahead. This is where we get the information about Pirandello writing six different versions.

Then there’s a strange bit where the two guys pitching the idea are butchered by the father and daughter, and then we see Pirandello working hard to finish at least one version of the play. His servant(?) comes in to tell him dinner’s ready, and they have what appears to be a forgettable conversation, and then that’s all cleared and the back office lights up again. This time it contains the family of characters, preparing a bed for the producer. She goes through, takes to the bed, and accepts the syringe she’s given, injecting herself before lying down in the bed, lovingly looked after by the fatal group. I think that’s how it ended, but it seemed to disintegrate in the later stages, so I may be misremembering.

There was a suitably Pirandello-ish moment at the end when the actors came trooping on to take their bows. The young lad who was ‘dead’ at the back of the office didn’t move, and for a moment or two I wondered if this was another level of confusion for the audience. But it wasn’t. He got up, they all took their bows and headed off, while we hung on for the post-show (where we found out he had simply fallen asleep).

Before I mention any post-show comments, I’ve a few of my own concerning the evening’s entertainment. All the actors gave excellent performances. Ian McDiarmid as the father was wonderfully creepy, yet authoritative. Eleanor David I have already mentioned, and Denise Gough as the step-daughter was superb at showing us her anger and her disturbing involvement in prostitution. I will also mention Dylan Dwyfor as the legitimate son, whom we have seen before in The Comedy Of Errors in the RSC’s Complete Works Festival (Young Person’s Shakespeare). He didn’t get a lot of lines, and his character mainly sulks in the background, but he did it well.

My main praise though has to be for Noma Dumezweni as the producer. In many ways she holds this piece together, and as the crossover character she allows us into that nightmare world of uncertainty about our own existences. The producer had been deeply affected by her sister’s long illness and death, and that had caused her attitude towards euthanasia to shift 180 degrees. She was also perhaps looking for a way out for herself, and so this final choice didn’t feel like a new idea, but something that had been building for quite some time. I did feel at times that the characters were actually mass murderers, and that they’d be off to find another victim as soon as they’d buried this one, offering to tell their story again with equally deadly results.

One point that was made during the play and again in the post-show was that fictional characters are eternal. Bollocks. There are a lot of lost works of fiction that nobody remembers, so as far as this physical level is concerned, all their characters are dead. As dodos. For other levels of existence, that’s a different matter, but then the rules for ‘real’ people change at other levels too, so it’s still a silly point. Comes of people fearing death and wanting something to live forever, I suppose.

The post-show attracted a lot of people this time, more than usual for the Minerva. There were the inevitable questions about what the play meant, what was going on and what actually happened. No satisfactory answers were forthcoming, unsurprisingly. A woman expressed a more general concern about the young boy being present during some pretty disturbing activities, but we were reassured by the cast that he wasn’t at all bothered about it. He often had his back to the action, and didn’t really understand what was going on. We found out about the breathing tube, and apparently the actress diving in to ‘drown’ found it really exciting to do. (If you ever needed proof that actors are strange…..) I found I was out of step with the majority of the crowd, so I refrained from making any comments as I see no need to spoil the party on such occasions and I couldn’t think of any constructive questions to ask. On the whole, the audience were puzzled but appreciative, whereas I was not so much puzzled as disappointed, but on reflection it may have been a better production than I experienced on the night. It was still in the review period, so there may well be changes as they get more experience.

It’s certainly a very Chichester-based production, and with a lot of contemporary references, it won’t transfer to another stage or time easily. However the central idea of the adaptation wasn’t bad, and it seems other directors have made huge changes as well in the past, so we may never see a ‘traditional’ production ever in our lifetimes. Get used to it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me