By: Stephen Poliakoff
Directed by: Stephen Poliakoff
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Wednesday 26th October 2011
Stephen Poliakoff is very good at evoking memories, and this play has more than its fair share. When Richard finds his former head teacher lying on a bench by the river, this chance encounter triggers a memory-fest for characters and audience alike. It’s fascinating to look at the layers of memories, the different perceptions we have when we’re young, and of course the different memories each person can have of the same event, and the different meanings those memories evoke.
The overall story was another simple one, though there were a lot of other stories told during it. After Richard meets Miss Lambert on the bench, he gives her his mobile number, as he wants to keep in touch. She’s more enigmatic about that, but does arrange to meet him and Julie, another former pupil who’s been friends with Richard since school. They meet up in a bar at the top of a huge shopping mall, and after a while arrange to meet again an hour later down in the subterranean depths of the same mall. Miss Lambert spends her nights wandering around London, and this strange behaviour, plus his fond memories, have hooked Richard into finding out more.
Downstairs they find that Mr Minken and Miss Summers are also joining them for a drink. Quite a lot of drink, in fact. These were two other teachers from the same school whom we’ve already met through flashbacks showing us Miss Lambert’s unusual style of school assembly. I don’t remember any of my teachers impersonating large dogs or big black birds during our school assemblies – would have been more fun if they had. Mr Minkin is carrying a suitcase, and explains that he’s clearing his brother’s house out. The suitcase has the things he’s keeping, and these are all old toys he had when and his brother were growing up – as in the assemblies, the toys are used to help tell more stories.
Eventually Mr Minken offers to make supper for the whole group – he’s an excellent cook – and so Richard and Julie find themselves in another basement, this one so close to the underground that they can hear the rumble of trains quite clearly through the walls. A cornucopia of childhood memories is stored in this room, including many of the large pictures which a whole class had made together. There are also some slides and a recording of Richard and Julie doing one of their presentations to an assembly. With Richard’s story of his successful career crumbling, Miss Summers leaves, and then the rest go to a 24-hour café to continue their nocturnal journey. When Julie leaves to take Mr Minken home, Richard and Miss Lambert are left to have the final confrontation, one which will hopefully heal some of her pain and bring her back to the light that she’s been avoiding.
So it’s a ramble through the past, as is usual with Poliakoff. What makes this play interesting is the story-telling aspects. Miss Lambert is particularly prone to telling little stories throughout the play, and during the assembly ones she encourages the children (i.e. us) to listen to the sounds they can hear outside the classroom. It’s amazing how powerful these sounds can be in bringing pictures to mind, and the sound effects were very well done. Many of the stories seemed unbelievable at first, but Poliakoff is known for his research into little known areas of history, so I would guess that they were mostly based on reality. [After checking the program notes, only the Titus Meredith story was entirely made up.]
I found the story-telling so good, in fact, that I felt the energy of the play dropped a bit in the second half. We had been kept in suspense, wondering what had caused Miss Lambert to become nocturnal. We toyed with the idea that she and her fellow teachers were deliberately finding old pupils and sorting their lives out in some way, even going so far as to bump them off perhaps (Sweeney Todd’s still a bit fresh in the memory). Once the real story started to come out, I felt a bit deflated; it was much more fun having the possibilities in front of us compared to the relatively dull reality. It was still interesting, though not as much.
The set was amazing, with lots of different locations created very quickly with lighting effects and some furniture and props. The basement location was the most elaborate, while the cafes were simply tables and chairs with a few signs. The assemblies were represented with two or three small red chairs, kid’s size, and the opening and closing scenes had a large head on the back wall and a park bench – nice and simple.
The performances were all excellent. Tracey Ullman was very prim and proper as Miss Lambert, even reminding me of the Queen at times. Her story-telling was marvellous, and I could well imagine children being inspired by such a teacher. David Troughton was very good as Mr Minken, especially telling the story of his father’s escape from Germany after the Nazis came to power. We were aware of the importance of his little model plane and the box he was carrying, and nearly lost, and I found this the most moving story of the lot.
Sorcha Cusack was lovely as Miss Summers, and Sian Brooke was very good as Julie, tough as nails to begin with, but showing her kindness as well. Hannah Arterton played several waitresses with varying attitudes, ranging from hostility to friendliness, and Tom Riley held it together as Richard, the young man whose career hasn’t been quite as dazzling as he pretended. When he was confronted about this by his teachers, he began to stammer again, a problem from his childhood, and I reckoned they had guessed he was lying because he hadn’t stammered before. It’s as if he could only speak clearly when he was lying in some way, or at least not talking about his own life. When the truth came out, so did the stammer and they could tell it was real.
There were many layers to this play – memories, changes in society, strange lives, the difference between children and the adults they become – and I would probably get even more out of if I saw it again. It was enjoyable to watch, and it’s good to have Poliakoff back in the theatre; he has a distinctive voice, and it’s one I’ve missed.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me