Children’s Children – June 2012

6/10

By Matthew Dunster

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Monday 11th June 2012

The title of this play is meant to reflect the concern over what sort of planet we’re leaving to our children’s children, but apart from a long speech about the oil industry ruining parts of our planet – the environment and the people’s lives – this wasn’t really what the play was about. It concerned the relationships among a group of people, several of whom had been friends from their younger days, and charted the ups and downs in their relationships as the wheel of fortune turned. At times it was very funny, at times it was a bit dull, but although it could easily be criticised for a number of reasons, the overall story arc was strong and compelling enough to keep me in my seat for the second half – not everyone felt that way judging by the gaps after the interval.

Each act was introduced by a monologue from one of the characters, with a final monologue rounding the play off. For the first act we heard from Louisa, Michael’s second wife and the outsider of the group. Michael had previously been married to Clare, and with the other couple, Gordon and Sally, they had all gone to drama school together. None of them had made it big until a few years earlier, when Michael suddenly became ‘Mr Saturday Night’ through TV presenting, rather than acting, and after a couple of years not seeing much of each other, Gordon and Sally are visiting Michael and Louisa for lunch. Also included are Ellie, Gordon and Sally’s daughter and Michael’s god-daughter, and her boyfriend Castro, a wannabe film director.

The set was a stylish modern sitting room, with shelves on the right and windows to the left, doors either side, and prints of comic characters (Flash, Green Lantern, Iron Man) on the walls. The bottom shelf held a vast array of alcoholic drinks, the second shelf was mainly books, while the top shelf had a big ‘WOW’ along with some pottery. The colours were plain but strong, and the overall effect was of money and success. Louisa was a nervous talker, frequently changing direction, while Michael was a typical alpha male, dominating the conversation and giving excessive amounts of detail about the way sherry is made – his latest thing. Gordon was an unpleasant straight talker, while Sally was clearly having a lot of problems coping with their situation, which became clearer as the scene played out. Castro was a nice lad, almost the only decent character in the play in some ways, but there were already signs that he wouldn’t actually achieve anything despite his strong desire to address social problems in his films. His African background – his family were Zambian – gave him an interest in the exploitation of that continent’s natural resources and people, hence his knowledge of oil exploration and gas flaring later on.  Ellie was the most obviously obnoxious character from the word go; a sulky, spoiled brat, she didn’t like anything much, and although her father’s violence and threats towards her were shocking to watch, I got the impression that she was too far gone to respond to anything else.

After some initial chat, Gordon makes it clear that he wants to talk with Michael alone, so the others are hustled out of the way. Gordon spins Michael a real sob story about his financial difficulties, and Michael is broadly sympathetic. He’s made it big, the money’s no big deal to him, lifelong friends, etc. Gordon finally produces a figure of £50, 000 – enough to clear his immediate debts, and Michael is fine with that. Then the figure gets bumped up to include all the debts, and Michael’s suggesting £100,000. Then there’s the need for Gordon to set himself up in his own business, making use of his gardening skills – he’s had no acting work for a long time – so it’s up to £175,000. And finally Gordon plays his trump card; Ellie’s pregnant, Michael’s her god-father, so before you know it, the total sum is £250,000, and in cash! (So the banks won’t get their hands on it.) At this point, it looks like a generous gesture from one friend who’s had huge success, towards another friend who’s completely out of luck.

The second act began with Sally’s monologue, when she told us how important Dorset was to her. Apparently she and Gordon had been joined on their honeymoon by Michael and Clare, with the group getting so smashed on the wedding night that Sally fell asleep in wedding dress on the floor while the other three ended up in the bed together. What larks! The set had been changed to show a garden setting, with the walls swung round to give the French doors and a garden wall, a table and chairs, lounger and a swimming pool at the back. This was the house in Dorset which Michael mentioned he was buying in the first act, which was close to where Sally and Gordon got married. They were now staying at the house from time to time, usually when Michael and Louisa weren’t there, and much more often than Michael and Louisa knew about. On this occasion Ellie and Castro, along with their baby (whom we never see) were also staying, and it was during the family rows that I started to nod off a bit, family rows being much the same wherever you go. It’s fine to show these things in all their natural awfulness, but they don’t necessarily have dramatic value nor do they create any tension or sense of jeopardy. Still, once Michael and Louisa turned up, there was plenty of both.

The end of Sally’s monologue had hinted at a change of fortune for Michael, and so it was no surprise when he and Louisa turned up unexpectedly at their country retreat to avoid the press. Michael had finally been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a couple of women at the TV studio, and although Sally talked convincingly of his innocence, Louisa was clearly not sure. Michael was in a very bad temper, understandably, but did calm down enough to share with Gordon that, while he intended to tell Louisa the truth, he wasn’t sure yet which truth it would be – it depended on how many women came forward. He started to put pressure on Gordon over the money he’d given him, the investment in the business, and when he could expect to get some of it back; Gordon fobbed him off as best he could, but it was clear he hadn’t put an ounce of effort into setting up a business. The act ended with Sally getting a call from her agent about an audition, with the prospect of a TV series; the wheel of fortune was taking another turn.

They took the interval after act two, which gave the stage crew plenty of time to set up the third act set – a fancy modern kitchen with a table and chairs to our right and the appliances and work island to the left. The door was roughly in the middle. The monologue this time was done by Castro, who expressed his dislike for Ellie and the whole family. He felt he was caught up in their lives and seemed to want to get free, but would he actually have the nerve?

Since act two, Michael had gone to prison and lost everything, including Louisa. Gordon had died, and act three took place after the funeral. Louisa was there, and with both of their menfolk out of the way, she and Sally came across as stronger people. Sally had been successful at the audition, so this new house was entirely her doing, while Ellie’s looks had resulted in modelling work, and she had also produced a range of clothing for mothers and daughters – completely identical clothes. She was also adept at using the social media as part of her marketing strategy, so although she was still vain, self-centred and thoroughly unpleasant to everyone, she was at least making a success of her life commercially. Castro was very unhappy about this, but despite his strong convictions, the world had yet to see any visible results from his film-making.

This act did develop the attraction between him and Louisa. We’d seen it during the first two acts; she’d been uncomfortable about it because of his relationship with Ellie, especially once he was the father of her child, but she was also the only person who seemed to be really interested in his ideas and passions. The result of this was a ten minute monologue about the damage being done to the environment and local cultures by the oil giants, Shell in particular. He even talked about how people in the West found these subjects boring, and tuned out of any discussion of them, which was true of most of the audience tonight. But it showed us the positive side of Castro, a side we hadn’t been able to see before because the other characters were always shutting him up, and it also allowed Sally to change her attitude towards him; she’d been heavily into charity work when Michael had lots of money to give away, so she had both empathy for Castro’s ideals and an understanding of how often the talk wasn’t converted into real action.

The changes and character development were interesting enough, but then Michael turned up, looking like he was sleeping rough, and demanding that Sally repay the £250,000 he had lent to Gordon years ago. Ellie was so angry that he’d even turned up that she went for him and had to be restrained, while even Sally, up to now the most tolerant of people, had the most vicious rant at him and the other two in their original group, Clare and Gordon. All her resentment of the way they’d treated her, all her suspicions of betrayal came pouring out in an almost incoherent torrent of words. She grasped the work island and was bent almost double as she relieved herself of all the bile and bitterness she’d stored up. And in a wonderful touch of black comedy, when she turned around and saw Louisa standing in the doorway, she became apologetic for having said all those things in front of her.

The reactions to Michael wanting his money back were interesting. Sally and Ellie disclaimed all knowledge of the £250,000. They had been told, by Gordon, that he’d got £10,000 from Michael to pay off the mortgage, and nothing else. (I wasn’t sure if that had been paid back to Michael or not.) The rest was news to them, and when Michael said he’d paid Gordon in cash, he suddenly looked like the biggest idiot in the world. Louisa knew about the loan, but she wouldn’t confirm or deny anything; she was still angry with Michael for throwing away the good life they both had, and was focused on getting him out of the house. She told Ellie to call the police and tell them that Michael was in the house and was threatening them; given his background, the police wouldn’t be happy with that situation. This led to the funniest bit of the play; after Ellie had called 999, she yelled into the phone that ‘Michael fucking Stewart was in her house and she wanted him fucking out’ or words to that effect. After a pause, she said, quite calmly, ‘police, please’ – we all knew what the rest of the conversation had been. [I checked the text later – that wasn’t in the original script.]

After Michael left, the act soon finished, and then the play was rounded off with a monologue from Ellie, again expecting, twins this time. She was ever so proud of her daughter’s first blog (not that her daughter was actually writing it, of course), and she spent some time telling us about the naming options they’d come up with for the twins, one boy and one girl. The girl was easy – there were lots of African names which had beautiful meanings. She had wanted to name the boy after her father, but Gordon? Although it wasn’t the most clear-cut ending, this speech did round off the play well enough, and could be seen as an upbeat ending in some ways.

While it kept me watching, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the play. I can’t put my finger on the reason for it, but it just didn’t fully engage me. It’s fine to pose the questions without having any answers, but what questions was this play posing exactly? It’s still enjoyable enough, and the performances were all absolutely excellent, but I wouldn’t expect to see it again anytime soon.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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