A Number – August 2015

Experience: 4/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Joint production by Nuffield Theatre and Young Vic

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 5th August 2015

More nonsense from the Young Vic. When we went to pick up our tickets, the young woman at the box office kept the actual tickets and instead gave us a couple of blanks printed with numbers, in this case 211 and 212. In other words, we were given a number so we could get in to see A Number, geddit? I don’t know how long it took the creative team to come up with that particular gem of wit, but if it was any longer than ten seconds they deserve to be fired. This sort of crass idea is becoming all too prevalent nowadays, and while I have no problem with whimsy and humour, this just came across as heavy-handed and patronising. Fortunately Steve got hold of our real tickets as well, so the archives will be complete.

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Top Girls – July 2011

8/10

By: Caryl Churchill

Directed by: Max Stafford-Clark

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 14th July 2011

We’d seen this play back in the early 90s, and I hadn’t cared for it much. However, we do like to see every production in Chichester’s Festival seasons, so we included this production, but kept our expectations low. As so often happens when we do that, the experience turns out to be much better than we’d hoped, and I saw a lot more in the play than I remember from the earlier production.

The opening scene, the dinner party with several dead and fictional guests, was done virtually in the round, with a table towards the front of the space and the entrance to the restaurant at the back, down some steps. The conversation was just as muddled as before, and although it seemed contrived at times, on the whole I found it pretty realistic. Even though several of the guests had their backs to us, I actually heard and understood much more of this party scene than before, and some of the business was much more fun. Dull Gret, for example, with her back to us, could easily be seen tipping as much food as possible into the basket by her side, which gave her plenty of ammunition for the bread-throwing section.

The shift in tone to the rest of the play didn’t jar, as far as I was concerned, even if it was unusual. The kids’ conversation did go on a bit, but it did convey important information. The change to the employment agency was also good, with desks being brought on very quickly, and bales of hay removed just as fast. The final scene, with the confrontation between the two sisters’ perspectives and the confirmation of Angie’s parentage, was well done, and on the whole I can see why this play is regarded as a classic. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this it again, but it was nice to revisit it and gain a fresh perspective.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cloud Nine – December 2007

8/10

By: Caryl Churchill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th December 2007

We’d seen this play back in the 80s at Chichester. Neither of us could remember much about it apart from Tom Hollander dressed as a little girl. We weren’t sure how good this afternoon’s performance was going to be, and our low expectations gave us ample scope to enjoy this production, which seemed much funnier and more interesting than we expected.

The play was originally developed during a workshop period, with Caryl Churchill going off and writing the piece after the actors and director had explored a specific topic, in this case sexual politics. For the first half, we see a family out in Africa in Victorian times, supporting Queen and country, and seething with repressed and expressed passions of all kinds. With mixed gender roles – the son is played by a woman, the mother by a man – there’s a lively sense of fun which reminded Steve of farce. The set is simple – a round raked disc (is this a theme? – Thea Sharrock did the same thing with The Emperor Jones) with a square flat platform in the middle, a doorway with a couple of windows, and a bench. Sophie Stanton, who played two characters in this half, had a lot of quick changes to do, but otherwise the characters stayed the same throughout.

In the second half, we see the family group twenty-five years on, but in terms of the outside world, we’re now in 1979, in London. This strange warping of time works remarkably well. Victorian attitudes lingered on for longer than necessary anyway, and this juxtaposition shows up the changes more clearly than a more realistic timescale would have. It’s also good fun, as when the Victorian characters reappear from time to time – more quick changes, but for everyone this time. There’s no real plot, just the characters discovering what works for them and what doesn’t.

For example, Betty the mother is now a prim, uptight sexually repressed woman who worries for England and gradually finds her feet, and her clitoris, by the end of the play. Her daughter Vicky, played rather well by a doll in the first half, now emerges as a woman in her own right, but so far up the collective gender political backside that we sometimes need subtitles to understand her. Her determination to find herself as a woman makes it virtually impossible for her man, Martin, to know where he stands. I found myself wondering if these scenes were funnier now that we’ve moved on a bit from those situations, or if this is just a much funnier production.

The son, Edward, now played by a man instead of a girl, has accepted his homosexuality, and is content to be a wife to some man. Unfortunately, his partner of choice is rampantly unfaithful, so Martin ends up living with Vicky and her lesbian lover, Lin – a more interesting ménage-a-trois than most. The next generation consist of Cathy, Lin’s daughter, whom we see, and Tommy, Martin and Vicky’s son, whom we don’t. Cathy is played by James Fleet, who also played the father in the first half, all rugged colonial with a moustache and a hard-on for another woman. The moustache stayed on for part two, and although it didn’t entirely go with the pink frock, after a while we got used to it. I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t become the fashion, though.

The play ends with Betty of old coming on to be embraced by Betty of now. It wasn’t a bad ending – I just felt we hadn’t concentrated on Betty enough to make it a completely fitting ending. However, this is probably a compliment to the fine ensemble work that kept the whole piece entertaining all the way through.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Number – November 2006

Experience: 8/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 17th November 2006

This play deals with the subject of cloning – a wonderfully open area for speculation and exploration, as yet largely untouched by dramatists. (I suspect sci-fi writers have already had a field day.) A father is confronted by three versions of his son – the ideal one, the original, flawed version, and another copy who’d been brought up without knowing his origins. The mother had died in an accident, and the original son had suffered from the loss of his mother, or from his father’s subsequent behaviour, or more likely from both – the father treats his son abominably, leaving him alone for hours on end, presumably beating him badly, and the like. Then the father decides to try and get his original “sweet” son back, to replace the monster he’s now got. So he opts for cloning, and gets back a lovely little baby, who turns out to be a “good” son. The other has been shuffled off into care. Unfortunately, the people doing the experiment, either for scientific research, or because they have to have some spares in case some don’t take, produce around twenty clones of the original, all of them still living. It’s this revelation that the “good” son brings to his father at the start, and the whole story unravels from there.

This production was immeasurably helped by the casting – Timothy West as the father and Sam West as the son. It did make one change of emphasis – when the son asks the father “Are you my father?”, we know the answer – it’s staring us in the face. With other casting, it might be possible to leave even more doubt in the audience’s mind about the relationships going on here. But this is not a complaint, merely an observation.

The set was minimal – a square floor, two chairs, lights that swept back and forth as if “scanning” the characters, and a vast array of test tubes hanging from the ceiling like a modern light fitting. This play is so tightly scripted, that we really don’t want anything too fussy to take attention away from the dialogue. And the performances tonight were excellent. There’s a lot of half-sentences, words tailing off into nothing, that say more than the words could do, and all of this was meat and drink to two such skilled actors. It took me a moment or two to tune in to the accents, but then I found the play almost Pinterish in its intensity and compactness. Not a word is wasted. The three sons are easy to distinguish, and the unfolding relationships are very compelling to watch. It’s a short play – only 50 minutes long – but it packs a lot into a small space. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We did have one distraction the night we went. A lady in a wheelchair was taken ill towards the end, and several people were helping her – it looked like a doctor came down from the side seating to help out. She was taken out, and an ambulance was arriving just as we were leaving the theatre. I hope she was OK. Although it was visible to at least one of the actors, they carried on superbly, and we were able to keep our focus mostly on the play. There was also an appeal at the end for an actors’ charity, so buckets were to the fore on the way out.

I did miss some of the dialogue at times, which is the problem with theatre in the round – they’d put seats at the back of the stage as well this time, so the actors had to keep moving. Overall, though, it was a really good piece of theatre, and raises some interesting questions.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me