Dumb Show – April 2010


By Joe Penhall

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th April 2010

Dire. Superficial. Banal. I rarely get to use these words to refer to a performance we’ve seen, but today they’re all apt. The second half showed some improvement, but not enough to raise the overall rating, and although there were a few good laughs, for the most part this was a waste of a good afternoon. (Although as it was also the day of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud closing UK airports, that may a little unfair.)

The story was of Barry, an Asian performer whose show was never clearly specified, being courted for business purposes in a hotel suite by a couple of bankers, who are actually investigative journalists out to get a story for the Sunday sleaze papers about how a well-loved entertainer is actually involved in naughty stuff, such as booze, drugs, improper sexual advances, etc., etc. You know the sort of thing. With a name like Barry, I assume the central character was originally more home-grown, but with Sanjeev Baskar playing the part it was fine-tuned to reflect his background.

The reporters, played by Emma Cunniffe and Dexter Fletcher, want to get more details from Barry to confirm what they’ve already got, and to find even more juicy bits to make the story bigger. They use all sorts of tactics, from bullying to enticements, and it was very clear that nothing they said could be believed. There was a short spell in the second half when Barry stood up to them, but then he went back to being putty in their hands, for no discernible reason I could see. Eventually he left, threatening them with all sorts of lawsuits if they published their story, and the final scene shows Barry meeting again with Liz in the same hotel room so she can tempt him to provide a follow-up story of how much he loved his wife Valerie, now dead from the cancer(?) that she’d been suffering from during Barry’s earlier stint in the room. The play ends with Barry, who’d been going to walk out on her, taking the phone to speak to her editor and after thinking for a long while, asking how much the fee would be.

The story wasn’t new, given how much this topic gets bandied about these days, and from this performance I’d have to say that the writing was pretty weak. There weren’t enough laughs to make it a properly enjoyable piece, and while the superficiality of the writing might be excused on the grounds that these are superficial people, that level of dialogue doesn’t support this long a play unless it’s done entirely for laughs. It takes a much better standard of authorship to make us care about the shallow, conceited, callous folk on show here. The opening was so fast and furious it reminded me of David Mamet’s work, but this was definitely sub-sub-sub Mamet in quality.

However, we’re both agreed that if this play does come around again with a different cast, we might be prepared to give it a go. Emma Cunniffe was fine, and Dexter Fletcher would have been fine if he had projected sufficiently for us to catch more of his lines, but Sanjeev Baskar was just too nice to give the production the darker edge it needed. Far from seeming the alcoholic, cheating husband who snorted cocaine like his life depended on it, he looked more like a man who would be home in good time for dinner because his wife might tell him off in a loud voice if he didn’t. His emotional range was limited, so that, apart from a flash of anger in the second half, his character didn’t seem to be feeling much at all. In the opening scene, when the two journalists are wheedling him into having some champagne, more could have been made of Barry’s alcoholism, and the fact that their pressure makes them seriously complicit in his bad behaviour later, after he’s downed most of the contents of the mini-bar.

That aside, Sanjeev can deliver a funny line really well; if only there had been a lot more of them, we’d have really enjoyed ourselves.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Landscape With Weapon – May 2007


By: Joe Penhall

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2007

This was four-hander, exploring some of the issues around the technology of warfare and arms dealing in general. It was great fun, also quite moving, and although nothing particularly surprised me, it was still good to see someone writing this stuff at this time.

The Cottesloe had been set up with a central strip of stage, entrances either end, and simple furniture. To our left, there was a kitchen, and to our right was the entrance to the flat. Tom Hollander, dressed (I use the word loosely) in relaxed mode, plays Ned, who has designed an advanced guidance system for military drones. His brother Dan, played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, is a dentist, venturing into Botox, with a militant anti-war wife. Dan is fond of saying “yeah, no, yeah…” a lot, which is something I find myself doing; now I know how it sounds, I’ll have to stop doing it! It was very funny, though, as was most of their chat. In fact, the play changes mood gradually from the beginning, taking on a greater degree of menace towards the end, when Jason Watkins, as Brooks, the man from security, gets involved.

Ned wants to avoid his design being used in a bad way. He doesn’t mind people being killed as such (it’s fewer people than would be killed the conventional way), but he gets worried after talking with Dan that his application might actually be used to kill people who didn’t deserve it – innocent civilians, for example. In fact, the only surprise in the whole play was that anyone could be that intelligent nowadays and not have a clearer idea of what might be done with such an advanced weapon. Still, we allow our nerds and geeks some leeway in social matters, including how the world works, so it didn’t get in my way.

Pippa Haywood plays Angela Ross, the Commercial Director of the firm which Ned works for, and which wants to get a deal signed with the British government to manufacture the product. There’s a bit of commercial stuff about how the UK government wants 51% of the intellectual copyright, with the intention of selling on the weapon to other countries. Ned’s concern is how that may lead to the weapon being sold to countries that would use it in the wrong way, and he holds out for a controlling share of the IP rights. The Commercial Director does her best to persuade him to sign up to the existing deal, but it’s no go.

The scene shifts to the factory after the interval, and the set is changed quite simply. The carpet runner is removed, revealing aircraft shapes on the floor, the sides are lit differently to show up the glass bricks, and shadows of fighter planes are thrown onto these walls. It reminded me of the museum at Coventry, I think. As Ned is still refusing to play ball, the security man is called in, and Jason gives us a lovely turn as the cheerful chappy who’s all friendly to begin with, but who turns on the pressure to make sure Ned changes his mind.

Next we see Brooks applying the pressure to Dan, as Ned has scarpered, having ballsed up his coding to make the weapon useless. Dan isn’t made of particularly stern stuff, and after a short while “volunteers” to give Brooks all the information he could possibly want. The final scene is another duologue between Dan and Ned, where we find out what happened to Ned after he’s picked up by Brooks.

There was a lot of fun in the language and the performances, all of which were excellent. The play struck me as being more about the people and their relationship within the arms industry, plus Dan’s relationship with Ned. It is a bit scary to consider some of the possibilities for the way weapons are changing now, but the reality as experienced by our troops in Iraq shows that superior firepower only gets you so far. Peace cannot be so easily imposed on people who don’t want it, and increased technological superiority isn’t the final answer.

Must just mention the entertaining fight over the curry take away. I’m often distracted when there’s real food on stage, and this was no exception, but I still enjoyed the scrap between the two men, ending up with them lying, exhausted, across the table. Great fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me