Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Revenge of the Theatre Round-Up

Three more trips to the theatre? How desperately decadent of me...

One Man, Two Guvnors – at The National Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors is a bit of old-fashioned vaudeville, nostalgic not just in its setting, but as a piece of traditional knock-about farce.

The plot is highly convoluted, but revolves essentially around a doomed marriage. A small time crook’s daughter was supposed to marry a local gangster, but as he turned up dead, a hasty engagement has been arranged between her and a terrible actor. But suddenly the gangster’s man, Henshaw, TV’s James Corden, shows up, revealing that his boss is not dead. He arrives a moment, later demanding the marriage be put back on, and that the girl’s father pays him the dowry promised.

The gangster is staying at a Brighton pub, where his man Corden waits for him. There he meets a post-public school toff, who’s waiting to meet his girl, but could do with a man to do odd jobs for him. Corden, who’s poor and hungry, accepts the job, and spends the rest of the play serving both his masters while trying to conceal his dual employment from the other. Unknown to him, his gangster boss is the toff’s girlfriend in disguise; she’s the twin of the gangster who has been killed. And unknown to her, the toff is the one who did it.

Yes it is confusing, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s quite a traditional mix of situations and characters (the dumb bimbo, the appalling actor) but carried off with great enthusiasm. The script packs the gags in, missing few opportunities for comic quips and tomfoolery. And the cast are clearly enjoying themselves, frequently having to grimace to avoid severe corpsing. Rumour has it that they had to be disciplined for improvising too much and causing overruns – and you can believe it, things did go on longer than suggested.

While the character scenes are fun, it’s the extended slapstick sequences with Corden that really light up the room. Corden is remarkably nimble - at one point he throws a chocolate in the air falls backward over a chair and manages to catch it in his mouth.

He also involves the audience in his antics, several times calling upon members to step up and get involved, adding an extra hint of danger to proceedings. The scene in which he attempts to serve food to both his masters, while scoffing half the food himself, trying to get help from a trembling decrepit old waiter (who falls victim to all kinds of violent calamities), and while tormenting a member of the audience who he forces to hold his stolen food and then hides on stage in humiliating places. It is such an incredibly well constructed and timed piece of anarchy that it’s exhaustingly hilarious.

Of course the audience got its chance to confuse and confound Corden too. While he begs the audience for a sandwich, anything to eat, he’s caught off guard by someone who has a spare sandwich in the front row. He hesitates at taking it in hysterics (it’s a hummus sandwich after all) commenting that it had to happen eventually.

The second half isn’t quite as good, as it mostly deals with pulling together the plot, reducing the opportunities for comic knock-about. But it’s easy to see why One Man has been such a massive success. It’s so good natured, so cheerfully bright, and pulled off with such fervour, it could only take the mostly defiantly sour soul to come out with anything but a smile on their face and a chest aching from sides-a-split.

One Man, Two Guvnors is transferring to the West End in November, with the original cast, and will be touring the country in the New Year.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Comfort is very important in theatre land – it’s hard to get absorbed by a performance when you’re constantly shuffling around in your seat. Now cheap seats are cheap seats but the not-especially low priced seats at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (£20) do not seem naturally designed for the human derriere. Imagine a church pew, but with significantly less surface area and virtually no padding and minimal leg room. And worse, there is a gap between the base and the back, so if you stretch you prod the person in front in the back with your toes.

Fortunately, after the interval, the afflicted were able to move into empty seats on the next level, although these were not especially good either. By normal standards these would be the cheap seats, except they’re not very cheap (£38); I shalln’t be coming back here unless it’s a really special production.

If any kind of play requires you to be in comfort and to relax, it’s an existential one – it’s not like you’ll be gripped by the action. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead takes two supporting characters from Hamlet and focuses the story around them – only that is doesn’t; all the action still revolves around Hamlet, while Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are constantly on the sidelines, constantly baffled and unsure about what’s going on around them.

Not only do they not understand what’s going on, they also sort of know that they’re supporting characters, people of little significance – pawns in a large plan. And they’re not sure they like it. Do they go along with it all, see out their fate? Or do they try to change it, or do the unthinkable, and simply walk away?

It’s a smart idea, and it’s often very funny. It’s just that at two and a half hours, it’s hardly gripping. The actors are funny, their metaphysical conundrums smart and often witty, but it’s hard to really engage with it all. The conversation moves so quickly from one theme to the next, it’s hard to keep up and it’s not like you can root for either of the leads, because they’re not really full characters. Of course that’s part of the joke (not even they remember which one of them is Rosencrantz and which one is Guildenstern), but that doesn’t make up for a lack of emotive connectivity.

A non-traditional narrative is all very well, but there’s only so long you can keep it up before the lack of structure becomes a problem. Though the idea gives way to much discussion and postulating, it’s still quite a simple one, one that can only stretch so far. When at one point the more weedy and effeminate of the two screams what he wouldn’t give for some definitive action, the audience sort of thinks, well actually yes, that would be nice. We get a brief pirate fight.

The ending is rather sad – after all, who amongst hasn’t ever felt powerless against a tide of events beyond our control? But it’s a long journey, and not one for those who detest a numb backside and a bent back.

Betrayal at The Comedy Theatre

Now in stark contrast to the back-breaking, wallet-exploiting seatery of the Haymarket, was the incredible value of The Comedy Theatre, where a sensible £8 was charged for seats with a view restricted by a narrow pillar. Rather a bargain, as it was not difficult to see around anyway. Better yet, the seat next to it was never taken, so I hopped across and got a superb view of the action.
Betrayal is a Harold Pinter play about a woman who has a long-standing affair with her husband’s best friend. But the trick is that it all happens in reverse, well, almost – the years roll back, but events that take place in each year occur chronologically.

The play starts in a pub, with the wonderful Kristen-Scott Thomas as Emma sitting together with Jerry, two years after their affair has ended. They are at a pub apparently, although a bed is visible in the background, and is throughout the story, a constant nagging reminder of the tawdry. Emma’s marriage to Robert finally seems to be over. Jerry is horrified to discover that Emma has finally revealed their affair to Robert. But the truth is even worse: when he later meets Robert he discovers that Emma has lied; Robert has known for four years, well before the affair ended.

Then the clock ticks back and we see how events took them to this place. Jerry and Emma rent a flat to meet in secret, and decorate it together as if they lived there as a real couple. Robert discovers their affair when Jerry sends Emma a letter while they are holidaying in Italy. He confronts her angrily, yet later continues to treat Jerry cordially, as if there is no change. Although they no longer play squash from that point on – a classic Pinter joke on human eccentricity.

Pinter plays tend not to pass judgements on characters, but offer an investigation and insight into human behaviour. The reverse chronology allows for a piece by piece assembly of the story, one which cleverly reveals the character’s behaviour in a new light. Robert is unlikeable when we first meet him, he evens states that he sometimes hits Emma – though we never see it (is it posturing?). And he has also confessed to having had affairs.

But as the clock turns back, and post their confrontation, he comforts his wife when Jerry reveals he will be away, meaning of course that she cannot see him. She is heartbroken that the affair will have to come to an end (although it doesn’t) and yet he comforts her. He is forgiving, and we can only assume that the passing years drive him bitter. The fact he never confronts Jerry is less an act of Machiavellian cruelty or cowardess, but to spare her humiliation. Though the least likeable, he may be the most wronged against.

Emma seems to be in love with the early thrills and fancies of a relationship, the free and easy casual days of romance, before the mundanities and inconveniences of life get in the way. She lives a fantasy home life with Jerry away from her real home life with Robert.

And then Jerry… Of all of them his attitude seems the most casual and laissez-faire, the most unconcerned with guilt (until Robert confronts him). Yet at the very beginning of the affair, he is a man of romance and passion. He may ultimately be the most cynical of all, and the most disappointed with life. He is ironically the most likeable, even though his crimes are equal to Emma’s. He is married too, but his wife is never seen and barely spoken of.

Betrayal is a thoughtful, believable and intelligent play, and is extremely well performed by the cast. It has no easy answers; none of the three are condemned, if anything we feel sorry for all of them. Betrayal is as much about getting older as it is betraying, with no one quite getting what they thought they wanted, and with the years passing by, feeling more and more unfulfilled. And of course putting together all the non-chronological pieces of the puzzle adds an additional touch of entertainment.