Theatre Critic and Journalist

Sideways Glance Outwards

Sideways Glance Outwards

“Enough already,” I can hear you shouting, “What’s with the navel-gazing?” Well, yes, quite.

The final days of the calendar year may be primetime for personal reflection, but they are also a time of endless, infinite lists of top tens, twenties, fifties and ever afters. (None better, of course, than the irreverence of those West End Whingers, which make for obligatory seasonal reading and can be found here.) Given also that this year is fortunate to end in a nine, the media has been struck down with a severe case of list-lust and delivered unto us a thousand of the decade’s best and worst whatevers. Not that I’m complaining too much, of course!

So anyway, I suppose I ought to follow suit and offer up my own theatrical highlights, so in no particular order and with no particular angle or agenda, here’s something of a larger round up.

I’ve enjoyed making proper acquaintance with several companies and individuals this year. That’s pretty much the stage I’m at, I suppose: still shaking hands and exchanging formalities. The result is that there are some fairly old hands in this group of fresh faces.

Prime among them was the chance to get to know Chris Goode’s work. Having been a faithful visitor at Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire for some time, it was a real pleasure to see Chris’s practice in, um, practice on four separate occasions: the effortlessly charming Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley; the icily beautiful and multifarious Glass House; The Forest and the Field, a performance lecture that I thoroughly intended to write about but never got round to; and my personal favourite, his ticklish, yet tragic, travel guide to a dusty corner of the internet, Hippo World Guest Book.

I also loved my first encounters with Robin Deacon (Prototypes), Inspector Sands & Stomping Ground, the amazing Gob Squad, Simon Stephens (both Punk Rock and Pornography), Le Navet Bête (Zemblanity), Phillip Ridley (Fastest Clock), Iron Shoes (Crush), playmakers Coney, Tinned Fingers and Stefan Golaszewski.

Elsewhere, it’s been fun to chart the progress of a couple of more familiar faces. It was a pleasure to see the rise and rise of Action Hero in 2009. Watch Me Fall, which I had first caught as a work-in-progress at Forest Fringe 2008, developed into something quite special, furthering the Lilliputian nature of A Western and gathering a new sense of density along the way. Beyond that my peak into their process for their forthcoming Frontman, which saw James Stenhouse transformed into a whirling dervish of inevitable shortfall in an attempt to “lose control”, proved two of the most exhilarating minutes of pure theatre this year.

Great, also, to catch up with Rotozaza after a couple of years apart. For my money they really are pioneering a form in autotheatro and audio-based instructional performance that has extraordinary potential. No other company that I’ve come across is interrogating it with as keen an eye and as critical a brain. Instead, the crucial questions Ant et al are asking too often go unasked. And, in the the emerging company stakes, Dancing Brick just pip Little Bulb. More than most young companies, The Bulbs have a really strong sense of identity, which was bolstered by the unpretentious exuberance of their epic-folk opera Sporadical. Moreover they are becoming ever more productive, tossing out theatrical morsels (such as their entrancing Sight Reading at the Shunt Vaults) willy nilly. However, the development of Dancing Brick is a real source of pleasure. Both Hannah & Ike (again, at the Shunt Vaults) and Heap & Pebble burst the seams of their debut, 21:13, by being shaped into a whole rather than a mind-map. The unexpected tragedy that emerged from the iceless dancers was one of my highlights at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe (which was, in any case, a pretty spectacular year.)

But enough of school report style stuff, let’s move from effort to attainment: that is, onto the individual theatrics that blew me away for one reason or another.

Seeking Oedipus, Purcell Rooms, as part of the London International Mime Festival

Over There, Royal Court
Sadly neglected in the summations of the Royal Court’s annus mirabilis, Ravenhill’s study of a divided family within the divided Berlin that it encapsulated was a fearsome mix of reality and fiction. Brilliantly directed by Ramin Gray and Ravenhill himself with a superbly clinical and lucid design from Johannes Schütz, Over There extended the in-yer-face shock-tactics, for which the Royal Court is easily ridiculed, into the grit of live art. The real treat, though, was the power of the Treadaway twins – more as performers, or rather, objects of both fascination and repulsion, than as actors per se. Terribly bold, feisty and, at times, stomach-churning.

Inferno, Barbican Centre

Monsters, Arcola Theatre

Pictures from an Exhibition, Young Vic
This dance-theatre exploration of Modest Mussorgsk’s life and work, a co-production with Sadler’s Wells, was a sumptuous affair. Boldly colourful and giddily surrealist without ever losing sight of the ardours of the artist’s internal wrangling.

Jerusalem, Royal Court
What more can I add to the praise heaped on Butterworth’s text and Rylance’s performance? Packed as much with humanity as with humour, Jerusalem single-handedly refuelled my enjoyment of the play.

Internal, Ontroerend Goed & the Traverse

Land Without Words, English Theatre Berlin

Trilogy, Nic Green & The Arches

Iris Brunette, Melanie Wilson & FUEL Theatre
Proved to be just what I need after two Edinburgh festival weeks crammed to bursting with performance. I didn’t so much watch or experience Iris Brunette as absorb it. The darkness, the warm-glow and the melted husk of Wilson’s voice has the same effect on me as a weekend at Champneys. Gloriously golden slumbers with as luxuriant a quality as Calvino’s writing (yes, him again) as it journeyed through a city half-destroyed and unfamiliar.

Stillen, Sadler’s Wells

Punk Rock, Lyric Hammersmith
Another text to turn me back onto plays was this Columbine-on-Stockport-on-Sea imagining from Simon Stephens. A genuine thriller with a careful eye – by turns cradling and wounding – on a generation placed too readily in the stocks by a stone-throwing media. A superb performance of ticks and dark anti-charisma from Tom Sturridge (totally unexpected after the wetness of the Boat that Rocked) culminated in a chilling sense of horrific inevitability at his rigidly unemotional warning not to come into school tomorrow.

The Author, Royal Court
Fantastically interesting in terms of form, experience and content. Andrew Haydon’s dissection over at Postcards is worth more than any speedy summation I would offer here.

Raoul, Barbican Centre

Cock, Royal Court
Another thrilling theatrical implosion from the Royal Court about which one ought again turn over to Postcards from the Gods.

Kim Noble Will Die, Soho Theatre
In some ways, Kim Noble could be considered a slight deviation from my norm, having been classified (admittedly loosely) as stand-up comedy. Well, it’s much more than that. It’s performance art, it’s a horror show, it’s a damning indictment of a pop culture that has festered like mould over the past decade and, more than any of this, it is one of the most destructively poignant performances I’ve ever seen. I came out resolutely determined to snatch at life’s every opportunity and simultaneously submerged beneath the pointlessness of it all. A gripping dissection of what it means to be, not to be and to have been.

As for the worst, well without dwelling too long: thanks only to its commendable openness to experimentation, the BAC had a couple in Ann Liv Young’s carrot-fuelled orgies and Blind Summit’s 1984 (which, for me, ties with The Habit of Art in the overpraised stakes); Precarious’s shambolic Anomie and the pointless and witless Stand By Your Van in Edinburgh; Slung Low’s They Only Come at Night, Fireflies at the Manchester Lowry and Fiona Shaw’s torturous Mother Courage at the National.

Others worth mentioning, not actively bad in themselves, but frustrating in one way or another include The Pitmen Painters, which, by lacking the charm of Billy Elliot, seemed to me an exercise in patronising the little coal-faced miners and Our Class, which everyone else seemed to find terribly affective, but left me cold.

Finally, a couple of gongs for the critics. From the thousands of words penned, my two favourite lines of 2009 were these:

Brian Logan on Michael McIntyre: “There are traffic islands that spend less time in the middle of the road than McIntyre.”

Charles Spencer blistering attack on Brecht: “Here she comes again, Mother Courage and her bloody cart, condemning audiences to three-and-a-quarter hours of hectoring lectures, unrepentant Marxism, tiresome alienation devices and a bucketful of condensed misery.” Quite.

Critic of the year and – thanks to a stint off – a new discovery for me is Paul Taylor of The Independent, who never fails to spin a review into a fascinating thing of titbits and perambulation. He does, perhaps, delight in theatre a little too easily but then, having looked back at my own like to dislike ratio, I can’t claim Hugh Grant standards of miserliness myself. Working my way once again through Tynan’s writings, however, I’m gearing myself up for a host of reckless skirmishes in 2010.

Until then, thanks for reading and Happy New Year.

One Comment

  1. I've only just found your blog, and have very much enjoyed reading your lovely, limpid prose (and I shall definitely be stealing that Logan line about traffic islands!). It seems you've been busy since I last saw you, surrounded by microwaves in the cavernous Big Belly…

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