Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Open Court, Royal Court

Review: Open Court, Royal Court

Published in The Telegraph, 13.06.2013

It’s a brave person that, having just landed their dream job, then hands the reins to someone else. Step forward Vicky Featherstone, new artistic director at the Royal Court, who starts with a summer festival programmed by playwrights.

What a great way to blast off the cobwebs. The building is buzzing. There’s something in almost every corner and the voguish bar has been splattered with colour; polite chit-chat replaced with vibrant hubhub. Best of all: the audience is genuinely cross-generational.

Mind you, so are the writers. Over six weeks, there’ll be plays by 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds; just part of an explosion of rough-and-ready work, including a live soap opera and intimate readings by playwrights. Ticket prices reflect the scruffball, lucky-dip ethos, but there are enough freebies to fill out an evening.

One such extra is Lost in Theatre, a collection of audio-plays that act almost as a palette cleanser. They force you to rediscover the building and, crucially, the Chelsea residents so often attacked on its stage in recent years. Archie Maddocks has you look up through the Sloane Square pavement at feet passing overhead. Others tuck you behind the theatre’s signage or hide you in a backstage shower. However, the places make the plays, not vice versa.

Upstairs, there’s a brilliant initiative: Surprise Theatre. Audiences book without knowing what’s in store. Monday’s opener was Mark Ravenhill’s verbatim lecture, Cakes and Finance, of playwrights contemplating their ideal theatre. One wants to “firebomb the Royal Court;” another longs for theatres as civic buildings. The recurring motif, as the title implies, is a clash of financial freedom and comfort. Ravenhill tiptoes between mockery and endorsement in a manifesto that’s both down-to-earth and bouncing off clouds. A smart start.

The festival’s centrepiece — Caryl Churchill’s suggestion — is a weekly rep cycle of six new plays; all Royal Court debuts and, one imagines, all unusual choices. The first, for example, is a Georgian satirical farce, Lasha Bugadze’s The President Has Come To See You. It’s a nutty take on spin and authenticity. A Russian invasion sees the Georgian President seeking shelter door-to-door. The country is glued to a reality TV show auditioning new national mascots. Inevitably, the two collide.

You miss the precision — in both acting and writing — but Featherstone’s production compensates with swagger. Chloe Lamford’s wooden crate design concept suggests the show’s been airlifted in, new-minted, that afternoon and if it all eventually spins out of control, well, that’s part of the fun. In sum: serviceable shows, but an intoxicating spirit.

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