Sunday, 28 October 2007

Quarantine and Company Fierce: Susan & Darren

Tues 23 Oct 07, Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton

Without a doubt, one of the most wonderful shows I've ever seen. There was something so very open, genuine, warm and sincere about it. It did what all the best live art does, which is to make you feel part of a singular event. It has the "I was there..." factor.

Here's how the copy starts:

"Susan Pritchard is Darren Pritchard's mother. She is fifty-two and he is twenty-eight. Darren lives at home with Susan, in the house he grew up in. Darren is a dancer. Susan cleans, for Darren, and professionally. They dance together at home to John Holt, Althea and Donna and Diana Ross. You'd spot that they were mother and son instantly."

It's interesting - typing that copy in, I realise how far it sounds from the usual live art/experimental theatre copy. You could read that and assume you were in for a traditionally scripted, fictional play: "This is the story of Susan and Darren...", and to some degree, that's what you get: the story of Susan and Darren. But it's not a traditionally scripted, fictional play. And Susan and Darren aren't just characters in this performance. They are the real Susan Pritchard and Darren Pritchard.

And this isn't like being told the story of Susan and Darren, this is more like getting to know Susan and Darren. It doesn't start at the beginning - or maybe it does, if you take the beginning of getting to know someone as the moment you first meet them. We see Susan and Darren dancing together. We have their front room described for us in minute detail. We hear about Susan's spot on the sofa. We see Darren dancing by himself. Susan asks a couple of audience members to help make cheese and ham sandwiches.We see Susan and Darren dance together again. We hear how Darren can't fuck on his Mum's spot on the sofa. We see them talking over each other and telling each other no, that's not how it happened. We watch Susan washing Darren's prone body.

In between we hear about how the fathers of both Susan's children met untimely deaths, whilst Susan was pregnant with their children. We hear Darren avoiding and then answering Susan's question of what he'll miss about her when she's gone. They're both so incredibly attentive to each other - and to us, in the audience. It's full of love. It's heartbreaking. It's very very funny.

I should make clear that this isn't like a Mike Leigh film. You might find subject matter for a Mike Leigh in it, but that's not how this show works. It's much more conversational than a film could ever be. The audience sit around three sides of the performance space - only two or three rows deep so we can see everyone on the other sides. At some points, Susan and Darren talk over each other, so you can only really hear which ever one is talking directly to you - or you're straining to eavesdrop on what is effectively someone else's conversation. At one point, Barry White starts over the PA and five or six very disparate members of the audience join the stage to perform a routine with Susan and Darren (it turns out, they've learnt this in a workshop immediately prior to the show).

Most remarkably, the performers 'pause' the show about three-quarters of the way through and hold a Q&A session with the audience. What might seem like a slightly embarrassing, over-earnest gesture (I mean, come on, who's going to ask the first question? Don't be shy... [awkward pause] etc etc) becomes a startling reminder that, although we're at the theatre, we're part of something far from interpretive. Given how much live art I see for work, I forget that most people go to the theatre to see plays. At a distance. In this case it's important to remind the audience that this isn't a fiction, despite being so tightly constructed as a show. It's not confrontational, it's just a refocussing.

There's a wonderful moment in the Q&A, when someone asks Susan what she'll do at the end of this final tour of the work. A collective 'No' goes round the audience when she says she'll go back to cleaning. Darren says, "I know, I keep telling her, she's wasted on cleaning" and Susan says, "Oh, I love my cleaning." And when, later in the show, she takes a cloth and washes Darren's body carefully and patiently from head to toe, the whole audience is completely silent - you can barely hear a breath, just the hum of the electrics.

I could talk about this show for hours. It's probably the only show I've truly loved that I wish I could have taken my parents to see. Despite a lack of linear narrative and some slightly insalubrious content it was so unpresuming and full of love. I can't imagine how anyone could avoid coming out of that show without a smile on their face.

As everyone knows, the one thing we can say for sure is that "it is a sad and beautiful world." And boy, does this show celebrate that. Oh yes, and afterwards, we get to eat the sarnies, talk some more and have a good proper dance.

Here's the Quarantine website

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Last Night's TV

I can't believe I'm writing about telly, but I really want to write about some actual thing that I've seen (as this blog was intended for), even if it's not exactly live performance (as this blog was intended for).

Firstly, I should declare my prejudice: I love TV. I particularly love TV now that we have a house, with a proper sofa and a hard drive recorder with a freeview box. My OH has band rehearsal on Monday nights and from time to time, if I don't have work to do, I like to treat myself to a full 4-5 hour evening session of whatever happens to be on.

I seem to be lucky, as Monday nights tend to have a bit of variety going for them. There have been some excellent BBC4 documentary series over the last year and of course, there's always University "Danny Kendall died in Mr Bronson's car you idiot! Don't you remember? When were you born, you foetus?" Challenge. And also the guilty pleasures of Five US.

So here's how last night went:

7.00 - 7.30 This World: India's Missing Girls (BBC2)
Focusing on the illicit practice of aborting, abandoning or murdering baby girls, simply because their gender paints them a burden to the family - primarily because they lose the family name and wealth (via dowry) on marriage. I'd heard about this story on the World Service, months ago and it still really freaks me out. I just cannot imagine the utter hopelessness you must have to feel to be able to abandon, abort or or kill your own daughter.

It was a extremely sensitive documentary, which neither patronized the people it documented, nor shied away from the brutal horror of what this sacrifice meant. The thing that pulled it away from any notion of 'poverty tourism' was that our main guide was a lady who ran a home for these abandoned kids, loving them, teaching them to value themselves and each other, and visiting mothers-to-be to try and convince them to keep their daughters. It was such a valuable lesson to watch this impossibly kind, strong woman maintaining such conviction that society has to, and will change, even if it's just one person at a time. Equality is not something to take for granted and, I suppose, is as much a question of culture as it is of politics.

I don't often watch the This World series. I don't know whether it's the irregularity of when and where they get scheduled... perhaps my instinct is not to give so much weight to a documentary strand which the BBC feels able to shunt around the schedules like filler. Shame.*

7.30 - 7.45: Not the advertised show about swords but some sort of animation about the plague narrated by Kenneth Branaaaaaaaagh (BBC4)
Well, I'm really turning over because I need to set the recorder for Doctor Who 'The Daemons' - I've been dying to see this one for ages and it's not out on DVD yet, how excited was I when I found out they were showing it on BBC4. To quote Russell T Davies, "Hooray!" Anyway, I hadn't yet watched the first part so it couldn't form part of yesterday's viewing but that was rectified this morning. I really enjoyed it, despite all the to-ing and fro-ing (maybe running up and down a country road is a bit more watchable than running up and down a corridor), and it's got some lovely odd bits of dialogue. It also has the best last line of a Doctor Who episode ever - Brigadier: "I think I'd rather have a pint."

Anyway, the animation was good to look at, but I missed the beginning and couldn't really get into it. Something about the Branaaaaaagh's voice I think. It always makes me feel like someone's reading me a really dull - worthy, but dull - olden daye storye. Which, given that it was based on Defoe, he probably was. Reminded me how much I used to love Dope Sheet though, and how much Channel 4 seems to have lost it's proper fucking cool, recently.

7.45 - 8.00pm: Mastermind (BBC2)
This is filler, obviously, and I mainly read the Guardian Guide article about forthcoming fantasy films. The fact that it takes me 15 mins to read such a short article tells me that I must be spending a good proportion of my time trying to answer the questions. I worry that I'm no longer much younger than most of the contestants.

8.00 - 9.00pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Five US)

OK, OK, OK, OK, OK. I know it's wrong, but I love it. I'm not a huge fan of the Miami/New York fakerz, but I could seriously watch CSI Vegas for hours on end. Weirdly, I don't think I'd ever watch any of the box sets. I'm not interested in going to the trouble of choosing to watch CSI, choosing which episode to watch, putting the DVD in the machine, scrolling through the copyright etc. But if it happens to be on, and I'm watching, I get totally sucked in.

I think what lifts original CSI way above Miami and New York is that there is definitely a sense of humour tucked in there somewhere. It's Las Vegas - they can open about how weird, ridiculous and unbelievable the crimes are, because hey, it's Vegas. I also think the team characters are much better drawn out in CSI Vegas than the others, though I've probably seen too few CSI: NY eps to properly form an opinion there. Basically, if I had a crime scene to investigate, I'd DEFINITELY call on Gil Grissom (thoughtful, geeky, possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum) rather than Horatio Kane (states the obvious... but slowly, dubious attitude to women, dependence on sunglasses) or Mac Taylor (troubled, way too troubled).

What makes me slightly embarrassed about enjoying CSI, is that it has no shame in it's exposition. Even extreme sci-fi usually makes an effort to hide it. Instead, I'm supposed to believe that Sarah really needs to tell Warwick that she found this fingerprint by using yadda yadda powder under yadda yadda specialist light gun after pulling the blah fragment out of the monkey's trousers. It still makes me cringe a little, but it's just such a frighteningly watchable production. There's absolutely nothing British-made I could compare it to - I'd say precisely because I can't imagine any British production really carrying off that outrageous exposition with conviction.

Last night's was season 1. Serial killer trucker kidnapping women from supermarkets and putting them in the freezer. They didn't really have enough time to tell this story properly because there was some ruckus with a day trader killing his brother for inheritance and some random back story business with Nick Stokes and prostitute accused of shoplifting. See what I mean? It really shouldn't work. When I put it down like this it sounds rubbish, but it's so damned watchable!

9.00 - 10.00pm: Fanny Hill (BBC4)
I don't think I've actually seen that many Andrew Davies adaptations. I haven't read "Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" either. I don't really know how to assess this. It was ok. It wasn't exactly a rollercoaster, but it didn't drag too much. I just didn't find it especially interesting - there wasn't anything extraordinary in it for me. It was a bit too "nice" I suppose. It wasn't properly filthy or harsh or, to be honest, sexy. It was more basic about the sex it was having, which is refreshing on one hand, but just a bit dull on the other.

I also found the blokes to be really uncharismatic throughout. There was just something a bit ordinary about the whole thing. I mean, I've generally thought James Hawes' work on Doctor Who had great scope and dynamisim, but this seems very uninspired. I think I was expecting something with a lot more cheekiness and energy. That'll teach me to watch too many trailers.

I dunno, maybe the second part will be better. The bottom line was that I felt like I was watching a literary adaptation, rather than a TV show.

10.00 - 10.30pm: Californication (Five US)
Speaking of trailers - when this was being trailed on 5 at EVERY single opportunity (I'd love to know how many minutes of trailers this show took up prior to broadcast), I thought, "hmmm, doesn't look as bad as I thought it might be, but I'm not sure I can be arsed to watch a man sort his life out via women."

But tonight I was going to watch TV right up until the boyf got back, so I thought ok I'll give it a go. Actually, what I really wanted to catch was '30 Rock', as the trailer for that looked proper funny. Given the timing, the most sensible option was to fill the gap with 'Californication'...

...which was ACE! As I've said, my expectations were by no means Himalayan, but I really didn't expect something that was so funny, engaging, well-written, uncompromising, surprising, foul-mouthed or well-performed. You can always tell that something is really funny when it makes you laugh even though you're watching it by yourself. And this did it a few times. And it wasn't just the gags that were funny - it was the way people looked at each other; or sometimes just the way people looked. It was full of swears, properly rude, and wonderfully unafraid to show characters with some individuality - no matter how impolite. It was way sharper than I expected it to be. I can't wait to see it again.

10.35 - 11.05pm: 30 Rock (Five US)
I think '30 Rock' is a good sitcom. Alec Baldwin is extraordinary - it would be easy to play his character as out and out grotesque. but he plays it with so much charm and subtlety that it's always funny when you're reminded what an utter twat he is. But ultimately, '30Rock' is a sitcom, and one of the generic motifs of sitcom is that you're always just getting to the punchline. And for me, that's never going to be quite as satisfying as a dynamic which is driven by character. Unless it's an amazing punchline - but that's rarely going to be more than once in a show. You can tell it was written by someone who was good at writing gags. This was definitely a comedian's show. But there's a slight theatricality to it - almost like playing to the floor - that for me makes it less absorbing TV. Having said that, it is funny. It is in no way pompous. I had a good time watching it and I'd certainly recommend it - if only for Alec Baldwin's performance.

*Edit: I've since realised that This World is actually pretty constant in the schedules. I must have got confused with it's moving between digital and terrestrial telly. Sorry BBC. My bad.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Reading not Writing

OK, so I fell for that whole "start a blog with good intentions and then don't post for ages" thing that seems to happen to so many people. Since my initial post on 4 September, I've seen live work by:

(The legendary) Foreign Muck
Yara El-Sherbini
Stacy Makishi
Marcia Farquhar
Richard Dedomenici
Bobby Baker
Roza Ilgen
Qasim Riza Shaheen
Jiva Parthipan
Tim Brennan
Alex Bradley & Hetain Patel
Steve Robins and Shi-Ker
Duncan Speakman
Harminder Singh Judge
and 5 artists at the You and Your Work platform... a couple of gigs and one of WORST films I've ever seen at the cinema.

Most of this stuff was well worth seeing and some of it was pretty extraordinary, but I think I'd even bore myself about the extraordinary pieces if I tried to cover all that ground now. I hate reviews that sounds bored about their subject so I'm determined not to succumb. Ah well, at least I got as far as writing the list.

What I have been doing is a lot more reading on the internet, as opposed to writing on the internet. I love the internet. I also love trivia. And opinion. Which is probably why I love the internet. It's only over the last few months that I've really started to enjoy reading blogs. It took me a while to get to grips with a) what constituted an interesting blog, and b) how to find other interesting blogs. Of course, it's just like anything else - get recommendations, search for writing on a subject you're interested in, follow your instinct, suck it and see etc.

What I've learned recently, and why I'm now suddenly really into blogs, is how conversational the whole experience can be. It's all about the digressions in the hyperlinks. I managed to go from screenwriting to an article by Neil Gaiman on Fairy Stories, to Hebden Bridge, back to screenwriting, how important it is to hear harsh criticism and how pro-active you need to be if your aiming for success at all as an artist. (These are some of the links but not the complete route)

Some of it was useful professionally, some of it was fascinating generally, all of it could arguably be called a waste of time. All of it was interesting in some way or other.

In summary, me needs to sort me links.

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