Thursday, 12 March 2009

Catherine Johnson: Suspension

Tuesday 10 March, Bristol Old Vic

At a time when all theatre-y eyes are on it, I thought it would be worthwhile checking out what Bristol Old Vic is 'flagshipping' at the moment. One of BOV's current big co-productions is Kneehigh's Don John; but given that I'm still angry from the last time I saw a Kneehigh show, I thought I'd go for Catherine Johnson's new play instead.

I wasn't expecting it to change my world, but I was expecting to see a well crafted production...

Blimey. Here was another lesson in 'never expect anything or ye shall surely be disappointed'. Cynicism-1, optimism-0.

I'd say 75% of the problems with the show lay in the writing. It was as if the script hadn't been edited. It was littered with clumsy exposition ("My daughter, who's getting married today...") and unnecessary repetition ("My daughter's getting married today!" etc etc etc). The characters were two-dimensional stereotypes whose stories ran on rails so absolutely, that there was no hope of surprise in anything that happened after the first scene. It became increasingly impossible to care about characters who were both utterly wedded to their individual points of view, whilst at the same time constantly complaining about their situation. Stuart McLoughlin's Dean is the only character who accepts any responsibility for his predicament, and he was without doubt the most sympathetic character in the play. The only sympathetic character, to my mind.

And the ending! Or lack of ending. After the interminable lead up to anything actually happening, once an event of consequence did occur, the play completely bottled out of dealing in any depth with the emotional fallout for the characters. Not only that, it randomly shoved the fucking JCB Song on the end, so that we could all go home with a nice bunch of platitudes and a head full of twee nonsense, rather than having to - I don't know - think about the issues raised.

Which brings us on to the direction - aka: where I think the remaining 25% of the major problems with the show lie.

This was a show where, during the scene changes, the lights went out and the music came on REALLY LOUD so that... er... you wouldn't notice that the crew might be moving things around on stage. I didn't know people still did that! It's like drawing attention to something by hiding it too hard. I seriously thought people stopped doing scene changes like that in about 1988.

That wasn't the only old-fashioned technique that weighed the production down. There's a great quote, which comes from a Doctor Who DVD commentary, where one of the directors describes theatre as "actors shouting, in long shot." Suspension was full of that. There was no subtlety in the delivery. Ironically, in the one section where the actors are actually supposed to be shouting across a great distance, they don't let rip - they just continue 'projecting' at the same monotonously voluminous level they employ throughout the rest of the play.

It's one of the reasons why I don't go out of my way to see more conventionally produced theatre. It just makes my heart sink to hear everything hollered out like that. I'm not saying it doesn't happen in less traditional theatre (it certainly does), but it's not the default mode of delivery. I'd much more expect to get the kind of confident, conversational, engaging tone that Robin Arthur and Clare Marshall employ in Forced Entertainment's Spectacular (which I saw at Arnolfini last week), where the clarity of speech does not come from being large and loud, but through drawing the audience in and inviting them to listen. If only Suspension's actors had been directed to invite us in to their world, rather than force it upon us.

But then listening wasn't really written into the characters. And the pacing didn't make room for pauses. It was as if the characters in their world were as unsurprised by each other I was. No-one stopped to take anything in. As if nothing had any meaning, other than to get to the next bit of the plot.

I'm going to go easy on the actors (despite Stuart McLoughlin being in possibly the worst sitcom I've ever seen in my life) - given what they had to work with, none of them were bad. The big problems were a lazy script, and a decision that in its tone, the production would settle for charmless, broad strokes.

I imagine many of the audience were there because they were fans of Mamma Mia!. I've not seen the film (to be honest - everything about the idea of it terrifies me... especially the phrase 'smash hit musical'), but I bet it's a more polished script, with at least a little love for its characters as people, rather than merely drivers of the plot. I'd be interested to know how many drafts Suspension went through. I'd be surprised if it was more than three. And if it did go through a longer process, Johnson seriously needs to get a better script editor.

The most positive note for me was that the audience response seemed fairly muted. People seemed to get bored of laughing at the incessant swearing and throwaway references to Bristol. There wasn't an encore.


On the way back home from the show, the boyf asked me how I thought the local listings mag (Venue) would review the show. I said 4-stars and they'll review the show it could have been, rather than the one we saw. Sure enough...

It's not just Venue magazine, lots of the reviews have been friendly to the show, and have mentioned its inconsistencies as 'by-the-by' rather than major flaws. I can't help thinking that it's in part to do with critics being grateful for a starry writer coming back to theatre. I absolutely think theatre could do with more starriness, but I wonder if Suspension would even have been commissioned had it not been by 'Mamma Mia!'s Catherine Johnson'.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Forced Entertainment: Spectacular

Friday 6 March, Arnolfini

This is a brilliant show - laugh-out-loud funny, disconcerting, and weirdly moving. Beautifully written and exquisitely performed. As the Venue Magazine review says of the show:

"Forced Entertainment continue to ask a lot of their audiences, giving what amounts to a smattering of clues towards a performance; and if you're willing to suspend your disbelief in new and interesting ways, their work is some of the most affecting you'll ever see. You know it's a shame, by definition - but at the end of the evening, you're left shaken by echoes of a show you never witness. It's truly refreshing and wonderful"

Seek it out. It's one of those wonderful shows that doesn't shout at you. It draws you in and makes you listen because of its tone and quality rather than its volume.