It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively. Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory. I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.
The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger). Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).
My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university. I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances). On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth. The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).
But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse. My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings. However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur. The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black. The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles). Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance. I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage). I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.
As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s). I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?
The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.
After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre. This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday. Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line). The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer. The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.
The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved. It follows how this affects him over a three month period. This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me. The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast. I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent. It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things). The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al). I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful). It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize. This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog. I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.
Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me. This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).
The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.
Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play. Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!