Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Rake's Progress

I'm going to have to stop attending revivals, at least until Alzheimer's kicks in, because my memory is still good enough to make bad comparisons. Anyone marginally less than a hundred and six probably hasn't seen (Sir) Alan Ayckbourn's 1986 play Woman in Mind or, if they have, didn't retain that experience as a pivotal episode in their theatregoing life.

The plot is simple enough: desperate housewife whacks herself on the head with a garden rake, and awakes to an invented world of more charming relatives and a posher house. The staged juxtaposition of her idealised fantasy and disappointing real life eventually overlap in a surreal climax as she goes quietly off her head.

What's clever is that this marked Ayckbourn's transition from a writer of frothy comedies suitable for amateurs and provincial repertory companies into a real playwright with issues to expose and a range of techniques which went beyond staging two plays side by side in different auditoria (House and Garden) or three overlapped stories in consecutive plays (The Norman Conquests) by exploring the fourth dimension, with the shift of time and conception - first in Woman in Mind, and subsequently in Henceforward, Communicating Doors and Comic Potential.

It also used first person narrative, with the female protagonist speaking directly to the audience, a year before Willy Russell wrote Shirley Valentine.

In 1986, it signalled the transition of Julia McKenzie from musical comedy and TV sitcoms to character acting, as despite Ayckbourn's reservations about the casting, she gave what is still considered the performance of her career, and won an Evening Standard best actress award.

Fast Forward (that's probably another Ayckbourn play title) to 2009 and Susan is now played by the entirely excellent Janie Dee, and her compelling likeability places the audience directly on Susan's side which makes it tougher for the 'real' characters - dull Vicar husband, torch-carrying local doctor, and lumpen sister-in-law to gain much ground, or any trust that their version of events is more accurate than Susan's.

This is further hampered in the current production by the casting of perfectly good actors as husband Gerald or doctor Bill - but they're rather ordinary-looking and not known in the West End and it's hard to see what Janie Dee's character would find attractive in either of them. McKenzie was supported by Martin Jarvis and Peter Blythe, and in the replacement cast, Pauline Collins was matched with Michael Jayston and Ralph Bates.

The current under-casting seems to be a fault of many Bill Kenwright shows, but usually only to minor characters, here - despite the credit crunch - in a cast of 8 it seems unnecessary cheese-paring.

The revival is directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn himself, and it feels too reverential as the production lacks pace and the frenetic climax isn't nearly surreal or bizarre enough.

Times have changed, we need our madness with more special effects.

High School, Musical

review of Spring Awakening at the Lyric Hammersmith

Limping into 2009

Of course it wasn't all poverty and desperation in India. Our group managed a jolly day on December 25th with a lavish lunch, Indian-brewed champagne (which wasn't nearly as disgusting as it sounds) and Secret Santa presents.

But it was New Year's eve that claimed most attention and demanded much ingenuity. Compulsory Indian fancy-dress meant scouring the local markets for baubles, and a couple of hilarious visits to bemused merchants in Bijaipur village. The 'boys' of the group went collectively to the nearest tailor to be kitted out with pyjama suits and turbans but my own costume demands were such that I had to be diverted to a separate, female, seamstress who agreed to manufacture, overnight, not just a sari and choti but a pair of magnificent fake breasts, complete with triple-pinch-pleated nipples, so I could impersonate Mother India herself, Indira Gandhi.

Since no-one in Bijaipur has access to the internet, it was a feat of collective memory to re-create Indira's streaked hair-do and habitual plain sari - everything in Rajasthan is so darned colourful, white is considered almost obsolete! But with the help of the wonderful Maneka and her husband, the beauty and massage therapists, even the make-up was achieved more or less.

as you can see, Maharajah Narendra seemed delighted at his ghostly guest and took pride in introducing 'Mrs Gandhi' to everyone. He even asked her to dance, which was the moment at which it all went horribly wrong.

About two minutes into my one-woman Bhangra display, I felt the most terrible pain in my calf and thought first of all (I had had several cocktails at this point) that I'd been shot, possibly in some ghastly re-creation of Indira's own assassination. A fellow holidaymaker was a GP and helpfully pointed out that it was probably a torn gastrocnenius muscle and there was nothing to be done but hobble for the next four to six weeks whilst it sorted itself out.

Fortunate perhaps, because in that get-up it would have been a long night in A&E ...

I crawled, literally, the three flights to bed and spent a restless night, not least because the magnificent firework display planned for midnight was launched from the platform immediately above my bedroom - and despite craning my neck from every available window I couldn't actually see much of anything, just hear the third world war breaking out overhead.

The next morning I limped into an eerily quiet Bijaipur village - nothing to do with it being New Year's Day, but most of the shops and businesses were closed because of cow-rustling. Somewhere nearby, a (sacred) cow had been killed and men arrested for selling the meat. It was extraordinary to see the lowering impact this had on the population, an odd combination of collective shame, mourning and disgust. It also highlighted for me the strange situation in India where so many people are starving whilst meat walks amongst them unmolested, such is the power and conviction of the Hindu faith you can do nothing but marvel at it.

So, in the muted village, I managed to find an open pharmacy and to buy over the counter, oh the delight of not needing prescriptions for anything, some Diclofenac anti-inflammatory pain killers. Since the pharmacy dealt in both human and veterinary preparations, I'm not sure which I received and think they may either have been horse pills, or human suppositories, but I swallowed them like they were M&Ms.

Six weeks later, I'm on the mend. But I won't be Bhangra dancing for a while.