Monday, April 11, 2011

Two...count 'em two... visits to the National Theatre in the past week.

Midweek I flew solo to the Lyttleton Theatre launchpad to take Clifford Odets' ROCKET TO THE MOON. There, got all the puns in at the start. Owing to Owen's continued lurgy I had the option of an empty seat next to me to use as a table for coat, programme, bag etc. Better that than offering the ticket back to the box office due to the worrying sign Tickets Available for the Lyttleton.In 1984, Bill Bryden directed a revival of Odets' boxing melodramatic GOLDEN BOY at the Lyttleton and 27 years later the National Theatre have decided to do another of his plays!

When it comes to productions in London, Odets definitely loses out in the shakes to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and after seeing ROCKET TO THE MOON I'm not that surprised. His plays are well-constructed with well-drawn, meat-and-potatoes working class characters but they lack that extra something to lift them to a more profound level.
Last produced in London in 1982 at Hampstead which transferred briefly to the West End, ROCKET TO THE MOON takes place in New York during the broiling summer of 1938. In the stifling offices of dentist Ben Stark business has dropped as the heat has risen, and with the empty hours comes restlessness and temptation.

Ben had ambitions once but they have been stymied through circumstance and is happy to be under the benign thumb of his wife Belle, both of them trying to move on from the death three years earlier of their baby son. Their main point of contention is his friendliness with her father who she has distanced herself from since her mother's death.
Ben sublets his offices to a fellow dentist Phil Cooper, whose sardonic asides barely cover his desperation at his livelihood vanishing. Into this tinderbox situation sashays Ben's new dental nurse Cleo Singer whose office and nursing skills leave much to be desired but whose zest for life and affability can not be matched.

When Cleo confesses to Ben that her stories of a happy family background are told to cover up her real existence as the only wage-earner in an ungrateful household, they are drawn together and start an affair, Cleo's love making him believe in himself again. But when Ben's father-in-law starts laying siege to Cleo's affections too - and the Talent Agent down the hall starts sniffing around too - it can only lead to disappointment and regret.
The play, for all it's blue-collar ranginess of 'little' people struggling to keep their head's above the flow of the times, feels oddly paced and is hampered by a fairly long first half and a second which abruptly changes emphasis. It is as if Odets approached the play differently every time he came to write a new scene. One can only surmise that the actions of the Ben, Cleo and Belle characters mirrored at times his own life as at the time of writing he was married to Hollywood screen star Luise Rainer while romancing another, Frances Farmer.

Odets had started the affair with Farmer the previous year after she left Hollywood in an attempt to gain some kudos as a stage performer by appearing with The Group Theatre company in GOLDEN BOY. The Group Theatre - who had staged all Odets' plays since his ground-breaking debut about the unions WAITING FOR LEFTY in 1935 - was *the* theatre company to work for but Farmer eventually felt disenchanted with the company and, when no further roles were offered, had the impression she had only been used as a box office draw for the play. It was indeed their most successful play financially.Director Angus Jackson tries to keep the various shifts of emphasis under control and it's not entirely his fault or his company that the last odd lurch of the play doesn't quite ring true. He is not helped either by the play being staged on the expanse of the Lyttleton stage, no wonder Ben's business is dodgy - he is paying rent on an office the size of Grand Central Station. The play and Jackson's direction seemingly cries out for the intimacy of a space such as the Cottesloe or the Donmar.

That is not to put the blast on Anthony Ward's set which is virtually a 3-d rendering of an Edward Hopper painting - large windows illuminating solitary figures surrounded by suffocating silence.

Bizarrely enough I was even more impressed with the small corridor at the left of the stage - the perfect recreation of the awful, drab corridors found in any NY office block from the period. My attention however kept getting drawn to the fact that the top section of the set wasn't joined to the main back wall so kept waiting for a massive set change that never happened.

One thing Odets knew how to do was give actors chewy characters to work with and mostly they make good. Joseph Millson was an interesting choice as Ben, I suspect the character should be played by an older, more burnt-out actor but if there is one thing Millson does well it's the conflicted leading man and he made Ben more sympathetic for that age shift. Keeley Hawes however could do nothing with the role of the exasperated Belle, it was a portrayal that seemed to entirely consist of mannerisms with no interior spark.
Making the most of their supporting roles were Nicholas Woodeson as the wealthy and gregarious Mr. Prince, Ben's father-in-law and Peter Sullivan as the unlucky fellow-dentist. Always 'on' and with the rejoinders of a Catskills resort comic Mr. Prince can be an exhausting character but Woodeson played him with a roguish charm no more so than in his brusque proposal of marriage to Cleo, merely a business merger for their mutual gain.

Peter Sullivan was excellent as the flailing, failing fellow-dentist, denied help at every turn and finally becoming a paid blood donor to make ends meet. Through this role and Sullivan's performance one gets a suggestion of why the play is being performed now with his fear of being unable to pay the never-ending bills that his family and failing business engender.The performance of the evening was Jessica Raine as the endearingly naive Cleo. In a role that Marilyn Monroe would - and should - have triumphed in, Cleo's ditsy exterior covers a heart as cowed and afraid as the men surrounding her and in the final scene, when Odets gives her the possibility of a shining future lived according to her own ideals, you find yourself willing her on.

Odets seems entranced with his glittering creation and I suspect Cleo would have had a more depressing end in the hands of other writers. Raine went from fluttering Judy Holliday-like daftness to wordly-but-wise Jean Harlow go-getting broad in the blink of an eye and was utterly enchanting.If you want a meandering but solidly well-acted night at the theatre, than you could do a lot worse than visit the Lyttleton. Ultimately however, I left feeling once again that Clifford Odets' literary reputation isn't fully justified.

I guess you had to be there at the time.

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