Friday, February 28, 2014


Two productions have recently given me the chance to reappraise two works that I had seen before, one on stage and one on film.

I saw THE WEIR in 1999 when it had already been running for nearly two years in various theatres that had been commandeered by the Royal Court while it was being renovated,  It won the Olivier Award for Best Play and has since been named as one of the 100 Most Significant Plays of the 20th Century - it shared the 40th place with Beckett's ENDGAME, Coward's THE VORTEX, Miller's VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH.  Heady competition for a relatively recent work.

To be honest, for all it's acclaim I had retained only a dim memory of the play.  I remembered the Irish backwater pub setting and it's story of the male locals telling spooky stories to a female newcomer from Dublin.

But here it is revived in a vibrant new production directed by Josie Rourke that originated at the Donmar (and ergo, sold out immediately) and has now transferred to the Wyndhams and it was a pleasure to be reacquainted with it's dense, naturalistic prose and this one has stayed with me.

Tom Scutt's set design places us firmly in the small pub in a remote village in Ireland, we even get the waft of peat burning in the onstage stove,  Brendan runs the pub although you can tell his heart isn't really in it and he is being pressured by his offstage sisters who have invested in it,  His regulars include Jack who runs the town's garage, Jim who is an odd-job man who lives with his aged mother and Finbar who is viewed with some suspicion by the others as he owns property and is a bit 'flash'.  Finbar is also the odd-one-out among them as he is the only one who is married.

The play's first third sets up Finbar's arrival with his new tenant Valerie, a young woman who has just arrived in the village from Dublin.  Her presence in the bar has a vaguely unsettling effect on the regulars, straining to be on their best behaviour and adapting to her 'cosmopolitan' ways - her request for a glass of wine throws Brendan completely but luckily he has a bottle in his adjoining house which was given to him as a present!  One wonders how long the wine has sat in his cupboard as he pours Valerie a beer glass full of it.

They all attempt to trump Finbar's local knowledge with stories of their youth and the characters that are long gone, including the old woman who used to live in Valerie's house.  This leads to Jack recounting a spooky story that the old woman told him from when she was a girl which leads to Finbar and Jim also sharing similar ghostly tales that they were involved in. 

These scenes could stop the show in a bad way but Josie Rourke has by this point created a real world onstage with the cast playing as if they really have known each other all their lives.  These stories have an effect on Valerie and she tells the men her own experience that has lead her to the village.  Her haunting story has a radical effect on the men and at the close of the play Jack shares a story from his past that has no supernatural overtones but which has haunted his life ever after.

A remarkable ensemble cast is lead by Brian Cox as Jack, his black suit looking suitably lived-in. I suspect his performance has grown somewhat larger since the move as his bits of business seemed to be very spotlighted but his performance grows richer during the course of the play and his final monologue was wonderfully played, making you fully realise the loneliness that lives behind his blarney.

Ardol O'Hanlon was very interestingly cast, Jim being very close to his slightly daft television persona but he too managed to show the aching loneliness in his aimless life, again his baggy jumper suggesting character.  Riste├írd Cooper had the showy role as jack-the-lad Finbar and he too gave us a fully-rounded character, chafing at his marital ties and all too aware of his friends wariness about him.

Peter McDonald was always watchable as Brendan, he suggests a life in the doldrums, of opening and closing his pub every night while hearing the same stories time and again.  The undercurrent between him and Dervla Kirwan's Valerie was nicely played, you hope that her arrival might give them both a new chance.  Kirwan was excellent as the woman fleeing her recent trauma and her big monologue was beautifully played, holding the emotions in check until the end.  As usual, Neil Austin's lighting was impeccable.

It's a wonderful experience to see this cast playing with such a unity of purpose and I recommend you race to see it before it's April 19th final curtain.  And yes, it does deserve it's place on the that list of great 20th Century plays.

Also on the Significant Plays of the 20th Century list - this time at number 50 along with 8 other plays - is Shelagh Delaney's A TASTE OF HONEY which has just been revived at the Lyttelton Theatre.

I have only ever seen Tony Richardson's 1961 film version which immortalised Rita Tushingham as Jo, the fantasising and gobby schoolgirl, yearning to break away from her overbearing mother and that film certainly casts a long shadow as it is so of it's time and it's trops seem fresh and original.

The play, which like THE WEIR only requires five performers, was Delaney's only real success.  In an excellent piece in the programme, Jeanette Winterson puts her in the context of her times and shows how, as a teenager of 19 when the play was finally produced, Delaney was a unique but lonely voice with no other female writer around her to bounce ideas off.  She had been spurred on to write A TASTE OF HONEY after enduring a production of a Terence Rattigan play and decided that she could write about life better than this writer could - to paraphrase Delaney fan Morrissey it said nothing to her about her life.  She wrote the play in a fortnight and sent it to Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East who seized on it's immediacy and put it into production.

Teenage Jo and her flighty mother Helen have moved into a rundown flat in a dingy part of Salford in the late 1950s after having done a flit from their last home.  With no money coming in apart from what Helen gets from her 'admirers', Jo is looking forward to leaving school and starting work in a shop.  She is also seeking escape from her mother who treats her as her unpaid servant but you also sense that their life together has made them inter-dependant and that Jo will probably never really escape,

Helen starts up with the flashy Peter who asks her to marry him.  What she doesn't realise is that Jo has started her first relationship with Jimmie, a young black sailor who is soon to depart on a new ship.  Left alone over Christmas when her mother leaves her to be with her new lover, Jo invites the sailor over and they have sex.  A couple of days later, while dressing on her wedding day, Helen notices Jo wearing Jimmie's ring on a chain around her neck,  They quarrel and Helen leaves the house, possibly for the last time.

A few months later and Jo is pregnant.  She meets art student Geoff (whose homosexuality is only inferred) who is looking for somewhere to stay, and invites him to share the flat.  He needs a place to stay and she needs a friend and someone to share her life with.  Together they look forward to the birth of her baby and plan for their unconventional life together, although not before an ominous visit from Helen, tipped off by the well-meaning Geoff about her daughter's condition.

In the months nearer the birth Geoff is coping with Jo's erratic behaviour well but all is interrupted when Helen reappears, her marriage apparently over before it began.  Helen immediately starts undermining Peter and while Jo sleeps, he realises he is out of his depth with the fearsome mother and leaves for good.  Helen's triumph is short-lived when she realises Jo's child might be black and leaves while Jo starts her labour, waiting for Geoff's return which we know will never happen.

I really wish I liked the production more but I found Bijan Sheibani's direction to be erratic and a bit all over the place.  What totally ruined most of the show were the profoundly irritating scene changes which has cast members doing little dance routines around the set to the cool jazz music playing.  It put me in mind of those fist-making routines that end Miranda Hart's tv shows and *no one* wants to be reminded of that.  Hildegarde Bechtler's design doesn't really inspire either with it's single-room set seemingly up on bricks over at one side of the stage with a Salford street cyclorama behind it.

I also found Kate O'Flynn to be too strident as Jo, seemingly playing her character like an audition for "Coronation Street".  It made it very difficult to like or sympathise with her character at all.  In her first scene with Jimmie the sailor she hit the right level of gaucheness, saying phrases in a style you knew she had seen in films or heard her mother using, but overall her high-pitched, over-pitched phrasing annoyed.

I did like Harry Hepple as Geoff who suggested an inner life that needed nurturing as much as Jo's did but doomed to be confronted by the prejudices of landladies, bigots and harridans.  His crushed acceptance of being no match for the manipulative Helen was touchingly played,

The show however belongs to Lesley Sharp as Helen.  Changeable as a Salford breeze, she was infuriating but intriguing - yes she was a monster but she also gave clues along the way to what made her that way.  A crippling loneliness and need to be loved has driven her to manipulation and emotional blackmail and the action noticeably sagged when she was offstage.

At times she reminded me of Ruth Ellis, with her tight clothes, love of the bottle and peroxide blonde hair - maybe it's because I had in the back of my mind that Shelagh Delaney had a success in the 1980s with her script for DANCE WITH A STRANGER,

I wish I had liked it more but sadly the combination of iffy direction and an original work being made to seem unoriginal by a production trading on what has come after it made it a missed opportunity.

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