Review – The Bay at Nice, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st April 2019

The Bay at NiceI’ve been an admirer of David Hare’s work right from the start of his career (there can’t have been many 12-year-olds who read Slag in the early 70s) and it’s rewarding to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge by seeing the various gems of his back catalogue. I had never heard of The Bay at Nice, his 1986 one-act play set in a grand but comfortless display room at the Hermitage in St Petersburg – or Leningrad, as it was then. But I rarely pass up a chance to see what the Menier next has to offer, so it was with no preconceptions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I chose to spend our Easter Sunday in Southwark.

Ophelia Lovibond, Martin Hutson and Penelope WiltonThe year is 1956. Esteemed art expert Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the curators of the Hermitage to inspect a new acquisition – allegedly a Matisse – that has recently been bequeathed to the museum. There is some uncertainty as to its authenticity; and, as Mme Nrovka knew the artist personally in her youth, it is thought she would see through any deliberate attempts by a faker to pretend to the great man’s work. She is accompanied to the Hermitage by her daughter, Sophia, herself a part-time artist, and full-time disappointment to her mother. Over the course of 75 minutes, mother and daughter dissect their difficult relationship as Sophia’s marriage breakdown and new romantic liaison is revealed, against a backdrop of Communist Party politics, the motivation for creativity, the lure of the homeland, and the valuation of art.

Martin HutsonOne of the genuinely thrilling aspects of seeing a production at the Menier is the discovery of how they have configured its marvellously adaptable acting space. Fotini Dimou’s set has required the 200-or-so seats to be re-arranged, L-shaped, on just two sides of the theatre, to create a comparatively huge space, filled with coloured, borrowed light, to represent one of those enormous Hermitage galleries. Plush red and gilt chairs have been stacked unceremoniously to one side of the stage, beneath a Grand Master’s work; on the back wall of the stage, double doors that lead to the rest of the museum, the only clue that there’s a life outside. As the late afternoon turns into the early evening, Paul Pyant’s lighting design gradually becomes progressively dimmer, which may imply that the longer you talk about life and art – and the less you actually do it – clarity and understanding of these issues reduces. When Mme Nrovka finally looks at the painting, there’s only enough light for a peremptory glimpse – mind you, that’s all she needs.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton is simply magnificent as Valentina, a woman who has reached a time in life when she is so accustomed to suppress any individual desires, who values the altruism of self-denial, if it’s to achieve a greater good. Her daughter, she reckons, is shallow beyond belief, following a path of self-interest which both ill-serves her family and prevents her from artistic expression. And she doesn’t like to be shaken up and questioned by what she perceives to be an inferior intellect; and is perfectly comfortable to say precisely what she thinks, regardless of how it might offend or distress others. Ms Wilton delivers Hare’s tremendous lines with natural authority, cutting sarcasm, forceful majesty, and a reasoned spite, in what is probably my favourite performance in a play so far this year.

Ophelia Lovibond and David RintoulGiving almost as good as she gets, Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Sophia; patronised, forced to explain herself, intimidated into defiance against her mother and her strictures. It’s a great portrayal of someone who, in everyday life has all the confidence needed to lead an assertive life but who crumbles under parental pressure. David Rintoul is also very good as her new man Peter, awkwardly hovering in the sidelines, choosing silence rather reacting to a taunt, putting his case plainly, honestly and supportively. And Martin Hutson is also great as the Assistant Curator, treading carefully around the Grande Dame’s ego, gently guiding her in the direction he wants, to the benefit of both self and party.

Ophelia Lovibond and Penelope WiltonDespite its length, this dynamic little play packs a real punch and gives you so much to consider, laugh at, and identify with. Richard Eyre’s production is a first-class experience all the way. We loved it! It’s on at the Menier until 4th May, and I’d heartily recommend it.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Theatre Censorship – 29: More real people and national stereotypes

Anyone for Denis?John Wells’ farce Anyone for Denis? (1981) was set in the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, and was supposed to show a typical hair-raising weekend with Russian spies and insulted delegates… you know the kind of thing. The play was notable for its highly topical script which changed daily – which of course would have been impossible under the Lord Chamberlain’s regime – and actually it was the Falklands campaign which caused the play to close because, basically, topical references on that subject simply weren’t funny. There was a minor publicity campaign founded on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to see the show – with photographs afterwards of herself with Angela Thorne, the stage Margaret, and everyone looking distinctly uncomfortable apart from the real Denis Thatcher who seemed to have a whale of a time. To see the Prime Minister of the day standing next to a satirical version of herself would have had Robert Walpole turning in his grave. After all, he had introduced censorship to prevent this kind of thing going on.

Alma Rattenbury

Alma Rattenbury

Other plays that featured “real” people, included two plays, in the late 70s, that were based on the case of Alma Rattenbury who was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1935; Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre (1977) which concentrates on the trial, and Simon Gray’s Molly (1977) which tells the story by means of analogy. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara as well as the less well-known Henry Carr for a skit on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and Robert David Macdonald’s Summit Conference (1978) shows Eva Braun and Clara Petacci (Mussolini’s mistress) holding an imagined conversation in 1941.

Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn

On the subject of national origins – the last of those categories mentioned in the 1968 Theatres Act – despite any acrimony between Britain and Argentina at the time, the Falklands War did not bring about a deluge of anti-Latin American drama. Today we can see that Brexit has shown that there is always scope for – shall we say – international rivalry. Playwrights still satirise whatever nationalities they choose. As an example, and plucked from nowhere in particular, Sven, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart (1978) is described as “terribly solemn, terribly Scandinavian, a sweet person but never ever wrong”. In fact, Ayckbourn characterises him as infuriating and pompous, someone who takes the pleasantly Home Counties atmosphere of the play and sours it into something dark, gloomy, and over-serious. Young Mandy, who just likes a bit of painting for relaxation, may just be sketching a drawing of the side of the house for her own enjoyment, but Sven has to turn the whole exercise into an inflated lecture about art: “I would like you to think about this. Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth. Do you know who said that? It was Picasso who said that… I think in some ways you are trying to be too truthful. The result being, at the moment, that your picture has no truth. Think about that.” His instructions sound like those of a part-time art critic who thinks he knows it all but in fact knows nothing; an inflated ego, vain and boorish. Ayckbourn chooses for Sven a particularly unpleasant ending: “one middle-aged mediocrity… who has fought and lost. …The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.” Sven is, of course, an exaggeration of those gloomy Finnish traits – Ayckbourn is actually very popular in Scandinavia – but nevertheless he is a totally believable character.

PlentyIn Plenty (1978) David Hare points out how one associates Scandinavians with gloom and despondency and how people from different Scandinavian countries are indistinguishable from one another, as in this conversation:

Susan: “Apparently it’s about depression, isn’t that so, Mme. Wong?”
Mme Wong: “I do feel the Norwegians are very good at that sort of thing….”
Darwin: “Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede”.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Unlike Sven, Agatha Christie’s Paravicini from the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap (1952) is a totally larger-than-life creation, an exaggeration of the most ridiculous Mediterranean elements, who creeps around stagily and suspiciously, appears to wear rouge make-up, and makes a big mystery of himself: “I turn up saying that my car is overturned in a snowdrift. What do you know of me? Nothing at all! I may be a thief, a robber, a fugitive from justice – a madman – even – a murderer.” Christie has drawn on legendary Italian lasciviousness and added a touch of camp to accompany her character’s ingratiating and fawning behaviour towards his hostess in a good example of parody over characterisation. Of course, as it was written in 1952, this famous play would have been subject to the old rules of censorship. I’m sure it didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain one jot.

In my next post I’ll look at some other plays that might – but probably might not – be considered to “stir up hatred” based on colour or race.

Review – The Absence of War, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

Great use of colourFirst produced in 1993, David Hare’s The Absence of War centres on a pleasant but unconvincing leader of the Labour party who fails to win a general election – again. Is this ringing any bells? In the previous year, the pleasant but unconvincing Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election – again, having failed to win as Labour leader in 1987 as well. And here we are in 2015, with the Labour party led by the pleasant but unconvincing Ed Miliband, and there’s a general election due on 7th May. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the nine-venue tour that starts this week in Norwich will finish on 2nd May.

Rally speechGeorge Jones, the aforesaid (fictitious) Labour leader has a natural ability to rise to the top through his sheer strength of personality, but he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who tell him what he can and can’t say (people like the word “fairness” but they’re not so keen on “equality”), what he should and shouldn’t believe, and what he must and mustn’t do. He’s running around on auto-stifle. There’s something of the Shakespearian tragic hero about him; he has vision, sociability, kindliness and bravery; he is decent to the extent that it works against him, maintaining loyalties where he should be suspicious. And despite all his good works and good intentions, you know that, at the end, he will be found wanting. There is no surprise, victorious ending; he is destined to fail. For him, it is a personal tragedy. Jones is a cultured man, a charismatic man, an inspirational man; but in the final analysis he lacks the ruthlessness and sheer hunger for power that a successful party leader requires.

Reece DinsdaleIt’s more than a little appropriate that this co-production between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong and the Rose Theatre Kingston should start its life at the Crucible. For it was in Sheffield that Neil Kinnock held his famous pre-election rally, culminating in his over-animated, over-passionate and over-confident appearance at the podium, where he shouted interminably “We’re Alright!” several times before saying anything of consequence; and it is widely held that that is where he lost the election. But George Jones is no Neil Kinnock. When he is encouraged by the election campaign manager to deliver a powerful, sincere, no-notes, from the heart speech from his podium, he starts off all emotional and idealistic, giving the rally just what they want. Then he just blanks; he can’t think of another fire in the belly thing to say; he scrabbles around for his notes and looks totally incompetent. If this were a job interview, and he was required to do a presentation as part of the selection process, he’d be back on the dole faster than you can say Downing Street. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, mind you; your toes curl in cringing embarrassment.

Helen RyanDavid Hare’s play is immaculately structured, starting and ending with the traditional Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph; at the beginning with Conservative PM Charles Kendrick leading the floral tributes, followed by George Jones; and at the end, Kendrick is still the PM, but is Jones still the leader of the opposition? We’re then taken to Jones’ private office, where new publicity officer Lindsay Fontaine is bursting at the seams to make him electable, despite the distrust of other members of the team, including his intimidating political adviser Oliver Dix and his personal minder Andrew Buchan. A TV switched permanently to the Ceefax page (what a wonderful trip down memory lane to see one of those again) flashes political news, including the sudden announcement of the General Election, which catches the Labour party unawares; George Jones is rightly furious that it means he will have to miss seeing Hamlet that night. The Ceefax page also occasionally shows the weather, which is a nice touch. TV cameras concentrate on the pompous Prime Minister, always accompanied by his silent wife, at his side like a faithful hound, and we too see the simultaneous TV broadcast of him outside No. 10 (another nice touch). A campaign strategy is rapidly assembled; old hands like Vera Klein (she’d probably be the equivalent of a Barbara Castle figure) turn up to the dismay of the entire team (except of course that George Jones is far too decent and polite to kick her into touch); no one really knows what they’re doing, but somehow things fall into place. We go into the interval with a sense that the campaign has started, and, despite complete disarray backstage, it’s not looking at all bad.

Barry McCarthyAfter the interval Sauvignon Blanc, you quickly realise that all the positives that have been mounting up in Act One are about to get knocked down in Act Two. A thrilling “live” TV debate with Rottweiler broadcaster Linus Frank goes badly wrong as Jones is side-swiped with a question about Mortgage Interest Relief at Source. Remember MIRAS? So many things in this play remind you of the good old days; Gordon Brown abolished it in 2000. There’s a riveting showdown between George and his (allegedly) faithful cabinet colleague Malcolm, where George finally realises that his blue-eyed boy isn’t as faithful as he had thought – the scene got its own round of applause. Then there’s the end-of-campaign rally, where everything falls apart, and the final ghastly defeat, where the Labour leader even has to endure the humiliation of being rounded on by the tea lady.

James HarknessJeremy Herrin’s production is crisp and entertaining, making great use of the apparently “old technology” (like the Ceefax screens) and TV cameras; projecting the live rally action against the Labour banner is visually a very powerful effect. Bold colours on the backdrop fill the stage with a real sense of life and vigour, as well as reminding us of the association of specific colours with specific political parties. The cumulative excitement of the election campaign is well paced and full of dramatic power, even though you know it’s as doomed as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army. Mike Britton’s useful set relies on a few office desks, suggesting functionality rather than lavishness, and uses screens and blinds to suggest further activity at the back of the stage whilst largely leaving the front free as a big acting space. And there’s an excellent cast who all portray their roles very convincingly.

Cyril NriReece Dinsdale plays George Jones with charm, integrity and honesty, and just that touch of being flawed, as every good tragic hero should be. It’s a strong, serious central performance, and he really shines out in those big scenes like the showdown with Malcolm and the disastrous rally speech. But David Hare’s text provides many of the other characters with some of the best quips, as they pass judgment on the action, and their leader, from the side-lines. Cyril Nri plays political adviser Oliver as a hardworking, quick to ire, slightly larger than life character – you’d imagine he’d be a difficult boss, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Another solid performance, maybe a little underplayed at times, but very credible as a result. I really enjoyed James Harkness’ good-humoured performance as Andrew, George’s minder, projected into a world of cut-throat high flyers from what you sense is a very ordinary background: “Croissant? I’m from Paisley!” He very nicely gives the impression of someone who enjoys playing with the big boys, occasionally to get brought down a few pegs just to show he’s not as significant as he’d like to imagine.

Charlotte LucasCharlotte Lucas is excellent as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine, the new broom attempting to sweep clean in what she sees as a very backward looking office, and of course coming up against a lot of resistance en route. Gyuri Sarossy plays Malcolm as an untrustworthy cold fish – not inappropriately – he and his minder Bruce, played by Theo Cowan, coming across as the new brand of Labour, riddled with posh school mentality. They are the complete opposite of honest working class George, and Bryden, his campaign co-ordinator, played with down to earth gusto by Barry McCarthy. Maggie McCarthy (any relation?) gives great support as the long-suffering diary secretary Gwenda, as does Don Gallagher playing a number of roles including the condescendingly slimy PM, and the irascible argument manipulator Linus Frank. Amiera Darwish is a busy and sincere press secretary Mary, Helen Ryan excellent as the seen-it-all-and-would-rather-see-no-more veteran politician Vera, and Ekow Quartey gets some of the best laughs in the play with his deftly delivered vignette as George’s Special Branch protector.

Maggie McCarthy“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” So said the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. If this play is about the Absence of War, then is Hare arguing that it does not represent peace or benevolence, confidence or justice? And about what? The Labour party? Modern Britain? Democracy? Or just the flawed character of Jones? You decide! It’s an excellent, thought-provoking play, produced at a most timely moment, and performed with great conviction. We saw it on its last day in Sheffield, but now it goes on to Norwich, Watford, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, Kingston and Cambridge, before we see whether George’s fate presages that of Ed Miliband in May.

The Absence of WarP.S. Pet hate time. Last day of the show and they had run out of programmes! As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, as I let out a disgruntled squawk, the usher who handed me a photocopied cast list beamed his most appeasing of smiles; but, for someone who’s kept all their programmes as far back as 1967, it’s a resource lost. I was tempted to rename the play The Absence of Programme, but that’s probably taking it a bit too far. Just one of my first world problems!

Review – Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonHaving seen Racing Demon on the Saturday matinee, we went the whole hog and stayed for David Hare’s Plenty in the Studio theatre for the evening performance.

I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.

Plenty Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.

Hattie Monahan Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.

Kirsty Bushell Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. Edward BennettThe other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.

Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.

Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.

Review – Racing Demon, Crucible, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonI think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.

The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.

Racing DemonSo we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.

Malcolm SinclairIt’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.

Jamie Parker It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.

Matthew Cottle The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Ian Gelder Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. Paul RattrayMore excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” Jane WymarkWith that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.

This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.

Review – My Zinc Bed, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Tuesday 2nd March

My Zinc BedI always think of David Hare as being a pretty bloody magnificent playwright. But then I also think of him as being a writer from the 70s and 80s when I was really “into” studying drama. Slag, Knuckle, Fanshen, Licking Hitler, Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, Plenty and A Map of the World. All wonderful, riveting, enlightening, revealing plays.

David Hare My Zinc Bed, I understand, was originally written in 2000 and received rather poor reviews. For this production I believe David Hare has done a partial rewrite. All I can say is that the 2000 version must have been desperately dull if this new production is an improvement.

It’s not a bad night out at the theatre by any means. The play is full of clever observations, tackling serious questions, and with interesting characters. It is, though, one of those occasions where the sum of its parts far exceeds the whole. The story is that of Paul, a reforming alcoholic, and his encounter with Victor, a charismatic celebrity businessman and his wife Elsa. Victor challenges Paul on his reliance on Alcoholics Anonymous, which goads Paul into annoyance but allows the chink in his armour which lets in alcohol to reappear. Victor and Elsa down delicious looking Margaritas in front of Paul; and I won’t tell you the rest of the story in case you see it. Paul and Elsa also have a bit of a “thing” – although it’s hardly an affair. Her reason for being attracted to Paul is one of the most interesting revelations of the play. Suffice it to say, it’s not his good looks, job, money or sexual prowess that does it.

My main problem with this play is that it’s really static. I always like to emerge from a work of art of any sort different from how I went into it; and that applies to the characters too. Paul is a reforming alcoholic at the beginning of the play; and at the end he hasn’t changed. Victor’s and Elsa’s marriage changes, but even then you don’t see it happen – it’s something Paul merely mentions in passing to the audience at the end.

I enjoyed very much the moment when Paul confesses what it is about Elsa that arouses him – the sound of her sexy stockings. For me this worked brilliantly, as she had just crossed her legs and I got a bit of a frisson – and that was when Paul spoke about it. A direct hit on my theatre radar!!

Robert Gwilym Robert Gwilym had all the charisma for the part of Victor but I was quite surprised, I felt he garbled a few of the speeches. He seemed to lose some syllables on some words occasionally and sometimes I didn’t quite catch what he said, even though I was in Row B of the Stalls. Leanne BestLeanne Best had a good mix of sensuous and reserved and tackled the role well; but Jamie Parker playing Paul has the best role and took it by the horns. I was completely won over by his dishevelled discomfort and his living death by alcohol particularly in the second act was moving and convincing. As an aside, I didn’t like the way the positioning of the furniture meant that Leanne Best had to take her curtain call partly obscured. Just looked very wrong to me.

Jamie ParkerThe set is rather mystifying; empty tables to the side of the stage that never come into the action are suddenly laden with bottles and glasses in the second act. It’s an “active background” – which is in good keeping with the rest of the play, but “active background” isn’t very dramatic.

Victor says that you only get to know what life is all about when you’re lying on your zinc bed (or dead). In a sense you only get to understand what this play is all about when one of the characters meets their end (at the end). But the main feeling of the whole experience is that it’s undramatic and not terribly rewarding.