Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Duck Variations & The Bay at Nice, Theatr Clwyd

@Theatr Clwyd

It was America versus Russia in this double bill of one act plays from Suitcase Theatre, but not the usual East meet West showcase that David Hare created!

The Duck Variations by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo) might sound on paper to be rather dull. Two old men, sat on a park bench, converse about the world, using ducks as an analogy for everything that’s going on around them. George is opinionated, and prone to believing everything he reads in the newspapers, so he is often prone to disseminating misinformation to the more poetical Emil. Where George talks, Emil listens, although when Emil does speak it is with the wonderment that often only still exists in small children.

This is typical early Mamet territory, contemplative characters, speaking in short snatches in the naturalistic way people do. The conversation meandering off course and back again, bits are repeated, bits overlap, there are bits where you think “what are they talking about?” And of course, there are those moments of silence as a conversation starts to fall flat. This naturalistic way of talking on stage is actually hard to do in a convincing manner, but both male leads managed the stop start exchanges effortlessly. As a member of the audience, you felt you had sat on a park bench across the way and were watching a slice of real life in front of you.

“You know, for centuries prior to this time man has watched birds.”

Just as Chekhov elicits pathos, Mamet’s 14 variations on the theme of ducks awakens something inside. Watching these two men philosophising about the world and relating it to the life of a duck was both bizarre and cleverly intertwined. Watching the birds flying in formation, their talk leads them to discuss the fact that the lead duck will at some point fall behind, they won’t be the leader anymore, they’ll go to the back of the pack and at some point they will inevitably die, whilst some younger bird will become leader, and the cycle will happen again. Then there is the tale of the ongoing fight between the duck and its arch enemy the blue heron. As George regales these pieces of information he has read, Emil relates back his opinion, because everything must have meaning, everything has to have some purpose…even the bench they are sitting on has a purpose.

"Oil-bearing ducks floating up dead on the beaches. Beaches closing. No place to swim. The surface of the sea is solid dying wildlife."

With countries all over the world suddenly declaring a Climate Crisis, it’s interesting to hear a play written in 1972 discussing environmental issues. There’s gook in the stratosphere choking everything, “the air is more a part of our world than we would like to admit.” Even Emil’s description of oil-covered ducks washed up on beaches sounds terribly current, a sobering thought when I think that this play and I are about the same age…in my lifetime, issues that were being addressed are still occurring and we’ve done nothing to make things better, some might say they’ve become even worse.

This play worked well because of the contrast in the characters, and the confidence that both actors brought to the stage. George, opinionated, slightly arrogant, superior, works well against the foil of Emil. George will never change, he visits the park and goes back home, whereas Emil has taken to the streets; he sleeps on the park bench which is surrounded by his few bits and pieces that he collects, hoping to sell to make enough money to keep himself fed. Two people with very different outlooks on life, two people who could be friends, or more likely, two folk who just stumbled across each other and started talking. As each part of the conversation comes to an end the lights go down, and then as they come back up, they continue their spasmodic chat, always referencing the ducks they can see bobbing on the lake in front of them. 

The conversations might sound a little misguided, but watching the two characters muse about the environment, the lifecycle of things, the purpose behind everything, the needs of the world before and after them, gives out a little hope…that something as small as duck, can make people think about so many global issues on such an epic scale!


The Bay at Nice by David Hare left me feeling rather colder…and not just because it was set in Russia! It actually forms part of a double bill with another play of David Hare’s called Wrecked Eggs, which shows the freedom of America against the constraints of the Soviet regime. It was therefore interesting that Suitcase Theatre had chosen a different American play to offset against it.

The Bay at Nice - Henri Matisse, 1918
Valentina is an expert on the paintings of Henri Matisse, having once studied under the master himself in Paris. She has been summoned to The Hermitage, Leningrad, to see if she can authenticate a painting that they have recently acquired (hence the name of the play which is the title of one of Matisse’s paintings.) Whilst being pressed to authentic the painting, she is visited by her adult daughter who requires money from her mother so that she can afford to divorce her boring husband and marry an older, more interesting man.

The play is essentially an argument between doing what you want and doing what you should. Valentina had been living a life of freedom in Paris in the 1920s, lying in studios with various men, smoking too much, doing what she wanted with free abandon, until she got pregnant. She decided she had to keep the baby, abandoning her life, her career, her art, in order to move back to Russia so that her child would be Russian. But you realise when she is in conversation with her daughter, that she holds her daughter as the reason she no longer paints, that coming back to Russia did not allow her to have the freewill she had in France and that she has lived her life through duty and sacrifice. She is angry that her daughter can now stand in front of her to say she wants a life of her own, that she is not duty bound to stay with her husband, that she can take their children and live a free life with an older man, a man who is a sanitation engineer, and this fills Valentina with horror and despair.

“Great art cannot be produced by obeisance to classical rules or willpower.”

The play gives plenty of food for thought, and makes you question your own actions as to whether you should do things for your own happiness, or whether you should follow social conventions of what others believe. Valentina is aghast that her daughter Sophia would want to leave a man with a reputable job for that of a sanitation engineer, but as Sophia passionately defends this work, you see elements of Hare’s better play, Skylight, surfacing, whereby those doing the mundane jobs are the people who effect society the most and are therefore the most important.

The play rests very much on the relationship with Valentina and her daughter, and I just didn’t feel any connection between the two leads. These are two confident women who believe in themselves and in their passioned arguments, but the performances were a little timid. Valentina has a number of withering put downs in the cleverly written text, but these were sadly lost in delivery. Both actors seemed to be unsure of what they were saying, so it sounded more like remembering a text rather than impassioned pleas for one to listen to the other. Things did improve however, when Valentina sat reminiscing about her past and she relaxed into reliving her time spent with Matisse.

The play hints at several themes which Hare could have written into a much better bodied play including the obvious animosity between mother and daughter which is never fully explained. You can presume that much of this is because Valentina chose to have her daughter and gave her life away in doing so, but this is merely hinted at. We also know that Sophia is not only running away from her husband, but she is fearful that if she stays any longer she will be asked to become a member of the “party” something that she is averse to, but we don’t know the details of why.

Whilst The Duck Variations ebbs and flows into a conversation of ideas which you can feel a part of, The Bay at Nice is a clumsy play that feels more like a notebook of ideas that Hare never really got to grips with. It is a play more about words than acting, and this showed on stage, as no-one really had anything to do other than stand about, arms folded, looking despairingly at one another. It was however an entertaining evening, so it was a great shame that the audience only amounted to about twenty people, and some of them were theatre staff.

The Duck Variations/The Bay at Nice double bill runs at Theatr Clwyd until 25th May 2019.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Strangers on a Train Set - The Lowry, Salford

I don’t think I was the little girl my mother had longed for. Ideas of wearing pretty dresses and playing with dolls were thrown out of the window very early on. I would proudly push my pram down the road with her, but it didn’t contain a doll; that had been defaced and beheaded long ago…no, my pram was full of cuddly toy animals. If I wasn’t playing with them, I would be playing with my train set. Yes, a train set, a clockwork locomotive designed to keep me away from my older brothers’ electric train set. My train was really boring….it just went around in a little circle. Now my brothers’, well they had a huge trestle table with a hole in the middle, and lots of tracks with points and signals…countryside painted on the walls surrounding it, endless amounts of Modroc used to create hills and valleys, freight trains, steam trains that puffed little clouds of vapour, diesel trains…it was great fun, even when I was shouted at to keep my little sticky fingers at bay!!

Neither of my parents drove so the train was the preferred mode of transport. British Rail weren’t too good at being on time so connections were always missed, and so to pass the time, me dad and I would go train spotting. I’d scribble numbers in my notebook whilst dad shouted them out to me, and then at the end of the day we would cross them off in a special book we’d buy from John Menzies (yes I am that old) at Chester railway station. At the end of the year you would see how many numbers you had crossed off in the book before starting again the next year!

I don’t train spot anymore, but the sight of a steam train always brings great joy and when a diesel locomotive roars past me if I’m sat at a station, I test myself to see if I can still remember what class of engine it is. Suffice to say, a heady mix of trains, theatre and crime novels was too good to miss; I figured this would be a fun-filled way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

LipService Theatre (Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding) have been described as the Laurel & Hardy of literary deconstruction. Having watched Mr Darcy Loses the Plot a couple of years ago, I can see why. Their knowledge and ability to turn the mundane into something hilarious is one to be appreciated; part stand-up, part live acting and part film projection, it is a perfect heady mix of virtuosity and jubilation.

Strangers On A Train Set pulled into The Lowry, Salford Friday 17th May 2019 and departed on the 19th May 2019 to resume its tour around the country. For those of you who have never seen LipService, then be warned, it has developed a bit of a cult following around various venues, so grab your tickets quickly when you see them heading your way or you’ll miss out on a treat.

Derek and Geoff (Fox and Ryding) are two model train enthusiasts who have been invited to Salford to showcase their 00 gauge model railway, and recreate some classic railway journeys via steam locomotive or Geoff’s favourite, his modern Virgin Pendolino. 

When it comes to their trains, no detail goes unnoticed. For authenticity, Geoff has lovingly scuffed his Pendolino with cat litter, to give it that authentic worn look, as though it really has clattered mile upon mile along the West Coast route from Manchester to London Euston. Although they have paid great detail to their trains, the tiny figurines that adorn their railway set have been paid less attention, which is why we end up with the unlikely scenario of a 21st century youth being shouted at by a 1930’s amateur sleuth on the said Pendolino! We meet equally bizarre characters along the railway journey through various train-based books and films, some of which are easy to spot, whilst others morph into generalisations of many classic scenes we’ve read or watched!

“Take our love to daddy!!!!”

LipService might only consist of two actors, but they use ingenious touches to move between the real world of Derek and Geoff and the fictional world of what is happening within the train set. Video projections show Derek and Geoff playing with the train set, whilst on stage, the little plastic characters become real, moving, talking humans! The actors know that despite this clever use of flipping between stage and screen to give time for costume changes etc, there are still some limitations as to what they can do, so they incorporate jokes about the fact you can’t have three people in a particular scene, or the need for using a doll to stand in for a third of the Railway Children, as there are only two actors!  

I am not a fan or player of computer games, and the first parody left me a bit dazed and confused, although a number of people around me obviously understood what was going on as they were heartily laughing around me, but fortunately, unlike the old British Rail Timetable, that sketch departed and a new sketch that had me on more familiar ground pulled onto the stage. Their pastiche of Brief Encounter (Briefs on the Counter) had me holding my sides with laughter. It is one of my favourite films, so to see Maggie Fox’s hilarious take on the terribly, terribly well clipped tones of Celia Johnson was truly brilliant. All my favourite moments from the film were there…the innocence of returning a library book, the “oh, I appear to have something in my eye” all the way to the repression that only a “fresh this morning” bath bun could convey, was squashed into a few hysterical minutes that could run and run….and run and run!

You couldn’t have a play about crime novels and trains without playing homage to Agatha Christie. From super sleuth Miss Sparrow, sitting knitting and taken immediate dislike to the youth with the loud music emanating from his mobile phone, to the locally renamed 4:50 from Piccadilly (Expected arrival time 4:57…58…59??!!!) this production sped along just like the Murder on the Trans Pennine Express!

At times the production shunts back and forth, so just as you think you are in the middle of a Miss Marple sketch, it suddenly switches tracks to The Railway Children which leads to some elements of confusion, but that doesn’t matter, as the name of the game here is to depart your theatre destination far happier than when you arrived. What is truly enjoyable is watching how well Fox and Ryding work together. If one makes a slight slip the other is there to quickly transform it into a gag, as though it is just another part of the show. This is the genius of great comedy partnerships, and just like the legends of Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe before them, Fox can stand on stage saying nothing, but just one look and you can’t stop laughing.

Whether you are a train enthusiast or not, this clever and hugely enjoyable show is just the ticket to letting off steam in today’s all too serious world! If you see it running near you, flag it down and go see it! I’m off to the refreshment car in Coach C to see if Denise still has that egg & cress butty she announced half an hour ago…I bet her card machine won’t be working…

Tour dates…

25th May 2019 - Nailsworth Festival
28th May 2019 to 29th May 2019 -  Chipping Norton Theatre, Chipping Norton
30th May 2019 - Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
1st June 2019 - Middlesbrough Theatre, Middlesbrough
6th June 2019 - Meres Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham
5th September 2019 - Blackpool Grand

Friday, 10 May 2019

Stones in his Pockets – by Marie Jones (Theatr Clwyd)

In a small rural town in County Kerry, Ireland, a Hollywood film crew descends and monopolises the town. The locals are thrilled, they might only be earning £40 a day as a film extra, but this place has now become the land of opportunity, dreams of becoming a famous actor could now become a reality.

The play centres around two characters, Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn. Charlie had been running a small business renting our movies, but then a blockbuster chain moved in, with more choice and more copies of films. After going bankrupt, Charlie grabbed his tent and started wandering around Ireland and now here he is, an extra on an American film, with the opportunity of submitting a film script to someone big in Hollywood.

Jake has recently returned to Ireland following some time in New York and he is mesmerised by the star of the movie, Caroline Giovanni. Caroline swans in, the glamourous girl from Hollywood, and despite proclaiming that she wants to perfect the Irish account and give a realistic portrayal on screen, she and the rest of the American crew are only concerned about finishing the movie on time.

At the start, the community is excited to have such famous people in their midst, but soon the novelty starts to wear off and they start to feel used and abused. Jobs in this part of the world are scarce, so the crew know that £40 a day is a lot to some of the folk, so they can treat them anyway they want.
One evening in the local pub, a teenager, Sean Harkin, who is completely in awe of Caroline tries to speak with her. Caroline, who has gone the pub to “get an authentic feel for the locals” cannot help but be the Hollywood diva she is, makes a scene and gets her minder to throw Sean out of the pub. Sean is both devasted and humiliated. This is a small community, and everyone would know that he, Sean Harkin, had been thrown out of the local boozer by Caroline Giovanni’s security man, Jock Campbell.

The first act of the play ends when Sean commits suicide by putting stones in his pockets to weigh him down when he walks into the local river. The second act continues as the locals try to come to terms with Sean’s death and unite for his funeral, but there is conflict with the film crew as they try to keep to their tight schedule. There isn’t enough time for the whole town to go to Sean’s funeral and his wake, and on no account should anyone be back on set having had a drink! The crew have no concern about the people they are employing as extra’s, and they have no feelings of remorse that they unwittingly contributed to this poor boy’s death.

Jake feels it is his fault that his cousin Sean committed suicide and reminisces about when they were children and their dreams and aspirations when they grew up. He felt he should have been there for Sean, but Charlie is able to console him and say it wasn’t his fault, but that there was one way they could remember and honour their friend…rewrite Charlies script and make the story about Sean instead. They present the story to the American director who dismisses it as not commercially viable…yet their story is the one we’ve just sat and watched!!

I must admit, that when I first started watching the play I was thoroughly confused. Here was a tale with a plethora of characters, and only two actors on stage. After about ten minutes though, I had settled into this unusual performance and I was mesmerised by the performance of two very talented actors, Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie). They take on the role of all of the characters in the story, and rather than be reliant on costume changes (there is the odd change of waistcoat for jumper as their shift as an extra ends) they just switch accents, facial movements and body mannerisms for each character. Once you knew the mannerisms associated with each character, as a viewer you were able to switch and follow the storyline with them. This was certainly a masterclass in character acting and an amazing show to see. It was full of typical Irish banter, so despite the dark nature of the storyline is was a humorous play and a great night out.

Whilst the play was a joyful celebration of Irish life, local communities, and good friendships, there was also the poignant reminders that the extras on films (who really are important in creating the right feel for a film) can be treated as second class citizens to the stars of the show. They work long, anti-social hours with very little to do, and can sit around all day without being required to do anything. It might sound great, but on a cold damp day I’m sure it’s far from ideal. Often, they are not even entitled to the on-location catering, they will have their own set up, and written into their contracts the lines that it is forbidden to speak to the stars. All of this, and yet many extras have been hurt on set, some even paying the ultimate sacrifice, and for what? They don’t even have their names listed on the end credits.

And then there is Sean Harkin. A young man who only wanted to say hello and ended up being so humiliated that he committed suicide. I remember being about the age of Sean when some filming took place in Frodsham and all the actors were using my school as dressing rooms etc. I didn’t know who Uma Thurman, Patrik Bergin, David Morrisey or Edward Fox were at the time. I did recognise Owen Teale though, he was on a TV advert at the time for Coffee mate, so I said hello to him when the cast were taking a break in the local pub. Fortunately he was very gracious with his time and kindly gave me his autograph…a minute of his time, no humiliation for me and I was as pleased as Punch! Makes me think how just 60 seconds of Caroline Giovanni’s work-time, and a small gesture of kindness, could have made Sean Harkin’s story so different.

Stones in his Pockets is still on tour and can be seen at the following venues:

Mon, 13th May 2019 to Sat, 18th May 2019
  Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
Mon, 24th June 2019 to Sat, 29th June 2019
  Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Mon, 15th July 2019 to Sat, 20th July 2019
  Darlington Hippodrome (formerly Civic Theatre), Darlington
Mon, 22nd July 2019 to Sat, 27th July 2019
  Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Mon, 29th July 2019 to Sat, 3rd August 2019

  Theatre Royal, Brighton