Jan 28, 2007


I recently went to see the show Love Song at the New Ambassadors theatre. The first thing to say about the play is that it was without question, a play. It had a cast of actors performing a script on a proscenium stage, while the audience watched in darkness from the stalls and the circle. There was little remarkable about any of this and the audience left, as it almost always does, relatively unfulfilled.

And yet, there was something different about this show. It did not feel like other shows going on around it. Down the road The Mousetrap is playing, London’s longest running show, the butler still murdering guests night after night. Just round the corner Waiting for Godot has just closed, a show very unlike The Mousetrap in many ways, and yet the two seemed to share something that Love Song did not. They seemed to share, at least, an upbringing. Agatha Christie and Samuel Beckett, though hardly the most natural of bedfellows, shared the experience of theatre as a medium; when they came to write plays, theatre was their frame of reference. And this is where Love Song felt different. The play did not feel comfortable in the theatre, it felt like a stranger, a tourist from somewhere else. And that strange, foreign land from whence it came was apparent before a word had been uttered.

In the first scene a character sits at the back of the stage in silence as the ceiling descends towards him before the lights turn out altogether. In the darkness the words ‘Love Song’ are scrawled, one on top of the other, in 3 feet high letters across the proscenium space. Suddenly the audience is in another darkened space, watching not a stage but a screen – a screen on which the opening credits of a film are beginning. From this moment on the familiar tropes of cinema surround us; the crashing popular music at moments of emotional crescendo, the popular Hollywood stars who, without exception, fill the central roles, the 90 minute running time without an interval, the focused manifestation of the central character’s point of view.

Love Song is a product of the culture of film in which its young creators and its young target audience have grown up. We now live in an era in which film is the dominant artistic medium, its tentacles extending out into every living room. We are drowning in film. For the generation now reaching maturity this has always been the case and they will have undoubtedly, like myself, seen dozens of films (and watched hours of television) before they see a single play. Thus for these theatre makers their frame of reference when coming to write or stage a play has inevitably been irreparably breached by this colossal other medium; consequently cinema’s familiar conventions begin to leak out on to the theatre stage.

Of course, in its early days it was cinema that relied on the conventions of theatre to sustain it; the results where frequently a pale imitation of the older medium. Yet there were those, such as George Melies, who almost instantaneously saw the unique potential of this new medium. It had power to leave the audience spellbound by the laborious construction of seemingly fluent grand visual illusions; a feature of film that is the central foundation of the big Hollywood blockbuster. As these blockbusters demonstrate, in its second century, filmmakers now know their medium well. Cinema has grown up, and is now bigger than anyone could have predicted, while theatre has, comparatively dwindled. Consequently it is important that theatre does not become, as I feel was the case with Love Song, a pale imitation of its younger cousin; staging what are essentially ‘live’ films in the hope of appealing to generations saturated by the screen.

It is notable that George Melies was a magician before he moved to the cinema to stage tricks in a new medium. Theatre, to prosper alongside the cinema, must remember the power of the spectacle of live magic, un-transferable to other mediums. What makes magic stale on the screen is its immediacy, the ephemeral atmosphere in which an illusion takes place – in short, spectre of the live performance and the live performer. Samuel Beckett was more than aware of this; indeed, it is the spectre of the live performer (and what a live performer) that makes Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw’s Happy Days an electrifying, glorious spectacle. On film the production would be almost unbearable.

Let’s hope that surrounded by so much cinema, we can remember what it is that makes theatre so vital.

Jan 24, 2007

Memoire De La Nuit - Phillip Boe, ICA (London International Mime Festival)

It is an image familiar to most people - an anonymous figure in a black bowler hat gazes vacantly through an open window at a serenely blue sky dotted with thick white clouds. In his one-man hymn to the work of Rene Magritte, Memoire De La Nuit, playing at the ICA as part of the London International Mime Festival, Phillip Boe is able to gracefully conjure not only this famous icon but an entire Magritte-inspired universe, in all its surreal and melancholy lyricism.

Boe uses this haunting, beautiful landscape to tell a tantalisingly bizarre detective story; a young girl has gone missing in a wood and Boe’s unnamed protagonist is on the case. In some parts dancing, in others simply moving to his own staccato rhythm, Boe begins to search for clues, growing in the process almost as confused as the dazzled audience.

Starting with just a window frame and a chest of drawers covered in dustsheets, Boe subtly builds Magritte’s striking, familiar images through his ingenious and seamlessly performed slight of hand; an egg, a glass, even a telephone, appear unremarked in Boe’s hand from out of the ether. However, Unlike the ego-maniacal theatrics of David Blaine or even Paul Daniels, Boe’s clever little tricks are truly magical; suggesting not the presence of a remarkable person in an ordinary world, but an entirely ordinary person in a remarkable alternative reality. Through these understated little illusions Boe remains truly faithful to Magritte’s comically surreal paintings, creating a universe at once very mundane and utterly bewildering.

Yet if Boe is gloriously successful in transporting his audience to another world, his reasons for taking them there remain frustratingly unfulfilling. Boe seems to want to construct his noir-ish detective story in a similar manner to Paul Auster’s wonderful New York Trilogy, tantalising the audience with the possibility of a logical conclusion that will set the world to rights before skipping off again into the impossible. Yet Boe’s confusing tale is never engaging enough to truly interest; its various plot twists feel only like a rather superficial excuse for the performer to craft his undoubtedly stunning environment.

Such an impressive performance deserves a narrative of equal strength. I’m convinced, however, that with a little more work this talented performer is capable of delivering just that.

Jan 19, 2007


There are few places in London that I enjoy an evening more than at the Battersea Arts Centre, surrounded by both staff and public who are unpretentious, enthusiastic and share a real love of theatre. Some of my happiest times in the brief period I've been in this smoggy metropolis have been drinking an overpriced Magners (something I can forgive them for as it would seem at present the potential for a reasonably priced Magners remains firmly untapped) in the BAC bar, chatting with actors, staff and assorted other utterly lovely people. It seems to attract them, probably something to do with the effort required in making it to this pleasantly quiet corner of South West London.

And this is before I ever mention the startling, exciting, gloriously naive and ambitious theatre that you can see there. From an evening of 5 minute sketches based around the fire of London in for the which the entire building was filled with smoke and Firemen, to the utterly magnificent Particularly in the Heartland you can always be guaranteed something interesting.

Which is why this news from Lyn Gardner has me postively foaming at the mouth with frustration:

Last week BAC's local council, Tory-governed Wandsworth, gave notice that from April 1 it intends to cut BAC's annual grant from £100,000 to zero and simultaneously start charging a commercial rent for the Lavender Hill building of more than £270,000 per annum. If this was to go ahead, BAC could not survive and would have to close.

£100,000. Probably the amount that the Tory led council spent on pens last year. Surely, you don't have to be involved in theatre in any way (even in watching) to realise that this is an absurd situation. As Lyn says:

You might think local councillors would be thrilled and proud to be the custodians of such a local and national treasure; delighted by the 220,000 visitors that BAC receives each year and the positive impact that those visitors have on the local economy (about £2m-a-year, the centre estimates). But you would think wrong.

It's by no means cut and dried however hence this post is not a memorium but a call to arms. The head of Wandsworth council is Edward Lister, and here's a spiffy idea - email him. Really let off some steam and put all those hours of typing practise to some really good use. And for those people who might chance upon this and have a few more readers than my mere trickle. Please do spread the word.

Jan 17, 2007


yoOver the break I had the pleasure of celebrating my birthday which never fails to fall as inconveniently as it possibly can two days after Christmas. Never one to be bitter (and aware that a long line of great people have similarly lived the lives in Jesus's shadow... John the Baptist, Brian, Anubis god of the dead, Jesus Jones) I always make the most of unfortunate circumstances and spend a quiet one with the family field, while toying with Christmas treats. And this year I had the treatiest of all treats as my parents, shot to brimming with Christmas spirit, went that extra fiscal mile and gifted me with an ipod nano.

My deep, deep love of music in the past always tempered by my broad, broad propensity for cheapness, this was the first time that I had experienced such a device and for those yet to visit the promised land, it is a life-defining experience. And this is no hyperbole, I assure you. Let me explain...

What makes the ipod and its variants such an epochal device is that at its tiny electronic heart sit dedication and chance in blissfully perfect symetry. For the true glory of the ipod is not how many albums it can hold (there are others than can do the same), nor its undeniable sexiness, but the option at the bottom of the main menue simply entitled "shuffle songs".

Here all our careful planning, our hours of meticulous listening and selecting, uploading and downloading, the whole glorious gamut of our music-loving history is whisked from its musty throne and danced back to life by serendipity. The shuffle re-engages us with our music. Like an empty metapor, grown stale and meaningless through repetition, our music is rendered unlistenable by habit and familiarity. Enter the shuffle, mixing, juxtaposing, messing around; through our engagement with its abitrary selections we create new experiences, we give our music new meanings.

We also make this music ours. True there may well be 20,000,000 other people
who also feel a lump rising in their throat at The Beatle's Penny Lane, but no one else is listening to as part of a medley that started with The Arcade Fire's Rebellion (Lies), went through Dylan's 1975 live performance of Romance in Durango and climaxed with Aqua's Dr Jones - this is your glorious chaotic compilation. It is yours alone. You are engaging with this music in a away no one before ever has. And everyone likes to secretly think that their music means more to them than to anyone else who has ever heard it.

In my humble opinion the shuffle should be a template for life. Embracing chance (within a carefully constructed artistic framework) to yield a totally engaging, totally unique relationship to the work (or works) of art.

And what medium has the potential to embrace chance as much as theatre? Look, for example, at the power of site-specific theatre, taking theatre outside the confines of the nominally neutral, nominally 'empty' space. In doing so it embraces chance, forging an intimate, personal relationship to the work.

When I saw Punchdrunk's Faust I found myself in a small room on my own with a dancer throwing himself against the wall, lit only by a swinging bare lightbulb, the next minute I followed him into a space with several other actors and dozens of saudience members, this was suddenly a very public spectacle; though we were now all together, our relationships to this space and this event were completely different, it meant something unique to all of us. I saw this public scene in the light of the intimate solo dance I had just scene, others saw it from the perspective of their own chance encounters.

It is in this way that theatre can become (or remain depending on who you speak to) the most adventurous and appropriate mode of art for a generation of shufflers.

Jan 15, 2007


Never fear, beloved reader, I have returned from an extended Christmas break (and the ensuing snowballing heap of work (possible collective noun... a catastrophe of deadlines)) and hence the steady trickle of blogging will continue, like a barely noticed spring dribbling down the side of Mount Doom.

To look forward to:

Reviews (Much Ado About Nothing! Don Juan in Soho! My Christmas!)
Thoughts (on everything!)
Developments in the world of theatre (our first semi-professional production!)

Consider this a trailer. Stay tuned folks.


Never fear, beloved reader, I have returned from an extended Christmas break (and the ensuing snowballing heap of work (possible collective noun... a catastrophe of deadlines)) and hence the steady trickle of blogging will continue, like a barely noticed spring dribbling down the side of Mount Doom.

To look forward to:

Reviews (Much Ado About Nothing! Don Juan in Soho! My Christmas!)
Thoughts (on everything!)
Developments in the world of theatre (our first semi-professional production!)

Consider this a trailer. Stay tuned folks.