Particularly In The Heartland / Shamlet / Rabbit / In Extremis / The Madras House
Various venues

August / September, 2006

[...] One doesn’t always need to delve deep in order to give the most efficacious impression of what a production is like.  Look at Tim Walker’s Sunday Telegraph review, towards the back of this issue, of the current touring revival of Me And My Girl.  He finds the production’s most noteworthy factor – indeed, for him perhaps its one saving grace (no pun intended) – to be a single performance, and from an unexpected source. So he spends about half his review describing what Trevor Bannister is like now, for those of us who remember him principally or only from the thirty-year-old TV sitcom Are You Being Served?  And it paints a telling picture.

It’s not always necessary to give an account of every significant aspect of a show in order to make you feel you’re there. Alastair Macaulay has a gift for describing voices; one can hear a line as one reads his account of its delivery. Charles Spencer also has a keen eye for detail, even if he is unjustly remembered for one occasion when he couldn’t tear it away from a particular female form.  Yet if you go back and read his review of The Blue Room, you’ll see that, contrary to popular legend, Charlie does not refer to Nicole Kidman as “pure theatrical Viagra”: in fact, he’s alluding to the production’s atmosphere of eroticism as a whole.  Yes, he describes the vision of la Kidman at some length, but as one factor among several, each of which swims into vision as you read his account of it.  More than once here I’ve quoted Michael Coveney’s description of the job of a theatre critic as being “to explain culture to itself”.  This is so, certainly, but theatre is not just part of a social and cultural discourse: it is, first and foremost, an experience.  Sometimes we do best when we simply try, as it might be, to oblige the request of the protagonist’s blind father in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father: “Be my eyes.”


And sometimes the visibility varies radically in different atmospheres.  It’s that time of year to start considering transfers from Edinburgh.  Fiona Mountford alludes to this phenomenon in her review of Particularly In The Heartland, as do I in mine of Shamlet – neither of us having seen the piece in question when it played north of the border.  I did see Heartland up there (though not in London), and I think Fiona may be too quick to ascribe its reception to the syndrome known to some journos as “Edinburgh bends”, that critical equivalent of oxygen-starvation to the brain which can result in torrents of praise for a Hungarian woman in a Perspex box, or whatever.  Heartland’s problems were apparent to me first time; indeed, they have been common to all the shows by young American company The TEAM that I have seen, and to a number of other companies besides.

In The TEAM I see a keen and questing intelligence, vibrant creativity, delightful playfulness and adventurousness, and of course performance skills galore as well.  Every time I’ve seen them I’ve wanted to be as enthused as others.  But what I don’t see is focus.  They have something to say, and they know what it is, and they have the nous and the articulacy to say it compellingly… but, as it were, they don’t put it into sentences.  I’m not saying that theatre needs to be linear and explicit, God forbid… just that, when appropriate, it could do with being a bit more so than this.  Shamlet is in some way the opposite: a potentially interesting idea (perhaps) that has been hideously over-developed, specifically to fill a London main-show slot.  Be your eyes, for this show?  No, really, you wouldn’t thank me for it.


Too many ideas, or not enough… those are the pitfalls on either side of the tightrope that most theatre walks.  It’s rare to be able to fall on both sides at once, as Toby Young alleges of Nina Raine’s Rabbit on its transfer to Trafalgar Studio 2.  He has a point, though I think Raine could have solved it as well by integrating the more sombre family/memory drama with the fizzy chat as she could by ditching the former altogether.  For Raine certainly has a keen ear for believable, ordinary speech – in terms both of individual turns of phrase and the directions conversations take as a whole.  She also has significant ability as a director… enough, as director of Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman’s verbatim drama Unprotected, to have persuaded the judging panel of the Amnesty International Award on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe of the play’s “refreshing lack of victimhood”, when in fact victimhood is the play’s whole raison d’être.


And it’s also – as I suggested in the case of Heartland – a matter of deciding how best those ideas can be put across.  It’s important, for instance, that someone – Robert Shore, as it happens – recognises that Howard Brenton’s best known work in the UK now is not The Romans In Britain, Pravda or any of his other stage work, but four seasons of screenplays (ordinarily uncredited, for some unexplained reason) of the TV spy series Spooks.  And very astute work it is, too, using the standard variations on plot and character to explore contemporary issues of surveillance, civil liberties, interference in private life, state over-reaction and the like.  (In much the same way, G.F. Newman made headlines in the 1970s with the mini-series Law And Order, and followed it up with a number of hard-hitting TV dramas about injustice, but his greatest success in making such televisual-dramatic indictments has been since he created the dashing, heroic figure of Judge John Deed, as played by Martin Shaw, to do the investigating on the author’s behalf.)

So, in revising In Extremis, Brenton has taken on board not simply the demands and tastes of a modern audience, but in particular the kind of play that works well in the space of Shakespeare’s Globe.  And he’s just as canny in this regard; I think Benedict Nightingale and Dominic Cavendish (the dactylic reviewers!) are ungenerous in their responses to Brenton’s balancing act.  Would that Harley Granville Barker had learned similar skills almost a century ago, and we would have in The Madras House a play that goes somewhere resolutely enough to deserve Sam Walters’ skilful revival of it.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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