Friday, 30 August 2013

Exit hurriedly, stage left

A friend and I went to see a play last night. If writer, cast and crew were complete strangers, this post would be an excoriating exposé of a wasted evening. Names would be named and reputations rubbished. I would get a warm glow of self-righteousness from setting out exactly what went wrong from start to finish and would award myself a pleasant glass of wine when the last full stop was reached and the Publish button clicked. (For an example, all you have to do is read the post previous to this one.)

But because the writer was a well-meaning colleague (we've acted together in the past and we've seen a few of each other's productions) I don't have the heart to tell the world that what he has written starts well but soon goes downhill and inexplicably peters out. There are flashes of comedy and occasional insights into the human condition, but the drama is weak and the plot - even after the reveal - is never clear.

The writer's main problem is that he doesn't understand the full implications of his story and does little more than throw several ideas in the air, letting them fall to the ground instead of following them through. To take one example: a character brings an apple onstage. Given the context in which he carries it, that apple is inherently fraught with meaning and possibilities. I watched the apple. I waited for the apple to return to the story, to move it forward. But no, the apple is left on a table, touched briefly later in the play and its mystery remains.

At the end of the first act, I looked forward to the second half for the resolution not just of the apple, but of other dangling issues - while I simultaneously feared that the rest of the play would meander as hopelessly as the first. To my surprise - and that of my companion and, I think, several other members of the audience - the cast suddenly assembled for their final bow. We applauded dutifully and thankfully and made our way upstairs. A quick huddled discussion - if we stayed, what could we say to author and cast? - and we were out the door, following others who, we were sure, had come to the same conclusion we had.

Am I a coward for not wanting to identify the play or the actors? Why am I willing to be harsh with strangers but not with acquaintances? It is not that I fear losing a friendship - we only know each other professionally and not very well. It is more that having been polite and sociable with someone I cannot find it within me to upset them even in the name of honesty. Of course, he might have asked "what did you think? give me your honest opinion", in which case I would have put the above points as delicately as I could. But if his ego is as fragile as most in the theatre, it is unlikely he would have place himself in that vulnerable position. Instead, he would have turned his puppy-dog eyes on me and said "did you like it?" I wouldn't have had the heart to say no and perhaps that's where the cowardice comes in.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Not by the book

How do you review a play based on a book? Particularly the first dramatic rendering of a book that has iconic status among the few people who are aware of its existence? Do you pretend you've never read the novel and review the play as it is represented? Or do you mentally compare the two as the play progresses?

Sandel, by Angus Stewart, was a 1968 novel published about the love affair between a 19 year old and 14 year old (both male) in Oxford. Although strictly speaking about boy-love, the romance nevertheless resonated with many young gay men like myself, who saw ourselves reclining on college swards on summer afternoons with handsome partners, thrilled as much by the enforced secrecy of our passion as by the passion itself.

Ryan Penny as David Rogers
and Tom Cawte as Antony Sandel
Take that story, describe it as gay Lolita, add in a promising Times review by Libby Purves and you have a recipe for success. Intrigued therefore, I bought my ticket and joined the end of the long queue. And there my doubts began. I was confronted by the poster for the production which showed, not a handsome 14 year old, but an undoubtedly older figure who was no more blessed with good looks than I am.

Ok, I thought, on that point the play can diverge from the novel. After all, love does not flourish on looks alone. Personality counts. And if Tom Cawte can portray all the complex emotions and behaviour of a 14 year old falling head over heels in love with a 19 year old, I will happily suspend disbelief.

So can Cawte play the part of a fascinating, adorable, lovable 14 year old? I have no idea, because in Glenn Chandler's one-dimensional adaptation, Tony Sandel comes across as a hyper-active brat who deserves not so much his partner's devotion as regular doses of Ritalin. He is less an object of love than a whirlwind of exasperation who cannot stop talking, running around and irritating the youth he is supposed to seduce.

On the plus side, for most of the play Chandler's script remains true to the novel and retains much of the original dialogue and from time to time there are glimpses of what might be love between the two principals. Unfortunately, the playwright's heavy-handed direction insists on Tony and David incessantly and breathlessly running around the stage in the never-ending search for laughs, with the result that what could and should be a moving, deep romance is obscured by easy comedy and near farce.

This is not surprising, since previous works of Chandler's that I have seen - Boys of the Empire and the misnamed but still enjoyable Scouts in Bondage - have been fun and entertaining take-offs of the Boys' Own Paper and Scouting for Boys approach to boyhood. But such an approach is fatal for Sandel and reveals that Chandler has little understanding either of deeper human emotions or of the stagecraft necessary to depict those emotions. That weakness is underlined by his rewriting of the play's ending, which offers us cliche rather than poignancy and betrays both the novel and audience.

The depiction of love depends on the gradual unfolding of the lovers' characters and of glimpses of the inner beauty and mystery that attracts each to the other. It depends on quiet moments that allow both the individuals on the stage and the audience watching to reflect on what they see. It depends on subtle gestures and expressions that allow us to intuit ideas and emotions without words. But under Chandler's direction these two lovers never stop speaking and shouting at each other, as he encourages the audience to laugh at them rather than empathise with them. At only one point in the play does Chandler understand the value of silence - and it is then that Sandel briefly reaches into our souls. But the moment is quickly disposed of and the banter returns, reminding us that we are being offered laughter not love, caricatures not portraits, superficiality not depth.

Tom Cawte may be a good actor, but he is the wrong for the part and Chandler's direction destroys rather than creates the key role in this production. Ryan Penny comes closest to offering a rounded performance, but Chandler never lets him develop his character. I hope he soon finds a director more worthy of his talents. Calum Fleming's Bruce Lang wandered in from a sub-Oscar Wilde comedy; instead of gravitas, he gave us camp. The set, by Will Hunter, was effective.

The audience saw a comedy and laughed. Angus Stewart must be turning in his grave. Two stars out of a possible five.

Until 24 August, Surgeons Hall (venue 53), 16.05
Tom Cawte: Antony Sandel
Calum Fleming: Bruce Lang
Ryan Penny: David Rogers
Adapted from the novel by Angus Stewart and directed by Glenn Chandler

Friday, 23 August 2013

Small, perfectly-formed and cheap

Here I am once again in Edinburgh, partly visiting family and partly exploring the Fringe. I've been wary of the Fringe for at least a decade, partly because it seemed that the standard of acting in drama productions was declining rapidly - I would leave a production disappointed more often than impressed or entertained - and partly because of the spreading virus of stand-up comedy. While I'm a big fan of comic writing in fiction and on stage and some radio and television sit-coms approach genius status, I find most stand-up drearily monotonous, only generating laughs with a predictable combination of large egos, weak jokes, unnecessary swearing and a drunken audience.

But my ego is as big as the next self-deluded comedian's and so I'm spending a couple of days in the Scottish capital checking venues for productions that I am planning to put on at the Fringe in 2014. At the moment three one-man productions are in the air - revivals of Tadzio Speaks . . . and Angel and a new one-man play based on the life of Frederick Rolfe - but there are other ideas mulling around and a year in which the best-laid plans can go agley.

So I'm looking for venues which are small, perfectly-formed and cheap. Not to mention in the centre of the city. This is, I know, a thankless task, similar to hunting for unicorns on London's Regent Street, but it has to be done. And part of the task is not only looking at venues but watching shows that take place in them. Which brings me back to my first point - that the standard of Fringe productions has fallen considerably in the last decade or two (or, perhaps more likely, I have aged and become more discriminatory).

On Wednesday I found myself watching shows in three temporary theatres. First up was The Improv of Being Earnest at The Space on North Bridge (venue 36) from the Bristol-based UWE Drama Society. A nice idea - marrying Whose Line Is It, Anyway, with Oscar Wilde, that was weakly executed. Whose Line relied on rapid changes and actor-comedians who took an idea and ran with it; The Improv let long sections of the play run before instigating changes and the performers would often get bored with the suggestions they were given (eg performing underwater) and let them drop rather than explore them. Which meant that I was more often left laughing at the original Wilde rather than the modern interpretation.

Last up was Ian Watt in Cut! at the Hill Street Solo Theatre. Although others have praised this comedy, this satire of a German film director in 1920s Hollywood passed me by. Part of the problem was Watt's impenetrable accent (I had trouble understanding half of what was being said and my Russian companion gave up after about 10 minutes), but most of the fault lay in the direction, which emphasised mania over dramatic curve. We began at high pitch and we continued at high pitch and ended at high pitch. The audience was small and while two women in front of us laughed hysterically, the laughter from the rest of the audience was definitely low-key and suggested people who were laughing because it seemed to be the right moment to laugh rather than because they were genuinely amused by what was happening on stage.

The highlight came in the middle of the day - Bobby Bulloch in Big Boys Don't Cry. The one-man play, by Elizabeth Davidson, telling a simple story about a young man's relationship with his baby son, was well-written and acted and both author and actor should go far. Yes, my Russian friend had some problems with the accent and dialect, despite living in Scotland for several years, but that did not prevent her from recognising the quality of the drama throughout. The only thing that I really disliked about the production was the pop-art poster.

As for the venues (the principal reason why I was there) . . .  well, the North Bridge Space was anonymous, the Hill Street Theatre was professional and The Vault (the setting for Big Boys) was atmospheric but the seating awkward. No decision as yet, but today I have another afternoon in which to check out more temporary theatres and maybe I'll find my dream venue half-way up Victoria Street.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Pressing On

The revival of Californian Lives is less than a month away (30 days, to be precise) and I'm once again in the middle of the thankless task of trying to raise press interest in the event. Unlike the first production, when I threw caution and money to the wind, spending a four-figure sum on a P R agent, I'm doing all the work myself - and finding it doesn't feel very different from the first time, when I found myself doing a lot of publicity that I had naively thought the agent would do . . .

That includes designing the poster, writing press releases and contacting the many individuals, organisations, publications, websites that should be waiting eagerly to print and publicise the information that Californian Lives returns! 

The poster was easy. Use the original Lauren Wright photography, replace the King's Head logo and typeface with the OSO logo and the original typeface, add on the reviews from the first run and Bobbette's Your Auntie. Except, as OSO pointed out, I'd forgotten the names of the actors and including them immediately makes the production much more professional. So, poster completed, printed in A3 and leaflet size and distribution begun.

The press releases took an afternoon. I've been writing press releases all my life, but like Ithaca or Nirvana, the perfect press release is a goal ever to be sought but almost never reached. Still, using the format of the King's Head release and making little improvements to layout, so that the information appears much clearer, I banged out five: one focusing on the production's connection with Barnes (the snug little area where OSO is located, where director and one actor live and the actress works out), one a general  release on the play and three focusing on each of the players. The Barnes one - which is probably the weakest, because I did most of the tweaking on the latter four - has already gone out. The others will be released over the next fortnight.

Meantime, there's Facebook and Twitter. I'm not a fan of these media, but they have to be used and after several years of FB and one of Twitter I'm still not sure if I am using them to my best ability. They are both theoretically a means of communication, but communication implies a communicator and a communicatee - someone giving out information and someone else receiving and acting on that information. The reality appears to be that there are far more communicators than communicatees, giving the impression that both FB and Tw are gigantic storms of noise where everybody is so busy shouting at each other that they can't hear what others are saying. (Do you really expect me to read and reply to everyone of the hundreds and thousands of messages that I am receiving from friends and strangers that cross my screen every day?)  And when conversations do arise, either between friends or when whole groups suddenly become obsessed by this or that item of news, they are like mini-hurricanes which spin around and around for a short period of time until suddenly dissipating.

So I put up meaningless, jolly messages about this or that minor piece of information about the production and I know that the same people will FB-like or retweet it. I return the favour of retweeting and re-posting similar snippets that come to me, wondering if I will ever reach the critical mass that will not only have #CalifornianLives trending on Twitter but will lead to fully booked houses and West End contracts. But I'm not yet convinced that the time I spend on these activities are worth the reward they bring in, and I'd be happy to pass on the task to anyone who tweeted and posted more effectively than I do. Any offers out there?