“Helen Ramsay is brilliant as the bolshie good-timer, leaning into a very believable sibling-like petulance”
A and B have been friends for a few years now. Best friends even, and they’ve come to rely on one another for the truth. But B has started seeing someone who disapproves of A, and it’s tearing them apart.
The unlikeliness of their friendship is already in the script: A is rambunctious and charming, whereas B is introspective and uptight. But both love a tussle, and they’re not afraid to disagree, which is, we’re told, the crux of their relationship. That’s all well and good, but we never really get to see the good bits of the friendship, or, in particular, what B has to offer A. It’s hard to know whether this is the fault of writer Mike Bartlett or director James Haddrell, or maybe the chemistry just isn’t right, but ultimately, whilst A is definitely not perfect, B comes across a drag as well as a bad friend, so it’s kind of hard to support the friendship when it seems doomed from the get.
As we’ve come to expect from Bartlett, the script is quippy and clever, latticing political eloquence with nonsense banter. Helen Ramsay is brilliant as the bolshie good-timer, leaning into a very believable sibling-like petulance. Lauren Drennan definitely has the harder job, but despite her seeming fairly unlikeable in her relationship with A, she comes alive when she turns to the audience to speak directly about her choices, which does give us an idea of who she might’ve been when they first met.
But given there isn’t really a set- just a white curtain, and a coat rack- there’s a lot of pressure on Ramsay and Drennan to keep the audience entirely focused and engaged with pure dialogue for just under two hours, which would be a struggle with even the quippiest and most eloquent of scripts. Even a sofa would’ve done, or a couple of chairs, just to give some texture.
Without giving the whole thing away, the ending seems a little overwrought considering the careful nuance of the plot until then. Also, because a suspension cable is required in the last scene for health and safety, Ramsay quickly runs off stage at a crucially tense moment to be clipped on, and the audience is blasted with an angsty soundtrack as the stage momentarily blacks out, as though we might not notice this massive interruption, and I’m left feeling confused and distracted just when I’m supposed to be gripped.
It’s hard not to be particularly critical with a Mike Bartlett play, considering how well received the prolific writer has been in the last few years. But although I wanted this to be exceptional, it’s still very good, with moments of brilliance; a thoughtful consideration of what we expect of our friendships, and how much is too much.
“an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words”
It’s fifty years since Caryl Churchill’s short play “Abortive” was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but it still retains its sense of urgency and resonance today, complete with Churchill’s trademark gift for turning a pre-conceived and fashionable idea on its head. It is one of four of her earlier plays being revived to mark the re-opening of Greenwich Theatre, collectively titled “Bad Days and Odd Nights. James Haddrell’s production is unveiled without fanfare, but once word gets out it will certainly kick up a storm.
Churchill has always been a thrilling and challenging writer. Her dialogue and characterisation are so rich and layered that it often justifies repeat viewing. Haddrell is well aware of the need to do justice to the writing and has assembled an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words. Initially daunted by a running time of two and a half hours, you come away from this show still wanting more.
The evening is varied and dynamic, while still retaining the sense of a common theme running through the different set pieces. “Seagulls” is up first, and probably the most personal and reflective of the short plays. Kerrie Taylor is Valerie, an ordinary housewife who has the gift of moving objects by sheer willpower. Propelled into a showbiz career by her caring yet hard-headed manager (Gracy Goldman) she is beset with self-doubt; exacerbated by a meeting with a long-time supposed fan of hers (Bonnie Baddoo). The three women brilliantly expose the contradictory layers of these characters: Taylor’s mix of vulnerability and insufferability, with Goldman and Baddoo both hinting at a slight menace behind the devotion.
“Three More Sleepless Nights” introduces us to Churchill’s raw, invective, rhythmic and overlapping dialogue as we witness Frank (Paul McGann) and Margaret (Goldman – unrecognisable from the last scenario). The verbal warfare escalates but stops short of becoming physical, yet the bruises are just as visible. The reality of McGann’s performance is such that you feel you want to intervene, but Goldman’s Margaret gives as good as she gets. It cuts to a second sleepless night. A silent night. All calm, but far from bright. Pete (Dan Gaisford) and Dawn (Verna Vyas) are busy not communicating. Gaisford and Vyas manage to convey that this soporific detachment is just as dangerous as the previous scene’s underlying threat of violence. Finally, the third night we see Pete and Margaret together. A much better match. Happiness ever after. Yeah, right…!
“Abortive” is perhaps the most enigmatic piece of the evening, with a greater complexity of emotions running through it. Colin and Roz (McGann and Taylor) are a well-heeled couple. Aware of their privilege, Colin had previously taken in and cared for Billy – an unseen refugee – in an act of charity. Billy repaid their hospitality by raping Roz. McGann and Taylor are totally convincing as they unpeel their doubts and fears, dealing with the aftermath of the subsequent abortion. Slightly unnerving is Colin’s covert inference that he is not altogether convinced his wife was raped. An anachronism that might jar more nowadays than in the seventies, but symbolic of the honesty of Churchill’s writing and McGann’s authentic performance. These thoughts exist – right or wrong. But then Churchill hits us with a gorgeous counterpoint when Roz quips “… abortion is overrated. Men make it such a melodramatic topic!”
“Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen”, is set in 2010, an imagined and dystopian, futuristic London; from the perspective of when it was written. People live in one-room cellblocks, the air is thick with smoke and the streets littered with danger, and with a feral population of ‘fanatics’ who are out to kill either themselves or others. Mick (Dan Gaisford) lives alone with his memories of a time when birdsong could be heard outside his window and is waiting for the return of his daughter (Bonnie Baddoo), a rich celebrity whom Mick hopes will fund his escape to a cottage in the country. Meanwhile Vivian (Verna Vyas), a desperate neighbour who looks up to Mick, wants in on the action. This short play runs the danger of drifting from both the general theme of the whole evening, but also from reality itself. Yet the performances and conviction of the cast anchor the piece in credibility. Verna Vyas, in particular, is phenomenal as the electro-charged, babbling, Vivian.
This company have taken on, and given us (the audience), a challenge. But if they can pull it off with such success, so can we. For too long we have been starved of the oxygen of theatre (yes – not not not not not enough of it). “Bad Days and Odd Nights” is a much-needed lifeline and, not just a glimpse of how it used to be, but a spotlight on the return to normality – to what live theatre is all about.