“I hated it a whole lot less than I thought I was going to ten minutes in”
Whilst the one-man show has become the de facto format for new theatre this year, it’s also really the only format appropriate for a play expounding on the benefits of narcissism as a world view, with the help of nothing but a flip chart, some pink haze lighting and a playlist of big ‘80s hits (Sam Glossop).
“We’re all self-obsessed. The only difference between you and me, is I’m louder”, so says Will Adolphy, dressed in sunset leggings and neon pink sweat bands, as he takes us through the five lessons we need in order to fully embrace his narcissistic teachings.
When Will was twenty, his dad committed suicide. He’d spent his whole life saying to Will, “I’m doing all this for you!” But a life dedicated to everyone’s but his own happiness ultimately led to unbearable misery. So, Will posits, the best thing you can do, instead of trying to be a good, selfless, caring person, is to be entirely selfish and self-obsessed, or rather, own up to how selfish and self-obsessed you truly are.
The premise smacks of Richard Gadd’s careful cocktail of shocking comedy and red-raw honesty in shows such as Monkey See, Monkey Do. But it’s a very difficult thing to get right, and Adolphy doesn’t quite hit the mark. All the ingredients are there: he’s clearly willing to put his own pain front and centre, and he’s got good- sometimes great- comic timing.
But the aim of this story seems to be either to genuinely preach that we should all only do what we want and feel like doing, regardless of how it affects others, in which case, it feels like a trauma narrative and not something to laugh at. And if this is exactly what Adolphy wanted, he needs to lean in and, as cruel as it sounds, properly access his trauma. He needs to choke the audience’s laughter, rather than use it as an ineffective shield.
Alternatively, Adolphy is trying to preach a kind of individualism which would ultimately make society a happier place, in which case, he needs to work out how he really wants to put this message across because that’s not what I left feeling. The comedy is too light where the message needs some traction. Yes, it might be amusing to sing a song about how big your penis is, and then write your phone number on a flip chart, but it doesn’t really get the message across that being a narcissist is a winning idea.
The other option is that Adolphy is going for a kind of satire, in which case, it’s got to be a lot funnier and a lot grittier.
In short, The Narcissist (directed by Gemma Aked-Priestly) doesn’t know what it is. But with a brutal re-write it could be very interesting. And, in a kind of defence, I hated it a whole lot less than I thought I was going to ten minutes in.
“Where this production undoubtedly succeeds is in Stoppard’s writing and the magnificent performances of a stellar cast”
“Limitation, like desperation, can be the mother of invention” says the award-winning film and director Sam Yates, talking about his revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play “A Separate Peace”, broadcast live as a real-time performance via Zoom. It is an apt rephrasing of Plato’s original quotation (“Necessity is the mother of all invention”), but then again Plato was also a strong advocate of the idea that theatre, as an artform, was immoral, disrespectful and a distraction of the mind. Not many people would agree with this, and over time, theatre has endured, and conquered greater obstacles over the centuries, and I have no doubt that it will survive the current crisis in due time.
In the meantime, however, the practitioners and audiences need something to fill the void created by the temporary closure. This has been met in part by some high-quality recordings of stage productions. Inevitably these don’t replicate the experience of live theatre. The ‘Remote Read’ series, of which “A Separate Peace” is the first, sets out to produce live virtual theatre by embracing the limitations of lockdown rather than by opposing.
Stoppard’s’ play is an inspired choice, which touches on themes of isolation and a central character who wants no social interaction at all. Set in a private nursing home, the smooth running and peace of mind of its staff is disrupted by the arrival of a new patient, John Brown. He has money, which he believes entitles him to pay for the room despite the fact he is perfectly healthy. All he wants to do is get away from the ‘chaos’ of the outside world. The nursing staff know nothing about his motives for this, or his background. Simultaneously content with taking his money, they find his presence discomforting. “We have to keep the beds for people who need them”. Half a century on this is one of many lines that resonate right now.
Where this production undoubtedly succeeds is in Stoppard’s writing and the magnificent performances of a stellar cast. Although a reading, there is little evidence of a script in hand and there is a spontaneity to the actors’ interpretation that belies the lack of a live audience. We sympathise with David Morrissey’s John Brown, albeit guiltily, as he slowly gives us clues as to why he chooses to check himself into the nursing home. The four nursing staff who unravel these clues operate on a kind of good-cop-bad-cop system. Ed Stoppard’s Matron has a knuckle duster of steel beneath his kid gloves, whereas Maggie Service’s Nurse doesn’t even bother to wear the gloves. In the background is the Doctor, played by Denise Gough like the desk sergeant coolly analysing the reality and digging deep. The most watchable is Jenna Coleman’s flirtatious yet duplicitous Nurse Maggie who teases out the mystery from the man.
By default, however, there is an experimental feel to the whole piece and while the objectives of the producers must be highly commended, this does not come close to a true theatre experience. It lies in a no man’s land somewhere between a radio play and a televised broadcast. Sam Glossop’s sound design is impressive, as is Andrzej Goulding’s occasional back projection, but the format ultimately disappoints visually. It is all too tempting to shut down the screen and just listen and let our imagination paint the picture, and the formidable cast ensure we are able to do this.
The technology for this media is in its infancy and, while I’d like to see it grow, we can only hope that there isn’t the time for it to reach maturity. Yes, it is definitely a necessity in the current situation, but let us hope that the mother of this invention is only a surrogate one, and we will soon be handed back to our natural environment when the theatres reopen.