“The second act just gets sillier. And the sillier it gets the more we enjoy it.”
There’s a joke, in the form of a flowchart, currently doing the rounds of social media about how to work out if it’s Christmas. Is it November? Yes? Then it’s not Christmas. The folks down at the Watermill Theatre have obviously missed this as they seem fully intent on delivering a sleigh-load of festive cheer into the heart of the Newbury woodlands. For them, the season has started. It’s time to forget the dark nights, and the darker state of the nation, and embrace the innocent joy that has been locked away for too long.
Annie Siddons’ “Rapunzel” has something for all the family. But Disney it ain’t. It is not quite Grimm either as it strays somewhat from the original German fairy tale. But still managing to keep the central plotlines fairly intact. We are in the rolling hills of Tuscany – not really known for its dense woodland and trumpet-playing pigs, but you have to suspend disbelief to have any chance at all of keeping up with the story. A story told with heart-warming exuberance by the half dozen actor musicians.
Mother Gothel (Miiya Alexandra) is not so much the wicked witch, but an overprotective mother with good intentions. When she becomes aware that Rapunzel (Tilly-Mae Millbrook) is on the verge of pubescence, her innate, maternal fears kick in. Of course: lock her up to protect her. “Because I love you” she reasons to her bamboozled daughter, and Rapunzel meekly takes it.
Meanwhile – on the other side of the forest the Duchess (Miiya Alexandra again) is practically kicking her two sons (Roddy Lynch’s Paulo and Loris Scarpa’s Patrizio) out of the door. Time to seek adventure. Some sort of sexual stereotyping is going on here, but it’s all so tongue in cheek you grin and bear it. Actually, you grin like the Cheshire Cat. By this time, it’s all wonderfully absurd. You almost expect Graham Chapman to burst in with his Monty Python catchphrase; “Stop that, it’s silly”.
Prince Patrizio is the sensitive, musical, mandolin-strumming one who, having misplaced his brother, hears Rapunzel singing in her tower, discovers a way to climb up… you know how it pans out. He scares her, soothes her, kisses her and, ‘Hey Presto’, this is love. Knowing asides swoop over the kids’ heads to be lapped up by the adults’ more knowledgeable (debatable) and experienced (doubtful) minds.
The script dates back to 2006, when Kneehigh put their inimitable stamp on it. This company respect and replicate the spirit. A few topical references have been added – political, of course – relating to taxes, inflation, chancellors, recession and so forth. “Thank God we’re in a fairy tale and not real life”. The fourth wall, already crumbling now gets pulverised, mainly thanks to the wonderfully hilarious Emma Barclay with her wry delivery and comic flair. The second act just gets sillier. And the sillier it gets the more we enjoy it.
Isobel Nicolson’s set adds to the magic of the evening, cleverly creating the illusion of height on the relatively small stage. The fine ensemble cast weave themselves up, down, above and beneath the rickety spiral staircase. Greenery sprouts and retreats, musical instruments appear and disappear. There’s a fair bit for the performers to think about, and occasionally it gets messy, but it’s a delightful messiness that we are glad to be tangled in.
Like the princes in the forest, you may occasionally lose your way among the anarchic mayhem that is “Rapunzel”. Even the Brothers Grimm had two alternative endings to the tale. This show twists it in another direction still. It is an enchanting show. Oh, and did I say it was silly?
“Despite everything, the performances are – individually and collectively – quite wonderful”
What exactly is Terry Johnson saying in “The Sex Party”? It is probably the biggest question being asked as the audience leave the Menier Chocolate Factory, but the answer lies at the far end of a very circuitous route, littered with the roadkill of dozens of other debates – some bigger, some smaller, some old and some new. If Johnson had the answer, we would probably be watching a shorter play, but we would also be witnessing the premier of something ground-breaking, brave and unprecedented. As it stands, though, Johnson’s writing, whilst being wonderfully sharp, gives itself too many challenges.
But there is one question that pulls focus from all the others. Johnson has (semi) joked in interviews that this play runs the risk of him getting himself “cancelled”. And he has already confessed to losing friends – not because of the subject matter but because of the new vocabulary and attitudes he has had to adjust to and adopt. The characters in the drama have similar fallings out. Honestly. Is this progress?
Like Mike leigh’s “Abigail’s Party”, there is more than way to look at “The Sex Party”. We can recoil from the cringe-worthy pretension of the faux pas and twitter-feed platitudes, or we can see it as a portrait of individual and marital unhappiness. Unfortunately, the focus is bound to fall onto the former, which leaves the cast with a much harder job. Despite everything, the performances are – individually and collectively – quite wonderful.
Alex (Jason Merrells) and his young girlfriend Hetty (Molly Osborne) are hosting their first sex party. Osborne gives a standout portrayal of the submissive liberal – one who excuses coercion if it can be seen to be a personal choice. The party guests are trawled from the internet or chance meetings, with the exception of Alex’s old flame Gilly (Lisa Dawn) and her tetchy, jealous husband Jake (John Hopkins). Jeff (a wonderfully gruff, outspoken and debauched Timothy Hutton) barges onto the scene with a rich presence we outwardly resent while secretly finding his offensiveness funny. Magdalena, his Russian trophy wife (Amanda Ryan) is in tow, upstaging him – and everyone else – with her ludicrous and laughable opinions. (They say that many a true word is spoken in jest). Enter cool and aware Camilla (Kelly Price) with posh-but-dim, blond-haired buffoon Tim (an impressive Will Barton who occasionally channels another prominent posh-but-dim, blond-haired buffoon). The elephant in the room is Lucy (Pooya Mohseni), a transgender woman who throws a spanner into the works, sets the cat among the pigeons, and generally throws every other metaphor and cliché into the mix.
Mohseni doesn’t enter until the end of Act One. Up until then the piece can be enjoyed as a kind of alternative kitchen sink drama. Although it is a beautifully crafted kitchen sink in Tim Shortall’s stunning set that depicts a stylish Islington fitted kitchen. They are all in the kitchen at this party, only occasionally retreating offstage into the lounge for some staggered and brief sex. Conversation is awkward and the debates more varied than in the second half. It is clear, though, that Johnson is poking fun at the characters and not the subjects they are discussing. This is an important point, and one that is so often missed.
After interval the tone darkens, but narrows its focus. But this could well be the brilliant purpose of the writing. At one point, Lisa Dawn – who gives us a show stealing performance throughout – laments the fact that her own issues are completely overlooked and overshadowed by the subjects that have bulldozed themselves into the collective and confused consciousness. Mohseni, the flagship of self-identity in this piece, does her best to moderate the argument with poise and a coolness that seems to be telling us that it really shouldn’t matter.
“The Sex Party” is putting its head above the parapet. It is certain to be knocked down. It deals with prejudice, but the irony is that the same prejudices will inform people’s perception of the play before they have even seen it. Which is a shame. Yes, it could be pruned somewhat, and have fewer non-sequiturs and tangents, but Johnson’s writing is as acute and observant as ever; and often funny.