All entries for February 2009
February 17, 2009
Not entertaining, Mr Bagnall
Many people watching John Osborne’s, at the time, groundbreaking drama Look Back in Anger are now shocked at the personal politics that clearly drove the young writer’s play. Personally, the same reaction is sparked by Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, now on at the Trafalgar Studios. It strikes me as neither skilled nor radical, neither disturbing nor enlightened, but simply self-indulgent, juvenile and entirely gratuitous. It’s focused on its inherent misogyny and homosexual boisterousness, and its religion is Immorality. How easily does Nick Bagnall’s production overcome these fundamental flaws and challenges? In short, it doesn’t.
Imelda Staunton takes on the role of Kath, at one point bravely sporting a see-through negligée, at another point having her face thrust in the mirror and being told she’s looking old and has saggy tits. Kath is a simple-minded, single housewife of forty-something, who once had a lover and once lost a son. When twenty-year-old Mr. Sloane becomes her lodger, Kath is resolved to seduce him, both as her son and her lover. ‘What a great big baby you are,’ she cries as she topples lustily onto Sloane’s bared chest. If Staunton’s seduction grew out of something more subtle perhaps – actually developed on stage, rather than being in place as soon as she flings the door open on her tour of the house – we might find the remainder of the play a little more plausible. Rather, she seems drunk on being the coquette from the start, which means that we are faced with a manic woman who plunges from girly tittering to hysterical, menopausal cries.
My sympathy is with Staunton, however, taking on the part. It’s not so much meaty as strangely incomprehensible and erratically written. At least with someone like Pinter’s Meg or Bennett’s Connie, you can trace sanity in their madness. By contrast, Orton’s Kath just seems like a hormonal cartoon written by a misogynistic gay male.
Unfortunately, the other actors don’t manage to bring Orton’s play any nearer to believability. Matthew Horne as Mr. Sloane seems more a teenage maverick with a barking and relentless northern accent and a ‘don’t blame me, guv’nor’ approach to life. He seems neither manipulative nor menacing, merely a bit flattered and excited at having such a powerful emotional effect on other people. Fergus March (understudying Kath’s brother Ed) plays the part as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman, recycling a handful of facial expressions and voice inflections throughout. His sexual interest in Sloane only really becomes apparent at the end and, even then, it is hard to commit to because of the lack of build-up.
Peter McKintosh’s deliberately dated set is cavernous and the actors suffer from a lack of physical friction – the tension between them has to be largely verbal because of the geographical freedom of the space. Shuffling round the set’s perameters is the spider-like Kemp, Kath’s elderly father, played with vulnerability by Richard Bremmer. Wizened and hoarse, Kemp’s focus often seems to be elsewhere when, in reality, he is taking everything in. As Sloane brutally kicks Kemp behind the sofa to prevent him from revealing his dark secret, we see most starkly the unforgiving, and unpleasant, sourness behind Orton’s play.
You will enjoy and it will endure
Up until this week, if you’d said Alison Steadman to me, I would’ve launched into ‘Lawrence, HAVE YOU GOT THE OLIVES, Lawrence!’ This harks back to her memorable role as Beverly in Mike Leigh’s film Abigail’s Party, a performance that struck me as one of the best and most honest characterisations I’ve ever seen of any part. However, to see Steadman as Connie Craven in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy shows her creating yet another wonderful character, equally funny, unimaginably poignant, and – yes – more than a patch on Beverly.
Perhaps the moment that proves this most is in the final few minutes of the play – the least funny and most tragic bit of all – when Steadman appears at the front of the stage, her complexion greyed, her eyes vacant and her shoulders slumped. She even has the buttons of her cardie out by one. In seconds, she’s lost the vivacity and giddiness she’d possessed throughout the play to become a mere shell – and the transformation is astonishing.
Alan Bennett’s 1980 play is a study of an elderly northern couple’s final few days in their shabby back-to-back in Leeds. They are preparing to be re-housed when their transvestite son, Terry (AKA ‘Kim’), returns and offers them a new life in a museum-like existence. ‘Kim’, who now works for the council having been to Cambridge, observes his parents’ life, watchfully taking notes, before revealing his true identity and his well-meaning intentions. What’s more, everyone in the Cravens’ street has their very own representative from the council, who is there to observe the lives of the community on a ‘typical’ day. In Connie’s determined attempts to act ‘normally’, events take on a bizarre course. Their daughter, Linda, returns home to announce she is getting married to a Saudi Arabian prince whom she’s never met, and Wilfred is hit over the head and suffers a funny turn which leaves him with a long-lasting erection.
In keeping with Bennett’s true style, we laugh at his capturing of the sad absurdity of life and the farce that prevails in the most messed-up situations. Christopher Luscombe’s beautifully judged production perfectly balances the tragedy and the farce as we look on at a family in which love has never played a part.
David Troughton is excellent as the slovenly Wilfred, simultaneously angry and panicking at losing the feeling in one arm and going more blind by the day. With his imposing frame, he pads about the house, leaning on his stick, his flies undone, and seething with a permanent anger. What Troughton does so well is portray how frightened Wilfred is beneath the gruff exterior. In theory, he’s all for progress and for modernisation. Yet when reality and progress incarnate come knocking at the door (literally), he is overcome with a paralysing fear (also literally).
Richard Glaves is regal and elusive as the cross-dressing Terry. Josie Walker as Linda is booming and brash, jittering with nerves, adrenaline, and a frustration similar to those her father possesses. She displays an alarming hardness, however, that even surpasses her father’s. Carol Macready in the hilarious cameo part of Mrs. Clegg, the ‘charitable’ next-door-neighbour, is delightful. Her eyeballs roll in mock horror at the divergence from reality that the day has brought and she possesses a hatred of the rest of the world, which shows itself in Tourette’s-like one-liners. Bennett must have written the part for an actress just like Macready. In her rolypoly splendour, she waddles around the stage, holding forth, trying to be posh, but rather just showing up her lack of sophistication and delusions of grandeur.
It’s Alison Steadman, though, who provides the true emotional gravitas of the play. In spite of her hilarity, we want to cry at her clueless positivity, her willingness to be open-minded, and her reverence towards anything she regards as classy or modern. Her past is a succession of might-have-beens and as the Cravens’ dingy, but homely, flat is dismantled around them at the end, Connie leaves the play herself a has-been. This play, however, is very much in the here-and-now and is just waiting to be recognised as one of Bennett’s greatest.