Sunday, 28 October 2007

112) Fanny & Faggot/Stacy, Trafalgar 2

I hadn't been sure about this double bill playing at the Trafalgar which, for my hard-earned money, is the biggest ripoff among all the theatrical venues in London. I still remember paying £30 for The Dumb Waiter, which translated into roughly a pound every two minutes - absurdly expensive entertainment, no matter what the quality. Their pricing policy for the tiny Studio 2 is just as stupid - a regular show there costs a ridiculous £22.50, and this is one of the main reasons why I don't much go to the Trafalgar any more. That and the quality of their productions which is 'variable' at best - and just plain sucks a lot of the time!

Still, I remembered the posters for Stacy at the Arcola and the reviews weren't so bad, so I thought why not. The play is obviously sticking around, so it's probably halfway decent - I'll give it a whirl. I went there straight from the Finborough matinee earlier, making this a Saturday double-bill.

What's to say. I don't know who Jack Thorne is or why he's supposed to be hot, but Fanny & Faggot - or at least its first act - struck me as just plain mediocre. If there is anything more tiresome than watching two grown-ups on stage playing at being little children, I don't know what it is. (And yet it is precisely this trick which the Troubles play Mojo Mickybo pulled off so brilliantly just a couple of months ago at the same venue.) Suffice to say that the story of Mary Bell and her killer friend - as written by Thorne and played out by the two actresses – came across as hopelessly dull and cliched. The performances were irritatingly mannered and uninvolving emotionally. And judging from the faces in the audience in the barely half-filled studio (and this was only a hundred-seater venue on the final night!), judging by them, I wasn't the only one feeling that way. It was the kind of pretentious, overpriced twaddle that gives theatre a bad name.

The second act of Fanny & Faggot, set in Blackpool several years later after Mary's escape from jail with her friend, was a bit better. They pick up a couple of young soldiers on leave from Northern Ireland and proceed to booze and fornicate. The two boys playing the soldiers did okay, but overall I don’t see this cookie-cutter ‘interesting’ play having any kind of longevity at all. This kind of average stuff sinks fastest to the bottom of the pond of theatrical history, and with any luck stays there.


Next stop was Stacy, also by Jack Thorne, a one-man, one-hour monologue starring Ralf Little in the role of an underachieving Gen Z slacker, and I suspect it was this show that most people had really come to see. Little spills his guts about his painful sexual escapades in a peculiar monotone - he's distressingly frank, stressed out and highly strung - quite endearing really, a modern-day young white Londoner with nebbishy lashings of Woody Allen. The object of his affection is Stacy, his best friend since childhood whose unbearable hotness gives her a sort of Olympian remoteness, and to make up for a complicated encounter with this siren, Little ends up seducing (or perhaps raping) Shona, Stacy's flatmate who happens to be rather more plain and more vulnerable. It's all going horribly wrong in poor Little’s life - he also has to deal with the depredations of Debbie, his colleague at a Vodafone call-centre - and his only refuge turns out to be his taciturn elder brother. Little delivers his obsessively detailed, stream-of- consciousness spiel for over an hour with nothing but a chair on stage and projected images of various people in the wall behind him - Stacy, Shona, his brother, his mother, Debbie, etc etc - intercut with a couple of disgusting sequences showing fucking shots at close quarters and also a dead dog whose head is bashed in at one point of the story. At the end of the play, the police are waiting outside Little’s door. Overall, the story had sufficient humour and human interest to keep the audience listening to Little alone for so long - but given the average quality of the first half of the double bill, I would still class this as a rather disappointing night at the theatre.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

111) Little Madam, Finborough

The Finborough appears incapable of putting a foot wrong. They’ve put on one good show after another all year, and with their latest production - Little Madam, a ‘biopic’ of Margaret Thatcher - they’ve outdone them all.

Margaret Roberts is the 12-year-old daughter of a grocer in Grantham in the East Midlands. Her father is a stern man, hell-bent on prudence and self-improvement. As the show opens, Margaret is throwing a strop, and while her father insists that she apologize to her sister and to her mother for behaving badly with them, Margaret, strong-willed to the point of stubbornnes and absolutely convinced of the rightness of her position, refuses to do any such thing. In that scene is set out, in microcosm, the defining character traits of Margaret Thatcher, the woman who broke all the moulds, who became the first female prime minister in the Western world, who took a whole nation by the scruff of the neck and shook them until their teeth rattled, and who was one of the half dozen people responsible for the eventual destruction of the post-war order.

The play is set in Margaret’s upstairs bedroom above the Roberts’ shop, and is laid out in the form of a series of ‘mini-plays’ acted out by Margaret, her teddy bear and her imaginary playmates – in reality they take in the whole sweep of Thatcher’s life, from Grantham to Oxford and from there to the ranks of the Conservative party, which she climbs up steadily, all the while being discounted and underestimated by the male-dominated hierarchy surrounding her. Along the way there are delightful vignettes: a trial that pits her against the apostle of state intervention, John Maynard Keynes, although the economic logic employed in this trial seemed to be a bit muddled and simplistic. Then there’s her meeting with amiable old Denis Thatcher who willingly effaces himself in order to promote his wife’s political career. Denis’ marriage proposal to Margaret is one of the more touching scenes in the play – ‘I will give you my name.’ – ‘I will take it and inscribe it across an age.’ Simon Yadoo does an excellent job as the decent but thoroughly house-trained Denis.

Everything gets a nod – the blue dress, the handbag that became her trademark, Ted Heath, Cecil Parkinson who drove her rise to the top, Saatchi and Saatchi who fixed her voice and accent and engineered her victory in the ‘79 elections. (The Saatchis are a dead funny duo in their square specs.) In the early years of her reign, Thatcher plumbs the depths of unpopularity, only to be lifted up again by the Falklands War, played out on a painted map on the bedroom floor. The sinking of the Belgrano is punctuated by that (in)famous Gotcha! The comparison between the Virgin Queen and Thatcher is made explicit.

Thatcher proceeds to privatize the family silver (to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd’s Money) and oversees Britain’s descent into shameless credit-fuelled consumerism. Moral objections, in the shape of the slightly hypocritical Archbishop of Canterbury, are shut up and speeded up by a brand new, beautifully convenient device – the remote control! Bobby Sands, slowly starving himself to death, haunts Margaret from the other side of the wall and then the bomb goes off in Brighton. Even Cecil Parkinson is dispatched in ruthless, cynical fashion. The worthless twins Mark and Carol get their own family spat.

And finally there comes that epic, elemental confrontation, the defining event of Margaret Thatcher’s political career – the miners’ strike. In a long and beautifully written scene, the miner and Maggie put across their respective sides - the miner’s desire for the continuation of his way of life, pitted against Maggie’s insistence on tearing it all up but only because she believes that something better can take its place instead. In the background, in a puppet piece, the traitorous Hezza whacks Maggie from behind, foretelling the end of her career.

And yet, at the end of the drama – I think the playwright realized that if he wanted to write his way up to 1990, he would clock in at over 3 hours, so the ending had a slightly hurried feel to it – at the end, Margaret Thatcher walks out, her back straight and her head held high, proud, unbowed and defiant to the end, with the salutary words Fuck’em! You can’t but admire her iron will and her guts of steel.

It turns out that the playwright James Graham is only 25. I don’t know how a lad so young could pen a play so vivid, so pacy, so alive but Graham has evidently done it and on the evidence of this, I have no hesitation in saying that he has a star-spangled career ahead of him. What I found most remarkable about the script was its balance – Graham is nothing if not conscientious about presenting both sides of Thatcher’s story. The production is sharp, fast-paced and very creative in its presentation and for that the director must take some of the credit. But ultimately, the play hangs together or falls apart on the strength of the central performance, and it is here that the Finborough has scored this palpable hit. Catherine Skinner gives an utterly brilliant performance as Margaret - whether as a petulant child or as a helium-voiced Prime-Minister, she is never less than awesome. A star-making turn - and yet here she is sitting outside the bar with a friend, as plain as yoghurt! Truly what a glorious transformation it is that takes place when the lights go down...

P.S. After having seen over a hundred plays on the London stage in the last couple of years, and written about them on and off here and there, in an LJ blog and in a Facebook group, I've finally decided to be a little more organized about it. Hopefully, this will be a bit more regular, a bit more complete than the others were!