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Bloody Good Theatre
on 27 April 2009
The reviews I'd seen of this play were so-so: good playwright-ok play sort of thing and detailing the general thematic background re-abuse, drugs and drink. So I was sure I was not going to reckon much to it. This was more especially true because I was going to read the text and not see a performance.
I shouldn't be so prejudiced; it is a really good play. Now I do want to see a performance of it and wish I had seen its original London run.
It's a play about damaged people and, as such, very much a contemporary piece, but unlike so many other contemporary pieces it has something to reveal about its characters. There are two important points in that last sentence.
Firstly the play has something to show. We are so often told by critics, directors and actors that a play has something to say. This one does what a play should, it shows us something. It shows us Mia, her behaviour and the possible reason for it. It shows us Martha, her alcohol related behaviour, its consequences and a possible reason for it. It shows us Henry, the fragmentation of his personality and the possible explanation for it. It shows us Hugh, how he appears to be in denial and we speculate on why this may be.
For want of a better phrase this is a well-made play. All the above thoughts are set to cross the audience's mind as it watches, caught up in the action. Here is a playwright who is using a familiar format - the entertaining play. Subject matter apart, that is exactly what this is. In this play Polly Stenham is following a trend set up in the fifties and sixties; it's a Naughties take on "kitchen sink", and not bad for that.
As a script it conjures character and stage action straight from the page. As an actor I can see how it makes theatrical sense from a performer's point of view. It sets up interesting points of exploration for the actor in terms of character development. It is one of those plays that you can immediately see in your mind's eye as it could be performed onstage.
The script may well be remade for TV or film, but I would argue that a script like this is one of the strongest arguments for live theatre. It needs the immediacy of live performance, the audience should be able to see and react to what happens and is said in real time, that is where the power of this piece originates. Certainly there seems to be an innate grasp here of just what actors need to work with in a script in order for them to live it. It harks back to the times of rep when actors would be on the look-out for a "good part", and this play has them. I'd be interested to know if the playwright has a knowledge of "well-made" or "kitchen sink" drama, or if she arrived at this form of play on her own.
Now, I'm not going over the top. No play is perfect, but this is a good, solid, entertaining piece of theatre that presents decent opportunities for actors and for the audience.
You may wonder what happened to the second point I mentioned above. That's the bit about it revealing something about its characters. The revelation is not of the old-fashioned, well-made type, though. The revelations are not complete or exact. I suppose what I am reiterating here is that idea that we are shown aspects of each character and can perceive a possible explanation. Or explanations. We can excuse or condemn any of the characters, all the information is there for us, but not the pat explanation the Victorians were so fond of. That makes it a very contemporary play, reflecting societies current inability to completely excuse or condemn while doing both.
Of course it's difficult to predict, especially from one early play, but Polly Stenham would seem to be shaping up to be a significant playwright of the current period.