Review – My City – Almeida Theatre

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Two months ago, a friend told me she was coming out to visit from New York. We reviewed the shows that would be playing, and she said, “This one! I must see My City because I love Tracey Ullman and I love the Almeida!” Well, then. Tickets were bought … but then the reviews began to come out, and I had The Fear. People seemed to be really disliking the show. However, it was sold out for nearly the whole run … was it just celebrity casting? Were my fellow online reviewers not in touch with the theater-going public? Only one way to find out …

As it turns out, My City was an engaging night of story telling with a strong cast, though it failed to fully develop the Roald Dalh-esque ending it seemed to be heading for. The framing of the story is that an adult student (Richard – Tom Riley) runs into his primary school teacher (Lambert – Tracey Ullman) while she’s lying on a park bench and acting not altogether well, a chance encounter that leads into a full-on reunion between the student (and his best school friend and fellow difficult student Julie – Siân Brooke) and the key teachers at the school (a random North London elementary). While the story of the play appears to be something about letting go of the past (poignantly shown by the old posters Mr Minken – David Troughton – has held on to over the years) in order to build yourself a better future, the actual purpose, in my book, is to tell a variety of stories both about the past (a magical London inhabited by elephants and legions of typists, not to mention apple-crunching ghosts) and the present (a rather more frightening world with child murderers and rat hunting), providing an overlay to the city most of us live in – my city to be sure, and likely yours – that makes Old Smoke seem a more exciting place to be. These stories are primarily told by Lambert, with her two assistant teachers (Minken and Summers – Sorcha Cusack) acting by her side, or occasionally taking the lead.

The play gets to quite a head as it becomes clear that Richard has also been telling stories, and his exposure leads to a confrontation between the former students and the retired teachers. It seems that the teachers are conspiring against the kids, somehow, but the playwright has for some reason chosen to not pursue this very interesting avenue – what would, in a Roald Dahl world, been the misanthropic goal of the teachers, forever plotting against their kids? – but rather takes us on a sudden side track in which Richard suddenly figures out the reason for Lambert’s long walks in an extraordinarily unsatisfying finale.

To top it off, the whole trope of “leaving the past behind” seems to me to be utterly upended by the raw beauty of what Mr Minken has held on to over the years – not just the mementos of the children he’s taught, but relics of his family that, to be honest, have created a memory in me that I think will stay forever, of one little box with two precious things in them (my own new mind picture burned in by a real scene stealing performance of how this box came to be what it was). I left the evening disappointed by the play structurally – especially with what it could have done with more time and more imagination – but pleased by the evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 31st, 2011. My City continues through Saturday, November 5th.)

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