Mini-review – “One Day When We Were Young” and “Lungs” – Paines Plough Roundabout Season at Shoreditch Town Hall

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It’s been almost a week and I’m feeling guilty about not getting up my review of this excellent set of shows currently taking place at Shoreditch Town Hall. There are actually three plays in the Paines Plough Roundabout Season – Nick Payne’s One Day When We Were Young, Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Penelope Skinner’s The Sound of Heavy Rain – and I’d bought tickets for all three (they play together on Saturdays and Sundays, and you get a £15 discount off of the series), but the night before I got an email saying that Rain had been cancelled because of a technical problem. Fortunately, this was the first show of the day (rather than the one in the middle), so what it wound up meaning was that I got to have a nice roast on a Sunday before heading over to Old Street – I was a bit irritated about not seeing all three but actually feeling a bit intimidated about being in the theater from 2 to 9PM (as opposed to my initial WAHOO response), so all things considered, I started the day feeling quite good – but must apologize for what I consider to be an incomplete review of the series as I have not been able to fit the show in.

What I did see was two two handers, both of which moved me quite a bit, and quite a bit more than what I was expecting. I came in expecting One Day When We Were Young to be the star in the crown, and it started off deliciously simply – two young lovers getting together for a fun night before the man headed off to war (the Asian theater for World War II), with lots of flirting and fun and positively the most sexual scene I’ve ever seen on a theater – I’m sure the actors both had their underpants on but it was rather a LOT like watching a live sex show and if you were planning on taking a member of the family I would NOT advise it. Otherwise: actually really hot, and with the two virgins trying to talk through just how what they were trying to do was supposed to work, just incredibly charming, a scene that really built a connection and affection to the characters, and something I have never seen handled on the stage before. It was really well done and will NOT be seeing the local high school auditorium any time soon.

As it turns out, this was one scene of three, and I don’t want to ruin any more surprises, but all scenes feature the characters aging and having to deal with each other as their lives and expectations change. At the very end, the woman said something to the man that about broke me … that she needed him for emotional support because there was nobody left. Imagine being eighty years old, with children, and yet having nobody to turn to for support in a crisis. I may have felt put off by the stiffness of the second act, but I felt a universal human quality to the last. It put me in a melancholy state of mind as I headed out the door, clutching the button I’d been given to indicate my random seat allocation. Thank goodness Ian and Paul were there, or I might have gotten into quite a mope. Instead, we went to the pub around the corner, got some pizza and beers and had us a good old visit. Ah, yes.

Ninety minutes later and we went back, changing to some front row seats in the wooden arena (borrowed, I was pretty sure, from <I>Cock</I>, but with an extra row on top – there is NO room for anything underneath your legs so take advantage of the free, serviced cloakroom). We managed to get in shortly before Sir Ian arrived with companion – sadly he would not sit next to us (“I’m not allowed to sit in the first row”) and wound up somewhere near the top. We, however, had a great view of the next play (including being close enough to see Kate O’Flynn squeeze real tears from her eyes – impressive!), which was an intense, ninety minute nearly breathless dialogue between a couple.

Now, I am going to take umbrage at the sad justice done this show by its National Theatre copy, which would have, frankly, in its banality, kept me from seeing the show if I’d bother reading about it beforehand. Instead, read what I have to say.

Lungs is a show about how couples fail to communicate with each other despite being so close you’d think they tie each other’s shoelaces. The two characters could be described as “quirky” if you want to use lazy shorthand but would be better described as “realistic,” “flawed,” and “like a few people I went to school with and no longer invite over for dinner because one half of the couple is so self-righteous I can’t stand her and the guy defeats his own intelligence with his utter lack of backbone.” Despite the fact that, as a couple, they made me want to shout, “NO FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T HAVE A BABY!”, the reality of their relationship was undeniable and became slowly, tricklingly, heartbreaking. Bad things happened, she broke, they failed to cope, and two people who clearly loved each other the way that trees love the sun crumbled into dust like a mummy’s hand. And then I actually felt bad for them, and what a pathetic situation they were in, and how heartbreakingly real it all was.

And then I realized I’d stopped feeling like I was in a play, watching actors mouth words written on a piece of paper. I cared, even though the people were irritating, even though there were some weird things going on (like the way they’d shift scenes by hours or months by just saying, “Hi, how have you been?” as if they’d ever actually stopped talking for a breath). Duncan Macmillan had taken me somewhere.

And at the end, it seemed, the world blew out of the auditorium, the light from the stage expanding out the cupola above me, all of the little sadnesses and disappointments that make up our tiny lives becoming universal, utterly transcending the theater in which we sat on a rainy Sunday night in October in a run down corner of an often unfriendly town. And I walked out into the night and thought about my own sadnesses, and fiddled with my little yellow button.

And it was good.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, October 7th, 2012. The Paines Plough Roundabout Season continues through October 27th, and you’d be a fool to miss it.)

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