Posts Tagged ‘Jane Horrocks’

Death, Sex and Robots: Three play round-up

May 23, 2018

In the last month I’ve gone to see two plays about robots and one play about grief/death/suicide – Instructions for Correct Assembly (Royal Court), Mayfly (Orange Tree Theatre) and Sex With Robots and Other Devices – and the thematic similarities between the three plays is quite remarkable. All three of them are not, obviously, the same, but the same questions are asked by all three of them, and definitely between two of them, with lesser or greater success. Seeing them all definitely gave me food for thought – I present these crumbs now for you.

Summary: Assembly is an extremely episodic play in which a family buy a robot to replace (in far too many ways) their dead son; Mayfly is about a family (mother, dad, 20sish daughter) coping very poorly with the death of the son/brother (and using a total stranger to help fill the gaps he’s left in their lives); Robots is a series of vignettes of how having a sex robot has affected various individuals and couples. Clearly, the grief element unites Assembly and Mayfly; robots unite Assembly and Robots; but death and loss unite the three. Short summary: Mayfly, while imperfect, is the superior play – I only say this because it is still showing and if you find this commentary interesting you should hurry up and go.

While the couple that opens (and perhaps the couple that ends) Robots is dealing poorly with the loss of a child, (still born, I think), the emotional impact of this is pretty well nil given the 5 minutes or so length of the scenes. Assembly is nearly entirely about grief, a grief that unspools and entangles you within it over the course of its running time. The mom and dad seem to just want a robot around the house for the amusement it provides; but over time, they slip into things like having it call them “mum” and talking about it going to school and getting an education as if it were their actual child. Most tragically, both the mother and father work out their own guilt at their complicity in their son’s death (drugs overdose, I think) by playing out the past with the robot doing or saying what they wish their son had. Sadly, though, the impact of these scenes was frittered away by the generally light and comic tone of the rest of the play; the anger the couple had toward each other and the way they were dealing it was, in my mind, the real story that needed to be told, far more so than “oh how embarrassing to have a robot say something rude at a dinner party.” I left this play convinced that using technology had led to a mistelling of what was a profoundly human story; otherwise it was a bit of a blend of Pinocchio and AI and similarly not very moving.

Between Robots and Assembly, the best technology moments were when people were developing real feelings for what were essentially machines; or when the machines themselves were showing signs of developing feelings themselves. This made me think of the ever popular SF trope of “what makes us human,” which is fun to explore, but honestly neither play went into it at all deeply. However, the scenes in Robot in which a woman was dealing with the mental degradation (dementia) of a robot companion she had had for a long time was starting to show where this show could have been really touching; I could easily have imagined a lovely work of fiction coming out of this. Or just some interesting ways of dealing with Alzheimer’s and also (in the case of this play) a same sex relationship in which one person needed to go into a care home. Unfortunately given the short nature of the scenes this wasn’t developed nearly as well as it could have been, but it hinted at depths that were available to the topic.

Overall most successful of these three plays was decidedly Mayfly. It seemed heavy handed at making its points about how people don’t talk about grief and missing very well (and the ending was nauseatingly writerly); but the trio of damaged family members seemed pretty believable after their initial ridiculousness; each had a manifestation of grief (or several) that seemed quite believable and in which I was able to become emotionally invested. The punch in the gut was in one tiny scene, which is so good I can imagine the playwright building the whole play out from it: in it, the mother asks a stranger to call her, using her dead son’s cell phone, and talk to her, pretending to be him. This is very much looking at how technology is helping us deal with being human; but in this case, I was utterly bought into the tragedy of this scene.

So: sex, death, and robots – in the theater, it’s ultimately the things that show people’s feelings – and weak spots, and illogical spots – that most clearly illuminated being human.

(Mayfly continues through May 26. Robots continues through June 2nd.

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Review – Annie Get Your Gun (with Jane Horrocks) – The Young Vic

October 7, 2009

Given that the Union Theatre’s Annie Get Your Gun was one of my favorite performances ever, and that Jane Horrocks is up there in the stratosphere of True Genius, I have to admit my expectations for the Young Vic’s production of Annie Get Your Gun were quite high. And as, after my long wait (probably got tickets three months in advance), as I sat down under the delicious wagon wheel chandeliers and behind a bank of four (count ’em, four!) piano players, I thought to myself this is going to be great.

Well, as I think about it two nights later, there were some great things about this show. Jane has a fantastic physical presence for Annie Oakley, not only managing small and scrawny, but also developing into glamorous and sexy as her character’s self-confidence develops. (I would have never imagined Ms Horrocks with flowing blonde locks and a white fringed and spangled cowgirl outfit, but she looked fantastic). And Frank, Julian Ovenden, was perfect, manly with that 1940’s stage vibrato that clearly _should_ have made all of the women fall all over him. Julian was much less of a “fathead” in his performance – he was both genuinely affectionate and genuinely concerned about his own career – and listening to him sing was a real treat, so kudos to him for his charismatic performance. John Marquez as Charlie and Liza Sadovy as Dolly were also a pile of fun and had that “big star” feel to them so appropriate for this era of musical – and this era of showbiz.

Buuuut …. it’s so horrible to say, and I never thought I’d be tying this, but Ms. Horrocks just wasn’t hitting it with her own singing. It wasn’t so much a matter of false notes, but just a lack of conviction and enthusiasm about what she was singing, a lack of oomph and pizazz. (Plus, I just gotta say, it isn’t “doing what comes nat’rally” no matter what Berlin wrote, he meant “natcherly,” just like the little girl was singing it.) She was also frequently overcomic to the point of woodenness (leading me to wonder if perhaps she was also affected by the misguided soul responsible for the poor choreograpy – whoever did “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” ought to be tied to a bronco and chased out of town). All of this meant her performance wasn’t selling to me in my 8th row seats. I mean, I should have utterly hung on her duets with Frank, but she wasn’t keeping up her end of the deal. Bah bah and bah!

So stupendously rotten that it deserves its own paragraph is the stage itself (catcalls to Ultz). It was some kind of horrible hybrid of a Cinescope movie house and a shitty 70s rec room – long, short, and shallow, with brown melamine walls and crappy white dropped ceilings of the very sort I go to the theater to get away from. This put serious limitations on the dance scenes, which, squeezed into this boxcar of a set, uniformly failed to gel. There were two peeps of what could have been – a bit where the top of the stage opened to show a little hotel room, making me think the entire upper deck of the set might open, or the back might open up, a hope that was crushed in the second act – and the great “Annie’s New Trick” bit, where the whole cast stood in front of the stage while a projection made bullet holes appear on the wall behind them. I thought that very convincingly captured the magic of theater, that we could “see” her flying by in an airplane and writing her lover’s name on the wall … but that magic was in might short supply for the rest of the evening.

Now, Annie Get Your Gun is a brilliant bit of writing and musicianship, and this was not so vile that I left at intermission, but there is no doubt in my mind that better versions of this show will be made, and this one, with its near community college production values and below par singing (by the star) is utterly worth missing. Two stars out of five.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 5th. The production continues until January 2nd, 2010. For a more pointedly scathing review, see The West End Whingers; frankly, I just couldn’t be bothered to write that much about this show, but they were pretty damned accurate.)

Review – Aunt Dan and Lemon – Royal Court Theatre

May 26, 2009

There are some shows out there that I’ve hated and some shows I’ve found confusing, and then there are shows where I walked out just not knowing what to think. In its 1997 Seattle incarnation, Aunt Dan and Lemon left me … well, let’s say I didn’t really embrace it, despite having a brilliant local actor (Charles Smith) in the role of Aunt Dan, and a fine soul (Sydney Fine) in the role of Lemon, the sickly young woman who narrates the piece. (The gender of Aunt Dan was switched in this version.) Actually, I left feeling a bit creeped out – was Lemon really as demented as she came out to be? – but the rest of it had gone rather fuzzy over time.

But, you know, times change, and nowadays I’m in London, where all of the plays I saw butchered back home (Pinter comes to mind) are flourishing in the hands of the extraordinary local talent pool. And, by God, with Jane Horrocks as Lemon, how could I not want to see this show, with its evocation of the dark side of swinging 60s London as well as its many philosophical passages? Surely its failings were due to poor acting and staging, and that would all be taken care of this time.

I’ll say this for the show: listening to Aunt Dan (Lorraine Ashbourne) rant about how noble and just Henry Kissinger was as he bombed little Vietnamese villages flat in order to “protect our lifestyle” sure rings a lot more possible after listening to all of the crap about Iraq over the last eight years, and hearing Lemon herself sweetly talk about what we would all quite naturally do if our “most basic hopes as a society” were being threatened – that we would kill other people with barely a thought – is not quite as surprising (I think of Jean Charles de Menezes) as it was in what seem, somehow, to have been more innocent days. But it still comes off like a night at a freak show when she goes into her final monologue about how we just have to admit that we, as human beings, like to kill. Ms. Horrocks has, I think, the perfect innocence and gentleness to squeeze all of the horror out of this role, which is the incarnation of the banality of evil. I can only imagine what the playwright was trying to accomplish.

Still, most of the people who left (10 or 15 where we were, doubtlessly more in the balcony) departed long before this point arrived, though it didn’t seem to be because of the rather surprisingly graphic sex scene or even the murder. It might have been because it was 110 minutes with no interval … but, mostly, I think, it was because it’s just an irritating script, which, despite the sprinkles of sex-zaz (the luminous Scarlett Johnson as Mindy “who always needs money,” phwoar! – a total scene-stealer) and politics, ultimately comes off as being rather too much like a party guest who just won’t shut up about something incredibly boring, or listen to anything besides the sound of their own voice. Lemon’s mother (Mary Roscoe, very good if too old for the role, but so was Ashbourne) couldn’t get away from Dan, but we, as audience members, could actually just sneak out the back door. I think this is a play worth seeing, and it might never be done any better than this, but I can’t really say that it’s a great play, and without doubt it would benefit from being shorter.

(Aunt Dan and Lemon continues at the Royal Court Theater through June 27th.)

Review of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” with Jane Horrocks – Young Vic

May 13, 2008

Last night Wechsler and I headed to the Young Vic to catch Jane Horrocks in “The Good Soul of Szechuan” at the Young Vic. Beforehand we went to the Bangalore Express, which is my new pre-Vic (young or old) dinner joint; it’s right across from Waterloo and thus easy access from work or home, and they got the food on my table in about five minutes flat after I ordered – “no muss, no fuss,” as they used to say. Their prices are great and they serve duck.

But really, this is about the play, right? Well sated and sufficiently caffeinated to overcome my post-Florida jet lag for the duration of the night, we joined the long, long queue in front of the Young Vic only to discover the savvier Whingers had set themselves up at a bar down the street (their review of the evening, I mean play, here). I briefly joined them (else we would not have been able to enter the theater!) then returned to wait in line for another five minutes or so. Eventually we traipsed in the long (and scene-setting) way, then scored ideal seat about eight rows back. The dust in the air from the set nearly cost me at the outset (and if you’re asthmatic I suggest you highly consider skipping this show), but it settled enough for him to enjoy the rest of the show (despite the smoking).

Sooooo … the play. This is Brecht, right? And you know about Brecht. It’s like Shakespeare; if you don’t want multiple plots and soliloquies and strange words, don’t go. For Brecht, well, he’s got a message: people are basically good, but this society of want in which we live keeps them down and makes them do bad thing. If people just had a little more to eat, so many problems would go away! Creating plays with character “evolution” or, really, introspection isn’t really Brecht’s way. He’s going to put his flat characters on stage and make them dance, and, if you’re like me, you’ll find it generally amusing, except for the singing bit (why do they always having singing in Brecht shows? It’s never any good). I mean, it’s a morality play, basically, sometimes with gangsters, sometimes with ….

Three gods come to a small village in Szechuan (which no one apparently knows how to pronounce, despite living there), looking for a good soul. Inadvertently, they come upon Jane Horrocks (looking twenty years younger than she did in the wretched and unfunny Absurd Person Singular), playing the part of a really pretty prostitute. They give her a pile of money … and now that she’s got something, instead of nothing, her life REALLY starts to fall apart, because, well, when you’ve got nothing, people can’t get much from you, but when you’ve got something, everyone wants to get their piece.

Or, well, so Brecht posits, or perhaps he’s saying that money is just corrupting and the poor can’t win. He gets in his digs at pious capitalists (as embodied by the gods) and other people that do their best to make the lot of the poor worse while supposedly uplifting them (some things do never change). Me, well, I loved Horrock’s charming turn as the two-natured Shen Tay (perhaps really Shen Tai), and found her just as adorable in her little cheap dress as in a suit and fedora (rar!). I also found the boyfriend just as convincing playing a miserable clod who wanted to die as a lying man who wanted to take her for all she was worth – it’s funny how those words can come out of the same person’s mouth and yet still sound like the truth – when not delivered by actors! While other member of the party were finding the script just too cartoony to be managable, I found myself instead nodding along with Horrocks as she looked into the audience and said (of her boyfriend), “He is a bad man! He only wants me for what he can get from me!” And I was also sucked in as she decided to not hate him. It takes really good actors to take this stuff and make it mean something, and I bought it. It’s a good production – but remember, if you don’t like Brecht, there’s probably not much that will change your mind. (That said …. if only they’d really let her sing! What is the next show she is going to be in? Something with songs that don’t make me want to clap my hands over my ears?)

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, May 12, 2008.)