Monday, June 25, 2012

Playing at the Playhouse

Motivational Bananas from Best in the World
There has been so much to write about, and yet so little time for blogging recently. I need to limber up those muscles so this is a tribute to Oxford Playhouse for the excellence of its current programming.

I had a week off from my main job last week and although I did of course spend quite a lot of time catching up on freelance work, I also felt the need to get out of London for a bit. Quite a while ago I saw that Hugh Hughes was planning to tell some stories in a pub in Oxford on Wednesday evening and, as he's one of my very favourite theatre performers, this seemed an excellent excuse to visit and do some work with my friend and current collaborator who lives not too far off. I then spotted that the very lovely Annie Rigby who was one of the nicest, most approachable people I'd met at Devoted and Disgruntled, had her latest production with Unfolding Theatre on the next night. Then, I realised that Northern Stage's resurrection of Close the Coalhouse Door was also on, for which I'd seen great reviews and which interested me for its accessible community values and political message, and that I could fit that in as well. It seemed way to good to be true.

And that, in a nutshell, was potentially the problem. Normally at this point I get into a fit of excitement and anticipation, then I go and see the work and am sometimes just a bit, sometimes desperately disappointed. I'm generally a harsh critic and as much as I love theatre, I often don't enjoy individual shows that much. I find it too easy to pick holes, hard to just go with the flow but disappointed when it leaves me cold.  I find more traditional plays dull, or that innovative formats get in the way of the real heart of a piece. I'm probably a bit too driven by "buzz" in what I choose, which should help to pick some of the best things but also makes it that much more dangerous that the actuality won't live up to the hype. So... here I was, two days, three plays, three different venues, and a whole heap too much expectation...

I started at 6pm on Wednesday evening at the Angel and Greyhound, Oxford, on my own in the end though I'm not necessarily so bothered about that when seeing theatre. The thing I particularly like about the work of Hoi Polloi is the way they create magic without really (sort of but not in any obtrusive way) asking you to pretend. If you're in a theatre then you're really in a theatre, and we were really in a pub. The person talking has come to tell a story, not act one out - or if so, only for demonstration purposes. I'm sure there is a technical term for this, which I don't know, but I like it. In this case Hugh said hello, told us what was going to happen, used our pint glasses and his mobile phone as props, and in 15 minutes took the 5 of us sat round a pub table on a journey back into his childhood in Anglesea. I'm not allowed to say what happened in the story (we took an oath of secrecy) but it wasn't romanticised or indulgent, yet it was beautiful. I loved it.

Next, I trekked back across town (I'd not planned very well and ended up crossing Oxford several times that day) to the Playhouse for Close the Coalhouse Door. This piece is a collaboration between Northern Stage and Live Theatre, oganisations I don't know well but whose commitment both to excellence but also local relevance I really respect. Close... is about mining history in the North East, the hideous conditions, rich industrialist control and gradual improvement of conditions for pitmen and their families. Originally staged in 1968 when there was a lot more hope than there is now, the collapse of the industry since should have made it all the more bleak, but in fact it's funny and entertaining, though unashamedly left wing. Probably my only criticism is quite how firmly they rammed home the sarcastic message at the end ("of course none of this happens now"). Again, as with Hoi Polloi, there is an openness about the form, with the audience being told from the beginning that we are watching a play. Within this, we have a family in 1978, acting out the history (the bedtime stories of the grandfather) whilst the present day drama of the choices of the sons of the families also unfolds: to stay and work in the pit or escape to university. Actually, that's my other criticism - whilst the female characters in this piece are strong, there are only two of them out of nine. Limited by the original play, of course, but I hope modern political theatre somehow manages to revisit the past without always insisting that the male perspective is the only interesting one. In any case, much music on imaginative instruments (guitars, ukeleles, knitting needles on scaffolding), bad jokes and serious history made the more than two and half hours duration fly by (especially with two intervals included for our refreshment). It felt incongruous in Oxford, and I'd have rather have seen it in a more intimate venue up North, but fantastic stuff all the same. I hope we take notice, though I worry we don't... that's a whole different discussion on the efficacy of political theatre.

All that put me in good shape for a working day with Tailormade Productions the next day, especially when coffee and buttered toast for breakfast was followed by homemade houmous, jacket potatoes and pickles for lunch, and my desk had a view of the garden and the sounds of birdsong.

On Thursday evening we headed back in to town for Best in the World in the Burton Taylor Studio, a tiny and sympathetic space just around the corner from the theatre. This piece comes from director Annie Rigby's genuine love of darts but observation that the greatest dart players are still really very ordinary if not sometimes highly flawed men. Here there was even less of what you might call traditional "acting". The play, performed by a solo actor, ultimately tells us all that we can all be "the best in the world", demonstrating this through information about darts players and other sportsmen and women, including an absolutely jaw dropping demonstration with a tape measure of how far Jonathan Edwards, not an obvious triple jumper because of his shorter stature, actually managed to hop step and jump. We were invited to celebrate our own achievements and to support other audience members, and it was funny, engaging and as energising as the motivational bananas given to us on the way in.

So there you go. Three fantastic pieces of theatre in a row, though very different, and if that wasn't enough, the amazing Coelocanth by Ben Moor on tonight and tomorrow - a piece I saw years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe which I also absolutely loved. I hope I get to see something else by Ben Moor soon; but I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Oxford Playhouse.