FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by James Haddrell, designed by Cleo Pettitt, with lighting by Stevie Carty, Costume Supervisor Sades Robinson, Associate Director Sonny McGann, Production manager Caz Hampton, Stage Manager Joe Nicholls, ASM Matt Newman Producer Simon Francis. Till July 10th.
Greenwich Theatre boldly opens after lockdown with a wonderfully ambitious quadruple-bill of Caryl Churchill short plays with the collective title Bad Nights and Odd Days. No greater faith than to mount such radical works.
Worth it? Churchill’s our greatest living playwright and easily our most innovative. She is theatre. What better way to assuage our hunger?
Social distancing still drastically limits audience numbers but even when sold out one audience member warmly reported she was found an extra chair in a niche of her own, still distanced. It makes sense. Churchill always presents an odd angle to the universe.
Directed by James Haddrell who supplies some fascinating notes to the programme, clearly immersed in Churchill, it’s designed by Cleo Pettitt with some remarkable theatrical coups and a kind of wooden big-dipper arched above the action; and for most of the action an old-fashioned double bed. The often evocatively tenebrous lighting’s by Stevie Carty, and Costume Supervisor Sades Robinson produces some striking attire.
Churchill’s quartet – here lasting nearly three hours with interval, not the time stated – were written over nine years in the 1970s. It’s worth mentioning how and where. There’s a fiftieth anniversary for two, occasioning the assemblage. Abortive was first broadcast on Radio 3 on February 4th 1971 and on 31st March that year Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, both directed by John Tydeman, champion of so many of Churchill’s radio and early theatre works. Seagulls written in 1978 wasn’t staged till 2002 – on 3rd October with a rehearsed reading directed by Churchill herself at the Royal Court. Quite why she kept it in the bottom drawer remains a mystery; equally why it started life as a reading. Three More Sleepless Nights is the most familiar. Premiered at Soho Poly on June 9th 1980, on 5th August it transferred to Churchill’s mainstream theatre of choice, again the Royal Court, both directed by Joint Stock protégé Les Waters.
Six actors multi-role: Paul McGann, Kerrie Taylor, Verna Vyas, Bonnie Baddoo, Dan Gaisford, Gracy Goldman. They’re a superb ensemble.
It’s appropriate that a pay which Churchill held back 24 years then tightly directed a rehearsed reading of, is about hesitation, doubts, even a fear of failing powers – in this case surely inspired in the wake of spoon-bender Uri Geller, a very 1970s phenomenon, up there with Dennis Roussos. Weird he didn’t make a Beverley mouthful in Abigail’s Party. What if a woman could do that and more?
The title comes from Bonnie Baddoo’s young woman Cliff who’s allowed to get past Gracy Goldman’s Di, manager of Kerrie Taylor’s Valerie: whom Cliff now gushes to, mentioning her in the same breath as discovering relativity.
Valerie’s world famous and despite her fears allows expressed to Di in a brief first scene, she compulsively opens up, perhaps overshares to Cliff. We see a pattern: Valerie suddenly opens up and then almost pathologically snaps and orders Cliff or even Di away or sacks them. She then apologizes and reverses, sometimes to turn again. Due to further world stardom demonstrating her powers at Harvard, Valerie finds her powers deserting her.
Perhaps, Valerie suggests in a memorable image, it’s like one of those moments you can’t swallow, and it’ll come back. After Di runs to eject the hapless Cliff on Valerie’s orders, we have the aftermath of her latest show, which she stutters before us; her turning on Di then apologizing, and a reconciliatory visit from Cliff.
Taylor’s consummate at shifting gears from the withdrawn shy ex M&S saleswoman and housewife (where she met DI) through to confessor and rapt memorialist of her own talent, to a nasty borderline personality, then switching back. Baddoo’s excellent as wide-eyed Cliff, Goldman’s as supportive critical friend, with her own agenda, her own loyalties, which run deeper towards Valerie than either realise. The deepest mystery is why Churchill, never one to shy from the magical, held this small edgy gem back so long.
Three More Sleepless Nights
The bedstead double arrives and stays throughout the next three plays. Three couples – four people, two of them recombining: It’s theatrically thrilling, disturbingly asking questions of how we both get together for underlying negative reasons, and how even when recombining, old traits may occur. Does it really matter wo we’re with? We’ll screw up the same way. Or we have options.
First, Goldman’s Margaret is dinned into the spiral of a marriage with the restless Frank (McGann), and we’re treated to one of the first instances of Churchill’s simultaneous speech, where both characters try cutting through the other’s. McGann’s depiction of coiled testosterone melancholy in Frank breaks against Goldman’s Margaret sashaying between pacifying bitterness anger and attempts to reach out – which end in silence.
In the second scene, Vyas’ near-silent Dawn is cajoled by emotionally inarticulate Pete Gaisford with the plot of Aliens. Dawn can’t sleep, it’s 3am, and this, plus bread and a breadknife on a board, is Pete’s attempts to reach out to his clearly distressed wife. When Dawn speaks, it’s in a devastating sotto voce. In a frequently mute role Vyas’ character gets up, dons on a resplendent emerald dress over her burgundy-coloured nightdress and later replaces it where it hung. These telling repetitions are very Churchill, Peter has no language for this but plots. It’s a different mode: simultaneous silence playing off displacement-speech. The final image, a theatrical coup, is shocking.
Finally, Gaisford’s Pete and Goldman’s Margaret have emerged from those previous relationship. The undersong is despite their warmth and closeness Margaret’s disturbed by Pete’s not mentioning having met Dawn last week. She’s far better, happy now – perhaps that’s a sign. Margaret, more in need of reassurance, circles round with a new-found intimacy and Pete’s final gesture is to start with the plot of Apocalypse Now.
McGann’s memorable as the knotted-up, obliquely anguished Frank. Goldman registers beautifully the death-pangs of a hurt dying love and the anxious excitement of a new one. Vyas haunts as dawn, gesturally minimal, the effect vertiginous. Gaisford’s excellent at suggesting the new man emerging from the old, then popping back into it again, always whatever he is, Pete hides behind words.
McGann’s Colin can’t get his wife Roz’s abortion out of his head. Taylor’s Roz is clear that she wanted it, isn’t harmed by it, isn’t frigid. It’s clear though there’s a barrier between. It wasn’t ‘his’ child but their immigrant handyman’s, the man Colin had taken pity on.
Roz is clear she was raped. Colin isn’t. And Roz isn’t – despite her original protestations – clear about having made the right choice over the abortion. Colin says they would have brought the child up as theirs. They have one child. Roz speculates on what might have been. The passage where they discuss this is one of the most nuanced in theatre. There’s a quietly spectacular moment when Roz in her striking light electric blue nightgown steps outside and gets drenched by a shower of rain, to return to a spectral warmth and a question mark.
McGann’s excellent at kerning the sense liberal-seeming men have of themselves into dark even primal corners, though Colin’s never more than quietly insistent in tone. Taylor conveys a range of responses, again civilised but under the veneer, playful, desolate, sexy, in need of love. And wiser than Colin.
Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen
We’re in the future, originally around forty years on in 2010. This hasn’t been updated, just muted – there’s still many references still made to the 70s, 80s, and 90s when pollution begins to turn the world into a prophetically familiar dystopia.
It’s timely. Where oxygen’s bottled, parks are privatised, and a woman who arrives was ‘among the last to be born in the Londons’ – a curious plural suggesting a sprawl of smog-dense suburbia. The set’s the most elaborate, with tables and clutter including a jigsaw (one character doesn’t know what blue sky is) bespeaking stifling life without – blasted in dense puffs of smoke the rare time someone opens a window, to be countered by an oxygen aerosol.
Gaisford’s ageing Mick lives in a yellow suit in a single room, all that anyone’s allotted. He’s visited by Baddoo’s waif-like but thirty-year-old Claudia whose mix of stammer and a hint of Tourette’s lends not only the title but the most distinctive verbal pattern of the play: Baddoo is superb too at bringing out the veer between desperation and cheerful cajoling that makes Claudia here so memorable. And a hint too of damage that a lack of moral as well as physical oxygen confers on so many. They’re in an incipient sexual relationship, one partly motivated by Claudia depending on Mick. She wants to move in.
Perhaps that’s because Mick’s daughter by his second wife, Vyas’ Vivian, is expected. She’s the late-born Londoner, famed on TV as a troubleshooting reporter, part of a privileged elite that can travel everywhere. But she’s like her mother, the crazy who’s given up everything to live without privileges.
And we learn too that Vivian’s half-brother and his wife, both doctors, choose the same. Further, stuck in Cairo they killed their accidentally-conceived child after its birth, were exonerated. Pregnancy’s against the rules the world over, for a time. And Vivian’s come to a decision.
Mick’s outraged. Gaisford well depicts the suppressed whine of self-pity mixed with homeopathic love, of Mick’s smoggy word-view. Vyas’ adamantine, contained Vivian represents a lifeline to better living. Whatever his affection, being lifted out of a world where smoke blows in whenever you open a window is understandable.
Vivian’s a puritan, though not unkind in her cerise attire – and red snood which she gifts to the newly-encountered Claudia. We learn of the privileged who choose to side with the stifled. Is it mere virtue-signalling? Is it a radical response to radical climate change, to neutralise the lifestyle contributing to it, even if you do good, as it were in a vapour trail?
There’s enough residual pity for Churchill’s stuck characters not to stack everything on one side, nor decisively on the nostalgically venal Mick, and his desire to breathe again. And for Claudia, who’s known nothing but not enough.
A rare outing for these absorbing dramas at any time, let alone this: and with such consummate cast and creatives. If you can beg a chair from the rafters, see it.