FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Nina Raine herself. Jeremy Herbert’s dextrous unfussy set of cream neutrality where various beige oblongs rise partially or fully out of the stage floor. There’s a coup of lowered coppers glinting in Bruno Poet’s lighting which occasionally pools onto an individual. Alex Baranowski’s sound and music apart from quacking phones opens out sudden street noises which almost jars.
Nina Raine’s plays have twice come along in pairs; and following her masterly Consent eighteen months ago, also in the National’s Dorfman, Stories this time directed by Raine also initially starts with the topic of birth. Or here, a hoped-for conception.
Like Consent, Stories is studded with Raine’s fierce intelligence and wonderful one-liners. There’s a further similarity too: an even greater structural tightness and symmetry than previously, that in each case leaves a curious untidy thread.
Stories invites an audience to see how it constructs itself too. Anna a thirty-nine year old director who wishes to conceive starts interviewing people like actors – several are actors she’s worked with – and later discusses the seven kinds of story (we get the quest, voyage-and-return to start with); or with one delicious portrait, asks the career psychologist partner of her best friend to remind her of Kubler-Ross’s five-stages-of-grieving mode. But he’s already not dismissing possible madness in Anna herself: ‘it poses itself as sanity’. With friends like these…
Story-telling’s intrinsic: not only those Anna tells to her friend Beth’s child – who declares Anna’s stories are so much better – but Anna’s quiet obsession with narratives includes, startlingly fate and blank void. Her brother Joseph (an empathic, serious Brian Vernel) tells her gently: ’And about God… if he does exist Pips… I don’t think he’s the plot. I think he’s the lighting.’
Raine’s intent on freighting every rift with awe. Unlike many she convinces us two siblings can address it. The need for meaning-as-narrative sashays through the need – not universal, Raine’s character admits – to have children. Who become the consuming narrative that perhaps drowns out the others, till they themselves start the asking.
Raine ensures a pacey traversal in two hours fifteen aided by Jeremy Herbert’s dextrous unfussy set of cream neutrality where various beige oblongs rise partially or fully out of the stage floor, and Ikea-like beds with blue sheets or furniture blocks differently-laden get wheeled on and off, sometimes with a child shawled in a splash of red. Just once at the outset there’s a coup of lowered coppers, a tang of suspended luxury glinting in Bruno Poet’s lighting which occasionally pools onto an individual. There’s no opportunity to vary or create backdrops: the Dorfman’s here in the round. Alex Baranowski’s sound and music apart from quacking phones opens out sudden street noises which almost jars. We’re in swift-moving interior spaces; Raine hasn’t ventured outdoors since her first play, Rabbit. There’s no distraction.
Claudie Blackley who took over from Anna Maxwell Martin in Consent’s transfer here returns as the lead Anna. She balances a radiant sanity, warmth with anxiety, very rarely given leave to outright rage or grief. She tellingly conveys hurt though, and hopelessness at times – mainly with her super-vigilant family whose characters recall Tribes. Here Raine can indulge smart and very funny dialogue with the same relish she bestowed on the earlier play or the party-scenes in Consent.
There’s Vernel’s Joe of course but Stephen Boxer’s wry, affectionate, articulate f-ing and teasingly obtuse Dad is loudest. Detailing Anna’s own birth with technicolour relish (he was there, Mother was out of it on pethidine) he’s suddenly decided anonymous sperm-donation is the right route; but Anna’s having doubts: the damage it does to those when discovering a father wasn’t an option and it increasingly nags her into a dilemma.
Boxer exudes the regality that sees him cast as the eponymous Cardinal in Shirley’s 1641 tragedy or Duncan in the NT’s Macbeth to assume a querulous authority. One mixed-race donor ‘sounds like a sheepdog’ but at the end he delivers ‘Love is worry’ with disarming finality. Margot Leicester’s Mother (and octogenarian Natasha and counsellor Jenny) initially has less to do but Raine emphasizes her role towards the end.
It’s essential there’s a family arena for Anna to express doubt and pain, since her friend Beth (Thusitha Jayasundera) gets only a few scenes, snarled by Boxer again as Paul, that irritating psychologist – bringing the same quizzing as Dad. Raine notes there’s a reason why certain actors multi-role. It’s also Paul who provides an opposite narrative to Dad, inviting Anna to meet a result of sperm-donation (Vernel’s James) in a telling late scene.
Jayasundera’s other role as acquaintance Julie is telling too: she’s rightly appalled Anna’s asking for sperm from her younger partner who’s fathered no children of his own. But as in Consent Raine refuses the avenue of supportive best friend: a brittleness underlies these and isolates the main protagonist. Warmly engaging with each of her potential donors – she’s obviously on a charm offensive – Anna’s rightly wary too. With reason.
Following Raine’s logic Sam Troughton revels in being every potential donor. There’s laid back liberal art-dealer Felix who’s off to the bathroom at the start, spooling through commitment-phobic mother’s boy Tom, Anna’s ‘one’, twelve years her junior; through Lachlan the empathic actor still grieving his sister’s death and partner’s walk-out, through Danny the OCD loud-mouth rockstar – a tour-de-farce of self-regard.
Though that prize goes to Corin the narcissistic film director studding his studied replies with ‘yes’ who never wants to be named, and ritually ekes out the tea from a Chinese kettle. Troughton’s baritonal register drips self-regard. A last-ditch is two scenes with Rupert the enthusiast who with partner Pete (Vernel again) ticks all boxes and as it were pulls out. There’s another scene with him doing that (Raine avoids the monotony), and we’re back with Felix.
Raine lands bullseyes. Trustafarian wannabe-novelist Tom living in one of his mother’s properties decorated to her spec is a moveable, skewered by Beth: ‘When he got together with Anna, he broke up with his mum. And now they’ve just got back together again.’
Most of Anna’s candidates are arty, but there’s Natasha. This Holocaust survivor, unable to have children, dying fourteen years earlier, is visited by twenty-six-year-old Anna in a late flashback. She’s been wheeled through the narrative on a bed. It’s as if Raine‘s after a resonance she can’t quite justify. Despite the name Genevieve for a potential daughter – according to Joe – you suspect a girl might be called Natasha.
But why? Raine can’t work her into the plot, she lies so obliquely to it. So she chooses her as a symbol of something not quite landed. In one sense Anna’s having the child Natasha couldn’t. We know Raine’s Russian ancestry and you feel Leicester’s character here might have furnished something telling more than frail exhalations, so hauntingly etched. We end neatly but not quite everything’s returned from the voyage.
If Tribes and close to it Consent are Raine’s masterpieces so far, Stories is utterly compelling: the most intelligent, playable theatre piece on a subject that’s only going to get more relevant.
Raine’s themes in just five plays have proved her consummate: breaking new ground with each work – though there’s family resemblances. Her next on J. S. Bach premieres at the Bridge, calling on a different style to Raine’s super-smart contemporanity. Anything she writes now is routinely expected to touch greatness. No pressure.