Saturday, January 01, 2028
Friday, March 20, 2020
The life of bees, and even theoretical physics, are increasingly familiar tropes in fiction and the drama.
Nick Payne’s moving miniature watches these worlds collide, and the boy-meets-girl story [girl-meets-girl in this production] is refracted into infinite fragments, applying arcane elements of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory … But you don’t even need GCSE science to share the laughter, the tears, the love and the loss of this sometimes rocky relationship.
There are constants for us to cling onto: two chance encounters, the proposal, the diagnosis. But the brilliant writing opens doors onto alternative worlds, “all the decisions you’ve ever/never made”, playing variations on a scene, sometimes subtle, like minimalist music, sometimes radical: the “no balloons, no photos” sequence, for instance, is replayed in fluent BSL. The infidelity recriminations variously involve a third party with a centre parting, dandruff or scarcely any hair at all. Fragments make increasing sense as they are replayed in context, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle slotting into place amongst the vast expanse of sky. Marianne’s aphasia is flagged early - “faith” becomes “face”, “work” becomes “walk”. But the full impact is held back until the devastating later scene.
We don’t see the forks in the road, there are no Sliding Doors, no Ayckbourn tricks or conscious choices. Not even snap lighting changes to signal the shifts – though Phil Wright’s lighting design serves the play with sympathetic sensitivity.
What we do get in Ria Milton’s finely honed production – bringing a rare, almost flawless integrity to the amateur stage - is a physical echo of the emotional changes – distance, height, body language all give depth and texture to the drama. Before the big names hit the West End and Broadway the piece played first in the tiny Jerwood at the Royal Court. There’s a similar intimacy here; Laura Bradley’s Marianne and Jennifer Burchett’s Rona are naturalistic, heartfelt creations, the bee-keeper and the honey philistine. They wear their roles lightly, inhabiting rather than performing their characters.
The striking set – designed by Nick Mayes and realised by Iain Holding-Sutton – is a window into the universe, evoking the constellations of the title, and enabling some eloquent silhouettes between the scenes.
Those moments are also marked by chanteuse Nikita Eve. Like a Greek chorus, she comments with snatches of song, chosen, with the director, to highlight the changing nature of the relationship as it ravels and unravels before us. Ingrid Michaelson’s Everybody [“wants to love, wants to be loved”] bookends the play in a cosy singalong, “Now so long, Marianne/It's time that we began to laugh/And cry and cry and laugh about it all again” encapsulates the piece so beautifully it’s hard to believe Leonard Cohen penned it long before the playwright was born, and “I will follow you into the dark” [Death Cab for Cutie] is a poignant refrain for the tragic twist to this Love Story.
As with the Greek chorus, the question is if, and how, to integrate the commentary into the action. Low-key contributions from stage right is the answer here; they worked best when the guitar was substituted for the slightly intrusive keyboard.
This is by no means a gloomy evening in the theatre The seventy-five minutes include bright joyful moments – Marianne buys Rona’s honey from Budgens in Crouch End – amid the soul-searching and the struggles.
And maybe we’re meant to share their belief that the multiverse can bring solace: somewhere there’s a world where they first met at a wedding, not a barbecue, and where the tumor is Grade One, not Four. Like the elbow-licking from Marianne’s chat-up routine, the secret to immortality. “You’ll still have all our time”, the cosmologist reassures the apiarist. And, as if to prove the point, the poignant coda is a replay of their second encounter, at the ballroom dancing class, planning to lose weight, or dance the Viennese Waltz at someone’s wedding …
Tim Minchin, quoted in Randall Munroe’s What If?,
read by Marianne in Constellations
Your love is one in a million;
You couldn’t buy it at any price.
But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves,
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice.
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
The opening of a new Eastern Angles tour is always an event. But this show uniquely so – a closed-door premiere before the production is moth-balled till next year. A real privilege, but a pleasure tinged with sadness, to be part of a very small audience for this first and last night.
Arthur [Swallows and Amazons] Ransome married Trotsky’s secretary ? And played chess with Lenin ? George [Animal Farm] Orwell joined the Indian Police in Burma straight from school ? His villainous pig is called César in the French edition ?
Much more plausible, surely, to think that these two “strange bedfellows”, united by a love of fishing and the coast of East Anglia, should have crossed paths more than once.
That’s the premise of Ivan Cutting’s fascinating drama, set mostly in Southwold.
The young Eric Blair is discovered stowing away like Goldilocks in the cabin of the Selina King. In his pocket Coming Up for Air, and two ferryman pennies to see his late father across not Blyth but Styx. And thus begins a prickly relationship which endures through the war, follows the Ransomes to the lakes and Orwell to his end in a London sanatorium.
The two writers tie flies and talk angling – a powerful subtext links the sport with spying - “Will it fool the smartest fish in the brook ?” “None of us reveals our true colours; otherwise we’d be swallowed like the fly”. The catalyst for much of the ill-feeling between them is Evgenia, given a compelling characterization here by Sally Ann Burnett. She is deeply mistrustful of the “idle scalliwag”, who seems suspiciously interested in her former life with the Bolsheviks. But a curious empathy develops between them, and she finally shares the story of the diamond petticoat.
Philip Gill is a perfect embodiment of the author in the twilight of his career. Plus-fours, waders, just as you’d imagine this “cross between Worzel Gummidge and Bertie Wooster”. Cutting’s evocation of their unlikely, but clearly fond, relationship is convincingly written, and sympathetically performed here. But there are darker depths to him, too, secrets and lies …
As the younger writer, still with his name to make, hoping for tips on writing “as if for children”, Laurie Coldwell skilfully suggests the eventful path that brought him through Burma and the Spanish Civil War to Southwold Harbour. There’s an almost mystical feeling to some of the scenes the two men share.
Many characters remain tantalizingly out of sight: the much-maligned Harbourmaster, the literary lions at Orwell’s bedside, Reilly [Ace of Spies].
And then there’s the Girl in the Woods. Something of an obsession for Orwell [“some women call me George”], and not only on the page [we see, for example, Comstock’s condom setback from Keep the Aspidistra Flying]. They are all done, in fleeting flashback, by Freya Evans, who also gets a more substantial role in the closing pages, as the capable Sonia, who marries George and takes charge of his affairs up to his death, and beyond.
Ian Teague’s design places the new boat - “varnish barely dry” - on a floor of bright stylised waves, with the red-streaked sky of the title behind. And she ingeniously unpacks to form the jetty, the houses and the hospital as the narrative unfolds.
The traverse staging brings impact to scenes which might otherwise seem static, with Nicola Pollard’s fluent direction giving us a plethora of significant stage pictures as the actors react and regroup: the opening confrontation with the penknife, the midnight chat in the air raid, Ransome the “dried-up old duffer”, struggling with his autobiography, relaxing with his back to the water, Evgenia facing the two writers, the older couple closer in the uncomfortable surroundings of the clinic.
It’s quite a cerebral piece, with a lot of exposition. But these cracking characters - the famous men and their almost unknown women – hold our attention throughout the two hours, with their talk of secret agents, ailments, war and peace, escapes and betrayals, dystopia in 1984, utopia on Coniston ...
Philip Gill as Arthur Ransome - photo: Mike Kwasniak