26 April 2007

The Lady from Dubuque - Haymarket Theatre, Wednesday 25th April 2007

Enter theatre and run into Tory sleazebag and ex-con Jeffrey Archer, presumably paying for his stalls seat with used notes in a brown envelope and who probably then denies that he has ever met the woman in the ticket office. Pick up discounted tickets (£11 buys you two £50 tickets with the right connections as this play is selling SO badly, even with Maggie Smith in the cast). Shell out £4 (FOUR POUNDS!) for a programme (for £4 I want Maggie Smith to bring a copy personally to my seat and slip me Justin Timberlake's phone number into the bargain). Take seat in stalls in an auditorium that has had about £500K spent on its refurbishment and in which you still have to sit in seats designed for Victorian Munchkins. Result by end of show - cramp in one knee, one buttock completely numb and right shoulder aching as have had to hunch it up to avoid knocking off the glasses worn by the man in the next Very Small but Expensive Seat. Realise with sinking stomach that am surrounded by rich Americans from Bediddlybong, Idaho, who have come to see play by "Merka's Greaddest Living Playwright". They have failed to see this play on Broadway because for some reason it closed after only 12 performances. Note that auditorium is only 2/3 full. House lights down. Curtain up.

Act One
Interior: Living Room. Evening. Three well heeled, middle aged Merkin couples are smoking too many cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol and playing that well known staple game of Edward Albee plays called "Get Pissed and Slag Off The Guests to Their Faces". Cracks (in fact, veritable chasms) are appearing in all three relationships. Witty Badinage Descends Quickly into Slanging Match. Tears, recriminations. Vile people being vile to other vile people. Familiar Albee territory - this is obviously "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Part Two". Shock horror - one of the women is in the advanced stages of cancer. Bitterness, disillusionment and rancour all round. Actors address audience directly at several points. Several slammed doors. More alcohol. Exit omnes. Pause. Enter Maggie Smith in wig resembling roadkill guinea pig. Smattering of applause. She addresses audience (in Maggie Smith voice): "Are we in time? Is she still alive?" Curtain. Muted and bewildered applause from audience.

Ask fat, unkempt, unshaven, straggle haired usher in creased trousers where the toilets are. "The men's toilets sir?" For possibly the first time in my entire life am rendered completely unable to reply. Push through bar full of bemused Merkins from Bediddlybong, Idaho muttering to each other about how they don't understand this play. Am tempted to agree with them.

Act Two
Interior: Living Room. Morning. Maggie Smith in wig resembling roadkill guinea pig now assumes (bad) Bediddlybong, Idaho accent and swaps witty badinage with tall black man in three piece suit and nightshirt-clad husband of Woman Dying of Cancer. Merkins from Bediddlybong, Idaho convulse with laughter at lines such as "This is Oliver. He's Black". Black man does karate chop on Husband of Woman Dying of Cancer, knocking him unconscious, and ties him to staircase with his "Black Belt in Karate". Howls of laughter from Merkins. Have obviously taken wrong turn on way back from toilet, found my way into neighbouring theatre and am now watching Act 2 of "Whoops, There Go My Trousers". Woman Dying of Cancer totters downstairs to greet Maggie Smith, falls into her arms and Lo, Becomes Reconciled to Her Fate and Suddenly Starts Seeing Good in "Friends" who have mysteriously reunited in the house from which they were unceremoniously ejected the night before. Exeunt all except Husband of Woman Dying of Cancer, Maggie Smith and roadkill guineapig wig. Pointed and mysterious dialogue. Who is Maggie Smith Character? Who Am I? Who Are You? Do You Know Who You Are? Do I Know You Know Who I Am? Do You Understand This Crock of Shit? Do You? Curtain falls.

Well, dear Readers, that was the prĂ©cis of possibly the most confusing, frustrating and bizarre evening I have ever spent in the theatre. Having learned in the afternoon that the play was written by Edward Albee, I admit that I went in the evening with a sinking heart (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the ONLY play I have ever actually fallen asleep while watching). And the first act really did live up to my expectations of Vile People Being Vile To Other Vile People. There were a couple of things which made it very heavy going – the first being that the characters in the play have a nasty habit of “ignoring the fourth wall” and addressing the audience direct, in what we assume are stylised “asides” to draw us "into the dwama". This is irritating, acheives nothing and gives the entire proceedings a rather pantomime-ish air. The second is that one of the characters is approaching the final stages of a cancerous illness which makes her scream in pain and generally take that pain out on her husband and friends. Having had an acquaintance recently die of cancer, both CBB and I found what is in fact a very well-realised portrayal of terminal pain quite hard to watch. Then The Big Name appears on the stage – but only speaks eight words before the curtain comes down on the end of Act I, to the bemusement of the entire audience. After having rolled my eyes at CBB, he then puts forward the theory (in his “Its an homage to the genre” voice”) that the play represents the current state of confusion and bewilderment in the USA, where a dying nation seems to be ameliorating its terminal agony by turning on its overseas friends and generally pushing its luck. One of the main characters is called "Sam" after all and he starts the play with a game of "Who am I?", which would fit the theory. OK, fair enough. Pompous but credible. Then the tensions built up in Act I are literally thrown away in Act II when the whole thing seems to be from a completely different play, spiralling towards farce, with lots of witty sardonic bantering, a black character who makes constant ironic jokes about his own race at the expense of the white characters and a karate chop which renders the victim unconscious, allowing him to be tied to the newel post of the staircase with a belt for much of the remainder of the act. The intensely drawn character of Jo (the woman with cancer) goes for nothing and becomes a cipher and the mysterious Lady of the title (Maggie Smith mugging and simpering and ultimately becoming very irritating) is just….. mysterious. Who is she? The Angel of Death, come to ease Jo’s painful descent into the dark? If so, who is her companion Oscar (Peter Francis James – witty, urbane and able to act most of the cast off the stage)? Or is she truly Jo’s mother, as she claims? In that case, why has Jo lied to her husband and “friends” that her mother was born on a farm, lives in New Jersey and has pink hair? None of these questions are ever answered and this leaves you completely unsatisfied after the curtain comes down. I felt like storming the Stage Door and shouting “I want ANSWERS!”

I suspect, however, that even the writer wouldn’t be able to help. Perhaps he was revelling in his own “experimentalism” when writing this, or trying to out-Pinter Pinter by having his characters address the audience – attempting to chum up with them, perhaps and make it all seem "We're all in this together". Or perhaps its just a badly constructed, badly written play by a depressed, alcoholic old queer struggling to find something fresh to say when, like Lady Bracknell "Everybody has said everything they were going to say, which in most cases was probably not very much anyway".

Whatever the answers, it seems clear that the producers were of the opinion that, in order to secure a London run of a dreadfully confused, inaccessible and ultimately unsatisfactory piece, they had to have a “big name” in the cast. Had it been a cast full of unknowns, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as this. I suspect that this production will close soon when the Maggie Smith fans realise that they have been duped into paying extortionate prices (cheapest seat £25 thankyouverymuchJerry) to see her acting in “default Maggie Smith mode” and obviously trying to distance herself from a play she knows is a real turkey. No wonder it only lasted for 12 performances on Broadway. Albee broke all the established rules of playwriting with this and leaves his audience confused, disorientated and bewildered – even those of us not from Bediddlybong, Idaho.

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