Alys, Always @ the Bridge Theatre
Meek, mousy Frances, a nest of anxiety, toils as a lowly sub-editor in the arts department of a commercially fading magazine bleeding readers and relevance, tasked mostly with coffee runs and package deliveries. Regularly, she must suffer the fatuous tales of her pampered, well-connected colleague’s nights out on the literary social scene, all the while being continually, chronically overlooked by her editor. One chance night, on a darkened, misty road, Frances’s fortunes take a wildly unexpected turn when, the only person onsite of a deadly crash, she spends the last few moments with the female victim-who turns out to be the wife of a celebrated, charismatic author who is about to release a new novel and is eagerly courted by the staff of the magazine.
The family requests to see and speak with the one human being who spent the last few moments with their loved one-and thus Frances is ushered onstage and in to the good graces of the rich and famous, becoming confidante to spoiled daughter and, eventually, lover of the unsavoury paterfamilias, overall a quite needy, dysfunctional clan. It’s increasingly apparent that Frances is skilled in her “reading” of various family members, very assuredly and determinably writing each chapter in her unfolding story-and taking every professional advantage of changing perceptions of her worth and use in proximity to such abundant wealth and influence.
Clearly, there is a wily sting in the tail of this erstwhile timid creature, Frances proving herself the equal, if not superior, viper, all in the name of self-declaration, a transition that Joanne Froggatt (of Downton Abbey fame) beautifully expresses without reliance on broad dramatic gestures, just a subtle accretion of confident, poised assertion and quietly venomous drive, a maestro of monstrous orchestration and negotiation.
The staging is a similarly slick and sinuous arrangement of hydraulics. “Luck is the equation of preparation plus opportunity,” Frances is told-whether conscious of it or not, Frances has indeed been long ruthlessly preparing. Alys, Always runs through 30 March
Admissions @ Trafalgar Studios
Sherri, head of admissions at a progressive New Hampshire school, works tirelessly to increase the percentage of diversity within the student body, boasting (perhaps hubristically) that her efforts have resulted in an 18% rise in “people of colour”. Much comic mileage is made from her pained interactions with an older member of staff over the visual content of the school’s prospectus, its racial balance, the baffled colleague from an era long before the politically correct (or modern) lurching from one extreme to the other in imagery.
A personal crisis of conscience erupts when Charlie, Sherri’s son, is deferred from his Ivy League university choice and his best childhood friend (biracial, but who identifies as black) is accepted-a true test of the limits of both Sherri’s and her husband Bill’s liberal largesse. Playwright Joshua Harmon is fearless, bold and brave in his script, unafraid to wade into some very uncomfortable truths and unsympathetic behaviour, gleefully treading through conceptual land mines. Charlie, hurt and sore, lashes out in a minutes-long tirade, an aria against the idea of “positive discrimination” which may just keenly border on white privileged rage. His parents scramble, quite uncivilly, to use every available connection to orchestrate his seat back at the table (“ You don’t have to understand,” Sherri inscrutably screams at her incredulous son at one stage, another parent gone a bit mad over her offspring’s educational opportunities).
The drama plays out mostly within the confines of the couple’s beautifully appointed, immaculately groomed, stately kitchen, a broad staircase rising just to the side, a promise of the unseen stature and wealth that inhabit the rest of this residence, the benignly smug comforts of their lifestyle. Resentful Charlie claims that he will opt for community college and bequest his college fund to a disadvantaged student (read:non-white) less as an act of righteous indignation than as a way to punish his parents and to expose their hypocrisy. Much of the dialogue is gasp-inducing (Harmon has a line in bracing wit), scorching in its unflinching relentlessness.
The emphasis is entirely on the skewering of white pieties and assumptions, so the lack of any viewpoint outside the central characters (although possibly problematic) is understandable. Within this restricted frame, Harmon allows for lots of perspectives, moment to moment shifting the audience’s allegiance and opinion. Everyone on stage has a voice, and all are allowed to speak-Harmon’s primary belief is that as complicated and uneasy as the exchange around this topic may be, as unresolvable as the discussion may be, we have to engage in the conversation regardless. Admissions runs through 25 May
Circa @ Old Red Lion Theatre
Over the course of its 100-minute running time, Tom Ratcliffe’s work ambitiously charts the 30-year odyssey of a young gay man, from tremulous youth to melancholic middle age, embodied by a trio of fine actors who extract every brief tremor of happiness, humour, wariness and heartbreak out of the material, poignantly mapping the arc of a curious, thoughtful individual, not always comfortable or confident of self.
Devised as a series of sketches delineating key moments of his life, each actor has to work with great skill and detail to suggest the enormity and significance of each sequence, how each upheaval and encounter will reverberate into the next stage, define behaviour and opinion in later acts, an agile game of throw and catch between the central trio. Referred to only as “the Man”, Ratcliffe allows for broad engagement-this is Everystory, easily accessible by a wide audience. “The Man” struggles to define himself and what he wants against societal demands and assumptions, loving and losing along the way (a particular conflict here is the expanse of possibilities for a gay man in contemporary society, a pride of freedom vs monogamy and marriage).
A late scene involving a chance meeting amongst the man and a former lover, which leads to an evening spent in soft reminiscence, tenderly aches with unresolved feelings and missed opportunity, a sense of shared, intimate history effortlessly suggested (Daniel Abelson is especially effective in the middle passages, a core of quivering confusion, indecision, anxiety-a gentle soul steadily losing his way). As his younger self, Thomas Flynn has a wicked, candid assertiveness, the easy deportment of youth, a grand unawareness of the ways in which life will eventually grind him gently but purposefully down.
Antony Gabriel is a bit shortchanged as he only has one scene as the senior version of the Man, but the sequence does bring a rhyming close with the opening scene-the Man has come full circle, a compromised man staring at a younger version of himself, the cycle about to be repeated, one generation to the next. Circa runs through 30 March
My Name Is Lucy Barton @ Bridge Theatre
Bored, agitated, impatient, Lucy Barton addresses the audience from her hospital room, suffering a nine-week internment due to an unspecified illness in 1980’s New York. In and out of consciousness, Lucy awakes one morning to find her estranged mother in a chair at the foot of her bed-somehow she has made her way from the small town in Illinois from which a conflicted Lucy has long-ago escaped an impoverished, derelict childhood (in both material and spiritual sense).
The women chatter, gossip, reminisce, cast withering judgements on people and institutions, circling but never quite confronting the tangled, coarse and difficult love between them (the tough stoicism of the American Midwest resides deeply within Lucy’s mother’s soul, frills and niceties scraped free). Some of this spirit claims Lucy still, despite her years living in New York-much is unresolved from those troubled times. A commanding Laura Linney prowls the minimalist stage, effortlessly conjuring multiple environments just from her speech (aided greatly by the verbal dexterity of Rona Munro’s script, based upon Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel).
She’s calm, cool and riveting in her extended reverie, woozy, rambling, trying to work some mystery out. Mom may be merely a hallucination, a phantom from which Lucy needs a pardon or pass-or a ghost that Lucy must set to rest. From the humble, narrow beginnings, Lucy has struggled to write and live her way out of them, to spread free of their confines and see a more expansive world-she can declare, at conclusion, that the world is astonishing, bursting with amazement. She is seized with it. My Name Is Lucy Barton closed its second run on 16 February 2019