Friday, 25 May 2012

Love, Love, Love - Royal Court

[a (TL:DR) review of the play as seen from one of the the 10p standing spaces on the left hand side of the auditorium]

I love the Royal Court sometimes:

Postcards   Hello, have you got any of the 10p standing tickets left?

Lovely Royal Court Box Office Person   Yes, two.

Postcards   Perfect. Can I buy them, please?

Lovely Royal Court Box Office Person   Certainly. That'll be 20p.

Part of me feels a bit of an idiot for flagging up the seemingly little known fact that the Royal Court sells a few 10p standing tickets for sold-out shows (available only in person and released about an hour before the performance, I think); I might want to use them again. But then, I know how few readers I have, so it feels relatively safe. Even so, there was something incredibly satisfying about turning up to the Court on the off chance there'd be any left and there being precisely the number I wanted half an hour before curtain-up.

It's worth pointing out at the outset that the view from the 10p standing places is not exactly perfect (although, oddly, having paid only 10p I actually felt less inclined to grumble than I have on many occasions when I've been given a free press ticket in the middle of the stalls – this was A Bargain, rather than “work”). You're almost in the slips on the extreme ends of the circle and leaning through an odd little window. As a result, quite a lot of one side of the stage is obscured from view, so this is necessarily a review of the acting that happened on the left hand side of the stage. Still, I quite liked that. There was also something enjoyably Live Art-y about watching a wall of wallpaper while some characters spoke lines that could well have been said in a room with wallpaper that looked like that. (I'd also add that for a play of 2 and half hours (including two intervals) you probably shouldn't take the standing tickets if you've got any neck or back problems as you're kind of bent round for the duration). Still, I'm not complaining. Which is no small testament to James Grieve's excellent production of Mike Bartlett's thoroughly absorbing new (-ish) play.

Actually, Love, Love, Love (Lovex3) has been around for a while now. I'm not sure if the writing pre-dates the current Conservative coalition (although there's now a line inserted to acknowledge it), but it does feel like a play from slightly happier times. Which, given what I'm about to say, might sound a bit odd.

The basic subject of Lovex3, well there are two: on one hand, it's a three act play that traces a couple from the beginning of their relationship in 1967, through seeing them with their children in 1990, to seeing them in early retirement in 2011 when their children are almost the age they were in the second scene. On the other hand, it's essentially a play looking at the aspirations and subsequent economic fortunes of the baby-boomer generation.

Granted, the sodding baby-boomers are hardly the most under-represented demographic going – from Our Friends in the North and the recent (and unwatchable) White Heat on TV (which curiously, also featured Claire Foy) to things like Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in theatre (and there are *many* things like Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in theatre). There are probably also countless novels.

Indeed, growing up as a child of the baby-boomer generation, such has been the reach of their cultural influence, anyone born a generation later would be forgiven for thinking more or less everything in the universe was invented between the release of Sergeant Pepper and the Prague Spring, Paris Student or Grosvenor Square riots, and that everything since has been a crashing disappointment (David Hare's Berlin is an excellent example of this sort of thinking).

What makes Bartlett's play more interesting than being merely a well-written addition to this bloated corpus, is that it is written from the perspective of that generation's children, who are now unwillingly approaching their forties. My generation, in fact. (indeed, I'm more or less exactly the same age as the son in the play, although, for the record, I should note that my parents are both a bit older and a lot nicer). Or rather there is an equal focus on them here. Bartlett is far too good a dramatist not to actually have every character's perspective well-rounded, fully-represented and even if never entirely sympathetic, then at the very least completely understandable. If I have a slight misgiving, it is that Bartlett seems to be developing a growing tendency to over-underline, or to too emphatically drive home the point he is making. Although, in fairness, I'd argue he is still a long way away from the point where whole stories feel as if they have been contrived simply to make these points. Of course, they presumably have been (as in much (most?) theatre), but the story here also feels interesting and engaging on a purely human level.

The best scene of Lovex3 is the first. An old-fashioned curtain rises (it says everything about Mark Lawson's recent embarrassingly out-of-touch article for the Guardian that most theatres now only attach curtains to normally curtainless venues to emphasise “this is the Fifties or Sixties” (see also: Clybourne Park)) to reveal a perfectly realised down-at-heel flat in Sixties London (designed by Lucy Osborne. Top marks).

The scene is a simple one. Kenneth (Ben Miles) is staying at the flat of his older brother, Henry (Sam Troughton). Kenneth is down from Oxford for the summer holidays. Henry hasn't been to university, but both are avoiding the family home out in “the provinces”. The awkward Henry's apparently ingrained resentment of his luckier, cockier, sexier young brother is amplified by the fact that he wants him out of the flat because his new girlfriend, Sandra (Victoria Hamilton), is coming round.

Bartlett's obviously done some research, the date is the 25th June 1967 – the day of the Our World broadcast, screened in 26 countries, for which the Beatles, representing Great Britain, wrote All You Need Is Love (the source of the play's title. obviously) specially. It's an excellent moment to choose to illustrate the sense of excitement and potential that young people in the 60s felt excited about.

Kenneth and Henry (and later Sandra) – significantly all from less-than-posh, provincial backgrounds – discuss almost a checklist of zeitgeisty ideas: feminism, the bomb, Vietnam, pop music, pot, and their own potential futures with na├»ve enthusiasm and optimism (Kenneth, Sandra) or with suspicion, mistrust and resentment (Henry). All this would be quite irritating, if it were not for the other things Bartlett (and the production) does with the scene.

For a start, it's actually a lot more contemporary – i.e. postmodern – than it initially appears. Just as Three Kingdoms pastiched the theatrical styles of the three countries where the scenes were located, Lovex3's opening scene offers a pretty pitch-perfect evocation of the early plays of Harold Pinter – stuff like The Caretaker or his script of The Servant. There's also mention made of Joe Orton and the three-way power struggle here is not unlike that of Entertaining Mr Sloane.

However, this is more than just playful postmodernism. If anything, it's only the costume, setting and accents that put Pinter in mind, since actually, this beautifully observed, almost clockwork-precise power playing is also classic Bartlett territory (cf. My Child, Contractions, Cock, and Bull)

There's also the interesting phenomenon of the casting. Given that this is a play which runs over the course of 40-odd years, there's going to be an obvious problem with the “naturalism” here. The fact that director James Grieve basically doesn't worry about it at all is one of the things that endears the production to me. On one hand, you see, we have this flawless naturalistic play/production, on the other, in the first scene, we've got three actors in their, what? Early forties? (no, Sam Troughton is only 35, sorry) all playing 19-23 year olds. It's not quite Blue Remembered Hills, but there's something more interesting about watching grown-ups trying to (and largely succeeding in) capturing the mannerisms, physicality and speech patterns of younger selves from a bygone era (Victoria Hamilton in this scene seems to be doing a brilliant job of channelling Marianne Faithful).

The next two scenes are slightly less exciting theatrically speaking. In the second we see [SPOILER ALERT] Kenneth and Sandra married with teenage children. Their self-presentation as groovy free-spirits has wound up with them as proto Squeezed-Middlistas struggling with their mortgage, children's school fees and stuck living in Reading. The nominal crux of this scene – set on the eve of their older child, Rose (Claire Foy)'s 16th birthday – is essentially the age-old chestnut of middle-class adultery. However, if anything, this is simply used by Bartlett as a way of illustrating how the seeds of Kenneth and Sandra's blithe unconcern for anyone other than themselves, planted and nourished by half-baked hippy ideals of “freedom”, have flourished over 23 years into a bloom of myopic, post-Thatcherite selfishness.

And this does rather seem to be Bartlett's *point*. In scene three we see the family – a few months after Henry's funeral – Rose is 37, her younger brother Jamie (George Rainsford) is 35 and the “grown-ups” are 64 (perhaps another amusing Beatles related joke – another 3K echo). This is the “morning-after” scene of the three-act play (Structurally Lovex3 also reminds me a lot of Noel Coward's Private Lives). Here we learn about the fall-out from Act 2 where Kenneth and Sandra [SPOILER] decide to split up before their children's very eyes. They're now both wealthy, retired and divorced, while Jamie is clearly a bit of a basket case – Rose puts it down to his being traumatised by his parents' behaviour, although his faded Screamadelica t-shirt hints at another possibility. Rose is a pretty normal, impecunious, struggling, arts-'n'-temping type (i.e. pretty much anyone who works in the arts). She's come to her dad's – clearly huge – house, inviting her mother too, because she wants them to buy her a house. This sets the scene for the final stand-off, the play's big denouement. Rose throws all the accusations at the baby-boomer generation: that it wasn't all about “Love”, it was about money; that they have bought up the world and priced their own children out of the property market; that when they were her age, they had jobs for life and their house half paid off. They in turn round on her accusing her of wanting everything handed to her on a plate; of not knowing the meaning of hard work; of being overly dependent, and; expecting life to be “fair”.

It's pretty much the standard set of inter-generational accusations that we frequently hear bandied about in opinion columns – perhaps most usually in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail (who frequently trot out both sets of accusations since the Tory press won't ever be able to decide who to hate more between The Young, and soi-disant Soixante-Huitards).

What's great about this sort of Big Topic “Thesis Play” is that you can really engage with its analysis (or at least, with one's reading of what that analysis is, or how it comes across). For me, while Bartlett's portrait of these *specific people* is deftly rendered and convincing, it strikes me as possible to see them as embodiments of entire generations (surely intentionally, to a point), and here it gets a bit more tricky.

On one hand, Bartlett does have the advantage of history, in being able to point to the present day and suggest that myriad current malaises have their roots in what turn out to be the selfish ambitions of the baby-boomers. On the other hand, I'd suggest he perhaps makes things a bit easy for himself.

Sandra and Kenneth (in that order) have already demonstrated their propensity for thoughtlessly putting themselves first by the end of Act One. And none of the characters are especially “political” (although, while Sandra's feminism is initially derided by Henry and Kenneth, it is perhaps the most successfully realised of any of their ambitions given that by the end of the play she seems to have had a very successful career). It would have perhaps been more significant if we'd seen people with a real commitment to social justice and change gradually sell-out their principles (he said, sounding like Michael Billington) - but it's hardly a shift from materialism to, uh, materialism here. On the other hand, that narrative has been a bit done to death, so perhaps Bartlett has been canny by side-stepping this well-worn trope.

But, as a result, I did wonder if Lovex3 ends up selling short the actual social changes of the Sixties (which were in fact put in place by the previous generation in the aftermath of WWII). But then, Bartlett does at least make a strong case for having done so with his vision of what came next.

Post Three Kingdoms, it's kept on striking me that I wind up writing about different sorts of productions very differently. It's probably not the first time I've had this thought, and I'm pretty sure I've definitely written how my half-theory that how one *reads* a play very much influences how one writes about it – possibly even down to having one's prose style slightly altered (I'd certainly argue that the fact I could overnight my Belarusian King Lear review was largely down to the energy of the production).

What strikes me in the light of that thought, and in the light of 3K, is actually, how playful, and how *auteured* Lovex3 actually felt.

Sure, on the surface it looks like a textbook example of “serving-the-text” (with which, I don't necessarily have an issue), but actually, I'd argue that reading Grieve's production like that means you end up overlooking some very real (but possibly unattributable) jouissance on the part of the production team.

In fact, I reckon there's as much going on here regarding the use of *apparently* realist costumes and recorded music as there was in 3K with the more obviously *readable* costumes and the (sometimes) live music.

I've already noted that Mike has woven All You Need Is Love into the very fabric of the show (thus causing the La Marseillaise to get stuck in my head all over again). But elsewhere Grieve has done some neat stuff. For a start, there's the use of Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive, which deliberately-or-not echoes its use in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in this very venue six years ago for the Court's own 50th birthday show. Using Kula Shaker's version of Hush being played to usher out the 90s and usher in “now” is even neater, linking as it does contemporary music's “Retromania” (the song was originally by Billy Joe Royal and released in, yup, 1967) to the history of the stage again, this time via Kula Shaker singer's grandfather Sir John Mills, part of the original cast of Veterans by Charles Wood from 1972 – one of the plays given a revival reading during the Court's 50th anniversary celebrations. (if I wanted to write a book on Love, Love, Love I would go into the lyrics as well, but there just isn't time).

Similarly, the costumes don't just look authentic, they also look like costumes looking like authentic costumes. Coupled with the V-Effekt casting in the opening scene and the echoes of Pinter and Orton, this is the stage commenting on how we stage the past.

I should also say something about the performances, since they are universally excellent. I'm not sure I've ever actually seen anything James Grieve has directed before (it feels like I ought to have done, he and George ran Nabokov for, like, *forever*), but if Love, Love, Love is anything to go by he should be being regarded as one of our best directors of realism and being spoken of in the same breathe as Marianne Elliott and Thea Sharrock. But, as I've commented before, it's hard to know who does what, and it could equally be the case that the cast here are just so good at acting that they'd have come up with the goods irrespective of who was in the room with them.

I don't often get that excited about actors managing to pretend to be real people on stage, but there was something about the tension between wit, warmth, commentary and nuance that really appealed. You could see the *character's* thought processes – little guilty tics (Ben Miles), the journey a voice takes as it ages (Victoria Hamilton), trying to have a thought-process at all (George Rainsford), simmering resentment (and communicating that resentment as an almost imperceptible appeal-to-the-audience – Sam Troughton).

I think I disagree slightly with Dan Rebellato (whose excellent consideration of the play is well worth reading at least twice). On the first hand, as I've outlined above, I disagree that “it’s a play asking very difficult questions about radicalism”. Then, secondly, I didn't as Dan felt that: “watching this on Saturday, that the audience was simply enjoying the impersonation of types rather than feeling, in any way, skewered.”

My experience, seeing this last Saturday (albeit matinee), was of standing looking out over an audience composed almost entirely of that '68 generation, with their nice clothes and their paid off mortgages and their quite possibly poorer children reduced to buying 10p standing tickets thanks to jobs in the arts (hem hem). And that audience looking *quite uncomfortable*. Interestingly, the most electric moment in the auditorium was during the scene where both parents [SPOILER] confess to having had affairs [END SPOILER]. It was like watching The Mousetrap (Hamlet not Christie), with about 300 Claudiuses. But another line also struck home; where Rose screams at her retired parents: “It's not just me. Everyone I know has less than their parents did at their age. They're bringing up their children in these tiny little houses, these tiny little flats, the best they can afford, while their parents sit on all the money, in huge houses, with big empty rooms. It's disgusting.”

I don't think I've ever heard or read something that seems so almost universally true ever said or written about the status quo before.

Of course, one can immediately qualify Rose's assertion – she's living in London, her parents' had a big house *in Reading*, she could probably get much the same for the same rent if she was prepared to move to Reading. But that's not the point here. The point is the almost audible shockwave round the auditorium about a beat later where pretty much everyone in the audience experienced a collective Oh Fuck moment.

If there is a real criticism here, it might be one best summarised by the Jewish joke punchline: “If only we should have such troubles!”  Because, while I'll argue it *is* skewering something very precise, it's not exactly the thinnest end of the wedge in Britain. Yes, it accurately presents what seems to be a unique point in recent history where, in the post war years, the welfare state was founded, the NHS was created, state education was apparently the best it ever got, new universities and polytechnics were founded, and some of the working-, lower-middle and middle-middle classes were able to pretty much move up at least one “class” bracket. And it looks at what is now happening to that generation's children.

But what that problem boils down to is someone not being able to sustain the lifestyle to which they'd become accustomed in adult life. It's regrettable, sure. It's a shame. A bit of a pity. And, when it comes to that meaning that they might have to think twice before having any children of their own, it gets that bit sadder. On the other hand, we're not talking about slums and starvation here. Jamie, after all, is shown to be having a perfectly nice time pootling round his dad's house doing essentially bugger all except keeping him company on trips to the pub. Even if, thanks to Bartlett's aptitude with discomfort, we're kept speculating as to how happy he really is, how much his dad is really coping, and what the ending might spell for this cosy set-up.

So, no slick conclusion here. Although the review could probably use one.

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