Features and reviews of previous events

 'A Doll's House' by Henrik Ibsen. Samuel Adamson's version, directed by Rebecca Manson Jones

 Northcote Theatre, Exeter. 9-26 September 2009

We set off for Exeter in our 'magic bus' (Tim's VW van), having picked up tiny proto-actress 'Emmy' and given young proto-actor 'Ivor' his tea/dinner. On arrival they yipped and yelped and ran around the foyer like puppies, exaggerating familiarity with everything and everyone like they'd done it '….simply hundreds of times, daahling…'. Then they disappeared with their personal minders to their dressing rooms - some of which have beds if the little toerags are to be believed - leaving us at the mercy of the bar/café for an hour.

So it's a Tuesday night - and we obviously need a dose of Ibsen like we need to watch an Ingmar Bergman film. The sense of impending doom was compounded by the Northcote Café menu. "Crap", I said to Tim - who turned a benign face to me and, as usual, withheld judgement. And so of course I was wrong. It was all under a tenner, surprisingly well constructed when it turned up even if it was a pie and a gammon sandwich, and the service/staff were excellent. The shiraz was also fine. For this, I felt we might be punished.

You know, watching the audience arrive was as fascinating as the play. Who, in these days, on a Tuesday night in Exeter, lets their hair down by going to a two-hour Ibsen play? But, oddly, the audience was heterogeneous. To Tim's amazement - we weren't even the worst dressed. Who the hell were these people? We didn't care, and sartorially confidant and suitably refreshed with shiraz, we took our seats with them. I was also gratified to find that I was on the end of a row in a side aisle - an excellent position should a quick retreat from the black clouds of Ibsen to the bar be sounded by guardian angels of mental health.

Firstly we were presented with a first-class, extremely well thought-out set. Someone with obviously a very good eye had considered every prop on stage, as well as the perspective of the canopy, and the way that Torvald's office would work in terms of lighting. I was impressed. It worked well throughout the play: the washed-out, over-exposed look of the set threw the single-colour costumed actors into sharp relief. My father, who had previously seen the production and who is not a theatre aficionado, said "what did you think of the set? I thought it was brilliant." It was his only comment. Production values in terms of the lighting and sound were also very high.

Secondly, this is a very tough, exhausting play for the cast: in particular for the character of Nora, played by Clare Calbraith. Nora '1' - her character in the first half - is an over-energetic, hyper-exclamatory, whimsical, bendy-wendy, run-aroundy type thing, given to extravagant physical gestures and absurd angles of lean towards any action/person/subject of interest. She fixates her victims with a slightly demented, devoted and evangelical expression that is quite unnerving. Because of this - were she to be time-transported to any normal 21st century setting (shopping centre, restaurant, school gates etc) - I would give her about 20 minutes before someone, probably another female, landed her a heavy and well-deserved slap. As much for her own good as everyone else's sanity. And following 'breach of the peace' type investigations/proceedings thereafter, she would probably end up on some kind of deprogramming therapy whilst they tried to work out which cult she'd escaped from.

But were we really that much more forgiving in the late 19th Century of such silly cows? Probably. Anyway, it's not like Torvald wouldn't also get a slap nowadays in a motorway service station or a DIY store, and I guess Ibsen knew what he was doing in terms of dramatis personae for the time.

Nora 2 (the character in the second half), on the other hand, is pretty much up-to-date. And unlike Nora 1, she would fit in fine nowadays. Especially at customer service desks. So, do we also buy Nora 2 back in 1879? Well, wibbly-wobbly sort of. That's the whole point of the play after all, and it really is a pleasure to see Calbraith switch between two diametrically different characters - a testament to her sheer ability. But maybe a few more believable hints of Nora 2 in Nora 1 would have made the actual point of transformation more believable.

And the other characters? Good - especially Dr Rank (Howard Sadler) and Anne-Marie (Wendy Brierley). Pieter Lawman was also excellent as an entirely believable Torvald for whom one felt mostly pity rather than contempt or anger. Heidi Dorschler and Rupert Holliday Evans were superb as Kristine and Krogstad - and one wonders if Ibsen were writing the play 100 years later what he would have done with these two parts today. Probably they would have had their own spin-off series. Obviously, it goes without saying that the children - playing Emmy and Ivor (Ella Chapman and Blaise Oldham) - were completely unfazed and natural. After all - why not dress up, say a few lines, and run about on stage with a couple of hundred people watching! What fun! …Done it hundreds of times, daaahling.

Anyway, my problem with A Doll's House is that it is a child of the late 19th century zeitgeist, albeit enough ahead of its time to stir real-time audience emotion until the 1960s. From 1960 until 1980, perhaps, maybe, it possessed a certain ironic charm - but thereafter it loses resonance. It has, in fact, moved from 'relevance' to 'history'. So as a historical item we view the play like we do glass cases in a museum - each scene evoking mild interest as we saunter from one to the next. Despite the brilliance of the director and cast (and of Ibsen himself), it doesn't really matter how horrible or gorgeous the 'exhibits' are. Although of course the essence of the play is about seismic power shifts within relationships - and about how shockingly fast and with what deadly consequences these can happen - we are protected by time-jaded glass: smug with our superior knowledge and our vista of a completely different landscape of male/female power bases. The past really is a foreign country, and we don't really care enough about it to want to know too much about it.

However, that certainly didn't stop me - and the merry-pranksters on the Gittisham Magic Bus - from enjoying this excellent historically correct production of A Doll's House as a period piece, or appreciating the immense amount of work and talent that went into every bit of it - direction, production, and acting talent. Highly recommended.


The Robot in Your Living Room

A brief account of my visit to London to see The Robot in Your Living Room: a play by Robert Boucnik.

Izzy and I, having struggled like crazy to get to the Hen and Chickens via public transport, fought our way along the back-row in the dark and banged our knees (and other people's), cursing and slopping our pints, and sat down about two minutes before it was due to begin. This was because we hadn't reserved tickets and were kept waiting in the bar, no hardship mind, until reserved tickets had been allocated. I was also recovering from a bad cold. So my sincere apologies to anyone for whom the thing started with a huge "Ahhhhhh-Chooooo!", a honk into a handkerchief and the sound of a slap (Izzy smacking my hand and hissing "Don't embarrass me! Jesus!!").

However. One of the bonuses of turning up late without a reservation and being sent to the back was that we got to sit close to playwright Robert Boucnik, easily recognized by his Zeus haircut and beard. "Aha!" I said to Izzy, "....by watching his face we will know when to laugh with confidence!". However, it cut no ice with her, because she struggles a bit with why people find things funny. Knowing that her face would remain completely expressionless for the duration, I snuggled into my seat with half an eye on Boucnik. I was content in the knowledge that I had half a pint left in the glass I was holding, another full pint under my seat, and a packet of crisps in my lap (note: already opened out of consideration for the audience). "Let the first half begin!" thought I.

I'm not sure what I was expecting. A sci-fi sit-com certainly. However, I knew Robert Boucnik well enough to know that this would be more thought-provoking and challenging than simple Metal-Mickey and Nanoo Nanoo. And so it was. Firstly, the setting seemed to be some kind of parallel version of early 1970s suburbia inhabited by two couples who had time-travelled there from the 1950s. I came to this conclusion because of their style of dialogue and culinary preferences. However, there was enough 'wife-swap' innuendo and undercurrents - as well as G&T drinking - for us to know that we were clearly in the '70s. As I said to Izzy later "It's almost like the play was written in the 1970s by someone who was linguistically behind the times then" to which she replied "Whatever".

So that's the setting. Now we come to the plot, or in fact, the plots. There's the rivalry thing, focused on robot ownership. Then there's the relationships plot, testing sexual tensions between the couples. There's also some kind of industrial espionage/scam stuff going on involving a robot repairman character stolen from a never-seen 'Confessions of a Robot Repairman' film. And then we have the 'My Life as a Robot' angst stuff running throughout the play - complete with allusions to life, death and social control. Now, what could bring additional value here? Of course! A 'Send in the Clowns' cabaret scene.

Was it funny? Well, yes it was....in parts. But I'm not at all convinced that it should have been marketed as a sci-fi sitcom. Tactically, the company delivered and there were some good performances - especially Pete Mielniczek as the robot Adam - but sometimes the cast appeared to struggle with the collision of ideas within the plot and the lack of individual characterization (especially the two couples - who were interchangeable to the extent that Rachel called Sophie 'Rachel' at one point).

But, oddly, despite all this eclecticism, Boucnik has definitely got something here. It's hard to put one's finger on, but to use a cooking analogy: the concept, and indeed, the ingredients of a potentially interesting dish are quite apparent. And because of this, if the audience were at times confused, they also remained focused and involved during the performance. It might not have been what they were expecting, but I don't think anyone felt at all short changed.

So Izzy and I both enjoyed it, and although it's true that Izzy always enjoys brief holidays away from the Poseidon Adventure that is her house, she said it was "quite funny, but a bit odd" in Pizza Express afterwards - and she never, ever lies or even shades the truth. I have to say though: I do think this play needs further work, but probably less than Boucnik himself thinks (I've spoken to him since), and I'd also say that both the playwright and all the cast deserve credit for making something as complicated and ambitious as this work first-time, and work well.