Nine Lives, Arcola Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As so often, at the end of last year Philomena Cunk – the brilliantly terrible (or perhaps terribly brilliant) creation of Charlie Brooker and Diane Morgan – spoke the horrifying truth about the media’s portrayal of the refugee crisis. “Now it looked kind of different,” she reflected on the media’s sudden about-turn, “less swarm-y and threatening and more harrowing and urgent and sad. And the clever thing was, it was the same sort of pictures you’d seen earlier, but now you knew the twist about them being humans it seemed totally different.”

Zodwa Nyoni’s monologue attempts to recover the humanity so often denied in tabloid news reports and bile-filled columns. Nine Lives is the story of just one refugee: Ishmael, fleeing homophobic violence in Zimbabwe. Now in the UK, he waits in a mouldy flat in Leeds – emphatically “not home” – his life on pause while he’s suspended in bureaucratic limbo. Everything hinges on a brown envelope on the doormat, a black and white “yes” or “no” to his asylum request. Stuck on the conveyor belt of the UK immigration system, Ishmael is no longer a person but a number, a statistic on a computer screen or the page of a newspaper.

Under a single, stark lightbulb – the bareness of the stage suggesting the bareness of his new life – Lladel Bryant’s restless, lonely Ishmael tells his story. He talks of metamorphosis, of refugees in “concrete cocoons”, and of a hostile, overwhelming city. This jagged day-to-day experience is also punctuated with almost poetic interludes that refer to the wider plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Each beginning “some of us”, they break apart the undifferentiated mass so often shown in the media, reasserting shared yet particular human experiences:

“Some of us were running”.

“Some of us couldn’t recognise ourselves anymore.”

“Some of us were alone.”

“Some of us were begging for a taste of your liberty.”

In keeping with Nyoni’s reclaiming of these stories, the primary focus of Alex Chisholm’s production is the narrative. Aside from the lightbulb, all that joins Bryant on stage is a large, battered suitcase, which has to be both home and past for Ishmael in this temporary new existence. It’s a simple staging that could be even simpler still. Occasional, exaggerated sound effects – the nightmarish ticking of a clock, for instance – hardly seem necessary to communicate what straightforward storytelling does so clearly and compassionately. It’s through being stripped back where headlines are embellished that Nine Lives gains its power.

Implicit throughout, lingering like a bad aftertaste, is the vitriolic media narrative around immigration. Words like “swarm” and “droves” are never used, but they can’t help but haunt Ishmael’s experiences. When he’s targeted in the street, it’s with accusations right out of The Sun or the Daily Mail: he’s seen as a scrounger, an alien, a leech. To his landlady, he’s a source of cash and irritation; to the aggressive teenager who confronts him outside his flat, he’s a convenient figure of blame.

No one talks about the loneliness. Absent from all the news reports is the yawning emptiness of arriving on a foreign shore without family, friends or lovers. While lacking depth and background in some areas, what pierces through both Nyoni’s writing and Bryant’s performance is the terrible enforced solitude and isolation experienced by refugees like Ishmael. Pacing the empty stage and impressively inhabiting the voices of a range of other characters, Bryant can appear at times like a man frantically fighting to fill the void of his loneliness.

At a slender 55 minutes, there are limits to what Nine Lives can achieve. There are few resolutions, either for endlessly waiting Ishmael or for the wider issues that the piece touches on. But as a simple, unadorned plea for common humanity, it’s still depressingly necessary. In one of the play’s tenderest moments, teenage mother Bex – herself discarded and mistreated – reaches out a hand to Ishmael, recognising him for who he is and extending the offer of friendship. It’s an act that, on a much larger scale, Nine Lives implicitly appeals for.

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Product, Arcola Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s something behind Olivia Poulet’s eyes. It might be steely pragmatism. It might be desperation. It might be suppressed disbelief at the spectacularly awful script she is determinedly trying to sell. It might, worse, be genuine passion for the regurgitated tropes she’s trotting out. It might even be dollar signs, if the starlet she’s pitching to gives the nod.

Mark Ravenhill’s monologue is a witty parody of the film-studio hard sell, the product of its title a slice of syrupy Hollywood cliché – the kind that rots your teeth. Girl meets boy. Girl goes on journey. Love over all else. It’s sharp, clever, self-satisfied. Only in the (nervously gesturing) hands of Poulet does it become something more than that. As a riff on the cynical, opportunistic practices of movie executives, Product is arch and entertaining. As an essay on shit-shovelling desperation, it’s blackly depressing.

Poulet is Leah, the producer charged with getting a star name on board for a new project. Problem is, the project in question is Mohammed and Me, a post-9/11 mash-up of romcom and jihadism with a cameo from Osama Bin Laden (yes, really). Sitting in for Julia, the actor selected to save this rapidly sinking ship, we’re treated to Leah’s increasingly frantic pitch as she takes us on the emotional journey of “three-dimensional” lead Amy. “I would love to see you play three-dimensional,” she croons at us, smile fixed.

Folding the War on Terror into classic chick-lit formula, Mohammed and Me is the doomed love story of a 9/11 widow and a suicide bomber – or, in appearance-obsessed Hollywood-speak, a Versace-clad businesswoman and the “tall, dusky fellow” she finds herself sat next to on a flight. Step aside Romeo and Juliet; this is a star-crossed romance like no other. Leah walks us through the movieland Holy Trinity of attraction, separation and reunion, with bomb threats and prison break-ins thrown in for good measure. “This is the world of the heart,” she earnestly intones, with all the persuasion of one who’s never had call for the organ.

It’s clearly tripe, with Ravenhill using the godawful script in Leah’s hands as a vehicle for taking pops at everything from Hollywood’s casual misogyny to its obsession with sex and violence (the two often barely distinguishable from one another). There’s a transformation montage scene, a blandly identikit mother/aunt/neighbour figure – “she’s too old to fuck, too old to kick ass, but we still have a place for her in our world” – and a suitably slushy soundtrack. Tick, tick, tick.

But what Poulet does in Robert Shaw’s production is give the money-making behemoth of Hollywood human context. Darting her eyes from side to side, appealing to us with her ever-moving hands, narrating the plot of Mohammed and Me with desperate abandon, Leah has the look of a woman possessed. What she’s possessed with, exactly, is ambiguous. At moments, she seems swept away by the story, eyes closed in its telling. At others, she’s practically gagging on this material, correcting herself mid-sentence: “This material is fab – is going to be fabulous once it’s punched up”. Either way, there’s a constant undertow of desperation and self-deceit, hinting at all the things we force ourselves and others believe in the name of self-interest.

Having the monologue spoken by a woman (it was originally performed by Ravenhill himself) also twists it in intriguing directions, glazing the misogyny with an even sourer coating. When Leah patronisingly says that she “cried like a woman” and jokingly refers to her listener as a “bitch”, you sense that she really means it. Especially in Shaw and Poulet’s interpretation, this isn’t just about the movie industry; it’s about all those oppressive internalised narratives – of sexism, of racism, of greed – that twenty-first-century capitalism shoves down our throats. The scariest suggestion is that we might just end up swallowing them.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Peddling, Arcola Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Harry Melling has an ear for the poetic and an eye for the gritty. His debut play has a little of both. It opens with him swinging from a lamppost, body straining upwards while coloured lights pulse around him. A moment later, he’s on the ground and in the dirt, gathering up the detritus of the night before. These two images capture in miniature the existence of Melling’s nineteen-year-old door-to-door salesman: a boy reaching upwards but forever pushed down. 

Peddling is a slippery, shimmering thing, its wordy, meandering text requiring concentration but rewarding the attention it demands. There are moments when both rhythm and language are briefly reminiscent of Kate Tempest, with that same delicate skill of spinning lyricism from the urban and everyday. Melling’s pedlar boy, a young offender set to work hawking j-cloths and loo rolls (“life’s essentials”), could be a brand new ancient; a trampled god of 21st-century London, flinging poetry and unexpected wisdom into the unheeding night air.

Inside the gauze walls of Lily Arnold’s set, the action of Peddling appears hazy, as if trapped behind the gloom and smog and anonymity of a city seething with people. Traipsing through London with his wares – “professional doorstep-hopping” – Melling’s protagonist bears witness to a stratified urban landscape, where the cosy, affluent households of Hampstead and Muswell Hill sit in stark contrast to those who come knocking on their doors. For all the fancy postcodes he names – those telling little combinations of letters and numbers, freighted with social significance – in Steven Atkinson’s production the Boy (he’s never named) stamps in circles around the same sorry patch of earth. Round and round.

In one of those comfortable houses with its comfortable postcode, the Boy comes across a ghost in the form of a woman in the form of a social worker. She doesn’t recognise him, but he recognises her. This sudden, destabilising encounter offers opportunity for destruction, answers and redemption, with the Boy seeking out a little of each. Melling has us follow him as night melts into day and day melts into night, tracing the winding path he takes on the search to understand his past, his present and his future.

What Melling is strongest on is the sheer, crippling indignity of not being recognised as a fellow human being. His protagonist is denied a name and a place to lay his head, cast out onto the uncaring streets with just a badge on his chest and a box of items for sale. His life is reduced to transactions. He knocks on doors. He sells dishcloths and buys fags. He receives the sum of his life in a box full of papers, thrust into his arms with the words “this is you”. Just a series of notes and records, the traces of his long exchange from hand to hand, institution to institution; “a long list of yesterdays”. When he begs for his name to be acknowledged, crying “I am something made of flesh and blood”, it rings out with rage and desperation.

Elsewhere, though, Peddling can be a little heavy-handed with both its points and its symbolism. When we get a glimpse of the Boy’s childhood, the loss-stained memory of innocence feels all too familiar, recalling a trope seen many times before. A long interlude describing a dream, meanwhile, shows the strain of reaching for profundity in a way that the rest of the play doesn’t need to, leading the attention to drift. The real poetry here is in the pedestrian, its power generated by a distinctly and devastatingly everyday despair. And through it all Melling’s restless, intermittently explosive protagonist prowls like a caged thing, stamping down the dirt and blinking up at a city sky that has swallowed all the stars – “a punishment for not taking good enough / care of one another”.

Banksy: The Room in the Elephant

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“Ain’t no one want the truth, they want the story.”

In February 2011, ever-elusive street artist Bansky spray-painted the words “this looks a bit like an elephant” on the side of a water tank in Los Angeles. This tank, abandoned up in the hills, had been a man’s home for the last seven years. Of course, as soon as word spread that there was a new Banksy work on the loose, art dealers quickly swooped in to remove it from its site, with hopes of making a tidy profit. The tank’s inhabitant was left homeless.

It’s a good story. So it is hardly surprising that journalists quickly latched onto it, desperate to find out more about Tachowa Covington, the man who had made the water tank his home. Speculation spiralled around Covington’s life, his residence in the water tank, the circumstances of his eviction and the mysterious intentions of Banksy. One such article in the Independent inspired director Emma Callander, who asked Tom Wainwright to write a play about this series of events. So here was another story, and now that the piece arrives at the Arcola on its latest tour, it is joined by an additional piece in the jigsaw puzzle: Hal Samples’ documentary film Something From Nothing.

I first saw Banksy: The Room in the Elephant at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, armed with relatively little information about its intriguing subject. Wainwright, who has changed Covington’s name to Titus Coventry for the purposes of the play, has framed the tale within the fictional context of the water tank’s inhabitant telling his own story. Gary Beadle’s Coventry has broken back into the tank, now held in a secure warehouse in LA, and is recording a video of his version of events, with the intention of uploading it to YouTube. The show is careful throughout to remain playful in its handling of truth and fiction, inserting the storytellers into the tale and troubling the narrative it relates (if not always with a subtle hand). We are never entirely sure what to believe.

There is an irony, as Wainwright admits, in becoming part of the “land grab” for Covington’s story at the same time as he implicitly critiques it. Essentially, this play is embarking on the same act of artistic and narrative appropriation committed by both Banksy and the journalists who followed in his wake. Its possible redemption, however, is in its insistent questioning of the stories we tell, how they are told, and who gets to tell them. It’s no accident that Wainwright’s script is drenched in borrowed Hollywood references; I’m reminded of Hannah Nicklin’s comment that capitalism has stolen our stories and is selling them back to us. Everybody here has a story, we are told of LA, but not everyone has the power or the platform to tell theirs. Covington, for one, seems to have been refused the right to his own story.

With all of this in mind, it’s fascinating to watch the show a second time alongside Something From Nothing. The documentary actually pre-dates Banksy’s intervention; filmmaker Hal Samples had a chance encounter with Covington while in LA in August 2008 and began filming him and his eccentric home. After public interest in Covington exploded, Samples continued making the film, which goes on to chart its subject’s life post-Banksy and document his journey to Edinburgh to watch the play (to which he gave his blessing, before starting on some performing of his own).

It’s an engrossing film, but watched through the lens of the preceding play it is seen with wary eyes. For all the assumed authority of the documentary form, this is still, unavoidably, just one part of the story. While Covington might get the chance to speak up and to share the work of art he made out of the water tank long before Banksy came along, his life is nevertheless seen once again from another’s perspective. Leaving the Arcola, interest freshly piqued by this extraordinary character and his attempt to live outside the structures of society, I still feel that I have seen the story, not the truth.

Dead on her Feet, Arcola Theatre

There is something grotesquely fascinating about the cultural phenomenon of the American dance marathon. A product of giddy freedom and excess in the 1920s, this bizarre event – a strange marriage of leisure and endurance – soon became something of a symbol for the desperation of the Great Depression, as entrants seduced by the cash on offer for the winners and the promise of minor fame would dance for as long as they could, while paying spectators watched for days on end. Following a grimly Darwinian logic, the winners were simply the last ones standing.

Ron Hutchinson’s adoption of the dance marathon craze as a metaphor for the bitter competition of capitalist structures, then, would seem apt. So apt, in fact, that it risks becoming blindingly obvious. Latching onto one imagined smalltown dance marathon at the height of the States’ financial difficulties in the 30s, this new play has none too subtle resonances with the frenzied waltz of a recession-struck modern world, in which we must all keep spinning until we drop. A perceptive comment on our current predicament, perhaps, but nuanced? Not so much.

The dance marathon in question is engineered by Mel Carney, a manipulative ringmaster of sorts who comes to stand unambiguously, and thus rather problematically, for the evils of capitalism. In the goodies corner are a motley collection of contestants, all with their own sob stories and all equally tinged with desperation. There are grey areas, principally in the form of reluctant event bouncer and would-be good guy McDade, through whose eyes the narrative is refracted, but on the whole the lines are drawn with a heavy hand by Hutchinson and director Barry Kyle.

One of the more interesting devices that the piece deploys is a criticism of those who turn up to be entertained by the plight of others less fortunate, a tradition passed down from freak show to television talent contest. Shifting responsibility for the brutal spectacle he is facilitating, Mel appeals to the vicious voyeurism of the public – “the monkeys in the zoo aren’t half as bad as the monkeys on the other side of the cage”. It’s not hard to think of the modern parallel. With the performance space becoming the ballroom floor in Alex Berry’s design and the rows of seats its amassed spectators, we are involved without a full exploration of our complicit role in this kind of “entertaining” exploitation. The audience are implicated, but we’re never really made to squirm.

In much the same way, Hutchinson’s script seems to fire out potentially inflammatory observations while simultaneously backing away with raised hands. There are some incisive suggestions – that government is really just a matter of marketing, for instance, and that capitalism is not a calculated system of profiteering oppression but merely the inevitable manifestation of human nature – but these are explored in such hackneyed terms that they fail to really slice into the institutions and ideas that they are attacking. While it has some sharp moments, the bite always stops short of the bone.

Kyle’s production attempts to add some interesting dimensions to what threatens to be a flat parable of greed and desperation. What earns the dance marathon its particular position of fascination is the grotesque nature of the proffered entertainment, a sense of the grotesque that begins to infect the aesthetic here but feels only half committed to. While Jos Vantyler’s demonic Mel is all sleaze and sweat, a maniacally grinning caricature of capitalist greed, this almost cartoonish approach does not quite extend to the rest of the cast. In a similar way, there are moments during the nightmarish ordeal of the marathon when the production seems poised to play with the performance conventions of circus, with all its potentially exploitative connotations, but this too is only absently toyed with. Settling for somewhere in between naturalism and stylized satire, it doesn’t quite achieve either.

In the end, what turns out to be the most effective – and affecting – trick of the production is Hutchinson’s characters repetitive ringing out of capitalism’s broken refrain of “I really hope I win”, the bland yet quietly desperate maxim of the talent show contestant and the financially flailing worker. Because we all know that losing is the only option here.

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As a postscript of sorts, I think it’s worth admitting the above as something of a failure. After rambling on in slightly idealistic terms about what I think the role of the critic should and could be and getting excited about this collection and examination of interesting things, I of course immediately saw two productions which, for various reasons, I didn’t find particularly interesting. This was one; the other was Fireface at the Young Vic, which I have inadequately dissected here.

Explaining why you don’t like something is always one of the challenges of criticism, especially when that not-liking takes the form of an indifferent “meh” rather than a passionate disagreement. Strong reactions, either positive or negative, are much more interesting to wrestle into words. When I leave the theatre feeling simply disappointed, I sometimes think it might be better for everyone involved if I just left it at that.

These are problems that Andrew Haydon has dealt with in more detail in relation to Fireface, partly prompting this admission of failure. I’ve tried, in both the review about and in my review of Fireface, to get at some of the reasons why I was less than thrilled by the respective productions, but I haven’t had the time to interrogate my underwhelmed reactions in the detail they perhaps deserve, at least under my own banner of doing criticism better. All I can do is continue trying.