The One, Soho Theatre

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“It’s kind of funny. And it’s kind of sad.” These are the words of Harry, one half of the nightmarish pairing at the centre of Vicky Jones’ prickly debut play, but they might as well act as a strapline for this story of vicious lovers. That blend of the bitter and the hilarious, along with its uneasy ambivalence, neatly characterises Jones’ narrative of two individuals who are terrifyingly adept at pushing one another’s buttons. It’s equal parts side-splitting and jaw-dropping (not necessarily in a good way) to watch, repeatedly juxtaposing giggles and winces, all the while underscored with the sense of something queasily problematic.

It’s clear from the start that the piece – particularly as directed here by Steve Marmion – is out to ruthlessly skewer romantic cliches. After sitting through a medley of cheesy love songs while the rest of the audience file into the space, the lights go down to reveal a star-studded backdrop at the rear of Anthony Lamble’s minimal living room set, and the opening strains of “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (a show with a dubious romantic hero if ever there was one) usher on Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus Wright as couple Jo and Harry. The pair embrace, only for the Hollywood romance to abruptly give way to a perfunctory, joyless fuck. Porn plays in the background and Jo throws Wotsits into her mouth.

Given the scenario and the distinctive, charismatic presence of Waller-Bridge, comparisons with Fleabag – the performer’s fearlessly filthy solo show, directed by Jones – immediately invite themselves. This might as well be one of the countless sexual encounters described in that show, where the addition of Wotsits would be one of the least surprising aspects of its catalogue of promiscuity. And like Fleabag, The One insistently pushes at the boundaries of acceptability. It has a “did they really just say that?” quality about it, not to mention the same razor-sharp comedy, impeccably delivered by the ever-extraordinary Waller-Bridge. Yet, while Fleabag also traded on discomfort and fired out laughs that quickly soured in the mouth, there is something altogether more knotty and unsettling about The One.

The action of the piece is claustrophobically confined to the one room, in what could be seen as a jaded, ironic take on the drawing-room comedy. Waiting up for news of the impending birth of Jo’s niece, the bored couple tease, taunt and torment one another, occasionally including Harry’s friend, colleague and old flame Kerry in their sparring. Both Harry and Jo are fiercely intelligent, each using their frustrated intellect and intimate knowledge of the other to push at their limits. The gender politics are complicated by the knotty student/teacher relationship between the pair: English professor Harry is ten years Jo’s senior and taught her at university, suggesting that something lightly exploitative – or at the very least illicit – was in play right from the beginning.

Harry and Jo’s interactions throughout the play, which takes place across the one night, explore varying levels of transgression within relationships. How far would you go to hurt the other person? And how far is too far? There are repeated, rapid descents from playfulness into something far less savoury, testing that delicate tipping point between OK and not OK. It is clear that they both derive a perverse pleasure from abusing one another; at one point Kerry asks “who wants to live like this?”, but evidently they do. Their relationship is a constant competition, in which both of them are desperate to win.

Too often, however, the effect of all this back and forth – no matter how witty – is the sense of a series of rehearsed arguments and provocations. There is a flavour of the thought experiment to certain scenes, with the characters acting merely as ciphers. This is not to say that the theatre is not a place for thought experiments, but when conversation progresses onto a troubling preoccupation with rape – replete with the sort of rape jokes that abound in lad culture – the emptiness of its musings becomes seriously problematic. The play, like its characters, is interested in button-pushing, but I wonder if ultimately it takes its tactics a little too far without offering anything to justify them.

I suspect that a good portion of this ambivalence and discomfort is as much a product of Marmion’s production as it is of the play that Jones has written (although that suspicion, of course, depends on a potentially disingenuous separation of the two). Other than standing it up on stage, Marmion does little to engage with or interrogate the stickier aspects of the piece, and the interventions he does make feel odd and uneven. The aforementioned skewering of romance (the stars, the music, the low lighting between scenes) is an obvious choice, but one that is increasingly out of step with the play. This is clearly about far more than simply unmasking the sham of a particular idea of romantic love. The half-heartedly choreographed movement between scenes is painfully awkward in its sort-of-abstract suggestions of erotic game-playing and sexual violence, while some unnecessary pouring away of wine and fiddling with clock hands seems calculated to do little more than inform us that time has passed.

Meanwhile, as unfailingly brilliant as Waller-Bridge may be, I’m not sure that casting her in this play – which, even without seeing the note in the script, we might quickly deduce has been written for her – is entirely helpful. For a start, it makes that connection with Fleabag, through the lens of which Jones’ play is then inevitably viewed. And then, because of that unbearable yet electric quality that she brings to the role, the character of Jo dominates the stage; it becomes her show. Of course this is partly down to the fact that Jones has written the piece with Waller-Bridge in mind, but it would be fascinating to see what a different actress might bring to that central dynamic. Along with different direction, it might also allow the play to breathe a little more.

Seeing as comparisons with Fleabag are unavoidable, there is one more that feels worth drawing. The real kick in the guts of that piece was the way in which its humour attacked the audience. We laughed – great big guffaws of laughter – and then caught ourselves in the act of laughing, made suddenly aware of just what it was we were laughing at. We were made to feel complicit. The One reaches for the same reaction, but comes up a little short. There’s still unease, certainly, and the laughter is still barbed, but it feels as though we are let off the hook slightly. If that sharp humour and thorny complicity is the aim of the game, it needs to be executed a little more cleverly than it is here.

Yet despite all my uncertainty about – and in some cases anger towards – the play, I can’t just go ahead and dismiss it. The One has, for better or worse, lodged itself in my brain, still picking away two days later. It certainly has something to say, or some provocation to make, even if I can’t quite pin it down. Perhaps its slipperiness, its very resistance to being pinned down, is preciously the point.

I also find myself wondering if it’s trying to do something smarter than I’ve given it credit for. One of the most striking things about its resolutely unpleasant characters is the extent to which they are fixated on individual desires. Which makes me reflect that the title might refer not so much to “The One” in the mystical sense of one’s soulmate (though this is clearly one inference), but to the isolated number, the atomised modern individual. I’m reminded, via Andy Field, of the quote from writer and director René Pollesch: “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories”. The One is not a love story – not in any traditional sense, anyway – but it is a damning display of the way in which the constant pursuit of and obsession with love and sex are intimately tied up with a society which places focus firmly on the self. Jo and Harry, locked into their hermetically sealed relationship, are perfect portraits of apathy; they barely leave the house, they don’t know where their lives are going, they are so bored that all they can think to do is tear strips off one another. This, perhaps, is where an obsession with “The One” – in both senses of that phrase – ultimately leads.

The Night Before Christmas, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Recent years have produced countless claims to the “alternative” Christmas show, promising respite from glitter, jingle bells and cries of “he’s behind you”. Soho Theatre’s offbeat contribution is one of the few to really deliver on this promise. Sure, all the hallmarks of the festive season are here, but this is no cosy, tinsel-decked affirmation of the sentiments we hear spouted from all directions at this time of year. Anthony Neilson and Steve Marmion’s show, while pumping out the laughs at a breathless rate, also recognises that – whisper it – Christmas can sometimes be a bit shit.

This is a bitter recognition for Gary, a one-time City boy who is now flogging knock-off toys and spending Christmas Eve alone in his warehouse. Or at least he was alone, until a man claiming to be an elf broke in, pleading innocence and begging to return to his sleigh. As Gary is joined by old mate and fellow substance abuser Simon and single-mum prostitute Cherry, the unlikely trio apply scepticism, snark and suspended disbelief to the problem of the red and green clad man tied up alongside the fake Furby Booms and dust-gathering Gary Glitter outfits.

Every last detail of this Crimbo car crash is a calculatedly crappy alternative to the festive magic promised by parents and advertisers alike. Snow is replaced by showers of polystyrene packaging; fairy dust is swapped for cocaine; instead of a red-faced, rotund Santa, we get an elf with track marks up his arms. Yet, for all the detritus of broken dreams and long lost childhoods, Neilson and Marmion still tease us into believing. Against logic and evidence, we’re desperate to tell ourselves that this dishevelled figure in his pointy hat is not a quick-thinking junkie but a bona fide resident of the North Pole.

This is thanks to the stubborn ambivalence of tone that is courted throughout, repeatedly upending an audience’s expectations. Craig Gazey’s “Elf” is a lesson in ambiguity, answering the interrogations of his captors with responses that are by turns assured, desperate and downright bonkers, yet always governed by reasoning that somehow makes a strange sort of sense. Elves don’t deliver the presents, apparently – they “enhance” them. Remember how much fun you had as a kid with all the cardboard boxes and wrapping paper on Christmas Day? That would be because the elves’ magic won’t work on synthetic materials; the plastic presents confounded them, so they enhanced the packaging instead.

Touches like this demonstrate all the surreal ingenuity of Neilson’s writing at its best, complemented by the wacky, determinedly shoddy songs he has written with composer Tom Mills. The lyrics are all clumsy festive schmaltz, the singing unapologetically atrocious. And it’s oddly brilliant, slicing right through the queasy sentimentality that reigns elsewhere. But even with the satire, we are rarely on solid ground. The myth of Christmas is dismantled, the magic of childhood abandoned, and still this production manages to inject a surprise dose of that addictive Christmas feeling.

The result of all this tonal variation, however, is a number of sharp and sometimes jolting handbrake turns. While the pace of the first third is zippy and sitcom-esque, throwing out joke after joke, cracks begin to appear when the emotional tenor shifts. Neilson turns out to be a gag-machine to rival the best panto writers, but the momentum of these early exchanges is tricky to maintain and the show visibly flags somewhere around the middle – a bit like Christmas Day itself.

Despite its flaws, though, the dark humour and brilliantly bizarre flourishes ultimately rescue the piece, just about keeping it on that tightrope between worn cynicism and childlike delight. For anyone who has ever suspected, like me, that Christmas as an adult is two parts nostalgia and one part alcohol, The Night Before Christmas nails both the joy and the disappointment that the festive season can involve.

Photo: Sheila Burnett

Utopia, Soho Theatre

Visions of Utopia have a knack of falling flat on their face, so it seems only appropriate that this new collaborative theatre project should recruit clowns to conjure its perfect worlds. In this partnership between the Soho Theatre and Live Theatre in Newcastle, six fools fumble through flawed blueprints, searching in vain through all of humanity’s failed efforts for a reliable model of perfection. These blueprints come courtesy both of a long line of thinkers, whose words are revealed to us via projected quotations, and of an assembled group of writers who have all produced their own responses to the central theme.

Which all sounds great on paper, but is underwhelming in its execution. In the hands of joint directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts and their diverse team of writers, big concepts are rendered bafflingly small and an idea that is fascinating by itself becomes marred by its own realisation. Looked at a certain way, this is all ironically apt given that the piece is dealing with the desire for and impossibility of a utopian world, but this is not quite enough of a justification to excuse what more often than not simply feels like clumsiness and poor scene selection. A frustrated question kept nudging at me as I watched: are these really the most interesting utopian visions we could dream up?

There are admittedly some nice pieces (the word nice chosen here precisely for its very bland variety of praise). ‘The Presentation’, created by Thomas Eccleshare, Josh Roche and director Marmion, is a witty interpretation of perfection in our material culture, showing us Utopia as Steve Jobs might have imagined it, shiny and pocket-sized, but there is little depth beneath the slick cleverness. There is also a startling moment in Chi Onwurrah’s gameshow-inspired ‘Humanity’ when one character unexpectedly reveals the selflessness that human beings are capable of, while Janice Okoh’s vision of a world where medical science has been perfected and death is purely by choice is one of the more compelling scenarios.

One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing scenes is not produced by any of the collection of writers, but instead by another dangerous utopian dreamer. Partway through the second half, we are confronted with a rousing election speech stuffed with rhetoric promising a better future – we half expect Obama’s mantra of “yes we can”. But with a startling sideswipe of anti-Semitism, this vision is smashed and it becomes horribly clear just whose words these really are. It is a stark, extreme reminder that one man’s idea of paradise is another’s vision of hell, and also that utopia and dystopia can be just a hair’s width apart.

As this overlong creation nears its end, however, there is the danger that intellectual investigation is abandoned in favour of emotional release. While the regrets of a now elderly ex-politician and the poignant attempts of a widow to “make the best” of her situation with the aid of a bit of over-50s zumba add moments of tenderness, they seem also to dilute the evening’s purpose. Fortunately Simon Stephens’ beautifully simple speech, spoken between the six actors, is suffused with enough grounded normality – the simple dream of drinking without getting a hangover, or of finding the perfect cup of coffee – to stall the decline into trite sentimentality.

Thinking back over the production, my complaints are admittedly not so much to do with this piece of theatre as it stands alone. It is frequently amusing and occasionally intriguing; it draws committed and energetic performances from its cast, particularly a sparkling Laura Elphinstone; it flirts playfully with form; there is a bubble machine, which tends to immediately raise most performances a few notches in my book. It is rather Utopia’s failure to meet the potential of its fascinating premise that makes it such a staggering disappointment. The level to which this wastes a brilliant concept makes me almost angry.

I can’t help but feel that many of the production’s problems arise not from its concept, which is an undeniably intriguing one, but from the way in which it has been assembled. As contributor Eccleshare politely and diplomatically hinted at when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, creating a co-authored show by having those authors each write in isolation is a tricky process. Had I not known about the technique of piecing this together, I think I would still have suspected a lack of dialogue between the writers. Utopia never really feels like a conversation.

I wonder if a truly collaborative approach (by which I mean bringing the contributors together at the writing table and even in the rehearsal room, shaping the piece while writing it) might have produced something far more interesting, as it is often when different utopias collide that the most fascinating discussions occur – a fact that Marmion and Roberts surely recognise, considering their central aim to provoke debate. It seems, then, an odd choice to have pieced together the show in the way that they have done, creating separate entities, smashing these apart and gluing their jagged edges together.

When mixed with the text of historical and literary utopias, the two directors have a deluge of content to channel into a finished piece, which seems partly to be the point but also makes for an inevitably messy production. Marmion and Roberts’ project is still to be admired for its aim and ambition alone; it is a beguiling idea, and one that is given a fittingly democratic treatment by mingling so many voices, if not entirely successfully. Perhaps, just like its subject, any attempt to tackle the concept of Utopia without isolating a single vision of perfection is doomed to fail.

In the end, it all just feels like a bit of a shame. Look at how good we could have made it, Utopia tries to say. Yes, quite.

Utopia

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Originally written for Exeunt.

What might a perfect world look like? A new and unlikely project conceived through a collaboration between the Soho Theatre and Newcastle’s Live Theatre sets out to ask just this. Utopia is a reaction against the current overwhelming mood of pessimism, both in the world in general and in theatre in particular, charging its team of writers – including Simon Stephens, Janice Okoh and Dylan Moran – with dreaming up a vision of a flawless society.

As contributor Thomas Eccleshare tells me, the Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion, who helmed the show together with Live Theatre’s Max Roberts, “wanted to create a piece of political theatre that wasn’t cynical or pessimistic”. Their aim instead was “to challenge people to write a view of the world in a completely optimistic light and to think ‘what would perfection look like?’”

I suggest that it seems a slightly incongruous time to be thinking about perfection, in light of a strikingly imperfect world, but Eccleshare disagrees. His research has revealed that “utopias have often come out of pretty dark places”; it would seem to be human nature that when the gloom is at its thickest we are most intent on glimpsing that faint glimmer of hope for a better future. Eccleshare echoes this: “I don’t think it’s impossible to view the light at the end of the tunnel just because we’re in such a dark place”.

Marmion and Roberts both agree that the timing is important, precisely because of the prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom. As they see it, people have forgotten political optimism and seem content to accept imperfection. Offering the example of socialism, they contest that a few years ago this concept “wasn’t seen as fantastic but simply as the other option, to be followed and tested and explored. We seem to have lost some of that urge for solving our problems rather than just enduring them.” The directors go on to explain that the project also sets out to differentiate itself from the similarly abundant pessimism in much of today’s theatre. “So much of the theatre that we see nowadays is essentially dystopian with a small chink of hope offered at the very end; Utopia is something very different”.

Unlike Thomas More and other authors of early utopias, however, the writers involved in this project have had to grapple with a pervading atmosphere of cynicism and a generally accepted recognition that there is no one utopia that can satisfy everyone. Conceding this, the directors tell me that “the only option for us as we created this show was to present each writer’s vision truthfully and then celebrate the moments of humanity that shone out in each”. As a result, this is necessarily and perhaps wisely a patchwork of several different, personal utopias rather than one grand, unified vision of a perfect world.

Eccleshare admits that he struggled somewhat with the inherent subjectivity of the idea at this show’s centre. “There’s an awareness of how many people there are in the world and an acceptance, at least in the liberal leaning Western world, that there isn’t one right way of doing it,” he says. “If you’re looking to write about perfection, you inevitably come up against the problem that one person’s perfection is someone else’s imperfection.” As a result, it is a struggle to approach the concept of utopia without a healthy dose of irony, and Eccleshare tells me that, even with the directors’ brief, a lot of the pieces have “a sting in the tail”.

This evening of theatre is also more political than it might appear at first glance. “I think there’s something quite political about the idea in itself,” Eccleshare suggests, going on to ask, “who is imposing this utopia?” His words point to the inherently complex nature of what this project is attempting to do; if one individual’s paradise can be another’s idea of hell, how is it possible to even begin to approach the idea of an overarching utopian ideal without imposing this? The problematic nature of the endeavour has been confronted head on by Marmion, who has inserted a political speech by Hitler as a counterpoint to the plays being presented and, as Eccleshare puts it, as “a reminder of how dangerous utopian visions can be”.

Rather than being presented one by one in a line-up of separate entities, the project’s resulting short plays have been chopped up and sewn together by Marmion and Roberts, all contained within a framing narrative of “six fools creating utopias in a world of blueprints”. These are also intersected with a variety of other wildly different utopian visions, from More to Shakespeare to, perhaps most strangely of all, The Village People. The directors have embraced this ideological messiness, while at the same time acknowledging that what they have produced is only a snapshot: “a show that tried to accommodate all the subjective visions of utopia would quickly become a logistics presentation of town planning and psychotherapy. Instead, Utopia is about the fruitless, stubborn hope that leads us to create such perfect plans in the first place.”

Despite speaking enthusiastically about the way in which this piece has been put together, Eccleshare has personal reservations about projects that ask writers to create work separately and then present that work together, expressing concern that if not done carefully it can become “a bit of a talent show”. Instead of the end result being viewed as a collaborative effort, there is the danger that audiences come along to contrast and compare, to rank the individual elements against one another. “It’s a really interesting form of political theatre,” says Eccleshare, “but whether I think that the best way of reacting to a theme is getting ten writers to work in isolation and create different plays …” He hesitates, before diplomatically adding “that’s a very delicate process”.

Plugging into current debates about new writing and new work, Eccleshare believes that the issue is primarily down to the inflexible definitions that are typically imposed upon British theatre. “The problem is that because the way in which theatre is divided up in this country is so rigid, people will see this as new writing, they won’t see it as a co-authored show,” he explains, his frustration palpable. Eccleshare argues that had this same show been produced by a company who were all in one room together at the same time, it would be seen as an organic whole rather than a mechanical construction of individual parts. He chooses not to dwell further on the point, other than to say that the divide between new writing and new work is “an unhealthy and unhelpful division”.

During our chat about the concept of utopia, what that might mean and how it is investigated through this piece of theatre, Eccleshare muses that theatre itself is a sort of “mini-utopia”. As he goes on to explain, through theatre “we see these impossible visions that are kind of real but not quite real at the same time.” By creating a vision of a perfect society within the essentially ephemeral space of a theatre, Utopia is implicitly recognising both the human capacity to conjure perfection and that perfection’s material insubstantiality. It is telling that the Greek term originally coined by More, which now forms this show’s title, literally means “no place”.

It may be an ultimately unattainable ideal, but Marmion and Roberts believe that the concept of utopia is integral to the human imagination. “Primarily, it is what lies at the end of all our politics and altruism,” they claim. “Without the hope for perfection, or at least the ability to aim for it, our willingness to cooperate diminishes and with that our empathetic relationship to the rest of humanity. Utopia is also the reconciliation of our religious visions with our practical ambitions. It allows us to build Nirvana rather than blindly hoping we will get there someday.”

So what does the project aim to achieve by building these utopias? Acknowledging once again the subjectivity of this concept, Eccleshare’s main hope for the show is that it will inspire debate. “I hope that audiences will be inspired to talk about it afterwards, that they’ll go with friends to the Soho Theatre bar and have a good old discussion about what their utopia is and whether it’s possible to have a utopia now.” Although he recognises that many audience members might simply think “that wasn’t my vision at all”, Eccleshare is confident that it is a positive outcome to get people talking about it at all. “And of course,” he adds with a slight laugh, “I also hope people will say ‘he nailed it’.”

Marmion and Roberts also hope to get their audiences talking. “As theatre producers, we’re at our best when we provoke argument in the bar afterwards. Not necessarily a sectarian, glass-smashing brawl, but a passionate discussion across generations, ethnicities, between strangers or friends, and one that has real content.” Utopia may not come up with any solid answers, but it is asking that vital, challenging question: “how good can we make it?”