Haiku: The Waiting Room.

Air charged with waiting.
A sprung trap of hopes and fears,
the door is ajar.

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A Brief History of Women. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Alan Ayckbourn has had a long and productive career and produced over seventy full length plays. The best of his works are accepted as classics of their time, still widely produced, and in his late seventies he is still writing. One of the great pleasures of seeing his latest play, A Brief History of Women, “a comedy in four parts about an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him”, is being able to see how his work has changed over the years. There is a gentle, wistful tone which has replaced the sharp edge that skewered the middle classes so expertly and produced some of the funniest visual comedy of the last century. This brings both gains and losses, as change always does. The comedy in A Brief History of Women is sometimes the weakest element. While the matinee audience enjoyed joining in with the panto section the off stage children in rehearsal didn’t really convince me in the way that Ayckbourn’s off stage characters have in the past and it all seemed a bit broad brush and derivative. At his best the pin point accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comedy makes you laugh and wince at the same time. In contrast there is sometimes great delicacy in the writing, particularly when the central character, Anthony and the woman who will become his wife fall in love, and in the final scene. There is real heart, an elegaic quality to the writing at times, which I really enjoyed.

Having got the losses out of the way I am going to concentrate on the gains as there are plenty of them. When I took my seat and looked down at the set it felt as though I had come home. Four areas of a large house, a house which almost becomes an additional character, were marked out on the floor of the stage in a way that we have seen often over the years, cleverly characterised without being cluttered. The action of the play sees the house go through several changes over the lifetime of the central character, and as time progressed this was marked by small telling set changes- one of which drew a round of applause after it was completed. It was a small space set out with great skill to tell a story by designer Kevin Jenkins, working alongside someone who knows the SJT better than anyone else will ever know it. We were in safe hands. Ayckbourn’s own direction was exemplary- it was a joy to see the accuracy with which the action tracked the hired servant who was moving from space to space and the fast moving scenes had a filmic quality as the lights rose and dimmed, following him, while the action in other areas went on unseen. The actors movements and the sound effects of doors as they opened and closed were beautifully synchronised and what could easily have been messy and confusing in lesser hands rang out clear as a bell. That may sound like a small detail but trust me it isn’t. There were some lovely sequences between scenes later in the play, when the big house had become a school, which were almost dance like in their precision and music was used to set a mood and underscore emotion right through the play in a way that really worked.

The actors work beautifully as a company. Each of them plays contrasting parts during the course of the play, held together by a charming, truthful, central performance from Antony Eden as Anthony Spate. This is a gentle, dignified man, a good person, and it takes an actor of real quality to play goodness. There is nothing to hide behind- you just have to be. The play would not have worked without him.

I came away from this production feeling quite nostalgic, looking back at changes, both at the SJT and my own life, and counting myself lucky to have been able to see a new Ayckbourn play one more time.

Short Story: Best Mates.

Carly held out the chips to Suzanne. It wasn’t fair. Suzanne always said she wanted some and then changed her mind.
“I’m not eating them all.”
Suzanne shrugged. She liked watching people eat. Carly chose one of the biggest chips and threw it at a seagull.
“I forgot my mother would be working. We should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
“She’s all right your mum.”
“She bloody isn’t. You don’t live with her.”
“Look, at least she’s not like mine. God she is a total embarrassment. She went out in one of my skirts last weekend. I was like, you cannot do that.”
There wasn’t a lot Suzanne could say to that. Carly’s mother really was an embarrassment. She had bleached blonde hair, wore tops that showed her stomach and high heels she couldn’t walk in. Every two weeks she spent a fortune on pointless manicures, and insisted that they call her Fiona. Not what you really wanted from a mother. Carly had told Suzanne before how she would borrow her clothes, even though they only just fitted her, and sometimes if Suzanne was round Carly’s and they wanted her ipad, Suzanne would have to fetch it from downstairs because her mum had borrowed it.
“That is pretty sad, wearing your stuff,” Suzanne admitted.
“I think she’s after another bloke as well,” Carly said gloomily. Suzanne groaned.
“No! She’s not bringing him home and stuff is she?”
“Not yet. Not while I’m there anyway.”
They walked round onto the seafront and ate the chips huddled onto one of the benches in the wooden shelter at the end of the Valley Gardens. It was getting chilly so they soon finished them and let the two seagulls who were across the road glaring at them have the scraps. The birds flung themselves onto them angrily, beating each other off with threats and open beaks.
“Those chips were crap.”
“What do you expect? I told you we should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
Suzanne began to hunt in her bag for her phone.
“I’d better text Jack.”
Carly rolled her eyes and sighed. Any time that she was out with Suzanne she ended up being forced to watch her texting Jack. Just because she could. Sometimes she would read the texts out loud and want to know what Carly thought about them. Then if Jack replied she would be forced to look at the message- usually something sick making- and put up with the sight of Suzanne’s fat face being smug. Well not today. She wasn’t going to give her the chance. Carly was fed up. The shelter smelled of wee, there were no lads about, and she was well hacked off. She hurled the polystyrene tray into the bin and dug her hands into her pockets.
“Right I’m off then. See you.”
Suzanne didn’t even ask why. She just nodded and fiddled with her mobile without looking up. She was texting Jack. Well for once she wasn’t going to have an audience.
“Call for you tomorrow?”
Suzanne nodded again, her face lit up by the blue light of her phone screen.
“If you like. Take care.”
Carly shrugged and walked off across the darkening grass.
“Whatever.”
When Carly felt like this she usually went to see Breezer, and that was what she did now. Breezer was one of the beach donkeys. She had been helping Matty and Dot for nearly four years now. It had started off because being with the donkeys calmed her down when her mother had a go at her. They had still quiet faces, and soft ears, and they just stood there on the sands with their eyes half closed until they were asked to walk up and down. She knew all their names, and which ones were the stubborn ones. Breezer was her favourite donkey. He was almost all brown, with a few white markings on his face and legs, and he was the most awkward of the lot. Carly had to watch him if some kid screamed out or poked him, and if you let him get in front of Miss Molly he would kick out. Miss Molly had nipped him once and, like Carly, he didn’t forget. He was up at the top of the field, but when she shouted for him and clapped her hands he came down, ambling slowly, tearing at the grass, taking his time.
“Now lad.”
He lifted his nose end to see what she had. Carly stroked the dark line on his back and pulled gently at the bristly hairs on his mane. He snuffled damply, and nudged her wrist.
“I haven’t got any,” Carly told him. He was after carrots. She generally begged some that were starting to go soft from one of the fruit and veg shops, but not today.
“You’re a monster you are.”
She pulled some of the good grass from over the fence where he couldn’t reach it and held it out on the flat of her hand. He took it gently, using his lips to get as much as he could.
As she watched him eat, Carly thought that she could easily go on one of the daytime talk shows her mother liked. She began making up the strap lines they could run along the bottom of the screen while she was being interviewed, and telling them to Breezer.
CARLY- HER FAVOURITE PERSON IS A BEACH DONKEY.
That was true as well. She didn’t even care that she got loads of stick at school about it. Stuff them. Simon Cooknell had once called her donkey face in front of his mates and she had told him the donkeys had a bloody sight more sense than he had. It had shut him up.
CARLY- UNWANTED CHILD OF A GEEK AND A SELFISH COW.
That would make them switch up the volume and listen all right. She could imagine the cose ups of her mother, sitting there backstage, crying and shaking her head, while she, Carly, told them of her years of torment. Well, not torment to be honest- but indifference definitely. As for her dad his contribution would have to be a two minute phone link. They’d never get him to leave his circuit diagrams for longer than that. Carly wasn’t exactly sure what her dad did, but she knew that it took a hell of a long time, and you couldn’t try to talk to him while he was doing it or you got some serious grief.
CARLY- DUMPED BY A SPOTTY NOBODY WHO THINKS HE’S BRAD PITT.
Matthew Perriman. What had she been thinking about? What was she still thinking about? He had been hanging around in the farthest park shelter with Jenna Maxwell for weeks now. He wasn’t exactly breaking his heart was he? He didn’t even have the guts to dump her face to face. Bastard. Bastard was a good word. Carly said it loudly several times as she wobbled Breezer’s left ear.
“You know what Breezer? If donkeys lived as long as humans I’d swap places with you. I would, honestly.”
He looked at her, chewing calmly. She wondered if donkeys ever dumped each other. Probably not. She could imagine some horses she had seen dumping each other- highly strung thoroughbreds or something like that maybe- but not donkeys. Donkeys were good at putting up with stuff. She had seen donkeys abroad, on television, carrying huge loads on their backs through five lanes of traffic and never once giving up, never once saying sod this for a lark, I’ve had enough. If you were going to be with someone, learning to put up with stuff was more important than anything else. She had seen enough of her mum and dad as she grew up to know that. God, they could be foul to each other. Carly had watched them carefully, and decided several years before that she wasn’t going to put up with anything like that, ever. She was going to run a wildlife reserve on an island somewhere, where nobody was ever allowed to come. There would be a few cows, chickens, and pigs, and donkeys. A small herd of donkeys who would be able to roam anywhere they wanted to find the best grass, and never have to carry anything on their backs ever. She would have her supplies, the ones she couldn’t grow herself, dropped by helicopter once a month, and she would have a gun. Just in case.
Carly watched Breezer’s nostrils rising and falling. It was a real shame she wasn’t on that island now.
“Would you come with me Breezer?”
He turned slowly round and wandered back across the field.
“Oh, thanks.”

Shards of remembrance.

Each time we remember,
we remake.
Each time we drift back,
we renew.
We are fragile,
like glass.

My childhood lies
broken around my bare feet,
clouded with dust,
shattered by time.
Jagged windows
which lead me back,
teasing out lost thoughts,
showing me myself,
reflecting me home.

Tiny diamond splinters,
shards of remembrance,
sink into my soft skin,
cutting, needling,
glinting in the past.
Some things are gone.
Only their brightness remains.
Familiar, forgotten moments
which fit together,
indistinct, incomplete.
Telling me lies,
even as they record the truth.
Was I really there?
Did I really see?
I hold each piece up to the light,
polishing it with my breath,
paying it attention,
allowing it to shine.

Each time we remember,
we remake.
Each time we drift back,
we renew.
We are fragile,
like glass.

Di and Viv and Rose. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 24-08-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

“I’ve gone back to fish on Fridays and not being a lesbian.”

Amelia Bullimore’s play Di and Viv and Rose, first seen at Hampstead theatre in 2013, is a piece of popular theatre with some heart and depth and three truthful and engaging characters who are easy to identify with- especially if you are a woman of a certain age. It’s the kind of theatre that there should be more of. A long friendship between three women who meet at university is explored and we are shown how the vagaries of life impact on their relationships. It is solidly rooted in character and doesn’t particularly try to make any points about the wider world or the changing politics of the times so we are made to focus directly on the three women and it is all the better for that. It makes it a very personal, heartfelt play which is easy to relate to and easy to like. The scenes move along quickly, establishing time and character with a clever shorthand, especially at the start, in a way that never feels rushed- the communal phone in the early scenes worked particularly well in the round. The music is perfectly chosen and has the power to take you right back to the era it represents- especially if you heard it first time around. Women’s friendships are communicative and confessional but they can also be volatile and this is captured perfectly as the play progresses.

The three women are nicely contrasted. Rose is lively and outgoing, ready to make the most of her first taste of freedom. She is naive, well meaning and promiscuous in a kind of open hearted innocent way. Margaret Cabourn-Smith plays her with a lively stage presence and a natural warmth. Viv is the hardworking, focused academic who knows exactly what she wants and ends up getting it. Grace Cookey-Gam has great style and becomes very moving in the later stages of the play. My favourite of the three women, and the one who I think is given the strongest story and develops most as time goes on, is Di. Di is a sporty, gay woman. She is socially awkward to start with but gains style and maturity as time goes on and she finds her confidence along with a certain bitter knowledge of life. Polly Lister plays her beautifully. One of her speeches in particular was utterly heartbreaking and it will stay with me for a long time. I won’t spoil it by giving away the context but I doubt you will ever see it done better. They all work together well and become a believable threesome, helped by naturalistic dialogue that flows easily.

Lotte Wakeham’s direction has given the production it’s speed and this is important in a play that moves through time with a lot of short scenes and the design by Jason Taylor gives an appropriate sense of transience as life moves on. Lighted packing boxes are used imaginatively and props are used to call up a setting quickly and easily, but it was the acting which impressed me most. I came away with those characters in my head and that is down to three very good performances and some great teamwork on stage. It’s not a play which will necessarily go down as a classic but it’s a clever, heartfelt piece of writing and we need more like it. The middle ground is not well enough served in theatre- the space between a pot boiler and a challenging cerebral workout- and we need more plays like it. If we are honest that is where most of us are and we need to see ourselves reflected back from the stage.

Borrowed time.

There is a change in the air.
The soft, searching call of a dove
hangs in the damp morning
alongside the scent of mown grass,
grieving the last cut of the year.
The light is creeping away.
The children are gone.

There is no autumn beauty yet,
no falling leaves,
no firelight,
no songs.
Later the day will pull itself together,
take heart, and warm up
as though nothing has happened,
but we know.
The countdown has started.
The clock is ticking.
We are waiting for winter.

Doors.

A door bears the lingering, silent shadow
of each person who has passed through it.
A presence worn too deep to gloss away,
bled into the grain of the wood.

A door still feels the hand of each person
who ran a finger along its edge,
turned a knob or slipped through an opening
into the freedom of an empty space.

A door remembers slams, shouts and tears.
It holds a memory of each person who walked through it
looking back with reluctance, hiding fears.
A door bears scars.

A door remembers hushed spaces, secret meetings,
quiet giggles, passion and privacy.
It says nothing and sees everything.
A closed door is blind.

A door remembers running children filled with laughter,
times which never thought to end.
The happiness of a frozen moment, the scent of forgiveness,
the voice of a friend.

An open door holds a space where many wishes cross.
It is a place of challenges, of loss and gain,
a chronicle of coming and goings, sharp regrets,
and promises to people who are never seen again.

Shadows on the Door. Jiro Takamatsu. 1968. Installed at the Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.

Shadows on the Door. Jiro Takamatsu. 1968. Installed at the Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.