Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

New Writing Productions: Part 1

At RWCMD

Richard Burton Company- Growth/ Ring Ring , Richard Burton Theatre RWCMD , April 4, 2015
At RWCMD by Richard Burton Company- Growth/ Ring Ring “Growth” has a lot going for it. It is of the Mike Bartlett school of writing. It has a subject that is novel and distinctive. It has two moments of genuine theatricality. Director Sean Linnen sets it off at a tremendous pace. Its Bartlettian concision means no speeches, no characters raking around reminiscences in place of action, no-one press-ganged as spokespersons for unremarkable authorial personal opinion.

The ten square metre stage has its audience facing on two sides. Those in the front row opposite can be seen clearly. They wriggle at a scene of intimate contact played out three feet away. “Growth” hits and that is good. Luke Norris also knows how to close a scene with a line that echoes. He has an instinct for theatre and that cannot be faked.

With neither set nor prop “Growth” is propelled by the energy of its writing and the acting of its cast of six. Ellie Heydon, Nina Shenkman, Melanie Stevens, Jonny Holden, Oliver Morgan-Thomas and Sam Ward are a pleasure to watch. In acting, as in all activity, there is that point where practitioners go beyond the application of technique. They move to ease, or rather the illusion of ease. That is the point to which the RWCMD’s tutors and Sean Linnen has taken his actors.

Most of the play is set in the private world. The world of trainers and loose-hanging shirts feels like that of genuine twenty-something year olds. Two scenes play out in the public world and the script loses it, completely. When dialogue has to move to topicality- Tennant versus Capaldi- it’s padding. The script posits a cancer patient treating a Consultant with a mixture of aggression and cockiness. It is simply not like that. No cancer consultation ever ended “You can go now. You can leave.” For the overwhelming majority a positive indication shatters that sense of invulnerability. Maybe the author spoke to doctors and it may be like that. But if not, writers need to get out in the world. Nothing real was ever made sitting indoors with windows sealed.

The form of “Growth” has its lead character Tobes in a series of two character scenes. It is a form that Simon Stephens has used and before him Wolfgang Borchert. As a structure it was invented by Arthur Schnitzler for his first play “Anatol” in 1893. “Ring Ring” uses the form that Schnitzler developed four years later for “Reigen”. Michael John LaChiusa's musical from the same source was performed with some aplomb by RWCMD in February 2010. Panahi took the same form for “the Circle” his 2000 film of great power. These makers all bring a unity to their work whether it be Schnitzler’s metaphor for the transmission of syphilis or Panahi’s picture of a universal male cruelty and misogyny. A first principle of composition is that a work be shaped as a unity.

“Ring Ring” displays no apparent unity. The string of encounters makes a random collection The script does not stick by the discipline of its form. A lonely schoolboy becomes a smart debater of student maturity. A youngish man at a career bottleneck becomes a father shelling out for an after-hours tutor at a rate of fifty pounds an hour. Even if that fifty pounds an hour has been researched it just rings false. This is a kind of writing has a sheen to it of being streetwise, that may impress commissioners of mid years and herbivore temperament. It knows that the only legal way to get ketamine is via a vet’s prescription. In fact it looks as if that is the reason why one character is made a vet. The language has a limited palette across age and occupation so that the vet can only declare something “horrible” with the preface of “f---ing horrible.”

A young woman ends a scene by splaying herself to a wall for sex without delicacy or preparation. Yet it connects little with what has gone before. Luke Norris’ talent at knowing how to end a scene is fresh in the memory. Most of the scenes have little action to them, small dynamic between enacted persons. In its place are familiars. Brand names include Starbucks, Tesco, Costa, Peppa Pig. Characters go in for reminiscence over action. “I remember waking up when I was little…” etc “ Another remembers lying on a hospital bed in Burma.

The edgy gaps and silences that are the truth of relations between humans are absent. In their place are “You’ve never been willing to learn from me and now it’s too late” and “there’s no unexpected intimacy between us” and “honesty is always good, isn’t it?” Language like this drains scenes of any vitality. Even “What do you mean?” gets its outing.

The action ends with the characters lined up and assaulting a chugger. It makes little sense either as action in itself or as a climax to what has preceded. There is some directorial gimmickry in the form of echo effects to similar unintegrated effect. The cast of ten young people is wholly admirable.

Postscript: A look to Doollee Playwrights is revealing. Of Luke Norris: “His recent work as an actor include As You Like It and Hamlet (RSC); Orpheus Descending (Royal Exchange) and Antigone (National Theatre).” Actors know the first principle of writing for performance is to write for performance.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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