Tag Archives: Caryl Churchill

“Bad Nights and Odd Days” at the Greenwich Theatre

Director James Haddrell and his talented cast bring to the stage four shorts by Caryl Churchill that fans of the playwright will not want to miss. Two pieces tackle the near future and two are relationship dramas. The combination shows Churchill’s breadth of imagination and skills effectively.

The first oddity comes in a piece called Seagulls. Mrs Blair is a “new species of person” who has telekinetic powers. But this isn’t the X-Men. Having introduced the preternatural, Churchill’s ironically mild mannered heroine (depicted conscientiously by Kerrie Taylor) really only wants to feel wanted. A contrast with the ambitions of her friend and now manager, ably performed by Gracy Goldman, broadens out this neat, satisfying sketch.

Closer to sci-fi, set in “The Londons” at a time of civil unrest and pollution, the title of Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen indicates what interests most in this piece. The dialogue for the character of Vivian, superbly delivered by Verna Vyas, contains skilful repetitions that create and sustain an unsettling air of their own. Supported by Dan Gaisford and Bonnie Baddoo, as an estranged father and daughter, the piece from 1971 suffers from being a now generic dystopia.

Verna Vyas, Bad Nights and Odd Days, Greenwich Theatre (credit Lidia Crisafulli)
Pictured top, Gracy Goldman and Kerrie Taylor. Above, Verna Vyas

Moving on to the nocturnal

Arguably the most ambitious piece is Three More Sleepless Nights. This is a trio of scenes, with dysfunctional relationships, each tackled in a very different manner. Firstly arguing; with characters played by Paul McGann and Gracy Goldman speaking over each other throughout. Then a scene with hardly a word; apart from the synopsis of films, that leaves the audience with a horrific image. Characters played by Gaisford and Goldman return in a finale that ties together themes of fear and dependence. For me, what the three scenes really have in common is a technical ability on the part of the cast – hugely impressive.

Kerrie Taylor and Paul McGann, Bad Nights and Odd Days, Greenwich Theatre (credit Lidia Crisafulli)
Kerrie Taylor and Paul McGann

There is such diversity in Churchill’s work that any favourite amongst the four is a personal choice. But Abortive strikes me as the most provocative and exciting. Taylor and McGann perform this twisty story of an affair, which resulted in a pregnancy, impeccably. Crammed with questions, there is also a character who does not appear to consider. Invited into the family home, the troubled Billie is a vivid and intriguing presence who haunts the couple. Wealth and status are conveyed effortlessly alongside complex motivations and considerable pain.

None of these shorts is that short! So the programme is a huge endeavour on Haddrell’s part, not least the intelligent curation. If all the pieces don’t hold equal interest, contrasting them is stimulating. And the strong production of all combines to make Bad Nights and Odd Days a time to remember.

Until 10 July 2021

www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

“Far Away” at the Donmar Warehouse

Although it has a running time of only 45 minutes, there’s nothing little about this masterpiece from Caryl Churchill.

Believe it or not, despite the brief duration, Far Away could even be thought of as three plays rather than one. Maybe the scenes, despite shared character names, don’t have to be connected? 

Churchill’s invention provides a trio of dystopian visions, each scary and increasingly bizarre, held in tense suspension with one another. 

First there’s a trip to the proverbial woodshed, then a workshop producing hats for a judicial display. Finally, we see the world at war in a peculiar fashion. This is political turmoil that straddles allegorywith prescient fears in a unique fashion.

Of course, Churchill didn’t invent dystopian dramas, and she uses Orwellian overtones expertly. But it’s easy to see how influential this text from 2000 has already been. The mix of sci-fi with macabre touches means the play hasn’t dated a jot. And this production does the text proud.

Lizzie Clachan’s set combines simplicity with theatrical surprises. The sound design from Christopher Shutt will give you goose bumps without being ostentatious. And director Lyndsey Turner admirably resists the temptation to spin out the stories. The only extravagance is the use of supernumeraries, drawn from the Donmar’s ‘Take The Stage’ programme, who do a great job. But their appearance is brief. There’s a recurring theme here – a respect for Churchill’s marvellous economy.

Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse
Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Take the characters that we meet, so briefly and in such complex circumstances. Turner’s cast is superb in creating a sense of ordinary individuals no matter how removed from us the situations seem. Jessica Hynes, Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda provide just enough glimpses into the everyday lives of the roles they take. While appearing respectively as Harper, Joan and Todd twice, the characters change dramatically, revealing extraordinary skill from the actors and creating incredible tension. That such richness can come from such austerity really shouldn’t be possible! Churchill’s writing is breath taking – every line in Far Away works close to the bone.

Until 4 April 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Top Girls” at the National Theatre

Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s classic play has a reverential air. With such variety in the writing – starting with a fantasy dinner party, turning into a domestic drama and becoming increasingly political – there’s no doubting the text’s importance. But in this staging, the humour in the writing stumbles, the edge is blunted and the production is luxurious to a fault.

The novel, and expensive, move is not to double up roles as most productions of the play do. So performers playing guests at the opening scene, women from different cultures and times, don’t reappear in other roles. Using actors the calibre of Amanda Lawrence, Siobhán Redmond and Ashley McGuire for just one scene seems positively wasteful and it also isolates the brilliantly bizarre prologue scene.

There can be no quibbles about the cast – or Turner’s massive investment in them. The play is capably driven by Katherine Kingsley as the highflying executive whose success we scrutinise. And there are strong performances from Liv Hill and Lucy Black as her estranged family. It’s possible these roles don’t have to have be portrayed as quite so downtrodden – Churchill’s point is still made if they are just ‘normal’ people – but the play’s themes of inequality and individuality are depressingly pertinent.

Ian MacNeil’s design is bold in its variety of spaces – restaurant, office and home are all very different – and the scene changes are impressive. And dealing so well with characters speaking over one another gets more praise for Turner. In short, the production is without question technically accomplished. But is all this sleek professionalism necessary? Or appropriate? Does a dinner party with the long dead or fictional characters need so stylish a setting? Or the shabby world of corporate recruitment have to look so lush? Turner has too much respect for Churchill’s work not to present it impeccably, but the play is strong enough for productions to take a more inventive approach with it. There’s a disappointing lack of energy, or anger, that seems inappropriate: Churchill’s message is there, but the challenge is not.

Until 20 July 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Escaped Alone” at the Royal Court

Sometimes the theatre seems obsessed with youth: plays about teenagers, hot new stars and valiant efforts to attract ‘new’, i.e. younger, audiences. But here’s a play that takes old age and experience seriously, while highlighting another important debate – about women in the theatre. The 77-year-old Caryl Churchill’s new play is for four older women, a brilliant piece confirming that being radical isn’t about age but about sheer skill and vision.

Escaped Alone is short, under an hour, and director James MacDonald tightly controls the duration. It’s worth paying attention to Christopher Shutt’s audio work here, with sounds and silences in the piece as carefully constructed as the impeccable script.

Despite the brevity, Churchill manages more than most playwrights. This is a buy-one-get-two-free play, mixing genres to startling effect. First a group of friends, chatting in the garden – the conversation observed to perfection and their relationships conveyed with marvellous economy – is funny, wise and topical.

Monologues interrupt, revealing the women’s current fears. These are poems on anxiety, depression and regret, each one capable of moving you to tears. Circling around the theme of loneliness, the show is explicit about the “bitter rage” we all contain.

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill,    , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
Linda Bassett

And then there are scenes of storytelling. Dystopian tales of earth, wind, fire and water that Churchill has wicked fun with. The outrageous scenarios bring laughs, but the abject isn’t far away. Absurd suggestions, worthy of any conspiracy fantasist, these apocalypses come close to our darkest imaginings.

Linda Bassett takes the lead in these stand-alone scenes, so she excels among an amazing cast. She’s joined by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who each seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and it’s hard to imagine another ensemble this strong.

The production marks a stellar beginning to the Royal Court’s anniversary year. The venue’s tagline, ‘sixty years young’, feels appropriate for Churchill’s fresh work. Settling into the home of previous career triumphs, Escaped Alone is just as experimental and challenging, bold both structurally and thematically. Forget those angry young men… it’s time for these wise old women.

Until 12 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Light Shining In Buckinghamshire” at the National Theatre

History buffs look out; Caryl Churchill’s English Civil War play is a different kind of story about past times, concerning common people and heavyweight ideas, rather than Great Men.

Lynsey Turner’s punchy direction has design supremo Es Devlin’s work as a backdrop, moving from sumptuous to stark. A community company of local residents, whose participation fits the spirit of the play, mean this an enormous cast. Turbulent history, with “men in a mist”, is evoked by scale.

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Ashley McGuire

Trystan Gravelle and Nicholas Gleaves’s stand out, as two soldiers in Cromwell’s army, with increasingly divergent ideals, forming one of few traditional story arcs. Ashley McGuire and Amanda Lawrence impress by giving their roles an immediate power. Many of  the short scenes most of the play is made up of are strong but the culminating effect is underwhelming.
With politicians all around at the moment, do we need to hear canvassing from the seventeenth century? Levellers with manifestos, proto-Communist Diggers in, of all places, Weybridge and Ranters, reinforcing the period’s religious fanaticism. The ideas are radical at least. And Churchill makes these thoughts from the past live…for the most part.

When her exegesis falls it’s disastrous. A scene on the Putney Debate, where soldiers argued with Cromwell, is so boring it’s likely to be the most memorable thing about this, overall, commendable work.

Until 22 June 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Top Girls” at the Trafalgar Studios

What an opening: given its first act, it’s no wonder Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has such a great reputation. A riotous dinner party unites women from myth, history and fiction in an Absurdist tableau to discuss their lives, loves and deaths. The stuff of doctoral thesis is seldom this funny – witness the Victorian explorer’s racist faux pas towards the medieval Japanese noblewoman – but what makes the scene so riveting is Churchill’s ability to bring the pain these women experienced so close to the surface.

How this connects to the rest of Top Girls is another chapter in that thesis. The play becomes the story of the party’s host Marlene. An 80s career women with a recruitment agency, the role is performed superbly by Suranne Jones. Wonderfully attired and every inch the thrusting executive, Joseph Epstein could have had her in mind when he coined the phrase ‘yuppie’.

Marlene’s is a cruel world. One of her clients, in a stand-out performance from Lucy Briers (who has a great night, also playing Pope Joan), is a bitter middle manager of 47, who’s told that her age is a “disabling handicap”. And Marlene’s back story, escaping to the city, has enough drama when she returns to Ipswich to match The Homecoming.

Max Stafford-Clark’s assured direction does a lot of favours to Churchill’s text. He has the experience, having directed the premiere in 1982 at the Royal Court, and this new production arrives from Chichester with rave reviews.

Marlene’s casual rejection of her daughter Angie, played cogently by Olivia Poulet, is devastating – she’s no “top girl”. The family confrontation that centres on Angie’s future is electric, with a passionate performance from Stella Gonet, the character who gets to ask what will happen if the young girl just can’t “make it”.

Top Girls is political to its core. Marlene’s pin-up girl is Mrs Thatcher – she’d give her the job – and Churchill’s particular politics of fear, debatably, makes the play feel dated. But the strength of this revival is to show the nuances within this landmark play. The complexity of the characters indicates that there are still questions to ask – Churchill’s provocative presentation demands they are answered.

Until 29 October 2011

Photo by John Haynes

Written 17 August 2011 for The London Magazine

“A Number” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

How would you feel if you discovered you had been cloned? Caryl Churchill’s A Number asks this question, focusing on the philosophy of identity, and twisting, like a strand of DNA, between the reactions of children who discover they are clones and the motives of a parent who allowed it to happen.

Jonathan Munby’s minimalist production strips the less than hour-long play down to its essentials, with two protagonists facing each other, strategically placed, and in constant confrontation. Paul Wills’ design invokes the science fiction motif.

The Menier has achieved the considerable coup of securing Timothy West and his son Samuel to work on the play again – they first appeared in it in Sheffield a decade ago. Both performances are impeccable. West senior skilfully reveals his character’s darker side while junior gets to play three cloned versions of himself with terrific subtlety.

The Wests deal with the staccato writing and complex rhythms expertly but the text seems forced and becomes annoying. While you can’t fault Churchill’s ambition or doubt her vigour, there simply isn’t enough of this play to make it work. With so much to develop, the final scene disappoints.

Leaving the audience wanting more seems a risky strategy for a playwright. The early finish has its benefits – you will have plenty to discuss in the Menier’s lovely bar – but it does little justice to the talent involved in this production that they ultimately only serve as the opening speakers in a barroom episode of The Moral Maze.

Until 5 November 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 October 2010 for The London Magazine