Saturday, 13 November 2010

Belt Up: Vaults Ahead of the Pack

A dalliance with the Edinburgh Fringe darlings at Southwark Playhouse

The echoing, vault-like (and sometimes bloody freezing) spaces at Southwark Playhouse are a good match for Belt Up theatre company. Accustomed to the battered, abandoned space at C-venues in Edinburgh that has been christened the Squat by fond theatremakers, it must seem like a home from home (from home).

For a second year running they are staging something at the theatre tucked around the corner from London Bridge tube station; last year they brought two, and this time they're presenting a third. Will it make a hat-trick of innovative theatre?

At this moment in time, I can't pass comment, seeing only two of the three shows, Lorca Is Dead: Or a Brief History of Surrealism, and Quasimodo last night. Kicking off with the first, Lorca has all the hallmarks of a Belt Up classic: the guided audience input, mad bursts of activity hot on the heels of spotlighted pinnacles of tension and grief, which are themselves undermined with blasts of dark humour descended from Python-esque surrealism.

Scattered amongst the small tables and footstools in the shabby-chic bar at the Playhouse, the Company introduce themselves to us as Salvador Dali, his wife Gala, Andre Breton, Rene Magritte, a host of Surrealist figures playing with the conventions of time and place. Progressing with the audience through to Breton's huge living room, they begin to act out the death of their companion Federico Garcia Lorca: play within a play within a play, and probably within another play, is exactly how actor-playwright Dominic J. Allen likes it, as I discovered when I interviewed him about the show at York Theatre Royal earlier this Summer.

Populated with familiar characters from art and literary history, Lorca is an intriguing, invigorating and irreverent production that surprises with some brilliant lines on what it is to love, and to be human: a Belt Up show with substance as well as distinctive style.

Viewing Quasimodo later the same evening, perhaps it was too late in the night, too soon after a long week at work, to fully appreciate. A subterranean tale (via Victor Hugo, as its posters parenthesise) Quasimodo is work of a different consistency and pace.

A compact cast of four to Lorca's eight, a chillier space with clusters of candles and whispering masked creatures, we are in neo-Gothic territory, heightened language and exaggerated characterisation almost taking its cue from Commedia dell'Arte. The Hunchback of Notre Dame's plot is familiar to most, gypsy Esmerelda bewitching virtually every man in Paris with her beauty, and crucially, her kindness.

Slices of the dialogue are a shade hyper-theatrical, and when the oft-used line, "I've loved you since I first saw you," pops up, it's usually time to head for a redraft. Nevertheless, it's structurally a very strong adaptation of Hugo's novel from one of Belt Up's founders Jethro Compton, with stacks of atmosphere, and fine turns from all concerned.

The word 'ambitious' is perhaps the most disheartening any creative can read, with a ringing, patronising quality if delivered in the wrong way. I know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of that choice adjective. But Belt Up's ambition should be feted, and now that they are set to spend some time learning the ropes on some of York Theatre Royal's shows this year, they can use such experience to move in yet more enticing directions. Don't miss the beginnings of something special.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Downton Abbey's destiny: a slightly whimsical take...

Wheelies, Mustard Pots and Hot New Haircuts

Inspired by my fellow blogger, Jack of Hearts, I've come up with my own ridiculous version of Downton Abbey: The Second Series. Enjoy.

My prediction is that Downton Abbey becomes a hospital for wounded soldiers, so that Thomas can come back and try to rule the roost, after saving the doctor's life in the trenches and getting all chummy with him. Then he'll wreak havoc with Mr Bates' life again. Bates stayed at home because of his gammy leg, and begins directing all the extra farming, while Anna becomes Chief Land Girl, (or is this from the wrong war?) and eventually discovers that Mr Bates' wife is really locked in an attic in a London room, fed only on pineapple and plantains. She spends four episodes with this dilemma simmering away, and eventually thrusts a garden hoe at Bates, taking out his one good leg, and leaving him wheelchair bound. He takes to chasing her about the grounds and performing wheelies to impress her.

Meanwhile, Daisy takes on a new life as Head Cook for the wounded, slowly getting her own way with Mrs Patmore. William writes to her, confessing his secret love and admiration for Daisy, but it's too late, and by the time she gets his letter, he's already back at Downton in a stretcher, blinded by mustard gas (or is this, again, the wrong war reference?). Daisy, driven barmy by the cruel irony of the situation, forcefeeds him mustard until he is left a shivering wreck, only calming in the presence of his beloved horses. Eventually, they will be reunited (when Mrs Bird hides the mustard pot for good...)

Lady Sybil has a passionate, politically themed tryst with the attractive Irish chauffeur, and when she chains herself to the gates of Parliament and disgraces herself in the eyes of snobbish London society, Branson proposes whisking her off to his homeland. But she is committed to the cause, and becomes bosom friends with the Pankhursts, eventually marrying Branson in a secret ceremony with Christabel as a witness.

Robert, Earl of Grantham goes off to war as an officer, along with Matthew Crawley, and their bond strengthens even further, until one day Robert is taken out in the Battle of Ypres and Matthew is left to drag his dying body out of the line of fire. As he utters his last breath, the Earl tells him, "Look after Mary... She's a silly little madam, but she loves you..." He presses a pair of his prized, elasticated Downton boxers into Matthew's hands, and slips into death.

Lady Edith becomes a force to be reckoned with, utilising her already well honed letter writing skills to preach to the Sunday papers about the need for mechanising all the farmsteads in Yorkshire. Sir Anthony Strallen sees the letters, and is moved to propose once more; when he reaches Downton in his new motor, however, a telephone call he receives there gives him orders: he must go to the front. This leaves Edith crushed once more, and in a fit of rage, she runs to her sister's room, and sets fire to Lady Mary's hair, singing it to her shoulders.

Lady Mary has been pining for Matthew, and unfortunately for Edith, takes the enforced new hairdo in her stride, fashioning it into a chic bob, which slowly takes London society by storm. By the mid-1920s, she becomes a style icon, and worshipped for her modern attitude to men: "Take them to bed, or leave them!" she is deliciously rumoured to have declared, having earned enough money through appearances at public events to support herself.

Dora, Countess of Grantham, mourns her husband, and takes to spending forlorn hours weeping at his graveside with Violet, attended by O'Brien. Dora's ladies' maid has become a true penitent, and devoutly religious, intending to offer her life to the cloth once her mistress finds a replacement. This plan is scuppered when Thomas returns, and threatens to spill the beans. Blackmailed into perpetuating Thomas's wicked scheme to get Matthew Crawley into bed, O'Brien eventually throws herself into a river, after filling her pockets with soap and stones.

Isobel Crawley takes charge of the hospital arrangements at Downton in the absence of the doctor, and runs a tight ship. She gets into difficulties with Mrs Hughes' approach to over-ironed, over-starched sheets. "It's simply not necessary. Neat and clean is all they need be!" Mrs Hughes is nearly tempted to clear off altogether, but her ties to the house, and to Carson, are too much, and she stoically remains.

Gwen becomes a wealthy young lady as the telephone company's secretary, and fields off many offers of marriage to become a strong, independent woman. When the war ends, the loss sustained during the war has changed Downton for ever. The estate is in a right old pickle. So Matthew decides to become a gherkin merchant, using the empty stables - all the horses long since taken off for the war effort - as a storage depot, and the profits he makes in the specialist food business during the 1930s enable him to restore Downton Abbey's estate to its former glory. Lady Mary has always been partial to a bit of gherkin, and on a visit to her dear Mama is unable to resist a bite of Matthew's pickled goods. Their passion for each other is rekindled, and the final episode seems them marry in the Downton Village Chapel, followed by an overwhelmingly raucous party. However, the celebrations aren't set to last for long.

A dashing guest at the party, Victor, invited by Lady Edith after entering into correspondence with her on noticing her regular contribution to the Sunday papers' Letters section, causes a stir. His German cousins have sent him a book by a young Austrian politician who is rapidly gaining popularity. Lady Edith elopes with him, and the only trace of the guest is a copy of Mein Kampf on his dressing room table.