Posts Tagged ‘Out of Joint’

Playwright Andrea Dunbar had a short but eventful life. The girl from a family of seven on a Bradford council estate wrote her first play in school aged 15 and saw it staged at the Royal Court three years later. Two years after that this second autobiographical play was staged at the Royal Court, adapted as a major film five years later. She died aged twenty-nine having given birth to three children as well as three plays. Little did she know how controversial a revival of her play would be twenty-seven years on.

I didn’t see the original production, but I did see a 2000 revival when it was paired with Robin Soans’ A State Affair, a verbatim piece researched on the same council estate showing its then contemporary problems. All three productions were instigated by Max Stafford-Clark, first as director of the Royal Court, then as director as Out of Joint. Claims of alleged sexual harassment by him, plus the subject matter of the play, led to the Royal Court cancelling its stop on the tour, but subsequent claims of censorship resulted in its reinstatement.

The controversy proves rather more fascinating than the play. It’s a period piece, like visiting a behavioural museum, a bit like those TV series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. If you look at it through a 21st century lens, it’s very uncomfortable. Two fifteen-year-old girls are enticed into having sex with the man they babysit for and are both soon having affairs with him, unbeknown to one another. After a while, the tables are turned and they are very much in control, and in competition with one another. The attitudes of Bob’s wife (if its presented on a plate he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t take it) and Sue’s mother (it’s all Rita’s fault) are no doubt historically authentic but depressing.

The performances are terrific, though the staging sometimes seemed a bit stilted. I veered from uncomfortable to intrigued to voyeuristic to enthralled to indignant to fascinated to disbelieving. I came to the conclusion the play just could’t carry the weight of all the controversy and resultant expectations. It was of its time and may be best seen as a period piece, ground-breaking in its day, but more of a curiosity today. Then again, with contemporary cases of grooming on a wholesale scale, Weinstein and #MeToo, and in particular people’s propensity to turn a blind eye, maybe the message is nothing’s changed, its just different.

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This is such a heart warming, hopeful play and so much more than the story of Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas coming out. Robin Soans verbatim piece links his story with the Bridgend teenage suicides and the economic woes of South Wales post-pit closures to produce something that is moving and entertaining in equal measure.

In addition to Thomas’ own testimony, Soans includes the words of his mother, father and best friend Compo and recognises the contributions of former Welsh coach Scott Johnson and fellow players Martyn Williams and Steve Jones. The teenage stories of survivors Darcey and Meryl are interwoven and we also meet Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon and Neil Kinnock. It’s extraordinary how the stories feel as if they belong together – the man and his home town, both bruised, both hounded by the paparazzi and the gutter press, but both survivors with their dignity intact, with laudable support from families, friends, colleagues and communities, moving on by helping others.

Robin Soans editing of his interviews and Max Stafford-Clark’s impeccable direction, with movement by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham, brings out the humour and humanity of the stories. It hops around in time and between the stories yet it seems completely cohesive. Six actors – Rhys ap William, Patrick Brennan, Katie Elin-Salt, Daniel Hawksford, Lauren Roberts and Bethan Whitcomb – play the principal roles plus all others, each taking turns at playing Gareth Thomas. They engage you in eye contact, which makes you feel as if the story is being told to you personally.

It brought more than one tear to my eye, but I left the Arcola on a real high, more than a little bit proud to be Welsh. Three of Britain’s most exciting theatre companies have come together to produce something very special indeed. Don’t miss it.

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