Posts Tagged ‘Tim Shortall’

Terry Johnson is the playwright who gave us gems like Insignificance, Hysteria & Dead Funny, and another 11 that I’ve seen. He often pays homage to comedians (Cleo Camping Emmanuelle & Dick at the NT, his tribute to the Carry On films, was another gem, as was his recent biographical piece about Ken Campbell) and sex crops up more than occasionally. He’s also a director of others’ works as well as his own. Here he is again both writer and director, which on this occasion may not have been wise.

The sex party is taking place in Alex’s house in Islington. He’s invited three couples and one single to join him and his young partner Hetty. Some he knows well, some he hardly knows, but they are all up for it, well, to one degree or another.There’s very old friend Gilly and her alpha male husband of sixteen years Jake (both new to this scene), ageing hippy Tim and his assertive wife Camilla and American ‘businessman’ Jeff and his wild Russian wife Magdalena. They’re all in the kitchen, except when sex is involved in the offstage living room. It’s too much for some participants and not enough for others. Just before the interval Lucy, a late guest, arrives. After some speculation and discussion, it’s determined she is a pre-op trans woman. In the second half she becomes the centre of attention as prejudices are revealed, people feel threatened and attitudes challenged and transform in what is a provocative change of direction by the play.

What starts as a somewhat dated sex comedy with contemporary frankness turns into a very contemporary debate about gender where the characters are initially more cautious, though it proves impossible for any of them to walk on eggshells for long. This half was certainly better, but there was so much going on it moved on from one issue to the next before the discussion had run its course, and became a bit loose and somewhat melodramatic. Some of the characters suffered by being little more than stereotypes – Tim and Magdalena – whilst others had more depth. Hetty’s Welsh accent was all over the place, with references to her mam becoming mum inconsistent. Good performances generally though, particularly from Pooya Mohseni as Lucy, who commanded everyone’s attention. I’ve only seen Lisa Dwan (Gilly) in Samuel Beckett so I’ve only really seen her mouth, face, head or torso before! She also has great presence. Tim Shortall’s kitchen is uber realistic, though my full price seat restricted my view of the right of the stage, something I should have been told and something dismissed out of hand by the theatre’s AD David Brabani. So much for 18 years of loyalty and supporter membership.

I felt the writing needed more work, and the second opinion of an independent director might have helped. Far from Johnson’s best work, but not as bad as the reviews would have you believe.

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I wasn’t planning to see Terry Johnson’s loving, funny & moving homage to his friend Ken Campbell. I wasn’t a Campbell fan (loved the eccentricity, struggled with the self-indulgent excess), so I didn’t think it was for me. On its last day, impulse propelled me to the Bunker Theatre for the matinee and now I feel I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The last time I was instantly captivated by a design was upstairs at the Menier when I gasped as I walked into What’s It All About?, the Bert Bacharach homage. Tim Shortall has created an immersive carpeted environment with seating on three sides and three levels, populated by settees and chairs, lamps and plants, pouffes and cushions. Johnson himself spends most of the 90 minutes at a lectern telling us about his personal experiences in Campbell’s orbit. Jeremy Stockwell as Campbell turns up all over the place, mostly in the audience, illustrating Johnson’s memoir. A lot of it involves the ten-part 24-hour play The Warp staged in a disused cinema at the Edinburgh fringe almost forty years ago, but we also hear of the misguided disaster that was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Rainbow Theatre, Campbell’s spectacular prank on the RSC (publicising it’s transformation into the RDC shortly after Nicholas Nickelby) and other shorter stories.

It’s beautifully written and inventively staged by Lisa Spirling and I was enthralled. It left me wanting to to travel back in time and live life all over again, this time as a Ken Campbell fan.

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A biographical play about a cinematographer? Jack Cardiff’s career reads like a history of 20th Century cinema, but why a play? It seems to have been suggested by its leading man, Robert Lindsay, and playwright / director Terry Johnson has dramatised it for him.

We’re at the end of Cardiff’s life, at his country home, with his wife Nicola, played by Claire Skinner, his son Mason, Barnaby Kay, and new ‘assistant’ Lucy, played by Rebecca Night. He’s got dementia, so it’s all recollection and reflection, and attempts to write a biography.

In the brilliant opening scene, he tells the history of screen shapes and sizes by opening a garage door. The first act ends as superbly as the second begins when we flash back to the filming of The African Queen in Kenya, where Barnaby Kay transforms into Humphrey Bogart, Rebecca Night into his wife Lauren Bacall and Claire Skinner becomes Katherine Hepburn – all brilliantly, as Kay and Night are again later as Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (not the first time she’s featured in a Johnson play!). Before and after this though it’s all a bit slight, and I came to the conclusion the life was less interesting, name-dropping and possible infidelities aside, and stageable than they at first thought.

That said, there are four fine performances, an excellent design from Tim Shortall and enough to make you pleased you went.

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