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The Sublime and the Ridiculous

Going to the theatre is a special event for me, so two trips in as many weeks is a definite rarity – not least because I see so many movies that it can be easy to forget about the altogether different joys and techniques of live stage performance. Last weekend I was through at the Lowry in Salford for a production of Willy Russell’s 80s classic Educating Rita, while last night’s performance of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show (this time at the Manchester Opera House) couldn’t have been more different. The first, I was familiar with, having seen the Julie Walters/Michael Caine film adaptation; the second, I know mainly by reputation and due to the devoted cult following it attracts among its fans. But while Douglas Adams was clearly an extremely smart guy, making wry and intelligent points about physics, metaphysics and humanity, Hitchhiker’s tongue remains firmly in its cheek, being in essence a ludicrous and comical affair. Educating Rita, although often extremely witty, presents us with a more problematic and clearly political seam of social critique. I’m not going to review the performances or the productions here.1 Instead, I want to muse a little on some of the issues around class, education, and stereotype that these two shows (primarily Russell’s) stirred up in my mind.

Rita changes drastically throughout the course of the play, enrolling in an Open University course that leads to weekly tuition sessions with grumpy but likeable English literature lecturer Frank. The play being much inspired by Pygmalion, she undergoes a transformation comparable to that of George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle. Beginning as a frustrated and rather lonely – but undeniably smart, determined and insightful – professional hairdresser, Rita is defined (or actually, self-defined) as the product of working class conventions that don’t chime with her true personality or her aspirations. Learning about herself and the middle-classes along with the disciplined conventions of literary analysis, she becomes a knowledgable, popular and semi-bohemian University graduate, dressing differently, thinking more clearly and leaving behind hairdressing, pub sing-a-longs, a book-burning ex-husband, and “talking about irrelevant rubbish”. Frank meanwhile is sent on sabbatical to Australia, not having given up drinking, but having been dumped by his girlfriend. Whether he will return to writing poetry remains ambiguous, as indeed, does Rita’s own future, but both are aware of new possibilities.

The Hitchhiker's Guide Radio Show

The Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Show

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

Educating Rita at the Lowry Theatre

In many ways, Rita’s story resonates as much now as it did in the 1980s, although undeniably the contexts and conditions of the working class, women, the higher education system, and notions of social “betterment” are a little bit different now than they were under Margaret Thatcher.2 As we cheer Rita along on her journey of discovery and smile at the lessons she seems to teach the equally frustrated but far less determined Frank, it’s worth wondering whether Rita would nowadays be able to save enough of her wages to cope with even the less-than-average tuition fees of the OU. We might also wonder about the extent to which Frank’s already shaky position in academia would be valued at all in 2013, given the ‘ivory tower’ quality of his knowledge and his lack of enthusiasm for most of his students. Alcoholism aside, would Frank’s influence on Rita count as “impact” given that it merely enriches her sense of self and possibly her earning potential, rather than the budget of the institution? What would her gratitude, and his, count for?

Of course, the whole play revolves around an examination of class stereotypes, at the same time as we can detect them in it. Undeniably, Rita achieves what she sets out to. For her, the intellectual opportunities offered by access to a previously more exclusive education system, are a liberation. Yet while she is hardly a stock agitprop-style ‘everywoman’, and although Russell gives her a personality and subjectivity all of her own that makes the audience actively like her, it’s hard to deny that there are elements of cliché about both her and the working class world she describes. Back home, it seems, she is the only person in existence who values learning, education, or going against the grain. Unless she settles for marriage and motherhood, literally no-one will support her. Further, she believes that Frank’s suggestion of a “working class culture” is just a risible middle class invention. Of course, she may paint in broad, harsh strokes through anger; her stance seems to soften by the end as she realises that not all is as she once imagined in the University environment. But isn’t it worth being cautious of her conviction that she must leave one group so fully behind in order to embrace the ‘best’ aspects of another? Equally, it doesn’t seem certain that Frank was ‘born to’ his position. He is not really Henry Higgins.

Having gone back to school at a time when there was barely such a thing as a ‘Mature student’ and after a period working as – you’ve guessed it – a hairdresser – Russell himself effectively was Rita; or a male version of her. He was no doubt aware of the potential issues with his ‘girl-done-good’ narrative and probably they are deliberate; still, I’d say they are not the most obvious so they’re worth flagging up. Do Rita and Russell, to some extent, unintentionally parody and patronise working class ambition? For me, slightly, yes. Watching Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its geeky sub-textual jokes about the cosmos, relativity, and the perfect cup of tea, we also find stereotypes being played with. But these are of a different sort – cheeky, apolitical and uninterrogated. What else would an Englishman do in space after all, but worry about his tea? Nonetheless, Hitchhiker’s humour works on multiple registers and, presented as a colourful multimedia “adventure” in this production, there are multiple ways to enjoy it. Here, I thought about the very different types of experience and knowledge that must have influenced the works of Adams, educated at a paid-for prep-school before he went on to Cambridge; the very kind of trajectory in fact, that Rita initially envies. As Willy Russell explained in an interview with Jim Mulligan:

Both my parents were passionately opposed to mob culture or mob thought. They could never stand unquestioning groups of people and I was brought up to see both sides of the question.

In a British culture too often obsessed with the supposed as well as the real divisions between those who come from different “classes”, and in which those are used negatively, that resistance is what we should remember.

1All I’ll say about that here is that Gillian Kearney was absolutely captivating and spot on as Rita, while Shappi Khorsandi, who clearly hadn’t bothered to rehearse her script, spoiled the combined efforts of an otherwise great cast at Hitchhiker’s.
2I’ll let others debate just how different and to what effect!

Armchair Theatre

At the last minute, my friend offered me a ticket to go and see an excellent new stage production of Alan Sillitoe’s classic novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – which most of us know from Karel Reisz’s 1960 film version starring Albert Finney. I had never been before into the beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre which sits, futuristic, neo-classical, and surprisingly snug given it holds 800 people, in the centre of an old Cotton Exchange. Experiencing its 7-sided “theatre-in-the-round” and watching actors run on and off from all directions instead of into the usual “wings” was a treat in itself. As for the play, the lead performance by Perry Fitzpatrick can’t be faulted. He had so much pent-up energy, cock-sure charisma and bravado, that combined with spot-on delivery of some shocking and funny lines, it was difficult for the multiple actresses he shared the stage with to keep up! They did keep up though – every one was compelling. Jo Hartley as Emler was a thorny, darkly comedic gem.

From what I remember of the film, the part of Brenda is more stylised here – sensually as well as sexually charged, and less hardened somehow. She is more glacial, more mannered. Actually, I am not quite sure Clare Calbraith’s depiction would fit in working class Nottingham! Her sister Winnie, who for reasons of plot simplicity didn’t make it into Reisz’s version, was boldly and convincingly played by This is England’s Chanel Creswell. Anyway, all of the “love interests” were more attractively dressed and coiffed than Rachel Roberts was. Tamla Kari was more than equal to Shirley Anne Field as Doreen. I wonder if some link might be made here with the aesthetic development of a “soap” like Coronation Street (I mention this only partly because actors Graeme Hawley and David Crellin were in both!) which after all, once shared common “kitchen sink” concerns with the work of “new wave” writers and filmmakers like Reisz, John Osborne, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. It’s interesting to note that Coronation Street was first broadcast in the same year that Finney’s Arthur challenged audiences to consider the factory floor and not the drawing-room.

Pre- and post- performance photography is allowed!

Rather than paying solemn homage to the British new wave or relying on a gritty sense of “black and white” grime, director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischles’ version is uniquely inventive, cleverly witty, and it plays games with us, now and then giving the audience a knowing wink – props fly on and off stage on an automated rail when a scenery change is required; two actors sit beside audience members to mime being at the cinema; Arthur suggests with a gesture that we might act as witnesses to a disagreement between himself and his boss. The ways in which he is caught up in something both metaphysical and potentially political are foregrounded sympathetically. Just 22, Arthur despises (or is it fears? grudgingly admires?) the Russians, the taxman, the rent collector, politicians, union organisers, the “Yanks”, the army, blokes in bowler hats, and even the wives who cuckold with him their half-suspecting husbands, in almost equal measure. He does not quite know what he is, what he stands for, what it is that he opposes. All he knows is an instinctive compulsion to make a lot of noise being an angry rutting “Billy Goat”. Yet there is a lightness of touch and feeling of intimacy, even fragility. Some scenes are potentially quite graphic (for instance Brenda’s attempted bath-tub abortion) and some are delightful (ghost trains, fairground carousels, and eventually fighting at Goose Fair); these combine into an eventful contradictory ride where tone is hard to define. The working class characters here are not caricatures or stereotypes but beautifully observed and captured, recognisably deeply human even when apparently hardened to life or struggling not to be beaten down by it. Ultimately, like most people, Arthur is searching for love.

As they say in the Royal Exchange’s publicity material, “Our policy is to express the bewildering, complex wonderment of life through the full spectrum of theatre.” This is certainly what they did last night and I am definitely going to go back as soon as possible!

Playing at Theatre

This weekend, I went to the Manchester Opera House for the first time, keen to see its last performance of Zach Braff’s debut play All New People, which has been getting some very good reviews (and a few not so good). Braff is of course best known as awkward but loveable JD from the recently-departed US TV comedy Scrubs, however being a super-fan of “The Braffster” wasn’t a requirement for entry! It was a good event to go along to with my Mum (who was visiting this weekend) and I was interested in how and if Braff would make something theatrical from the same sort of semi-serious musings that we saw in Garden State, his first (and only) feature film as writer/director.

Opera has rarely been performed here...

I’ve never really studied theatre so I certainly can’t claim to be an advocate of any particular approach or tradition! But I’ve read and seen enough plays to at least know the kind of experience that I expect from theatre as opposed to other artforms. All New People didn’t really fit with those expectations – and not because it was radical. The set was beautifully composed and the dialogue witty, but its characters and plot never took on more weight than you’d find in an entertaining adult sitcom. Okay, there were references thrown in to the fury of an Old Testament God; to rape, depression, and The Merchant of Venice – but these moments got scattered and lost. The rag-tag trio of kooks who assemble around Braff’s own character Charlie, offer him (and in turn us) little to engage with at first beyond their repartee or sex appeal. He is a suicidal former air traffic controller toying with the idea of hanging himself in a wintry beach house and, interrupted by the property’s letting agent, has a drink and drug-fuelled pity party/analysis session thrust upon him instead. Not exactly what he expected! Charlie and the other characters are of course meant to be post-modern, fractured, hiding under or behind facile personas. The trouble is that neither those personas nor the sketchy revelations about what lies beneath them are particularly significant or intriguing. Maybe that’s the point too in a way?

All New People’s televisuality is heightened by the fact that whenever Braff and director Peter DuBois want to reveal something “deeper” and more truthful about the reality of characters who are otherwise evasive, elusive, or just 2-dimensional, extra-large television screens drop down in front of the curtain to show us “flashbacks” while the actors “freeze frame” behind them. Rather than constituting a brave multimedia theatre experiment,  these incongruous inserts revealed where Braff learned his approach to writing and characterisation; and where they really do fit best. For me, a lot of the energy generated by the cast’s dynamic was dissolved by those screens. When you’re sitting too far back or high up to see the actors’ faces on stage in any detail, it’s hard to recognise at first that it’s actually them! A minor point but this does add to the sense of sudden disengagement.

An audience expectant

Impressive performances were definitely a highlight of the evening; whoever put together the Manchester cast did a really good job – working well as a four-piece, each one had perfect timing. I particularly liked the light comedic touch of Susannah Fielding, whose ditzy call-girl Kim combined elements of Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot (complete with ukulele), Kaley Cuoco’s Penny in The Big Bang Theory, and Kim Cattrall’s Samatha from Sex and the CityQuite impressive considering how out-of-date and clichéd her character actually was in most regards! As for the others: Eve Myles’s Emma could have slipped unnoticed into the cast of Absolutely Fabulous, becoming a sort of wilder sister to Saffy; and Paul Hilton’s Myron would most definitely be somebody or other in 2 and a Half Men. Well, these are rough guides…and my knowledge of TV comedy characters is just about exhausted. So I have to say that Charlie…well…he is basically Zach Braff, who else? The writer watches on in amusement as he dabbles with the role of someone who may or may not be genuinely suicidal. There were definitely shades of Garden State here – but with less resonance.

Overall, All New People was enjoyable to watch and quite good fun – it just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. Even as a piece of television it was quite conventional and predictable when you consider what’s been achieved by a series like the always spellbinding Mad Men! Well, maybe Zach Braff was in Scrubs for too long? It’ll be interesting to see what his next play does, and if he gets a little bolder; more confident with the nature of theatre. I can only hope this review won’t get me any angry letters from Bill Lawrence! 😀