Lockdown Theatre Festival – Day One
While there are many productions which have not made it onto a stage at all because of theatre and rehearsal room closures, some plays found themselves in the very difficult position of having to shut down just as they were about to open or in mid run, almost without a moment’s notice. BBC Radio’s Lockdown Theatre Festival aims to highlight such productions by broadcasting them with the original casts albeit in an audio format only. The short festival consists of four productions organised and curated by actor Bertie Carvel
First in the season is Shoe Lady by E.V. Crowe which was running at The Royal Court. It is virtually a monologue delivered by Katherine Parkinson who plays Viv, a hard-pressed working mother who seems to have everything stacked against her. In a sideways take on Cinderella she somehow loses a shoe one morning, but this does not lead to an eventual happy ending. Rather she finds her life spinning out of control as bad things lead to worse – as a direct result she loses her job, is arrested by the police for shoplifting and is propelled into an ever more nightmarish and surreal world. Less Cinderella, then and more the old children’s rhyme “For want of a nail the shoe was lost…”
While it is an interesting play, once the setup is revealed it then takes a rather scatter gun approach to where it is going. There are surreal touches (the curtains talk) which give it an Alice like quality, and Parkinson’s delivery is never less than arresting. However, I felt it was in severe need of the visual dimension to bring it truly alive. Indeed, a child narrator has to be employed in order to keep us informed of who, what, why, when and so on; this just comes across as clumsy despite the disclaimer at the start that this is not a full on audio adaptation. The introduction tells us that Viv spends a great deal of time on a moving travellator (a clever visual metaphor for the treadmill of modern daily life) but as we can’t see this, it is easy to forget that this is supposed to be the case. A review of the stage production from Time Out states that there is “a brilliantly choreographed fight”; in this audio version it becomes a couple of strained grunts and knowing there was supposed to be so much more merely makes us hanker for what we have missed. The piece is directed by the Royal Court’s Vicky Feathersone but, in all, it seems a slightly odd choice with which to open the season.
Next up was Rockets And Blue Lights by Winsome Pinnock suspended after just two preview performances at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Its full scale debut in this festival could not have been more timely if it had been planned that way for it is right up to date with current events as it examines the African slave trade and its poisonous legacy. The play begins with two women looking at a painting by the great artist Turner. They refer to it as Slave Ship although it transpires that its full title is Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming On. For Turner’s painting depicts the merciless dumping of human beings so that the ship owners can claim insurance. The typhoon refers to the approaching weather in the painting but probably also to the anger that is going to be unleashed once the facts become known. The storm provoked by outrage towards such atrocities is still with us today and Pinnock’s play should provoke further debate. Running through the whole piece are notions about the place of history in modern society and whether it can ever be intellectually moral to rewrite it – you see what I mean about topicality?
One of the women studying the painting turns out to be Lou (a powerful Kiza Deen) an actor who has been working on a 2007 film version of the event called The Ghost Ship. Lou’s experience has not been a good one, indeed in some respects it is little better than the experience of Olu, the slave Lou is playing in the film. Lou begins to feel marginalised and not in control of telling something she believes to be essentially her own story; her dying grandfather is part of the Windrush generation and so for his sake, for the memory of thousands like Olu and for herself she decides to wrest back control. In a parallel plot set in the 1840s, we also follow Turner (a rough and ready Paul Bradley) who believes in a kind of Stanislavskian approach to his art; he famously lashed himself to a ship’s mast in order to experience a storm at sea at first hand. In this instance, Turner bluffs his way onto a ship in search of inspiration but as the play progresses it becomes clear that he may not be quite as committed an abolitionist as the 2007 film wants to paint him. Like Edward Colston, Turner does some good but the play also raises questions about his motives.
The play comes across well as an aural only experience especially as there over twenty speaking parts and actors, as in the stage version, are doubling. The visual dimension will eventually add so much more potency to this multi layered play, but this version is still a pretty good substitute. My tip is that if you are listening to the production, then have a copy of the painting handy to look at as this will provide a useful visual reference point, especially in the first few minutes. Miranda Cromwell’s clear sighted direction makes a case for this being Pinnock’s most fully realised play; it is clear that this is a major work which deserves a full and proper outing at a later date.
Lockdown Theatre Festival is an attempt to respond positively and creatively…. It is an opportunity to celebrate the richness of our theatrical culture and at the same time an invitation to consider how on earth we can weather this storm Bertie Carvel
The season continues with The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz and Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett (Click here)
The Lockdown Theatre Festival is available via BBC Sounds for one month. Click here
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