Well, what do you know? A good play at the Theatre Upstairs. Anya Reiss’s follow-up to Spur of the Moment is hugely, massively enjoyable and beautifully played.
Three girls in their very early twenties
share a flat. Ruth has just split up with her boyfriend. Dana is
contemplating whether to sleep with her boss. Jessica’s mum is going off
with the roofer working on the family home, so Jessica’s letting her
Dad sleep on the sofa. Over twelve hours, the four drink through the
night in mordant celebration of being ‘losers’. Ruth and Dana flirt with
Jim. Dana decides to sleep with her boss, after which he sacks her.
Ruth discovers that her ex-boyfriend is so miserable that he made a
melodramatic and incompetent suicide bid. Jessica and her father row and
recriminate. Eventually, Jim turns on the girls accusing them of being
wrapped up in themselves and making everything a drama. Jess is furious
but the girls agree with him. It looks as if it will be Jessica who will
be forced out when Jim gets a call that the roof has fallen in and he
rushes back to his wife.
The dialogue is brilliant, really
brilliant. Reiss is great at capturing, affectionately, how some
21-year-olds speak: the self-dramatising, the bullshit philosophy, the
flirtatiousness and the bravado and the fear. It’s this that really
powers the play forward for the first half of the play. And it’s very
very funny. She’s quite good at capturing the linguistic generation gap
(Jim explains his presence due to ‘bit of a spat back at, at, at HQ’). I
felt Jim was more of an idea than a character; someone seen by the
young, rather than a person in himself, but that’s the kind of play. Jim
is a catalyst to disrupt the identities and relationships in the flat.
It’s a pressure-cooker kind of play in which truths are forced out into
I think all playwrights have vices.
Dramaturgical ones, I mean. These are the things that they are
dangerously good at and they become seductive, they can overwhelm a
play. Anya Reiss’s feel for contemporary, wickedly-observed, very funny
dialogue might be her vice. But it may be the opposite: a feeling that
meticulously-observed, brilliantly funny dialogue is somehow too cheaply
How do you write a play like that? I
said that the dialogue powers the play for the first half. The second
half the play, like the carpet, gets a little stickier. The thing is
that you’ve set up a group of girls getting drunk and stoned; this, and
their age and attitudes, allows for the dialogue to be fast, funny,
ridiculous, and wild. But where’s the play going to go? Drunk people
are only funny for a while. Being less in charge of their actions, there
is somewhat less at stake in their decisions. The disasters are
distanced, frozen. You look for what will happen in the room. The
flirtation between two of the girls and Jim looks set to end in a
misjudged fuck, but that doesn’t happen.
In fact what happens is the play alights
on father and daughter and begins to excavate their relationship. This
is okay and often works: it’s brilliant at showing how a dysfunctional
relationship shows itself through a complete stalling of conversational
energy (‘You not going to say anything?’/‘What do you want me to say’/‘I
don’t want you to say anything’ etc.). There is also some uncertainty
of tone. The daughter strikes me as obnoxious; it’s not clear whether
she’s meant to be.* The father lurches between bumbling ineffectiveness
and lacerating truthfulness. And, mostly, the play stops being funny.
This makes Jessica a rather thankless part: in the penultimate section
of the play, as she is on the point of being forced out by her ‘friends’
I really didn’t understand what the emotional force of this moment was
meant to be.* Were we meant to be* horrified at the turn of events?
Celebrating the rejection of a monster? The production lost its focus
there too but maybe taking its cue from the script. (Similarly, it
seemed out of character for Jim to laugh so openly at Twix’s suicide
bid; and when Dana returns, make-up down her face, the writing - or
maybe performances - don’t find the emotion of the moment very well.)
The plotting isn’t as sure-footed as the
much of the dialogue. To pep up the action, Reiss gets some of the
characters out of the room. Dana goes to shag her boss; Ruth visits her
boyfriend in hospital. These feel like artificial stimulants. Worse
still is the deus ex machina phone call
about the roof falling in, which is so convenient it may even be a sort
of ironic ending, though the production didn’t play it like that. Even
within the dialogue there are some uncomfortable lurches into new topics
(Jim’s comment about ‘conspiracy theories’ is a feed line) and some of
the discussion of new slang feels a bit clunky (even the Cragga dubstep
moment feels, in hindsight, like a bit of a set-piece rather than a
truthful bit of characterisation).
Basically, I think the problem with
writing this sort of play, which Reiss obviously spotted, is how to get
from the brilliant fun idiotic drunken dialogue to something both more
emotionally meaty and grander in scope. I suppose I don’t think it quite
achieved either in the way it was trying - the emotional heart-to-heart
was a bit limp and the attempt to create an image of the generation
(the ‘losers’ toast and Jim’s outburst towards the end) felt forced. Jim
has been enjoying drinking, smoking and flirting with the girls all the
way through; it’s not clear why he has such a sudden change of heart.
There are some moments of jammed-in heightened dialogue (Jessica has a
poem she recites near the end), which didn’t work for me.
The key thing is, I think, that it
didn’t need to go for these lurches of tone. It implied something more
interesting and persuasive through the ‘shallower’ dialogue: both a
vivid portrait of a generation and hints at some level of emotional
yearning that the conviviality didn’t satisfy. Yes, it needed to go
somewhere, but this could have been low-key. We could have watched the
modulation of relationships, the awkward reshifting of the social
geometry as the older man enters the room, the way that forces out some
attitudes people didn’t even know they had. The choice to lurch into big
character events felt less like deep urban tragedy and more like
melodrama. I think Reiss felt that too, so when the fifth scene ends
with Dana saying ‘Fuck what a drama’ I think it’s part-admission,
Oh look, this has turned into a bit of a
put-down. I really enjoyed myself in this play. It’s very funny, very
true, and at its best creates conditions for a wholly enjoyable ensemble
performance from a great cast. The three girls are completely
believable, fluent, funny, sexy and fucked-up. Denis Lawson brings
awkward charisma and some light authority to the stage. As you enter the
theatre, you go along a series of dimly lit tower block corridors,
which was a fun way into the space but had pretty much nothing to do
with the play. But what the hell. I’d recommend it very highly. There’s a
really interesting writer here evolving before our eyes.
* [UPDATE] ‘Meant to be’ ‘Meant to be’ ‘Meant to be’. What does that mean? I’m not sitting there, waiting to be told what to think. I don’t like that kind of theatre, or that attitude to theatre. So what do I mean? I suppose I think I look for a kind of guiding structure to a play in which people’s roles are more or less clear. This generates a sense of purposiveness to the whole and, because plays are often organised into fictional characters and situations, we apply the functions of that whole to characters. Put more plainly, we need a sense of what function characters are meant to have in the idea structure of the play, not what we are meant to think about them as characters.