Sheridan Morley reviews recently-opened London shows.
The Royal Court, though still several months away from returning to their Sloane Square home, have managed in exile around St. Martin's Lane to fill two and sometimes three small stages with some immensely impressive work, but nothing better than The Weir, which comes to the Duke of Yorks after a brief outing last summer. In the dramatist Conor McPherson, we have yet another of the young Irish brigade who have lately colonized the London stage, but what sets him apart is a unique gift for monologue.
His St. Nicholas a few seasons ago at the Bush gave us a drunken drama critic (as if such characters exist) who falls in with a group of South London vampires; it was somewhere between a ghost and a shaggy dog story, but one of remarkable poetry and potency. This time, in The Weir, he gives us four regular hard drinkers, each with a ghostly tale to tell to the girl from Dublin who has just bought a house in the village until, inevitably, she tops them all with her own truly terrible personal story, one far more alarming than any that the men have managed to conjure up from the mists.
So we have moved on a little, from monologue to duologue and sometimes even dialogue; in that sense the similarities here are often very close to Saroyan's The Time of Your Life as a group of regulars try to top each other's encounters with the unknown, until at the last they are brought up against the undeniable voice of truth. McPherson's point here, it seems to me, is that the men can only overcome their own sense of loss and failure in an Irish retreat by spinning these yarns, each of them just safely on the far side of immediate plausibility. What they are doing is essentially myth-making, whereas what the girl finally offers is a slice of real, brutal, if accidental, lifethe death of a beloved little daughter in a drowning accident.
Suddenly, the men's tales are made to seem somehow theatrical, if not downright phoney; they are admirable bar-room storytellers, but the stories have been told for so long, from generation to generation, that they have lost all reality. Whereas the outsider, the one who has kept so demurely quiet as they told their oft-told tales, is the only one of them truly possessed by a ghost, and in that realization all the men seem almost to crumble as they go out to face the midnight air. What has held them together has been a fantasy, and now, suddenly, they have been faced with a reality, that the supernatural can and does still exist.
Ian Rickson's production is a master class in how to keep a fundamentally very static and talky play alive and moving, while the performances of Julia Ford as the only woman, and of Jim Norton and Des McAleer as two of the male regulars, resonate with suppressed passion and lost hopes. Only in the beyond, it seems, can they find some explanation for the here and now in all its disappointments.
Up at the Old Red Lion in Islington, we now have the European premiere of Blue Window by Craig Lucas, who, considering he wrote such award-winning movies as Reckless and Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss, ought to be rather better known over here than in fact he is. This is a play written 12 years ago about the Manhattan cocktail party from hell, and it is in many ways side by side without Sondheim; Lucas was his collaborator on Marry Me a Little, and he remains so close to the high-rise urban angst of Sondheim's Manhattan that Blue Window often just seems to be Company without the songs.
True, there is only one number here (written by neither Lucas nor Sondheim), but all around it is an 80-minute conversational battlefield in which six ill-assorted guests and their hostess explore the borderline that separates manic ego-trip from out-and-out nervous breakdown. We get the usual assortment of New York neurotics, from the hostess who has lost a tooth to the lesbian couple in trouble and the would-be songwriter, but the problem now is that both Woody Allen and Sondheim himself have covered this territory so comprehensively that all we are really left with here is a series of semi-animated New Yorker cartoons just past their copy date. Urban chic turning into unruly chaos just on the verge of the AIDS crisis is bound to look a little dated over a decade later, and although Joe Harmston does his agile best to crosscut these unfulfilled lives on a tiny stage, the truth is that by and large, he has failed to attract players with enough talent or charisma to make us care about their endless self-absorption. As a result, seven characters are left in search of an author or at least some semblance of a plot. Unless, of course, you count the unseen unfortunate who fell off a high-rise balcony only to be crushed to death by his girlfriend on the sidewalk below; somehow I wanted to know more about that and less about the rest of a rambling conversation-piece ultimately unable to stay stuck together even for as short an attention span as that of a one-act play.
By Sheridan Morley