Risen from the ashes

Miss­ing is back three years af­ter fire halted its run in Bat­tersea, while the re­named Kiln opens with a few top­i­cal griev­ances

The Observer - The New Review - - Theatre - Su­san­nah Clapp

These are whirligig weeks for London the­atre. Last week, Madani You­nis let it be known that he was mov­ing from the Bush to be the cre­ative di­rec­tor of the South Bank, while Rachel O’Rior­dan was an­nounced as the re­place­ment for Sean Holmes as the head of the Lyric Ham­mer­smith. Not long be­fore, Ed­ward Hall had said that af­ter nine years he was quit­ting Hamp­stead.

The com­plex­ion of artis­tic di­rec­tors is – well, pos­si­bly – be­com­ing less white and male. Will this have a de­ci­sive ef­fect on pro­gram­ming and cast­ing? We may get a hint over the next month, when the new heads of Strat­ford East and the Young Vic, Na­dia Fall and Kwame Kwei-Armah, open their first sea­sons.

Mean­while, two the­atres have put in place em­phatic new aes­thet­ics. What used to be the Tri­cy­cle has re­opened af­ter two years as the Kiln: on press day there was a pave­ment protest about the name change. Across town, Bat­tersea Arts Cen­tre re­opened its Grand Hall, rav­aged by fire three years ago, with a de­ci­sive agenda.

I’ve never for­got­ten see­ing – from a train – the flames rip­ping through the build­ing. Or, hav­ing looked at the charred shell of the hall, stopped be­ing amazed that no one was hurt. Gecko, the com­pany per­form­ing in the Grand Hall at the time, had their props, cos­tumes and sets de­stroyed. But Pluto the the­atre cat strolled out un­singed from the in­ferno, a furry em­bod­i­ment of the re­gen­er­a­tion myth.

A plan was hatched within days. The col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ar­chi­tects Ha­worth Tomp­kins and artis­tic di­rec­tor David Jubb should con­tinue – still more vi­brantly. This in­volved the open­ing up of the build­ing be­gun in 2007 with Punch­drunk’s Masque of the Red Death, when new links be­tween spa­ces were dis­cov­ered: I re­mem­ber es­cap­ing from a room through a fire­place.

Architecture should be led by the re­quire­ments of the work. Spa­ces would be pro­vi­sional, not pol­ished. And look now at the beauty of that: rooms that are kit­ted out with equip­ment but look from an in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor’s per­spec­tive un­fin­ished; they are wait­ing for artists to move in. A lovely cor­ri­dor flank­ing the great hall is rough brick, lit by dan­gling lamps throw­ing their lights on elab­o­rately carved doors. In the Great Hall, the walls re­main scorched, but the new fil­i­gree lat­tice roof is a jig of shade and light, bring­ing a touch of the Al­ham­bra to Laven­der Hill.

Gecko’s Miss­ing now fin­ishes its run that was in­ter­rupted by the fire. It is vis­ually ar­rest­ing and nar­ra­tively opaque: a woman’s back­ground, mar­riage and dis­in­te­gra­tion are con­jured rather than il­lu­mi­nated. The cast glide be­tween mem­ory and ac­tion in a se­ries of el­e­gant flick­er­ing images. A cou­ple strain to­wards and pull away from one an­other on a sofa in a dance of as­ton­ish­ment, as if twang­ing to­gether on elas­tic bands. A woman in a red dress is caught in a flare of light as if she were on fire. Her out­stretched hand is framed in a screen, as if chopped off from her body and pre­served in ice. The speech is in­ter­mit­tently clear – a min­gle of dif­fer­ent lan­guages as if we were spinning through Europe by twist­ing on the dial of a ra­dio. Beau­ti­ful mo­ments stud but don’t il­lu­mi­nate the baf­fling story.

I am against most name changes (not all – I would not want to live in Adolf Hitler Av­enue): I was sur­prised by how low-key the grum­bling was when the National sud­denly dubbed the Cottes­loe the Dorf­man. But the Kiln is apt for a the­atre that aims to bub­ble and be fiery. And the change has been made. Let’s move on.

Into the gor­geous place cre­ated by Chap­man Ar­chi­tects. It is smarter than the old the­atre but no less wel­com­ing. Artis­tic di­rec­tor Indhu Rubas­ing­ham says that the aim has been to make “a bet­ter ver­sion of our­selves”. The build­ing has been opened out, un­cov­ered, made brighter. A glass-fronted cafe (the de­fault fa­cade for the­atres) beck­ons you in; the dusky en­trance hall is il­lu­mi­nated by a sky­light; there are nine ladies’ loos down­stairs. The stage has been made flex­i­ble. The au­di­to­rium is ra­di­ant, with ul­tra­com­fort­able or­ange-red seats and a frieze of hard­board painted with gold leaf, which un­der lights looks like a strip of corn­field. The sighto­b­scur­ing pil­lars, the cramp­ing scaf­fold­ing have gone, along with the beat­nik black: that doesn’t mean the spirit has van­ished. The authen­tic­ity in the old Tri­cy­cle might have been sig­nalled by scruffi­ness and some dis­com­fort,

There are weird noises – the mag­ni­fied flush of the lav sounds like Ni­a­gara Falls

but it wasn’t brought about by them.

Rubas­ing­ham’s lively open­ing pro­duc­tion is a clev­erly lay­ered de­bate play. Alexis Zegerman’s

Holy Sh!t in­ter­twines more than one top­i­cal cri­sis. In the ab­sence of prop­erly funded state ed­u­ca­tion, how can your child en­sure a place at a suc­cess­ful non-fee-pay­ing school? Two cou­ples want their girlies to go to the lo­cal church pri­mary. The Oba­sis (Daon Broni and Claire Goose) are Chris­tians; Daniel La­paine and Dorothea Myer-Ben­nett are both Jewish: he is an athe­ist, she is semi-ob­ser­vant. But “on your knees to avoid the fees”. Myer-Ben­nett starts go­ing to church, where she daz­zlingly un­leashes avid war­bling of hymns. The kids fall out (a la Yas­mina Reza and God of Car­nage). Their row raises spec­tres. Are the Bro­nis tainted with an­ti­semitism and their “friends” with an­other kind of racism (Obasi is black)? Who suf­fers more, a woman starved of work or one de­prived of time with her child?

The es­ca­la­tion of grudges is deft and ac­cu­rate; Rubas­ing­ham’s pro­duc­tion is pacy, the ac­tors nim­ble. But since all hid­den griev­ances even­tu­ally rise to the sur­face, a drama that be­gins with plenty of sed­i­ment has even­tu­ally no sub­text.

In this week of de­par­tures and new starts, a won­der­ful West­min­ster Abbey ser­vice for Peter Hall heard, among oth­ers, Vanessa Red­grave spit­ting out Corinthi­ans as if love were an ar­gu­ment. The thing that makes me carry Hall in my heart is a school­girl mem­ory of watch­ing his in­tense 60s The Wars of the Roses on telly. Weirdly, the most stir­ring pro­duc­tions by his son Ed­ward have been his all-male Pro­pel­ler Shake­speares. His only equally bold move – a real soar­ing – at Hamp­stead has been the mar­vel­lous Kinks mu­si­cal Sunny Af­ter­noon.

Joe Man­tello’s accomplished Broad­way pro­duc­tion of

The Hu­mans comes to Hamp­stead trail­ing suc­cess. It slips down eas­ily – that’s to say with some snaps, and dis­com­fort; it brings in an­other el­e­ment with hints at the su­per­nat­u­ral. But there is no mo­ment of ut­ter sur­prise.

Stephen Karam’s play has a gran with de­men­tia, a mother bat­tling with her weight and a dad with a se­cret. One daugh­ter can’t get a job. Her sis­ter is on the skids at work, has been left by her girl­friend – and has ul­cer­a­tive col­i­tis. They all bicker, do com­pet­i­tive en­dear­ments and slide to­wards fi­nan­cial dis­tress. As they do so, the drama be­comes less nat­u­ral­is­tic and more spooky: there are bad dreams, haunt­ings from 9/11 and weird noises – the mag­ni­fied flush of the lav sounds like Ni­a­gara Falls. I couldn’t un­der­stand why the fa­ther, who has spent his life as a main­te­nance en­gi­neer, can­not work out what the booms and clangs are that ring through the apart­ment. My sub­tlest the­atre friend tells me that his not know­ing while be­ing equipped to do so is ex­actly the point. I was im­pressed by that. And by the nat­u­ral­ism – un­spar­ingly lumpy – of the act­ing. This is an accomplished pro­duc­tion. But there is a gag in the play about what gives an alien a fright: a hu­man be­ing. I rather longed for an in­hu­man to take over and truly star­tle us.

ABOVE ‘Be­tween mem­ory and ac­tion’: Katie Lusby, cen­tre, in Miss­ing at Bat­tersea Arts Cen­tre. BE­LOW LEFT Claire Goose and Dorothea Myer-Ben­nett in Holy Sh!t at the Kiln. Pho­to­graphs by Tris­tram Ken­ton; Mark Douet

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