Monday, 12 November 2007


To the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Kneehigh's Brief Encounter, a more expensive business than usual: I missed the numerous performances to which they were prepared to give me comps, and now that I've moved to York I have to pay nine quid just to get to the right city. My penury has dimished slightly since I last moaned about it, thanks to the excellence of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, who are backing The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but still. Upwards of twenty quid for a theatre ticket? It had better be good. I don't usually pay anything. Do you know who I am?

But if there's a good bet, it's Kneehigh, right? The makers of Cymbeline and Tristan and Yseult, two of my favouritest shows since, well, ever, can always (or almost always) be relied upon to come up with the goods.

And it's quite good. In terms of fun, life and sheer chutzpah, it still defectates precipitously on just about everything else that gets put on these days, G-G-G-Granville. Sadly, Kneehigh are just about the only company who can produce something that's in so many ways exemplary and still nevertheless find themselves drowing in the sea of "slightly disappointing"s. The trouble is, after huge mythic narratives like Cymbeline and Tristan, to move onto a story about an unhappy love affair between two members of the upper middle classes is a bit anticlimactic. The fact is that the leads are the only people in the show who are almost no fun to watch; the stage consistently flattens slightly whenever they're on it. This isn't because they're giving poor performances, it's because I'm not interested in angsty repressed near-adulterers. Not only am I a happily-married man, I also have a serious weakness for plays where things actually happen. Yeah, Godot's ok, but it's an exception.

The show represents a consolidation of the aesthetic shift made in A Matter of Life and Death, both shows exploring a more distinct social world than the previous mythic work; that world being that of WW2. It's a well-realised world that manages to incorporate the usual Kneehigh-isms we all know and love, like the aerialist bit and the chorus (this time of cinema ushers testily waving their torches and pleading for quiet) into an MGM aesthetic, blending in some lovely video at the top and tail of each half for good measure. There's also a music hall strand which sits a little oddly alongside the cinematic, and also alongside Coward's urbanity for that matter, but helps thread in Kneehigh's popular roots and works, in the end, rather nicely.

There's also Stu Barker's music. Pretty much since Emma Rice's tenure as artistic director began, Barker has provided terrific music, played live, that manages to blend theatrical sensitivity with a sort of parka-wearing indie swagger that gives the whole thing a super edge. Rice's loyalty to the regular faces is a wonderful thing - Kneehigh's constant activity make them just about the closest thing we've got to a rep. system - but in this case it's a cockup.

Music is such an important facet in the creation of any show's atmosphere, and the atmosphere of this show is constantly unseated by music that doesn't quite fit. There's an argument to be made that the quality of not-quite-fitting is in its own way a worthwhile one to pursue, that it provides a sort of temporal Verfremdungseffekt. I'm not having it. It just gets in the way. It's neither MGM nor music hall, and its not being either of these things is felt never more keenly than when it's trying to be. In pastiche, in tribute, and in abeyance of these influences, it remains stubbornly Stu Barker. It's great stuff in and of itself, but it's just plain wrong. Sorry.

So I've never felt more keenly the need to use period instruments in the Kemp show. We'll do it irreverently, perhaps we'll play modern songs on them. But before we can upend that aesthetic world, we have to get inside it.


olly emanuel said...

i have a tenor cortold, a kind of renaissance clarinet, oboe and recorder mix, if you want it. makes a bloody stupid noise, but then that's probably what you want... did you see Franitc Assembly's STOCKHOLM. review please, if seen...

danbye said...

A bloody stupid noise is exactly what fits the bill.

I missed Stockholm, alas, due to moving house while it was on.