Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Heretic ***

Having not been to the Royal Court before it would be remiss if I didn’t mention how pleasant the space is before I begin a thorough review of the show. Although I’m not sure any other space could pull off the brown décor it suited the theatre well and the seats were easily some of the most comfortable I have endured. Well done, Royal Court. But should I say well done, Heretic? I’m not as convinced.
There are a number of things that are deserving of praise. The cast is, at least on paper, very capable. Juliet Stevenson and James Fleet are standing out here as well as Lydia Wilson who gave a terrific performance in the recent Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith. The other cast members are less well known but are just as capable and suited to their roles, particularly Geoff, played by Adrian Hood. I wasn’t a big fan of Johnny Flynn as Ben, however, as he seemed a bit too extreme. A bit too much of a characterisation that didn’t take into account the conflicts within the character and in his more emotional scenes I didn’t feel any form of compassion for him at all, which is clearly not a good thing.
The larger names were clearly looked on to lead the rest of the cast and they certainly tried but as with all of the characters there was something missing, something that didn’t work.

This problem is hard to define. It’s as if they have all developed a character but have not done so with any guidance from anyone privy to the group development. The result is that they have all fallen into the trap of stereotyping the character, making them very wooden in the process. They are all undoubtedly the characters they are meant to be but they do not fit together and they do not fit the show. The relationships between them, especially the two senior cast members, should have been a lot more fully developed than they were. There were so many nuances that would have developed over the years they had known each other and they could have played the audience very well regarding the question of Phoebe’s parentage. With no father present and Kevin being Diane’s only known partner it raises a possible dimension that was completely ignored.
For me, the blame for this lack of unity falls on the shoulders of Jeremy Herrin, the director. Ensuring the cast works in harmony with each other and the script and the chosen major ideas is the main job the director has and I think this has been missed or ignored. The script still shines through but it seems as if the characters on stage are doing the bare minimum to bring it out, letting it do all the work and going through the motions of their jobs as actors as opposed to the events that inform and inflict their characters.
The script is obviously terrific. From the beginning it is witty and laugh out loud funny, delighting in linguistic twists that remind me of a Tom Stoppard play. The situations it develops are equally hilarious while balancing it with tension. I have often and will often refer to balance being the hallmark of greatness in art in any form and this script is a good example of balance. The scene where Diane is facing disciplinary action on mental health grounds is made both hilarious and tragic with the introduction of Maude, a colleague’s soft toy polar bear. The scene was my favourite in the production, with Juliet Stevenson bringing Maude in with so many inferences and implications that I couldn’t help laughing at her.
My only criticisms of the script would be the short final act that doesn’t tie up any of the loose ends and is completely out of the blue, not really justifying itself within what is a generally superb plot. I felt as if more explanation was needed, particularly of the militia behind the death threats and the character of Geoff but since there was no explanation forthcoming I suppose we must be left to our own devices on that one.
Note to self, add Outstanding New Script award to the Tipsy Hippo Theatre Awards.
The technical aspects of the show were strong. The scene changes were swift and well executed, the strobe lighting accompanying the arrival of the helicopter was particularly dramatic and the following scene was subtly and effectively staged. The show does also involve music in the form of a song written by the Ben character and performed with his acoustic guitar. It is a scene well played and has a good effect. Its reprise via recording in the dramatic helicopter scene change was not so well suited and I would have avoided that.
The small amount of fighting towards the end was, I feel, characteristic of the whole show. It was just badly put together. It was obvious not only that when Phoebe was punching her mother that she wasn’t doing so very hard at all, but also that when Diane fell she was blatantly falling to where she had been shown to, falling slowly and softly, breaking her fall almost before she even began. Not only that but when she was hit with a wine bottle it was clear that it was plastic. With things like that, if you’re not going to do it well then don’t do it. The audience won’t buy in to shoddily constructed realities no matter how good the script is and although the script was very good indeed, the characters and the production weren’t up to the same standard.

Written by Richard Bean; Directed by Jeremy Herrin; at the Royal Court; Starring Juliet Stevenson, James Fleet, Lydia Wilson, Johnny Flynn, Adrian Hood and Leah Whitaker; Runs from 4 Feb 11 - 19 Mar 11.

John Ord (05/03/2011)

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