Serious, popular art: Peter Shaffer's Five Finger Exercise reviewed

Plus: Clickbait, a new play at Theatre 503 that offers a refreshing take on internet porn

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

Five Finger Exercise

Print Room, until 13 February


Theatre 503, until 13 February

A beautiful crumbling theatre in Notting Hill is under threat. The Coronet, which bills itself as the Print Room, faces the menace of renovation. The lovely rambling building has the tumbledown air of an abandoned Romanian palace. The raised stage sits opposite the dress circle of a former cinema and the auditorium, steeply raked, is bounded by a parapet decorated with plaster reliefs of scarred mermaids and broken-winged angels. A modern design team is bound to strip out all this ramshackle charm. The ragged, gloomy corridors, scented with damp brick dust, will be rationalised into glistening avenues of spotlit perfection. And the weird and ungainly bar area will become a money trap where cocktails worth 50 pence are sold for 12 quid by scowling waiters who think they’re Jimi Hendrix. Let’s hope the funding fails.

The vintage space has a vintage play, Five Finger Exercise, written in 1958 by Peter Shaffer who later created Equus and Amadeus. It’s an autobiographical piece, set in East Anglia, that introduces us to the prosperous, unstable Harrington family. The budget isn’t quite up to the grandeur required by the script. The two-tier stage is composed of scout-hut floorboards resting creakily on scaffolding poles. Centrally, there’s a sort of fire-escape arrangement to represent the staircase of a Suffolk country house. And the bedrooms are fitted with barn doors. But the costumes are good, the casting is strong, and the acting is high calibre.

Lucy Cohu, whose physique approaches the absolute zenith of female allure, delivers a bravura performance as Louise, the pretentious, frustrated, kind-hearted matriarch who secretly dreams of an affair with the young German tutor, Walter. Her humourless husband is an effusive dullard, a self-made bore who haunts the golf club with his boastful pomposity and who wants his oversensitive son to join him in the furniture trade making de-luxe tat for pretentious commuters. The boy has other ideas, mainly liquid, some carnal, and he doses himself with whisky in an attempt to suppress his erotic longings, which tend in the same direction as his mother’s. Walter, the centrepiece of the play, is a model of ‘ze good Cherman’, an intelligent liberal haunted by his parents’ shameful devotion to Hitler. The happy youngster Pamela offers a splash of brightness that makes the brooding adults seem all the darker by contrast. The script’s ground plan is a superb achievement and the plot develops with subtle gradations using white lies and gossipy exaggerations to drive the story to its violent, melodramatic conclusion. The play was a hit in 1958 and it represents almost the last gasp of rational clear-headed theatre before the stage was overtaken by preachiness, absurdism and fashionable inscrutability in the 1960s. At the same time, drama yielded its primacy in our cultural life to TV and pop music. This revival is a joyous return to the days of serious, popular art.

Clickbait is a new play from TV writer Milly Thomas that takes an honest and wonderfully facetious look at internet porn. It starts as a victim-riddled nightmare. Sensible Nicola has abandoned her boyfriend Adam and indulged in a boozed-up gang-bang in Ibiza. The footage goes viral. Wimpy Adam has a meltdown. And Nicola makes a decision. Rather than collapse into a box of Kleenex she’ll exploit her 15 minutes of fame and turn herself into a webcam vixen testing sex toys for commercial sponsors. Her prudish sister reluctantly helps her promote the business under the brand name ‘No Judgement’. The plot gets a little far-fetched in the second half and the characterisation might be stronger. Nicola seems too sane and grounded to have volunteered for an impromptu orgy. And Adam is more a girl than a boy. No male would stop himself being seduced with the instruction, ‘Talk to me.’ But the play succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of the internet, especially the belligerence and hypocrisy of the comment threads. A chorus of trolls add grisly footnotes to Nicola’s Ibizan sex romp. ‘Where Nicola Barker live, woof.’ ‘I’m posting out of sheer frustration that this has been allowed to happen.’ ‘I will cut a hole in your cheek and rape it until I am done.’

The quick-fire script offers amusing off-stage reports of Nicola’s mother, and her ‘red-wine smile’, drunkenly upsetting glasses of Rioja over the new furniture. ‘She’s crying with a tub of Vanish in the living-room.’ And there’s an intensely funny performance from Alice Hewkin as Nicola’s hard-headed sister, Chloe, who trades witty invective with her elders: ‘I know how to use a computer. I’m not 50.’ I had a suspicion that the script may have begun as a TV project that got canned. Never mind. It’s refreshing to see a play that repudiates the oft-repeated myths that porn is all about violence, that it encourages male brutality, and that it can only damage women and never empower, enrich or exalt them.

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