A dated and remote two-hour polemic basking in #MeToo topicality: The Writer reviewed

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

Ella Hickson’s last play at the Almeida was a sketch show about oil. Her new effort uses the same episodic format ornamented with ‘meta-textual experimentation’ (i.e. plotless confusion).

The central character is a brilliant young female writer who finds that all male theatre directors are boorish cynical greedy philistine racist sex pests. In Sketch One she meets a smarmy monster twice her age who tries to seduce her with the offer of a script commission. Sketch Two is a commentary on Sketch One, which turns out to have been a play within a play. Sketch Three shows the writer cohabiting with a loser who ‘sells football boots’. The loser has just bought a new sofa (with her money) and he baptises it with an enforced bout of loveless copulation. She tells him that she’s rejected a big movie contract and he attacks her laptop with orange ratatouille, squashing boiled tomatoes into the keyboard. They patch up this quarrel, and the loser proposes marriage with a ring that falls from the sky. A newborn baby is carried on and the scene ends in disorder, poised between reality and pretence. In Sketch Four the writer imagines lesbian sex in a mythical forest. In Sketch Five she argues about commercialism with a male director who, once again, is a boorish cynical greedy philistine racist sex pest. In Sketch Six the writer and her new girlfriend have fun with a purple dildo and discuss biscuits and Picasso.

That’s the clearest account I can give of this two-hour polemic which wants to bask in #MeToo topicality but which feels dated and remote. Are female scribblers still being creeped out by rapist theatre directors? And a writer who feels wary of predatory males could always try a gay director. They’re not unknown in the theatre. Or she might approach the Donmar, the Tricycle or the Royal Court, all female-led. Or she could contact Nica Burns, Sonia Friedman, Marianne Elliott, Sally Greene, Phyllida Lloyd, Polly Findlay, Emma Rice, Kathryn Hunter, Rosemary Squire, Deborah Warner, or any of the other world-class female impresarios currently working in British theatre. The suspicion is that Ella Hickson is suffering from artistic Munchausen’s and has invented this crisis in order to relish the wailing of sirens as the medics rush to her bedside. And some may complain that a playwright who writes plays about the tribulations of playwrights is failing to grapple with the concerns of her audience. This isn’t theatre, it’s narcissistic hypochondria. That said, I have a hunch that this show might prosper in the West End or even on Broadway. There’s a segment of the theatre-going public that takes pleasure in futile acts of self-punishment. The same people are sometimes to be found meditating or grinding their own coffee beans. New York, prepare.

Rodney Ackland’s post-war drama Absolute Hell is a sprawling and magnificent curiosity set in a London drinking den in 1945. It’s hard to say whether the vast Lyttelton is the best arena for this script or the worst. The Lyttelton isn’t a stage but a magical cavern that entices unwary directors into its inviting vacancies and stupefies them with an excess of their own ideas. Joe Hill-Gibbins spreads his production outwards, upwards and backwards to the rear wall. The boozy club is set out in relentless detail: bar, service hatch, dumb waiter, ornate mirror, spread of comfy chairs, corridors on either side, staircases mounting three flights to an overhead restaurant and an attic. He fills this heavily furnished warren with 20 or more thesps who indulge in stage ‘business’ which distracts from the work of the main actors out front.

It takes a while to adjust to this fussy physicality and to the play’s moral temper. The club members are all misfits, cadgers, egoists and bores who lack families of their own and use the drinking den as a substitute. But Ackland is a master of human portraiture and his particular gift is for capturing a personality in the midst of a life-changing transition. Even the nastiest of his creations are curiously lovable. Brilliant Sinead Matthews plays a bored adventuress who decides to devote her life to saving refugees. Jonathan Slinger’s ultra-camp turn as a sadistic film director is one of the night’s highlights. And Fiz Marcus does a terrific cameo as a mutinous cook. The play is so full of characters that it hasn’t time to explore the touching central friendship between a needy gay writer (Charles Edwards) and the club’s vampish owner Christine (Kate Fleetwood), whose busy sex life is being tempered by the advance of arthritis.

The show lasts three hours but I wanted to return the following night and watch three more hours as these characters pursued their stories further. There’s gold here. The Beeb should snap up this tragicomic fiesta and turn it into a series.

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