Friday, 5 December 2014

Theatre Review: Off The Page

My relationship with the Guardian newspaper is tricky. On the one hand, their factual news coverage is great and I love their culture section. When I’m looking for a theatre review, I always look for theirs first (Michael Billington is my homeboy). On the other hand, I almost exclusively hate their self righteous, indulgent, lefty nonsense comment pieces with a passion. I’m middle class and pretentious but don’t vote Labour or Green. The Guardian and I will never completely get on.

It was for this reason I had distinctly mixed feeling about their collaboration with the Royal Court theatre (also pretentious, middle class, lefty) on the Off The Page project. The idea behind Off The Page was to team up some of the Royal Court’s best talent with Guardian writers to create short, around four-to-nine minute, microplays on some key topics - music, education, fashion, food, sport and politics - essentially creating dramatised versions of Guardian comment pieces.

Alarm bells ringing? Yep, me too. My first reaction to Off The Page was to recall this Russell Howard bit and I can’t say, having watched all six plays, I’ve ever been able to lose that cynicism. Four-to-nine minutes is really not a long time to make a point, certainly not with any subtlety (and let’s be honest Guardian writers are hardly known for their subtlety at the best of times). The experience of watching some of these plays is akin to someone hitting you repeatedly in the face with the Guardian for four-to-nine minutes. Certainly almost none of them have anything particularly interesting to say about their topic and in a few cases the thing they try and say is achingly banal.

Four-to-nine minutes is also not a huge amount of time to do anything interesting performance or production-wise either, though the plays have attracted an impressive line up of (presumably Guardian reading) acting talent. Just a shame that, with a couple of exceptions, they weren’t given anything interesting to do or say.

Below are six short reviews - microreviews? - of the individual pieces ranked in my order of preference.

You know that thing they about jokes that if you have to explain it then it’s not funny? I think the only interesting thing about this piece is that it proves the same is true of microplays. This few minutes of nonsense is literally impenetrable if you’ve not read the accompanying blurb. According to said blurb, it’s a musing on politics which shows how politicians have lost touch with the public after the global recession. It shows this through the medium of dance. Yes, really. The most Guardian thing that’s ever happened? Possibly. A worthwhile endeavour? No.

School GateThe education piece features Anna Maxwell Martin as an awful middle class pushy mother who’s worried about the free school that’s opened next door to her (presumably) awful middle class child’s traditional school because the free school is run by an Islamic organisation. Her slightly less awful middle class friend isn’t worried about this and sends her daughter there, who then duly emerges from her after school club dressed in a hijab. The fact that there are some people who don’t like anything to do with Islam in their backyard is sadly not a revelation worthy of a play, however micro.

Britain Isn’t EatingThe food microplay (sick of that word yet? Yep, me too). A politician says something stupid about foodbanks, attempts to prove that they’re unnecessary by cooking a meal with only the supplies that someone using foodbanks might have (including no gas or electricity), fails, goes on another rant about foodbanks. Another uninteresting plot - and the one that tries to ram the Guardian the furthest down your throat. A nice performance by Katherine Parkinson as the politician though.

Devil in the DetailHere’s another earth shattering revelation - some fashion designers won’t lend a dress to a reality TV star going to the Pride of Britain awards but will lend to an up and coming actress off to her first BAFTAs, despite the fact that the former knows more about fashion and the latter doesn’t actually want to wear one of that designers dresses anyway. To be fair, I guess if you’re not interested in fashion then this might be an earth shattering revelation and, in that case, the fashion microplay might be an interesting illustration of the politics of fashion. And it is a well constructed and sweetly acted little thing too. Not bad.

Death of EnglandA stereotypical, prejudiced England football fan goes off on an epic rant at his dad’s funeral in the sport microplay. The rant takes in the state of the England football team and English identity more generally, ending up in a massive brawl. I liked this one quite a bit, not because it had anything hugely interesting to say, but because Rafe Spall’s performance as the central character is fantastic, if quite a difficult watch. The whole piece, more or less, is his monologue and he imbues it with real emotional depth and a sense of being wounded on oh so many levels - pretty impressive given the time he’s on screen. Worth watching.

Groove is in the HeartBy miles, the music microplay is my favourite and the only one that has anything genuinely interesting to say about it’s subject. This one takes on ideas of memory, love and grief and the way we associate them with music. Almost scriptless, and with a lovely performance from Tobias Menzies, this one genuinely moved me and is the only one I’ve watched repeatedly. Especially recommended for people who have made a mixtape on an actual tape, but generally recommended for everyone.

Overall Off The Page was an interesting experiment, but not one I’d like to see repeated. All of the microplays (if it’s the last time I ever have to see that word I would be so happy) along with interviews and other background content are available on the Guardian website for your viewing pleasure. Or otherwise as the case may be.

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