From Agitprop To Elegy

It is a testament to Caryl Churchill’s professional longevity that you could have noticed her back in the late 1950s, when she won her first National Drama Award straight out of Oxford, or caught her heyday as an angry woman reacting to the election of another powerfrau in Top Girls, a satirical meditation on the forgotten lives of women in history, featuring a callous recruitment agency boss, Pope Joan and a 13th-century Japanese concubine. She has charted every social and political quake of the last five decades. Serious Money, a cautionary tale of the perils of stock market speculation looks as relevant now as when it first appeared in the late 1980s.

The Churchill paradox is that her politics have remained utterly monotonous: oppressed women, catch-all critiques of democratic capitalism, and the supposed wickedness of Israel and the US.

But her command of epic theatre and range of subject matter and malleable form make her figure impossible to ignore in modern stage history.

More so than its continental rivals, British drama still operates largely within the confines of forms familiar to 19th-century dramatists. Churchill, by contrast, relishes the elasticity of drama, producing plays without stage instructions, or with truncated texts, and in one of her best — Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a verse meditation on the 17th-century Putney debates — using the powerful plain English of the original radical texts.

Now, with Here We Go at the National,  Churchill emerges from a rather lean period as quick-fire topical dramatist to unveil a cracking short-form play on a subject that unites us all in fear and fascination — our deaths and how they will come about.

The action opens with snatches of conversations from mourners, at the funeral of a “someone” — an MP (presumably Labour, seeing as Churchill seems to like him) — a gravely admiring circle of friends all trying to say the right thing at the wake and sounding uncertain and hollow.

We move from these uneasy platitudes to Patrick Godfrey playing (we presume) the deceased and entering the afterlife — a giddy mixture of Valhalla, chintzy heaven’s gates  and the ancient Underworld.

Meditating on death has been a staple since Hamlet first held up a skull to chill his audience. But far more interesting than “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio” is the haunting line that follows, “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times”. That was, coincidentally, one of the better moments of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent incarnation of the grumpy Dane — the frightening, baffled sense that someone we did trivial stuff with on earth has gone.

Godfrey is a shrewd choice for the main role, an untidy spectral presence in his long johns, questing for life after death while looking as if he’d rather be back in the earthly sphere.
Here We Go is not free of the Left’s modern mawkishness. The role of patient, unacknowledged black caregiver who tends Godfrey but is never acknowledged, is a bit like having some irksome child home from uni shouting “check your privilege” every time you pay the cleaner. Mercifully, the snappy direction of Dominic Cooke and Churchill’s nifty observations on the continuity of life and death keep the pious bits short.

The liveliest gossip of the season was about Kim Cattrall’s non-appearance at the Royal Court in Linda — a still unexplained exit for the Sex and the City star. She quit the production a mere ten days before the première of Penelope Skinner’s new play about female mid-lifery and its discontents, throwing the Royal Court into a truly dramatic panic.

Full marks then to Noma Dumezweni, who stepped into the role with aplomb to play Linda, a glitzy, successful cosmetics executive, waking up to the emptiness of her life in her mid-fifties. Husband Neil would rather spend time with his rock band, stroppy daughter Alice won’t let old feuds be and a half-sister preparing for a part in King Lear make Linda a bittersweet domestic comedy, shading into hard rage about the social invisibility of women beyond their childbearing years.

Granted, it’s a busy saga, with too many allusions to other dramas stuffed in. But Michael Longhurst’s production is fluent and the Royal Court under Vicky Featherstone deserves a year-end cheer for snatching a modest triumph from the jaws of disaster.

Let’s hope better fortune attends one of the big new productions of 2016, Ralph Fiennes’s appearance in The Master Builder at the Old Vic (from late January). The Vic has produced a stream of goodish plays in 2015, but it needs a hit in the alpha league that does not rely as heavily as it has done on Kevin Spacey: so let’s see what Fiennes makes of the troubled town planner.

We should end the year, and start the new one, with the theatrical equivalent of a glass of fizz. For the best larks and sparks, I plump for Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The luminous Sheridan Smith stars on 100-watt form as Fanny Brice, the showgirl, in a show about past hoofers, with an outstanding exponent of popular musical theatre in the lead role.

Funny Girl has long struggled to escape the curse of Barbra Streisand. But Smith makes the story her own, charting Fanny’s rise through the rackety world of vaudeville theatre to lonely stardom. Is she heartbroken? Of course. That is what comes from falling in love with a rakish gambler and taking to an itinerant job treading the boards.

Smith squeezes every moment of comic enjoyment out of these adventures, gurning and twitching her way through failed seductions, auditions gone wrong and chances missed. Funny Girl is also genuinely witty, in the Dorothy Parker vein. Introduced to a chap who breeds horses, she arches a pencilled eyebrow to inquire, “They can’t do it themselves?”

Michael Mayer’s effervescent production looks cramped on the Menier stage: the dancers cannot afford to put a foot wrong, for fear of landing in front-row laps. That will be cured when it transfers to the Savoy from March. Such minor flaws apart, Smith inhabits the cheery narcissism of the performer with vaudevillian zest. When she sings “People”, the show’s  torch song, it is invested with infectious melancholy. A moment later, she shakes off the gloom, tosses her lacquered locks and clacks her way towards the next routine. It’s a five-star example of all-round brio from one of today’s funniest stage women.

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