Comedy

‘There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.’ Neville’s Island.

Neville's IslandIt’s probably somewhat unfair my reviewing this. After all, it won’t be around much longer. If it’s not already gone. Having planned to see it for ages, the family and I ended up taking the unprecedented step of buying the last tickets available on Saturday. Turns out this year may well be quite spontaneous – watch this space. Written by Tim Firth, Neville’s Island recounts the bizarre¬†Lord of the Flies style story of four hapless middle class managers as they attempt to get themselves out of a number of sticky situations. To be honest, I had no idea what was about to happen.

Considering the four man cast – Robert Webb, Ade Edmondson, Miles Jupp and Neil Morrissey – I had a vague feeling that whatever was going to occur was going to be at least marvellous, but as to the true intentions of the piece, I had no idea. Selling itself as a somewhat frivolous comedy did lend itself a little uneasily to the idea that all might not be as good as it seemed, but that all changed – one look at the stage and I knew it was set to be top notch.

Well, not quite a first look at the stage, but more the curiously dressed front row – all in the most delicious array of waterproof ponchos. If that doesn’t give you the willies, I don’t know what will – it made me wonder what, exactly, was going to happen on stage that would lend itself to such an intriguing dress code. Unless, of course, they happened to be on a casual trip out as the anorak appreciation society. One can never know. Anyway, my confusion was soon cleared up.

It started raining. Literally, precipitating. Cue ripple of admiration from the audience. It was simply wonderful. The stage, dressed with a fine selection of deciduous trees (genuine from all I could tell) very rapidly began filling with water. There hadn’t been any mention of that on the programme. Yet, the pebbles strewn across ahead of the trees were soon soaked and no one had set an alarm off. So as the bell sounded, the audience couldn’t have been more curious. Or less ready. Onto the stage comes a sopping Morrissey (Neil, not Smith). Staggering across stage, maps around his neck, Morrissey gave a reason for the front row to be grateful for their ponchos. But not nearly so much as Edmondson, splashing through a trough of water at the front of the stage looking, for all intents and purposes, as though he’d come from a recent Aquaman audition.

Before long, all were on stage, interacting beautifully with their somewhat aqueous surroundings. On a brief aside, I applaud them for their shear tenacity (I would have been complaining and calling trenchfoot within a minute). And so, the story was off. We discover that the four unfortunate businessmen have become lost on a company training exercise. Well, more than lost. They’re on an island, lacking food, any way of communicating with the outside world and, in Ade’s case, no dry shoes. Within four minutes, they’d already argued enough for the whole piece, gone through their own personal crises and undressed. Pretty astounding achievement. And so the story continues, each member losing more hope in the others by the second. We gradually uncover secrets – Gordon has trust issues, Angus cannot cope with the concept of love and Roy has had a nervous breakdown replete with a newfound Christian enlightenment.

For a somewhat unpredictable and clearly jocular farce, Neville’s Island also succeeded on hitting on many of the very real issues behind it – the fractious and unsatisfied Gordon (Edmondson) providing most of the commentary there. Mental illness, religion, survival of the fittest and the human condition all have their moments to be explored at great depth. Almost everything is faced, from the ultimately depressing reality of the working life for the majority of people to suicide. Neville’s Island achieved the almost impossible – it was neither too dry and straightfaced when encountering these issues, nor did it make light so much of them to be considered indecent. It had moments of tragic poetry. We discover, for example, the real reason for Roy’s breakdown and it is truly heartbreaking. Just as in Lord of the Flies, the group discover their natural authority and struggle to cope with one another beyond an hour, especially as hunger and coldness creep up on them… And the prospect of something else inhabiting the island.

But I was not just impressed by the story. Considering the big names of the cast, I had great expectations – especially of Webb and Edmondson, having grown up with Peep Show and Bottom. Interesting childhood… Nevertheless, it could have turned out completely different – they could have made it into a pantomime, a charade, but they stepped up to the post. It was a mature and engrossing performance – there was not a single weak link. Of course, they were somewhat limited by the fact that Firth has written the parts somewhat unfairly. Most of the acting Webb was involved in happened onstage. And the audience knew when to expect a rather hefty rant from Edmondson. Yet, it didn’t matter – all parts were well fulfilled. And I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience enjoying it.

So yeah, not really much else to say, but if you’re looking for an all encompassing production featuring slapstick (timed to perfection, of course), multiple crises (or should that be “holidays”) and good clean entertainment (it’d have to be with all that rain), go for it. Get the last tickets. And good luck!

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‘This brave new world with such people in’t.’ The Tempest.

tempestSo. Now that my English Literature exam was over a week ago, I feel safe with another review of one of my set texts. After this, we’ll only have one left, I promise, and then I can get back into a more positive frame of mind. Well, as positive as this current exam-and-popcorn-fueled-being can get.

And for my next trick, I present the Tempest, considered to be one of the final true Shakespeare plays. Now, I’m not really sure if this is normal, but I will be basing this review on the actual text itself, for while I have observed (I am not going to credit it with the word ‘seen’) two film adaptations and one onstage carcrash I feel that that is truly where my grudge lies. I do, at this point and time, feel more than a little bad, for writing so vindictively can’t but help me feel I am insulting Britain’s best known bard without even giving him the opportunity to fight back. However eloquently I’m sure he would present his argument. In bloody iambic pentameter no doubt.

Right. As you can probably tell so far, I am not on great terms with this here play. I know you aren’t meant to say things like this, but I know I wouldn’t complain if all of the copies of this very play were to spontaneously combust and never be replaced. Ever, ever again. Especially now I’ve sat the exam. But truly, there is a reason why it is known as Shakespeare’s longest play. And that is not only due to having so many lines. It is dull. Incredibly so, and I’m not sure I will ever want to hear of it again. For a start, while I usually believe Shakespearean language to be a genuine thing of beauty – not only is it intelligent but emotive – I can’t help but feel that something went a little wrong here. I know it is the pastime of any English student to search through their Shakespeare for at least one joke I can genuinely say that there is not one single moment of comedy in the entire piece. And the scary thing is that there should be. Ahem.

Shakespeare included certain scenes (we look to the drunkenness of Trinculo and Stephano etc) with the genuine hope that people would be rolling in their seats. But, while we were told many times over that they are funny, and even after having their actual comic elements prescribed and explained to us, I just couldn’t see it. Perhaps it is just simply that I had to read the thing so many times, but if I’m honest, I am quite easily pleased and did actively try and enjoy it. To absolutely no avail.

While Shakespearean language is usually tough to follow, I feel that something went particularly wrong here as well. I’m not asking to have it simplified, because there may be a few moments when the text lived up to its reputed elegance and intelligence, but these merely punctuate the endless, repetitive ¬†nonsense in between. Honestly, can’t help but feel that it was written and left completely unedited. And feel completely stupid for saying that considering its historical relevance and resonant message, but it simply is too long! Half could be removed by attempting to write succinctly – something I’ve always been told to do… Truly, if Shakespeare encountered many of my literacy teachers over the years he would have received similar complaints to me. If I had a pound for every time somebody said ‘quality over quantity’… And yet I just want to shout it to the annoying bard! It really makes for depressing reading – it feels like it’s trying to make up for something, and what that is I really can’t be sure.

To be honest, it has great potential, I feel the story, while a little bland, holds up and given the right characters and personality could have been fantastic. I do quite possibly feel a little hypocritical saying that because it is very true that I could not produce anything better. Or no way near as good, no matter how terrible I feel it to be. But really, it’s just overdone. Scholars can go on and on about the inherent confusion of Prospero’s vengeance compared with his manipulative but fatherly nature. They can expound about the underlying allegory surrounding the beastly but intelligent nature of the captive slave Caliban. They can even discuss the importance of the marriage masque of Act 4, Scene 1 as a metaplay and representation of the significance of fertility and marriage. But that just leaves me reeling incredulously – yes, there is a chance that they are significant to the play, but I would only consider them truly important if I had or could have enjoyed the play in the first place.

Yet, every time I read it as part of revision or in the blooming exam itself, I was drawn into a neverending and painful stupor – I couldn’t put it better than to simply say I just wanted it to go away. Far far away. It was even worse when our little English troupe went all the way down to London to view it live at the Globe. Not only did my posterior ache but in the end I found myself distinctly glad that I did not actually have to watch most of the play due to the large architectural feature pillar in front of me. That was more interesting. And it wasn’t even made out of the marble it was pretending to be.

My complaints surrounding the Tempest also run through into the two films I have been subjected to. First off there was the recent, poorly CGIed delight (I use the term both loosely and sarcastically) that contained a complete overload of the ironic Helen Mirren as ‘Prospera’ and a thoroughly irritating cast of Russel Brand and the unfortunate, however beautiful he may be, inclusion of Ben Whishaw. It was hideous, full of irritating and overly full-of-themselves modern actors. That said, it had nothing on the second version I was forced to observe, Derek Jarman’s ‘homoerotic’ (thank you wikipedia) version of this much over-rated and under-loved text. It features prancing sailors, Toyah Willcox and rather too many raw eggs. And is just horrible.

So, finally, as you may have guessed, I find that there is little that saves this particular set text from making me want to rock backwards and forwards by myself in a quiet room until the three hour play is over. I find it to be a particularly grim form of mental torture and would be more than happy to leave it alone forever as soon as I hand it back to school. I feel the day I say goodbye to the idiosyncratic Caliban, the irritatingly naive and lovelost Miranda and of course the hideous figure of Prospero, I may be happy. But of course, that may only happen after many long hours of expensive therapy which of course Shakespeare in his passing will be unable to fund. Damn.

Just make it go away and it’ll all be fine!

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