Review Round-up: Ullman Tells Tales of Poliakoff's CityDate: 16 September 2011
Returning to work for the stage in the first time in over a decade, acclaimed film and television writer and director Stephen Poliakoff premiered My City at the Almeida Theatre last night (15 September, previews from 8 September 2011).
Poliakoff also directs the play, a move mentioned by a number of the critics present, which has a cast that includes actress, comedienne and star of 80s American TV Tracey Ullman alongside Tom Riley, Sian Brooke and David Troughton.
"Weird and slightly creepy, Stephen Poliakoff's new play… paints a dark night of the soul in the recesses of London, full of stories and secrets, ghosts and desires … We're off on an odyssey of remembrance and reconstruction, with flash backs to school assemblies … Poliakoff directs his own play, which is so distinctive and heartfelt that you (or at least I) can happily live with the enigmatic discursiveness of it all. And it's great to see Tracey Ullman on stage once again as Lambert, a woman for whom life holds no more fears … Minken, whom Troughton plays as if bursting with uncontrollable energy, delves deep into his Jewish family history, having delivered an extraordinary speech on his sense of alienation in the city … The relationship between Lambert and Richard moves from a spirit of enquiry to one of reciprocal wisdom. And Poliakoff conjures an inner city world of rooftop bars, cellar clubs, night time and tragic interiors with an expressive language of theatrical poetry, superbly realised in the designs of Lez Brotherston, the sound of Ben and Max Ringham and, especially, the lighting of Oliver Fenwick."
"This largely nocturnal piece does not quite hang together. Ullman plays Miss Lambert … We see Lambert in flashback, leading school assemblies that revolved around stories she told with warm authority. Now she tells different tales, illustrating the quirks of contemporary London … Poliakoff is concerned, as ever, with 'something big'. His themes are familiar: memory, yearning, the search for lost connections and the way London teems with secrets … Yet he fails to deliver the exploration of darkness he at first seems to offer and verbose storytelling inhibits the production's dramatic life. This puzzling, ambitious drama, directed by Poliakoff himself, is less than the sum of its many parts."
"Stephen Poliakoff is back with his first new play in 12 years. But, while I welcome his return, this piece feels like an anthology of Poliakoff's recurring preoccupations … It lacks the cohesive narrative quality of his recent film and TV work … It turns out that the teacher is a compulsive storyteller and night-wanderer … What emerges is a picture of London that is like a mix of Peter Ackroyd and Edgar Allan Poe … Poliakoff has always been haunted by the power of the past … The play's tour of London by night involves many discrete, intriguing stories … But, in the end, what does it add up to? … My lingering hope Miss Lambert would turn out to be a pedagogic vampire was disappointed … Tracey Ullman… is enigmatic and charismatic as the mysterious Miss Lambert … David Troughton invests her colleague, Mr Minken, with the air of a permanent suitcase-clutching refugee, and Tom Riley and Sian Brooke are very good … I am happy to accept everything Poliakoff has to tell us … I just feel that, in this particular case, he has sometimes lost track of his own central narrative thread."
"Tracey Ullman was a big noise in the 1980s … Now she’s back in the UK, older, greyer and with much of the deportment of a headmistress … One of the problems with the play is that although Ullman brings a touch of witchiness beneath her combed grey mop and Jackie-O dress, she invests her part with little personality or conviction … Ullman takes a young man (played by Tom Riley) and his female school friend on an odyssey through London … Poliakoff shouldn’t have directed the play – perhaps the producers were cowed by his reputation as a heavyweight TV writer and director. There are clunky sound effects and actors stand in the way of each other … Tom Riley’s young man is no more racy than Tim Henman, but Sian Brooke is a sweetly loyal as his Essexy former school friend … Sorcha Cusack has the air of an Edwardian spiritualist. Together they make up the more playful aspects of Ullman’s cabal of nocturnal teachers and unfold some of Poliakoff’s more memorable yarns."
"For the first three quarters of Stephen Poliakoff’s new play… I leant forward, engrossed by its narrative energy… But for the last half-hour, dammit, it was all slump and fidget … I genuinely mourned: for Poliakoff at his best — and for much of this play — is terrific. Maybe authors just shouldn’t edit and direct their new work, as he has here … Les Brotherston’s haunting skyscape and Ben and Max Ringham’s heartstopping sound and music, it evokes all the surge and vitality and layers of buried past in the dark city. Tracey Ullman, in a career-defining performance… is a kind of shaman … Richard (Tom Riley) seems like an assured, if twitchy, yuppie; Julie (a wonderfully pitched performance by Sian Brooke) is a down-to-earth Cockney receptionist … Troughton (another crazily convincing performance) hoards children’s drawings. At one point I wondered whether they were all ghosts, or imaginations … Maybe too many themes: playwrights buzzing with ideas often risk putting them into long expository speeches in the mouths of characters who wouldn’t say those things. Call it George-Bernard-Shaw disease. In any event, it happens here and the last 20 minutes fall away into banality. But I’m not sorry to have seen it."