Actor-writer Robin Soans’ latest verbatim drama Life After Scandal - with a multi-tasking cast including Caroline Quentin, making a rare stage appearance (See News, 6 Aug 2008) - premiered on Tuesday (25 September 2007, previews from 20 September) at Hampstead Theatre, where it continues until 20 October.
Following success with Talking to Terrorists and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, Soans’ new play investigates the national obsession with scandal, through interviews with Neil and Christine Hamilton, Major Charles Ingram, Lord Montagu – all of whom were in the first-night audience – as well as Edwina Currie, Margaret Cook, Craig Murray, powerful PRs, paparazzi and others who’ve been involved in media furores.
Amongst other roles, Quentin (pictured) plays Christine Hamilton in a cast that also comprises Michael Mears, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Philip Bretherton, Simon Coates, Tim Preece and Bruce Alexander. The production is directed by Hampstead artistic director Anthony Clark and designed by Patrick Connellan. It’s co-produced by the Drum Theatre, Plymouth where, following London, it will run from 24 October to 10 November 2007.
First-night critics unanimously admired Robin Soans’ adept interview skills and his ability both to gain access to his subjects and to get them to talk so candidly, producing some fantastic, and often fantastically amusing, revelations. One went so far as to rave that the overall result is “one of the strongest and most fascinating new plays of the year”. However, others felt that, by comparison with Talking to Terrorists, the focus of Life After Scandal was less clear and less worthy, while one derided verbatim drama in general as “vacuous gimmickry”. There was all-round praise for the performances, particularly Caroline Quentin as the old “battleaxe” Christine Hamilton.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “It was only a matter of time before the current craze for ‘verbatim’ theatre – the recycling by actors of interviews with real people in order to make a political point – embraced the celebrity culture … Soans is an extremely good interviewer and an adept organiser of material. While the story of any one or perhaps three of these characters might have made a good play, you feel that pushing them all together makes for a series of entertaining sketches rather than organic drama. And Soans doesn’t really confront the central question of whether or not redemption is possible through media exposure, or through social and civic dedication, as it so movingly was in the case of John Profumo … Anthony Clark’s handsome production on a plush restaurant setting by Patrick Connellan, tries valiantly to impose a sense of ensemble. Caroline Quentin is outstanding as the magnificently flighty and shameless Christine Hamilton; Michael Mears is her Neil, a sort of willing, smiley accomplice in the recovery process of selling off bits of china and appearing in pantomime in Guildford.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Much as I enjoyed the show, I felt Soans had cast his net so wide it was difficult to come to any general conclusions. He is clearly a very good interviewer, since he gets everyone to talk candidly … Although Soans interweaves these and other stories with great skill, his show rests on dubious premises. One is that scandal is a modern practice. As Sheridan reminded us, it was the life-blood of 18th-century London: all that has changed is the speed of its dissemination. Behind the show also lurks an assumption that the media is the villain … Michael Mears and Caroline Quentin turn the Hamiltons into an almost endearingly resilient couple who have become part of the media circus. Bruce Alexander also convincingly embodies our own David Leigh who shrewdly sees the celebrity industry as a form of theatre, and Tim Preece lends Lord Montagu an aristocratic dignity. It is a lively piece of verbatim theatre even if I, for one, refuse to share in the collective guilt that supposedly attaches to our fascination with the downfall of the high and not so mighty.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “This proves to be one of the strongest and most fascinating new plays of the year, funny, touching but also offering a disturbing insight into the way we live now … Soans has got his subjects to talk with considerable frankness, and persuaded some of them to reveal perhaps more than they might have intended. As in all the best verbatim theatre, you feel you are getting close to the unvarnished truth … And it is undoubtedly true that the piece satisfies vulgar curiosity … but (it) is also a study of human resilience. It’s hard not to warm to the Hamiltons’ brazen refusal to go under … Caroline Quentin beautifully captures both the pushy absurdity and the courageous loyalty of the formidable old battleaxe (Christine Hamilton) … What the piece captures most forcefully of all is the degraded nature of our society, living vicariously through often worthless celebrities and delighting when they come to grief. Anthony Clark’s beautifully acted production is more than an entertaining piece of theatre. It’s a portrait of a decadent age that gleefully feasts on unhappiness and disgrace.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “All too often in Life After Scandal, the familiar self-exposers and emotional strip-teasers become wearisome rather than illuminating. Edwina Currie once more complains her lost lover John Major failed to slip her into some high-ranking government position, while that coughing major from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? rages over his sense of being caught in a miscarriage of justice. On a stage adorned with ugly square pillars, tables and chairs, scandal victims confide to us in single streams of consciousness. Soans' highly irritating technique, with its chopping and changing of narratives, is to launch Lord Montagu upon his life story and then temporarily halt its flow while Bruce Alexander's raffish Lord Brocket (prison for fraud) and then Duncan Roy (gay film director jailed for credit card offences) begin theirs. Despite the skill and elegance of Anthony Clark's beautifully acted production, this documentary repeats rather than develops. Soans discovers little new about our lust for scandal or eagerness to see the high and mighty fallen … Life After Scandal aims high but will please the prurient curious.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Robin Soans’ last verbatim play was Talking to Terrorists, a title that meant what it said … This time the issues are a bit smaller … When Caroline Quentin’s wonderfully bossy Christine Hamilton is denouncing a certain ‘Egyptian grocer’ or describing her status as a gay icon as ‘very nice’, or Geraldine Fitzgerald’s unquenchable Edwina Currie is badmouthing John Major, Life After Scandal is a highly enjoyable example of its genre. But when the play escalates into an attack on public prurience, celebrity culture, paparazzo ruthlessness and the trivialisation of British life, you sometimes feel you’d like less biased witnesses than some of the speakers on offer … Soans’ interviewees are so different, it’s hard to generalise about them … I’ll remember Soans’ play for the moments that demonstrate what a fine interviewer he is. Aitken’s description of the day an ex-jailbird broke into (yes, into) his prison to gather dirt for a tabloid, only to be outed by Irish cons improbably yelling ‘look out Jonno, this guy’s a wrong ’un’, is hilarious.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (one star) – “Author Robin Soans is a leading light in ‘verbatim’ theatre. Its guiding principle is to use only words transcribed from real people, uncontaminated by dramatic invention. That's thoroughly spurious, of course, because an actor’s tone of voice can be as manipulative as a playwright’s pen, and the author is also editing by choosing who he talks to. And integrity aside, if he can’t be bothered to edit his tapes let alone write a play, the result can be seat-chewingly dull … Getting his foot in the door is of course an achievement and there are some good snippets, including Currie’s bitchy revenge on John Major, Aitken's prison yarns and Hamilton’s delusion that he could have been Tory leader. But oh, the blather we have to endure! … Victim and villain are lumped together and we are invited to sympathise with their common plight while we hiss at the cruel media. The cast are mostly strong – Caroline Quentin’s Christine Hamilton is almost as formidable as the genuine article – but you can’t get round the fact that this is basically a rambling talking-heads documentary, without the benefit of a narrative commentary. The result is even dumber than the dumbed-down values it is trying to berate, and the real scandal is that stage producers keep falling for this vacuous gimmickry.”
- by Terri Paddock