WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: Vicky Featherstone shakes things up (and jumps out a box) on the Culture Show

Our chief critic caught up with the BBC's Culture Show episode devoted to Featherstone and the Royal Court

WhatsOnStage logo

On the night that the Tricycle in Kilburn revived one of the Royal Court's notable commercial successes - Once a Catholic (1977) transferred to the West End and ran for two years - the Royal Court itself was in the spotlight on BBC2's Culture Show, tracking artistic director Vicky Featherstone through her Open Court summer season.

Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

It was a brisk half hour programme that certainly indicated a change at the centre of the operation, with a soap opera for the community in Peckham coming back into Sloane Square (not all that successfully, said Michael Billington), an all-female cast rehearsing one of the "weekly rep" plays in the season, and Abi Morgan dropping by with her new script.

At the centre, Vicky herself was smart, fast-talking, honest and unassuming, at first alarmingly giving the impression that her job was about opening doors and jumping out of boxes rather than getting the best possible writing and acting onto the main stage. One of the Open Court writers, Tanika Gupta, said that coming into the Royal Court used to feel like coming into a men's changing room - well, it definitely was when David Storey's The Changing Room was being performed - but that was now, well, changing. I wonder if Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker and April de Angelis felt that, too? And was it really like that anyway under Max Stafford-Clark or Stephen Daldry?

We saw the programme's narrator, Clemency Burton-Hill, sampling the delights of the headphone plays which took you round the building but didn't really do much for the cause of new writing. Still, it's clear that in a theatre that has always been pioneering - the shorthand for this was a name check of Look Back in Anger and Jerusalem, with a snap of Olivier as Archie Rice in The Entertainer - Vicky was on a mission to shake things up a bit.

Although there were a few qualms expressed by Billington (and a curious, backwardly awarded black mark to Dominic Cooke), the film was mostly friendly and insider-ish, and nicely evoked the rehearsals and end product of Vicky's opening main production last September, Dennis Kelly's The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, an intriguing anti-capitalist (surprise, surprise) play that was either an impressive calling card (Billington) or a punishing dud (the Daily Telegraph and, up to a point, me).

But the film was very good at suggesting a burst of enthusiasm and optimism, of wanting to make many more people feel welcome in Sloane Square, many more voices perhaps, and a total dispersal of that elitist sense of self-importance that, paradoxically, has characterised the best and most innovative work there in the past. In the end, a good theatre does not depend on its policies of social inclusion or democratic principles, but on the talent of the people working there.

And you do get a strong sense of Featherstone coming in with fresh ideas and some very talented people around her, notably the director John Tiffany, and the playwrights Kelly and Abi Morgan, neither of whom are associated with the Royal Court so far, and some very fine actors, such as Tom Brooke, face like a crescent moon, who played the lead in The Ritual Slaughter.

The revival of Once a Catholic has not made a great case for the play in retrospect, driving out its charm and laying on the satire with a trowel. It was always an oddball Court play, unusually innocent in its writing and construction. In the context of the Court, though, and in MIke Ockrent's original production, it seemed another good example of the subversive classroom play, situated somewhere between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Skyvers, with a deeply personal and funny blast of Irish Catholicism.

An updated version would probably investigate more tragically the weirdness of the idiotic priest and the sinister music master but, even three decades ago, the sex and blasphemy were more pronounced than they are in Kathy Burke's production. You don't feel a modern masterpiece has been waylaid, but something of the period charm and the authentic detail has been smudged. I wonder if Vicky Featherstone has any plans for a new play about the Catholic Church, doing for that institution, but unavoidably with more brutality and critical anger, what David Hare once did for the Church of England in Racing Demon?