WhatsOnStage Logo

Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Apr 2011

WhatsOnStage logo
With Sienna Miller drawing rave reviews in Flare Path at the Haymarket and Anne-Marie Duff being praised for her electrifying performance in Cause Celebre at the Old Vic, we can't move for Terence Rattigan revivals. Someone is making up for the lost years when Rattigan was deemed inferior to the Angry Young Men of the fifties and sixties. We're trusting you haven't had enough just yet, as we're recommending the scripts of both these plays as the must-reads of the month.

It's also a return to older work for Mike Leigh as he revisits Ecstasy, first staged in 1979 and now just about to transfer to the West End from Hampstead, and Enda Walsh as a new anthology of his work is published. Meanwhile, Aleks Sierz casts his eye over new plays of the past decade, and Michael Nunn and William Trevitt celebrate ten years together as the Ballet Boyz.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Ecstasy by Mike Leigh
Nick Hern, £9.99

It's a nice touch: at the end of this script, there are some snippets of music manuscripts for songs that appear throughout the play. Now you too can sing "Danny Boy" and "Hairy Eggs and Bacon" in a drunken state, like Mike Leigh's characters. Ecstasy, of course, is the play Leigh, now recognised more for films such as Vera Drake and Another Year, has just returned to directing, after it opened in 1979. The production, which has garnered great reviews at Hampstead, is about to transfer to the Duchess, where it will run to 28 May.

The script follows four friends in a Kilburn bedsit in 1979, and was developed in typical Leigh style with the original actors, including Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent. In rehearsals, he is known to have encouraged improvisation and in-depth character research, lending the lines a delicious element of authenticity. Ecstasy is bleak – the main character Jean is an alcoholic, suicidal petrol station assistant who sleeps with unsuitable men – but it ends on a note of hope. “This is tragedy,” says Leigh, “albeit it's funny”.

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
Nick Hern, £8.99

Bruce Norris’ brilliant satire on race and property, exposing and exploding modern-day liberal hypocrisy, is one of the must-see plays of the year (it’s at Wyndham’s Theatre until 7 May). In response to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun, the first half is set in that same year in a suburb of Chicago, where Russ and Bev are selling their house to a black family (the first in the neighbourhood). The second half jumps forward 50 years. The make-up of the neighbourhood has changed (the community is now mainly black) and a black couple want to sell the same house to a white couple. You wouldn’t want to go round repeating the non-PC jokes, but in the context, they work especially well.

Cause Celebre by Terence Rattigan
Nick Hern, £9.99

Based on the 1930s trial of Alma Rattenbury, Cause Celebre received its London premiere a few months before Rattigan's death in 1977. Since then it has been rarely performed. The current Rattigan revival, of course, is changing that: Anne-Marie Duff is the star of the electrifying Old Vic production, on until 11 June, while this newly published script should ensure Cause Celebre's place on a few more living room shelves.

In his introduction to the script, Dan Rebellato, a lecturer at Royal Holloway, gives a clear outline of the historical case which saw Rattenbury go on trial with her 18-year-old lover for her husband's murder. Much of the play, he says, bears remarkable resemblance to documentary theatre: taking lines of dialogue from the court transcript and inserting them into dramatised flashbacks of the murder as well as taking inspiration from Alma's letters. But there is also a strong fictional aspect. Rattigan has invented a fictional character – the foreman of the jury, Edith Davenport – who plays a key role in the plot. She may be a “coded portrait” of Rattigan's own mother, Rebellato says, creating a whole new area to explore.

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan
Nick Hern, £9.99

Flare Path, says Royal Holloway lecturer Dan Rebellato, was “the turning point” in Rattigan's career. It was “the moment where he convinced not only the critics but also himself that he was a writer of sustained talent, with a future of emotional excavation and exploration before him”. Written and set in 1942, the narrative is based on Rattigan's own experiences as a tail gunner in the Second World War, and follows a love triangle between Teddy, an RAF bomber pilot, his actress wife Patricia and Peter, Patricia's former lover and a Hollywood film-star. It's a story that now sounds fascinating, but at the time was thought by some to be sentimental and melodramatic.

Rebellato shows “the underlying seriousness” of the play with admirable effectiveness, examining Rattigan's use of subtext and praising his verbal and emotional reticence – qualities that would come to epitomise Rattigan's body of work. Flare Path, starring Sienna Miller and James Purefoy, runs at the Haymarket until 4 June.

Enda Walsh Plays: One by Enda Walsh
Nick Hern, £14.99

This anthology of the Irish dramatist's first eight plays, written between 1995 and 2005, includes Disco Pigs, his breakthrough work about two 17 year-olds from Cork, and his favourite, The Small Things, about the relationship of his dead father with his alive mother. Even from his previously unpublished debut, The Ginger Ale Boy, about a ventriloquist, Walsh's preoccupations with Irish dialects, the limitations of language, claustrophobic relationships and mental unstable characters are on show, which makes this a great introduction.

Reference books

Ballet Boyz by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt
Oberon, £20

Lavishly illustrated, Ballet Boyz charts Michael Nunn and William Trevitt's ten years together as two of the greatest innovators of the dance world. Known as much for their television documentaries as live performances, the former Royal Ballet principals have opened up ballet to new audiences and explored the creative possibilities of a pair of male dancers – rare in ballet until now.

This anniversary book offers a tantalising glimpse into life on the road with the Boyz, its tone firmly celebratory. Naked, for example, might have been “a huge production. The stress nearly killed us,” but that's as much as the boys reveal about the strains. A cross between an elaborate programme and a coffee-table book, this 160 glossy soft-back publication comprises many an outstanding full-page photograph of dancers in rehearsal, on stage or in stills from TV programmes, annotated by Nunn and Trevitt.

One of the most interesting pictures is of a sheet of handwritten studio notes, showing the dynamism that goes into some of the performances: “cartwheel DIVE”, “jump off my back (headstand)”, read two lines. A must for anyone interested in the art of movement.

Rewriting the Nation by Aleks Sierz
Methuen, £16.99

From 2000 to 2009 about 3,000 new plays were staged in Britain. In this lively, detailed study, Aleks Sierz explores what they say, as a group, about national identity. His thematic approach, comparing how playwrights treat topics such as family and war, shows that plays contribute to this debate from a range of directions: they need not all be along the lines of Richard Bean's England People Very Nice, for example, which examines different communities directly. One of Sierz's strengths is to include established writers producing new work, such as David Hare (The Power of Yes), alongside new writers, such as Lucy Prebble (Enron): too often new writing gets matched exclusively with new playwrights.

Sierz also examines what new writing has meant in the past with an admirably critical eye: how much of work being staged in the late Fifties and early Sixties was really by Angry Young Men, such as John Osborne? Were most Eighties playwrights really writing about race and sexual orientation? This is a useful and authoritative survey of work created during the previous decade. Here's hoping Sierz is thinking about a sequel.


Tagged in this Story