By Mike Bartlett
A Paines Plough / Drum Theatre Plymouth Production
10th March 2011
The actor’s credits appear in the play text, which was sold as a programme. As they date from six months earlier, when the play started out in Plymouth, they are not the same for the Spring 2011 tour, which started in Salisbury. So unusually, I’ll just use character names. An image search showed different actors in the original production, so criticism here for failing to credit actors in the “programme”.
Talkin’ ’bout my generation!
The play has three acts, set in 1967, 1990 and 2011. The main characters are nineteeen years old in 1967 (hence forty-two and sixty-three in subsequent acts). Oh, dear. With me watching they were on to a hiding before they started. I mirror the ages right through the play and I’m a swine at picking out anachronisms. I’ll try to curb myself and pass by 90% of them. I did note that the writer Mike Bartlett was born in 1980, so while an observant kid in 1990, reliant on old movies / clichés for 1967.
At some point, the director or writer decided there would be no attempt to follow the characters’ ages physically. Costume would do the job, and even hairstyle would be ignored, let alone facial lines, spectacles, greying hair, stance, posture and so on. The lead actors would basically look and be the same throughout. The costumes looked good for 1990 and 2011, but were a drastically-missed opportunity for 1967.
OK, it’s a choice that avoids silly prosthetics and employing two dedicated make-up artists. It would have been possible to age the actors because it was a three act / two interval play. I would have avoided the elaborate make up job too, but I would definitely have done “ageing-lite”. A simple somewhat longer hair wig for the male lead, Ken, in Act One. Not a hippy wig, just collar length. I’ve done ageing in sketch shows with one minute to make up, and on black hair a handful of talcum powder rubbed through does wonders. A sixty-three year old with jet-black hair is making a character statement: (a) he dyes it. (b) he’s vain / daft enough to think no one has noticed that. It’s called “doing a McCartney.” I thought Sandra, the female lead, did make an effort at physical differentiation. She was ganglier in Act One, not gangly in Act Two, and very slightly stiffer in Act Three. This had to be achieved while being stoned in act one, and drunk in Acts Two and Three. Ken sailed on regardless.
OK, then. So no physical ageing. In Ken’s case, no acting differently either. The actor had one hell of a job. Sandra is a monstrous and funny creation and got most of the good lines. Her script is excruciatingly hammy in 1967, but gets better. Their kids, Rosie and Jamie are well-drawn too and have dramatic things to do. It seemed as if the writer had forgotten to write a part for Ken. Even reading the script afterwards, I couldn’t see that he had anything to hang the performance on.
Years ago, Bob Spiers (director of Fawlty Towers, Dad’s Army) told me a scriptwriter should eliminate physical description in the final draft of dialogue, because otherwise you were constraining the casting. You might imagine a short, curly-headed brunette as perfect for the part, but if the actor was the right choice, a tall, straight-haired blonde might be perfect casting. In this case, we have a lot of stuff about being bare chested. As the student, Ken is bare-chested with a dressing gown around him. The actor is very slight, and thin. Not the sort of guy who’d bare his chest and cause a woman to swoon, as happens here. You don’t write in the bare-chested hunk. If you do, you have to cast someone with physique. Sandra says:
You could walk around wearing nothing and you’d look better than most people do dressed up.
No, this fellow is better-looking with his shirt on. Really. Believe me. I am too. The characters are dressed and look totally different to the pair on the poster. The dressing gown, according to his brother makes him look like a “poof.” Then a more flamboyant garment was required. If you’re doing 1967, the dull green frock Sandra gets was poor. All you can say is “it’s a short frock.” Even the dullest older brother in 1967 was unlikely to be wearing a cardie. (In fact, the script calls for a “black leather jacket”).
The theme of the play is the selfishness and self-centred nature of the baby boomers. In Act One, they meet, and Sandra, who is going out with Ken’s older brother, Henry, abandons him and goes off with Ken. Ken produces grass (no, it’s not the USA) and they get stoned together. No one during any period of massive change spouted monologues about living in an era of massive change whatever their state. I don’t believe ‘male chauvinist’ was common currency either. In 1967 ‘male’ would have encompassed it.
In Act Two, we see them and their kids twenty-three years later. The kids are fourteen and sixteen in 1990. In both cases the younger actors age from 1990 to 2011 convincingly. Act Two is the Philip Larkin moment (they f*ck you up, your mum and dad). The marriage is crashing amidst mutual infidelity. They’re completely blind to their daughter’s emotions and feelings. She’s just played violin in a concert that Sandra failed to attend, it’s her birthday and she’s breaking up with her boyfriend. The resulting row has a devastating effect. No plot spoiler.
In Act Three, they’re divorced. They last met at poor brother Henry’s funeral. Another missed chance. Given Henry’s homophobic comments in 1967, it would have been neat to have mentioned a male partner. Pity. The son Jamie is obviously now a mental shambles (he does it very well too), living with dad. Rosie arranges to meet them at Ken’s gleaming white pad. Her aim is to ask them to share out their wealth and buy her a house. By praising her creativity as a violinist when she was a child, they are entirely to blame for her ending up in a non-career as a second-rate classical violinist, a career she’s recently abandoned. Ken says his pension is £40,000 a year. Rosie, with her degree in music and nearing forty, says she earns half that. And lives in London in 2011. (Get a job as a music teacher, love, and do extra private violin lessons at £25 an hour. You’ll be OK.)
Ken and Sandra rediscover their mutual attraction, ignore her, and get back together to the strains of The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, the song they first snogged to in Act One.
The main “lesson,” and it is meant to be a lesson hammered in, is one various Conservative ministers have been touting for a few months. Just before the election, one (whose name mercifully escapes me) was holding forth on how the baby boomer generation had an unfair percentage of the country’s wealth, and instruments were needed to pass it from the sixty-somethings to … well, I would have thought young people in need … but as in the play, he meant his generation of forty somethings. A generation that was pampered by the baby boomers have realized that the generation above them is living longer, and that they might have to wait another 20 or 30 years to inherit. They want it now. They got the car at eighteen. They got the holidays. They got the gap year. Gimmee! A lot is made in Act One about how Ken doesn’t have to work in the holidays in 1967 because he’s “got a grant.” (i.e. unlike kids today who have a loan?) A full 1967 grant was £340 a year and was designed to cover term time only. Most students got less, because there was a means-tested parental contribution, which many parents couldn’t afford. I had a full grant because my father had died just before I went to university. Very few others had a “full grant”. University accommodation immediately took half, leaving £5 a week to live on. Nothing stretched to holidays. My friends working in banks and offices were on £12 to £15 a week, lived at home, paid nothing and ran cars. I worked on the post office at Christmas, and every week of the summer. At Easter, I resorted to staying at university to revise. No jobs were available anyway, and I still thank Northern Dairies for giving me enough credit on milk, bread and eggs to enable me to survive till the next term’s grant arrived.
OK, let’s get the hatchet out and make a mild start on some of the anachronisms. First, the writer, and the actors can’t do 1967. The writing of 1967 dialogue is abysmal. We were in two minds whether to leave after Act one. We were in row four, and two lots of two empty spaces appeared in front of us after Act One, so others our age did. I’m glad we stayed, because Act Two was vastly better, and Act Three quite a bit better. Ken swigs brandy through Act One. A major current of the play is alcohol dependence, but I knew no one who drank brandy during the day then. Or drank brandy at all. The older brother is called Henry. In my school year of 130 kids, we didn’t have a Henry. Ian, Graham, Keith? Those are the names that conjure up a mid-40s birth. Sandra is the wrong name for an obviously upper-middle class girl of 1967, unless it was short for Cassandra, that is. And Cassandra would have insisted on it in full. I daren’t even start on music. The cliché is that big brother only likes classical music. Ken is into “rock and roll” and “weed”. In 1967, rock and roll was what rural greasers still listened to. Rock is the word. After just a few months at Oxford, Ken has no regional accent. Henry has a regional accent. In 1955, a working-class lad at Oxford might have either accentuated his accent or adopted advanced-RP. In 1967, he wouldn’t have bothered to do either. Ken is accentless too, rather than mimicking advanced RP. Seems unlikely to me.
Oxford? A Google shows it’s the writer’s home town. That’s a very untypical elite university for 1967 too. It was the era of concrete and glass. Sussex? York? Kent? East Anglia? We never find out what Ken and Sandra’s jobs in later life are, but they’re comfortably off in 1990, probably wealthy in 2011. They say they worked hard for their money. Actually, we see nothing to disprove that. But the only Oxbridge graduates from 1967 who weren’t financially successful, would have been the mentally-ill, or the politically / socially committed (so staying in education for the sake of it). I’d bet a great majority of those who entered law, medicine, financial services or politics would have been well-off.
In Act Two, Ken urges his daughter to listen to Procul Harum, saying it’s on a par with Mozart. Yet another missed opportunity for the baby boomers in the audience. A Whiter Shade of Pale was the early summer number one hit of 1967, and the melody is lifted from Bach’s Air On A G String. So comparing Procul Harum to Bach would have been the funny line … I could go on for hours. Instead of having programmes, they sold complete play scripts including programme notes at a bargain £3, so I have an unusual amount of information to assist nitpicking.
I’ve been commenting this year on the enforced smoking in all those Noel Coward / Maugham / Wilde / Rattigan revivals. This play had a lot of smoking in it. We were right up the front, and you saw people light cigarettes, and smoke go upwards, but we didn’t smell it. That’s interesting because at Bath, we could smell the smoke right at the back of the hall. Does Salisbury have amazing air conditioning? Or did they have some tobacco-free smoking device? Another missed opportunity, because at Bath they use herbal smoking mixtures from the Heath Food Store, which have a pungent bonfire smell. It would have added ambience in Act One!
I thought it a poor play, with a decent second act. I’m surprised to the point of amazement at the reviews from national papers, which relate to the original production with a different cast. Perhaps the October 2010 production was significantly different to March 2011. The writing is unbalanced as if Bartlett got enamoured of Sandra’s character and left Ken as a cipher. It’s not a good play.