THERE WAS a moment, following the opening ceremony of last year’s London Olympics, when it was possible to conjure up the image – part dream, part memory – of an England more at ease with itself than the country now presided over by David Cameron – messy, creative, social-democratic by instinct, postmodern and multicultural in atmosphere.
April In Paris
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Total Football: MORE BECKETT THAN BECKHAM
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
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Oran Mor, Glasgow
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The moment was brief, though, and here are two shows, in Scotland this week, that look hard and steadily at the damage done to the soul of England – and, by extension, to the whole of the UK – by the rigidity of a class system and power structure that has never really been challenged, and by economic inequalities that only grow more severe.
In many ways, John Godber’s 1992 two-hander April In Paris – revived in a fine co-production by Perth Theatre and the Tron – now looks like a period piece. His Humberside couple Bet and Al, whose lives change when Bet wins a competition for a holiday weekend in Paris, are far less well-travelled than their 21st-century counterparts would be; his portrayal of their narrow horizons, and of unemployed Al’s extreme conservatism when it comes to food and manners, seems to belong to a generation now passing into history.
Yet if the outward shape and arc of the play is a touch predictable, and even slightly patronising, there’s a clear-sighted ruthlessness in its detail that adds a chilling edge to the drama. Bet and Al’s rows are lacerating to watch, like a laconic English working-class version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?; and the transformation to a wider consciousness brings almost as much pain as pleasure, since it involves so much letting go. Kenny Miller’s fine production wisely takes its cue from this hard, brave quality in the play, setting it in a small featureless cube of a space – with just two chairs, and a hint of a mantelpiece clock – that suddenly opens out when Bet and Al reach Paris, with a bright backdrop of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. And Andrew Westfield and Emma Gregory bring a true, focussed, passionate energy to the deep northern rhythms of Godber’s text, as two people damaged, humiliated, and often psychologically imprisoned by the circumstances of their lives, but still able to dream, to joke, to make something new, and perhaps even to love each other, after all.
If April In Paris offers a glint of hope for better times, Ridiculusmus’s Total Football: More Beckett Than Beckham, at the Tron, offers about as bleak a vision of contemporary England – or Britain, the characters are not sure – as I can recall seeing on stage. The clue is in the show’s subtitle, which captures both its surrealism, and its relentlessness about the truth of things; and for those who enjoy 75 minutes of brave and bitter social satire, it delivers a rich and disturbing snapshot of English life over the past decade, created, written and performed by the brilliant duo of David Woods and Jon Haynes.
At its core – standing in the blank, white office-style space of George Tomlinson’s set – are two characters, a government minister called Roger and a civil servant called Brian; the year is 2008, and Roger is asking Brian to do something about pulling together a UK-wide football team for the 2012 Olympics. Brian is an unhappy posh bloke with infertility problems, who knows nothing about football; Roger is an ambitious, unpleasant bastard, whose occasional charm conceals a savage, bullying temper.
And bullying in all its forms gradually becomes a leitmotif of the show, as a gallery of miserable, stressed-out characters, asked to do jobs they don’t like for the most cynical of PR reasons, take it out on those below them. In the end, the set collapses, and Roger and Brian sit by a river trying to fish, in an ironic reference to a key image of contented Englishness. They are both lost to themselves, though, and almost suicidal; and in just over an hour of hard-won physical theatre, this strange, courageous show lets us see exactly why.
Scotland’s woes may be subtly different from those of England; but few who know the place would deny the lingering scars left by the notorious cases of Peter Manuel and “Bible John”, serial killers of the late 1950s and 60s. Manuel was hanged at Barlinnie in 1958 for the murders of nine people, including the wife, daughter and sister-in-law of Glasgow businessman William Watt; and Denise Mina’s new lunchtime play, Driving Manuel, is inspired by a strange incident which took place in December 1957, when Manuel met Watt at a restaurant in Glasgow, promising to tell him who had killed his family, and toyed with him throughout a long night, during which they drove to visit Watt’s bereaved brother-in-law.
It’s a briliant scenario, but at the moment Mina’s 40-minute script – directed in a slow, exploratory style by Graham Eatough, with striking visual images created through a chilling use of shadow-play – seems more like a tentative trial of various tones and ideas around the story than a completed work. Andy Gray and Callum Cuthbertson turn in an intriguing pair of performances as Manuel and Watt. At this stage, though, they can do little more than hint at the vast possibilities for comedy and horror, irony and social history, that lurk around this grotesque tale; one that could eventually tell us far more about mid 20th-century Scotland than it’s remotely comfortable to know.
• April in Paris is at Perth Theare until 30 March, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 3-13 April. Total Football… and Driving Manuel both run until 23 March.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
It’s a short play, for just two actors, but Emma Gregory and Andrew Westfield, above, give an unforgettable double performance in April In Paris, John Godber’s 1992 play about a working-class Humberside couple whose lives are subtly changed when they win a weekend in Paris. Westfield’s Al is like a big wounded bear: unemployed, depressed, and completely at a loss, without a job to fill out his identity. Emma Gregory’s lovely, vibrant Bet can’t believe that her life has come to such a dreary place. And they turn on each other, before perhaps turning back to each other, in a way that many couples will find all too recognisable in the hard-up Britain of 2013.