Monday, February 20, 2006

Carmel Morgan: Smaller

On Friday last to the Theatre Royal, Bath (TRB) to see Smaller, a new play by Carmel Morgan. And the rest of what follows here is not so much a review of the play as a short disquisition upon the art and science of playwriting, and the state of the UK theatre in 2006.

The TRB is 200 years old. It seats about 900 people, and it acts as a receiving theatre, taking in touring plays which change every week. Bath is part of what might loosely be called the number-one touring circuit, which consists of a dozen or so major theatres in big provincial cities. Almost invariably, these touring plays or shows feature one or two star names. Seats at the TRB tend to be expensive, when compared with, say, a paperback book or a movie: for Smaller, a stalls seat cost £29.50.

Last week's offering was unusual in that it was a new play by a writer new to the stage. Carmel Morgan has been writing for seven years, and is currently one of 18 regular writers on the UK's oldest and best-loved TV soaps, Coronation Street.

In the UK, as in most other countries, very few new plays by unknown writers ever receive a production. Such productions as do occur are mostly in tiny 'theatres' which are no more than a room in a pub. Those acting often work for nothing, or for the largely illusory 'exposure' or experience. But there are still plenty of wannabe playwrights: a recent competition received 10,000 entries. (For details of the theatre's present attitude to new plays, see yesterday's Sunday Times article by Richard Brooks. You have to register to read it.)

It is also worth noting that the TRB is almost completely self-funding, in the sense that it does not get a major financial subsidy from some governmental body or other. But even those theatres on the touring circuit which are subsidised are very keen to put bums on seats. And the only proven way to do that is to have star names on the poster.

For the writer who wants to make any serious money, or who wants to establish any kind of reputation as a serious playwright, this requirement for a star to sign up for a play creates a more or less insoluble problem. Star names are not, by and large, interested in new plays.

Why not? Because they don't have to be, for one thing. And because it's too risky, for another. Why undertake the hard work (and it is hard work) of a touring production at all, when you can get better paid work in television or movies? And if you do have a burning desire to appear in front of a live audience, why risk your reputation in play which is a completely unknown quantity when you can appear in an old favourite by Shaw, or Noel Coward, or J.B. Priestley?

All of that being a simple fact of life in the UK theatre of today, I was interested to find out how Carmel Morgan had managed to pull off what is undoubtedly a very clever trick indeed -- new writer, new play, major production, star names attached. Especially as Smaller is said to be going to the West End. Fortunately the answer to how this feat was accomplished is in the programme.

It turns out that Carmel had some ambition to write a stage play, and the director, Kathy Burke, knew that Dawn French was looking for someone to write a vehicle specially for her; a vehicle which might also, perhaps, involve Dawn's friend Alison Moyet. So Kathy recommended Carmel to Dawn, and all these various talents seemed to click, and hence a play was born.

That kind of process is, in fact, the only way that I can conceive of a new play by a relatively unknown writer achieving a major production in the UK theatre of today.

Dawn French, by the way, is a name which will be known to all UK readers but may not be known overseas. Think Roseanne Barr. A woman of forty-something, short, fat, comedienne, and very good at it. Alison Moyet is an up-market pop singer. Kathy Burke is a very respectable and successful actress who, by her own admission, found that she was getting stale and turned to directing for a bigger buzz.

And so what is Smaller about? Essentially it's about a middle-aged woman (Dawn French) who has spent the last 25 years or so looking after her widowed and disabled mother. She has a full-time job as a teacher, and is good enough at it to have been promoted, but her spare time is zero. The Dawn character has a sister (played by Alison Moyet) who has failed to 'do her bit', and has gone off to Spain to make a career as a singer. If you can call rousing the rabble in a tourist bar either singing or a career. We do, incidentally, get to see Alison performing half a dozen songs which punctuate the action.

So, we have three characters only. An elderly, disabled Mum, devoted spinster daughter, passing up chances of a life of her own, and the sister who went off and did her thing. And as far as plot goes, that's about it. Sister comes back eventually, if only for an audition in a musical. She and the other sister have a bit of a row. Mum dies. Travelling sister goes off again, leaving the Dawn French character with the prospect, perhaps, of doing something different.

In an interview printed in the programme, Carmel Morgan says that writing for the stage proved harder than writing for television. And it shows. This is a two-act play. (They all are these days, even when they're revivals of plays which were written in a three-act form; Mr Blair must have passed some legislation forbidding plays from having more than one interval, and the playwright's carefully wrought three-act structure is not so much studiously ignored as carelessly chopped about.) And during the interval of this one Mrs GOB bet me money that act two would fizzle out. 'In modern plays they always do,' she said. And she was right.

Why did this happen? And what, precisely, is the nature of the failure? These are issues which affect all plays, not just this one.

Well, you won't have to read the GOB for very long before you find out that my belief/theory/argument is that plays, and novels, are all about emotion. Hotels sell sleep, doctors sell health, and playwrights and novelists sell emotion. Read Chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing if you want the complete story. (And yes, I will put up a free PDF of that book one day soon. It's just a matter of finding the time.)

The playwright's job, then, is to create emotion in the audience. And the theatre is different from the novel in that the audience is all gathered together in one place for the same purpose, and can, so to speak, interact. An audience of individuals can become, potentially, one body.

The thing to note about the theatre audience is that is absolutely seething with goodwill. Everyone who is there has gone to a great deal of trouble to be sitting in their seat. And they have often paid dearly for the privilege. So by golly these people are going to have a good time if they possibly can. Of course 'having a good time' in the theatre does not necessarily mean rolling about with laughter; it can mean having a good cry. But people will do their very best to co-operate with the writer; that's the point.

The writer, meanwhile, has to understand what the audience want, as has to make some attempt to provide it.

Smaller, as we now know, was designed primarily as a vehicle for Dawn French. So Dawn, naturally, and very professionally, gets a lot of laughs out of her role as the carer. Because that's what she does; she's a comedienne. Not many women could have the audience (well, some of them) rolling about with laughter at the spectacle of a carer getting a more or less paralysed woman out of a chair, into a wheelchair, lifting her out of the wheelchair and on to a disabled loo, and then waiting 'for things to happen'.

Things did happen, by the way. Cue sound effects: elderly woman piddling, followed by a plop, followed by laughter, loud and long, from the audience. You also, if you care to, get to see Dawn wiping Mum's bum; and, yes, donning a rubber glove and pushing her piles back into position. My dears, they howled.

As Mrs GOB pointed out, this scene wasn't actually funny at all. But this is a Dawn French vehicle. The audience -- notably younger than usual -- had come to see Dawn do her thing, and yes, she did make it funny. And this is an audience, you have to remember, which has seen The Office and Little Britain. And if you can laugh at either of those shows you would find the phone book funny.

Anyway, so far so good. The playwright has done her job (although the getting-her-on-the-loo scene could be played very differently) and the desired emotion has been created in the majority of the audience. But to succeed -- to be memorable -- a play has to be more than a succession of sketches. It has to be a whole, and it has to carry a powerful emotional punch. (And before I forget, let me say that a powerfully moving play will not just stir you on that one evening. It will literally embed itself in the molecules of your body -- see Professor Candace Pert's book The Molecules of Emotion if you don't believe me.)

And how, please, do we create a powerful emotional punch? Well, the traditional way is make use of the 'curtains' -- i.e. those moments at the end of a scene or an act when (in a proscenium-arch theatre) the curtain descends. See William Archer's 1912 book Play-making, chapter XVIII, for the old way of doing things. The Broadway playwright John Van Druten also had much to say about curtains in his 1953 book (still in print) Playwright at Work.

The curtains provide an opportunity for the skilful playwright to conclude a scene or an act with a memorable and moving line or action, something which is a natural and indeed inevitable culmination of what has gone before, and something which will either generate a roar of laughter, or, in the more subtle dramas, evoke genuine tears. If theatre is sex, then the curtains are orgasms.

Now in Smaller we had quite a few small scenes and two main curtains, at the ends of acts one and two. And both opportunities, I'm sorry to say, were completely wasted. Act one did not end at all; it just stopped. No orgasm there, then. Act one was all foreplay, after which the play took a rest to get its breath back.

The final curtain, regrettably, was far worse, to the point where the audience was left wondering whether the play had actually ended or not.

At the final curtain of Smaller, Mum has died, Dawn and Alison have slagged each other off (a bit half-heartedly, I thought), and then made up. Alison goes off to appear in a revival of Oliver and Dawn is left sitting at the table. Full stop. OK, so we are left with the idea that she might now be able to branch out, get married or travel, and have some sort of a life of her own. But that's an idea. It's not what is required, which is an emotion. The dick, if I may be so crude, went all limp on us.

The last time I saw a final curtain like that was in a play written by Harold Pinter, starring Harold Pinter, and directed by Harold Pinter. And Mr Pinter, as we all know, has recently won the Nobel prize. So, if Pinter does that kind of thing, it must not only be good practice but very definitely the best way to go. Right?

No. Wrong. You don't chuck away the tried and tested techniques unless you've got something better to replace them with.

There are other problems with Smaller, the chief one being that French and Moyet are not actresses. They're performers. Yes, they are absolutely top-quality performers, ace professionals whom it is a pleasure to watch. But they're not actually very good as actresses.

Fortunately they are in the presence of a woman who is a very fine actress indeed: June Watson, who plays Mum. June has done masses of plays with the National Theatre, the Royal Theatre Company, the Royal Court, television, films, you name it. And she holds the piece together.

Do I need to tell you that June Watson's name cannot be found in the advance publicity for the play, and that the poster features a head and shoulder shot of French and Moyet and no one else? That is explained, perhaps, by the fact that the part of Mum might not have been cast when the publicity was prepared. But I also have to report that, on the TRB web page giving details of this show, in the week when the play was being performed in Bath, June Watson's name cannot be found anywhere. (I will try to provide a link to that page here, but it might be gone by the time you read this because the play has moved on.)

Furthermore, if you look at the web site for the Theatre Royal in Brighton, where Smaller will play from 6 to 11 March, there is a similar silence about the actress who is so important to this play.

That omission I can only describe as shameful. But then, that is the UK theatre scene that we all know and love. Audiences will not pay £29.50 to see actresses. People want to see stars.


Anonymous said...

You'll be pleased to know that Alison Moyet herself does talk about the very fine actress June Watson on her fan website in glowing terms.

We at AMCO are certainly not undermining June's contribution to the production.

I would like to mention that while Carmel Morgan has written the play itself, it was Alison Moyet who wrote the three original songs featured in Smaller which also play a part in telling the story of the Clulows

Anonymous said...

I saw this play in Milton Keynes last week, and I have to say the audience's reaction to the toilet scenes was very different from that which you described in your post. Rather than finding it amusing, you could almost sense a collective 'shifting-in-our-seats' moment at the stark reality of the situation being played out on stage. In a similar vein to one of Carmel Morgan's previous projects, The Royle Family, she wasn't afraid of the realism of silence in such situations; in other words, she let the characters' actions speak louder than any dialogue could have done. It's interesting that two different audiences should react so differently to the same scene. I admit to having high expectations of the play, though for me that was mainly due to my enjoyment of Carmel Morgan's television work. It certainly wasn't perfect - in particular, I think much more could have been made of the complexity of the sisters' relationship after their mother's death - but I await more of Morgan's work with anitcipation.

Anonymous said...

I think it a tad unfair to compare the acting skills of Ms Moyet three days into her first ever play, to that of Ms Watson now into her sixth decade as a seasoned actress. Ms Watson is very good, there is no doubt, which is why she was cast. When pre publicity was done for this play and the photo of Dawn and Alison taken, Ms Watson was not yet on board which explains her exemption from it. It also has to be said that the very existance of this play allows June Watson to take on a leading role, something she has been unable to do for some time, not having been given that opportunity recently in any three act play. That theatres choose to omit certain players of the cast from their publicity is not the fault of the other actors and i know it would not be of their choosing. Who cares though when ultimately, bums on seats, people get to see Ms Watsons performance and then talk about it.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the erudite original post I dont believe I have ever read such pretentious piffle from anybody let alone someone who claims attention by resorting to sexual analogies in the analysis of playwriting. Incidentally the laughter that was generated by the lavatory scenes was as much a recognition of the human condition and the everyday reality facing carers than a cheap appeal for laughs

Anonymous said...

You will know how much work goes into staging a play and a new one at that. We need to encourage new writers. We need new blood and it has to start somewhere. I think it unworthy of you (who seems to understand how much thought is required for such a venture) to judge it so swiftly - before it has a chance to bed in. The first week is just plain unreasonable. Catch it now, as i have, and you will be moved by all concerned I am sure.

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