Review: Really Old, Like Forty Five

February 25, 2010

The Cottesloe Theatre is steadily becoming one of those spaces that I admire. It has a life of its own, despite being part of the National Theatre. Some people will frown upon the work that comes into it, for it is bold, challenging and often gambling with new work that is a far cry from the NT brand of entertainment for the people. The Cottesloe Theatre for me is almost restoring my faith in the work of the National Theatre, proving at times it can dance the thin line of experiementation and throw caution to the wind at it’s faithful audiences.

Really Old, Like Forty Five is one of those pieces that the National has put their faith in – with a big risk. It is an absurd new play by Tamsin Oglesby, charting the lives of a family as they plod through old age and dementia. This might seem like a conventional play on the surface, but when you throw in a medical company whose aim is to rid the streets of old people, facilitating uthensia and attempting to cure memory loss with the use of a robot nurse that has animastic qualities, you begin to see what an absurd play this really is.

Here lies the problem. This mix of robotic nurses, dementia curing pills, and a focus on a family attempting to fight through memory loss is possibly a little far fetched to comprehend. Or maybe it is novel approach to a hard topic? Either way there is no escaping the fact that this play is absurd, and this of course means that either you will love it, or hate it.

I couldn’t help but to feel Really Old, Like Forty Five is a mix of a Doctor Who episode with characters from The Catherine Tate Show attempting to pull off a NHS advert for dementia.

Oglesby’s play juxtaposes the medical trials against that of the real life, and if you can look beyond the surreal aspects of the play – there is a message that rings loud and clear. At what age do we get old? When is it time to stop pretending we are young?… and how far do the medical trials of new treatments go in order to gain reputation or profit?

Anna Mackin certainly faces the play with a great force in her direction. She tackles the subject matter straight on, switching the action between the various themes and directions of the text effortlessly so that there isn’t a moment for the audience to get lost on the tangent. Her insight into the play even allows her for some slightly surreal moments involving the use of Liz Brotherston’s stage design and video work by Fifty Nine Productions Ltd, which take form of a giant tortoise and a baby flying through the air. Odd aye?

Whilst the play may take an unusual approach to getting a point across, there is no denying that this dark comedy does feature some superb acting from the cast. Judy Parfitt as the steady dementia form of old woman Lyn is one of the key figures in Really Old, Like Forty Five. She shows a harrowing display of emotion during scenes where she believes things that aren’t true because her memory is failing her. Equally her inability to understand what is going on, makes for brilliant one liners allowing for the comedy to arise.

The Olivier Awarded Marcia Warren as the dotty Alice brings such a charm and wit to her acting capturing the heart of growing old and still managing to survive with vigor. Oglesby’s portrayal of these older women are at times immensely sad, yet glowing with warmth and joy. Michela Meazza as Mimi the robotic nurse is beautiful. She moves with such robotic and structured manners that when combined with the sound effects, I quite simply forgot she was even human (is that possible?).

The rest of the cast featuring Lucy May Barker, Paul Bazely, Tanya Franks, Gawn Grainger, Thomas Jordan and Paul Ritter each bring with them the absurd characters of Oglesby’s play to different ends, but still achieving the desired affects.

Really Old, Like Forty Five is a tough play to comprehend. Oglesby’s setting of the play at times outweighs the subject matter of growing old and dementia – yet equally she has managed to create a common worry within the everyday person and completely turn it on it’s head. We often see in the media the use of clinical trials for various drugs, and countless times we have heard of courtroom trials around uthensia, Really Old, Like Forty Five tackles these subjects in an absurd manner. Often hitting the theme with poignant emotion, other times slightly missing the point by the very nature of the play.

The outcome is really down to the spectator. If you’re a regular at the National Theatre, I might suspect that you have a certain idea of what to expect from the play. Well – you won’t quite see what you expected. Really Old, Like Forty Five is a compelling approach to dramatising the worries that we all have, but to be sure – watch some Doctor Who episodes before you go, just to get into the spirit of it!

Really Old, Like Forty Five is playing in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National Theatre until 20th April 2010. Booking in person, over the phone or indeed as always through the National Theatre’s website.

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Review: Our Class

December 23, 2009

Our Class at the National Theatre

The persecution of the Jews over the course of the 20th century is no easy task to condense into a play. Nor is it an easy task to bear witness to over the course of three hours in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s new play in a version by Ryan Craig whilst holding heavy subject matter it is hard hitting, thought provoking and finely acted.

I had my doubts about Our Class within the first few minutes. My initial reaction was, ‘not another play where adults pretend to be children’. There is nothing worse, often sending shivers down my spine, to see grown actors attempting a mocking childs voice and mannerisms. However there is something quite compelling with the start of the play, it sets the tone and links directly with the title and theme of the play: a close knit school class and their inevitable future living through multiple regimes.

Our Class is a tough play to watch, its dialogue is brutal, hitting the points of torture and endurment of a ethnic group being persecuted for their origins. There is nothing happy about genocide and Tadeusz Slobodzianek doesn’t try to convey the light hearted approach, there is no humour, just the knowledge that this did happen, (and in some countries, still happening).

What I admire about this production is my inability to highlight a single actor who stood out to be praised. Our Class isn’t about exceptional acting abilities – it is performed with the ensemble at heart, and what a better way to feed into the key themes. They sing folk songs, recite nursery rhymes in unison and dance in circles on the wooden floor of the Cottesloe Theatre.

The ensemble at work

Spanning some 60 years, Our Class tackles a fascinating subject, that any person with an interest in Polish history would thrive off. At times the play is a little heavy with its emphasis of dates and times to which the story is winding between. Yet it is the narrative based text that drives the piece, action is minimal here. It’s almost a Greek tragedy for the modern tragedies of our time. We hear of the violence, the horrific torture of the Jews against the catholic villagers. If there is action, – fighting between characters, Bijan Sheibani’s direction creates the brutality with words not physical contact. The words and dialogue are the weapons of this play.

Our Class whilst being simple in its stage design by Bunny Christie, it is a complex piece. The development of the characters over the span of their lives gain increased intensity as guilt emerges, claims are made against them and ultimately their deaths lay before them. Our Class resonates through us so truthfully because, although we may not have first hand experience of War Crimes and Genocide, we all know of them. It’s something that hangs heavy over Europe from the second world war, and further afield today.

The stage design for Our Class, simple.

One thing I struggled with slightly was the length of the play. At 3 hours with one interval, the second half seemed to drag slightly. Whilst I understand that for us to understand the paths of the characters, and where they end up you need this length, I couldn’t help to think that some 20 minutes of editing could have brought the running time down. The brutality of the spoken action is less so in the second half, and instead the various monologues of action take over. The actors sliding between themselves to fulfill the narration.

The narration of Our Class is without doubt energised and emotional. Careful pacing has been executed with the actors, giving at times remarkable outcomes, twisting and turning through the individual stories. Yet what Our Class needs is a change in direction or tactic. The monologues are delivered with force, but after 2 hours, you want something different, a change of dynamic. Having said this, it doesn’t make for a poor performance.

It is remarkable how gripping this production is. Perhaps it’s the subject matter, or perhaps the acting and directing? Whatever it is, Our Class is gripping, bursting with emotion, with a deep sense of understanding and knowledge that humans are vile, horrid creatures at times.

Our Class is playing at the National Theatre in the Cottesloe Theatre until 12th January 2010, tickets are still available through their website and box office.