Performance attended 5th November, 2016 in New York
Within a few days of booking my trip to the states I discovered Richard Armitage was to perform in a play off-Broadway. Without even checking out this play I booked tickets. What follows is not a straight review of the play. It is now a week since I attended the performance and I want to record my memories, my reactions and my thoughts about the play, as such it will contain spoilers.
Prior to attending I did do some research. The title is taken from the chorus of the Beatles All you need is love. The play is the work of a British playwright, Mike Bartlett, it has already been performed on the West End (with a different cast) where it was well-received. Reports indicated that it spanned forty years and its main theme was the economic changes of this period. They also indicated play was a dark comedy. I have no disagreement with these reports but I became focused on another change I felt the play highlighted within this era.
I received an e-mail a few days before the performance giving details of how to find theatre and stressing late-arrivers would not be admitted till end of act. Whilst I know this is true of most theatres it stirred my paranoia of being late. We not only checked out location in day-light (heading photo taken then) but ended up arriving nearly an hour early! Staff were warm and welcoming and there was a small bar.
For once I decided to purchase a programme, I don’t know if this is standard in states but they didn’t sell them. Instead a free ‘playbill’ was given to us as we took our seats, this contains details of other plays and lists the sponsors of theatre. There are just half-a-dozen pages on Love, Love, Love with no photos. There is no background on themes of play or notes about the eras or even music credits. I did wonder how Americans relate to the play. The couple we sat next to were American but she had lived near London for eight years and they were frequent visitors to England. They were attracted by positive reviews in New York Times and came from Philadelphia to see play.
Whilst Richard’s name was listed first on cast list at top of stairs and in cast list in playbill, the former was listed alphabetical by surname and the later by appearance on stage. This seemed to indicate an equality of the actors. All their performances were brilliant and equally strong. This may not be apparent in my writing, but I have already expressed my bias.
Pop music from the 60s played whilst audience seated itself. I recognised all the songs from my childhood.
The curtain opened revealing a 60s living room with sofa and a portable TV perched on a truck in front of it, there’s a side table with portable record-player and a formica kitchen table. Kenneth (Richard Armitage) emerges from his bedroom, hair pulled forward, bare-foot, his style icon is more Mick Jagger than Beatles, as he’s wearing jeans and an open dressing gown which reveals his torso. His movements are quick, restless, as he lights a cigarette and pours a drink from a ships decanter before turning on the telly and flopping onto sofa. His brother, Henry (Alex Hurt) returns home from work and their conversation mixes with their body language to tell us about their relationship. Kenneth is the younger, brighter brother who passed 11+ and is now at Oxford. Henry has moved to London and this is his flat, he works as a bill poster. Whilst Kenneth moves around whilst he talks Henry is static and still. Kenneth has landed himself on his brother rather than return to family home. Henry still resorts to the bullying of their childhood when words fail him, and although Kenneth towers over him his brother he is not yet used to his elongated body and visibly cowers to his threats. Henry wants Kenneth out of the way as he has a girl coming round. Kenneth wants to watch the multi-nation broadcast of Our World. (This took place on 25th June. 1967.) Henry is bemused by the changes in society whilst idealist Kenneth embraces them, particularly the rise of the working class.
Sandra (Amy Ryan) arrives without the food she promised to bring. With her long blonde bob and A-line mini dress she appears to be a typical dolly-bird, but it was Sandra who asked Henry out. Sandra speaks in a neutral English voice which reminded me of my mother-in-law, who is actually Swiss-German but has been in England since 60s, like her there is a precision in her delivery as she declares herself a ‘free spirit’. Her interest in Kenneth is immediate, she stresses their similarities ‘we’re both 19’, ‘we’re both at Oxford’, ‘we both like pop music’ ‘we both smoke pot’. In fact, Sandra declares, she is already high. After Kenneth provides some ‘weed’ they both smoke whilst Henry declines. She despatches Henry to get fish and chips whilst encouraging the entranced Kenneth to find something they can dance to. Initially attracted to Henry by his leather jacket she now realises he is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, she coolly forecasts her and Kenneth’s future and even Henry’s reaction to their relationship. It is their duty to be happy after all we could die tomorrow she declares. As ‘All you need is love’ plays from the TV they, at last, dance. Henry returns as they kiss only to walk out as Sandra predicted.
Act Two opens with music I have never heard before. Dancing around, bare-foot, in an 80s living room is a teenage schoolboy using a candlestick as a mike. This is Jamie (Ben Rosenfield) Kenneth and Sandra’s son. Kenneth returns with his daughter Rose (Zoe Kazan) who has been playing her violin in her school concert. Kenneth wears a smart suit and his hair is brushed back from his face. (Like many actors in the flesh Richard looks younger than on-screen, here he seemed closer to thirty-five than forty-five.) Rose is annoyed because her mother failed to turn up on time. Kenneth tries to relate to his son as a friend, but seems uncomfortable with his daughter. Although he’s proud of her and tries to be encouraging he forgets it’s her 16th birthday they will be celebrating and refers to her turning 15. Sandra returns wearing a red suit, which was similar to one I wanted around 1987. She is working full-time and was for late for concert, only arriving after being prompted by phone call from Kenneth, she ensures her daughter that she did see her perform and she was wonderful and should continue with music for her A’levels. This further exasperates Rose who declares that they discussed her A’levels two weeks ago! With two successful working parents the children attend public school. Besides the problems in their relationship with their children when alone the problems in their marriage emerge. Once again it is Sandra who manipulates the conversation so that Kenneth’s accusations of her having an affair turns into a confession of his own affair. A twist underlined by his body and facial contortions as he realises his mistake! Meanwhile Rose is having her own relationship problems after Jamie repeats gossip about goings on at a party involving Rose’s boyfriend with another girl. Alcohol is used to help the adults cope with their problems. When Sandra declares they are not happy Kenneth retorts ‘Of course we’re not happy we live in Reading!’ Seeking normality he gathers the family for birthday cake. Jamie is encouraged to smoke and drink, feeling he is being treated as an adult he indulges. Eventually an unhappy Rose appears having argued with her boyfriend. A drunken Sandra brings in the lighted cake and Rose unable to blow out her candles on first blow is further annoyed as Jamie, childishly, blows them out for her. As Sandra serves the cake she announces her need to be open and honest with them, she declares the marriage unhappy and that they will be divorcing as neither of them wants to be unhappy. After all, she states, we can all die tomorrow! Kenneth looks crestfallen by her revelations, whilst Rose storms off. Jamie has slowly turned green throughout. As his parents rush upstairs to deal with Rose’s crisis Jamie puts the music back on as his face crumples into tears.
Act Three again opens with music I am not familiar with (honestly I have lived through these decades and am aware of most music). The setting is an expensively furnished sitting room with French windows leading to a garden. Rose enters and wanders around the room continually pulling her sleeves over her hands. She is now a women. Jamie enters playing a hand-held video game. She tries to have a conversation with her brother whose exhibits problems of concentration and social engagement. He is holding down a delivery job whilst living with their father, who he describes as a mate. She is shocked they came to London but did not think to let her know. She has just come from the funeral of their Uncle, an event Jamie didn’t attend. An aged Kenneth slowly walks in, he has recently retired and is enjoying life, he’s carrying a funeral urn and is pleased to see Rose. There is still the distance between him and his daughter. He has little idea of her life and her monetary problems as he tells her about his 80 grand a year income. Sandra arrives a bit drunk, she has remarried but her husband is unwell and didn’t accompany her. She is there at Rose’s request. The crisis at the end of Act Two was Rose’s suicide attempt. Rose outlines her life as a struggling musician, she is now thirty-eight, her boyfriend has left her for a younger woman who wants children. She accuses her parents of failing to support and guide her and demands they buy her a house. Neither Sandra nor Kenneth see her point-of-view and refuse. Exasperated she leaves to find Jamie. Whilst Kenneth wonders if Rose is right and they should do something Sandra reminisces stating ‘she saw her children standing on their shoulders and going further than them’. Kenneth isn’t listening, he is still attracted to Sandra and suggests they should, at last, travel the world like they wanted to do when they were young, after all they could die tomorrow! Amusingly he still has the old record-player and puts on ‘All you need is love’. Rose returns demanding a lift to the station to find her parents dancing absorbed in each other. Jamie walks in and smiles as he sits watching his reunited parents.
As I mentioned all actors are excellent in the play what I found usual though is that the two women’s roles were very strong parts. Another strength was the naturalness of the dialogue, which reminded me of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls. Unlike most plays were one actor speaks and another replies as if playing tennis, dialogue here overlaps, it’s interrupted, at times it peters out. Its delivery seems so natural that it is easy to overlook the skill of timing the actors require in order to delivery their lines in the correct place, there are no second chances on a stage. The effect of this crossover conversations is to increase the awareness that characters, in particular Rose, are not being listened to. It also adds to audience connection, we’ve all been in similar family arguments at some time in our lives, and to the comedy. It may not come through from my above summary but this is a funny play that induces laugh aloud moments.
Although I could see, and appreciate, the social economic theme of the play I was more interested in the feminist aspect the play revealed. Sandra rides the crest of female liberation with ease. At a time when marriage was still the norm she selects a partner who will support her life choices. She puts her needs first, above her marriage and children. Realising she is unhappy she casually tears down the foundations of her life and rebuilds a life with a more suitable partner. (Kenneth has relationships but doesn’t remarry.) Believing herself to be a more liberal parent than her mother she raises her children without barriers whilst failing to meet their needs for security and support. I see echoes of Absolutely Fabulous’s Edina in Sandra; the same self-absorption, the same seeking for personal happiness, the same neglect of her children. Whilst the change in the economy has impacted on the young has the greater impact been the change of women’s position in society? Women not prepared to settle for the lives their mothers lead but follow their dreams and crave out their own careers. Rose should be an inheritor of all her mother’s generation strove to achieve, instead she has pursued a dream that was unachievable. She has tried to live up to her parents expectations hoping for their approval. It is not only Rose that Sandra has failed. Kenneth wanted to be a travel writer yet his dream was undermined by Sandra. Conversely at the end of the play he is not unhappy with his life, ‘maybe we were lucky’ he mutters, maybe he was, maybe love is all you need, however despite telling their children they loved them their actions did not confirm this love.
Note. I remember watching Kenneth light two cigarettes by placing them in his mouth, lighting both and then passing one to Sandra. It was a common gesture in old movies and hinted at the shared intimacy between a man and a woman. With the demise of smoking I haven’t seen it for a long time. However, I can’t quite remember which Act it occurred in. Act Two would make it a gesture Sandra ignores, whilst in Three it would reaffirm their relationship. Unfortunately I can’t go back and see play again but I would do as it is a multi-textural piece, with other themes I could explore further.
I had brought a gift from UK for Richard. For some reason I felt something was occurring backstage after the show (it was bonfire night in UK) and I handed it to usher for delivery. On leaving auditorium the combination of the large cranberry juice and the thought of a six block walk delayed our departure, so we were probably the last members of public to leave the theatre. Outside about forty women of various ages waited behind the iron hand rail. We walked pass and then paused. Seeing a waiting car I persuaded my husband to wait awhile. I had heard of ‘meet and greet’ and have met other actors, through usually one-to-one or at book signings, this felt different. Richard emerged wearing a base-ball cap which hid his face, he did not look into crowd. There was no Beatles hysteria or teenage pushing, the waiting crowd was respectful of both each other and Richard. Richard spoke to a few members at front. I moved forward and did take a couple of photos but darkness of surroundings meant grainy images. The car door was open and I did not feel Richard was entirely comfortable. Maybe I should have brought him one of the new reflective scarves that prevent decent images of stars being captured when they’re out-and-about. I slip-slided away* without meeting him.
Walking back we discussed the various aspects of the play. My husband commented on the last Act when Richard came to the front near us and was staring into the middle distance whilst Sandra mused on the argument behind him, he startled when Sandra spoke directly to him. Recreating an instinctive body movement and making it seem natural can not be easy, it certainly impressed Chris.
Throughout the performance Richard had not just allowed his make-up and costume to convey his age but used his body and gestures to be; a keen, lively, gangly nineteen year old, a confident, successful forty year old and, finally, a greying, slightly stooped sixty year old. He was almost continuously on stage, his delayed entrances probably due to necessities of make-up and wardrobe changes.
A few days later we were in the Washington Museum of Modern Art looking at a picture of the late Marilyn Monroe. This had been taken by the late Richard Avedon, with her permission. She had just come off set from during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, instead of the vibrant Marilyn we are familiar with here she is drained of emotion, she is tired and vulnerable with no persona to hide behind. She has given her all to the take and has nothing left to give at this point.
*Slip sliding away is Paul Simon song released in 1982. It was not used in play.
Note. I am writing this at 4am in the morning as I’m suffering the effects of jet-lag. After all the time changes my body has decided my sleep time is 9am till 3pm, which at this time of year is main daylight time. The whole stateside experience was enjoyable but intense. I am really glad this play was a part of it.