June 2nd, 2015


That Is All You Need To Know

That Is All You Need To Know followed Bromance on the first night of Pulse Festival 2015. The Idle Motion Theatre Company have developed quite a reputation for using sophisticated projection technology to create an absorbing context in which to tell theatrical stories about people. I was eager to see what they would do to tell the stories of the wartime Enigma codebreakers and of the enthusiasts who later saved Bletchley Park as a monument and a museum to these remarkable people. I was a little sceptical because the play is subtitled 'The untold story of Bletchley Park'; I have about a dozen books on the subject so I wondered how untold could this story be. Perhaps, I thought, the writers had found new oral history in Milton Keynes' Living Archive or conducted fresh interviews themselves. If they did, it did not show. There were no new stories here but what they did present was told effectively.

The production seems to have been based on two main sources: Gordon Welchman's 1982 book about Hut Six and the accounts of members of the Bletchley Park Trust. There was a passing mention of Frederick Winterbotham's 1974 book, which was the first public revelation of the wartime secrets, but the focus of the wartime story was on Welchman and his famous colleague Alan Turing. Interwoven with the story of the codebreaking was that of the saving of the manor house and the wartime huts from demolition and development as a housing estate. Telling two parallel stories on a monolithic set with no costume changes as actors switch between characters can be confusing but the script maintained the distinctions effectively even though there were few body language clues from the company.

Where there was confusion, however, was in the coherence of the form. Why, for example, was there a single dance interlude? At the end of BromancePaul Warwick (one of the China Plate directors who had programmed the festival) had encouraged members of the audience to stay on because Idle Motion's show also involved dynamic physical theatre. This one short scene was that dynamism; it was hugely overshadowed by the consummate mastery of Barely Methodical Troupe and it did not advance our understanding of Bletchley Park or its people.

The set was not, of course, entirely monolithic. There were a few small pieces of stage furniture and some elegant projection to indicate the changing use of the space over historical time. The appeal of the projection lay more in the ingenuity of the projection surfaces than in the projected imagery but the effect was consistently pleasing.

This all seems rather negative and I feel that I should clarify that I enjoyed the show; it held my interest for all of its eighty minutes and I was impressed by the quality of the acting. My companion, however, had some trouble with the plot at times; for her it was an untold story and without a stronger grasp of the history she was not always carried through the transitions. This is a good show that could be a great show with a few modifications: particularly stronger indicators of the temporal setting of each scene and a sharper focus on the main thrust of each narrative.



Just past half-way through the Pulse Festival we were attending our fourth show. Stand had attracted my attention on three grounds: it's Oxford connection, the use of oral history, and the involvement of Chris Goode. I had never seen any of Goode's shows but I had read some of his texts and heard the enthusiasm of theatre buffs. The New Wolsey Studio was almost full as we slipped into seats just inside the entrance at the end of the front row. As the show began a cast of six entered from the auditorium and seated themselves on high stools beside each of which stood a lectern. Because each lecturn was stage left of the performer this formed a physical barrier between us and the actors. This might not have been a problem had the performances been more direct but it became apparent that most of the actors were reading most of their lines. This has to have been a directorial decision — an indicator of verbatim theatre; the show is not new; this would be at least its fourth run and some runs involved multiple performances. Reading scripts is a characteristic of works in progress but none of the promotional material or reviews of other runs mention such circumstances.

"It's not about me; it's about all the other people"* said Chris Goode in his opening line as a photographer who had been an early campaigner trying to save Castle Mill boatyard in Oxford's Jericho. I used that yard in the 1980s when we would moor a narrowboat in what was then Orchard Boatyard. None of this was made explicit in the performance (and it was not necessary to do so). On behalf of Oxford Playhouse, Goode had invited people to talk about a time in which they had stood up for something that they believed in. He chose six people whose stories particularly appealled to him and interviewed them in greater depth. I imagine that his interviews used the English oral history technique called 'life history' or 'whole life'. I can find no statement to support this but it is implicit in the inclusion of accounts of childhood with each story of adult activism.  Goode then selected highlights from these interviews and wove them into a show lasting just over an hour. Although none of the interviewees are identified by name, there is enough personal information remaining to be able to identify them with only limited research. This lends the accounts a powerful authenticity; this is a show about real people speaking in their own words. Was this why Goode chose the conceit of obvious reading? Did he wish to emphasise that this was actors reporting the speech of the subjects? In his own performance he varied between natural speech and sometimes hesitant reading with the occasional stumble. I still cannot tell whether this was cunning artifice or inadequate rehearsal although I favour the former explanation given his undoubted deep familiarity with the material.

My confusion was exacerbated in the variety of delivery styles by the cast. The most engaging performance was that of the woman playing the part of a co-founder of Oxford's bicycle repair co-op Broken Spoke, who had come to activism through fracking opposition and climate change awareness. Her stories were funny but, more importantly, she delivered her speeches naturally with no reference to the script. Similarly authentic was the performance of the young actor playing an actor who co-founded the Reclaim Shakespeare Company (whose rebranding as 'BP or not BP' makes clear it's opposition to BP's involvement in the arts) and for our benefit reprised their first anarcho-thespian demonstration against BP as an agent of climate change.

All six characters were telling stories that interested me. An 82-year-old animal activist described the spirituality that motivated his lifelong campaigning and his involvement in SPEAK, the group opposed to animal research at Oxford University. A middle-aged woman explained how she had moved from agnomic rebellion to local government and advocacy for refugees. The anomalous character among these avowed activists was a mother who had come to tell the story of an action by her adopted daughter but in so doing revealed the touching story of her adoption of this Russian orphan. This intimate story made the important point that effective action is not confined to campaigning; the very way that we lead our lives can improve the world.

Not all the stories had upbeat endings but their combined effect was affirming. The source material is heart-warming and my only criticism is that the staging of this well-crafted tapestry obscured its value. As we entered the auditorium for the next show, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" I had to sympathise.

*Or something very like this.

Every Brilliant Thing

As we entered Ipswich's High Street Exhibition Gallery (HEG) for Every Brilliant Thing, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" Like us he had just come from Stand and, as it turned out, we were going to be read to again. Indeed, we would be doing some of the reading ourselves and this experience was going to be very different indeed.

HEG was built as an extension to Ipswich Museum almost a century ago. It has its own entrance from the street and is accessible from within the museum complex. For a long time it was used for museum storage but a few years ago it was opened up as a performance space; the New Wolsey Young Associates are based there and the New Wolsey uses it to stage shows that need flexible informal seating. For this show there were two rings of seats; all were brightly lit and as we chose our places an unremarkable man in unremarkable clothes (oh alright then: jeans and an untucked open-necked white shirt) was handing out well-worn pieces of paper. Each page bore a number and a handwritten phrase. The pages were varied: torn feint ruled note paper, post-it notes, plain papers of many weights. They were inscribed in many inks. The friendly tubby man asked us to read our phrase when he said our number. This was not a member of the technical crew or the front of house team. This was the star of the one-man show, the co-writer of the script: it was Jonny Donahoe.

When we were settled Donahoe started to tell an intensely personal story of the first time that his mother attempted suicide. He explained that his first experience of death had been the euthanasia of his pet dog. This man in his mid thirties became a seven year old boy. Here the performance made its first step into the remarkable. A member of the audience was asked to provide his jacket as a prop for the ill dog and then to enact the lethal injection of the pet as little Jonny held it in his arms. It could have been bathetic but the scene was touching. When the volunteer vet was too aggressive at his first attempt, Donahoe gently directed him to a more appropriate action. This would be the tenor of the show: apparently unsophisticated mechanics, profound events, repeated grounding of the audience through the fourth wall*, and a gloriously cathartic sense of the absurd.

Other members of the audience became in turn, Jonny's dad, a school counsellor, a lecturer, the girl who would become his wife (and then, sadly) his ex-wife. Jonny explains how he started to make a list of every brilliant thing as his innocent attempt to help his mother ward off depression. It does not work but the list becomes an obsession continued into middle age. It spirals up to a surreal total of a million things. Even had we not been engrossed we would have been driven to pay attention by the knowledge that our turn would come to read an item and, because no show could sustain a million readings, not every number would be called. Often, Jonny would comment on an item after it had been read but at other times the simple sequence carried the narrative.

Every aspect of this performance was a masterwork. I find it hard to believe that it is entirely a work of fiction but I trust author Duncan Macmillan when he makes that assertion and I know that it has been born of a long process. About five years ago I was told about an installation at Latitude Festival where people were encouraged to read aloud from a list of feelgood catalysts pinned to the wall of a tent. I remembered the phrase 'feelgood catalysts' but it was only as I started to write this that I realised that what the man in the pub had described was a precursor to this show. [ETA: A quick Google reveals that it happened at Latitude 2009].
Donahoe's style is extempory; it feels entirely spontaneous. Yet I know that he has performed this script over a hundred times. He is a stand-up comedian who has never been in a play before. He uses his stand-up skills to improvise, to interact directly with individuals in the audience, and to remember just where everything is located. Some of the apparent variables can be constant across the many tour venues but with most dates being single nights there must be huge variations in the staging. In Ipswich the show was in the round but this is not possible everywhere and the shape of each venue will be different. Within all this technical constraint Donahoe delivers an intense emotional journey. As I type about it my throat tightens at the memories even as I feel a smile curling my lips. My distress flowed from parallels with my own life experiences and it was clear that many of us were deeply moved in some way. I saw and heard tears among the rich shared laughter.

In the moment I was entirely absorbed in Jonny's story but upon reflection I realised how privileged we were to see randomly selected people improvise within the framework. They were so good that they could have been plants but these were neighbours and New Wolsey regulars that I recognised. There were safety nets built into the structure: the redirection of the vet's injection, the advice to read the blurb on the back of a book rather than improvise a description of it. The audience performances were excellent. Jonny's girlfriend was delicious in her affection and the school counsellor who used a sock puppet to talk to the child must have worked with children in real ife. This did not feel like 'audience participation'. The audience was involved in a natural way and it is a testament to Donahoe's skill that we saw none of the embarrassed awkardness that is such a common response.
Another key component of the invisible structure was the use of music. Aspects of music feature on the list. Jonny's dad is defined through Jazz and his suicidal mum is characterised by Soul. Some of the music was prerecorded but Donahoe also sang and played keyboard. He was last seen in Ipswich in April fronting Jonny & the Baptists (a comedy band) so his musical ability was no surprise.

Some fifteen years ago I saw Mark Little in his wife's production of Defending the Caveman. There too a gifted comedian delivered someone else's lines as if the one man show was his own spontaneous thoughts. We saw it several times. It would be on my own list of brilliant things. Little toured that show for about a decade and I hope that Donahoe can do the same with Every Brilliant Thing. I never read the text of Defending the Caveman. As we left the theatre, making our own lists, we were offered a copy of Macmillan's playtext for just three quid. I declined. I have enough books and I hope to see the show again because my own list includes 'Every Brilliant Thing performed by Jonny Donahoe'. [ETA: After thinking about the show repeatedly I decided that I did want to read the text. It's cover price is £9.95 and even with my trade discount I had to pay more than twice the theatre price so buy it at a show if you get the chance.]

Commissioned by rural Shropshire theatre group Pentabus for the Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, Every Brilliant Thing toured the UK tour in 2014 and was received enthusiastically at the Edinburgh Fringe. It then transferred to New York for the first quarter of 2015 before a big UK tour. The odds are high that you can catch it somehwere near you if you are in the UK. And, to my mind, you really really should.

*Just where is the fourth wall in theatre in the round?