IT'S THE climactic scene, in which Noël Coward's mismatched lovers are at loggerheads. On this morning after an embarrassing night before, they're doing their damnedest to remain civil. Or, at least, as civil as they can be when two of them are not speaking and the other two have been dumped on their honeymoons. In its blend of sexual confusion and social anxiety, it's the missing link between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Abigail's Party.
Director Martin Duncan makes the situation more excruciating still by forcing them, cheek to cheek, on to the same couch. Banging elbows and knocking knees over a cup of coffee, they give their inner awkwardness an outer shape.
Half-comic, half-horrific, the scene encapsulates the play's most telling line: "Has it ever struck you that flippancy might cover a very real embarrassment?" This is not simply a comedy about posh people and their witty aphorisms, but one in which nobody is in control of their emotions.
It opens at the foot of Francis O'Connor's vertiginous art-deco hotel, bathed in the warm light of an encroaching dusk, where John Hopkins as Elyot Chase cuts a figure somewhere between the suave prettiness of Simon Cowell and the square-jawed machismo of Clark Kent. He's a cool sophisticate with a violent temper.
As the Titania to his Oberon, Kirsty Besterman brilliantly captures the performative quality of his ex-wife Amanda, switching by the line from dry to flirtatious, witty to vitriolic. She manipulates others just as her mood-swings manipulate her.
There's always a danger Sybil and Victor can seem bland in comparison, but Emily Woodward and Ben Deery give gutsy renditions that, for all their middlebrow values, show them to be their own people. Grasping the rhythm and melody of the lines as well as the beats in between them, all the performances are of a very high order indeed.
IF YOU ask a class of drama students why they chose their subject, a majority will answer with an anecdote about seeing a heart-stopping production at a formative age. For me, Willy Russell's Blood Brothers wasn't exactly that (when I saw it at the age of 18, I'd already developed a theatregoing habit), but it did make a tremendous impression.
If I'm calculating right, it was Friday 7 January 1983, and I'd managed to buy a ticket for a preview performance in the very back row, upstairs at the Liverpool Playhouse. It must have been the last seat in the house.
At one point in Chris Bond's production, a door jammed and Barbara Dickson, the first Mrs Johnstone, had to make her entrance round the side. The audience liked that. We knew it was a preview and it made it more real. We gave her an extra round of applause.
Back then, Russell's reputation on Merseyside meant a large audience was happy to turn out for an unknown play. Thanks to John, Paul, George, Ringo … & Bert, Our Day Out and Educating Rita, Russell and other Liverpool playwrights had moved new writing out of the studio-theatre ghetto. I'd heard about Blood Brothers because my mum, a teacher, had seen Russell's earlier nonmusical version on a schools tour, but otherwise, it was just a new show by a popular local author that everyone wanted to see.
What excited me at the time was that this was a musical that had everything. Andrew Schofield came on as a narrator who spoke in rhyming couplets ("So, did y' hear the story of the Johnstone twins?/As like each other as two new pins") which gave the show an air of Greek tragedy. It had a narrative arc to match. That could have been pretentious, except this show was also boisterous, earthy and funny.
It had an authentic working-class voice and, in its story about twins brought up on either side of the class divide, it wore its political heart on its sleeve. This was 18 months after the Toxteth riots, the era of Militantcouncils and Boys from the Blackstuff, and to find socialist principles enshrined in a popular musical felt like a tremendous provocation. It wasn't West End glitz, it was theatre rooted in its place and time.
All this, and a set of sweetly melodic songs by Russell himself that reminded us musicals could work in a folk/pop idiom – just as they had done in the golden era of Broadway. I'm Not Saying a Word, Tell Me It's Not True, Marilyn Monroe … has any playwright since Noël Coward doubled up so persuasively as a composer?
Recently, a friend told me he'd seen the show on a UK tour and was shocked by how bad it was. I don't know, I wasn't there. Maybe it became something else after 30 years. But back at the start of 1983, Blood Brothers stood for everything I believed theatre could be.
Published in the Guardian Citizens Theatre Three stars
IT'S the morning after the night before. Louise Brealey's Julie is one part elated, one part exposed. She's a titled lady who's had it off with an employee (in Zinnie Harris's salty translation, he is a servant, she a "servant's fuck"), and the thrill of the conquest is now doing battle with the terror of scandal.
Keith Fleming's John is sitting smugly in one corner of the kitchen, a man sexually sated and expectant of social betterment, as she pours him a glass of wine. Except, rather than offer a ladylike top-up, she lunges the bottle towards him and tips it from a great height. Fleming looks on, perplexed, as the wine splashes about him. It is a gesture that encapsulates Brealey's interpretation: her Julie is a push-pull paradox of generosity and aggression, civility and rage, a woman deeply at odds with herself.
She's as compelling as a car crash, yet there's something missing. August Strindberg's late 19th-century drama is an electrifying dance of opposing forces. On one side, we have Julie, socially privileged and emotionally needy. On the other, we have John, a humble valet with an earthy assurance. Julie sees dangerous animal sexuality in him, John sees ferocious upper-class authority in her.
And it's that authority Brealey underplays. She has brief moments of haughtiness, but much longer periods of vulnerability. Physically and vocally fragile, she barks her commands in petulance rather than entitlement. She seems brittle and childlike, not to the manor born.
The real power lies with her staff. Jessica Hardwick's Christine is steely faced, stoic and dependable. Fleming's John is full of bravado and swagger, but never so wayward as to undermine his place in the pecking order. The pair show each other a cautious respect, keeping their distance despite their plans to marry. They are their own people – and when Brealey enters, it is on their terms. She seems small in their presence. Not only do they own the kitchen, which is their territory, they also own the stage – a Scandi-grey set by Neil Haynes.
This all means, despite Harris's update to a world of 1920s industrial strife where the options for economic advancement are either strike action or marrying into money, the play becomes less about social inequality than the story of a wealthy woman's psychological breakdown. You wouldn't expect the sexual and political extremes of Yael Farber's post-apartheid Mies Julie, but Dominic Hill's short, sharp production, for all its jumpy passions, is more domestic than universal.
Published in the Guardian A Play, a Pie and a Pint/Mull Theatre Oran Mor, Glasgow Three stars
THE conversation about Live Aid usually focuses on the unprecedented gathering of the world's rock music elite and the profile-raising benefits for Queen and Status Quo. Or we talk about the concert's effects on charitable giving and the change it made in the attitudes of rich nations to poor ones.
Such concerns don't pass playwright Nicola McCartney by, but she goes a step further, in this co-production between A Play, a Pie and a Pint and Mull theatre, by presenting that day in July 1985 as a pivotal moment in British social relations.
With a flurry of references to Monkey, Nik Kershaw and the Fine Fare supermarket chain, she places four teenagers on Inchgarvie, the fictionalised "rough island" of the title. As the children of police officers, flying pickets and peace protesters, they have grown up with the class war. Now, as coalmines and steel works face closure, they will end up either unemployed or sucked into the Bollinger-and-Gucci lifestyle of the loadsamoney era. Like those who were expelled from this landscape in the Highland clearances, they are being shaped by the forces of history.
So while a ghetto blaster relays crackly segments of the Wembley gig, they squabble over the effectiveness of Live Aid, remember the charity received by families of striking miners and consider Bob Dylan's plea to support impoverished farmers at home. From our perspective, 30 years later, it is a time half full of idealistic promise and half rife with despair.
Given the way things played out, it's odd that the character who symbolises the imminent rise of the neo-Thatcherite should be the one who drowns. He was the future and his death muddies McCartney's thinking about the era's losses and gains. But her willingness to raise the questions gives Alasdair McCrone's production a sense of purpose to match her own thoughtful political reflection.
Published in the Guardian National Theatre of Scotland on tour Four stars
"I'M not going to talk about doubts and confusion," sang the Proclaimers in The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues. The song comes at the start of this melange of music and monologue – a kind of state-of-the-nation ceilidh – even though the stories it tells are characterised by exactly that. Doubts and confusion abound in a snapshot impression of a country atomised, uneasy and restless for change.
Looking us straight in the eye as they welcome us into their homely if dishevelled living room, Kieran Hurley, Gav Prentice, Julia Taudevin and Drew Wright (aka Wounded Knee) create an aesthetic that's like the Fence Collective performing John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. On the one hand, it's all beards, acoustic strums and nu-folk stylings; on the other, it's an encapsulation of a Scotland that stretches from the Stornoway ferry to a private dining room in Edinburgh, via Donald Trump's Menie Estate and a supermarket in Port Glasgow.
Less politically strident than McGrath's seminal play for 7:84, though with a quietly radical energy of its own, Rantin echoes the sentiment of another Proclaimers song, Scotland's Story, with its all-embracing philosophy of a nation united in its diversity.
It's also about a struggle for social connection: Miriam, a Palestinian refugee, longs for her fellow passengers on the 61 bus to rise up in song; MacPherson, a narcissistic drunk in a Methil pub, rages at the world's unspecified injustice against him; while Howard flies in from the US hoping to reconnect with "the land that inspired Disney-Pixar's Brave" (and also Trainspotting).
Suffering Adam Smith's "invisible hand around our throats", it's a nation on the cusp of becoming alienated from itself. Yet in a National Theatre of Scotland production that implicitly values community and the act of singing along, the message that "all our futures are shared" is ripe with promise.