Review: Double Feature 1 and 2 (Edgar & Annabel / The Swan, Nightwatchman / There Is A War)

Reviewed performances: Saturday, 13 August 2011
(Four hours on the Paintframe’s “cushioned benches” – I sure suffered for art!)

The Paintframe at the National Theatre is the place where the set decorations are made, but it’s now home to “Double Feature” while it lasts. Pots of paint, ladders and tools are everywhere, reminders of the creative spirits that are usually at work in the hangar. With “Double Feature”, creativity has moved into creativity, and Soutra Gilmour’s amazing set designs have turned The Paintframe into a Russian nesting doll of art.

by Prasanna Puwanarajah, directed by Polly Findlay

Director - Polly Findlay, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson

Stephanie Street as Abirami in "Nightwatchman". Photo: Johan Persson

After reading the reviews, I’ve braced myself for an hour of highly confusing cricket-slang with sprinkles of Sri Lankan politics, admittedly an odd mixture. But never trust a critic – “Nightwatchman” was the surprise of the evening.

“Nightwatchman”, the debut of Prasanna Puwanarajah, is as touching as its language is coarse and energetic. On the night before her debut playing for the English cricket team against Sri Lanka, Abirami (Stephanie Street) is training, a lone figure with only the bowling machine for company. English, Sri Lankan and passionate cricket player – this mixture and the conflicts coming with it soon turn her training session into a one-sided conversation with her deceased father. It covers everything from her love to cricket to her contempt for the Tamil Tigers, from the ignorance of politics to her difficult relationship with her uncle and father.

Stephanie Street is wonderful in this play; crying and laughing, one moment trembling with anger, the next full of hope, getting knocked down, always getting up again – it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. Very exhausting, very powerful and very convincing acting in a challenging play.

The carefully orchestrated sound effects add a special dynamic to “Nightwatchman”. The bowling machine evolves into a conversation partner of sorts, a stand-in for her father, but rather than dealing out verbal blows, it replies and hurts Abirami by hitting her with cricket balls. Very clever and effective.

* * *

by Tom Basden, directed by Lyndsey Turner

Director - Lyndsay Turner, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson

Damian O’Hare (Colonel Huggins), Phoebe Fox (Anne), Tom Basden (Martin), Richard Hope (Field Comm.Goodman), Trevor Cooper (Big Dave) in "There Is A War". Photo: Johan Persson

The Blues in the North are at war with the Greys in the South. Why? Nobody knows. Since when? Nobody can remember; we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. Anne (Phoebe Fox), a doctor, finds herself stranded in the big blue nowhere of a landscape destroyed by war, desperately trying to find a hospital where she could be of use. Her quest is the plot which connects a string of individual sketches, each of them showing the absurdity of war. Be it the “cleaners” who go about their job of removing human hands from a head hole (because head holes are for heads, not for hands, d’oh!) while casually exchanging primary school memories with Anne, clowns sent to the front to entertain children or a truly bizarre torture scene – there is a lot of biting black humour.

There are wonderfully absurd moments: the marching band which turns up again and again, each time in a more desperate state of desolation. The civil servant on a bike, announcing the end of the war and handing out certificates. Then there’s the radio station which provides a suitable soundtrack with great hero Gary Dobbs’ horribly catchy patriotic hits – “I am Bluuue, through and throuuugh…”

Only after a run-in with peace activists Anne learns that Mr. Dobbs might not be as patriotic and trustworthy as she thought. After all, he has a great hit in the South with “I am Grey, all the way…” (and yes, thank you very much Ben Castle, now I have “I am Blue…” stuck in my head!)

Each cast member plays various roles. Damian O’Hare first appears as delightfully choleric Colonel Huggins (think John Cleese’s colonel in Monty Python), later as a snotty captain getting Anne almost executed, and finally returns as injured Grey soldier Luke, who is only treated at the hospital Anne has finally reached to be sent off to war again. Because – lo and behold! – the Oranges have taken over radiology and the caffeteria from the Reds, so there is a war…

“There Is A War” does have some lengths which make it lose momentum, and the large cast – too large maybe for such a small stage – is a bit confusing at times. But though the play could profit from some cuts, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and the one I personally had the most fun with.

* * *

by Sam Holcroft, directed by Lyndsey Turner

Director - Lyndsay Turner, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson

Trystan Gravelle (Nick), Kirsty Bushell (Marianne), Tom Basden (Marc), Karina Fernandez (Tara) in "Edgar and Annabel"

“Edgar and Annabel” seem to be an ordinary couple, going about their ordinary daily lives and having dinner in the evening in their ordinary kitchen. But there is nothing ordinary about them – Edgar and Annabel are actually called Marianne (Kirsty Bushell) and Nick (Trystan Gravelle), and their conversations over roasted chicken or salmon are read from scripts. They live in an Orwellian state, and all houses are bugged, every conversation is recorded and controlled by a computer. Dissenters are arrested, and so the scripted conversations of Marianne and Nick provide the smoke-screen necessary for their resistance activities, for example the building of a bomb. They are supported by another couple, Tara (Karina Fernandez) and Marc (Tom Basden). The “Karaoke Night” of the two couples, in which they build a bomb while pretending to hold a dinner party and singing 80ies pop song is as hilarious as it’s disturbing.

But life can’t be scripted, nor can love, and soon, the feelings between Marianne and Nick don’t match the relationship of Edgar and Annabel anymore; they can’t keep up appearances and their lives spiral out of control.

Director - Lyndsay Turner, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson/

Kirsty Bushell (Marianne), Damian O’Hare (Miller) in "Edgar and Annabel"

Damian O’Hare plays Miller, the controller of Edgar and Annabel, liaison-man with the opposition and the writer of the scripts which define the lives of Marianne and Nick. Damian does an excellent job at portraying Miller as harsh and aggressive; he leaves no doubt that Miller is not a man to be trifled with. The scenes in which Marianne, Nick and Miller clash are among the strongest in the play; three powerful actors in a heated conflict, without falling into the trap of overacting. No wonder the audience was captivated.

“Edgar and Annabel” is an excellent play; it’s unexpected, funny and scary alike, the conflict between scripted- and real-life is handled with great skill and sensitivity. For me, the star of the evening was Kirsty Bushell. She has a great stage presence, a very natural way of acting and speaking, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in future productions.

* * *

by DC Moore, directed by Polly Findlay

Director - Polly Findlay, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson/

Pippa Bennett-Warner (Denise), Trevor Cooper (Jim) in "The Swan"

The most amazing set of all four plays, “The Swan” places the audience inside a run-down pub in South London which is due for demolition. There is rubbish everywhere, and only the cellophane-wrapped plates with snacks on some tables indicate that some event will take place.

Jim (excellent: Trevor Cooper) is preparing for the wake of his son Michael, who died in a car accident. He didn’t attend the funeral, and with publican Bradwell (Nitin Kundra) nowhere in sight, he only has regular patron Russell (Richard Hope) for company. At first, the banter is light and doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary, but soon Denise (Pippa Bennett-Warner) turns up, the daughter of Michael’s partner Christine (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who has left the funeral early to ask why Jim hasn’t attended.

Bradwell finally turns up; he looks like he’s slept off his hangover in the toilet. His new flame Amy (very funny: Claire-Louise Cordwell) fans the flames of an impending family tragedy. Denise challenges Jim and wants to know the truth about her “father”; the two engage in a brutal verbal battle, and Denise is at risk of falling into an abyss of lies, deceit and betrayal.

The arrival of her mother Christine marks a finale which at first seems to be anticlimactic, but it’s exactly that which makes the story believable. There is no happy ending here, and I was left wishing for a sequel in which the full truth will out.

Pippa Bennett-Warner is a wonderful Denise. It would have been easy for her to fade next to an explosive character like Jim, but Pippa Bennett-Warner delivered a very touching, insightful portrait of the vulnerable, confused and hurt girl.

“The Swan” is a strong, gripping play with a very talented cast, the dialogues are sharp and witty, but the language is coarse and peppered with slurs. That was my main problem with the play – I can deal with coarse language without a problem, but not with slurs, especially if they go unchallenged. But a character like Jim would talk in such a way, so this is information rather than criticism.

* * *

I can only recommend “Double Feature”, especially to those of you who haven’t discovered the wonderful world of theatre yet. The plays are original and innovative, the Paintframe is a welcoming place for everybody, without any of the stuffiness which keeps many, especially younger people from visiting “traditional” theatres. No need for evening gown and suit!

Director - Lyndsay Turner, The National Theatre, 2011, Credit: Johan Persson/

Set of "There Is A War". Photo: Johan Persson

And make sure you don’t miss the excellent band which plays during the intervals. By the way, I have to compliment them for their original choice of percussions for “The Girl From Ipanema”. Or was it “Sawdust”…?



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