Theatre: My night with a well-made, unsurprising drama

THERE ARE, heaven knows, enough badly made plays around that it seems positively wasteful to start complaining about the well-made ones - we ought to be petting and nurturing them. But half the trouble with Kevin Elyot's The Day I Stood Still - his first play since My Night with Reg - is precisely that it is so well made, stifled by its own technical proficiency and symmetry.

To be fair to Elyot, he does do his best to disrupt your sense of order, through a jumping, irregular time-scheme. The play comes in three parts. (In the programme, Elyot refers to its three "movements", quoting Walter Pater's line that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music", which suggests that the play is conceived of in symphonic terms.)

The first part introduces us to Horace, a small, shy man somewhere in his thirties, and establishes that his whole life has been overshadowed by his passion for Jerry, an old schoolfriend who is now dead. The second part takes us forward 13 years or so: Jimi, Jerry's 17-year-old son (and Horace's godson), turns up unannounced at Horace's flat - he has run away from school after the failure of a love affair which threatens to overshadow his whole life. The final part flashes back to an afternoon in the Sixties, when the teenage Horace declared his love to Jerry. A tiny coda has the grown-up Horace opening the windows of his flat and breathing in fresh air - a final modulation into a major key.

There are a number of incidental pleasures. Elyot is an adroit comic technician, and he marshals the laughs impressively - punchlines are deftly set up and knocked down, and there are a couple of smartly inserted running jokes (one about a chair with a leg that falls off, the other about a deafeningly loud bell that blots out conversation in Horace's flat every hour). Ian Rickson's production at the Cottesloe is consistently well- paced and well-acted, with Adrian Scarborough outstanding as the adult Horace, all twitchy vulnerability to begin with, but gaining a veneer of self- confidence with age. He is matched impressively by Callum Dixon as the adolescent Horace, touchingly awkward and desperate with pent-up longing for the rangy, glamorous Jerry (Oliver Milburn). At one level there's little room for complaint, and if it's simply a pleasant, not-too- demanding night out at the theatre you're after, The Day I Stood Still has much to recommend it.

But if there's little room for complaint, there's even less room for surprise, or ambiguity, or wonderment. Every revelation is telegraphed, every incident has its tidy mirror-image. In the first scene, Horace is visited at his flat by a male prostitute, Terence, who keeps on insisting that he's met him before, and you just know you're going to find out where. Sure enough, in the final episode Horace's flat is invaded by a working- class youth who announces that his name is Terence - a revelation that leaves you with a sense of relief that we've finally got it over with. Horace talks of how he lost a treasured chain given him by Jerry; and only a fool would lay odds against him finding it again. Which he does. Perhaps art does aspire to the condition of music; but theatre should never feel so orchestrated.

It doesn't help that the sympathy Elyot extends to Horace and Jimi doesn't reach any of the other characters. Jimi's mother, Judy (Catherine Bennett) is a shrill sitcom harpy - in the final scene, when she's the teenage Jerry's first proper girlfriend, she's an absurdly pretentious hippy-chick who even Jerry laughs at. Terence (Jake Wood) is a caricature prole - after a brief encounter with Judy's French boyfriend, he dismisses him with the words "Fucking frogs." Still, even Terence has, we gather, been marked by passion, just like Horace and Jimi; Judy's relationships with men, we gather, are all fleeting and shallow. The casual dismissal of these other lives lightens the play in the wrong way. Smooth and weightless, it leaves little impression.

This is not something you could say of the RSC's heavy, rough-edged staging of The Mysteries. Katie Mitchell's production, using a text put together by Edward Kemp, opened in Stratford a year ago as two plays, The Creation and The Passion, which drew on a variety of medieval sources to present not an authentically medieval experience, but a modern response to them - to uncover the themes that bind together modern Christianity and the medieval version.

At the Pit, the two plays have been amalgamated into one six-hour play, and their rationale has changed drastically. While the first part remains a more or less faithful retelling of the Bible stories - the Creation, the Fall, the Flood - once the Cities of the Plain have been destroyed, things start to change. Episodes from the Old Testament start to blur into one another (for example, Moses, having laid down the Commandments, settles down to the business of anointing Saul king of Israel, which the Bible leaves to the prophet Samuel), and into the modern world. The cast discard their Forties-style austere suits and frocks for something more up-to-date; guns appear, and the slaughter and rapine that characterise so much of the Old Testament are overlaid with oblique - well, not very oblique - references to Bosnia. The Messiah arrives in a bleak landscape peopled by terrorists, secret policemen and informers, and preaches a gospel of freedom - nothing about eternal life here. The holy sepulchre is a mass grave, a heap of fly-blown corpses; and if Jesus's body is missing, nobody notices.

This is no longer a modern response to the medieval plays, but an attempt to write a modern equivalent: to tell the story of Christ in absolutely contemporary terms, swearing and all.

There are many aspects to praise. Again, the acting is uniformly excellent - though by far the most memorable part is David Ryall's avuncular God, chortling with delight at his own ingenuity as he creates the world, growing more harrowed and less hopeful with every new disappointment, as humanity pursues its career of destruction. The Flood is represented by old postcards fluttering down from the ceiling, leaving behind a sea of dead and forgotten faces (I picked one up in the interval from Margate in August 1947: "Dear Auntie, We are all having a nice time with lovely weather ...").

But the pacing is horribly uneven - there are long stretches when you really do feel you're watching eternity unroll before your eyes - and the updating clumsy. One thing I realised while watching is that effing and blinding, like telling jokes, is a gift: some people just can't do it. And while Kemp strives for directness and clarity in the theological argument, much of it dissolves in naive and cliched pieties. The play aims to discomfort you spiritually, and has a measure of success: an elderly man leaving the theatre just behind me was complaining that it had been "a travesty of everything I believe". But seeing talent and intelligence throwing itself away - that is really unsettling.

'The Day I Stood Still': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252), to May. 'The Mysteries': The Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to 4 Apr.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments