McCarthyism dominates the political climate and NBC are battling for a market share of the new rural audiences that are just acquiring their first TVs. The writers on the Max Prince Show convene in a large, airy New York office, with a small table and a trolley with coffee and bagels. Each writer enters with a personal attribute or two. There's the new boy (played by Toby Whithouse). We know he's the Simon character because he's the youngest, has a winning smile and a sleeveless jersey. There's the flashy dresser (Rolf Saxon) who wears a beret to attract attention. There's the serious, suited Russian emigre (Stefan Bednarczyk) who would like to get on with the work. There's a balding Irishman who smokes and coughs (Joseph Alessi). And so on.
The only one who enters saying nothing is Gene Wilder, as Max Prince. This is smart thinking as the audience is clapping anyway. Wilder, making his British stage debut, wanders and whispers and dithers - he is a master of blank bewilderment and quizzical alarm. In one lovely moment, he collapses very, very slowly into the arms of the person he's talking to: his loopiness is a void that sucks us in.
Max is inundated with memos from the management. The network wants to reduce the show from one-and-a-half hours to an hour. They want less sophisticated humour. They want to cut costs by sacking one of the writers. By the time we reach the Christmas party, Wilder's solution is literally soluble: tranquillisers and scotch.
Neil Simon's technical coup in having created a room full of comedy writers is that no one has to step out of character to crack a joke. This is particularly useful in this case, as there are more jokes, and more good jokes, in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, than in any other show in London. They have a pure, wonderfully silly quality that springs from Simon's scrupulous sense of logic. Metaphoric minds keep bumping up against literal ones. We rarely second-guess a Neil Simon gag because he doesn't use other characters to set them up. The feed lines are invisible.
The situations he develops in the office show more signs of strain. In one moment, Wilder and the other writers desperately try and stop the blustering hypochondriac (Linal Haft) from swallowing a piece of paper on which he has written a joke that he claims is his own. It's not that they care about him. They want to keep the joke. But we know that the others have typed copies of the script which includes it. These are small disappointments. Neil Simon's nostalgic comedy - engagingly directed by Roger Haines - recaptures the touching and competitive camaraderie of this team in the twilight days of the show's success, before (as one of them ruefully puts it) they all had to leave the nest and do some work on their own.
In his revival of Lorca's Blood Wedding at the Young Vic, Tim Supple attempts to return us to the tough world of rural Spain in the late Twenties, a distant world of blood, sweat and toil, where instinct struggles aginst convention. In setting out to achieve this, Supple has three distinct advantages. The first is an excellent new translation by Ted Hughes. The second is richly atmospheric music by composer Adrian Lee, and the two other musicians, Michael Ormiston and Eddy Sayer, who surround themselves with a spectacular array of exotic instruments, from lute, gongs, bowls and bagpipes to didgeridoo (playing this lot looks the most fun job in showbusiness). Supple's third advantage is Alexandra Gilbreath, who gives a far more varied and complex performance as the Bride than she did recently as Hedda Gabler. Gilbreath convinces us of the deep indecisiveness that causes her to marry one man (Hamish McColl) and then run off during the wedding celebrations with someone else's husband (Jasper Britton). Torn, impulsive, flighty, she has the kind of elemental energy that matches the abandoned wife's plain but vivid description of Gilbreath's departure: "On a horse. Like a whirlwind. Her arms around him."
Other performances stand out: Gillian Barge is a gravely impressive Mother, swirling her scarf across her shoulders as she sets her heart on revenge; and Sydney Livingstone contrasts nicely as the bluff, portly Father. But if Blood Wedding lacks the poise and authority that characterised Supple's recent Comedy of Errors and Jungle Book, it's because of the uncertainty around the edges. Supple creates striking set-pieces, such as the preparations leading up to the wedding, and later the abandonment of the celebrations (scattering the flowers, so that they become the forest floor in Act III). But his inert handling of the youths, young women and woodcutters, not all of whom look cut out for the jobs in which they have been cast, means that at important moments we find ourselves no closer to rural Spain than we would be nipping out to the tapas bar across the road.
The two new theatres the Royal Court has built inside the old Ambassadors are so close together that in order to prevent noise spillage from one to the other, the one on the smaller stage doesn't begin until the one on the slightly larger stage ends. It would certainly add extra, alarming dimension to Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes, if in the distance one also heard a teenage boy screaming and groaning as two young men had sex with him. Mark Ravenhill's provocative new play Shopping and Fucking doesn't start therefore until 9.15pm. If the Lord Chamberlain was still around it would probably finish around 9.30pm. Across 13 scenes, Ravenhill guides us wittily and extravagantly through a raw, explicit world of drugs and (mainly) gay sex in London bedsit-land. It opens with Mark (James Kennedy) vomiting. He wants to get off drugs and dependent relationships. When he wants sex, he explains to Gary (Antony Ryding), a teenage rent boy, who is himself the victim of violent child abuse, he wants it to be merely a transaction. The two activities in the title are not mutually exclusive: you get what you pay for. Ravenhill has a talent for emotional crossfire and flights of fantasy, and writes sharply and revealingly about relationships. But the desire to parade the dark side of contemporary London is not matched by a corresponding control of themes. The troubling aspect of the play - deftly directed by Max Stafford-Clark - isn't that the graphic nature of the scenes is too much for the audience, but that the genuinely disturbing subject matter proves too ambitious for its author.
Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.Reuse content