Can you imagine how thrilled and nervous the cast must have been to have the Whingers in the house?
The four-hander is a story about an engineer called Ned (Tom Hollander) employed by a private defence contractor on a project to develop a new weapon which will make guided missiles more – well – guided.
When his boss Ross (Pippa Haywood) tells him that the Ministry of Defence is demanding ownership of the intellectual property rights (or “IP” as we say in the media) Ned’s reluctance initiates a series of conversations with his boss and with his dentist brother Dan (Julian Rhind-Tutt) which explore the complex moral landscape of the arms business and his own part in it.
Regular readers of this blog will be disappointed to note an uncharacteristic lack of childishness and sarcasm so far. This is because we actually found it quite interesting.
We have some reservations of course. Our seats in the higher reaches of the Cottesloe theatre gave us a first rate view but mostly of the top of Ralph Fiennes’ (thinning?) head and of the audience members sitting the other side of the narrow traverse stage (but a chance for us to re-use the stolen “this was theatre in the square – no-one got a good seat” gag). One scene in the first act features the seated pairing of Dan and Ned debating (there’s an awful lot of debate) across a table and Hollander’s drawn out delivery put Phil in mind of Griff Rhys Jones doing one of his famous head-to-heads with Mel Smith.
This rather irritating staging ensured that most of the action appeared to take place in one dimension with characters sliding along it in a manner reminiscent of a cardboard toy theatre. The actors are mostly seen in profile and for every rare moment when you’re rewarded with a look at them head-on there’s another when you get to see the back of their heads because it’s the “other” audience’s turn for a decent view.
The first act is rather slow, not least because rather strangely it seems never to have occurred to Ned that there might be complex moral issues involved in designing weaponry (“I’m an engineer,” he bleats naively at one point) so he has quite a lot of work to do do to catch up with the middle-class Cottesloe thinkerati in the audience. Although he says his work is classified he proceeds to pour the details out to his brother which was handy in terms of giving him an opportunity to talk through some of the issues.
Phil (who probably hadn’t thought about the moral issues before either) was riveted and declared it to be neatly written without being overly-complicated. He also enjoyed the programme notes in which Penhall chats about how he came to write the play with a lack of pretentiousness quite refreshing for an NT programme .
Andrew was more equivocal. One of his problems was that the weapon Ned develops doesn’t seem quite terrible enough – because it’s a more accurate version of existing weaponry, the stakes didn’t feel as though they were very high.
And the intellectual property lawyer in Andrew (who admittedly is very small; possibly even imaginary) was confused by the basic premise; it has always been his understanding that the law regards the intellectual property in a work created in the normal course of employment as belonging to the employing institution. So why they were trying to wrestle it off him was a bit confusing but sometimes Andrew thinks about things too much. Especially minor things. Anyway, it’s a maguffin.
But the constant mentions of GPS, drones and other technological wizardry played havoc with Andrew’s own tracking system and in the absence of any weapon of mass distraction sought refuge in a snooze which was rudely interrupted by the brothers grappling on the now food-laden table. Phil was transported back to the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice in which Jack Nicholson nails the fabulous Jessica Lange on her kitchen table amidst the bread and flour. Here, the brothers also (in Phil’s warped imagination anyway) seemed to share their own post-coital moment and make almost as much mess.
Talking of food, Phil got terribly excited: after several weeks of watching fruit being consumed on stage in various productions he was treated to a scene in which the characters tucked into what looked like a real curry (and certainly smelt like it). Phil noted that Hollander only picked at his but seemed partial to the poppadoms while Rhind-Tutt attacked his with gusto – presumably to take away the taste of the cold coffee (it was meant to be hot – it was in the text) that they had been forced to consume earlier by the rather lazy (in our view) stage management.
But the good news is that Phil now has enough material to embark on his long-planned thesis, “Fruit & nuts: meta-discourses in on-stage food consumption and notions of bi-polar identity in dramatic art: a semiotic study”. Watch this space.
Once Ned has been brought up to speed on the possible ethical dimensions of the armaments trade, the second act hots up – not least thanks to the introduction of SIS man Brooks (Jason Watkins, excellent) whose menace injects a much-needed darkness into the play. He also has a nice line in OCD with his frequent chair-straightening activities (or possibly this was just more evidence of laziness on the part of the stage management).
“Everyone believes they are doing the right thing,” says Brooks at one point and this is where both Whingers found Penhall’s writing to be most impressive. He even-handedly articulates the various points of view expressed – pacifist, commerical, moral, pragmatist, – so that the arguments for and against developing better weaponry are put with equal force.
The Whingers’ bete noir Caryl Churchill could take a tip out of Penhall’s book. If they bumped into both at a party they feel a discussion with Penhall over the twiglets would be far more illuminating than being pressed up against the fridge with Churchill harranging them about something or other.
Penhall has discovered a rich subject for this play and his script digs away diligently at the landscape over a wide area. Although he uncovers quite a wide a range of ideas, Andrew felt that none of them turned out to be real treasure and he left the theatre feeling as though he had sat through one of the more disappointing episodes of Time Team – the journey is entertaining and informative enough but the end result is just four rather forlorn and not very deep trenches.
- Pippa Haywood played the long-suffering Helen Brittas in the TV sitcom The Brittas Empire
- Joe Penhall adapted Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love into the 2004 film starring Rhys Ifans and Daniel Craig
- According to Wikipedia, Tom Hollander’s girlfriend is a casting director with the delightful name of Dixie Chassay which is also Phil’s drag name. Amazing coincidence.
PS: Phil wanted to end this review with “It could be called Arms and the Man, but someone got there first” but Andrew thought that was a bit lame.