Review – Really Old, Like Forty Five, National Theatre.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

The Whingers have been thinking of their retirement.

Not in the sense of contemplating sitting around watching Countdown (they’re already partial to that) or airing their plus fours on the golf courses of this land, nor even considering their first Saga cruise. No, they’re not at that stage quite yet, though obviously (assuming the ongoing ratings fracas doesn’t escalate) Phil is closer to that end of life than Andrew. And of course their future well-being is about as reliable as an Iraq Inquiry with hardly a pension-pot to piss in. No, they mean retiring from whinging as they’ve witnessed a widow of opportunity which could complete their own critics’ circle.

The Whingers were famously founded as a response to Fool For Love (goodness, we were brief and to the point in those days) but having seen Henry Hitching’s one star review in the Evening Standard on Friday which called the latest production of it “marrowless”,”(Sadie) Frost’s is a flat, one-note performance”, “leaden production”, “the absence of passion and true human interest.” Phil was straight on to Andrew, “We should go and see it and retire”.

Curiously and with Really Old, Like Forty Five tackling the subject of old age it’s strangely perverse of the National Theatre to offer free tickets for 15-25 yr olds. Surely this should be free tickets for the over 45s?

Coincidentally Phil’s own age concerns prompted a visit to the National Theatre on Monday evening. Determined not to be the oldest person in the auditorium for once he insisted that the Whingers attend the NT Platform featuring centenarian Luise Rainer (pronounced Reiner, we learned), the German-born film actress who was the first person ever to win two Oscars. Ms Rainer celebrated her 100th birthday at the Arts Club in Soho last month and apparently Sir Ian McKellen was there. For some reason the Whingers weren’t invited to this particular party, presumably Ms Rainer being worried that Phil might steal the limelight as people marvelled at his longevity.

Anyway, the highlight was when interviewer Christopher Frayling asked her why she never played Grusha Vashnadze in Caucasian Chalk Circle, a role that Brecht had written for her. “Well,” she said. “I got to know him and I didn’t like him.” You really can’t say fairer than that.

The Whingers’ little group marvelled at the centenarian’s stylish attire, enjoyed the lengthy clips from her films and thought the scenes from her Oscar-winning role in The Good Earth rather gripping. Rainer was also remarkably animated waving her arms around (almost as much as Andrew who was bouncing up and down desperate to ask a question) to the point that Frayling moved her cup of tea out of the way at one point. Andrew squeezed his question in at the end but didn’t quite elicit the open-mouthed reaction to an earlier question, “Can you tell us about your wedding night in Mexico with Clifford Odets?”*

Which brings us at last to the play in question, what has left us rambling on at such length? Old age? Reluctance to discuss an important subject so dear to our deteriorating hearts? Another ratings spat?

Tamsin Oglesby‘s play imagines a not too distant, proto-dystopian future in which governments have given old people like Luise Rainer useful tasks such as bringing up orphans and big business has come up with the idea of giving old, and confused people free care in exchange for performing medical experiments on them in a big hospital called the Ark.

How does it end? We have no idea. If going to the Ark meant not having to sit through this play the Whingers would have been crying out, “Where do we sign?” If they hadn’t been trapped in their row they would certainly have been out of there within 20 minutes. Oglesby’s play is leaden, her attempts at satire misguided. It is a play entirely lacking in any intellectual rigour, emotionally ineffective and curiously devoid of ideas given the richness of the subject matter.

For a sense of the problem you need look no further than this interview with Oglesby and Baroness Warnock from yesterday’s Today programme on Radio 4.  Asked if old people are a burden, the baroness responds pragmatically, “Yes, undoubtedly a burden. they’re expensive and they have to be looked after”. Oglesby later splutters back: I “I think it’s very interesting that you’re so adamant about that”  but explains no more than that words are important and may have “unintended consequences”.

Anna Mackmin‘s direction takes the description of ROL45 as “a comedy” at face value which turns out to be a huge mistake. Certainly no-one in the audience was fooled by the supposedly mad-cap antics of the big business people.

Oh yes, we know what you’re going to say: “It’s your own fault for going to the Cottesloe. You swore never to again.” True, but the Whingers had been tempted to temporarily suspend their sanctions against the Cottesloe for the sake of the subject matter, the amusing title, the promise of “comedy”, a poster featuring a cockatoo and a tantalising cast including Amelia Bullmore (remember Steph Barnes from Coronation Street? And Sonja, Alan Partridge’s Ukrainian girlfriend?), Judy Parfitt , Marcia Warren, Gawn Grainger and Paul Ritter.

The Whingers were brought up far too well to name names but frankly there was some astonishingly bad acting going on on the stage. Let’s be kind and say they were simply failing to dredge any depth out of the material. The Whingers were convinced by none of it. Only Marcia Warren really seemed to have found a way through it.

But you have to feel for the cast. Bullmore is called upon to deliver a speech about her mother’s condition in which she outlines Parfitt’s brilliance to her stage siblings _ things such as writing articles for New Scientist and appearing on University Challenge as if they didn’t know this already. Presumably Alzheimer’s is worse if the sufferer is intelligent and less of a tragedy for the stupid.

There is a robot nurse, Mimi, created by the boffins designed to respond to a patient’s emotions: if you’re gentle it will behave gently but will respond to aggression aggressively. Which must be a lot of help with disturbed dementia patients when they get belligerent. Perhaps this gets cleared up in Act 2. Who knows?

There was early promise: on-stage knitting (Warren again) and what will surely be come to seen in retrospect as a foolish notion of setting the first scene in a National Theatre bar during an intermission and featuring a discussion about whether or not to bother going in for the second half. Where on earth did Oglesby come up with such an idea? Phil scanned his programme in vain but found the Whingers uncredited.

There was no need for a discussion about leaving for the Whingers. “Will you watch my bag?” asked Phil as he answered the call of his pea-bladder and headed for the toilets. “I’d rather watch that bag for an hour than that play.” replied Andrew. Apparently it’s only two hours and 10 minutes long but the first act alone seemed longer.

And once again, we are forced to ask: “Is anyone at the National Theatre reading this stuff before it gets put on?” Perhaps it’s one of those situations where everyone thinks everyone else is doing it but nobody is.

Very forgettable.

If you want to see the subject handled more competently go and rent a copy of Logan’s Run.


* To which the answer boiled down to “He stayed up writing and I met some dwarfs in the hotel lobby.”


Still, it’s an ill wind and all that. We were beginning to worry that every rating would end up being a three and involve an almighty scrap. But the Whingers were in harmony on this occasion.


18 Responses to “Review – Really Old, Like Forty Five, National Theatre.”

  1. Caroline Says:

    I went to the first preview and had a happier experience. So far as I was aware, very few people left at the interval and the fact that I wasn’t one of them is quite a coup for the Cottesloe – and for the NT generally, given my record of walking out of productions there. I think, however, that I must have dozed off at some point (well, on the basis of the title, I’m really, really old) as I don’t recall the dialogue you quote. Certainly the play seemed to be generally well-received and the auditorium was packed out.

  2. Webcowgirl Says:

    Who is this “widow of opportunity” of whom you speak?

  3. Is it me or does it sound like Lyn Gardner will love this?

  4. nicola Says:

    I too saw the first preview and have to say my reaction to the piece accords to the letter with the Whingers’ rather than with that of Caroline. Except to say that I did stay for the second half – but only because I was being given a lift home by my 82 year old companion and wanted to hear news of his 102 year old mother – all of which was a great deal more interesting than the play!

  5. Max Says:

    I saw Luise Rainer at the NFT (or BFI Southbank, as they insist on calling it now) last month, when she answered questions between screenings of her films The Good Earth and The Great Waltz. She was really fascinating, and her energy was – to use a wellworn word – incredible.

    The funniest momennt was when she was asked for her opinion of The Good Earth co-star Paul Muni. She just slumped forward, like she had died. Then she said, “I have given my answer.”

    I am glad the Whingers enjoyed her too.

  6. betsy Says:

    The robot’s the best thing about the play. And, yes, this ‘Literary Department’ – what do they actually do? The NT hasn’t produced a good new play in years. ‘Pitmen Painters’ keeps coming back because it’s the only one that’s half-way decent – and that was originally produced in Newcastle. All that money, the choice of any play they want, and this is the best they can do? First against the wall when the revolution comes.

  7. Caroline Says:

    Whilst it wasn’t in the same league as “The Pitmen Painters”, I considered last year’s “The Observer” a success and there have certainly been others, albeit few.

  8. betsy Says:

    ‘The Observer’? Really? As I remember, that play framed itself as some kind of realistic investigation of the moral problems facing election observers – but what actually happened was, an observer went loco, and started intervening in an absolutely unbelievable manner – and then felt bad about it. I believe there were maybe four or five scenes with exactly the same structure – observer walks into an office/courthouse/mud hut/whatever, asks to be allowed to do something totally nuts (or for people to do something nuts) – people explain why this is a really bad idea – and then let her do it anyway, for no good reason. Then all kind of bad things threaten to happen but they don’t (though it’s nothing to do with her). But she feels bad for intervening anyway. The end. Oh, and there was a romance that went no-where.

    The sad thing is, there was probably a half-way decent play in there somewhere. In the end, just the act of writing a report becomes an intervention – and that process was probably enough story, without the daft vote-chasing subplot. But someone needed to spot this before the thing went on stage.

    My sense is, the National programs on issues, not quality (maybe because there’s no-one who can recognise quality..).. Africa, democracy – let’s have that. Ageing. Great. Etc

    (And, which others? Original plays, not adaptations..)

    • Paul Says:

      Excellent. My thoughts exactly on ‘The Observer’. I was beginning to despair of theatre addressing serious, complex issues until I saw ‘Enron’. But, oh, that wasn’t the National.
      The National’s new plays remind me of a lot of the BBC’s drama output – notionally daring, but superficial, glossy and middlebrow.

  9. nicola Says:

    “The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder” – about, errrr, having lots of ‘wives’?

  10. A Clown Says:

    Our Class. One of the best plays of last year.

    And back to the play…I quite enjoyed it. I laughed a lot, I certainly don’t feel like I witnessed any of the bad acting mentioned up there and whilst oft-times clunky, there were also moments of heart-breaking acuity which engaged one emotionally.

    I wonder if your feelings against the Cottesloe might preclude you from ever enjoying a play in there!

    • ms.marple investigates Says:

      Our Class – yes! And IMHO ‘The Power of Yes’ was actually a damn sight better than the vastly over-rated ‘Enron’ which paled into insignificance for anyone who had seen ‘The Smartest Guys in the Room’ or ‘The Shock Doctrine’ – boring, boring, boring!

  11. Viv Says:

    Just returned home from the play and find I agree with almost everything you say. What a wasted opportunity to address these issues – what started out promisingly became muddled and silly. Marcia Warren was great as was Michaela Meazza, the rest of the cast mediocre but Amelia Bullmore pretty dire, more robotic than the robot. From where are the National getting such poor actors?

  12. Caroline Says:

    Well, the professionals are also at odds: I read two 2-star reviews yesterday, but today Michael Billington has given it four stars. and thinking further back to Cottesloe productions I’ve enjoyed, how about “Happy Now” and “Landscape With Weapon” (which I think was the play I had in mind when I actually wrote “The Observer”)?

  13. Andrew Says:

    Thanks, Whingers, from saving me the bother of having to walk out of another play starring Marcia Warren (the last one having been We Happy Few, which was considerably longer than 2 hours 10).

  14. Phil K Says:

    You know, I don’t know why, but I’m sensing that you didn’t like it

  15. Lesley Harcourt Says:

    How wonderful to read this review! My Mother and I went last night and we were both thoroughly disappointed. Marica Warren and the robot were both fascinating to watch for completely different reasons. The young boy was 1 dimensional, monotonous screeching. (God bless him.) There are so many talented child actors who could have been cast in this role. None of the characters connected to each other (a fault in the random writing not the actors) and there was quite frankly no love between any of them. Such a broad subject matter which could have given us so many poignant moments. It was chaos. Unintelligent.

  16. Annie Mac Says:

    This play was an insult to the audience. There was no poignancy, no subtlety and certainly no intelligence. Tamsin Oglesby’s ignorance of her subject matter was obviously no obstacle to her having her play staged. Did she do any research? This human condition is such a rich seam of pathos and humour – her mining it produced only dross.

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