Yeah, yeah, first previews and all that.
But such is the pulling power of Tracey Ullman‘s return to the stage in Stephen Poliakoff‘s first play for 12 years that, due to an administrative oversight in the Whingers’ theatrical diary “planning”, this was the only night we could make in the foreseeable. So there.
Ullman plays a former primary headmistress Miss Lambert who is prone to wandering the streets and underbelly of London by night. One night she is discovered laying on a park bench by one of her former pupils Richard (Tom Riley). This chance meeting leads to a peculiar night on the town with another ex-pupil Julie (Siân Brooke) and the other two members of Miss Lambert’s strange coven of teachers (David Troughton and Sorcha Cusack).
While My City claims it “celebrates the power of storytelling to raise the human spirit” the Whingers’ spirits were on a steady downward trajectory as the show rambled along doing a good deal of telling and not much in the way of showing. Indeed there is so much storytelling that there seemed to be no time for any drama. One of Lambert’s tales of a night spent with fluffers might have been more intriguing had it been about those who “help out” the limper members of the adult film industry rather than the workers who clear the tube tracks of detritus.
Phil was sufficiently intrigued by the mysterious atmosphere created in Act 1 (Poliakoff directs) which hinted at a big reveal to come. Was this strange triumverate of former teachers actually a sinister secret society, a crime syndicate or perhaps they were actually dead? They turned out to be none of these things – just ex-teachers as far as we could make out.
Andrew was (rightly, as it happened) angling for an early departure but Phil made his decision for him, stitching him up by handing him his drink to nurse while he nipped off to the loo, passing Poliakoff in the toilet doorway (a sentence that probably needs rephrasing given the circumstances).
So what’s it all about then? Well, possibly the power or process of education and storytelling, disillusionment, memory and something to do with us all being alone in big cities, but frankly we were beyond caring well before it petered. There wasn’t much humour by way of compensation either; the best line of the evening came courtesy of a member of the theatre staff who, when Phil asked how much a programme cost, replied “Sorry, £3”. Quite.*
Yes, there was on-stage shredding (of children’s paintings, no less) but to be honest we are clutching at straws for nice things to say. Tracey Ullman is wasted. The one moment she came alive was when she tripped over her bag and instinctively her eyes shone out to the audience. But she quickly remembered where she was, suppressed her natural urge to engage with the audience, the fourth wall was recovered and the thing plodded on.
We should have known better. Any play that opens with one of Phil’s theatrical theatrical bêtes noires (the aforementioned “park” bench) should have set off alarm bells. But credit where credit is due: My City actually closes with an imaginary version of that park bench. Now there’s a first.
* Mind you, have you seen the price of greetings cards lately? Next to those a theatre programme is a bargain. The Whingers are going to make all future birthday and Christmas cards out of old theatre programmes.