Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag
Notes For The Designer
The set is the bedroom of a small seventies semi in Beeston, South Leeds. A window occupies the length of one wall showing a garden filled with random children’s toys – trampoline, ball pool with multicoloured balls teeming all over the grass, Postman Pat trike, creaky swing – a washing line loaded with flapping underwear, and several ceramic plant pots displaying zombified greenery. The washed out light of a late October evening is gradually fading and the lamp will have to be switched on soon.
Perhaps the style of the room is not what you’d expect in the home of one of the top twenty tweeters this side of the River Aire. It is spartan with a hint of the Punjab. It really hasn’t changed much since the previous occupant left for the more salubrious side of LS11 and defected to The Greenhouse, taking with him most of his possessions and the landlords favourite griddle pan. In other words, it’s just a room, there’s no mystery; it is constantly and clamourously permeated by the spirit of a relationship that involves an honesty that is uncommon – that between a landlord and his tenant. This may be a complete misdirection and distraction, but I once saw a photo of Charles Bukowski in a Los Angeles flop house where he spent his middle years, sprawled on a bed, bottle in one hand, clattering at a typewriter with the other, books and papers strewn over the floor, a row of empties straggling across the windowsill, living the life of “the uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free,” which came to mind when I thought about the setting for this review. Picture that and you ain’t far off.
The bedroom door, which faces the bed, is emphatically shut but the light from the hallway slips into the room from a half inch gap at the bottom. Two items of equipment need mention: a Kindle, the tiny text of a PDF version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof double-paged on the deceptively readable screen; and, next to it on the rumpled duvet, a Nexus 7 displaying a monochrome monstrosity peculiar to our times, the mobile app of TweetDeck with the staple three columns plus an additional fourth, a search result for the hashtag “CatReview”. This piece of technology, this application, is a very complete and compact little shrine to virtually all the comforts and delusions behind which we hide from such things as theatre critics these days are faced with.
The setting is far less realistic than I have so far implied in this description. The walls are an ectoplasmic green, the carpet a milky white, and the space so unutterably small that it’s virtually all bed with a ragged border of books.
Anything else I can think of? Oh yes, radiators; the radiators should be set to a temperature that only orchids and the most exotic butterflies could thrive, and above all the landlord should be at great pains to allow the occupant precious little privacy (to encourage restlessness, and a likelihood of striking out) as if it were a set for psychological warfare. An evening in October. The action is continuous, only ending when alcohol becomes inevitable.
HARVI (Knocking as he opens the door): Can I come in?
PHIL (Not looking up from the screen): You already did. Switch the light on while you’re there, it’s getting dark.
HARVI: What you up to, Philip? I’ve just opened a nice red, fancy joining me?
PHIL: I’m a bit busy, Harvi. Maybe later.
HARVI: Busy? … gawping out the window chewing the wrong end of a pencil. How’s that busy? Surely you can do that downstairs with a glass of wine in your hand. Put some pants on and come down.
PHIL: Can’t, Harvi. Not now … (sighs and rubs his chin): I’m reinventing theatre criticism.
HARVI: Without any pants on?
PHIL (tetchily): What’s that got to do with the price of rice! I think best when I’m comfortable. And I’ve pranged my back. Anyway, there’s no rules, I can do what I like, this is my review.
HARVI: There’s no rule about wearing pants? I think that ought to be the first rule of theatre review club. The pants stay on.
PHIL: Can we leave my pants aside … forget the sodding pants.
HARVI (Pointing, languidly, to a pile of clothes beside the bed): You already did, Philip.
PHIL: Funny. Ever thought of going on telly, Harvi? Then I could turn you off.
HARVI: So … not coming down then? You’re just gonna sit there all evening, moping? This theatre review thing’s more important than a proper conversation with a mate, is it? (Shuffles feet, scratches head, furrows brow): … Leave you to your lonesome, shall I? (He sits on the edge of the bed, aslant on one bum cheek, and twists towards PHILIP)… I’m going then, you obviously need some peace and quiet … time for solitary reflection, soul searching, psychological self-inspection, for gazing inwardly into the silent workings of your exquisite ratiocination engine, sifting and grading and weighing the fine grain of thought that spills from that vast mental mill of yours (slides closer along the bed): … I’m just getting in the way, obviously – me and my bottle of Merlot and my First in Performance Studies from the University of Scarborough are getting in the way (knocks a pile of books over with a jab of his little finger): … See you later … shall I shut the door behind me?
PHIL (During the above gush of words, PHILIP has slumped with extravagant ennui into the saggy comfort of the pillows, and is tapping distractedly at the tablet): Did you say something, Harvi?
HARVI: I asked if you wanted me to shut the door.
PHIL: Would you? And switch the light on, it’s getting too dark to see what I’m writing.
HARVI: It is too dark. (Standing quickly and flinging the door open): But I can see you’ve written nothing, not a bloody word … Why don’t you put the computer down and talk to me instead. I know about theatre. I could give you some ideas.
PHIL: Theatre, you?
HARVI: Yes (puffily) … me.
PHIL: But Harvi, mate, I invited you to the Playhouse last week, got your ticket sorted, even dropped by Queens Court on my way to try to chivvy you along. You texted five minute after the doors had shut to inform me you were just passing the bus station, and to ask where were we sitting.
HARVI: You told me 7.40 … I was on time …
PHIL: No play in the history of modern theatre has started at 7.40. You simply couldn’t be arsed, and you know it. You preferred finishing the bottle with your mate from the Pickled Pepper. Your priorities are plainfrom your actions … why should I want to know what you think about the play when you couldn’t be bothered seeing it?
HARVI: I’m not going to argue about your mistake over the arrangements, Philip. What play was it again?
PHIL (Under his breath but loud enough to make his annoyance plain): I despair … Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Harvi. It’s a bit of a classic.
HARVI: Not familiar with it, mate. Is it new?
PHIL: You haven’t read or seen anything written before 1995, when you started your degree. Or probably after 1998, when you got your First.
HARVI: My degree is in performance. I was taught to perform. I have zero interest in history. I was all about cutting edge, experimental, dangerous stuff. Did I tell you for my final degree show I danced naked on a pub table wrapped only in a Union Jack and a piece of double sided sellotape, singing Rule Britania … it was a critique of colonialism and how you white people …
PHIL (Putting both hands up): Yes, Harvi, I think you did tell me about your penetrating critique of Western Imperial domination. I bet NATO thought twice about bombing benighted nations into freedom and democracy after your crucial intervention – not bad for a kid who never lived more than a quarter mile from The Tommy Wass, you’re a credit to your community … but I can’t see how that has anything to do with the play you managed to miss the other night.
HARVI: OK, joking aside, how can I help? Is reinventing theatre criticism a solitary pursuit or can anyone join in?
PHIL: A very sensible question, Harvi.
HARVI: And what’s the matter with theatre criticism anyway? Did the original invention have design faults?
PHIL: Two bang on questions in a row. If I didn’t know you better I’d think you’d been reading my notes.
HARVI: You know I never read a single word you write, Philip. Don’t forget, I watch you type that stuff – can’t see how it could be any good.
PHIL (Throwing aside the tablet and slapping the duvet to insinuate dramatic emotion): Look, you don’t read theatre reviews?
HARVI: No, never.
PHIL: And you don’t go to the theatre?
HARVI: Not much. Last time was that thing at Temple Works … the tall bloke with the hair kept getting on and off a chair and fiddling with the shorter guy’s tie … that was good.
PHIL: Yes, Skeleton Project, they’re great. But, apart from that, how could I get you to see more theatre, Harvi?
HARVI: How do you mean?
PHIL: Well, what could I write that would get you interested, would get you along to the Playhouse?
HARVI: Ah, Phil mate, unless it was “the next round is on me,” nothing you wrote would even get me to the local boozer … anyway, why are you fretting so much about theatre reviews? What’s the point?
PHIL: The point is … well, the point of the whole thing … the whole point (trailing off into silence …)
HARVI: Is there a point?
PHIL: There is … let me finish.
HARVI: I can’t wait for you to begin.
PHIL: Hmm, The Guardian and the Playhouse are doing a kind of experiment. Trying to get away from from traditional press night reviews, opening it out to bloggers and tweeters, making it more of a conversation.
HARVI: Is that such a good idea? I mean, there’s probably a reason some people are professional reviewers and most aren’t. And that reason is … hmm, I suppose they know what they are talking about … people like you … well, you just don’t.
PHIL: Precisely! I just write for a few friends, I don’t expect anyone to take what I say too seriously. It’s always been just a conversation for me. And now I feel I have to start behaving myself and actually think about what I write.
HARVI: That explains the pained expression.
PHIL: ’appen so.
HARVI: Surely you can just carry on, pretend you didn’t know about reinventing theatre reviewing? Write your usual nonsense.
PHIL: No. Not now I’ve read how it’s meant to be done. According to Lyn Gardner in the Guardian I have to “develop my own distinctive voice” and be “honest about what I really think.”
HARVI (Laughing uproariously): That’s you buggered then.
PHIL: Not funny, Harvi. You know how I suffer from Hugely Inadequate Sincerity Syndrome. It’s a burden.
HARVI: But at least you fake it genuinely, Philip. You don’t pretend to be authentic.
PHIL: And that’s one of the reasons I do the blog thing and don’t do the stuff that the professionals do … I’m not trained to have a voice … But even Nick Ahad in his advice to young bloggers on the WYP website says it’s all about this voice business. If I’ve got to start sounding like myself and being all heartfelt and sincere then I may as well go home. It’s too late for me to start being honest … and who would believe me anyhow?
HARVI: Yes, you do have credibility issues … but can’t you just call what you write something else? Don’t reinvent reviewing, reappropriate another word … don’t know what yet.
PHIL: You know what’s even worse, Harvi? I found out that actors read the reviews … and directors … I know bugger all about acting and possibly even less about directing. I’m never gonna write another word in case someone inadvertently takes what I say as a criticism … I don’t want that kind of responsibility. One misjudged quip from me and I could set back British theatre decades!
PHIL: Decades. Even back before the times theatre was only allowed in black and white.
HARVI: You are an idiot, Philip.
PHIL: An idiot with an opinion, Harvi … and an audience … blogging is a powerful thing, that’s what all the theatre critics are saying.
HARVI: And they are paying you for this, are they? You are getting paid for your theatrical opinions?
PHIL: Erm, no … apparently it’s never been as hard to get paid for that stuff … something to do with “a wider range of voices on many different platforms.”
PHIL: Yes … suppose so.
HARVI: You really are an idiot, aren’t you!
PHIL: Yes, and I’d like to stay that way … Perhaps we could call it “appreciation”?
HARVI: Sounds … warm and fuzzy. Who could object to appreciation?
PHIL: Indeed. And apparently actors like a bit of appreciation, Harvi. Who knew?
HARVI: Philip … I think I’d appreciate a drink after that. You?
PHIL: Yes. Yes, a nice glass of red would be much appreciated. Would you pass my pants, Harvi? … See you downstairs in a minute.Tags: #catreview, The Guardian, wyplayhouse