“We keep it loose, we stay chatty…we do not freak out”
Switching it up a little for the summer is the National Theatre with their Double Feature run: 2 double bills of new writing performed by one ensemble and playing in a new space, the Paintframe. It wasn’t always meant to be thus, the original plan was to put this into the Cottesloe but the huge success of London Road and its subsequent extension meant alternative arrangements had to be found and so the area where sets are painted was co-opted, a rather neat decision as it plays into the experimental feel of the whole experience.
Divided into 2 double bills, I saw Double Feature 2 first, at the first preview, which pairs Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Nightwatchman and Tom Basden’s There Is A War. I ummed and aahed a bit about how to write up these shows and so what will follow is a general overview of the plays and the experience as a whole, and there will be two separate reviews of the actual shows which will be a bit more detailed and so potentially spoilerific.
Nightwatchman is the debut play by Prasanna Puwanarajah, an actor with numerous credits at the National including currently appearing in Emperor and Galilean. It is a monologue delivered by a British/Sri Lankan female cricketer on the night before making her debut at Lords playing for England, against Sri Lanka to boot. Unable to settle, Abirami works out her frustrations in a practise area with a machine spitting cricket balls at her as she battles with her own issues of national identity given her multicultural background, delves into some murky family history and their involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict and also talks a lot about cricket.
It is impressively performed by Stephanie Street but Puwanarajah’s writing doesn’t quite hit the spot. For such a short piece, his canvas is far too broad, touching on many topics but not tackling any sufficiently and requiring too much advance knowledge in order to be truly effective: Nightwatchman is simply not able to be illuminating enough of its own accord.
There is a War is Tom Basden’s written contribution to Double Feature, he acts in both this and another play too, and this plays as the second half of the evening. A story about a slightly surreal war going on in a slightly surreal land, Basden uses his customary sharp humour to dissect much of the ridiculousness that surrounds a society at war. Following young doctor Anne’s attempts to find a hospital and assist the war effort, we see her desperate journey as things turn increasingly darker as the play progresses.
Featuring pretty much the full ensemble here in a range of random characters that Phoebe Fox’s Anne encounters on her way, there’s much more energy to this piece, also played in traverse. It also starts off with some brilliantly comic scenes which were genuinely hilarious – I kind of love Kirsty Bushell now – but much like Anne’s journey which wanders aimlessly around, Basden’s writing loses focus quite badly, yet still continues and so a more serious tone takes over but with little sense of what is actually being said. An ending is finally meandered to but not after some time and so despite the promising beginning, the patience was definitely tested here.
As a converted space and one which is intentionally so very flexible, the temporary seating is a set of cushioned benches (you can ring up to book the back row so you have something to lean against if you have worries about this) and both of these shows were played in traverse. It wasn’t the most uncomfortable of evenings truth be told but I suppose it depends on how involved you get: Nightwatchman became more of a trial because I wasn’t enjoying the show… But the most perplexing thing about the whole shebang is the decision to start the shows off at 8.15pm. With a scheduled running time of 2 hours 30 minutes, this means that it doesn’t finish until 10.45pm at the earliest which is frankly ridiculous given that these are not long shows.
The intentions behind the Double Feature ethos are clearly honourable and ones that should definitely be commended, but it is important to remember that the constant pursuit of the holy grail of new writing doesn’t always equal the best of times. Sod’s law dictates that both plays in Double Feature 1 are apparently far superior as my drinking companions after the show ruefully told me (whilst also showing an impressive geographical knowledge of the Indian Ocean!) One might argue that as it is the National Theatre being a bit experimental so one ought to take the rough with the smooth but at £20 a ticket, I am not willing to be so forgiving.