“I lay immobile, like a deadly alligator”
Although a regular home to The 39 Steps, the Criterion Theatre has been expanding its programme of theatrical events with interviews, critic panels and play readings taking place in the afternoon – the last of which I attended earlier this month. They also have a late night event, Stories Before Bedtime, which features readings of short stories from a variety of writers, loosely based around a theme. This was one was entitled April Fools and included works from Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Tom Basden.
The big draw of the night was Andrew Scott, who delivered a highly energetic and nuanced performance of an excerpt from Martin Amis’ tale of adolescent shenanigans The Rachel Papers. Scott is such an engaging performer that one could imagine him reading anything to great effect, but he really was superb at capturing the gawky awkwardness and tortured travails of teenage sexuality and negotiating that oh so tricky task of talking to girls. With a wry warmth and a knowing humour, he brought huge personality and likeability to our protagonist and definitely made the evening worthwhile.
Tom Basden’s readings of three of his own short stories #6, #2 and #10 if you’re interested, were scattered throughout the programme and were another highlight of the evening. His (obvious) familiarity with the work meant his readings were by far the smoothest and most relaxed, but they also revealed a beautifully balanced sense to his writing. His topics often embrace the absurd but they are also rooted in a world of authentic emotion, which lends them an often unexpectedly powerful heft. His play There Is A War which I caught at the Paintframe at the National last summer suggested that he was a writer with much potential and this would seem to reinforce that view (he’s also not half as a performer too).
And then there was Billy Boyd’s reading of The Granton Star Cause from Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House. I really wasn’t a fan of this, for several reasons. Welsh’s writing is crudely essayed and felt largely quite unimaginative in its revenging tone and characterisation of God as a bitter drunkard so I didn’t care much for the story; its reception by the audience was ridiculously overblown, every sexual reference garnered a distasteful over-reaction and the laughter at the racial reference is best left untouched; and though possibly not entirely his fault, Boyd very much played up to the audience, milking laughs through mugging rather than letting the words speak for themselves. Just not my cup of tea at all.
I can see the thought behind the concept, in their words to “transport the audience back to when being read aloud to before bedtime was a fundamental part of one’s daily life”, but much as I love Hendricks gin (with Fever Tree tonic and a slice of cucumber natch) did not form part of my bedtime ritual. Whilst I accept the need for sponsorship, providing free alcohol (a G+T can be gotten from the bar on production of your ticket) at a late night event leads it down a certain path and here created an audience atmosphere that I found alienating – many were laughing hysterically from the very outset and seemingly at the most random of things – and at times inappropriate – applauding an actor’s entrance narks me no end.
That said, Stories Before Bedtime is undeniably a great chance to see some fab actors doing something a bit different and who could say no to a free gin.