Friday, 22 October 2010


18/10/10, Hampstead

A month on and I could remember absolutely nothing about this production. Nada. Zilch. That's what comes of not writing 'em up at the time.

Then I found half a page of scribbled notes and it started coming back to me. Nice middle-class couple's son goes missing on his gap year in the Far East. The mother has resorted to a "medium", a clearly fraudulent old woman, in an effort to find out what happened. The grandfather (ex-Labour Cabinet minister) has called in a 30-something TV producer who wants to feature the boy in a missing kids programme. Everyone's going spare. Then news comes through that the boy's turned up in a hospital. The embassy are putting him on a plane to London. Act 1 ends with the boy's appearance and a shocked cry from the grandfather of "Who the fuck are you!?"

In Act 2 the boy, apparently some lost soul whose memory has gone awol and who assumed he was the son because he had his rucksack when he woke up in hospital, has been taken in by the family. Gradually he turns from a sympathetic waif, with a wrily humorous take on his amnesiac predicament, into a mendacious monster who has clearly played this kind of trick before, a frightening cuckoo who has to be ejected from the nest.

I'm at a loss to explain why all this left so little impression. Among the many reasons to like and remember it: it was wittily and thought-provokingly written by Shelagh Stephenson; we have personal experience of the student-aged child on a gap year travel in the Far East; the TV producer, though a grotesque caricature and a gross libel on the profession, behaved in ways I have seen TV producers behave; it was generally well-acted by a very classy cast (my scribbled note reminds me that there was a lot of listening in this play and the actors listened convincingly and well, which isn't necessarily easy to do: I spent a lot of time watching and enjoying their reactions).

I liked especially the way it played with ideas of truth and mendacity and performance. The boy (Tom Weston-Smith) starts by nicking things (the missing son's T-shirts, the father's socks) and brazenly denying it (and the parents of course believe it). Then he gets drunk and vituperative in a scene with the mother (Julie Graham)... except that after he's gone she smells the wine and realises it's Ribena, so he was just shamming. The TV producer (Daisy Beaumont) lies from the start, quite casually: she seeks the mother's sympathy by saying "As a mother myself..." when she has no family. She asks to film the reunion and when told she can't does so anyway, with a hidden camera. And when she rumbles the boy and tries to alert the parents he turns her past lies back on her, undermining her credibility.

The father (Richard Clothier) is actually the step-father. He is a sceptic, in contrast to the mother's desperate need to know what happened to her son. He mocks the medium (Polly Kemp), and we see that he is right to do so, until towards the end the old biddy turns out to be pretty shrewd -- a successful exponent of what Terry Pratchett's witches call "headology".

The grandfather was Paul Freeman, a veteran. Old-fashioned style (watch the way he stands) but a powerful stage presence. A nice exchange when he introduces the TV producer to his daughter. "Are you sleeping with her?" she asks. "No!" he instantly replies. Then it emerges that they've "had a few lunches". To begin with he seems pompous and vain and a bit of a clown; later he's the only one with the sense to cut through the crap and make things happen.

All in all a sophisticated piece of theatre. Not everything worked. It was a play of two halves, evidently deliberately, but they sometimes jarred. There may have been a shade too many gags in the first part. Dr T had a friend visiting from Canada who remarked on the number of four-letter words: there was only one in the first act (see above) but loads in the second. There was a bit too much shouting in part two as well. And the set (by Francis O'Connor) was a problem: all white, with only one proper entrance. Things like occasional tables emerged from the floor, there was a staircase down through a hole in the floor, and there was a big window to one side of the curved back wall which also served as an occasional entrance/exit. All a bit of a mess. There were also, my notes tell me, overhead projections but I don't remember those.

Directed by Edward Hall, is first play as the new artistic director at this address. The critics were critical. Maybe the first night was a disappointment. I reckon it wasn't half bad. And somehow appropriate that I should so completely have forgotten a play about amnesia.


It turns out I did write it up at the time. I've just found the text...

This has had mixed reviews and I went fearing the worst. In fact it was a thought-provoking evening, though it had its longeurs.
Shelagh Stephenson play about cuckoos in the nest, identity, loss, truth and falsehood etc etc.
Middle class couple (her daddy a Cabinet minister) have lost their son: he went missing in the Far East while backpacking during his gap year and no-one has the faintest idea what's happened to him. He (stepfather, university English teacher) is sceptical; she (researching the life of a Victorian woman who lost her son at Lucknow during the Mutiny and ended up living in India and going native) is distraught. They are first seen with a medium, a fraudulent old busybody. Then grandad turns up with a young television producer who's going to make a documentary about the boy. Cue phone all from the Embassy in Bangkok, or wherever it is. The boy has turned up. Act One ends with his appearance at the airport and the horrified reaction of parents/grandparent when they realise it's not him.
Act Two charts the boy's progress from hapless and rather charming victim (lost his memory, no idea who he is, woke up in a hospital bed with the missing son's backpack next to him, assumed that was who he was, a waif and stray they take pity on and invite into their home) to a manipulative monster who lies routinely, uses aggressive language and violence and eventually has to be expelled.
It was well-acted, mostly well-written and mostly intelligently directed by Edward Hall (first play in his new job as artistic director at this address).

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