The Greenwich Theatre reopened last week with the inspired programming of four short plays by Caryl Churchill. With a running time of just under three hours, including an interval, it is, by modern standards, a long evening. Be thankful for that, as every minute is absorbing and the whole experience is very likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A triumph of casting and a rare evening of exceptional theatre
Director James Haddrell has carefully chosen the works and actors for this quartet of plays he’s entitled Bad Nights and Odd Days. He’s also scored a success with his designer Cleo Pettitt and lighting designer Stevie Carty. Creating a set that suits and is adaptable for four plays is a challenge, but Pettitts’ abstract arching wooden construction, like a stairway to nowhere, perfectly fits the bill. It left space on stage for the much-used bed to be maneuvered under and around it, with everything sensitively lit by Carty.
Churchill had written two outstanding plays in 1976, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Vinegar Tom, but she wrote nothing in 1977 and feared that her craft was beginning to elude her. 1978, however, brought the TV drama The After-Dinner Joke and Seagulls, which is the opening play in this sequence and draws on Churchill’s concerns. The delightfully endearing and frequently amusing Kerrie Taylor plays Valerie, an ordinary and now elderly lady who has powers of telekinesis but is nervous about her next public demonstration of those skills. She’s become something of a recluse, but in a moment of weakness her agent and personal assistant Di, powerfully played by Gracy Goldman, gives in to her allowing an interview to the obsessive fan, Cliff. Bonnie Baddoo gushingly conveys the passion of Cliff’s infatuation as she relishes the chance to question Valerie. Things go well for a while, but Valerie soon realises why she prefers a solitary existence and begins to contemplate the possible end of her showbiz career and her relationship with Di.
Three More Sleepless Nights was first performed in 1980, wedged between two of Churchill’s most celebrated works, Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982), and has elements of a mini La Ronde, but it’s not just those occupying the beds who are overlapping. It’s in this play that Churchill first used her now famous technique of one actor talking over another that characterised the famous dinner party scene in Top Girls. The device is used to maximum effect in the first of three scenes that look at the failure of communication between couples. In what must be enormously challenging parts, Paul McGann as Frank and Gracy Goldman as his wife Margaret relentlessly pour out a tirade of emotionally charged statements that reveal the dysfunctionality of their relationship. Pauses give a breathing space before one or the other thinks of something else to rant about and the accusations are hurled back and forth. If the endless arguments sound the death knell for them, it is the silence and lack of understanding that kills the next relationship. The quickfire, screaming banter of McGann and Goldman is replaced here by the haunting silence of a couple with nothing to say to each other. Dan Gaisford, with masterful timing, shows Pete to be a singularly unaware individual, absorbed in the plots of the films his life revolves around, unable to see why they are of zero interest to Dawn. Verna Vyas creates the hauntingly remote wife who clearly hears nothing he says and is completely immersed in her own suicidal world. The final round brings one person from each couple together and a ray of hope emerges, but will it last?
Abortive was originally a radio drama written in 1971, and later adapted for the stage. Not surprisingly, it revolves around all the difficulties of coming to terms with an abortion, but carries the suggestions of yet another marriage which, if not a failure, certainly has issues to confront. Churchill also throws rape into the melting pot of doubts and mistrust that characterise the strained marital relationship between Roz (Kerrie Taylor) and Colin (Paul McGann). Taylor relives events and Roz’s decision, emotionally portraying her distress and anguish while trying to convince Colin of her sincerity. This time, McGann has the opportunity to portray a more rational character, though one whose sexual frustration is mounting, who has doubts about his wife’s story and who leaves a question mark hanging over his relationship with the rapist.
The final piece is another radio drama adapted for the stage that dates from the same year. The somewhat cumbersome title, Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, makes sense in terms of the subject matter and once the gasping speech impediment of Vivian is revealed. Verna Vyas brilliantly takes on the linguistic challenge of this role, creating a needy married woman who desperately wants to move in with Mick. Dan Gaisford, in an eccentric, three-piece mustard suit, plays the much older man coming to terms with her constant persterings and life in an uncomfortably polluted, dystopian city almost devoid of birds and where a licence is needed to have children. In an equally dazzling flourish of red, another tribute to the wonderful costuming throughout by Sades Robinson, Bonnie Badoo appears as Claudia, Mick’s hugely successful musical offspring, who might just have the means to provide him a cottage in the country, or not.
As Greenwich Theatre observes, these plays explore ”life-shattering events, a carousel of shifting relationships and the presence of psychic phenomena, blending the personal with the political, the naturalistic with the supernatural, the spoken with the unspoken”. It represents a triumph of casting and a rare evening of exceptional theatre that is both esoteric, and should be seen by all students of drama, and yet profoundly rewarding for all.