Writers: Alice Birch, Ben Ellis, Matt Hartley, Lizzie Nunnery and Rex Obano
Director: Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson
Review: Steve Barfield
The Public Reviews Rating:
Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson joint artistic directors of Theatre503 pursue an interesting idea here: a multi-authored play which combines and attempts to interweave five quite separate stories. All five stories have as their central theme a rather positive and optimistic take on the possibility of new beginnings, but their context is always about the possibilities occasioned by romantic love.
The structure of the piece is rather more like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1994), in the way it continually cuts between the individual developing narratives, attempting to interlace them, rather than say Headlong Theatre’s Decade (2011), where each narrative happens and then is over. In one sense, this does make for a sometimes bewildering sense of what some narratives are about, that only becomes clear after a while: but this is a product of the structure rather than anything else and meant when you did work out say after an hour, that the mysterious characters E and S were actually the talking egg and sperm (shades of Woody Allen), of a pair of lovers deciding whether to unite, you were surprised, but also felt the surprise was a bit phoney. The emotional register of the piece is quite sentimental, if not at times a bit superficial and teenage and it reminded me mostly of the genre of contemporary romantic comedy such as Love Actually (2003), especially as they share a broadly similar form. I kept expecting Hugh Grant or Simon Callow to pop up for a guest appearance.
Butterflies, those common tropes of the transformative effects of love become an important metaphor at the end of the piece, and this makes for quite a visually way to tie up events in a play where the set is sparsely furnished, but this isn’t the bitter-sweet Chekhovian disappointments of Carla Lane’s very adult sitcom Butterflies (1978-83).
The stories vary in quality of writing though the acting is always excellent. ‘Dialogues between S and E’ was to my mind a skit that became somewhat over-blown- though I suppose it is meant to be like that. More moving was Matt Harley’s redemptive story ‘Teenage Love on the City Farm’, with Edward Hancock’s geeky, slightly autistic Quinn falling for Zara Tempest-Walter’s naïve but dangerous Eva.
Rex Obano’s ‘The Nick McRae’ show gained from some stunning, truly poignant acting from Kate Sissons playing a pink garbed Haley, who was hoping to find out along with millions of day-time voyeurs. if her man was sleeping with someone else. Lizzie Nunnery’s ‘Butterfly breeding;, was a funny but rather obvious account of a domineering patriarchal sexist scientist ( Peter Bramhill) and the female scientist (a wonderful Caroline Faber) who falls for him.
‘Tony’s Letter to his Younger Self’ despite its Krapp’s Last Tape riff at the beginning, was nothing like Beckett. A story of a widower struggling to find love despite his daughter’s refusal to believe her mother’s place could ever be taken was also potentially moving due to Mark Wingett’s striking and totally credible performance as 60 year old Tony, as well as some rather clever touches of humour.
But the problem with all of these stories is that despite excellent acting they all seemed to be begging for further development and yet such themes never became realised. For example the ‘Nick Mcrae’ show could and perhaps should have been an exploration of the way in which day time reality TV shows exploit their guests, chavs and circus style, and whether anyone really gains from them?
Life for Beginners is a theatrical piece of optimistic, feel good romance and while the quality of the writing varies more than a little, it is sometimes quite sharp and sometimes rather more saccharine, in the end there just isn’t enough room in the format chosen to really develop much of the material or stories to have much to say that is deep or profound; yet it would probably be a great play to take a date to as long as you weren’t planning any lengthy, thought-provoking discussions afterwards. It would perhaps have been even better with some songs.
Runs until 29th September
Tags: Alex Beckett, Alice Birch, Ben Ellis, Caroline Faber, Kate Sissons, Katie McGuinness, Life For Beginners, Lizzie Nunnery, Mark Wingett, Matt Hartley, Paul Robinson, Rex Obano, Theatre503, Tim Roseman, Zara Tempest-Walters