Theatre: Still significant and fun

Written By: Aleks Sierz
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

Arcola Theatre, London

Southwark Playhouse London

Away from the bright lights of the West End of London, far from the tourist hubbub, there are many theatres that do great work, often in a quiet way that nurtures youthful talent. Two examples: one a revival, the other a new play. Terry Johnson’s 1982 play, Insignificance, became a cult a cult film directed by Nicolas Roeg and has now been enjoyably revived by David Mercatali. It features the meeting of four characters who are the spitting image of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio.

Set in a New York hotel room, in 1953, Johnson’s fantasy imagines a white-haired and bright-eyed Professor whose preparations for the following day’s peace conference are interrupted by visits from the Senator, who wants to bring him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to see whether he has communist sympathies, and then from the Actress, who has just been filming the scene from The Seven Year Itch when a breeze from the subway grate on Lexington Avenue blows up her skirt. Escaping the gawping crowds, she befriends the Professor. Later, her husband, the Ballplayer, barges into the hotel – and makes a scene.

Johnson slyly subverts our clichéd views of all involved: the Actress is not just a dizzy blonde bombshell, but is clever enough – in the play’s most delightful scene – to explain the Special Theory of Relativity to the Professor, using a train set and, in this version, a pair of Mickey Mouse ears and two torches. Nor is the Professor an unworldly scientist, completely detached from politics or immune to amorous advances. He is all too human. The Senator is closer to type, being a big bully who is obsessed with a paranoid view of politics, while the Ballplayer turns out to have a surprisingly soft side. There are some sweet moments here.

Watching Mercatali’s revival, I was struck more forcefully than before by the gender politics of the play: the Actress dominates the story. As played by Alice Bailey Johnson (pictured, with Simon Rouse), she is not only an intelligent woman who is heartily sick of men gawping at her, but also a witty individual whose line after she’s performed her demonstration of astrophysics – “Now you have to show me your legs” – rings unexpectedly true. As so often in history, it is she who ends up getting the most bruises, after a brutal mom­ent that (given the Harvey Weinstein scandal) feels horribly contemporary. But she is at the core of the play, like a bright star that draws the men into her orbit, for better or for worse.

By giving the characters names that just describe their jobs, and not calling them Einstein or Marilyn, the playwright suggests that fame is so enduring that we will recognise these people no matter what. However iconic – and who now remembers Joe DiMaggio? – these four celebrities belong in a world where people both long for celebrities, and want to bring them down. Amid all of Johnson’s bright one-liners and artful meditations on significance, insignificance and the right way to lead your life, there’s a feeling that our love for the famous will always end in misery.

Mercatali’s revival, designed by Max Dorey, takes a while to warm up, but he has a strong cast. Bailey Johnson – the playwright’s daughter – is central to this production and does an excellent job of impersonating our idea of Marilyn. She succeeds in conveying her emotions perfectly, although maybe a greater contrast between her stage persona and her private self would have been even more interesting. Simon Rouse’s Einstein is everyone’s cuddly uncle, and his calmness makes the play’s events seem more than usually surreal. Tom Mannion’s McCarthy is satisfyingly brutal, while Oliver Hembrough’s DiMaggio is convincingly dumb. Insignificance remains not only relevant, but also immensely good fun.

The same could be said for Stewart Pringle’s Trestle, which opens in the studio space of the Southwark Playhouse after winning this year’s Papatango New Writing Prize. Pringle is a writer and journalist who has got an excellent track record in spotting good dramatic material: he used to run the Old Red Lion fringe theatre and is now Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre. He is also a playwright, and his latest play is a small but perfectly formed story that has a delicacy and ability to touch your heart that many larger works can only dream of.

Set in a drab temperance hall in a small Yorkshire village, the plays looks at the relationship of sixty-something Harry, a retired man who is chair of a local committee, and Denise, of a similar age and the leader of a Zumba fitness evening class. They meet at the hall, in the gap between Harry’s packing up of his things – which includes the trestle table that provides a title for the play – and the start of Denise’s Zumba class. Pringle explores their deepening feelings for each other by telling the story exclusively in 20 episodes – all set in this brief time span.

Astonishingly, this self-imposed constraint works really well. Over about 80 minutes, we watch the slow budding of an autumnal love. After some initial awkwardness, when Harry mistakes Denise for the hall’s cleaner, they bond over their sandwiches, and her jokey and more outgoing personality results in him becoming slightly less closed in as a person. He’s widower who keeps himself to himself, so the more emotionally intelligent Denise has to prise him open like a tin of sardines. She tells him about her book group, and then challenges him to reconnect with his more physical side, with dance and the body. He invites her to sit in on his committee meeting; eventually, she even invites him to a party.

A picture emerges of Englishness in all its buttoned-up and gawky uncertainty. Like a jigsaw, dozens of small pieces, often tiny details, are put together to create an emotionally truthful impression of two individuals who are facing aging with stoicism, while also being well aware of the sadness of loss, and of absence. What comes across most strongly is Denise’s good nature, and Harry’s defense of traditional community values. If both of them, in different ways, have learnt to deflect painful emotions, they have also realized that no person is an island. As they together put away the trestle table every time they meet, this activity becomes a metaphor for their growing involvement with one another.

Trestle has a convincing text, full of depth and discretion, and its humour is well brought out in Cathal Cleary’s careful and sensitive production. He, and his actors – Gary Lilburn and Connie Walker – do full justice to these two lonesome beings. Lilburn gives Harry a physical and mental stiffness, which is occasionally allowed to thaw, while Walker’s Denise is constantly surprising in her shifts of mood. Towards the end of the play, I felt a great depth of sadness welling up that was robustly moving and touchingly tender. Yes, this lovely play may be small, but it’s really beautiful.

About Aleks Sierz

Aleks Sierz is a theater critic at Tribune.