US playwrights: are they trouncing the Brits?

19th April 2014

Martha Plimpton and Daniel Lapaine in Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic
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Sad though it is for the company, and those of us who championed the show as a welcome gift from the regions, the premature demise of The Full Monty in the West End after a measly five weeks and its replacement by Good People at the Noël Coward couldn’t provide a better symbol of the way American drama is walking tall in British theatre right now; in fact, it’s almost walking all over the competition.

Out goes a sturdy but unsurprising stage adaptation of Simon Beaufoy’s hit 1997 film about a group of Sheffield ex-steel workers who learn to strip for their supper. In comes a far more dynamic affair from David Lindsay-Abaire, a fast-tracked transfer from Hampstead, that touches on a similar theme – desperation in the face of redundancy.

The dialogue zings. The plot has you on the edge of your seat. The top-dollar acting is led by a pitch-perfect performance from Imelda Staunton as Margaret, a hard-up single mother caring for a disabled grown-up daughter. This feisty female leans on an old boyfriend turned successful doctor for help finding work – counting on their shared experience of growing up in Southie, the tough working-class neighbourhood of South Boston, to seal the deal. Needless to say, in ways that keep shifting your sympathies, things don’t go according to plan.

There’s little point covering the same terrain as Charles Spencer did in his recent four-star rave review of the show (I’d even add another star, but hey). What’s worth flagging up is that although Good People feels intriguingly foreign – in its slang and references, especially – it also feels strikingly familiar. It’s a play about American “class” – exploring the feelings of inferiority and insecurity that can result from winding up in a lower socio-economic group than your erstwhile equals. The distinctions aren’t so far removed from those present in our assumptions and prejudices in this country about upbringing and the advantages of birth.

Isn’t it too convenient, Lindsay-Abaire asks, to imagine that the American meritocratic model delivers the appropriate rewards – how much choice do those at the bottom of the ladder really have to strive to better themselves? Take a step back, and it’s the debate that has rumbled on during the Coalition years about elitism, the limits of opportunity and the politics of envy. Yet what notable British play has addressed these themes, let alone with this amount of verve?

It’s interesting that in the wake of the last big recession, in the early Nineties, British theatre seemed galvanised; 20 years ago saw the onset of the “in-yer-face” generation. Despite a subsidised new writing culture that’s the envy of the world, are we still punching above our weight when it comes to new plays? Yes, we can pride ourselves on Chimerica, or at least author Lucy Kirkwood can – but for all its well-deserved glory at the Oliviers, it wasn’t up against a bumper crop of local titles and in some ways had the aura of quasi-American drama.

London remains a theatrical powerhouse – but look how dependent it is on the US for electricity at the moment. Currently running at the Old Vic is Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz; shortly to arrive at the Almeida there’s Mr Burns, by Anne Washburn; imminent at the Duchess is Bakersfield Mist, by Stephen Sachs, starring Kathleen Turner. The Young Vic is on to a winner with a radical treatment of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge by Belgian director Ivo van Hove and in July will treat us to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, as interpreted by the trailblazing Australian Benedict Andrews and starring Gillian Anderson – a sell-out smash already.

It’s not that we can’t muster the goods – Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at the Almeida has brought some badly needed buzz back to the new writing scene, and I have high hopes for James Graham’s Privacy at the Donmar, opening this week, but look ahead to what’s in the pipeline and the standout West End shows, among them the transfer of Wolf Hall and the stage premiere of Shakespeare in Love, hardly spell a defining year of home-grown originality. For all the virtues of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, there’s something odd about a play revisiting Thatcher and the 1980s being given a push as a bold new talking point.

“There’s a confidence and brio coming from the States that’s really exciting,” the director Laurence Boswell argues. He has done more than most to alert us to the renaissance on the other side of the Atlantic, mounting seasons of contemporary American work at the Ustinov studio, Bath, the latest of which got nicely under way with the UK premiere of Dan LeFranc’s fantastic, fractured, time-lapsing family drama The Big Meal and continues this month with Steady Rain by Keith Huff. Still to come are Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage and Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon.

Ambition – in terms of form and ideas – is the hallmark of this wave of work. “A lot of these plays reflect the high-energy, high-pressure nature of New York – which is where playwrights mainly gravitate,” Boswell argues.

“A whole generation seems to have said ‘We’re fed up with naturalism and realism’ – that’s really exciting. And the fact that the political world has got so detached from ordinary life has been a stimulus, too – there has been a powerful need for other, dissenting, creative voices. I think American theatre is doing what radical politics has been doing, segmenting into issues. Instead of striving to pen a single state-of-the-nation play, playwrights are thinking about their individual ‘nations’. The American Dream is dead for most of them – they’re wondering what’s actually going on now.”

Sure, there’s no magic wand anyone can wave to transform our new writing overnight – and if we’re making a good impression more in fits and starts than a sustained surge these days, one has to accept that that’s the way the cookie crumbles. But perhaps British playwrights might get shamed into hardier dramatic action by this potent invasion from over the pond. Not so long ago, it was the Brits who looked vigorous and thrusting compared with their Yankee counterparts. Now they’re in danger of looking a little limp.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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