Review: Nuclear War / Buried / Graceland
Image: Old Red Lion Theatre
Nuclear War by Simon Stephens
Buried by David Spencer
Graceland by Max Saunders-Singer
Alexander Knott (Director: Nuclear War / Joint Director: Buried)
Ryan Hutton (Joint Director: Buried)
Sonnie Beckett (Joint Director: Graceland)
Max Saunders-Singer (Joint Director: Graceland)
“All I can hear. Are the thoughts scratched onto the inside of my head.”
Simon Stephens' NUCLEAR WAR, a heartbreaking and soul-stopping piece for movement is revived in a collaboration between multiple award winning and critically acclaimed theatre collectives, BoxLess Theatre, Bag of Beard, Grindstone & Take Two Theatricals, accompanied by the premieres of two new pieces of theatre.
An unmissable triple bill production.
Nuclear War premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2017.
“I want, one more time, to be absolutely in the moment”.
In 1943, north of Salerno, Italy, Max Spencer was buried alive.
He was the father of BURIED's writer, David Spencer.
Its actor is his real Grandson.
A story passed across generations.
A harrowing true story, a truthful examination of the human condition and a non-linear, groundbreaking anti-war play - BURIED comes from twice Verity Bargate award winning international writer, David Spencer.
“Oxygen. Fuel. Heat. Combustion.”
In Graceland, Max Saunders-Singer's darkly comic new piece, Mr. Chrichton, an overworked science teacher, is at breaking point, but he's still stood in front of the class banging his head on the whiteboard.
There's something hidden in his desk, and he's determined to teach 9D one last lesson.
Don't push him over the edge, children, he might just open that drawer ...
This unique three-play production fuses the first revival of a remarkable piece of writing for movement with two new plays, which when combined ask questions about love and loss, what do we do next when faced with the devastating, the unimaginable.
How do we survive the insurmountable?
Where are we now, and where are we going?
Bringing together work from multiple theatre collectives and production companies to create a mesmerising and lyrical triptych, NUCLEAR WAR/BURIED/GRACELAND is presented in association with the Old Red Lion Theatre.
The front of the programme for this production entitles the undertaking as 'A triptych of plays'.
Handily, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, the programme goes on to define a 'triptych' as 'a set of three associated artistic, literary or musical works intended to be appreciated together'.
In other words, this is a tripe bill intended (perhaps) to complement each other and form a complete programme.
You might, though, struggle to find a clear and well-defined link joining all three works, for they actually turn out to be very different from each other, with little to connect them as a kind of theatrical 'box set'.
If I were to make a stab at a single encompassing theme, I might opt for 'suffering' but the generality of that term doesn't seem appropriate given its broad-brush nature.
Maybe it doesn't really matter at all whether there's a clear link between these plays - or maybe you'll come up with your own if you venture out to catch it.
However, the final offering throws everything into confusion anyway, given its enigmatic nature.
The running order finds David Spencer's Buried kicking things off, followed by Max Saunders-Singer's Graceland and culminating in Simon Stephens' Nuclear War which brings up the rear in something akin to star billing in a variety show.
In fact, for my money at least, the best in the package comes first.
Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp in Nuclear War - photo by Charles Flint Photography
Nuclear War first appeared at the Royal Court back in 2017 and this seems to be its first outing since then.
The title suggests the kind of armageddon between nations that once might have seemed the inevitable cause of total wipe-out of the human race.
But what we see during performance doesn't match with the notion of catastrophic conflict between countries.
The title can, I suppose, be interpreted as 'nuclear' as in the referencing of small units - as in its use in 'nuclear family'.
Except we don't have a family as such here, just two actors who interact in a way that focuses on movement, sometimes bordering on dance.
In a review of the premiere, I read that Simon Stephens described Nuclear War as "fluid and contradictory and tentative and inchoate".
That might indicate that this is something of an experimental piece.
Moreover, the means by which the work is delivered seems as much up to the judgement of the director with the company here involved in the overall devising.
Each actor's character is named as "a woman" and both wear the same kind of dress, don the same kind of coats and they often speak in unison or speak the same lines with a short delay.
You could see them, then, as alter-egos of a specific character, or representative of a larger group, like womankind.
At times, it seems like we do focus on one woman, but the text isn't that helpful to clarify what's happening and to whom since it comprises unusual and contrived phrases that don't readily convey clear meaning.
Sadly, then, I found Nuclear War depressingly incomprehensible, abstruse and frustratingly cryptic.
Anthony Cozens in Graceland - photo by Charles Flint Photography
Graceland languishes in the middle of this triptych pack but provides a more readily accessible setting, given that we've all been there.
We're the pupils in Mr Chrichton's science class, where we're learning about combustion.
Books are distributed and some of the audience have to read out cues, and we're asked questions from our school science days, the answers to which we embarrassingly forgot long ago.
Mr Chrichton, though, has his own problems as he's recently split from his wife and a video of her sexual exploits with other members of the school staff has surfaced.
Unlike some of the classes from my teaching experiences in schools, we're ultra polite and almost indecently well-behaved students.
However, it's not really the behaviour of pupils that's the focus of attention here, but the fact that personal tragedy can morph these days into the public domain.
That proves both immediately relevant and satisfyingly interesting, even if the outcome is rather predictable.
Anthony Cozens obviously armed himself for the occasion, wittily referring to the fact that some of his 'students' had already got their notebooks out (ie the press).
And his delivery ably chimes with the burnt-out demeanour of an overworked and exhausted teacher, further debilitated by unbearable public humiliation.
James Demaine in Buried - photo by Charles Flint Photography
First-up in the triple bill, but carrying-off the gong for best of the bunch, in my view at least, is David Spencer's poignant and moving play Buried, about an unsophisticated young man - Max - caught up in the frightening misery of war who finds himself buried alive during the terrible conflict of the Second World War.
As you may have noticed from the synopsis, there's a strong family connection running through this piece.
The actual incident described happened to the playwright's father and the actor, James Demaine, is his grandson.
Those familial links offer an additional and unique dimension to what is a powerfully affecting play thanks to the combined efforts of David Spencer's compelling writing, James Demaine's mesmerising portrayal and spot-on directing from Alexander Knott and Ryan Hutton.
We generally don't comment on the physical appearance of actors in our reviews, but Mr Demaine's relatively slender frame is absolutely essential here to expose Max's vulnerability and the trials and deprivations he has been subjected to during a short, brutally harsh life.
Alternating between Max in his incarcerated position, buried alive, and flashbacks to former times, James Demaine delivers an energetic, highly demanding and stand-out solo performance, eminently worthy of a five star rating.
That means you may well find Buried appearing on its own at some point - it certainly deserves a much wider airing.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Old Red Lion Theatre
Our show listing for Nuclear War / Buried / Graceland
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