The Orange Tree Theatre’s It Just Stopped was a very promising idea for a play. Unfortunately, it was let down very badly by trying to be clever.
So, here you are, a new thing for this blog: an outright negative review. As per my Reviews Policy, I normally save reviews for plays that are good, or at least have potential, but there are two times when I might give the thumbs down. One possibility is when a turkey is produced by a big-name theatre. I am patient with small-time companies and want them to learn from mistakes, but if it’s an abominable play produced by people who should know better, I reserve the right to give a good kicking. Stephen Sewell’s It Just Stopped is not one of those. Instead, it is the other kind of play that warrants a poor review: a play produced a competent company, with successes under its belt, that I think is going in the wrong direction.
It is only fair that I start with good things about the play. I have no complaints about David Antrobus’s directing. All Orange Tree plays I’ve seen had great acting, and this is no exception. The set design was suitably interesting, especially the jelly-bean tiled wall (because that’s how homeowners designate themselves “quirky”). I must also point out I am at odds with Michael Billington on this one, who has praised the writer for not being afraid to take on lots of big issues on one play. Normally I would agree with this sentiment. But the more things you try to say in one play, the harder it gets. And this play went to the extreme, attempted to cover every issue under the sun, and ended up being incomprehensible on all of them.
At first it looked quite promising. It’s a story of a well-to-do couple living in a high-rise flat who have every mod con known to man. One day, Beth she sets off for work when the electricity goes off and Franklin can’t get his article off to the New Yorker. Panic! Beth returns a few minutes later – the lift has stopped working and she can’t be expected to use the stairs, can she? What’s more, the water’s off, the mobile phone signals are gone, and even the radio signals have stopped working. Things that used to be trivially easy become difficult tasks. They learn the hard way how much they were taken for granted. On the plus side, after years of being wrapped up in their own careers, they have a chance to talk to each other for a change. End of scene 1. So far, so good.
And then, it starts going so wrong. Believability goes straight out the window. Now, it is not essential in a story for everything to have a reason. There is nothing wrong with a story all the modern conveniences of life stopping inexplicably. But the one thing you must explain is why the characters react the way they do. One would have thought that after an hour or two fretting over what’s going on, and fruitless attempts to contact the outside world, one of them might actually use the stairs to find out. The reasons why they don’t? The wrong shoes. Too many flights of stairs. They don’t know the neighbours. There might be some bad people outside. Very weak reasons that aren’t anywhere near plausible. So instead, they talk about other things, such as a heated argument over whether arts is above real life, whether it matters that Hitler used Wagner’s music to justify the holocaust. That would have been an interesting topic in another play, but would anyone really find that more important than checking if there’s a state of emergency outside?
The stalemate is broken when Bill and Pearl – the neighbours upstairs they’ve never seen – arrive for a visit. They are overly friendly and yet strangely menacing. Franklin and Beth have frantic conversations over who these people are and what they want. Sadly, hopes of a promising turn of events are dashed when we go straight back into the argument over Wagner. Yes, apparently, it’s still a far more important topic than the potential end of the world. From there on, it makes less and less sense. I cannot comment on the characterisation of Franklin and Beth because I’ve no idea whether they were masters of a slave ring, incognito billionaires considering backing Franklin’s business, or neither, or both. Neither can I explain why Franklin has a gun down the back of his sofa, or why the building suddenly bursts into flames a few minutes after the lights turn back on. Frankly, by the end of this I had no idea what was supposed to have happened.
What is most frustrating about this play is what it could have been. Franklin and Beth’s struggles with water and electricity on demand would have made a great basis for the play beginning, but the play only ever makes half-hearted references to this struggle. The friendly-but-sinister neighbours from upstairs had bag of potential. Who are Bill and Pearl? Are they really neighbours from upstairs? Can their account of what’s going on outside be trusted? What do they really want? How will Franklin and Beth react when they learn the truth? Instead, any opportunity to introduce twists or tension were drowned out by endless long speeches of deep and meaningful issues, with no regard for whether that character would be saying those things in this situations. In summary, this play commits one of my two cardinal sins in writing: it’s trying to be clever. It tries to say a lot of things but left me with no idea what they were meant to be.
And, unfortunately, this is not the only play I’ve seen of late that’s let itself down by trying to be clever (albeit none as blatantly as this one). Last year’s offender was Susan Glaspell’s Springs Eternal, although she at least has the excuse that her play about WW2 conscientious objectors was aimed at 1940s Americans and not 2010s Brits. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky with the Orange Tree plays that were on whilst I’ve happened to be in London, but it never used to be like this. It was not that long about I saw the hilarious portrayal of old Iron Curtain regimes in Vaclav Havel’s Leaving, or the biting satire of corporate stupidity in Factors Unforeseen; and even Greenwash, which strayed a little into a trying-to-be-clever play, raised some of interesting points about dodgy PR-led environmental claims of oil companies. All of these were very intelligent plays – but there is a whole world of difference between this and a play that tries to be clever. If I want to be lectured about an issue, I’ll go to a lecture.
So, it might be a kicking, but I hope it’s a kicking in the right direction. The next play, Torben Betts’s Invincible, looks more promising, so there’s hope yet (I saw an earlier work, The Swing of Things, in Scarborough, and that was quite down to earth). If clever but incomprehensible plays really is the direction the Orange Tree wishes to take, they can – London is big enough to sustain theatres in every niche there is. But I will be very disappointed if this turns out to be the case, because the Orange Tree can do so much better than this. And it has done. And I want them to keep on doing it.