More alternative Christmas: No Knowing and Snowflakes

Skip to: The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, No Knowing

Damn. December is usually my catch-up month where all the theatres show pantomimes, which I avoid like the plague. However, this year, there have been an unusually high number of non-pantomimes in December I’ve wanted to see. I’ve already reviewed How Did We Get To This Point?, which was unexpectedly outstanding. Now for the two other standard plays I saw in December, both of which were pleasing.

The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes

The most remarkable thing about this studio piece at Live Theatre is its critical reception. I  don’t often mention other people’s reviews in my own reviews (most of the time, I avoid reading the other reviews completely to avoid influence on mine). However, this time the acclaim was unprecedented. Five stars from the Guardian. Local reviews need treating with a bit of caution, but it’s big achievement for any play to get that rating in a national newspaper; for a studio production from a first-time writer to get it (let alone get a reviewer up at all), it’s phenomenal.

The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes is a lovely little piece that evolved from a shorter piece performed last year – I caught it at Live Lab’s Christmas Adventures and was impressed. The story of Charlie and Roise, who meet briefly one snowy day when seven; and again when sixteen of fourteen, when Charlie’s daft show-stunt of a sledge leads to one tender moment when Rosie tend to him. That moment stays with them for a long time, and although they go their separate ways, in gloomy dead-end jobs or feeling isolated in a faraway university, the two still think of each other. Surely nothing can really come of such a fleeting moment. Or can it?

It’s not that complex a story. Nor is it that original. But still Nina Berry has a gifted eay of writing this story in a way that makes it stand out from all the others. Charlie and Rosie are apart for most of the play, so most of the story is told is gorgeous snippets of narration. Sometimes, they are metres away, looking and what each other’s doing; sometimes, there’s hundreds of miles between them. They only speak to each other a few times face to face, but those moments are crucial.

The play is directed by Graeme Thompson, Live’s creative producer. The worst possible way this could have been directed would have been the two actors standing still whilst they give intertwining monologues, but the play was kept dynamic on a bare stage. Bare, that is, except for a couple of slopes put to use in all sorts of imaginative uses. The music also contributed to the play very well. The only slight let-down was that the set didn’t quite have the impact that I had expected from the original set drawing – stopping the white backdrop halfway up the wall left the top half blue walls of the studio visible, something that distracted from the all-white theme of the set. But that’s only a minor point. It’s never fully clear with new writing what’s the writer’s decision and what’s the director’s decision, but whoever’s decision they were, they were good ones.

Just one iffy bit of the play, and that’s the ending. The original version where they meet again after a year apart are share their first kiss. This time, the story goes further, and with good reason: real love stories don’t have endings; it’s often what happens next which is the harder story. This was done heartbreakingly well in Blink when an idyllic romance fell apart after a perfect moment like this. But from this point, the storyline got confusing. Nina Berry said she deliberately made the ending ambiguous, but I’m yet to be convinced that was a good idea. After all the clarity of the story up to this point, suddenly there’s a confusing array of multiple alternative timelines come up, compounded by a possible introduction of time travel.

Credit where it is due: Nina Berry could have opted for the easy crowd-pleasing ending; instead went for something more challenging. I’m glad she did. If it was up to me, I would apply the clarity that worked so well in the original play to the ending – if they can go back to the day they first met when they were seven and nine, that’s fine, but make it clear that’s what they did. But on the whole, it’s a rare play that makes me feel sentimental for a while. It’s not often I’m swayed by romantic notions that there’s hope for someone you met briefly who could be on the other side of the world right now, but well done, you did it.

Don’t worry folks. Normal service is now resumed and I’m back to being my usual cold heartless bastard self. Okay, on to the other play.

No Knowing

Now from a new writer who’s taken a national newspaper by storm to an old writer who’s often taken the national papers by storm. As I covered earlier, supposedly retired Alan Ayckbourn had a very busy summer, directing four plays he wrote, but not wishing to be outdone, finished off the year with a fifth. As Ayckbourn often does, No Knowing was written for the cast of a previous play, in this case Henceforward, and the Christmas-set play was slotted into the end of the year alongside Paul Robinson’s directorial debut downstairs, Pinnochio.

As Ayckbourn fans will be aware, plays set at Christmas rarely end well. Exhibit A: Absurd Person Singular; Exhibit B: Season’s Greetings. The clue here is this is a Christmas-set play actually performed at Christmas, where audiences tend to prefer cheerier stuff. Actually, this is quite a radical departure if you takes soaps as the gold standard. Here an idea for a cliffhanger for the Eastenders Christmas special. Ian Beale says “I think Christmas Dinner went really well, don’t you?” … A gasp … silence … dummm – dummm – dumm dumm dum-dum-dum-dum …

Sorry, got sidetracked there. Where was I? Oh yeah. So, No Knowing is marked by its simplicity for an Ayckbourn play. Act one (or “Knowing her”) begins with a wedding anniversary speech, where Elspeth gives a speech about her husband Arthur and their wonderful 40 years together. Or was it all wonderful? Some hints in the speech of glossed-over difficulties, and sure enough, we then flash back to last Christmas where his son Nigel comes for a visit. He confides that he’s discovered that his mother is have an affair with mother woman. Sure enough, act two (or “Knowing her”) is the mirror image where Aruthr gives his speech at the anniversary, before we again go back to the same Christmas, one week later, when daughter Alison arrives to confide with her mother about some equally unexpected (albeit more pathetic) revelation about her father.

It’s a much shorter play that your usual Ayckbourn, and there are no real twists in the plot. But that’s pretty much the idea of the play. The opening scene leaves no room for doubt that the marriage survives. I suppose that after five decades or writing about doomed marriages, Ayckbourn decided it’s only fair to have a story where a marraige of forty years is strong enough to survive the unwelcome discoveries husband and wife make of each other, and emerges stronger and happier for it. If anything, in this play it’s the children’s marriage that could be headed for something worse. Only a minor plot point, but there are hints of flaws in Nigel and Alison’s marriage that will come back to haunt them one day.

No Knowing is not going to rank among Ayckbourn’s greatest hits, but I don’t think that was the intention of this. It’s a nice little story showing that sometimes – just sometimes – Ayckbourn does put long marriages in a positive light. As long as you’re not expecting a complex multi-layered masterpiece, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

So there you go, two December play to fill you with good cheer in time for Christmas. Now it’s January, so normal service, involve the usual anguish and heartbreak, will be resumed shortly.

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