Theatre Review and Analysis Module
Thursday 10 May 2018 Evening Time: 130 minutes
Section B: Prescribed Play
Use online format, we have been advised print is dead
Pull no punches and do not pander to the idea of pull quotes
Do all rough work in a notepad, to work out any half-baked ideas
In this review I’ll be considering:
Centring of the play within Jonathan Lewis’ Education Education Education trilogy
The characters’ scramble for power forcing narrative focalisation away from more interesting points of conflict
How the performance’s sense of gravity vs. levity lulls the audience into a comfortable state but never stakes a claim as drama or comedy
Jonathan Lewis’ 2015 play A Level Playing Field was workshopped with and written about sixth formers taking their A Levels. Granted, exam techniques change dramatically so it’s a broad scope for Lewis to focus another play on. Only this time, The Be All and End All centres itself on the parents of A level student Tom (Matt Whitchurch). However, the generational gap creates a lofty sense of displacement from the sheer stress of educational perfectionism – something which only grows as narrative bombshells are dropped in quick succession.
From the off, the sphere of reference feels out of touch with its integral sixth-former characters. We don’t need Tom’s mother Charlotte (Imogen Stubbs) to exclaim “I don’t get it!” when the family are sat around watching a Youtube clip that’s so old its stars have recreated the video to mark a decade of going viral. Tom’s girlfriend Frida (Robyn Cara) peppers her sentences with a few too many “likes”: this show has definitely not been workshopped with teenagers. Instead, we have behaviour which is extra breezed over as par for the course, part of the play’s overall drama-melodrama dissonance.
Grounded in reality (exam stress) but bolstered by scandal (chiefly, a bribe made to obtain exam questions), the plot falls foul of too many fantastical tangents. There are good intentions, sure: we see Whitchurch claw habitually at his arms, a sensitive and realistic handling of Tom’s self harm habits and anxiety attacks. Too soon however, we’re thrown a handful of additional conflicts. Pregnancy! Illness! They pile atop one another at such a breakneck pace that when a glass of prosecco is thrown it’s borderline 90210 behaviour. Teenage melodrama in the trappings of a more sophisticated piece feels like a misstep from which the show never quite recovers.
In a succession of power plays, Charlotte finds herself at the bottom of the pile. Stubbs gives an admirably metered performance, especially within Charlotte’s more vulnerable moments. Appearing without her wig we get a full sense of the loss she’s experienced, intensifying her ferocious protective instincts over Tom. She slaps and scratches: hers is a snap of anger that feels more sympathetic than those of Mark or Frida, a voice always raised despite her physical nervousness, literally hovering at the threshold on several occasions.
The impassive house is made up of muted tones: earthy greys, the kind of cream and chrome that’s meant to give an impression of a larger living space. There’s no warmth, though, no consideration to the characters within the space. The script similarly lobs in plenty of background information which is never fully touched on: pre-exam isolation, arguments for and against Brexit and abortion, the lipstick stain of an affair. It looks like a fully realised story but too many issues cramp the main plotline. Just like the cacophony of jazz heard between scenes, there’s a lot of noise around the topics raised but no coherent discussion. As for the jazz itself, the conclusion proves a non sequitur which has little connection with Tom’s aspirations of travel and filmmaking.
At least, that’s the bit I got stuck on. What did you put?
The Be All and End All is on until 19 May 2018 at York Theatre Royal. Click here for more details.