Reviews West End & Central Published 27 July 2015

Men in The Cities

Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs ⋄ 21st July - 1st August 2015

Better than Wind in the Willows.

Stewart Pringle

I love you. I really, truly do. I think you’re great. I think you look great, like all the time. And I think we have a lot in common, you know? I think we have a click. Chemistry. Yeah, I think we have click and chemistry, and you look great and you say great things and so I love you, basically. I properly love you. I’m in love with you. And because I love you, because of all the clicking and how great you look and chemistry and all of those things, I need to know how you feel about Men in the Cities. I’m going to need you to see it, and I’m going to need your opinion on it. I’m going to have to wait here until you’ve seen it, and until you’ve told me what you think about it.

I need to know if it made you cry, and how it made you cry – which bit of it precisely made you cry. Whether you left the theatre feeling stronger, or weaker, whether you left the theatre angry or galvanised or both. I hope you found it funny, because I think it’s extremely, sometimes extraordinarily, funny. I’m sure some bits of it hurt, because I think some bits of it are almost unbearably painful, and actually that some bits of it are so unbearably painful that even the act of remembering them hurts. Some of the pain I felt was actually physical, all morning today I found twinges in my jaw from where I’d been unconsciously straining it, like rediscovering your body on a come-down, working out which bits you’ve abused or over-used without even noticing it. Did you find that?

I hope you appreciated how gentle its humour often is, how incredibly genial some of its observations are, how in touch with the everyday and the banal. Rehan in his shop in the early morning, chatting shit with customers, before he catches sight of the headlines from the corner of his eye. The internal monologues of horny child Rufus and even cantankerous, broken Brian. It’s a very funny play. Goode can turn a phrase, he can turn it like a long strip of wood on a lathe, and the bits where you can see his foot moving, where you can see the foot pumping and the ropes spinning, those are some of the best bits.

I also want to talk about dads, I guess. They seem pretty important here. To talk about the show seems to be to talk about how dads are built, or specifically about how the dads in this show are built. They’ve had a pretty tough time of it, the dads! I don’t know if they come out of it all very well.

One has no idea when he lost his son, like some guy in a supermarket, and whose pain we are allowed to realise with all the added trauma of a surprise. Of suddenly realising that all of the things you have always thought are normal, of all of the things which you have come to rely upon as the unquestioned furniture of your life, are actually blades, and coshes. That those are the things that have caused the wounds on your son, on your fucking son. That those wounds that you saw bleed and grow and that you blamed other people and other corners of the world for causing, that they were contained in the words you spoke to him and the ideas you gave him to populate his world with. These are terrible things to realise. These are the usual goals of compassion. But it would be a travesty to consider them sufficient.

The second dad is the author’s, or a version of him. This dad is in the early stages of the cruel, unacceptable siege of dementia, and I know you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Because so much of this show is about the weight of inheritance, about his father and his father and his father, about generations stretching backwards and about inheritances passing them in the night with a knowing wink. And I hope you’ll feel how unbearable it is to see those two men in a kitchen, two men looking at broken shards of a dropped cup or whatever, and to see that those men hold all of these terrible generations of men behind them. That one of them could hold all the reasons for that ‘queer resentment’ that Goode will talk about later in the show, and I hope you’ll feel the love and the empathy that flows over the stage, and that that will be enough for you too.

A couple of days ago Chris Goode had a chat with Matt Trueman , and if you haven’t heard it yet it’s a totally massive chat so you should, but in that chat he talks about how far his own politics have diverged from what could be considered an acceptable mainstream.

The politics of Men in the Cities are genuinely radical. They are not liberal. They reject, at least conceptually, many of the principles that my friends and I consider to be the pale (if that’s the term, whether it is or not, these things are certainly beyond it). There is an image inMen in the Cities, the image of Michael Adebolajo with his bloody hands and his speech, which exists dramatically as the background radiation of the story, while at the same time expressing something which no character in the story is capable of achieving. Michael fucking  Adebolajo! That guy! He chopped off a man’s fucking head with a machete and then stood in the streets with his hands covered in blood! And I think you feel all of that horror, love. But you know that there’s more. When you look someone in the eye, you find similarities and alliances, not differences. And when you look Adebolajo in the eye, I think you’ll find them. I think Men in the Cities does. And I think it’s got our back.

I think you’ll know that Lee Rigby was innocent, but that Chelsea Manning is too. And how important it is to remember that when you choose your enemies.

This is all just so much to put on someone. But I have to know you love it like this. It’s an exhausting text. It expands constantly outwards. Its understanding of the world is all about accountability. About movement through the world and the traces that movement leaves behind it. We even see Goode move, or a version of him, move through his own writing process and among his friends, and we see him question the intentions and the manifestations of that movement.

There are larger accountabilities too, larger wakes and footprints. Some may be as small as the residue when two lives pass each other, almost unnoticed, but some are as large as buildings. Because it’s as much about The Cities as it is about The Men, it’s as much about the buildings themselves and the people who planned them and built them. Brian designs buildings for a living. Ugly buildings. Bad municipal buildings. Bad to look at and bad to live in. And that’s more than just picturesque, that’s essential. Because this show has targets. Where a show like The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley showcased Goode’s profound understanding of empathy and the sharing of pain, and while Men in the Cities flexes its capabilities to do the same, here we have genuine rage and genuine targets. And buildings are a great place to start, because if there is any take-home here it’s that the anti-architects of our brilliant future are everywhere. They are demolishing it before the blueprints are even dry. They are inside us. They are threaded through our lineage. They are metastatic in the words and gestures we use to try to love one another.

Goode calls this ‘the connivance of men with men to abolish the starfleet’, and if that doesn’t make your body ache with sadness and maybe a little bit of hatred then I don’t think it’s going to work, love.

I haven’t even talked about the best bits! I haven’t even mentioned Philip Seymor Hoffman and Woody Allen, or the perfect destruction of Rod Palladino. But that’s cool, if you go and see it you won’t need me to tell you about those. Instead, here’s A A Milne on The Wind in the Willows:

 “One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don’t know. But it is you who are on trial.”

And what I’m telling you now is that it is very possible, as strange and rare as this might sound, that Men in the Cities is better than The Wind in the Willows.

So, darling, friend, buddy, pal, sweet, honey, dear, dearest, lover. So, my love. What’s it going to be? 


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Men in The Cities Show Info

Directed by Wendy Hubbard

Written by Chris Goode

Cast includes Chris Goode




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