Why don't more productions use music before the play starts?
Perhaps it's seen as a rather cheap device, something best left for the fringe, but personally I'm a real sucker for a well-chosen soundtrack blaring our while I wait for the houselights to dip.
The Soho Theatre seem to choose their music particularly well. Piranha Heights was preceded by a stirring sequence include The Automatic's Monster and what I think might have been Hercules featuring Antony Hegarty (it was certainly his voice). The previous show I'd seen there, A Couple Of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians, had fantastic East European heavy metal before curtain-up, taking me back to a trip to East Germany in 1990.
It can backfire, I suppose. When Happy Days was played at the interval of Beckett's Play of the same name at the National recently it really annoyed me. Set the tone, yes. Cheap gags, maybe not.
Keith Washington, who directed my monologue Katherine, used calypso music to set the scene. And then At The River as the lights went down. I heard it in a cafe the other day and it sent a shiver down my spine, taking me back to those spine-tingling moments as the audience starts to hush.
For The Death Of Margaret Thatcher I suggested using a recording of her reading the Gettysburg Address set to music by Aaron Copeland. Quite strange to hear that voice saying things like "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history." But June Abbott, the director, decided in the end that silence suited the production better and she was probably right.
On the whole, though, while I'm a big fan of silence during a play, I think loud music before it starts is almost always a good idea.
There was a real atmosphere of anticipation at the Soho Theatre last night. Happily, Philip Ridley's new play Piranha Heights more than delivered the goods.
I don't often laugh out loud in the theatre but from about the halfway point I could hardly stop myself. In fact, several other people in the audience really couldn't stop themselves and more-or-less had to jam their fists into their mouths to maintain decorum.
Apart from the black comedy what impressed me most was how Ridley sustains a 90-minute drama so effectively in a single location (a small living room) in real time. I was also struck by how, as with Pinter, though the action and dialogue are not strictly naturalistic, it all feels very truthful. That, I suppose, is why (also like Pinter) it's very funny - even when you're wincing.
This was my first experience of Philip Ridley. Given the controversy surrounding Mercury Fur, it will be interesting to see how critics respond. I'm pretty confident, however, that most people who see Piranha Heights will, like me, still be thinking about it the next morning. And they'll still be smiling.
Update (20/05/08): Just looked up the etymology of 'piranha' and see that it comes from the Portuguese pira (fish) + sainha (tooth). More interestingly, it's described in the OED as both 'gregarious' and 'aggressive' - an unusual combination in an animal (other than men)?
Update (27/05/08): Reading the (mostly positive) reviews of this play makes me realise once and for all that I lack the powers of high-octane précis be a critic. Here's Lyn Gardner (take a deep breath before reading):
"...the actors attack their meaty roles like hungry tigers, and beneath the bitterly funny black humour is an almost wistful sense of the human need for kinship and family, and a recognition that fantasy is both a refuge and a weapon for the mortally wounded in a world built on lies."
And (another deep breath) Sam Marlowe:
"The extravagance of Ridley's dark vision suggests a dangerously confused society in which individuals seize on random gobbets of semi-digested information and use them to construct their own personal narrative. And, having chosen to believe their self-constructed myth, they defend it with all the blind determination of the religious extremist, regardless of how crazy it might seem. It's an environment in which faith is paramount, and yet it can be placed in anything from a conspiracy theory to a fairytale, and where violent stories are absorbed from infancy."
You can't beat good writing. Right from the first moments of The City by Martin Crimp at the Royal Court the words, the characters, the play all lived.
It helps when the actors are as good as this - especially Benedict Cumberbatch, who is fantastic - and, even though the narrative wasn't straightforward, the audience seemed to be enthralled. I know I was.
Sadly some of the critics seemed put off by not being able to work out what the play was 'about'. It's a common problem with certain drama critics - anything that strays from the obvious is deemed to be either poorly drawn or wilfully obscure.
Fortunately, audiences don't seem to have the same need to have things pinned down.
A play like The City defies simple explanation. But it's well written. And, therefore, alive.