all of it
Royal Court, London. 07.02.20 - 15.02.20
For reasons known only to himself, Alistair McDowall must be purposefully aiming to give his plays decidedly un-Googleable titles. First there was X, now all of it - three of the most generic words in the English language, and not even capitalised, as if that would make a difference - and then later this year we've got The Glow, which shares its name with (yes, I checked) a Disney Princess song, an online motherhood blog, a 2003 film, a New York-based band, and the seventh album from blues singer Bonnie Raitt. For a man who both loves internet popular culture and - as far as I know - has no online presence, McDowall sure does enjoy fucking with us.
Still, here we are with all of it, which, as the tagline helpfully informs us, is a short play for one performer about all of it. If I sound like I'm being grouchy...well, I am, I'm tired. But mother of pearl, I loved this play. It's had a very limited run at London's Royal Court, slotted in around other performances, so chances are you'll miss it by the time you read this (ha - like anyone reads this! I'd insert a "hi, mom" joke here, but honestly my readership doesn't even stretch to immediate relatives).
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, all of it asks for forty-five minutes of our time, in which we follow the life of a woman from birth to death. It's performed by Katie O'Flynn with as much commitment, chutzpah and brilliance as you're likely to find anywhere else this year. Starting from day one and running right up to the end, we're given a mosaic of sounds, stresses and strains, which give way to gradually more expressive words, phrases and sentences as child grows to girl grows to woman. As her experiences mature, so does the play: once introduced into the child's orbit, phrases revolving around sex ("a pleasurable sensation called an orgasm") and death ("everybody dies") become repeated with fascination and revulsion. Freud would have a field day with this - probably; I've not studied Freud. Later, more direct experiences of sex and particularly death give us powerful moments of tender self-reflection; in her, we see us.
There is so much here that dramatises the complexities and conflicts of life that it is impossible to recall more than a handful of moments clearly ("I think some people are Classist - Classist - I think some people are Classist - Yes, we know you learnt a new word, sweetheart"). The overall effect however, is to be awash in someone's life - the mundanity, the beauty, the quiet victories and the very loud sorrow. It's an entire lifetime told as stand-up comedy filled with existential dread, bittersweet happiness and a complicated, ever-growing awareness of love.
Photo by Wasi Daniju
Much has been made in the critical press about Kate O'Flynn's performance - and they're not wrong: she's fantastic, wringing emotion, humour and subtlety from what could be a very dense, complex text. Arifa Akbar sums her up very nicely over in (my slightly more widely-read sister review site) The Guardian:
The glitter in this production ultimately lies in its performance; O’Flynn quickens and slows, changes tone and rhythm, and at times her monologue sounds orchestral, as if she is trying to chase several strands of thoughts at once. If this is the stuff of ordinary existence, O’Flynn brings all of it to life with such ache, warmth and feeling that she makes it mesmerising.
All true - it's a brilliant performance, and I was in love with it. But it's worth giving equal credit to Vicky Featherstone, whose direction shapes the performance so that our time spent together by in what seems like no time at all. Significant praise, too, should go to McDowall, for crafting such a generous script. It's full of the tricks and quirks that he's been developing since Pomona back in 2014, and which really came to the fore in X two years later: sometimes the text is where we expect it to be,
then suddenly it's over here, signalling a shift, maybe
or another voice, a counterpoint a shift in focus.
And then it's here, and in italics (in fact, almost all of all of it is in italics
apart from the bits we usually put in italics, like titles and Bonjour) or there's just ellipses
quite a few of them, sometimes. You get used to it.
And in the hands of a less capable playwright, we'd assume we're being messed with, or that they're just showing off for showing off's sake. But McDowall structures his script in a way that guides us through the different voices, beats and emphases of the story, while also allowing performer and director to find their own rhythms for how it should look and feel on stage. In all of it, McDowall's voice both disappears and dominates, encouraging Featherstone and O'Flynn to channel the play's humour, energy, silliness and sorrow as they see fit; there's real playwriting cleverness going on here, with its structured structurelessness, its unimposing posing of ideas. Dan Rebellato has described Caryl Churchill's "toneless tone" and lack of writerly presence as unmistakably her inimitable tone and presence; McDowall does something very similar, but with more jokes.
That generosity, then, that willingness to throw as many ideas as you can into one text before letting others decide where the focus should be...makes for very good theatre indeed. It's a point hammered home the next night, when I watch To Move in Time, written by Tim Etchells and performed by Tyrone Huggins. Despite the programme describing it as "an obsessive stream of consciousness, tangled and contradictory", there's a rigidity to Etchells' text - far from being free-flowing and messy, every word is tightly controlled, and every pause or tonal change or "like, you know" seems purposefully written in. Huggins does a grand job of making it all personable and engaging - he's so easy to watch, so relaxed and present - but the narrative (in which a man postulates on what he would do if he could travel in time)* remains flat and atonal, while the inflexibility of the text really stands in contrast to McDowall's loose, looping and yes, occasionally somewhat ludicrous writing.
Two very different monologues, and two gripping performances, two very different reactions. If you miss all of it (because my reviews are still not serialised in major papers, retweeted by interested parties, or projected onto the sides of large buildings) then as I said way, way back at the beginning, McDowall's next play, The Glow, is on at the Royal Court over the summer, and will hopefully be another belter of a piece. So grab your tickets and go.
*I couldn't help but sigh a little when I read in the programme notes that "in the end, far from the science fiction of time travel it is ostensibly working with, To Move in Time concerns itself with questions of value and priority - what matters, what needs to be cared for and what can be changed". Oh, dear: the old 'sci-fi can never be about things that matter' argument. Plus, for my money, with its pretty basic discussion of things like the butterfly effect and the various surprising, tragic and unpredictable consequences that time travel can have, the play doesn't move very far at all from science fiction stories that explore the same topic - while it thinks it rises above them, I thought it sat below them.