Were the critics damning of Damned by Despair?
Pic: Temporary Cottesloe Theatre replacement space take shape - the Donmar of the South Bank?

Review: Not quite so sound effects in All That Fall at the Jermyn Street Theatre

114620768_fall_345741cCould there be a starrier cast and director for the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre than Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon and Sir Trevor Nunn? I mean this is a theatre so small that you not only walk down stairs from the street straight into the auditorium but the loos are backstage, literally back stage, as in you have to walk across the stage to get to them.

Add in a never before staged Samuel Beckett radio play and there was much anticipation.

Now I've seen radio plays staged before, most recently the Live From series at the Criterion which was performed in what I like to call half and half style. There are the bare remnants of a set for the actors - a doorway, a chair, a sink that sort of thing but like a radio broadcast much is in the sound effects and in this instant the cast helped out with creating those effects. Seeing the mechanics of how it was put together with a little nod to having a live audience in the visualisation worked really well.

I've been told by people who have listened to All That Fall as a radio play that the sound effects are a big part of the story and creating its particular atmosphere. And that is I think where Sir Trevor Nunn's staging falls down. The sound effects are mostly recorded and while some are evocative others are poor or victim bad timing.

Witnessing the actors missing their sound cues or the sound cues missing the actors which ever way around you like to think of it was off putting. Of course if you were listening to it on the radio you'd never know.

Beckett's Waiting For Godot was an A-level set text and I'm very fond of it as a play but it's the only work of his I know so I was coming to this relatively fresh. Based on my experience with Godot it feels undeniably Beckett. There is an element of futility about existence, an underscore of death and love and friendship being the note of hope together with some cracking humour.

Maddy (Atkin) decides to surprise her blind husband (Dan) on his birthday by meeting him off the train from work. She is old and shuffles slowly along the country lanes to the train station talking to various locals en route and bemoaning her age and the loss of her child. The train is unexpectedly late due to an incident which is only revealed towards the end of the play, the causes of which may or may not have had something to do with Dan.

On the walk back from the station Dan debates the merits of retirement over working. He's a bit of a camurgeon, has a natural dislike for children but has traces of affection for his wife.

Without the constraints of the sound effects and scripts in hand I think the performances would have been just that little bit smoother and more effecting. The biggest problem for me was the sound of Maddy's shuffle which was more like someone scraping wet cement off concrete with a spade very slowly, far too slowly for any degree of realism. Atkins looked quite awkward trying to mimic sound with physical performance and some of the time didn't bother.

She wasn't the only actor having problem matching foot work with sound effects either and it did make it quite clunky and distracting. Also distracting was having the actors sat squashed together at either end of the stage. In my mind I was trying to predict which one would be speaking next and which side of the stage they would end up sat on and whether they would have enough space.

It is curious that Nunn decided to stage All That Fall this way. There are always dangers when you change the medium of storytelling - book to film can certainly be hit and miss. For me seeing the mechanics of a broadcast performance at the Criterion 'Live From' worked well as part of the entertainment whereas this just felt awkward as if the actors weren't quite sure whether to act out the sound effects or not. If the sound effects of the country side and Maddy and Dan's various encounters are supposed to be evocative then it failed on the whole and the visual performance didn't quite make up for it.

Seeing Gambon and Atkin on stage is always going to be a joy but I just wish it had been a different vehicle or differently done - perhaps I should have closed my eyes. I'm going to give it three stars.

All That Fall runs until November 3.


It Mr W's birthday today so fitting that the connection is a direct one and is Michael Gambon who played his father in Brideshead Revisited.