Love and Information at the Royal Court is a new play by Caryl Churchill which essentially appropriates the quick-fire format of sketch comedy for dramatic purpose. The play is divided into seven acts of around seven scenes each, with themes blossoming across each act – one focussing on memory, another playing with methods of communication. However, beyond these vague themes there’s no dramatic through line; no two characters are the same, no scene recurs and there is nothing that brings them together into anything as obvious as a ‘A Central Idea’. Repetition, an element that can make or break sketch comedy, is entirely absent from this sketch play and without the hope that a favoured character might return it is that much harder to engage with others who are glimpsed only for a few seconds.
However, those glimpses are compellingly realised. No matter if the scene lasts for ten minutes or just one, there’s a clear commitment to portray a convincing snapshot of real life, from the dialogue replete with repetition and unfinished sentences, to the masterful direction by James Macdonald which brings out every inflection and interpretation through some excellent staging choices. The cast are superb, each playing several different characters easily and without cliché. One particularly moving scene contained eight short lines of dialogue as a man with severe memory problems (Rashan Stone) played the piano, having forgotten that he ever could.
The set, a white cube that looks like a containment cell from a sci-fi film, perfectly articulates the disjunction between the realism of the scenes and characters and the strangeness of the sketch show format. Between scenes black screens block off the set like a camera shutter while loud sound effects or music conceal the noise of the set changes, which are for the most part accomplished quickly and brilliantly. A set piece clearly intended to dazzle included a grassy knoll that was placed vertically rather than horizontally, so that one of the actors engaged in the stargazing scene delivered all his lines upside down.
Throughout the play there existed a tension between the realism of the writing and performances and the aggressively artificial construction of the play and set, which in a majority of scenes emphasised the natural comedy in everyday miscommunication. In the more abrupt or darker scenes this tension was more uncomfortable and made me long for something more than a shared stage and cast to pull the abstract moments together into a more comprehensible whole. The instinct is to treat it as a comedy, taking the unavoidable Depression scenes (highlighted by Churchill in the script as essential to the play, a seemingly deliberately provocative instruction) as they come but otherwise finding laughter in everything else. Certainly that’s an enjoyable approach to a play that deftly captures the ridiculous and true cadences of everyday speech. However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a greater intent behind the play that falls flat. Churchill has written half an hour of superb sketch comedy, half an hour of average sketch comedy, and half an hour of something completely different. So many parts can’t make a whole.
*** (3 STARS)
Love and Information is playing in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court until October 13th.