Lungs Leaves Us Breathless: Paines Plough Roundabout Season

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The Roundabout Season at the Shoreditch Town Hall brings together three formidable names in theatre; Paines Plough, the National Theatre and Sheffield Theatres. As to be expected, it is a formidable show.Though the program dubiously claims to be throwing its lot in with a mere five in-the-round theatres in the UK (conveniently discounting the various theatres that frequently reshuffle their seating arrangements to suit directors’ whims), there is undoubtedly something special about this particular arrangement. The ‘flat-pack’ auditorium is erected in the middle of the hauntingly preserved assembly hall, and the combination of carousel-esque wallpaper and design, exposed bulbs and the imposing lighting rig gives the distinct impression of entering a circus. The actors serve as clowns, lions and ringmasters and have the ability to heal and break our hearts in a moment.

Something about the structure of the set makes the plays extremely intense; there is no fourth wall, we are all trapped in a bubble. Upon arrival at the venue you are presented with a choice of buttons. Not content with merely allocating seats, your button is the key to your position – it’s all very alternative. This is Shoreditch after all.

The in-the-round set up is as irritating as it is successful; at times it is a wonderful way of sharing the experience of the theatre with the rest of the audience, laughing together, crying together. At other points it is a distraction; during One Day When We Were Young, a woman was texting, the iPhone glow distracting from the wartime farewell between sweethearts Violet and Leonard. The sets too are advantaged and disadvantaged by the form. One Day’s central mirror structure often led to obstruction and Lungs bare stage forced the actors to circle around so frequently I began to feel dizzy.

Out of the two that I was able to see (there is a third play, The Sound of Heavy Rain), Lungs was evidently the better. That is not to discount One Day, but merely to elevate Lungs to a standard I have not seen in the theatre for a long time. The playwright Simon Stephens tweeted that “Sometimes as a writer you see plays that remind you how good your craft can be and make you want to try harder. And LUNGS is like that.” He’s basically got it; the play is as funny as it is touching, as subtle as it is obvious. The lack of props and rhythmic quality of both the words and the actors movements gave the play a feel of ‘spoken word’ poetry, but the emotion evoked by the performance was incomparable to any performance poet I have seen.

Lungs tells the journey of a Man (Alistair Cope) and a Woman (Kate O’Flynn) and their decision to have a child. Though its title and frequent references to the environment give it a quasi-political air, the crux of the play is based in the startlingly true to life exploration of the relationship. While the beginning drags on a little long by the, to coin a poetical term, volta I was spellbound. Not only does the high caliber of dialogue maintain itself all the way through, so too does the humour. We watch a miscarriage on stage and are laughing moments later. Duncan Macmillan owns our emotions. This is what a play should be.

The play raises questions without seeming ‘preachy’, but they are perhaps not always the questions it was aiming to raise. “Discussions” of the environmental impact of having a child (the equivalent of 2,500 flights to New York, apparently) are superseded by biological limitations of equality between the sexes. The practicalities of conceiving (“you’ve got that porno look in your eyes”), pregnancy (“it’s my body it’s happening to”) and miscarriage (“you have this weird male fucking autism thing or something, this ability to just shut off your… emotions”) all happen to the Woman, despite the Man’s wish to be able to share the experience. We don’t leave the auditorium asking “are we good people?”, but

“how can this be fair?”

One Day on the other hand is as depressing, but less innovative. The story, which follows the fairly prosaic Atonement plot, with some alterations, is that of a couple told at three stages of their lives. Although both Leonard (Andrew Sheridan) and Violet (Maia Alexander) are both clearly very able and talented actors – as is made obvious in the first act as they play the duo in their twenties – Alexander is blessed with such a youthful face and physique that she is unable to age, despite her best efforts. While Sheridan as the pensioner is utterly transformed, one cannot help but look at Alexander as still in the bloom of youth. No number of pairs of grandmother glasses will convince you that this woman has children in their fifties.

The script is witty and fast-paced, with particular highlights including Leonard’s offer to “go for a ride on the stairs [stair lift] and leave you [Violet] to it” in the final section of the play. Moreover, despite its clichés, the story is earnest and gripping, if thoroughly depressing. Love torn apart by misunderstanding is not a new concept, but that does not mean it is not a thrilling one.

The middle portion of the play, which focuses on the pair in their thirties, is less impressive, the sixties music that punctuates the scene changes (whereby the characters alter th

eir make-up and costume on stage) is unoriginal and unsubtle. The second part of the play holds none of the sweet innocence of the mischievous Violet seducing Leonard before his departure, and raises more questions than it answers. Though the ‘twist’ at the end of the play is disappointing, the final act is touching and witty in a way that is simply missing from the middle.

This collection is not to be missed: hop on the Oxford Tube and attend all of the plays. They are both plays to be seen, but there is no doubt in my mind that Lungs (nominated for best new play at the UK theatre awards) will be a play to remember and, however charming, One Day When We Were Young may well be quietly forgotten.

Lungs and One Day When We Were Young are playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until October 27th. Tickets here.

PHOTOS/Elyse Marks

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