Monday 17 September 2012

Theatre review: Love and Information

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Linda Bassett, Amanda Drew, John Heffernan, Paul Jesson and Amit Shah are among the cast of 15 for Caryl Churchill's latest play, Love and Information. Almost as if she'd seen the Royal Court Downstairs' flair in recent years for lightning-fast scene changes and wanted in on the action, Churchill gives us essentially a fast-paced sketch show format. On what looks like the same white box, endless configurations of people and settings appear, to perform vignettes no longer than a couple of minutes at most, some lasting only seconds; a couple of them with barely any dialogue. The significance of some of the scenes is occasionally hard to pinpoint but overall a picture builds up of information in modern life: The demand for it (the opening scene is of Shah demanding a secret from Amuka-Bird,) the overload of it (he soon regrets asking,) and where emotions and individuality fit into a world made up of endless streams of data, both useful and useless.

The scenes are collected into eight numbered sections, some of whose overarching themes are clear, others' connections are more tenuous. So one section keeps coming back to memory, how it works, how it can stop working, how it can unexpectedly resurface. Another looks at language, while later we keep coming back to the idea of people and their personalities being made up of their knowledge and memories - therefore how different are we really to a computer?

James Macdonald's production marshalls the constant changes of scene and tone well, aided by Miriam Buether's deceptively simple set with its shutter-like curtain, and the scene changes are helped by diversion techniques by Peter Mumford's lighting. Of course, one of the biggest contributions has to be made by the multitasking cast. The scenes cover a lot of ground both in subject matter and tone, with a few very dark or sad moments cropping up. But the format suits comic moments very well of course and there's plenty of them, well-executed. From Rhashan Stone and Amanda Drew as a couple in a sauna and the not-very-sub subtext to their conversation about theoretical mathematics; to Linda Bassett's English lady abroad discussing languages, with a punchline hilarious in its familiarity; to Drew and Joshua James' ballroom dancers coming up with reasons why having an affair is the right thing to do, there's a lot of memorable moments, and I'm sure (like the unexpected resurgent memories in Drew and Heffernan's "memory house" scene) others will pop up at me over time. The Heff, in a seemingly unending collection of bad footwear, gets a nice line in awkward romantic relationships, from an early scene at a picnic where he gets given Too Much Information about his date's job, to a brilliantly cringeworthy first date with Amit Shah that he gets far too visibly overexcited about.

Ian commented afterwards that he felt the format made it hard to emotionally engage with the piece, and that was something he missed. I don't know, I think information overload at the expense of emotion is kind of the point, and in any case I think there was enough to engage with intellectually, to make up for it. Churchill's just brimming with clever twists on familiar ideas: Like the cliché of describing emotional upset in terms of physical pain - here Josh Williams plays a boy with a condition that makes him unable to feel pain, and Scarlett Brookes has to explain it to him in terms of emotional heartbreak. Then there's Williams and Laura Elphinstone taking part in a classic soap opera plot in a way no soap ever tackled it, Amuka-Bird's unusual reaction to her husband (Justin Salinger) admitting he shopped a criminal friend to the police, and Susan Engel's brilliant riposte to a religious friend's cliché that god "gives their life meaning." And I don't know if it was a deliberate nod to Churchill's gender-blending early plays, but the various children's roles are alternated by a boy and girl on different nights - tonight it was Nell Williams.

The fact that this review is now getting bogged down in remembering moments I liked can only be a sign that this really was an information overload, and a good one at that. I bumped into a friend on the way out who was already on her second trip to the show, and I have no doubt that it would reward multiple viewings. I don't know that I'd recommend that, but certainly if you get the chance to see it once, you should give it a go - if nothing else, you won't see anything quite like it too often.

Love and Information by Caryl Churchill is booking until the 13th of October at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.


  1. Hopefully booking to the 14th October as I have tkts for that night!!

    1. In that case I'd double-check them if I were you! Even if it were to extend, that's a Sunday.