Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Theatre review: From Morning to Midnight

I strongly suspect the National has served up another helping of Marmite because as I left the Lyttelton after From Morning to Midnight I overheard someone say he'd definitely be recommending it to his friends; I for one won't be though. Georg Kaiser's 1912 play, in a text by Dennis Kelly, follows a cataclysmic day in the life of a bank Clerk (understudy Jack Tarlton) who, after misunderstanding the intentions of a beautiful Italian customer (Gina Bellman) steals sixty thousand marks from the bank. On realising the lady didn't mean for him to run away with him and a stolen fortune, he's left alone, suddenly a criminal, and possessed of a suitcase full of cash. He roams the city, and between his family, the spectators of a cycling race, the prostitutes and clientele of a brothel, and finally the denizens of a Salvation Army shelter, he attempts to find meaning to life, and where his new wealth places him in it.

Soutra Gilmour's provided a beautiful design that makes for a breathtaking opening image, but the effect is diminished when the opening mime sequence of daily life in the bank gets far too self-indulgent. And it's a pattern that typifies Melly Still's production as a whole: Moments where it looks like we might be in for something really special, spoiled when an irritating, hamfisted, or just plain out-of-place staging decision butts its way onto the stage. Kaiser's play is a century-old piece of German Expressionism, a style that Still's production plays clumsy visual homage to as compared to, say, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which seemed to more organically adopt the style. Early on we also get one of my personal bugbears - ostentatiously visible Foley sound effects.

This is clearly a play that throws a number of contrasting styles into the mix to achieve its purposes, the sort of tricky juggling act that can pay dividends if you get it just right, but can just as easily make for a show that doesn't seem to know what it is. So it is here, the first act in particular having a cartoonish, physically comic style that doesn't actually translate into humour. And you can't blame having an understudy in the lead for that - Tarlton does everything you could ask of him and more, and in any case there's at least 15 minutes of mugging and pratfalls greeted with eerie silence before we meet the Clerk. Some of the audience did warm to all this, and another overheard comment, at the interval this time, saw a couple compare the relative merits of this show and One Man, Two Guvnors. I doubt the comparison would have still come to mind after From Morning to Midnight's bleak conclusion, but then Still seems undecided throughout on whether this is a raucous Christmas entertainment or a bitterly comic existential journey.

For a play called From Morning to Midnight it's ironic how unclear Still, Gilmour, Andrzej Goulding's projections and Bruno Poet's lighting make the passage of time through the day, the action actually seeming to take place at a perpetual 3am. This wintery night setting does make for some spectacular visuals, and when Adam Godley's well enough to return to the show I'm sure we'll get some beautiful production stills (and in the meantime Robert Gilbert as the Italian woman's son provides a pleasing enough sight as well.) But every awe-inspiring moment is followed by some smuggery or wrong-footedness that spoils it. I can actually see why some people would fall on the other side of the Marmite divide and love this, because I can see a beautifully strange, strangely beautiful production trying to break out, but for me it never did so.

From Morning to Midnight by Georg Kaiser in a version by Dennis Kelly is booking in repertory until the 26th of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

2 comments:

  1. Wow! And I thought I had been harsh with my review. Lots of really good points though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm being positively generous compared to some of the comments I've seen on Twitter.

      Delete