Thursday, 22 March 2012

one from the heart for the essex boy

It was the title, I think, that took me there. Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness. In my head it was the first play by David Eldridge I ever saw but, as ever, facts prove me wrong: I must have seen Festen at the Almeida first. Festen was terrific, but I saw that for Rufus Norris. Incomplete I saw because I wanted to make friends with Eldridge. Watching it, I did more than make friends: I became a little bit obsessed.

Incomplete is one of the plays that has defined my sense of what I want to see and feel in the theatre. It is a strange and tricky play, restless and slippery. The central character, Joey, has watched his mother die, is at odds with his father (has been all his life?); he's facing up to the commitment of marriage, battling a sense of worthlessness with volunteer work. And then Trevor, the teenage boy he is mentoring/reading with, dies, stabbed by some other children, bullies who wanted his camera. Senseless, pointless, materialistic violence. And Joey, who has been teetering on the edge, finally falls apart. But we aren't really told any of this. Eldridge weaves it into the torn and shredded fabric of the play. Joey is on stage all the time; other characters flash in and out of view, but it's hard to tell what's “real”, what's troubled, damaged memory. At any point, Trevor could be alive or dead. I can still feel the shivering excitement of watching all this unfold, the electric rush of piecing Joey together. Eldridge didn't just tell us about someone having a mental breakdown: he created that breakdown on stage, absorbing us in the experience.

Since then I've tried to see everything of Eldridge's that I can. But nothing ever matched the wonder and exhilaration of that “first” time. I'm more usually like this with bands, Pavement being the archetype: Slanted and Enchanted was everything to me, and it took about a decade before I would allow myself even to think that its follow-up, Crooked Rain, contained some lovely songs; anything beyond that, I find too upsettingly conventional to listen to. I'm not so extreme about Eldridge, but it's a similar thought process. Incomplete feels like the anomaly in his discography, the one great experiment. Of course, that's not at all fair: Under the Blue Sky, which I caught up with when it played, beautifully if a little glossily, in the West End in 2008, is brilliantly clever in structure, and who else would write a musical about Essex market boys, white van and all, for the main stage at the National? But nothing has held the challenge of Incomplete, the brain-fizzing demand.

I interviewed David in 2006, in the run-up to Market Boy, and have just raked through the transcript looking for something that I now realise he must have said off-tape: I remember telling him how much I'd loved Incomplete, and I'm sure he told me that it was a rather bruising experience, because the reviews were only middling (I've just found an extremely positive one, though, by Charlie Spencer: as ever, his empathy for the damaged runs deep). Did it put him off writing in such an oblique and elliptical way? I don't know, but when I watched The Knot of the Heart I found myself wondering if Eldridge and I were reaching a parting of the ways. My immense respect for Charlie Spencer's judgment in matters of addiction – he thought Knot was terrific – makes me question my response to this play, but I watched it in a knot of fury and frustration. Where Incomplete showed, Knot tells; rather than embedding its audience in a mental and emotional experience, Knot allows us to sit back and watch. When the nice middle-class audience around me tittered complacently at the joke about the nice middle-class mother scoring drugs for her daughter in a cafe in Islington, the play lost me completely. Knot is a well-crafted piece of writing, I'm sure, but the characters felt emphatically contrived to me, not felt, not true. Knot came from a place of art, not heart, and that's what I hated about it.

Although the good reviews (from reputable sources) got me excited, I felt nervous walking into In Basildon: on top of my problems with Knot, I've had mixed feelings about most of the shows I've seen on the Royal Court main stage in the past year. Sure enough, I found the gimmicky staging infuriating: the RC website gave no indication that my £20 seats would be in any way restricted in view, and yet huge chunks of the action were hidden from my husband, sitting at the end of aisle B. But the play! Oh, what an exquisite delight this play is. When the lights went up for the interval I was shocked: but it's only been playing for 20 minutes! In fact an hour had passed, whizzed by in a joy of perfectly formed characters, terrible jokes (“we used to call her Kronenbourg: she looks 16 from the back and 64 from the front”: SHOCKING!!! But funny), intense and contradictory emotion. There is a blip in the second half, when Tom, the middle-class boy with a private education, tries to take his girlfriend's family to task for their conservatism and self-interest, and it feels like a Today programme debate, but I even forgave it that, because every other word was so alive and real. Thinking back on it in the days afterwards, I realised it was quite a lot like The Slap – I don't normally read books on the bestseller list (you bet I'm too snobbish), but I'm really glad I read this, because it was provocative in just the right way. And the best thing about The Slap is that it's an intensely political novel, not because it tub-thumps, but because Christos Tsiolkas embeds his arguments about Australian identity and the education system and modern parenting and liberalism and masculinity and multiculturalism and the riven heart of the immigrant into the passing thoughts and everyday speech of his characters. The personal is political, profoundly so. That Tory v Labour debate instigated by Tom is the least satisfying bit of In Basildon because it feels staged, whereas the arguments about housing, work, social responsibility, charity, that emerge elsewhere in the play do so in the course of general family chat. They're not imposed on the characters: they come from within.

Just as form mirrored content in Incomplete, the disintegration of the mind reflected in the disintegration of the play's structure, so form satisfyingly mirrors content in Basildon. The play is conventional because its characters are; its four acts are as monolithic as the two feuding sisters, Maureen and Doreen, and the ancient grudge between them. I adored those two women: for their selfishness, their craftiness, their immensity. How I wish we could see more women like them on stage, in the cinema, anywhere in the media, presented with such care, so little judgment. And of course, of course, they reminded me so much of my own mum, in their fierceness and protectiveness – and their weakness. She did a lot of her growing up in Romford, too. I really, really want this play to transfer to the West End, if only so I can take my mum to see it next time she visits. I can't remember the last time I thought of a play, “My mum would love this”, and it felt like such a good and happy thing.

So many family resonances. My mum doesn't speak to her eldest and younger sisters, hasn't for years; it wasn't only money that poisoned those relationships, but it played its part. And how inexorable the enmity of family: I've tried to stop that bitterness souring my relationships with my cousins, but my feeble resistance has been mostly futile. So much friction, too, between me and my brother: I went to university, he didn't; I got all the opportunities to move up from the working class to the middle class, he didn't. At least, that's how he sees it. When Barry's wife Jackie lays into Shelley – and while I'm not precisely Shelley, there are definitely similarities – I couldn't stop myself squirming. My sister-in-law hasn't yet told me that I'm a stuck-up cunt, waltzing about the place like my shit don't stink, but it's there, an unspoken tension, between us. And when fists started flying, I was reminded, deliciously (because it is rather delicious, now it's more than two decades in the past) of the spate of family weddings in the 1980s that ended in punch-ups. God only knows what was happening there. (And no, I didn't love Basildon more than Knot because it reminded me of my own family: we've got the drugs and maternal self-delusion, too.)

In Basildon has made me besotted with David Eldridge again. For years, I've realised, I've been waiting for him to repeat Incomplete. I've let that foolishness go now. Instead, I've reminded myself how lucky I am: to be his contemporary, to be able to travel these roads at the same time as him. A bumpy ride, but a thrilling one.

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