There’s something apt in the spectacle of three characters anatomising London’s cryptic nature from a tiny subterranean stage just off Victoria Street. This is the studio space of the St. James, one of the city’s theatres to have sprung up in the recession as unexpectedly as new railway lines.
Each of the three women hold the stage for the twenty minutes of their respective playlets, or virtual monologues, written and directed by the celebrated young author and director James Phillips.
There is a piano arpeggioing away in a mood of urban melancholy and feeding the sense of a musical trajectory into the story told by Sarah Quintrell in the first piece, Narcissi. Time is pulled in and out like a concertina. At one moment we are at a romantic triste in a café by Tower Bridge where the proprietor gives free meals to couples who he believes are genuinely in love; next we’re by the pond-heart of a secret garden forty years on. The words begin to send out signals which are then returned in slightly altered form in the subsequent pieces, in the manner of a musical motif. So preponderant is the playing of the pianist and songwriter Rosabella Gregory that through her accompaniment Phillips and his actors seem to be inviting us into their own dance to the music of time almost a century on from the novelist Anthony Powell.
If you were fortunate enough to see The Rubenstein Kiss, the play which brought Phillips his first success eight years ago, you will already realise that this London dreamscape is very different terrain from the one inhabited by the Jewish American couple sent to the electric chair in McCarthy-era America for trying to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
Or is it? Both that full-length play and these miniature ones concern themselves with the debatable nature of public realities and private loyalties. The Rubensteins (Phillips’ fictionalised version of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) found themselves – so they insisted to the very end – in a world of suppositions which in no way matched their lives; the woman portrayed by Louisa Clein in the second piece, The Great Secret, comes across a much older woman who claims to be her. In fact this Other Person has even written a book about her life and offers to sell it to the younger one. This book contains a story about a man who pursued its author, and by the end we are left wondering whether this narrative is recalled, predicted, current, or indeed all three.
By the time we come to the final piece, performed by Daphne Alexander, sleep has – to borrow from Parkinson’s Law about work – expanded to fill the space available for its completion. In other words London, and therefore the whole of humanity, is frozen into a kind of permasnooze, with only the narrator to hold our hand through this otherworldly or posthumous capital.
What do we find here – I mean, in this slightly rueful triptych about place and moment? Something whose conventionality is at odds with the free-floating garment of the programme’s reflections. Yes, it’s love, the dear old thing, durable and reliable as everyone from Shakespeare through Rattigan to Richard Curtis has assured us.
Strange little show, all tricksy and ambiguous when you first meet, but then rather conventional at heart. Snug almost. Sweet, ardent performances by all three women and their often silent supporters Tom Gordon Gill and Yolanda Vasquez. A little like finding yourself at a party with a set of loose-linked strangers who’ve picked you out as a good listener. This is a compliment.
Review by Alan Franks @alanfranks
City Stories at St James Theatre
14th to 16th November 2013
Sunday 17th November 2013