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Theatre review: Double Feature - Nightwatchman / There Is A War 
5th-Aug-2011 11:48 pm
The National Theatre have a quartet of new short plays running in two double bills, and have opened an inventive temporary space to stage them. Or, to put it another way, they were going to stage Double Feature in the Cottesloe and were all set to put tickets on sale when they noticed that London Road had become a hit and closing it early to accomodate the short plays would be bonkers. So London Road gets to run until the end of the month (and I'll be going again) and Double Feature gets moved to the Paintframe, a backstage area next to the Cottesloe normally used for painting sets. Necessity being the mother of invention though it's made for an interesting experience, and the second time this year the audience has had to leave at the interval so the stagehands can dismantle and rebuild the auditorium. I guess Nicholas Hytner missed a trick though, by not turning up in person at the end to tell half the audience to fuck off - if he had, at least this time I would have been among the chosen few. There's a viewing platform where you can watch this transformation (sets and the new performance space designed by Soutra Gilmour) at the interval, I was surprised how few people chose to do so.

Above is the setup for Prasanna Puwanarajah's first play Nightwatchman, a monologue for Abirami (Stephanie Street,) a female cricket player about to play for England for the first time. She's practising against "Merlin," the machine that throws test balls at her, and talking to Merlin as if it's her father, with whom she has some unresolved issues. The match tomorrow is against Sri Lanka and Abi is of Tamil descent, and her feelings about the region's violent politics and how various members of her family reacted to it are brought to the fore. It's a bravura performance but although there's some nicely-written lines, the play is all over the place - it tries to deal with too many themes, and in attempting to throw the audience off the scent about how Abi really feels about her father Puwanarajah has her go backwards and forwards quite a lot. And a surprising amount of the play actually is about cricket, not just as a metaphor, and it's not something that interests me much. But the way Street, director Polly Findlay, and tricks hidden in Gilmour's set create the effect of the invisible cricket balls flying at Abi is a highlight.

A wider traverse filled with oversized stationery (whose significance becomes apparent later) when we return from the interval for Tom Basden's There Is A War, directed by Lyndsey Turner. The Blues are fighting the Greys (and both sides' uniforms are bluish-grey which doesn't help matters.) Anne (Phoebe Fox) is a doctor who's just joined the Blue army and spends the play trying to find a field hospital where she can actually do some good. Along the way she meets dozens of comic grotesques, starting with a great performance from Kirsty Bushell as another new recruit who hopes her dance skills can be of use, and Basden himself as Martin, who bragged on his application form that he's the world's best soldier, and so was immediately promoted to General. There's bureaucracy, disinformation and gallows humour and while Basden doesn't say much that hasn't been said before, not many war satires are as laugh-out-loud funny as this one.

Double Feature - Nightwatchman / There Is A War by Prasanna Puwanarajah and Tom Basden is booking until the 10th of September at the National Theatre's Paintframe.
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