A Clockwork Orange, Playback, Lark Rise To Candleford

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, PLAYBACK at the Briggait, Glasgow, and LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 21.10.10.
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A Clockwork Orange   3 stars ***
Playback    3 stars ***
Lark Rise To Candleford   3 stars ***

WHAT’S IT GONNA BE? asks Alex, the boy hero of Anthony Burgess’s great 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange; it’s his catchphrase, almost his mantra, in this stage version of the story at the Citizens’ Theatre.  He uses it at the beginning of the story to initiate an evening’s “fun” with his mates; will it be rape or pillage, or a serious stabbing?  He uses it at the end, as he faces a classic British choice between outsider status, or suburban domestic contentment.

And it’s not hard to see why the Citizens’ outgoing artistic director Jeremy Raison has chosen Alex’s story as his mainstage swansong.  If  nothing else, today’s profoundly disenfranchised generation of young people should identify with Alex’s journey through a control-freak society ever more interested in imposing conformity and passivity by messing with people’s minds.  And over two hours, Raison and his award-winning design and lighting team, Jason Southgate and Colin Balfour, certainly generate a spectacular piece of theatre, with a towering city set full of glass-and-steel architecture, plenty of smoke and mirrors, and a fine ability to switch from external street scenes to the large but confining space of the state institutions – prison, hospital – through which Alex travels in his journey from adolescence to adulthood.

The difficulty, though, is that for all its fine looks – and a compelling central performance from Jay Taylor, as a vaguely Johnny-Rotten-style punk hero – Raison’s version of Burgess’s story fails to find its central point of dramatic connection with the way we live now; and therefore tends, as the evening wears on, to move slightly mechanically through its series of scenes, as a  big cast of seven actors and five extras mime their way through a series of performances that range from the brilliant to the noticeably weak.  Perhaps the difficulty lies in the truth that Burgess’s novel belongs to a time of suburban prosperity and economic growth, when the idea of the young human being as a hormone-driven sex-and-violence machine had a certain radical edge, and when the question “what’s it to be?” had meaning, in a world full of choices.  Whereas now, we know what it’s to be: lower real wages, harder work, less choice, and a world where it’s more radical to cling to the those positive aspects of human nature that may get us through hard times, than to point out the obvious negatives, once again.

Ankur Productions’s Playback, at the fine new Briggait arts building in Glasgow, is the company’s follow-up to the stunning Edinburgh success of Roadkill, their magnificent site-specific study of the sex trafficking business; and in strategic terms, the company have done the right thing, in going back to their roots on the streets of multicultural Glasgow.  Playback is a youth show, featuring a cast of more than twenty young actors from around Glasgow, that tells the story of young Harun, fatherless son of a traditional Glasgow Asian family, who returns to  Glasgow after some years in Bradford, and finds his young cousins locked in a pointless, dangerous street war with another group known as “the Govanhill mob.”  Around him circle three other characters fated to be drawn into his drama; call-centre worker Rhia who has a gift of second sight, beatboxer Ajay, and Ajay’s singing partner, the lovely Alicia.  And as Rhia tries to save Harun from a violent fate, Harun seeks the truth about the death of his father, on these same streets, more than a decade ago.

Paddy Cunneen’s production and Davey Anderson’s text often seem more interested in the means they use to present the drama – the music, the movement, the light, the group dynamics, the dramatic club setting – than they are in the story itself; most of the narrative, and the dramatic conflct, are packed uncomfortably into the last ten minutes of a 75-minute show.  Even at its least satisfying, though, Playback features some fine acting, from Asif Khan as Harun, from Sharita Scott as Rhia,  and from a whole new generation of young Glaswegians with electrifying stories to tell, and new voices in which to tell them.

In its time – back in the 1970’s – Bill Bryden’s great stage version of  Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford, written by Keith Dewhurst, also had its claims to radicalism.  Staged in promenade style in an open space, it evoked the life of a dirt-poor late-Victorian Oxfordshire farming community in a way that was both nostalgic for the simplicity and solidarity of those times, and realistic about the grinding poverty of people who had not even a spare penny to spend on the cheap baubles in  the local pedlar’s pack.

Joe Harmston’s touring production, briefly in Edinburgh this week, offers us the faint ghost of that radical moment a generation ago, without anything like its full impact.  Staged decently but unimaginatively, on a sweeping circular ramp placed on the big proscenium stage, it recaptures the powerful musical impulse of the original show, its evocation of an almost-lost English folk-song tradition, and the passionate, radical energy of its young heroine, Laura Timms, played with real spirit and feeling by Becci Gemmell.

In the end, though, the deep dramatic impulse to tell this tale, and to recapture the story of a bygone England in all its complexity, seems to have been lost somewhere along the road.  And the show’s final evocation of the First World War as the moment when this England vanished forever seems abrupt and unearned; when it should carry the same weight – and the same profound sense of human communities shattered by history – as it does in Scotland’s own magnificent treatment of the same theme, in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.

A Clockwork Orange at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 6 November.  Playback at the Briggait, Glasgow, and Lark Rise To Candleford at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, both until 23 October.

ENDS ENDS

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