Serena Murfitt reviews Greenwich Theatre’s recent production, Bad Nights and Odd Days.
To be honest actually being back in a theatre auditorium with the prospect of an evening of live performances from actual people after 18 months was enough to send me into spasms of delight, and the additional treat of watching not just one but four of Caryl Churchill’s short plays ALMOST made the clash of scheduling with England’s semi final against Denmark forgivable. Almost…(it is worth noting that the audience tonight consisted largely of women; I wonder how many of their spouses had spontaneously suggested they have a girlie night out with their friends while they would generously stay home after the quarter final result? I hope they stumped up for the interval drinks).
I love visiting Greenwich theatre as it has one of those rare auditoriums where the view from every seat is pretty good, no matter how far back or off to the side you are. It is also a high space so between that and the gaps between rows and parties courtesy of the Covid regulations in place at the time of our visit, it felt very safe. On the subject of which, the short broken rollercoaster segment on stage throughout all the short plays served as a constant visual reminder to me that theatre and live performance had been cut short mid run in 2020 and we are only now beginning to see it emerge and recover. I wonder if that was intended.
The four plays making up Bad Nights and Odd Days did indeed take us through a rollercoaster of human behaviour with a subtext of violence and darkness, gradually going deeper as the evening progressed. Seagulls started light heartedly enough and with humour with the protagonist (Kerrie Taylor as Valery) allegedly the possessor of telekinetic powers which she feared were deserting her. Indeed the audience seemed to be encouraged to question their authenticity, with a fan (Bonnie Baddoo as Cliff) who meets Valery, acting as our sceptical voice as it became apparent that apart from one instance in M&S (who I hope are in some way sponsoring this first performance as they are repeatedly mentioned) these superpowers although said to be present since she was a child had yet to be seen publicly, although she and they were shortly to be reviewed at Harvard which suggested some basis for them. The staging broke down the ‘fourth wall’ and made us the audience at Valery’s first public demonstration when her powers failed to move the switch to fire off a rocket (kudos to whoever thought of Valery removing her glasses at this point for the attempt, surely a drawn parallel to Clark Kent’s transition to Superman). One begins to question if in fact these are two women desperate to escape their situations – her showbiz manager Di (Gracy Goldman) the mundaneness of being a manager in M&S and Valery a questionable marriage. I never did answer fully whether I believed in the telekinesis or not although I found myself really connecting to the character and WANTING to believe her, and also linking into her fear of losing the one thing that she felt made her special.
The second of Churchill’s plays – Three More Sleepless Nights – consisted of three linked vignettes, all staged in the bedroom and involving unhappy relationships, with the unhappiness manifesting in different ways. The first couple had gone down the most obvious route of cheating on each other – emotionally, physically, depending on your take. What was evident however was there was still a dialogue going on between them, still a spark of passion that caused escalating arguments, although a strong thread of insecurity was apparent on both sides. For the second of the couples, there was such a disparity in communication it was difficult to see the attraction either could have had for the other, with the wife walking through the mists of a deep depression while her husband took refuge in discussing film plots. Each in their own way had lost their grasp on reality and were failing to engage with the other in any meaningful way. When she confesses to him that she feels she is dead, his response is to fetch food. When she says she is frightened he launches into a detailed description of a film narrative. Whereas the first couple had at least had a dialogue, in this act there were contrasting long silences and monosyllabic sounds. He sees her with a bread knife and does nothing to take it from her and instead lies down to sleep while she shockingly attempts suicide next to him.
The third vignette pairs the wife from couple one with the husband from couple two and the dialogue initially suggests a better match before there is a shift when she mentions her insecurities, moving him again into the uncomfortable territory of feelings where he reverts to type, discussing anything other than the issues confronting him. Patterns repeat and – as with the first play – I was left with the sense of a need to escape. I guess the point is that one can never really escape oneself.
Post interval, the third of Churchill’s plays – Abortive – continued with the trend towards darker themes although the lightness of dialogue and tone of voice belied the darker subject matter being discussed, that of a possible rape and subsequent abortion. I have to say that I found neither of the two protagonists – Paul McGann as Colin and Kerrie Taylor as Roz – particularly sympathetic and instead found my pity lay with the absent Billy who seemed to have been drawn almost childlike into a relationship with this couple – emotional and very possibly sexually – and had then been condemned as a rapist although it didn’t start as rape according to the dialogue. Again, one felt the disconnect between husband and wife and that – although there was a reasonable discussion going on – neither was saying what they really wanted or needed to say.
The fourth and final play of the evening – Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen – was probably my favourite of the night’s offerings, with some very quick and repetitive dialogue delivered skilfully by Verna Vyas as Vivian. It was very Orwellian in feel with definite overtones of 1984. A set dressed with a very seventies décor, and throwback references to the eighties, made it almost impossible at times to decide if it was set in past, present or future, although the lack of birds finally settled me on the latter. This play had to my mind the strongest relationship – between Vivian and her friend Mick (Dan Gaisford) – although ironically they were the only couple/protagonists of the evening NOT in a formal relationship. I found the dystopian themes unsettling – the concept of the park as a kind of paradise to aspire and escape to, the idea of giving away ones possessions then committing suicide something to be lauded. The desensitisation to the news – Mick would later watch it to see if his daughter Claudia had been one of those to commit suicide – and the living in high rises in the fumes of ‘The Londons’, disconnected from those around you, felt all too relatable, especially after the last 18 months we have had of Covid isolation in the city and turning on the news to see the daily death figures. Written in 1971 Churchill could surely not have predicted how much this would resonate half a century later in 2021. A good choice to end the evening and it left me a lot to ponder as we made our way out to check on the England score afterwards, and enjoy the interaction with others. I was left with a real need to seek to make my connections with people better, to listen and engage more, to be more present. And perhaps that was the point. A salient lesson in four acts for a contact-starved population in 2021.