Puppet masters

The follow-up from the company responsible for <em>War Horse</em> doesn't quite come to life.

Handspring Puppet Company was always going to suffer from second-album syndrome as far as West End audiences are concerned. Their follow up to the smash hit War Horse is a quiet, recondite affair in comparison. Gay puppet love may not be everyone's cup of tea but prejudice (against puppets) aside, there are some interesting, if oddly uninvolving, ideas at play in this piece.

Written and directed by Neil Bartlett, Or You Could Kiss Me at the National's Cottesloe Theatre tells the story of Mr A and Mr B, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Handspring founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. Along with a posse of puppeteers (collective noun, anyone?), they perform on an unforgiving traverse stage, not only manipulating the puppets but also speaking on their behalf, role-playing scenes from A's and B's life together in South Africa and commenting on the action. Mr B is now dying of emphysema in a Port Elizabeth apartment and the play flashes backwards and forwards between the young couple who meet in 1971 and the endgame of 2036, by which time A and B have been together for 65 years.

Anyone who has spent time with the dying and has found themselves ransacking the past, having been denied a future, will at least recognise the valedictory element in this story. Those who have sat at the bedside of the terminally ill will understand Bartlett's preoccupation with breathing and in particular with the failing breath of Mr B. In fact, there are a number of lungs that pump away in the show, from the heaving ocean to the breezy strains of an accordion. Even the young lovers' squash match is conducted via a series of "fuck you's" on an out-breath.

Two pairs of mannequins (which are five-sixths life-size, to be precise) have been created for the piece, representing A and B at their physical peak and again at the time of Mr B's final illness -- reduced, shambling, deep furrowed. The joints and structure of the puppets are made visible, suggesting the biomechanics of ligament and bone, and there are some highly skilled manipulations -- such as young Mr B's high dive into the Indian Ocean -- where we get the full sense of an articulated body. The puppets' very lifelessness, of course, draws the eye to tiny, intimate movements and this finds its match in Bartlett's writing, which is at its best when evoking luminous details. Such details suit this meditation on the islets of memory, as does the spare design of the piece, where objects take on a strong synecdochic resonance. (A door latch stands for the apartment; hospital signage stands for the entire building.)

The puppeteers themselves move with an economical grace but their presence was an unresolved puzzle: one wondered exactly how Kohler and Jones felt about handling their Pinocchio proxies -- and in particular at their point of death. At times, the puppet masters were god-like manipulators, in clear control of events, which was maybe meant to be a tweak on the play's framing Ovidian myth of Philemon and Baucis, in which two old lovers ask the gods if they can die together. The gods' solution is to turn the elderly couple into trees, which woody ending clearly echoes the puppeteers' transformation into timber. There is more than a touch of self-mythologising in these mini-me surrogates.

Ajoah Andoh is the only human onstage who's not busy with puppets and she performs an MC-type role. Marked out from the rest of the cast by both gender and race, she's eminently watchable in her lively cameos but, as some strange recurring expert on decaying memory, it's as if she can't decide what tone to adopt and so she settles for cross. She also appears to direct and decide on A's and B's lives at times and, with so many explicit layers of agency and control, it's small wonder we are hardly drawn in to the drama. The very refusal to name the characters pushes us firmly away. A crowd of puppeteers occludes the heavy puppet petting: it was hard to tell if those wooden tops actually, er, got wood.

There is stark beauty in lines such as the one the title is lifted from: "Or you could kiss me. There does have to be a last time. Has it happened already?" But despite its heart-rending subject matter, I was left largely unmoved. Like the puppets themselves, the show has clever connections but lacks a life-spark.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.