Ecstasy has had its day

This devised piece of theatre isn't groundbreaking, it's bankable.

Mike Leigh's Ecstasy comes to the West End on a surge of praise and goodwill from critics and punters alike. It's just had a sell-out run in Hampstead, where they trotted down the hill to the Swiss Cottage theatre in their droves to look at all the actors playing the Kilburn poor.

In the face of this unanimity, I'm afraid my own position is less one of ecstasy than of apostasy. I think Ecstasy has had its day. Originally devised in 1979, and performed six months into Thatcher's premiership, it must have crackled with an altogether heretical energy at the time. Set in a Kilburn bedsit (something I feel qualified to talk about), the actors are cooped and cramped in a tiny section of the stage; the crappy 1950s furniture takes equal billing with the actors as chief protagonists. There's poverty, material and linguistic: the characters' chat is inconsequential, redundant, a raid on the inarticulate; no one does the sad carouse as well as Mike Leigh.

A devised show is a strange and wondrous beast. A combination of research and improvisation can mean dialogue that rarely gets beyond the pedestrian, but dialogue is rarely the point. There are also jackpot accidents of timing, the sort of special comedy that can only be spontaneous, and above all a more than compensating sense of physicality -- the performers' rhythms, the way they move, tends to be more important than what they are saying. The director's job is to splice together the best bits, and make a patterning of sorts out of the inchoate.

This is apparently the first time that Leigh has revisited one of his devised pieces (it was originally created with Stephen Rea, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Sheila Kelley), and I'm not so sure it was well-advised. Stepping into a devised role is worse than wearing someone else's shoes. The roles are more than bespoke, they are emanations from the original actors.

The current batch do a doughty job at their impersonations: Siân Brooke's gin-soaked petrol pump attendant Jean is a twentysomething trapped in a fiftysomething's body, which she jerks around like a tired marionette; stiffened, ground down, careworn. Ebullient friend Dawn (Sinéad Matthews) gets impressively pissed, sliding away from her object, whether it's the loo or a glass of water, and does spectacular dances. Of her wedding, she remembers only "the toilets in The Old Bell" (my local, during the bedsit years). She speaks with the smoky croak of fags and booze. Craig Parkinson's jilted Len has an unassuming, bespectacled poise and quietude. His kindly, if tautologous, comment on Jean's bedsit is, "it's small, but it's compact".

Kilburn High Road as a wrackline for immigrants -- these characters wash up from the Midlands, mostly, as well as Ireland, in the case of Dawn's husband (who is called, not unexpectedly, Mick) -- is a fecund idea. As is the desperation and emptiness of working lives, perfectly summed by Alison Chitty's set, where the dead flowers on the telly sit next to an empty packet of Roses chocolates.

But for all the cast's virtuoso ventriloquism, there's a certain physical charge, typical of the devised show, which is lacking. It's way too long, and has some structural wrinkles that are in the "good idea at the time" category: Roy, who makes a couple of early appearances as Jean's violent lover, and even more so Val, his hell hath no fury wife, should perhaps have been allowed a merciful death, even in 1979. And did we really need Jean's spelled-out breakdown at the end, when it could have, should have, remained unsaid?

In the programme the artistic director at Hampstead, Edward Hall, cites Ecstasy as an example of what subsidy can achieve by way of the new and the risk-taking, which I think is a little wide of the mark, considering this is now a 32-year-old play, directed by an über-bankable auteur. Given that Hampstead does have a new, devised show -- running from 12 May -- without the imprimatur of Leigh, perhaps such rhetoric is best saved for the genuine, contemporary article.

"Ecstasy" runs at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 until 28 May.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State