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Conceptual theatre is hard to watch and even harder to make

Two plays of ideas reviewed.

Love and Information
Royal Court, London SW1

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1

The late art critic Robert Hughes once said that the problem with most conceptual art was the concepts. If you translated the ideas behind the objects back into English, they were often barely worth saying. I count writers such as Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill as conceptual playwrights. Although they may contain moments of extremity, their plays are not so much dramatic as contemplative. They ask you to think. And they are often so much richer than their gallery counterparts that the problem for an audience is not that their concepts are obvious but incomprehensible.

As a critic, I always take comfort in the fact that not a single newspaper reviewer got what T S Eliot was on about in their overnight notices for The Cocktail Party, an intellectual puzzle if ever there was. Nevertheless, it was with nervousness that I seated myself for Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at the Royal Court. Churchill is not easy. Her 2000 short play Far Away left me not only cold but mystified. Her latest was trailed as having 100 characters and none of them named. Confused? I surely would be.

Relief was not, however, quite my top critical response when, only a quarter into Love and Information’s one hour 50 minutes, it became clear that Churchill’s theme was almost laughably easy to discern. Sensing paranoia in the air about information overload and pairing it a little unhappily with sensitivities about the current vogue for the revelation of personal intimacies, Churchill had, as advertised, written a play packed with 100 thoughts about information, some interesting, many banal.

Staged by the director James Macdonald in a disciplined cube, divvied up by intersecting lines, these included: a terminally ill patient gratefully being fobbed off by a doctor’s prognosis (lies, damn lies and statistics); a child being told by his sister that she was really his mother (inappropriate fact-dumping); a townie panicked by the lack of reception in the country that mean he cannot get weather forecast (nature provides its own intimations); a heartless vivisectionist (the pursuit of information as cruelty); a child who does not register pain (information is sensory); astrophysical information (Martin Amis’s The Information); a meeting between ex-lovers who cannot agree the facts of their assignations (Maurice Chevalier: “I Remember It Well”). And many, many more.

With this succession of short scenes, Churchill has written a sketch show but one very low on laughs. The quality of the sketches is highly variable. As much as half could have found a decent burial in her deleted file. Those that feature Linda Bassett, an excellent actress who turns naturalism up just a notch or so, have a head start. Those with Justin Salinger, whose chief dramatic weapon is the open-jaw, usually have a terrible, 1970s, 7.30pm sitcom feel. (I am not really complaining about the cast: the 16 work really hard.)

Only occasionally do you believe these incidents have a life outside themselves. The police informant confessing to his wife is one. A defence official excising inconvenient information from a document may be another, not least because here Churchill recovers her ear for the jargon of the dictator bureaucrat. A banal discussion of a foreign earthquake in a nightclub is a little theatrical coup: you do not hear the blaring dance music, only the speaker’s raised voices to overcome it.

But Love and Information is unchallenging. Although a major theme is that information is never neutral and always has consequences, at the end, to bring her piece together, its author resorts to one final scene, Facts, in which all the actors assemble in a kind of hospital waiting room to quiz each other on obscure and random factoids such as what is the smallest village in central Asia. The only cohesion is that the players are united. But they unite in an atomised hell of insconsequent information in which a single “do you love me? Yes I do” slips through.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time makes a happier night out, partly because the actors, led by the remarkable Luke Treadaway, have a narrative to work with, but also because Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s charming and original 2003 novel comes very close to disowning the novel’s own ideas, which makes things much more straightforward. The book’s central thought was that Asperger’s syndrome is both a handicap and a gift: without teenagers such as Christopher Boone (the clue’s in the name) the world would be robbed of an alternative and, in some ways, more clear-sighted view of itself. This is preserved. But Haddon’s text packed in many other concepts, mainly mathematical. A flip through the book reveals diagrams, charts, maps, flash cards and footnotes every few pages.

In place of scientific ideas we get a literary conceit: it reveals halfway through that we are watching a play within a play, performed as part of Christopher’s therapy. I don’t know quite what I was hoping for, but it was probably something interactive, a bit like James Burke’s The Burke Specials on the BBC in the 1970s, in which an audience would be involved in the exposition of science. I was encouraged, if a little wary, to find that I had been allocated one of the seats marked as prime numbers, but these were never referred to. What I was particularly looking forward to was a dramatisation of the Monty Hall problem, a conundrum brilliantly explained in the novel concerning the odds in a game show in which a contestant is allowed to change his mind at the last minute about which door his prize may lie behind. It makes a chapter in the book. The play omits it. Instead, a maths A-level question is worked out at ridiculous speed in an epilogue it is voluntary to attend. I need not have bothered.

So here are two plays of ideas that provided less nourishing food for thought than they should have: one whose concepts and execution disappoint and another that is, despite the designer Bunny Christie’s best, allusive efforts with her graph-paper sets, a play of emotions not thoughts, albeit at times a moving one.

A third, Terry Johnson’s touring revival of his 1993 intellectual comedy Hysteria, stars Antony Sher as Freud at the end of his life in Hampstead. In this case, Johnson’s ideas were robust. Freud was in denial both of his own subconscious memories and of the genocidal hysteria that would overwhelm his age. But they failed to take flight into comedy as Stoppard would have ensured they did. The play is Freud’s nightmare. That should have allowed his tortuous theories to ascend into surrealism and farce (Dali visits; Freud has just seen Rookery Nook), and for us to realise that both are artistic metaphors for the chaotic subconscious. But the play shifts tone lurchingly, becomes over-literal and ends in a vulgar pageant of the Holocaust. In theatre, the problem with conceptualisation is almost always its execution.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for The Times.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special