When I arrived in London last month, I secretly believed the stereotype that the Brits are better than us at everything theatrical. And why shouldn't I think that? I'd seen several excellent productions by U.K. theater companies on tour in America. But the first play I ever saw on British soil -- Fear, at the Bush Theatre -- was mediocre and thus, a terrible disappointment.
Probably it's good for me to get over my American inferiority complex and learn that the British theater can offer up a dud now and then. To realize that the touring productions I'd seen were, duh, the cream of the crop; and that any theater scene as rich and vibrant as London's (oh, how enviably rich and vibrant!) is bound to produce as many duds as masterpieces.
And although I found the production mediocre, my experience of attending the theater in London was great. I got to meet my lovely blog-friend Samantha Ellis in person; eat tasty, inexpensive chicken stew and browse the shelves of plays in the Bush Theatre café; stroll around Notting Hill in the twilight of the longest day of the year; and finish up the evening with thick hot chocolate that the waitress at Carluccio's gave us for free!
But all the same, Fear was disappointing. And I've been wanting to blog about my disappointment, but hesitated for a few reasons.
One, I saw the show's first preview, and maybe it just needed a few more nights in order to gel. I'm thinking of a moment where a character took off her elastic belt and struck another character with it -- but it was laughable because the actress was obviously flailing the belt as weakly as she could in order to avoid injuring her co-star. That seems like something that could be easily re-blocked to look more realistic.
Two, I'm trying to move away from writing "reviews" of shows where I just list what I liked and didn't like about them -- especially shows that most of my readers won't get the opportunity to see. Fear was at a small "fringe" theater in London, and lately my blog has been much more San Francisco-focused.
Three, I'm trying to move away from writing negative reviews in general, because, after all, I have my own reputation as a playwright (not just as an amateur critic) to consider, and wonder if I can afford to alienate anyone... even a fringe theater across the pond.
But the Bush Theatre isn't just any fringe theater. It is one of London's top-rated new-writing theaters, and, moreover, a couple of years ago, American playwriting blogs were abuzz with enthusiasm for its "BushGreen" endeavor. (see, e.g. this post by my friend Marisela Treviño Orta.) BushGreen is an online play submission system and a social networking site for playwrights. Using this platform, the Bush has a remarkably open submissions policy: they will accept any English-language play that has not had a full production in the U.K. They receive -- and read -- over a thousand scripts a year.
So when a theater that has such an open, laudable submissions policy decides to produce a mediocre script, I feel like I have every right to be particularly disappointed.
Moreover, I had to wonder whether factors other than the quality of the script affected the Bush's decision to produce Fear. This was the first play from writer-director Dominic Savage, who is better known in the U.K. for his work in television. The week before Fear opened at the Bush, Savage had a show called True Love air in prime time on the BBC -- five short semi-improvised dramas starring such well-known British actors as David Tennant. Was the Bush trying to cash in on Savage's fame by producing his first play? I can totally understand why a theater would consider this a smart business move, but at the same time, it's a disappointing choice from a theater that portrays itself as a new-writing venue where unknown playwrights can get their big break.
If you want to get some idea of what I disliked about Fear, you should read the What's On Stage review, which says, "It’s the kind of schematic, confrontational class warfare drama which
might strike you as lively and promising in a schools, or youth drama,
context -- where it would also seem more authentic -- but which shrivels
in the spotlight at an establishment fringe venue." The play contrasted the lives of millionaire financier Gerald and his pregnant wife, with the lives of some young hoodlums who mug people like Gerald. There was one interesting scene where one of the thugs schooled his friend in the art of sizing people up to see whether it's worth the trouble of robbing them. I liked this scene because it was unexpected yet plausible. It was amusing to realize that
criminals, just as much as fashionistas, must learn to identify this
season's "It" handbag or shoes on sight. But other than that, the script was predictable, the dialogue unmemorable. Again, a theater that receives a thousand scripts per year should, statistically, receive many plays that are far livelier and more interesting than this one.
Evidently, the Bush Theatre has a new artistic director and is going through a period of transition -- they recently had an open forum event to discuss potential changes and updates to BushGreen. I just hope that Fear was an anomaly rather than the new normal for the Bush Theatre; that they will continue to have an open script policy and make good on their pledge to produce great plays by undiscovered writers; that they can continue to be one of the U.K. companies that causes Americans to sigh with envy, and not sigh with disillusionment.
UPDATE, August 6, 2012: please see my follow-up post here after BushGreen contacted me on Twitter.