Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Punching Jane' at The Courtyard Theatre, 11th June 2014

Please note that the production company has requested I not use their photos.  I am happy to oblige. In their place please enjoy these pictures of cats in wigs.

 Punching Jane is a play about brawling 18th Century prostitutes.  It is awful.  Sat in the front row I watched proceedings with a rictus grimace, quietly amazed at how damn bad it was.  Eventually my amazement turned into astonishment as, miraculously, it got worse.  Bad theatre isn't especially pleasurable to watch; at least with a bad film you can reassure yourself that everybody involved has since moved onto better things and gotten over it.  Not so in theatre: you're watching people embarrass themselves right now. Every so often you catch a glance of desperation from the cast that seems to say "save me".  But both they and I know there is no saving them.  Not now.

The plot concerns a brothel "in the seedy backstreets of 18th Century London".  The previous owner has died and his arsehole son has taken over.  His obvious twattishness is causing much consternation among the prostitutes: Jane, Mary, Molly and their manager, Mother Elizabeth.  The meat of the play concerns the tangle of ambitions as to who's going to end up running the brothel.  Is it going to be the clapped out and bitter veteran hooker Mary or the rootin' tootin' headbuttin' newcomer Jane?  Layered on top of all that is a load of bullshit interpersonal drama that owes more of a debt to Hollyoaks than it does to the mean streets of old London.

Most of the problems stem from the subject matter, which is inescapably trashy. After all, a tale of bawdy, bare-knuckle-boxing prostitutes, even if handled by the best company in the land, is inevitably going to be pretty camp.  The worst thing you could do is to go at it completely straight-faced - yet this is precisely what Punching Jane does.  The end product is roughly artistically equivalent to softcore porn, but without the sex.  

Nobody comes out of this smelling of roses.  I have most sympathy for the cast, who, while all awful to various degrees, have at least proved the aphorism that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  Everything is mired in histrionics, as if the director just doesn't know when to stop telling his cast to go bigger.  The result is series of caricature performances that more closely resemble a night at Madame JoJo's Tranny Shack than any realistic portrait of femininity.  Rubbing salt into the wound is that most of this is delivered in embarrassingly bad Dick van Dyke-ish cockney accents.  The nicest thing I can say is that the women are fascinatingly bad, as opposed to the male performances, which are just regular brand bad.

But I suppose there's only so much you can do with a dog of a script that goes nowhere and says nothing.  This is excruciatingly bad dialogue, apparently assembled Burroughs-style by cutting up The Big Book of Victorian Sex Slang (or maybe just a dog-eared copy of From Hell) tossing the pieces into the air and seeing what random configurations they end up in.  So you have characters endlessly banging on about "bubbies" or,  memorably, their "south-mouth" *shudder*.  The quiet nadir is a short line late in the play where one character yells "you ungrateful ingrate!".  Think about this for a second, and realise that it got through (presumably) many script re-writes and at least one previous production without anybody pointing out just how dumb it is.

That said, picking out specific lines is a fool's errand: it's all bad.  The basic tone of the script is equivalent to something you'd expect to see sprouting from the first months of a drama degree.  The swearing and sex feels adolescently gleeful, as if the writers have just left school and sniggeringly realised that without their teachers looking over their shoulder nobody can stop them saying fuck, cunt, shit and piss as much as they want.

If there was one thing that I expected to at minimum to be passable it was the stage fighting.  After all, you don't stage a play about bare knuckle boxing without having a decent handle on how to convincingly clean someone's clock on stage.  Anyway, Ed Young, the fight director (and co-writer and actor), describes himself as a "specialist in combat for stage and screen".  After seeing Hiraeth Artistic Production's Hamlet at the Riverside Theatre recently and being deeply impressed by how tangible those blows were, I was primed for something special here.  This didn't hold a candle to it, being painfully over-choreographed without any sense of impact or reaction, more like watching a slow motion rehearsal of the real thing.  The one-on-one fights aren't so bad (and there's an argument that some of it is supposed to be playfighting), but the only reaction the final brawl drew from the audience was an embarrassed chuckle.

Finally a short word on set and costumes.  While obviously working from a restricted budget, they're (I guess predictably by this point in the review) dire.  All I'll say about the scenery is that it looks like someone has raided a skip and scattered the contents haphazardly around the stage.  As for the costumes, in a cost-cutting measure they've decked the male characters out in black rubber wellies.  As they clomp around the stage they look less like historical n'er do wells and more like they're down the farmer's market hocking expensive cheese. (The nicest thing I can say about the production is that the women's costumes are basically okay.)

From top to bottom, from side to side, any way you look at it, Punching Jane sucks - the only prostitution going on here is that of the cast's respective talents. Most tellingly of all, despite us being informed that this would be a 90 minute show with an interval, they just ploughed straight the whole thing in one go.  The only reason I can see for doing this is the fear that if they did have an interval, the majority of the audience would seize the opportunity to make a discreet exit.  I certainly would have.  This is hands down the worst play I've seen all year.

Punching Jane is at the Courtyard Theatre until 29th June, 19:30. Tickets £14/£11 (conc).

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