by Caryl Churchill
Royal Court Theatre
5th October 2012
There’s something about seeing Caryl Churchill’s work at the Royal Court – especially for the first time visitor like myself – that brings great expectations of something momentous. This could be it, the drama to once again revolutionise modern British theatre. Love and Information, however, is not it. This is not to say that Churchill’s latest piece is not highly enjoyable: it is, in turn, witty, sweet, heart-breaking, confusing and uproariously funny. Yet despite the range of emotions it takes you through, the play feels as if it is missing a solid enough spine to make it truly memorable and to understand what Churchill actually wanted to achieve with this work.
The show is divided into a series of short scenes: snippets of conversation, snapshots of events, moments of interaction, all intercut with strident sound effects and often bathed in harsh lighting. There is great variety, from the revelation of a boy’s parentage and discussions of terrorism, to virtual relationships, Facebook and memory improvement techniques. Most impressive is the instant characterisation which the script and the performances achieve, instantly pitching the audience into each scene: although we want to know more, we never feel we need to in order to appreciate it. The sparky dialogue holds our attention flawlessly, and has the power to be raucously funny – a discussion of the word ‘table’ in many different languages – or desperately sad – a silent, depressed mother – in just a few lines or words; or sometimes, none at all. For the most part, Churchill resists the temptation to give each scene a ‘punchline’, which prevents them from becoming trite: indeed the episode that did, that of two dancers contemplating the inevitability of their imminent affair, was disappointingly weak. Movement and stillness are important here, and each gesture, twitch and look has been delicately perfected. This intelligent direction from James Macdonald is supported by an excellent cast who are really responsible for making the likeable script come alive. Susan Engel and, in particular, Linda Bassett offered exquisite comedy and frequently had the audience in stitches, while Laura Elphinstone refused to be typecast, demonstrating great range in her performances – and not just in the many different accents she adopted. The young talent of Josh Williams was equally impressive and delivered each line with perfect timing; to tell the truth, there was no weak link here.
At least, there was no weak link amongst the cast. Unfortunately the technical mechanics of the show refused to play ball on this particular performance, leading to an unplanned halt early on. It was a shame that the hitch allowed the audience to see the method of entrance and exit on and off stage, which rather marred the mysterious nature of the cuboid and apparently sealed cell-like set. However, the audience remained good-natured, and Justin Salinger and Joshua James eventually restarted their scene with impressive composure.
The problem here is it’s almost a bit too random: there are evident themes, of course, but the overriding premise is: people. It’s that simple. Yet it doesn’t really tell us anything new, and it’s hard to tell if that is because Churchill isn’t thinking anything that’s particularly new, or if it’s just not being communicated. The piece would have benefited from a stronger thread throughout, not necessarily in terms of specific plot or character, but in something of a mainstay to lead us through. However well thought out Love and Information is, its ostensibly haphazard nature becomes an onslaught of character, theme, idea, tone: this is constant and brilliant, but it means that by the later scenes the audience are in danger of forgetting the earlier vignettes. Without anything to link them, our minds are simply unable to retain all the scenes at once. Perhaps this makes for a more personal experience: certain sections stick with each person, and what one viewer remembers most vividly may be very different from the person sitting next to them.
Yet this implies that for all audience members who don’t have a superhuman memory, parts of Churchill’s sparkling work will be lost from their memories through saturation. This is undeniably a shame, for nearly all scenes are worth remembering and there is no doubting that Churchill still has a keen eye, ear and voice for theatre. It suits the Royal Court perfectly; it would just be nice if it had a little more backbone. This play may not go down in history as her most influential, but it is yet a highly enjoyable and entertaining work demonstrating a sense of joy in the variety of humanity.