- Stars (out of 5) = 3
- One-sentence review = Gogglebox for the theatre, with added surrealism.
- Good for people who = like meta-textual plays about the practice of watching plays.
- Not good for people who = think the phrase “meta-textual plays” is a load of balls.
- Would Alan Bennet like it = yes
What goes through your mind when you’re watching a play? Are you focusing on the plot, or thinking about whether to stop off for a drive-through on your way home? Is it OK to talk during a show? And what do you do if you need to cough?!
With assured direction from Lloyd White, Wokingham Theatre stages two plays that explore these very questions with a double-header of Michael Frayn’s “Audience” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” – two plays that pay homage to the theatre’s recently-replaced auditorium seats, and the legions who’ve sat in them during their long life.
“Audience” (Michael Frayn)
First up is a play about people watching a play.
Literally – the set consists of a replica of the auditorium you yourself are sitting in, featuring the old seats that used to sit in Wokingham Theatre’s auditorium. As you walk in and take your seat, so does an “actor” (audience member?) on stage. As you rustle your programme, unwrap your sweet, or talk to the person next to you…so do they.
It’s a masterful opening that’s stretched to its logical extreme & sets the tone for the evening – because I sat there for 10 minutes watching people watching me. Had the play started? Who was on show here? Is this a commentary on how people’s lives have become “plays” through the medium of reality TV? Am I overthinking things? Who knows, but few plays have got me thinking so much before anyone’s even uttered a word.
The seats fill and the “audience” settles down in tandem with the real audience, responding to the same “turn your phone off & be seated” house alerts. And then the action begins. A “play” (which we can’t see) starts, and the “audience” respond to it in their ones, twos and threes – a family on a birthday trip, a teacher with a student, a married couple on a honeymoon, and so forth.
It’s not immediately clear what’s going on as they speak – are they actually talking to each other really loudly during a show, or are we hearing their thoughts? – but the unspoken rules of the piece soon become clear, and the “audience” comes into their own. Representing a cross-section of the theatre’s usual audience, you get to see how a typical audience responds to a play & to reflect on how much of yourself you see in it. Lines such as “I thought this was a comedy”, “Let’s get a choc ice at the interval”, or “HOW much did I pay for this?!” are sure to be familiar – not to mention a LOT of coughing…
The cast are of a solid standard throughout here, generating plenty of laughs and holding attention for the 35 minute run-time. Especial credit is due to Simon Vail for his spot-on portrayal of a tight-fisted father and his quest to find Row G, and Hedda Bird for her alarmed concern about the state of the on-stage furnishings.
It’s entertaining stuff, and a nice tribute to the theatre’s audiences – but you’ll need to judge whether this is enough to warrant the ticket price. If you enjoy Gogglebox and observational humour then you’ll definitely be satisfied, but there isn’t really a plot to speak of, and you may have mixed feelings about Frayn’s decision to write himself into the play – a black-clad figure watching the “audience” respond to his work and bemoaning their inability to fully engage with or understand his intentions. I found it interesting, but others may balk at a successful writer complaining about the difficulties of being a successful writer.
“The Real Inspector Hound” (Tom Stoppard)
Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” (which to my disappointment wasn’t about a sleuthing anthropomorphic dog) takes things a stage further by showing the “play” that the “audience” – in this instance a pair of West End theatre critics – are watching, and switching the focus between the “action on stage” and the critics’ response to it.
The “play” itself is great fun. A fond, energetic and enthusiastic send-up of Agatha Christie Murder Mysteries, there is plenty here to enjoy if you’ve ever watched And Then There Were None, Mousetrap or The Unexpected Guest. Inexplicably isolated mansions, patently unconvincing disguises, and more red herrings than a seafood platter – you’ll recognise as many shouts outs to the Great Dame in this play as you will to yourself in “Audience”.
Whether you’ll find the sections that deal with the critics (played well and with passion by Adrian Tang and Alan Long) equally entertaining will, however, depend on you. Whereas “Audience” thrives on showing relatable reactions to the theatre, here we see only the way that West End critics respond to new plays. These chaps are more interested in their rivalries and sexual conquests than the play in front of them, and while it’s a fun insight into the critical life, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Stoppard’s just having a rant about an issue that’s only important to successful writers – kind of like when JK Rowling takes to the press to complain about the existence of Harry Potter fan fiction.
However, the script finds an entertaining way to weave the two stories together with flair – I won’t say too much, but if you enjoyed the gently surreal tone of Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or the Michael Keaton vehicle “Birdman”, there’s plenty to enjoy as the thin fourth wall between “audience” and “play” starts to disintegrate…
Ultimately that’s what the evening is all about – the fine line between audience and drama, and the things that plays and audiences bring to each other. If you’re down with a more metaphysical theatrical experience, or you fancy having a chuckle at seeing yourself as an audience member, take a seat over at https://www.wokinghamtheatre.org.uk/how-to-book/ and prepare for “Audience / The Real Inspector Hound” which runs at Wokingham Theatre from the 23rd January – 3rd February.