Caryl Churchill is back at the Royal Court with a weird collection of sketches. The first is set on a mantelpiece where a clock, a vase, a statuette and a plastic dog discuss their lives. These ornaments morph into human teenagers. One is a lad who wants to die after being raped by his father. His girlfriend tries to comfort him but she’s harassed by two nasty bullies. These four youngsters have perhaps created alter egos as household ornaments in order to block out their nightmarish lives. Somewhat opaque.
In sketch two, a young chap seated on a cloud summarises the storyline of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in a glib and knowing manner. He treats every act of violence as an amusing in-joke. This monologue will mean little to those unfamiliar with the original.
Sketch three is a dinner party where the guests discuss a rich pal who has married eight times and murdered all eight brides. ‘He played the piano so beautifully,’ says one, describing the killer’s duplicitous charm. A female character wants to make cash by selling replicas of the dead wives’ blood-spattered dresses. Is this a satire on the commodification of murder? Hard to tell. The weakness of the script, as with sketch two, is that it’s a commentary on a drama rather than a drama itself.
What unites these efforts is a desire to extract puerile comedy from rape, murder and suicide. After the interval comes a longer play, Imp, about an elderly couple, Jimmy and Dot, who act as matchmakers to an Irish girl, Niamh, and her prospective lover. The play’s condescending tone is intended to please the smart London crowd.
Jimmy and Dot are a couple of provincial bumpkins, without university degrees, whose ill-informed witter is unintentionally amusing. ‘I remember sex, dimly,’ says Dot. ‘How it makes you do things.’ Jimmy is a jogging enthusiast who prattles obsessively about foot injuries and training shoes. ‘I’m every bit as medically unfit as you are,’ he boasts. Offering travel advice to Niamh, he says, ‘Try Finland, which is more equal but dark all day and they kill themselves.’ However, these oddball characters are curiously engaging and full of realistic details. Jimmy is a man of charm and his interest in Niamh’s love life seems a credible hobby for an under-occupied know-all. Dot, who stays rooted to her armchair throughout, is a former nurse who served a jail term for attacking geriatric patients.
The drama doesn’t go anywhere much but the humorous dialogue and the quirky characters are a welcome relief from the flimsy and pretentious efforts that precede it. Imp bears a strong flavour of Alan Bennett. Perhaps Churchill is setting herself up as his rival.
Two Ladies at the Bridge has a neat, simple idea. Playwright Nancy Harris wants to examine the wives of powerful politicians and she sets up a huge global crisis. A rogue state has killed a thousand civilians in a terror attack and the United States has invited France to embark on a retaliatory invasion. The two presidents meet at an international hotel but a prankster tips a pail of pig’s blood over the first lady, Sophia.
This is where the show opens. The statuesque Sophia walks on stage wearing a chic white costume covered in hardened ketchup. And that’s where the problems start as well. For 20 minutes Sophia stands immobile in her vandalised outfit while her staff bustle about doing nothing to help her change out of her ruined clothes. Meanwhile the French president’s wife, Helen, makes friendly overtures and the two women discuss their husbands.
The US president is a mishmash of figures. He’s a teetotaller (like Trump), a devout Christian (like Bush) and a self-centred philanderer (like Clinton but also like Trump). Helen, an Englishwoman in her sixties, is a mixture of Theresa May and Brigitte Macron. She admits that she seduced her husband when he was a teenager. ‘I was 41. I was vulnerable.’ Sophia, a Croatian, is loosely based on Melania Trump except that she’s childless. And she always travels with a bottle of Chanel No. 5 containing poison — ‘enough to kill an army’.
This toxic scent and its possible deployments are the subject of several unlikely plot twists during the increasingly silly final act. Zrinka Cvitesic portrays Sophia as a damaged and stupefied airhead. Zoë Wanamaker has more fun playing the tough-as-old-boots Helen. But the script is full of inconsistencies. Helen says she hates female ‘victimhood’ and yet when she discovers a hurtful truth about her husband, she talks of killing herself. Both women abhor violence but they’re happy to contemplate an act of indiscriminate murder.
The play can’t decide if it’s a satire, a whodunnit or a psychological study of wives who are close, but not close enough, to the levers of power. Bit of a muddle.