The Antipodes, by the acclaimed dramatist Annie Baker, is set in a Hollywood writers’ room. Seven hired scribblers are brainstorming a new animated feature under the direction of a mysterious, bearded multimillionaire, Sandy, who seems thoroughly bored with the movie-making process. The script is in its early stages and Sandy decrees that the central character must be a monster. That’s all. The writers can fill in the details. He asks them to indulge in a free-association experiment by describing their first sexual encounter or the scariest moment in their lives. Long speeches follow. Very long, some of them. Sandy loses interest in the project, not surprisingly, and starts to absent himself from the room.
The writers toil on, chatting and wittering. Every word they utter is typed out by an assistant in the hope that inspiration will strike. Days pass. Then weeks. The writers appear to be imprisoned with no means of escape. Eventually they consider the art of narration itself. How many fundamental story types exist? they ask. One claims there are seven types. Others suggest a higher total. Someone puts it at 36. Of course, anyone who has analysed the craft of narrative can answer this question. There is only one type of story. The quest. This holds true for every character in literature and scripture. It covers Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, James Bond and Dr Who. It also applies to the humble knock-knock joke, which is a quest to identify the person saying ‘knock-knock’.
However the playwright has dispensed entirely with this simple blueprint. None of her jabbering wordsmiths has a quest to fulfil. It’s true that each is beset by a humiliating eagerness to please the elusive Sandy. Apart from that, the characters have no clear purpose, and none of them develops a relationship with any of their colleagues as they fester in the creative void decreed by their boss. Sandy, it turns out, is being manipulated by an absent puppet master, Max, who talks to the team via a faulty telephone line. Why don’t they fix it? The answer seems to be that no one cares if Max speaks intelligibly to them or not. Likewise, Sandy doesn’t care if the movie prospers or dies. And all his hirelings share his indifference.
What a daft idea for a script. Characters with no interest in the dramatic outcome of the story in which they feature are incapable of engaging an audience. It must have been obvious at the first read-through that this script was a dud. A shame no one piped up at the time.
Eugene O’Hare sets his new play, Sydney & the Old Girl, in a rotting east London terrace. Frail old Nell, confined to her wheelchair, shares the house with her son, Sydney, a bitter, foul-mouthed bachelor pushing 50. ‘Nothing but a bin lid full-time,’ Nell carps. ‘Shut up, you deaf old snatch,’ he replies. When she labels him ‘a mong’ he threatens to push her wheelchair off a cliff. ‘Skulking around in that effing chariot, barking orders.’ This deliciously nasty dialogue is a treat for anyone who likes their invective raw and bitter. But some critics were repelled by its crudity. ‘Horrid,’ frowned one reviewer. Sydney meets Nell’s trusting Irish nurse, Fee, and tries to charm her by posing as a cosmopolitan gadabout whose West End haunts include Chinatown. ‘There’s definitely something to be said for the Chinese,’ offers Sydney airily. ‘Stony-faced chain-smoking duplicitous pack of bastards.’ This wonky attempt at praise, masking a deep-seated misanthropy, carries a lovely echo of Pinter. And there are strong hints of Orton and Beckett here as well.
After its hilarious opening the play settles into more conventional territory. A bunfight erupts over Nell’s will after she hatches a plan to bequeath her house to Fee’s favourite cause, the Sister Aloysius Hospitable Charity for the Orphaned Irish in London. The name sounds bogus but Fee seems too decent to be a swindler. Miriam Margolyes does brilliantly as the toxic pixie, Nell, enthroned in her wheelchair and seething with rancour. Mark Hadfield portrays Sydney as an impotent tight-fisted misery guts tormented by a phobia of police sirens. Even Hadfield, a light comedian of extraordinary power, struggles to make Sydney appealing and this may explain why some of the play’s notices sounded like lectures rather than critiques. Reviewers complained that O’Hare lacked originality, that his rhetoric was too venomous, that his characters were loathsome and his world outlook rancid. But a playwright’s job is to present life as he sees it, not to create personalities who merit a cuddle from the Critics’ Circle.
Park Theatre has staged two of O’Hare’s plays in rapid succession, perhaps hoping that the boy wonder will create a hit. I wouldn’t bet against it. He deserves to get a call from the National.