REVIEW: Lulu: A Carnal Tragedy
I will never look at asparagus the same way again.
Lulu is an ambitious play to tackle; indeed, it was originally written as two separate plays. I’d expect staging them both together – especially as an amateur student showing – to cause problems, but this production handles tough material with aplomb.
Of course, there are elements that suffer. Polish was lacking, scene changes had a tendency to dawdle, and cues were occasionally missed. Meanwhile, the fact that a good deal of the original plays was omitted to condense this version down to work as a student performance will make it a tricky plot to follow for the unfamiliar and inattentive. Pay attention, though, and you’ll be sure to find a good deal worth watching in this show.
First and foremost, the cast is fantastic. They gel so well as an ensemble that it is perhaps unfair to single outstanding members out, but Rosa Tyler-Clark and Isobel Laidler are both superb as Lulu, whilst Hannah Short as Rodrigo brings a much-needed shot of often comic energy to propel the play through its latter half.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I just mentioned two people playing Lulu: this was deliberate, and not simply a particularly lax piece of Tab journalism. There were in fact five Lulus in this performance, each one giving a different take on the character, from the suspiciously naïve and not-so-innocent Lulu of Act One (Juliette Simon) to the downbeat, tragic Lulu we see in Act Five (Isobel Laidler).
Surprisingly, this does not derail the flow of the performance at all; indeed, a remarkable vein of continuity is present as each actress taps into certain key character traits to make their renditions of Lulu believable when set against her other versions. What we get, therefore, is a realistic character with a great deal of range and nuance; the evolution of Lulu over the play is brilliantly accentuated by having a fresh person play her for every Act, and complements her fluid identity (she is variously called Lulu, Eve, Katya and so on).
By the end of Act Five the audience has been on an emotional journey – it hardly matters that the play is abridged when the titular character’s development is so convincing and moving. We see the events of the play through her eyes; death and lust surround her in equal measure, and we become increasingly desensitised to both, even as examples of both grow ever more visceral on stage (involving rapes, murders, abuse, and suicides).
By necessity, then, this is a play with a good deal of vivacity, even if there are points where it seems to struggle to know how to use it. Particularly at the start, there are lengthy dialogues interspersed with attempted rapes to break them up in a somewhat uncomfortable and bizarre change of pace. When dialogues are not being cut into chunks by rapes, energy is frequently sustained through the use of every actor’s last resort: meaningless faux-purposeful striding around the stage. This has a tendency to be distracting, and in a play that demands – and rewards – absolute attention to dialogue (the puns are on point, and you needed to sharpen up your banter-spotting game, @openingnightaudience) that could pose problems.
When the play lets loose its pent-up energy, though, it’s at its exuberant best. Physical action on stage is well choreographed, and credit must be given to the first half’s cast for excellent improvisation as the central onstage prop (a chaise longue) collapsed underneath them. All in all, the pace is managed nicely and this production had no issues with holding my attention throughout; comedic moments were in reasonable supply too, including a surreal, asparagus-featuring episode, which all but demands the invention of the word asparalust.
Overall, Lulu has a fair few teething problems and lacks a little polish here and there. However, this ought not dissuade anybody from making the trip to Downing. This emotional rollercoaster is exceptionally well-acted and highly engaging.
Downing’s theatre also has extremely comfy seats. Can recommend.