Review - Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at the Royal Court Theatre
When the Royal Court first announced this new bill of plays by Caryl Churchill, one of the playwrights most intimately associated with the Chelsea new writing powerhouse theatre, it was only a triple bill - there was no "imp" in what is now definitely an impishly provocative evening. As artistic director Vicky Featherstone said at the time of their announcement earlier this year, "I always feel so moved and privileged that the Royal Court for so many years has been her home. We don't say anything about them as she believes the plays should speak for themselves. She wants audiences to be surprised by theatre. The thing I would say is that they are very different, in form and idea … I think they will be a real adventure."
Well, the first surprise is the addition of a fourth play - and it is also just as well. The three short plays that now comprise the first act are a heady and frequently playful hors d'oeuvre, but not exactly a satisfying meal. As if to acknowledge this, director James Macdonald even pads them out here by separating them out with interludes of juggling and hand-balancing between each playlet.
Churchill has long been heralded for her challenging games around a theatrical form, and these plays are no exception. The first, Glass, finds its four teenage characters perched on a mantelpiece, embodying various ornamental objects; the second, Kill, is delivered by a God perched on a mid-air cloud, as a child plays on the stage below him. The third play Bluebeard's Friends is a dark, surreal dinner party amongst those who knew a serial killer.
These are variously bracing playlets of intellectual teases and puzzles, and they're given a knock-out visual framing by designer Miriam Buether who encloses them in what looks like a giant dressing room mirror.
But it is in the fourth and longest play Imp that comprises the entirety of the second act that a seemingly more conventional but also more satisfying domestic drama unfolds, as two late-middle-aged cousins who live together - played by Churchill veteran Deborah Findlay and Toby Jones respectively - bring to heartbreaking life their devastating loneliness and depression respectively, and the interventions they make in the lives of a niece and a local homeless man and former addict who they bring together.
Finally, there's grace and sadness, but also a sense of redemption, after the brief shards of dramatic darkness that have preceded it in the first act.
More than one critic has already described Churchill, now 81, as our greatest living playwright. That's inevitably a subjective call, and though I wouldn't go as far, she's long been one of our most consistently adventurous.