tue 21/05/2019

Bodies, Southwark Playhouse review - shaky revival misses the mark | reviews, news & interviews

Bodies, Southwark Playhouse review - shaky revival misses the mark

Bodies, Southwark Playhouse review - shaky revival misses the mark

Last seen 40 years ago, James Saunders' four-hander never quite gets off the ground

Acting by numbers: Peter Prentice, Tim Welton, Annabel Mullion and Alix DunmorePhil Gammon

Bodies is the latest in Two's Company's series of what they deem "forgotten masterworks", this one making a less-than-triumphant return to the London stage after almost 40 years away. Written by James Saunders in 1977, it opened at the Orange Tree in Richmond before transferring to the Hampstead Theatre and then on to the West End. It's now been revived by the director Tricia Thorns at Southwark Playhouse.

Husband and wife Anne (Annabel Mullion) and Mervyn (Tim Welton) invite their old friends David (Peter Prentice) and Helen (Alix Dunmore), back in Blighty after a spell in the States, round for dinner. It's been nine years since the couples have met, which could have something to do with Anne's affair with David, and Helen and Mervyn's subsequent fling. Surely if the play had been written today they'd have all ended up in a polyamorous quartet.

But modernity is indeed present, in the form of the revolutionary new therapy David and Helen have undergone since their sort-of friends last saw them. This seems to be something like what we now call mindfulness; the idea is to let go of the past and the future and exist solely in the present. Happiness and unhappiness are equally false: nothing but shadows on the walls of the cave. All that matters is the self. This, of course, horrifies Mervyn and Anne.

The first half is mostly made up of each character taking their turn to deliver one or another monologue about the past, which, with the exception of Welton (pictured below), the actors don't quite nail. It's acting by numbers: they seem to have such a clear idea of the pacing of their long speeches that the words almost become a vehicle for hitting the beats. It doesn't help that the words themselves are, in general, dull. In the interest of full disclosure, I was born after this play was written, so maybe it's a generational issue. But for a production which, like all revivals, proudly announces its relevance to the present day, Saunders' play just doesn't make enough of a case for itself. (The playwright died in 2004.)Tim Welton in Bodies at the Southwark PlayhouseThe second half is much better, largely because the four are finally allowed in a room together. Tempers fray as an increasingly tipsy Mervyn prods at Helen and David's newfound happiness, searching fruitlessly for a chink in the armour. Welton is one of the few actors who can play drunk convincingly. Again, he's the best of the bunch, helped by the fact that his character has the most to do; act two is uneven in terms of line-sharing, with the men doing most of the talking. But the other three do perk up a bit, especially Prentice (pictured below right), who takes on an air of barely controlled rage, as if he's about to bludgeon everybody to death with his coffee cup.

Peter Prentice in Bodies at the Southwark PlayhouseAt two and a quarter hours including interval, the play feels too long, and begins to drag three-quarters of the way through each act. That's not to say there aren't any good bits. "These," David says at one point, holding up his hands, "are dishwashers." No, Anne corrects him, gesturing at herself and Helen: "These are dishwashers." Earlier, Anne reveals that her fundamental issue with Helen and Mervyn's affair is not the obvious  – it's that he, a serial adulterer, has robbed her of her one attempt to get back at him. And Mervyn's problem with Helen and David's way of life  – one that focuses entirely on the here and now, the immediate physical body   is heart-breaking in its own way. "If the body is all there is," he laments, tears in his eyes, "then there's no room for art." And Mervyn needs there to be room for art: he's an English teacher-turned-headmaster, and if art is nothing, so is he.

There are other flickers of brilliance but just not enough of them, especially in the first act. Saunders' lines of reasoning are all over the place, which is perhaps the point but still makes for a rather inscrutable evening.

An audience member was heard to remark, upon leaving the theatre, that "they don't make 'em like that any more". He was spot-on   and thank heavens for that.

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