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Double Feature 2, National Theatre


Prasanna Puwanarajah

Directed by Polly Findlay

There is a War
Tom Basden
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Courtesy of the National Theatre
In an ideal world, I would review Double Feature 1 first, and Double Feature 2 second – I’m sure you’ll agree with my exemplary logic. This was the original intention, as I was booked to see Double Feature 1 in mid-July, and I only saw Double Feature 2 last week. Our plan was to then release the reviews for all four plays at once. Sadly, this plan was thwarted by the fact that yours truly was called away at the last minute to spend an evening on a boat before sailing around the Solent for the day in the pouring rain. It was, in a word, dreadful. This bares no relevance to the review, I just wanted to justify why our reviewing pattern is somewhat illogical. Rest assured that we will review Double Feature 1 as soon as possible!
Anyway, the National is having such success with London Road in the Cottesloe that it decided to convert its set construction workshop into a make-shift performance space, creating ‘The Paintframe’. The two sets of Double Features contain between them four pieces of new writing, all staged in what has turned into a marvellous performance space, complete with a bar surrounded by construction tools and a moveable make-shift technical box. It is a superb space, and to be honest regardless of the reviews it is worth booking your (cheap!) tickets just to get a chance to have a look at this superb example of pop-up performance venues. As a consequence of this excitement, I was already in a good mood before we took our seats on the reasonably uncomfortable benches for the first performance, a forty-minute one-woman show called Nightwatchman.
Nightwatchman follows the journey of Abirami, a Salford girl and a Tamil who immigrated with her family to England from Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Thirty years later, Abirami is an international cricketer playing for England, and the play is set in the nets as she practices for the following day’s match against Sri Lanka, with just Merlin (an automatic bowling unit) for company. From the outset, I loved this production. Stephanie Street delivers a stunning performance as the feisty Abirami, blending the mouthy Salford cricketer with the troubled Tamil perfectly. Her performance is comical at times, and deeply emotional at others, and I was gripped from the opening moment by the whole thing. To add to her exceptional performance are some brilliantly simple and beautifully choreographed effects as she smacks Merlin’s imaginary balls all over the auditorium, knocking lights and tools off the walls of the Paintframe. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, the play takes an unexpected turn to deliver a dose of good old English patriotism at the end. As the final blackout came I was beaming from ear to ear with a lump in my throat. A superb production, do not miss it (but I suggest you briefly brush up on post-1980 Sri Lankan history before you go)!
After the interval I eagerly took my seat for the second production, There is A War. This show was completely different, with a large cast and running at around seventy minutes. Despite a dramatic start including wind, confetti and loudspeakers, it took me a little longer to engage with this show, mostly because I was trying to work out what on earth was happening! The piece is part satire, part absurdism and part comedy. Set in a dystopian world, it tracks a war between the ‘blues’ and the ‘greys’ where the participants commonly mistake each other and where nobody seems to know who is winning or what they are fighting about. Meanwhile the Generals use inanimate office objects to plot strategies on a map with their close friends based on nothing in particular. The piece is very entertaining, and the use of the space is fantastic – Soutra Gilmour’s Borrowers-style set design is simple yet hugely effective. There are also some strong performances, particularly from Phoebe Fox as the protagonist Doctor Anne, and from Tom Basden himself as an under-qualified General. There is certainly a point to the production, which is based on the almost absurd nature of war in real life, but it took me a while to get it. Despite this, I again left the auditorium with a broad smile on my face.
Double Feature 2 is a triumph. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I have ever spent in a theatre, and it was a classic example of how it is more than just the performances that make the evening memorable. Everything came together to make it just a great experience: the space, the shows, the performances and the holistic feel of the evening. It had an Edinburgh Fringe-esque feel to it, but with the quality and resources of the National behind it. Don’t miss this truly memorable occasion. 
Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Double Feature 2 runs at the National Theatre until 10th September 2011.

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