Wednesday, September 29, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #8 Lyric Hammersmith

"The Lyric Hammersmith isn't a fringe venue!" Dean scoffed. "That's like saying that the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a fringe venue".

I have to concede that he might have a bit of a point. However, I did set out my rules to start with: namely that I was going along with the definitions pronounced in Theatregoers' Handbook [2004 edition] and the Lyric Hammersmith is filed firmly under "Major Fringe Theatres". Though I guess given relative attention you could pull a stern face and argue that "regional" might as well be fringe in the London-centric coverage of theatre in England, thus making both the Lyric Hammersmith and the WYP fringe. You'd say that whilst pointing your finger as well.

Let's say: I'm filing all this away for future debate.

Anyway, the Lyric Hammersmith is a Victorian auditorium enclosed within an unattractive seventies building and supported by a snazzy and sleek modern entrance. If that sounds like a bit of an odd mish-mash then it is. I've visited the theatre a number of times since I arrived in London but, in contrast to what I've thought about some of the other venues I've visited so far, I don't really have a clear idea of what it is. I couldn't complete the sentence "the Lyric Hammersmith is...". Maybe the failure to be able to categorise it is all part of that.

Even though visiting the Lyric Hammersmith required me to use the tube for the second time in three days the pull of a new Out of Joint production was enough to have me leaving my tube-fear to one side. In Letters to George Max Stafford-Clark wrote one of the books that changed my theatre-writing life. I consider Talking to Terrorists as one of the two best productions I saw in 2005. From time to time I still think about the staging of the final moments of The Overwhelming. So - there is a lot of love in the Out of Joint room.

The Big Fellah sits nicely with the former of these plays, telling the stories of the men (and occassionally women) who live in or visit an IRA safe house in New York. Traversing over thirty years worth of history it's epic in breadth and yet never feels oppressively so. Everything you need to know about the history is in this room and Richard Bean never lets outside events dominate the stories of his characters. It is, along with the best of Stafford-Clark's output, a beautiful, complicated character piece that never makes its politics too easy or judges its characters too hard. Right and wrong, truth and deceit all get mixed up. There is, the play suggests, only shades of grey. Though The Big Fellah itself is anything but - though the threat of violence is ever present it is darkly, joyfully, funny. The scope of of the play means that not everything Bean alludes to is satisfyingly dealt with (notably the treatment of women within the IRA is picked up and then dropped) but there's something quietly ambitious about what it does achieve.

A decade ago, as I sat in an A Level History lesson, my teacher proclaimed: "Always remember that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". The Big Fellah takes that idea and acknowledges all of the complications within it.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: The Big Fellah by Richard Bean (Out of Joint)

Type of space: 500+ seater main proscenium arch theatre plus studio space. Also large bar and cafe area.

Type of productions: Varied - new work, revivals, touring and inhouse.

Nearest Station: Hammersmith.

Seating: Two levels, traditional theatre seating, good sightlines from the stalls though, I've been told, leg room can be a bit tight. Once again - I am short so laugh in the face of this.

Condition of toilets: Plentiful and clean and modern.

Bar produce: Separate bar and cafe (the latter of which serves good pizza). £3.80 for a glass of house wine, £1.10 for a can of diet coke (with a glass).

Other comments: Wonderfully the bar of the Lyric Hammersmith has free wifi. Not so wonderfully using the District Line brought me into contact with an extreme early-evening example of unnecessary PDA and almost made me stab my eyes out. Oh well.

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