Review of Moon Tiger - Cambridge Arts Theatre, until Saturday (February 15).
11:04 12 February 2014
“I am writing a history of the world”, says Claudia as a dying woman. “Well my goodness, that’s quite a thing to be doing”, the nurse says.
The opening lines of the Booker Prize-winning novel Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively also begin the play. Sadly, the lines are true. It is quite a thing to be doing and it proves too big for six actors on one bleak set with no costume changes and poor characterisation.
Writing evocatively for a novel is one thing, writing sharp dialogue for a play is another.
Whether we are aware of it or not, Claudia says, we are, every one of us, part of history. It is created through us. Her history is, as she says, intertwined with that of women of the 20th century. It is an ingenious idea for a novel but taken too faithfully onto the stage, without being written with the zest of a play, it lacks tension or action.
It is a huge request for actors to play four parts. The parts must be memorable. You need them to be strong if you are only going to get a little. Mostly, they are not strong enough here, or distinct enough. Like the costumes, it is all shades of grey.
It is as Arnold Toynbee said about history: just one damn thing after another. There are few evocative performances. Despite war and invasion, there is nothing to break your heart.
Good as it is to see Jane Asher as Claudia, perhaps it was too much to ask her to be all the Claudias in the world over 60 years. Alan Bennett, a master of writing for the stage, does not ask that of his actors. He wrote two Alan Bennetts for his play The Lady in the Van so that one told the story and one played it out.
They looked almost identical. But one was able to question the other’s motives. Here it would be the other’s memory for Lively is engaged by the difference between what happened and how we remember it. As it is, the stage version sometimes dissolves into a lecture.
Not enough tiger in this tank.