One Star For Barney Norris's "Visitors"
I've decided to diversify this website by including a "Reviews" feature, so that I can amaze and impress everybody with all my interesting opinions on the things I see in my life. I'm going to see Yes in May, so you can all look forward to my 4.5-star review of that extravaganza nearer the time (half a star deducted for the lack of Jon Anderson).
Sadly, I have to kick off this new Reviews feature with a bit of a stinker - I was excited on Saturday to attend a performance of the new filmVisitors by my brother Barney Norris (the thinking man's Joz Norris). It's had rave reviews in the Times and the Independent and Time Out and a bunch of other places, so I had my expectations set unrealistically high. Unfortunately, and inevitably, they were totally dashed. The whole experience was really confusing and left me feeling thoroughly disappointed. For a start, Barney has chosen to make his film using a very strange "live" approach where the actors are all actually physically present in front of you, reading out all the lines, a lot like a live stand-up comedy night, except with more than one performer onstage, so kind of like improv, except everything was scripted, so it didn't even have the spontaneity of improv. I know they were reading from a script because Barney has shown it to me several times, but I was surprised to find that none of the actors actually read from the script onstage, meaning they had presumably gone to the effort of learning the lines. Of course, nobody reads straight off the script in normal films either, but that's because through the power of editing they can cut out all the bits where they check what the lines are, so the fact that the actors had gone to such great lengths was one of the few genuinely impressive bits. If I had been in charge of the marketing for the film, I would have put "The actors have all learned their lines!" on the flyers and all the promotional material as it's a strong selling point, and I'm surprised it hasn't been mentioned in any of the other reviews.
Anyway, onto the play itself. It seemed to be set on the stage of a theatre that had had some furniture placed in it to make it look a bit like a living room. Quite why it had such an odd setting was never even mentioned - the main characters were an elderly couple who thought they were living on a farm, and at no point did they mention the fact that they were actually in a theatre that only looked a bit like the inside of a farmhouse. This was very odd, but I suppose one of the characters was supposed to be suffering from the early stages of dementia, so perhaps it was a subtle indication of just how lost the characters are. But it made it all the crueller that their dickhead son didn't at any point say "Mum, Dad, you know you're in a theatre, not a farmhouse, right? Look, there are people watching and everything." As for the old people themselves, I had been told by Barney that they were based on our own lovely grandparents, so I was very excited to notice some references to true-life stories and anecdotes about them, such as the nod to Grandma's favourite electric bread-knife. However, as the play went on, I noticed that lots of the things being discussed were in no way relevant to our grandparents - Grandad didn't work on a farm! Dad doesn't work in life insurance! Grandma and Grandad don't live in Wiltshire! What the hell is going on? Are they our grandparents or not? This left me in a real muddle come the end of the show.
As for the action sequences, they were few and far between and painfully underdeveloped. Now, I love a film that allows time to build tension and character dynamics with expository dialogue before building to a huge, cathartic setpiece, so I wasn't immediately disappointed when the film began with a long scene of two old people talking to each other. "Stay with it," I told myself, nodding sagely with a wise grin on my face, "Things are about to kick off." After a while, the old man stumbled over onto his knees and I was on the edge of my seat! Shit was kicking off! Imagine my disappointment, then, when a new character came in, helped him to his feet and then they all sat down and carried on talking! The promise of a high-octane action sequence was totally squandered, and it practically never even got close to such thrills again for the whole show.
Overall, I really can't stress enough what a disappointment this show was - literally the whole thing is four actors talking about what's going on in the plot. Gradually, their relationships deepen and become clearer and things in their story and relationships develop, which prompts further discussion. At one point, one of the characters tells a joke, but sadly he's no Tim Key. Grandma gets a bit cross at one point, almost ushering the promise of an exciting bare-knuckle fight or the like, but then it just goes back to normal and Grandad says something like "She's fine," or something like that. I could only recommend this show to you if you enjoy dialogue and meditations on aging and love and family, because that honestly is the focus of the film. It's on at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until March 29th and you can find more information here.