Phil Willmott

Review: UNREACHABLE at the Royal Court

Unreachable - The Play Some of the most thrilling, challenging, entertaining and exasperating theatre I've ever seen has been written and directed by Anthony Neilson. The one thing you'll never be at a Neilson play is bored. He is extraordinarily uncompromising both in what he writes and how he rehearses, always pushing at the boundaries of good taste before stepping way over the line and often discovering universal truths in the process.

And as the best comedy comes from reflecting real life so truthfully that we accept its and our own absurdity his work is often very funny. Managements love to hire him and bask in the frisson of his naughtiness and he's one of our most commissioned playwrights who loves to shock almost as much as we love him to shock us.

His latest project contains all the hallmark elements of his genius. For a start the entire process has been audacious. The concept was that he would build a play from scratch in rehearsals based on his cast's improvisations. The public could follow the process and progress on line and as the cast would include the much loved TV star, former Dr Who, Matt Smith, that approach was bound to attract a lot of viewers and ticket buyers with a pre-formed emotional investment in the piece. Watching it with out being party to any of this is rather like watching a group of friends you don't know sharing in-jokes.

In my experience once you get a group of anyone of any age comfortable with playing and making up stories and characters together the result is always the same. They fight to be the most outrageous, the funniest and any narrative is driven down a series of dead ends which require increasing levels of contrivance to resolve. I don't know the exact techniques Neilson used to fire up his cast but the result is pretty much the same here.

The story concerns an outrageously eccentric film maker (Matt Smith) hiring an outrageously eccentric actor (Jonjo O'Neil) to sabotage his film so that... Well, I didn't entirely follow why as the rationale shifted back and forth but that hardly matters. The point is that it's a frame work in which the players can fight to out do each other by saying shocking things and those unfortunate actors without the wit to keep up are reduced to doing increasingly silly things to hold their own. In this case mugging, simulating sex and peddling very hard to make an impact. The secondary characters here are a sociopathic actress, not one but two uptight female film producers and a bumbling camera man.

The production's rehearsal room, bare stage aesthetic gives the whole thing an arty look which was probably also a necessity as the piece was only likely to take shape at a stage when there'd be no time to build anything complicated. There is however a final scenic flourish relating to the film makers search for the perfect light, the original concept.

The whole thing is irritatingly futile, self indulgent and devoid of depth but, my god, these actors are great and making themselves and their friends in the audience laugh. Gales of laughter rocked the Royal Court tonight. Whether you'll find it funny will depend on how much you're in on the joke. I've heard of some preview audiences demanding their money back.

This is exactly the kind of edgy, dangerous work that this historic venue built its reputation on - even if it irritated the hell out of me on this occasion!

Unreachable tickets