Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Pub Quiz

Carina Rodney
North East Theatre Consortium and New Writing North
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Pproduction photo

It’s real-time, it’s a place where we’ve probably all spent more than a few evenings and it’s an activity that seems increasingly difficult to avoid. The appeal of Carina Rodney’s new play Pub Quiz may well be mitigated by how you feel about real pub quizzes – that’s the downside inherent in this sort of verisimilitude. On the other hand, a potential audience for whom a cosy night at the pub represents a more familiar option than an evening in the theatre may well have found this a comfortable way in to the latter. Indeed, it looks as though Pub Quiz has certainly ticked the box when it comes to getting bums on seats, with sell-out performances at assorted venues across the north.

I saw it in Stage 2 of Northern Stage, where I’m afraid the bum on the seat did become an issue as increasing physical discomfort eventually took the edge off engagement with the play. Invaluable as their smaller space is, Northern Stage’s use of it varies between the brilliant and the claustrophobic, falling this time into the latter. Still, that’s how I feel about overcrowded pubs too, so perhaps it added an element of atmosphere, though I would like to have seen the play in a less conventional playing space where there might have been a greater sense of direct involvement. As what we’re shown are the three tables closest to the bar on a particularly busy night at The Magpie, we by implication are the rest of the clientele, but the conventional arrangement of this particular theatre wasn’t able to play on this potentially powerful relationship.

This highlights something I found clunky in a play that otherwise seemed to be going for hands-on naturalism. There was a shifting perspective of audience view-point, whereby we sometimes were flies-on-the wall but then would be privy to a character’s internal monologue, or to a flash-back in the format of a television quiz show. While there’s nothing new in dramatic devices that Shakespeare might have used (well, not the quiz show, but you know what I mean), the shifts here felt heavy-handed and uncomfortable, like something that had been designed for a cinema sensibility rather than a theatrical one. There’s also an annoyingly cliquey feel to assuming that the simple device of aping the conventions and personalities involved in a particular television show creates an automatic resonance for everyone in your audience. It certainly raised a cheap laugh, but was opaque and alienating for anyone who doesn’t watch those shows, and again revealed a vagueness of view-point. References to University Challenge were part of the plot, but two other shows got roped in simply as formal devices, inviting a satirical dimension that never emerged and implying a shared culture that is by no means universally shared.

The strengths, though, were in the sounder areas of situation, characterisation and interaction. A cast of seven hit a good balance between recognisable types and individual variations, offering some deftly precise touches of identity. That aspirant teaching careerist Cathleen (Vicky Elliott, resplendently blonde and buxom) should be making a life-style statement with an outrageously expensive handbag, for example, hit exactly the right note of unadmitted desperation.

Cathleen is one of five regulars to the Magpie, a pub run with a recognisable mixture of abrasion, insecurity and bonhomie by landlord Geoff (the always rewarding Joe Caffrey). But the pub, shabby and showing its age, is really licensed to his wife, Lisa. As one of those off-stage characters whose unseen presence (she exists at the end of a mobile phone) is vital to events, Lisa might have been more clearly established - it took a while to work out how important were the references to tapas menus, and I wanted to know more about the Lisa/Geoff dynamic than was possible in her absence.

Otherwise the action is pretty much played out before our very eyes, complete with that shuffling of activity between tables and bar which is the natural rhythm of a night at the pub. Two teams and an individual (extra points if you tackle the quiz single-handedly or in an all-female team), all regular players, psych themselves up for a rollover jackpot contest that involves more than just answering questions. The catalyst that opens up the emotions behind their various facades is, of course, the arrival of an outsider (in a deeply mockable jumper). Asram (Joe Garton) is Eastern European, polite, intelligent and anxious both to know the rules and to play by them. His presence acts as an unwelcome yardstick of clarity to the layers of self-deceit, insecurity and regret that everyone else has brought to the party. They operate in that believable kind of social interaction which lets us communicate in a sort of shorthand, knowing things but not saying them, sharing assumptions that we know may not be true, glossing over the obvious so we can get on with our lives.

And the play is ultimately about not doing that any more, charting the moment when the threads get pulled so tight that they snap and everyone has to open their eyes what’s really going on. There are some powerful observations here about missed opportunity, to which the artificial tension of the quiz provides a revealing counterpoint. The warmth and humour that the initial set-up seems to proffer is undercut by the eventual stripping away of comfort zones and self-delusions (though it’s pretty clear that some of these will be immediately reassembled.) I did wonder whether the changes in tone were working for the audience, but quite possibly they were exactly what was drove the play on.

The tour is now ended

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson