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A CurtainUp London London Review

We are not good people. We are fucked people. We just are.— Phil
John Hannah as John, Steve Rogers as Moon and in the foreground Joseph Kennedy as Lee
(Photo: Kerry Brown)
This is Andrew Upton's first play for theatre. He has had several adaptations of the work of others staged in Sydney Australia and some original screenplays including Philistines, an impressive version of Gorky's at the National Theatre, but Riflemind is a first original play. It sounds promising, in that it's a look at the reunion after twenty years of the members of a rock band after their front man John (John Hannah) walked off stage for good.

John and his wife Lynn (Susan Prior), who are both recovering from addiction, narcotics and alcohol, are living in the country in a large house well away from the rock scene but it is to their house that the other members of the group come. Add the very talented actors Paul Hilton and Ruth Gemmell, and the directorial talents of that wonderful actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the stage is set fair but mysteriously, like a recipe having great ingredients and a wonderful cook, doesn't always achieve a great result.

Riflemind's subtext is the rivalry between brothers John and Phil (Paul Hilton). Phil is the one who is musically trained but John is the inspirational musician although John Hannah's John shows none of this charisma. The drummer Moon (Steve Rogers) who strips off to his underwear and kisses his male colleague full on the mouth, lives up to the image of drummers being "mental". But it is Moon who brings new musician Lee (Joseph Kennedy) into the group to try for what he calls a "good, solid crunchy rhythm". The women are Lynn and Cindy. Lynn is the unbearably wishy-washy, yoga practising, tea drinking Lynn in her pale blue outfit of sloppy jumper and sports trousers which looks like nothing so much as a pair of pyjamas, "We've been clean for years now . . ." she simpers. The attractive, but brittle Cindy regrets the quick affair some years ago with persistent and wheedling band manager Sam (Jeremy Sims), probably hoping that Sam will back Phil in any show down with John as a return for her favours sexual.

But why is it that Australian plays seem designed to shock onstage and lose the subtlety of great theatre? I shall always remember Madonna sporting the black strapped on dildo in that terrible tale of fine art dealing and sex in Up For Grabs. Then there was Life After George where the talented combination of Stephen Dillane, Joanna Pearce and Michael Blakemore bombed, the heavy handedness of The Vegemite Tales and, recently, even the talented Eileen Atkins could not really lift The Female of the Species above the mundane. However, I also remember that Cloudstreet was one of my best plays of all time and that too was Australian born and bred. And so back to Riflemind when Lynn comes back from a bender at the pub, opens the refrigerator door and pees in the plastic salad tray, leaving us to ask ourselves is this really necessary? Do we have to be reminded in such a way of the embarrassment of being an alcoholic? We also wonder why we are witness to a hurried and impromptu, crass sex scene behind the sofa between Phil's long term girlfriend Cindy (Ruth Gemmell) and the horny manager Sam (Jeremy Sims) while Phil is momentarily out of the house. Maybe the director thought raw sex, and watching this hurts. The music composed by Max Lyandvert does not inspire either.

John Hannah as John is aggressive, troubled and scruffy but livens up when he describes the tour they once undertook in a lyrical and nostalgic way. When the play opens with John quietly reciting the lyrics to one of his songs of love, the words are so monotonous we are relieved when the noise of a helicopter disrupts the scene, this noise symbolic of the destruction that the visitors will bring to the life of Lynn and John. Paul Hilton as Phil, John's brother doesn't really feature until the second act when the anger emerges as does the evidence that he is still addicted to heroin. Although the rehearsal is briefly successful, I feel that Riflemind the band will not hold together and that this self-indulgent play is unlikely to hold on to the theatre until January.

Written by Andrew Upton
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

Starring: John Hannah, Paul Hilton, Ruth Gemmell
With: Susan Prior, Jeremy Sims, Steve Rogers, Joseph Kennedy
Set Design: Richard Roberts
Lighting: Damien Cooper and Colin Grenfell
Music and Sound: Max Lyandvert
UK Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Costume Design: Tess Scolfield
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6632
Booking to 3rd January 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd September 2008 performance at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London SW1 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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