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Where there’s life, there’s hope: what happens to the hope at the end of the evening at the Almeida Festival

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

In which two middle-aged men take a knowing glance at the changing nature of their friendship, the thing that is theatre, and the myriad shades of meaning that can be ascribed to the word “mate”. Tim Crouch and Andy Smith provide a thoughtful opening to the Almeida Festival.

With a sensibility as minimalist as its Norwegian-inspired set design, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a space where Tim Crouch and Andy Smith take a frank look at the evolving relationship between two friends.

Crouch delivers a strong opening piece about that uncomfortable feeling you get when you finally speak to someone, a person you consider yourself close to, after a long time has passed – but it turns they haven’t been in a car crash or suffered a horrible disfiguring disease or joined a cult or anything, they’ve just… not been in touch with you. This provides the opening question of what absence in a friendship means, providing a strong foundation for what follows.

The plot is simple: a friend (Tim Crouch) calls up another friend (Andy Smith). Wants to stay the night. It’s been a while. Things have changed. There is the obligatory bottle of wine, bunch of flowers. An awkward reunion on a couch, making small talk next to the ornamental candle.

The conversation of the evening is punctuated by Andy Smith’s monologues to the audience. These are sometimes academic reflections on the meaning of theatre, of why it is that we are all in this room together, watching these two men. At other times they are confessional little diaries on the start of the friendship – sharing a flat together in North London; talking about Things That Matter until all hours – and the shifting priorities that come with love, marriage, home ownership… with PhDs.

The monologues are meta-text laid over the body of the plot moving forward through the evening of the two friends’ meeting. Smith’s laid-back bookishness contrasts with Crouch’s increasingly frantic agitation at the state of the world, at the continued presence of fascism, poverty, totalitarianism. It becomes clear that the battle isn’t just in the world, it is also increasingly present in the friendship, and most of all what it really comes down to is that the battle is within himself.

Early on, Smith says “I like being here. In this room. This space. Space for people to come together as a group. To sit together.” I knew then that I would enjoy the show very much, because this is also one of my favourite things: being in a room where theatre is happening.

While the strongest element of the show is the changing nature of friendships as the men themselves change, what happens to hope is also a meditation on the social and political purposes that theatre serves. Partly focusing on his PhD research and practice at Lancaster University, Smith’s monologues cite from diverse and (no doubt) densely-written academic papers on why people do theatre, both as performers and observers. Embedded into a performance, I found this to be an enjoyable and uncommon way to present ideas that are normally consigned to online repositories of pdfs, to dust-covered shelves of yellowing tomes, and to dry conference presentations. The snippets of text took on an immediacy that is often lost when trying to describe the space, the meaning, and the urgency of the performing arts without actually performing.

These sections, as well as the myriad little references to the nature of life as a PhD student, really resonated with me. They will act as a comfortable touchstone for anyone who has plunged headlong into the forest of academia. They provide self-recognition of a constant desire to explain, to theorise, to think. To legitimize by drawing theoretical abstractions.

Yet I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to watch the show without having an advanced degree. And I wondered if it would be a vastly different experience: would the knowing self-deprecation of constantly characterising, constantly considering, constantly attempting to define and to describe come off as a mere caricature? Would it be too smug – the successful friend with house, family and advanced degree versus the failed revolutionary?

I really don’t know. My PhD has changed me that much – there is no going back; it changes you irrevocably. But there are many life experiences that do this, not just PhDs. what happens to hope presents us with the nature of transformative life events and asks us to consider how we integrate them into ourselves, our friendships, our communities, and our politics. Hope is personal and political, it is a meaning created in the space between the intentions of the theatre makers and the theatre consumers. what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is ultimately up to you.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 11 July 2013.