Book Review: Tim Crouch ‘Plays One’

Language is something that, when I focus on a theatre production, I seem to forget amongst the excitement of the live actor before me. When reading Tim Crouch’s Plays One, comprising his first four plays My Arm, An Oak Tree, ENGLAND and The Author, it is hard to escape the conventions (or non-conventions) of language that Crouch creates in his plays; they are the life and blood that flow through his works.

In this collection of Crouch’s first plays (he has since gone on to write a collection of monologues based on minor Shakespeare characters) there is a distinct quality of feeling that is etched into each of them. Crouch has a way of capturing his audience with the rhythmic nature of his writing and use of language, that both drums a voice into its audience and pounds a cautious warning too. Crouch’s plays are best read and watched when the reader/audience has given themselves over to the journey, the unknown joys of storytelling. But this journey is not always pleasant, it has challenges for the reader along the way.

Tim Crouch Plays One is nicely framed as a collection of plays by Stephen Bottom’s introduction and Andy Smith’s after word; they are two men who write with a great deal of wit. In many ways, it is this introduction and after word that present Plays One in a theatrical setting themselves, much like the constant questioning in Crouch’s writing. There is no denying that reading Crouch’s plays only give away half of the experience, the rest has be found in the performance itself. This is not possible when reading, so one has to relish Crouch’s use of language and stage notes to get a feel for the whole spectacle.

In My Arm, Crouch explores a young boy called Anthony who, out of determination, raises his arm above his head and keeps it there. What is first an endurance game, soon becomes a way of life, a life that due to the positioning of the arm becomes a source of his death – the arm decays through lack poor circulation. My Arm is distinctly poignant, examining not only the extremes we push ourselves to for the sake of them, but also what constitutes as art, for Anthony becomes a source of inspiration, he is painted, photographed and casts are made from his rotting arm. Crouch goes further to stipulate the performance is shown through a series of everyday objects that stand in for everyone and thing mentioned in the play. Crouch, who originally performed the piece, also notes that at no point should the performers arm ever rise above their head, the audience are to imagine it, to believe in the story and the everyday objects in this feat of storytelling.

An Oak Tree continues to test not only the audience but also the actor too. Each performance of An Oak Tree featured a new actor in the role of the father who has lost his daughter in a car accident. The actor is not presented with the script or any lines, directions etc until they are on the stage, some of which are fed through headphones, some on paper and some in front of the audience directly. Crouch discards and challenges the traditional methods of theatre playing. An Oak Tree is particularly effective in getting across an emotional journey. As the father questions his daughter’s killer, he finds himself believing that an old oak tree has now become the daughter, embodying her essence or soul.

Breaking the conventions further is ENGLAND, a play to be performed in a gallery that takes its audience from artworks to a story of woman challenged by her nationality and acceptance of others, especially her art dealer husband. England is a more free flowing play that uses a continuous monologue to be split by two actors who embody the characters at given moments. The story weaves itself between a distant land of wealth and the reality of the artwork of the gallery itself. Blurring the lines between characters, story and locations, the play frames the audience as a device – never speaking as such, but always watching. At times abstract, ENGLAND has a poetic force about it, that drives the main character into unhealthy conditions.

The last in Plays One is The Author, Crouch’s most ‘contraversial’ play, which featured at the Royal Court Theatre. Entwining a play within a play that Crouch as the writer has written, The Author focuses on Crouch in relation to his writing work, and also on the audience. It is deeply disturbing and challenging, not least because of a monologue delivered in near darkness, describing what is happening to a sleeping baby. This is combined with a play described throughout as a horrific look at rape and violence, which sees its actors suffering emotionally from nightly performances. Crouch weaves such intensity within The Author that it feels as if the words themselves will spill out from the page. It is a challenging, confrontational but still oddly enjoyable piece of writing, and when presented with the audience on two seating banks facing each other, the play becomes more a study of audience behavior than of a playwright writing. It is thought-provoking and an excellent end to Plays One.

Crouch’s plays are unique in their ability to test and discover new ways in which a play can interact with its conventions of staging, and interaction with audience and actor alike. They are poetic and heartfelt, completely believable and full of imaginative qualities that take the reader into the centre of the performance, allowing them to nestle between language and form and find a home amongst Crouch’s words. Having seen several of the plays performed, it is a joy to be able to delve into the language of Crouch’s writing, to enjoy his framing of technical qualities within his stage directions, and to immerse oneself in true storytelling that is direct to its audience.

There are few writers who have such alluring charm and challenge in their play writing, and as is evident in Crouch’s Plays One, together they show the real skill and mastery of Crouch’s imaginative writing. Let’s hope Plays Two are just around the corner…

Plays One by Tim Crouch is available to buy from Oberon Books for £15.99. See Oberon’s website to buy and view other theatre publications.