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Review of Lulu at the Almeida Kings Cross
Stuart Macdonald

"Anna Friel as Lulu switches from husband to lover and back again more frequently than most women would change outfits and she allows each man to adore her as best he likes"

In Victorian Britain, I am certain that inner city railway stations were designed as grand and hugely impressive places, yet one hundred years down the track, many will sooner cause you to hold your nose, than catch your breath. Kings Cross is one such place and in common with most people who have ever had to endure London, I have always thought of Kings Cross as the sort of place which was best avoided unless all other alternatives (including violence and unashamed blubbering) had been thoroughly exhausted. Whether you were arriving, or simply getting the hell out, Kings Cross has consistently served as a timely reminder of just how much greener the grass is anywhere outside Britain's capital.

Such has been my well-considered opinion of this dilapidated station and its grotty environs for some time. Even the current ambitious regeneration project, which has been bravely undertaken by Camden and Islington Council, has failed to alter my unflinching stance. On Friday night, however, all of this was dramatically changed, following an unexpected and enchanting evening with Anna Friel.

I refer of course to Friel's superb performance in Nicholas Wright's adaptation of Frank Wedekin's epic Lulu, at the Almeida theatre. The Islington-based company has temporarily moved to a new venue in Kings Cross, whilst their run-down premises are repaired, with £1.7m of national lottery funding. Wedekin's dark tale of a young prostitute's (Friel) fortuitous journey through Berlin and Paris, before meeting her destiny in Jack the Ripper's London, is perfectly suited to the brooding old bus terminal in Kings Cross, where the Almeida has found its temporary home. The play and the building have each been given a new lease of life as a result of cunning workmanship, allowing Wedekin's inspired but unwieldy tale to grip the audience in this strangely unnerving venue.

Lulu switches from husband to lover and back again more frequently than most women would change outfits and she allows each man to adore her as best he likes. As Nicholas Wright says: "That's what Lulu is like - you find what you look for." Friel perfectly captures the essence of her amoral character, playing her with an innocence that holds the audience spellbound throughout, as she flits between siren temptress and confused and exploited child, driven by her wicked father.

Her second husband, following the untimely death of the first, is a struggling Berlin artist named Schwarz, who captures Lulu's alluring charms quite perfectly in a portrait. This later comes to represent all that the malleable Lulu has lost, as Alwa, her fourth husband laments her fall from grace, from Parisian high society to a London slum and ultimate encounter with a sinister visitor. There is a continual sense of foreboding and inevitability that surrounds Lulu and her various companions, which is cleverly played on during scene changes as Friel sings to the mysterious dark figure, who seems to stalk her every move.

The dialogue is raunchy and sharp throughout and often delivered in a fast staccato style which drives the action along nicely. "The soul evaporates, the body sweats, the fig leaf stirs", says one of Lulu's many admirers. However, it may surprise the reader to note that the play, which was initially written in German, French and English, is largely as Wedekin originally wrote it. Indeed, Wright is at pains to point out that, although the overlong Lulu has been shown in many abridged formats since it was written in 1894, this version is as true to the original as is possible. "I have done nothing to sharpen the sexuality of the play or bring it up to date - this is how it was", says Wright and the result of his endeavours is quite glorious to behold.

The transient nature of the script means that the audience is unable to form any lond-lasting relationships with any characters other than Lulu. The demands placed on Friel therefore, are high and she rises quite wonderfully to the challenge. The supporting cast is willfully led by Alan Howard, the west end stalwart who plays the sly Dr Schoning to fine scene-stealing effect. Also noteworthy are Oliver Milburn (Alwa Schoning) and James Hillier (Eduard Schwarz), with Jannine ter Staage giving a slightly over-the-top performance as the lovestruck lesbian who is the one person denied Lulu’s affections. The introduction of a female love interest is necessary however, as it allows Friel to bring a touch of explicit cruelty to her beguiling character.

The second act is far stronger than the first, which is light-hearted about its often macabre content. This stark contrast works to good effect, however, as it allows for a more thorough understanding of the challenges facing the naïve Lulu and her interpretation of the events which unfold around her. The audience is then set up for the truly shocking ending, as the game that Lulu has played all of her life is finally lost.

"None of us is perfect. We all prostitute our talents one way or another", says Lulu's third husband, Dr Schoning. In many respects, Lulu is said to be autobiographical of the antics of the thrill seeking Wedekin and it is quite ironic to note that Wedekin actually portrayed the character of sly Dr Schoning on a number of occasions. Although he was ultimately lionised in his German homeland, Wedekin did struggle to reconcile his desire to write and get his work produced, with his desire for the darker attractions of the opposite sex. This fascination with the avant garde is one of the over-riding themes of the production.

The costumes and set design are good and the ghoulish air, which surrounds the production, is aided by the bleakness of the setting. Were this to have been a showing of My Fair Lady, it would not have seemed quite as appropriate in the sinister and yet intruiging social hot-pot which is Kings Cross. It is something of a pity that the Almeida will only be there for eighteen months, as the temporary venue will not be used for performances once they return to their refurbished home in Islington. This is perhaps just as well, however, as were they to stay, I may run the risk of actually quite liking Kings Cross - a truly horrible fate indeed.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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