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The Theatreguide.London Review

My City
Almeida Theatre   Autumn 2011

A pair of adults encounter three of their favourite primary school teachers after all those years and discover that the sensitive and encouraging figures who had done them so much good are now eccentric to the point of weird.

This makes them want to know what has happened in the interval, while also raising questions of whether the teachers or, for that matter, the students were as wonderful back then as nostalgia makes them. 

Stephen Poliakoff's first stage play in twelve years touches on themes that have engrossed him before the graciousness of the past and the crudeness of the present, the cityscape as a culture-shaping environment, the power of storytelling and the uncertainty of memory. 

It is too schematic in its structure to be wholly satisfactory, particularly in laying out a contrast between an idealised past and decayed present, so that you are more likely to understand than to feel, and it keeps promising revelations that never come. 

The play is particularly affecting in its several flashback scenes to school assemblies, where we see Tracey Ullman (Welcome back!) as the headmistress telling daily stories that inspire and enrich the children's imaginations, with the assistance of teachers David Troughton and Sorcha Cusack.

In the present Ullman's character walks the streets of London all night long collecting horror stories, while Troughton's is compulsively anal-retentive, traumatised by the prospect of getting rid of some of the files on everything that he has amassed, and Cusack's hides from a sad present in the fantasy of a more gracious past. 

If the interest of the play is divided between the changes in the older characters and the richness of the tales they tell in both past and present, the plot backbone is the attempt of the younger man (Tom Riley) to discover what happened to Ullman's character and to help her back to a more normal or at least more bearable to him life. 

And it is here that we are constantly promised some big answer that never comes, as we are fobbed off at the end with dubious psychobabble. 

Directed by the playwright, Tracey Ullman and Tom Riley do what they can with characters that are defined as opponents of a sort and thus limited in scope, Sian Brooke has strong moments as the other ex-student a little less blinded by sentiment, and Troughton and Cusack provide their always reliable support.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   My City - Almeida 2011

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