THE HARD PROBLEM Dorfman, NT SE1

SIR TOM STOPPARD’S NEW PLAY. WOW.

 
Is there more to human beings than organic goo? Can brain imaging explain why we judge, reason, imagine, generate metaphor and language? That is the “hard problem’ of the title. To the evo-bio-psychology tutor Spike (Damian Molony) it is one to close down rapidly, with equations. To him science knows – or will know soon – every particle of what a person is. To his pupil Hilary, moving on to work at the Krohl Institute of brain science – the question is as open and deep as a particular wound her heart bears from six years before. No grey cells explain her inchoate need, shocking to Spike, to pray each night to something unknown.“Explain sorrow” she challenges, and takes her sorrow into her academic quest into consciousness and feeling. Challenging the arrogant Amal (Parth Thakerar) who says computers play chess undistinguishably from humans she asks “Can you make a computer that minds losing?“

 

 

Overhead hangs a tangle of neon, synapses and flashing connections, an abstract brain. Below it on a sparsely set stage, a hundred minutes see six years of conversation and career, encounters and arguments and funny lines (Sir Tom seems to know exactly how ambitious academics jockey for position) . Because the Institute is the toy of a hedge-fund billionaire Krohl, its research parallels neatly with the work of his ‘quants’. Terse phone calls suggest market jitters and crashes, since as Amal says, when predicting market unpredictables you just can’t make a computer as stupid as people are. Spike’s analyses of risk-behaviour through saliva tests at the world poker championships find great favour, though, as a way towards the goal of “Monetizing the hormonal state of your trading desk”. Nice.

 

 
But it is not ENRON, nor one of this author’s drier mind-games. The human connections are given precise, delicate weight: youthful brilliance is not necessarily balanced with emotional stability. And it is the weight of feeling at the play’s heart which makes it shine. For this premiere marks three occasions: Tom Stoppard’s first play in a decade and Nicholas Hytner’s last hurrah as NT Artistic director, but also the consolidating evidence that Olivia Vinall as Hilary is a proper, central, serious talent. Not just (though she is) a creature of pale ethereal beauty, but a force fit to hold a play together. She has been Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia: it is a revelation to see her playing a modern young professional woman with a fierce and troubled intelligence, dartingly sharp timing and a visible, unsentimentally profound private sorrow.

 

 
Which is resolved, because it is a proper story, taking a path through almost fairytale coincidence (another philosophical-mathematical puzzle). And beyond her luminous performance there are enjoyable ironies: the way that researchers’ own irrational altruisms skew their findings, and the sly demonstration that those who heartily believe that everything is materially explicable and that there is no altruism are the ones who – er – don’t personally seem able to display any. Whereas Hilary, and Jonathan Coy as her immediate boss, search for the invisible with varying degrees of human grace. That I like. Maybe it’s a girl thing.

 

 
So a fine hundred minutes. Near the end, at a revelatory dinner-party scene, the diagrammatic neon tangle overhead becomes a firework display. Not inapt for this last rocket of the Hytner NT Age of Gold.

 

 

Box Office 020 7452 3000 to April
NT LIVE in cinemas nationwide on 16th April.
Dorfman Partner: Neptune Investment Management

Rating Four  4 Meece Rating

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DARA Lyttelton, SE1

THE MUGHAL EMPIRE:  MURDER, FAITH AND FAMILY  

 

OK, I admit it, I feared “Important and Worthy”. Or, possibly, important-worthy-yet-picturesque. A reasonable, if ungenerous fear, with the author Shaheed Nadeem of Ajoka theatre a Pakistani human-rights campaigner and prisoner of conscience, and his 17c history-play billed as politically relevant to the subcontinent’s history (including the irresponsible Partition of India and Pakistan, still tormenting South Asia) . I should have had more faith. Tanya Ronder was adapting, a Hytner-hunch had chosen it, and many of the cast are the splendid ensemble from BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS , also still running.

 

 

The early part of the play, dreamily attractive as it is – latticed screens, flowing veils, Mughal magnificence, turbans, peacock feathers, scimitars – did have me floating free for a while, though Nadia Fall directs with enough clarity – and the programme notes help – to explain the 1659 struggle between the sons of Shah Jahan (a choleric little Vincent Ebrahim) for the imperial throne. .  Spirited flashbacks, signalled in text projections, kept the characters distinct : the ultimately victorious Aurungzeb (Sargon Yelda) who never felt a favourite son, and Dara (Zubin Varla) the mystic and poet he defeats. Not least, in a nice folkloric detail, by bribing Dara’s general to persuade the leader to leave his elephant for a nippier horse, whereon his troops saw the empty howdah and panicked. The sisters, equally at odds, are spiritedly played by Nathalie Armin and Anneika Rose; a younger brother is recruited, then murdered, by Aurungzeb.

 
But suddenly, this set-up complete, we came to the showtrial of the captured Dara for apostasy from Islam. And wham! The play takes off, reveals its molten core as a demonstration of spiritual idealism and argument against authoritarian religious pedantry, with slamming echoes into our own century. It feels like seeing Tyndale in Written On the Heart, or More in A Man for All Seasons or St Joan: all who held to faith and died for it down the ages and the dramatic canon.

 

 

As Dara’s interest in Hindu scriptures is cited against him by the positively Cromwellian prosecutor – Prasanna Puwanarajah – Varla rises in dignity and energy in a riveting half-hour trial scene. “I did not know that being a Muslim meant being ignorant of other cultures…Who cares which door you open to come into the Light …at the centre of every blossom is honey, the rest is ritual. Allow all faiths to flourish!”. Even the detail strikes home hard today – “The Prophet never intended women should hide behind screens and veils’ he scoffs, it was a practical privacy in his busy house, but others copied it. Neither, he scoffs, is the death penalty for apostasy in the Koran, only the Hadiths – which are written by fallible humans.

 

 
No surprise that on tour in India and Pakistan it has been shocking, but welcomed, a blast of greathearted spirituality in an age of bigotry: dramatically safe in a distant past but urgent today. After that superbly balanced, long, mounting scene and the inevitable sentence, the shorter last act plays quieter. There is an under-tale of smaller lives (surprising , sad and complex,Chook Sibtain as the imperial eunuch has his moment). There is a brutality, and a solemn smoky haunting of ghosts gathered around Aurungzeb like those which torment Richard III at Bosworth. The final flash- forward to his deathbed is pure Shakespeare: remorse, longing for love, mortality, and acceptance of how fallible  are those whose willpower shapes nations.

 
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 to 5 March
Rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

A TERROR AND A TRIBUTE 

 
“May the Master of Mercy shelter them in the shadow of his wings”. A Holocaust prayer is on a slip in the programme for this eve of the Auschwitz liberation, and quiet music plays after the curtain-call for those leaving bereft of speech. Jonathan Church’s powerful, intelligent Chichester production grows in status in the big space, and that it should be played with quiet brilliance so close to Whitehall and Westminster is stirringly appropriate.

 
For Mark Hayhurst’s play deals with five years from 1933-1938: before the war, while official Britain was still trying to hope that Herr Hitler was, well, sort of OK. It relates the fate of Hans Litten, a combative lawyer who in 1931 had called the Nazi party leader as a witness in the trial of some brownshirt thugs, and in cross-examination humiliated him. Hitler, still at his bierhalle-rant stage, was no match for the angry young advocate. A Jew, too: having converted in defiance of his cautious father (born Jewish, but Lutheranizing himself to keep his job) . His mother Irmgard defended his independence. And when he was arrested the night of the Reichstag fire, Irmgard became his champion, her fight the theme of this play.

 
It could be tragic-heroic, a harrowing reiteration of what we all know about the brutalities of Nazism. It is both, but also a play of ideas and discomforting truths, both warning and beacon. Penelope Wilton is Irmgard, in a performance so controlled, impassioned, ironic, subtle and perfectly pitched that several of us left the theatre muttering “Why is she not a Dame yet?” . We meet her as an elegant Prussian matron, confident of her status, resolved to be “patient and objectionable” with the Gestapo officials to get Hans released from what, weasellingly, is called “protective custody” against the passionate people of the New Germany. “We are looking after him” says Dr Conrad, the official played with wonderful civil suaveness by John Light.

 

 

His encounters with Irmgard recur through the play: she in command of facts, once horrifyingly listing her son’s known (leaked) injuries. But she plays the game, makes Heil-Hitler concessions; he seems to offer hope, even respect, till the gloves come off and layers of class resentment and fanatical belief make him suddenly venomous. Light does it superbly, chillingly, demonstrating that the veneer of Western European civilization can be very thin indeed.

 

 

The city scenes are on a bare forestage, but artfully convey through the curve of a desk-leg or descent of a chandelier a bourgeois Gerrmanic correctness I recognize from life there. Behind them, concrete and bars give us the cells and concentration-camps where Martin Hutson’s Litten is tormented. And core to the impact of the play is that we see him with fellow-prisoners: the ironic newspaper editor Ossietsky and the wild-man satirist and poet Erich Muhsam. For all their bruises they joke: darkly mock their situation, to bring home the vital truth that such victims were intellectuals, sophisticates, wits: the brightest. And that their tormentors were envious stupid thugs or at best dupes.

 

 

 

The same withering humorous intelligence sparks from Irmgard: she is often, for all her maternal torment, very funny. Nobody can wither like Wilton, for all her kindly grace. There is a scene with Lord Allan – the British envoy on whom her hopes are pinned – where he havers in diplomatic language that Hitler is partly a victim of “mistranslation” and that Anglo-German relations come first. Set against the viciousness behind, that throws a timely parallel with today’s emollient attitudes to Saudi Arabia. Where , remember, a dissident blogger is being imprisoned and tortured while we fly flags at half-mast for the royal autocrats.

 

 

The subject could be unwatchably grim, but the play is not, because its intellectual sinewiness and redemptive spirit shine too bright. At last mother and doomed son meet, and quote Rilke about confronting dragons with courage. “That’s beautiful” says Hans. “I wish it were true” mourns the mother. And he replies “It can’t be one and not the other. You taught me that”. So yes, beautiful.

 
Box office 0845 481 1870 http://www.trh.co.uk to 14 march

Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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BAD JEWS St James’ Theatre, SW1

BRAVE, BARNSTORMING AND CERTAINLY NOT BAD

 

 

With Holocaust Memorial day imminent, the Paris murders fresh in mind and anti-Semitism rising across Europe, can you really put on a chokingly, shockingly hilarious comedy about a family at loggerheads over Judaism? Set on the evening after a Holocaust survivor’s funeral? Yes. Joshua Harmon’s wise, fearless 100-minute piece is built around lifestyle conflicts most modern Western Jews will ruefully acknowledge. But by its very intimacy it touches universal tensions: family, class, money, sexual envy, feminism, racism, self-righteousness, and pure bad temper. The kind which only simmers between warring relatives who will never in a million years, admit how similar they actually are.

 
It is set, and pacily directed by Michael Longhurst for the Theatre Royal Bath,, in a tiny New York apartment . Because of the funeral three cousins – college students – have to camp in one room after the funeral of the beloved grandfather. Daphna (Jenna Augen) is passionately observant, more than her parents indeed: they christened her Diana. She plans to move to Israel, join the army and study as a rabbi. Augen is perfect: a vulture of righteousness, she swoops around under a brilliantly unmanageable thatch of curly black hair which in itself enrages her older cousin Liam (christened Shlomo and keen to forget it).

 

 
Liam has a shiksa girlfriend, sweet blonde Melody (Gina Bramhill) and missed the funeral because “his iPhone fell off the ski-lift” during their Spring Break in Aspen. This provides another excuse for Daphna to berate him, though when he is out of the room she deploys equal efficiency in cross-examining the hapless girlfriend. Her gift for rapid offence means that within mere minutes she happily concludes that coming from a white family – Irish-Polish-German-Scottish American – Melody from Delaware is complicit in the genocide of Native Americans. Worse, she has a tattoo, enabling Daphna to say ominously that her grandfather had one too “but that was different”. Audience gasps. Poor Melody, a pitch-perfect innocent, is a failed opera student who, deliciously, works in charity admin “introducing underprivileged children to the City’s architectural past’ . She is conned into the worst rendering of “Summertime” ever heard on a stage. Bramhill , whose voice betrays that in real life she sings beautifully, wrecks it to perfection.

 

 
Secular, atheist Liam detests Daphna and Ilan Goodman delivers his rage with the ferocity of a velociraptor, his energy a mirror-image of her own, did they but know it. But in a curious, clever interlude the three cousins suddenly remember a family anecdote and fall into helpless shared hysterics, leaving the puzzled Melody looking on. The respite is brief. The issue is who inherits one small, significant object: a token whose story is from the Auschwitz years. Daphna feels entitled, as the only “real” Jew; Liam has it. His younger brother Jonah claims not to mind. That is a quietly important part: Joe Coen has to spend most of the play saying “Whatever” and “I don’t -“ or lurking miserably on the sofabed; but his body language expresses eloquent, important discomfort. He is the vital fourth wheel as this rattling, raging vehicle heads downhill to disaster.

 

 

There is ferocious, gasp-inducing language, up to and including lines like “Don’t you Holocaust me!” “Shiksa cunt!” and “barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting superJew”. Yet it is not a cruel or cynical play. We are aware that the hellcat Daphna is privately unhappy, clinging to her racial and religious heritage like a liferaft; that Liam may want to marry out and embrace atheism but did truly, painfully love and pity the grandfather. We bite our lips wondering whether Melody’s sweet nature will survive in this family. And Jonah ? Ah, his final moment is beautiful, and both hurts and redeems.

 

 
box office  0844 264 2140  www.stjamestheatre.co.uk
Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

 

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OPPENHEIMER Swan , Stratford-upon-Avon

THE BIRTH OF THE BOMB

 

 

This is what the RSC is for. Not mere Bardolatry, but to bring new work illuminated by the craft, humanity and wisdom which comes to those steeped in Shakespeare. We have felt heart-jerking moments in this theatre, when past crises are shaken into present life: Written on the Heart, Wolf Hall, The Orphan of Zhao, A Soldier in Every Son, The Heresy of Love. But rarely has it struck home as hard as in Tom Morton-Smith’s stunning presentation of J.Robert Oppenheimer , leader of the “Manhattan Project” which in 1945 gave birth to the Bomb and death to millions.

 
Steeped in irony and sincerity, it is a thing of tremendous speeches, dazzling metaphor and heartfelt engagement. It is directed, fast and featly, by Angus Jackson in a bare space beneath great girders: the floor is a vast blackboard on which formulae are scribbled in manic creativity or appear lit suddenly from above; it conjures classrooms, the secret desert lab city of Los Alamos, domestic interiors, and finally the fearful inevitability when formulae became solid, incredible bombs.

 

 

Oppenheimer is John Heffernan in the performance of his career: riveting, truthful, complex, sinking deep into himself or flashing sudden charm. Here’s a brilliant physicist forced by circumstance and ambition to becomes a leader in the technical war, a “a skinny intellectual elitist New York Jew with chest problems and sciatica” happily surrounded by communist party friends passionately fundraising against Fascism in 1930’s Spain. Then a man forced to step aside from “doobious associates” , shadowed by the FBI, too vital to sack but never trusted; the reader of Hindu scriptures who finally describes himself with loathing “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Skinny, pale, steely, decent, conflicted, aware of having “left a loaded gun in a playground” for political thugs, real tears touch his face in the final scenes.

 

 

They touch ours too. The last sections are stunning, not least when the new-fledged bomb is dispatched, the pilot briefed, and from its casing a small boy rises and – with studied dispassionate care – explains its effects.

 

 
Despite the fascination of Heffernan himself, the ensemble is core to the play’s strength. Fellow-scientists explain and scribble and offer glorious metaphors of the power of the split atom – “a cloud of tethered energy…a pack of wolves in a broom-cupboard”. They emerge as distinct characters: Jamie Wilkes the bespectacled keen Serber, heading out for Japan with his pet bomb horribly named Little Boy “to hold his hand, see him off”. He cracks later into realization. OR the Europeans Lomanitz, Bethe and Teller, the latter petulantly outraged at the loss of scientific “beauty and elegance” in the dormitory life and dull graft of getting the first-generation bomb ready before Hitler could get his.

 

 
There is genuine, inescapable comedy in the human interactions, not least the sometimes tense, sometimes ludicrous relationships with the military overseers. William Gaminara gives General Groves a dignified pragmatism but Andrew Langtree demonstrates a lovely, crewcut Captain’s indignation at the tieless unpolished scientists who dare to perch on his desk while talking to him. In Oppenheimer’s agonized withdrawal after Nagasaki, though, it is Groves who urges the scientist’s wife to remember the point of uniform: ““It helps to make that distinction between an act of war and an act of….the burden is not his alone and never will be”. The women too – Catherine Steadman as the lively, idealistic, doomed first lover and Thomasin Rand as Oppie’s wife Kitty – are pivotal in the hero’s emotional story . They also – with Laura Cubitt and Sandy Foster – subtly remind us that even within the laboratory fastness of Los Alamos this was civilian 1940’s America: its own life not threatened, the complexities of distant Europe a matter for argument not terror.

 
A stunning play, tribute and warning about the “ambivalence – pride and horror” of harnessing the atom, bringing a star’s violent energy to the earth’s surface. As Frank Oppenheimer heard his brother mutter it the desert test “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart”.

Superb , serious, humane, riveting, honourable. It must have an afterlife.
box office 0844 800 1110 to 7 March.

RATING  five  5 Meece Rating

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RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET Theatre Royal Brighton & touring

BLAST OFF INTO THE PAST…

 

 

Repolarize the rockanthemizer! Shakespearianize the iamb-ometer, fasten your retrocamp ironido-nebulized harness and prepare to be utterly weightless! Twenty-five years after its 1983 launch in a tent ,and its subsquent West End Olivier glory, Bob Carlton’s jukebox lark sets off on an anniversary tour.

 
And yes, it feels a bit clunky these days, but the sci-fi rocketship set (designed by Rodney Ford ) is a feast for the eyes of us old Trekkies, and the music is still glorious: belting 1954-68 numbers. They’re delivered by a musically adept cast, notably manic Mark Newnham belting hell out of his Stratocaster as Cookie the lovelorn galley hand, and Sarah Scowen as a fabulous Miranda yowling out “Why must I be a teenager in love ?” with all the blissful sincerity of the pre-Madonna age.

 
Yes, Miranda. For newcomers, this is how it works. Carlton- seeking a show for musician-actors, a novelty in those days – decided that nothing could be more natural than to mix up a ‘50s space B-movie and all his favourite rock’n roll anthems with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A vengeful Prospero exiled to a distant planet wrecks a spaceship with an asteroid storm (Great Balls of Fire, of course at this point). Ariel is a robot – Joseph Mann jerking amiably about in cuirasses and tin knickers, until an outbreak of nimbleness has him breaking into a soft-shoe shuffle). And the romantic hero – back we go to the ‘50s – is a stiff upper lipped, pipesmoking Sean Needham.

 

 
What makes it intriguing for grownups – and potentially a nice early taste of blank verse for the kids – is the pick ’n mix of real Shakespeare from at least a dozen plays (Prospero becomes Lear for a few lines, with a touch of Caesar, Cookie shifts wildly between Richard III, Macbeth, Romeo, Malvolio and points west)). Add in some cod-Bard lines to keep the rather shaky plot going, allow yourself awful space jokes like “Two beeps? Or not two beeps?” , reference Freudian theory in order to “Beware the Ids of March”, and keep sliding suddenly into glorious numbers like “Don’t let me be Misunderstood” , “Good Vibrations” or “Only the Lonely”. And there you are. Rockin’ erratically through space and time, for fun.

 

 

As I say, in all honesty it does clunk a bit. Carlton still directs, and it might have been jerked forward a bit under someone else. But there is real glee in it, a lovely barking-mad evocation by Jonathan Markwood as Prospero in Rupert Bear trousers and a frock-coat and – not least – some very fine movement direction and choreography by Frido Ruth, a veteran of the show. The initial weightless sequence is quite brilliant: rolling, lifting, drifting, the cast make you think for a moment that they really are in space, guitars and all .

And, after all, we now know what that looks like, now that Chris Hadfield has done Space Oddity while floating around up there. Space, and music, and theatre, have moved on greatly in 25 years. But it’s worth a whoop. I am a bit shocked that Brighton didn’t dance in the aisles, but there will be other opportunities…

 

Brighton Box office 0844 871 7650 to 24th, BUT

TOURING to 9 May. – details http://www.forbiddenplanetreturns.com     Touring Mouse wide
( Birmingham next!)

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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THE CHANGELING Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

MURDER IN THE DARK 

 

 

The gorgeous giltwood brooding atmosphere of the new Wanamaker playhouse has seen comedy in its candlelight – the bonkers Knight of the Burning Pestle – and opera , and recitation. But it comes best into its own with these darkly morbid , claustrophobic Jacobean dramas. Closed in, the theatre itself becomes a crucible of menace.  Illuminated only by the great rising and falling chandeliers, or by candelabras held by actors whose uplit livid faces flicker with murderous hatred or tardy remorse, you are trapped in the box with them and their darkness. You cam laugh at the jokes – and these Jacobo-nasties have plenty of foolery in between the murders – but you laugh hollowly: stimulated, fearful. Dominic Dromgoole, always supertuned to the way the physical form of his theatres affects the mood, makes the most of this.

 
Webster’s Duchess of Malfi last year was a triumph here, but that has the advantage of a a shiningly good, sane central heroine to point up the wickedness of her enemies.  The Changeling – by Middleton and Rowley – is trickier, its heroine dodgy.  Beatrice-Joanna elicits a trickle of sympathy with her initial bewailing of an arranged marriage, but her contemptuous rudeness to ugly, clever de Flores is followed by her enlisting him to kill the unwanted fiancé and offering a derisory payment. Whereon he insists that what he wants is her virginity. I have seen deFlores played grotesque, sinister, as hideous as the words she describes him in: but there is real bite in Trystan Gravelle’s bluff, unexceptionable appearance (despite some kind of rash) and his downright workmanlike approach to murder and rape. As for that famous line where he takes her glove to “thrust my fingers into her sockets”…eugggghhh.

 
As Beatrice-Joanna, a “woman drenched in blood who speaks of honour” Hattie Morahan is as good as ever: her fragility and subtlety move from petulance to panic, by way of a hinted horrid attraction to de Flores, and at last to a genuinely pitiful tragic understanding of how arrogance led to blood, deceit, arson and another murder. Whose victim, the maid Diaphanta, is brilliantly pitched to contrast with her mistress: Thalissa Teixeira is lusty, lively, innocently sexual in a way her aristocratic lady is not; she has no dark side. Her testing of the virginity-test her mistress fears is hilarious (theres some real comic 17c flapdoodle about an apothecary’s.secret potions which makes you realize how self-denying Shakespeare was, not using magic bottles all the time) .

 
But a bigger problem with the play – in one brief production lately dispensed with entirely – is the subplot: set in a lunatic asylum, the inmates treated as bestial entertainment. Isabella (Sarah MacRae) is kept captive by her jealous old husband, and sought by two suitors who disguise themselves as madmen : Adam Lawrence violently so, Brian Ferguson more verbal. Pearce Quigley, what a treasure, is the awful warder Lollio, managing to be both funny and revolting. And Dromgoole brings out all the parallels between this squalid place and the court, especially in the women’s captivity.

It’s a hard one to hold together, but by the final “And now we are in hell”, the full Jacobean horror has been achieved. Brrr.

 

box office 020 7902 1400 to 1 March

rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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ISLANDS Bush Theatre, W12

A CULPABLE, CLOWNISH WASTE OF DAVOS WEEK
This week sees the World Economic Forum in Davos. Today Oxfam said that 1% of the world’s people own nearly half its wealth. Tax havens – many of them relics of the British Empire and privileged by successive UK governments – siphon trillions from the world economy. Christian aid reckons that a thousand children die every day as a result of tax evasion…

 
Timely, then, for the Bush to put on a play attacking that evasive, greedy world. Unfortunately it is this one, by Caroline Horton. Who also, in studiedly grotesque costume and manner, plays the lead, and over whose vision director Omar Elerian has not visibly cast any veil of sanity or discipline. The result is a 105-minute marathon of strutting absurdism, with little humour and only rare streaks of useful metaphor. Most of which you wouldn’t get anyway, unless you read up beforehand. ENRON it ain’t.

 
Of all the wasted opportunities for intelligent, joyful angry stage agitprop in recent years, it takes the biscuit. It makes Russell Brand’s ramblings look erudite, and Anders Lustgarten’s “If you won’t let us dream..” seem almost like real political theatre. And on that last occasion, one friend’s verdict was “Waste of good actors! Why doesn’t the bloody man just stand on the stage in a tinfoil hat and read out a list of his prejudices?” In this, they virtually do just that.

 
But you might want to go, if fond of sub-Jarry absurdism and overstretched metaphors about shit and sodomy. And, to be fair, good physical work (the director is a leCoq man and Horton has a gift for physical menace). Oliver Townsend’s costumes are interesting, though possibly the male tutus, stilettoes and peculiar tights are a hangover from his Dick Whittington. Horton’s diamanté crash helmet and silver lamé testicles certainly have a panto vibe.

 
The conceit (allow the word its double meaning, so un-self-challenging is it) is that Horton’ss “Mary” is a teenager imagining an island – Haven – with no rules, unlimited ‘cherries’ of wealth, and screamy dragged-up acolytes – Seiriol Davies and John Biddle. They float above “ShitWorld” which is the rest of us , and lure Adam and Eve (Hannah Ringham and Simon Startin) to be exploited. And that’s it. Sometimes there is a shouty phone-call from a thwarted regulator, sometimes fragments of news actuality – Thatcher, Reagan, Cameron, Osborne – coming out of the onstage lavatory or sewer lid. But it is over an hour before the point starts properly to emerge; before that there are tedious gross-out irrelevancies. Horton, for instance, delivers a nastily detailed description of a bullfight (though heaven knows bullfights are populist entertainments, more shitworld than taxhaven) in order to say “I suppose when the killing is shared one feels less guilt”. Creeeaaaaak!

The best line – the only spark of wit – was a defiant chap in the bowler saying “We will fight them on the pleasant beaches and in the streets, and in the organic bakeries”) and it is quite a nice idea to have “Adam” forced to strip, trousers-down, to represent Austerity Measures and NHS privatization. But it’s a waste. “Devised in consultation with experts on offshore finance” it still can only offer self-regarding theatre-wonk clowning and a shrieky insistence that we’re all in the shit and callous rich bastards did it.

 
Nothing wrong with that conclusion, absolutely not. But it works better when you actually argue and demonstrate it. What’s the point of agitprop which doesn’t even try to persuade?
BOX OFFICE 020 8743 5050 to 29 feb
Rating – no, can’t do it.

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THE RAILWAY CHILDREN King’s Cross Station theatre N1

IN WHICH YOUR REVIEWER CRACKS UP ENTIRELY

 

 

Tears are strange. They can fill the eye when witnessing not horror or sadness, but a sudden kindness. It is a kind of happy sorrow: maybe a recognition of our own desolate inner yearning for a kind word. However it is, Mike Kenny’s marvellous adaptation of E.Nesbit’s book brings it on more than once. And since steam-engines themselves nearly always make me gulp – so noble, so shining, so faithful, so lovingly tended – the real one in the show pretty well wiped me out. Twice.

 

 

It was one of the first plays I reviewed for the Times, nearly five years ago when it came from the National Railway Museum at York to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Now it has a bigger cast of extras and an equally wonderful set: audience on platforms either side of real rails, over which simple wooden stages glide the changing scenes to and fro without fuss. Props (apart from the locomotive) are simple enough to inform children, as all good children’s theatre should, that they can go home and recreate it in play. That first time I took a 9-year-old, and despite having never read the book or seen the film, he absolutely got it.

 
Indeed the memory of the film, good as it was, fades very rapidly because this is a real piece of theatre, faithful to the quirky, inventive, principled early socialist Nesbit and her respectful understanding of children. The three are remembering the summer in Yorkshire: now young adults, aware of why their father was taken away. They narrate in memory, slipping easily in and out of time with uncomplicated clarity. Serena Manteghi is an authoritative Roberta, catching perfectly the age of transition: half child, half questioning adolescent worried about her mother and discovering the horror of her father’s disgrace. Jack Hardwick is a nicely pompous Peter (Nesbit had boys bang to rights!), Louise Calf the cheerful, blurting youngest. Children will recognize the types immediately.

 

 

But Damian Cruden’s production is fully satisfying for adult audiences. Because it’s often funny, but also because of its faithfulness to the 1906 setting, evoking the class awkwardness of a family come down in the world, the mother – Caroline Harker again, sternly warm – hiding the truth from her children, and the bluff kindness and bridling offence at “charity” of stationmaster Perks, a gorgeously Yorkshire Jeremy Swift . The arrival of the penniless Russian exile Schepansky is wonderfully handled, the children’s curiosity and the mother’s grief for “all prisoners and captives” in counterpoint. And of course there are the dramas on the railway line, the red petticoat, all that. And OK, some of us do cracking up with emotion when the great green locomotive (LSWR Adam T3 class No. 563) puffs in for the first time and hisses to a lifesaving halt.

 
But the delight of this production is that it doesn’t depend entirely on that – er – star vehicle. Earlier in the show, tremendous sound effects and great clouds of steam evoke it, and so does the children’s wonder. The father disappears into steam, in poignant silhouette between a top-hat and a policeman’s helmet; he reappears from it at last to that famous cry of “Oh, my Daddy!”. Steam! Love! Redemption! All those Brief Encounter emotions rise, and you may well need a bun in the artfully recreated Refreshment Room foyer to get over it. Actually, my daughter went straight home and “made an emergency apple pie” .

 

 

box office 0844 871 7604 http://www.railwaychildrenlondon.com to 1 March

 

Rating Five    5 Meece Rating

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BAT BOY – THE MUSICAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

AND YOU THOUGHT SPIDERMAN WAS CREEPY…

 

 

Imagine a rock-opera mashup of Frankenstein, Pygmalion and Dracula, hijacked by Marvel Comics and dressed up with cartoonish 1950s smalltown Americana. Add gorgeous retro projections overhead, a great deal of screaming, an orgasmic revival meeting with a pastor in a canary-yellow suit truffling for Sin, some deafeningly fierce bass beats and a few yearning teen-spirit ballads of misunderstood adolescence.
 
Got it? This knowing , cultish, campy show by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming , with Laurence O’Keefe songs, was new to me though in 1997 it won off-Broadway plaudits and did reasonably well here seven years later. It’s a canny choice for Southwark’s youthful audience, with enough dry wit and streaks of sincerity to recapture me after losing me for a while during some rather tiresome small-town ensembles. It was inspired by a cod news story about a boy raised by bats in a cave – a vampiric Mowgli . He is adopted by the local vet’s family (for reasons melodramatically  revealed much later) while the townsfolk of West Virginia want him killed because he may be preying on the cows, and because he bit a local girl whose blood now won’t clot.

 

 
Luke Fredericks’ production for Morphic Graffiti (who did so well with Carousel at the Arcola) suits the inventive gift for spectacle of this warehouse theatre: a huge overarching cave becomes a two-level stage with rapid projections offering filmic scene-shifts, and Mark Crossland leads a five- piece rock band overhead.  At its heart, though, is a tremendous performance from Rob Compton as Bat Boy, renamed Edgar by his doting foster mum (Lauren Ward) and resented by her vet husband (Matthew White). At first Compton is a snarling bestial nightmare: bald, pointed-eared, fanged and powerful, his tall form bat-folded and jerking in a sack and a cage. But, never losing his strangeness and air of suppressed feral energy, he evolves into speaking, pouring tea, graduating High School with a dissertation on Copernicus and Darwin and (gloriously) adopting stilted BBC English learned off tapes. His big yearning numbers where he longs for acceptance by the community “Why can’t I make this world my home?” surprise with a sudden genuine, heart-shaking relevance in a city of uneasy diversity.

 

 
On the other hand, Compton’s sudden jagged crouching lapses into instinctive and bloodlustful bat ferocity made me jump nervously in the theatre lobby at the sight of any rangy athletic young chap with a cleanshaven head. Given the hip profile of Southwark audiences, that happened quite often before I escaped onto Newington Causeway. Luckily, none of them actually had pointed ears. I think. Definitely saw some fangs, though.

 
Box Office 020 7407 0234 http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
to 31 Jan
Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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