OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD Olivier, SE1

DRAMA AS REDEMPTION 
From the first moments Nadia Fall’s production sets brutal, bullying humanity against a hot, strange, majestic Australian dawn. A lone aborigine watches, silent on a great dark bare plain , as the land heaves beneath him and becomes the deck of a prison-ship of half-starved, flogged inmates and resentful red-coated marines. Up comes the light, and we and the prisoners blink, half-afraid, as Peter McKintosh’s great red-and-gold diorama blazes at us.
I fell in love a few years ago with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s marvellous, passionate play (based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, about a real event of 1788 when a colony of deported British prisoners put on a play – George Farquar’s arch comedy The Recruiting Officer, under the direction of a theatre-loving lieutenant of Marines. That was Alistair Whatley’s shorter, less richly cast version at the Rose, with some deft cast-doubling (ten players, 23 onstage here). Love all over again, last night. The only thing I missed – as Gary Wood’s nimble, mysterious Aborigine speaks only once – was the plaintive questioning line on his first seeing the ship and its brutalized inmates “Is it a dream that has lost its way?” .

Which question encapsulates the whole theme: that a highly evolved, theatrically cultured 18c society still deported thousands for trifling thefts, some pitifully old or young, often girls sold in childhood.
Wertenbaker makes the creation of the Farqhar comedy a symbol of the possibility that well-ordered language and imagination can free and transform the most brutalized. ‘Theatre is an expression of civilization” is a fancy of the idealistic governor: Cyril Nri, nicely combining thoughtful liberalism with an arms-length detachment from the chaotic directorial and personal struggles of the ambitious, lonely Lieut. Ralph (Jason Hughes). At one point, insisting on the casting of the terrifyingly farouche Liz (Jodie McNee, spikily ginger, her whole body always seething with anger) he says that they must “make an example” of her. “By hanging?” asks Ralph, since there has been a lot of this for thefts of food since they arrived. “No. By redemption” says Nri.

Cerys Matthews’ music, drawing on folk, blues and aboriginal instruments, frames the action with yearning emotional power; the nobility of the text strikes with additional power when set, tightly, against fragments of harsh back-story and the horrible brutalities and humiliations meted out by the contemptuous Major Ross (Peter Forbes). But there is saving comedy in the rehearsals and the ensemble of prisoners is tremendous: notably AshleyMcGuire a memorable stroppy Devon wench as Dabby, and Matthew Cottle beautifully judged as Wisehammer, branded a criminal for his Jewishness. Small beautiful moments reaffirm the redemptive theme: the savage Liz suddenly quieting when the Lieutenant apologizes for interrupting her; the huge angry Arscott (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) clinging to his part because of the liberation it brings “I’m not myself, I don’t hate, I’m Kite and I’m in Shrewsbury”.

Prison arts, prison theatre, are forever under attack even today by panicking Home Secretaries. The timelessness of this play’s insistence on the value of “refined literate language,well balanced lines expressing sentiments they are not used to” is striking. From the pioneering days of the London Shakespeare Workout in Brixton and Pentonville to Inside Out and Clean Break today, the truth and the need for that go on.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 17 Oct
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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FOR SERVICES RENDERED Minerva, Chichester

THE BARBED SHADOW OF AN OLD WAR

I’m late on the curve with this one – but it runs into September and for me, In n these WW1 anniversary years, fascinatedly collecting plays which reflect – better than any prosier or more historical media – the sense and effects of that long tragedy. Last year’s crop I wrote about here for the Telegraph – an account which may remind some regular theatregoers of how good it’s been . Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html .

 

 

 

 

 
It is the 1930’s plays, as well as earlier ones, which make unsparing points about the hard backwash of even a victorious war; and few are more devastating than Somerset Maugham’s portrait of a family – fourteen years after the armistice – apparently back to pre-war life in a tennis-party world, but scarred both literally and socially. The Ardsleys – Simon Chandler as a prim businessman and Stella Gonet as his wife – have four children. Sydney (Joseph Kloska) is a blinded naval offcer with a DSO and nothing to live for. Of his sisters , Eva lost her man int the war and devotes herself to her blind brother, Lois is still young and has little chance – as was the case for many women – of ever finding a husband or lover. Ethel rashly married a handsome officer who, back in civilian life , reverts to being a boorish, alcoholic tenant-farmer (“The king made me a gentleman but I don’t always want to be, I like a laugh”). Visiting them is the afflluent, twice-married boulevardier Wilfred (Anthony Calf, very suave) who has his eye on seducing Lois; and most poignantly, going quietly bankrupt is Nick Fletcher as Collie, for whom twenty heroic and bemedalled years in the Navy were a poor preparation for business life. “I may have to get a job driving a motorbus” he half-jokes: this a man who commanded a destroyer.

 

 

 

 

 
Fatheaded stupidities, selfish and desperately selfless behaviour, wilful blindness, heroic stiff-upper lips, suppressed passions and bitterness (chiefly from Sydney, whose blind presence is a constant reminder of reality) create a hum of unease and tension. To modern sensibilities, some problems seem crazy: why can’t the girls get jobs, why shouldn’t a woman help a man out financially, why should Eva sacrifice herself for a brother who is so rude to her, and indeed why can’t he play some part at least in the father’s business rather than stay at home all day being told he is useless? But you buy into it, as the the sense of period is strongly evoked and maintained in Howard Davies’ production (the Minerva’s intimate wraparound shape it really helps, we’re there; and William Dudley’s clever, bitter design has a rural backdrop beyond the window with haycocks and the shadow of old barbed wire).

 

 

 

 

 
And in these days of complaints about few good roles for women, note that Maugham has (admittedly in a cast of 11) five absolutely cracking female parts. Justine Mitchell’s Eva is superb- notably in the scene where she begs the over-honourable Collie to accept her help and her love , wrenching herself from convention to heroically humiliating frankness. Gonet’s Charlotte, watchful, maternal,resigned, deals brilliantly with the matriarch’s extraordinary response to a shattering revelation and then a scandalous one; Jo Herbert’s resigned Ethel and Yolanda Kettle’s bright, seductive, scared Lois are perfect; and Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen, aggrieved wife of wolfish Wilfred, gets her storming moment in the second act.

 

 

 

 

 

 
So at last, a shivering snort of laughter meets black irony as the blinkered father says “It’s very nice to be surrounded by one’s family”, impervious to the fact that – this need not be a spoiler – one is blind, one has gone embarrassingly mad, another is about to trigger a major scandal, one is dying, one alcoholic, and another mired in quiet desperation. “We have our health” he fatuously says. It’s a cruel characterization of middle-class obtuseness, even by Maugham’s standards : but Chandler does it beautifully.
box office 01243 781312 to 5 Sept
rating four      4 Meece Rating

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WHEN BLAIR HAD BUSH AND BUNGA Pleasance One, Edinburgh

IN WHICH I AM EASILY AMUSED BY QUITE OLD JOKES. AND CLIVE MANTLE.

We are all urged by manically cheerful Bajan waitresses to sing “`We’re all going on a Summer Holiday” before the show. It’s winter 2001, Tony Blair’s in his second-term pre-Iraq heaven enjoying a freebie by Sir Cliff Richard’s guitar-shaped Barbados pool with Cherie, Carole, Carole’s boyfriend, and a sour-faced Alistair Campbell. Cherie has farmed out the kids to Sandy Lane courtesy of Michael Winner, and invited her fellow-Catholic rich mate Silvio Berlusconi. Tony and Alistair want them out of the way because of a top secret guest: POTUS himself, George W.Bush, whose helicopter may darken the sky any minute…
Had to see this: if you want the complete theatrecat-friendly sampler-set of Edfringe theatre you need at least one big starry one, a couple of tiny hopeful ones nobody much else will bother with, some edgy Traverse stuff and one like this: politically scurrilous, real-name, sue-me-if-you-dare stuff. Its a first play by the TV director Patrick Ryecart, and though woefully dated provides some good laughs. Despising the popinjay Blair will never entirely date, will it?

And Christopher Staines is a perfect Blair: the light-tenor voice , the hairline , the theatrical gestures and intermittent flicks of panic behind the eyes. He has borrowed Cliff’s guitar to sing ,rather badly, a number called Kosovo Dreams because Carole Caplin’s Aussie boyfriend (Douglas Hansell in tight budgie-smugglers) is encouraging him to write a musical about himself . His story would “fit like a bum in a bucket!”. Alistair is taking calls from Max Clifford about Robin Cook’s mistress (dated? archaeological!). Carole is blessing stones for some kumbaya-trocious tantric ritual with Cherie. Who is scoring free stuff at the Sandy Lane boutique.
Tony’s ghastly entourage of blingy shallow greed has been lampooned before, and I did despair for a while. But what heats it up into proper farce is a surreal nightmare involving Berlusconi and Bush – surrealism which, should the victims protest, be a defence: it was all a dream, m’lud, brought on by heatstroke and Red Stripe beer. For Silvio turns up in leopardprint trunks, beaming through facelift bandages, and Cherie makes him ring Pope Ratzinger (“I appointed heem! Is Nazi but long ago!”). She gets Tony converted – in German, by speakerphone – while Silvio blows kisses and Cherie crows “Now we can get the kids into the Oratory!”.

There’s an apparent corpse under a towel, and Silvio doing Benny-Hill chases upstage, but the real star is Clive Mantle as George W.Bush. It’s a wonderful , fully realized comic turn , making the most of Ryecart’s best bits of writing – an airy dismissiveness of Yo-Blair, malapropisms, bland ignorances, diversions about Mitt Romney and the Morons and some apple-pie-picket-fence people in Wisconsin who told him for sure that that Saddam zapped the twin towers as revenge on his Daddy, who used to play cro-kay with Maggie , remember, she knocked his balls over the place, where was I? Who is this Al Kida, never heard of him, we’ll just go in, blam blam, who cares about this Coffee Kebab guy and the United Nothin’…”
His looming dominance over an ever weedier Blair reaches the point that when Bush says “Tony, you gotta deal with my dick” while fumbling (for his phone) in his shorts, the PM very nearly agrees to…but phew, he means Dick Cheney.  Crude but enjoyable. So I forgave it its datedness. And the local Bajans – especially David Webber as a Poirot-loving cop – are very good fun.
http://www.edfringe.com to 31 August
rating three     3 Meece Rating

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THE MAN CALLED MONKHOUSE Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

THE MAN WITH THE TAN 
When Simon Cartwright came onstage, what with the bright orange tan and smooth hair and that nervy little mannerism of smiling at the punchline, I briefly panicked. Because this show , written by Alex Lowe, is directed by Bob Golding who himself performed as Eric Morecambe, I must have been half-consciously expecting to feel warm affection. I clean forgot that I never took to Bob Monkhouse. Of whom Cartwright is, voice and all, a horribly believable doppelganger.

But that’s the point of this unnervingly interesting 50-minute show, drawn from the comedian’s autobiography and using a few clips of the real man in interviews. It catches the period, especially the 80’s: the shiny-floor TV shows and smiley quips, long before Merton and Dee and the deadpan satire and surrealism of modern standup. Monkhouse always felt like a throwback, even then, though he had triumphed in the 60s at the Palladium, the Man with a Thousand Gags. But even then he was awkward: a southern middle class bloke lacking the warm working-class solidarity of Morecambe or Ken Dodd. Cartwright catches the nervy determination, the scribbling down of every idea and the crippling insecurity born both of his chilly relationship with his mother (she wore black to his wedding) and of cruel tabloid exposure. Migraines, stomach, the pallid vilitigo which meant the sunlamp hours and fake-tan, and always a fear of losing it. And of losing touch with mankind in general – “Ive learnt to pretend to feel…”
Lowe sets this session in the comedian’s study at one moment in 1975: two of his precious joke-books have been stolen and the police are on the phone, and he is preparing a funeral speech for his old collaborator Denis Goodwin. He roams about, talks to himself, thinks of his friend (quoting C.S.Lewis on friendship from The Four Loves, indeed.). He breaks into prepared routines, remembers his prolific affairs, his disabled son and the calumnies in the Sunday Mirror which made him cry. He mentions assorted showbiz figures including Larry Adler, who threatened to kill him. (“He said to me, I should read his book on how to tell Jewish jokes. I said, you should read mine in how to stick a harmonica up your arse”. And he does a quick turn as Dabber Davis the veteran agent, which thrilled me since I too have briefly worked for him. He shudders at an old Lynn Barbour interview, which like all thin-skinned comedians he has kept a copy of . It begins “You’ve got to like him, he wants you too so much…it’s like having margarine rubbed in your hair”.
The dramatic turn comes with a shocking moment when the police sergeant on the phone has not turned out to be an adoring, unquestioning fan. The cop’s casual remark about preferring a different cheesy TV show hurls Monkhouse into a surreal torment as a TV gameshow screen seems to flash up “words associated with Bob Monkhouse” and he sees SMARMY – OLEAGINOUS – INFIDELITY – INSINCERITY. He collapses, knowing that many of us thought exactly that. Which is where I came in….Oh dear.
So yes, there are the Monkhouse jokes. But we get inside the man who grafted to write them, too. Fair enough.
http://www.edfringe.com to 31 August

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE FRIDA KAHLO OF PENGE WEST C Nova, Edinburgh

A VICIOUS AND GLEEFUL PLEASURE…
There is a particular kind of modern feminist who fixates on the Mexican painter and free-loving socialist and her endless self-portraits: two other plays in this very Fringe have superscriptions from Kahlo sayings, like “I was born a painter and born a bitch”. But Zoe, a quiet, cerebral, apologetic publishing assistant scared of life, explains Kahlo as “Interesting, if you like that kind of thing and don’t mind being a bit annoyed…like being hit with a sledgehammer of schoolgirl solipsism” . Her cuckoo flatmate, Ruth, is an unsuccessful actress, gripped by the idea of stuffing the patriarchy by doing a one-woman show. Once she disentangles Frida Kahlo in her mind from Frida from Abba, she sees her story – lame, boho genius, fiery lover – as a dream subject. “She shagged that Lenny Trotsky! When she wasn’t painting she was shagging, and when she wasn’t shagging she was limping! Take away the ‘ting’ and you have “pain!”. AND she was a cripple, and hornier than a dwarf on a stag night!”

In this achingly funny, now well-honed and successful comedy by Chris Larner, Kahlophilia is only one of the targets skewered, in sharp lines and wonderful body-language, by the two players, Olivia Scott-Taylor as the eternal mouse in awkward blouse and pleated skirt, and Cecily Nash as the appalling Ruth: toxically self-confident with chaps (“red lipstick, show him your tits, mean are eaaaaasy!”) and raging endlessly at the weaknesses of theatre. Oh, we do love in-jokes, and these are good ones. She turns people away from the RSC Box Office where she works disadvising them from a 500-year-old Croatian epic revival described in the Indy as visceral. “£20 seats you can’t see, £ 70 you see too much and pay later in booze and therapy…Angry people walking up and down shouting. And where are the WOMEN?”.
It’s wicked, contemptuous, striking with rattlesnake accuracy at ambition and pretension in theatre (“I will do the bus crash in dance”). But is also painfully accurate about the way one young woman persecutes another. And there’s a rom-com plot running under it, predictable but enjoyable.
They even give us some of the finished show – “My womb is a paintbrush” , including a remarkable turn as Trotsky by Scott-Taylor. It world-premieres (one always says that, even if it’s going to be a derriere after two nights) in a pub theatre so new that the compere announces no talking at the bar downstairs in the interval, because the regulars are watching the Chelsea match. Given the play’s wild success at the Rosemary Branch in London, there’s a nice ingratitude about that.
So it’s a gleeful thing, and should sell out, and launch Nash and Scott-Taylor as rising stars on their Edinburgh debut. As to the writing, in sharpness of script it knocks spots of most flatmate (and flattened)  TV comedies of recent years.

http://www.edfringe.com to 30 August

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE CHRISTIANS Traverse, Edinburgh

A TAINTED HALLELUJAH

Hail a bracingly, triumphantly, intelligently unfashionable play, and Christopher Haydon of the Gate Theatre for directing and premiering it here. Lucas Hnath’s subject is religion: true believers, theologically agonized, submitting personal happiness and relationships to a deeper philosophical argument. Not in the 17th century, not in militant jihadism, but right now in modern America.

We are in one of those immense Pentecostalist churches, where a choir of 25 in purple cassocks sways to a boppy gospel opener, happy-faced, urging us to catch our soul on fire. It’s a community, a certainty, a shared life. Having grown from a storefront assembly to a vast thousands-strong church, they have just paid off the building debt.But Pastor Paul (William Gaminara) is a charismatic, commanding figure with a new message. Agonized by a colleague’s bland assurance that everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus goes to hell (even, notably, a heroic Muslim lad who gave his life to save his sister) he asked God for guidance and was told that there is no Hell. No Satan: it is the wickedness in humanity which must be challenged, with love and a promise of salvation. He says that the judgmental assumptions of his church only draws them apart from the love of their sinful neighbours.
To a sophisticate in religion, no problem: the concept of the virtuous pagan, and of damnation as a willed, determined self-separation from God, is common enough (read C.S.Lewis’ The Great Divorce). But to this simple-hearted faithful congregation it is dynamite, just as even thinner theological arguments ripped apart Europe five centuries ago. The associate Pastor (Stefan Adegbola) challenges the heresy and walks out; others follow. The rebel’s “You are not my brother” shatters like a falling icicle on the cheerful bright-lit podium where the protagonists debate on microphones. Out of church, an Elder casts doubt on the pastor’s wisdom in allowing the schism, not least for financial reasons; but he stands firm, rejecting the church’s old culture of “contempt” for non-members.
Is he a saint in his impracticality? Or is he something else? A congregant rises to ‘testify’ with a painfully personal speech. She is Lucy Ellinson, who astonished in the Gate’s GROUNDED: once again this remarkable actor demonstrates her ability to stand still and yet emit electrical pulses of emotion and meaning so violent that the world tilts around her. Sister Jenny is just a poor single mother, living on food stamps but still paying her tithes, needing her church community but agonized with sincerity over this frightening new concept that “even Hitler”, even a child murderer, might be saved from hell.

She has another accusation too, still more damning. A confrontation with his wife shakes the pastor even more, with her flung accusation that “you’re saying that absolute tolerance involves intolerance of the intolerant‘. Breezy modern atheists may scratch their heads at religious absurdity. I have no idea where the author himself stands. But the sincerity and intelligence of the production opens a window into a world too often mocked, too little understood.

http://www.edfringe.com to 30 August
rating four     4 Meece Rating

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OF MICE AND MEN Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh

It breaks your heart, an epic tragedy in miniature: two men, a couple of sacks and a crate, but their plight and their dreams rise before us in pathetic grandeur. Drilling into the heart of the famous John Steinbeck novella, Nigel Miles-Thomas’ simple staging fully evokes its bleak compassion and harsh unsparing humanity. The story of the itinerant farmworkers, clever thwarted George and big, dumb Lennie, is conjured up, a fleck of individual love and pain in the Dustbowl America in the ‘30s. It’s as strong and rough-edged as a Woodie Guthrie song.
Miles-Thomas himself, who adapts and directs, plays the huge, looming,battered Lennie: an amiable Frankenstein-monster of a man, with the intellect of a small child and the strength of a giant. Alongside him Michael Roy Andrew is a small, neat brisk figure: bright impatient, George, who has looked after him and travelled alongside him after his aunt Clara dies, comforting and pacifying the over and over again like a patient parent with the dream of one day them getting their own farm. Every time he is made to re-tell it, the picture rises more solid, more beautiful. The promise is that Lennie can help out and “tend the rabbits”, because of his childlike fixation with petting anything soft and furry.
But not understanding his own huge strength, he kills every mouse he handles, and his tendency to panic has had them thrown out of one farm for clutching a woman’s soft dress and not knowing how to let go. “God, you’re a lot o’trouble!” says the exasperated George, but resignedly. “You cain’t get rid of him cos he ain’t mean”. Lennie, dependent and willing, just fears the punishment of not being allowed to tend the rabbits on the imaginary future farm.
If you know the book you know what happens, and how the great soft dangerous man’s sweet proclivity will bring them to disaster. But what grips in this spare, perfectly judged production is the honest evocation of the characters and their relationship. Alarmed, appalled, we watch Lennie’s half-sly, half-confused grin and moments of panic, his clutching of a newborn puppy whose fate you wincingly apprehend long before he can (“why’d ya go get killed? I never bounced you hard, you ain’t so little as mice, I didn’t know you get killed so easy”.) Michael Roy Andrew’s George, carer and almost parent, perfectly evokes the daily fear and awareness of Lennie’s innocent dangerousness – “It ain’t bad people that raises hell, it’s dumb ones”. Other characters, the few needed, are sparingly evoked: a fight, a death, narrated in brief physicality. Nothing gets in the way of our contemplation of the central relationship, and the immensity of small tragedies. It shakes you, as it should

http://www.edfringe.com    to 31 August

rating  four4 Meece Rating

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