OUR TOWN – Almeida, N1

A STUNNING SIMPLICITY, A HUMAN HEART

 

 

Only the dead see life clearly.  In the last strange simple minutes of this undramatic drama, half of Thornton Wilder’s citizens become their own speaking tombstones, drifting towards oblivion or eternity but roused for a moment by a new arrival’s travails . “Wasn’t Life awful?” says a voice. – “And wonderful”. chimes another.  I think a third dim voice assents: or it might be one of us, sitting round and among the action in the never-dimmed auditorium, drawn in to the humdrum wonderfulness of daily doings, marriage, work, failure, success and suicide, birthdays, bereavements. Life.

 
The 1938  play won a Pulitzer and broke convention: a bare floor, a couple of tables, quotidian jobs mimed, New Hampshire small-town life, hills, homes, horsepower and starlight at the start of he 20c expressed only in description by a wry, wandering stage manager; but enacted by a cast who in fragmented scenes under his direction relive routine, a wedding and a loss. David Cromer’s production – in which he is our affable onstage narrator and guide – ran in New York, but here the universality of it is underlined by the British cast with British accents. Some have cavilled at this, because of Wilders’ US idioms and references – the ‘I declare’, the ‘ma’am’s, baseball and the rest. But after a few minutes I found any awkwardness fading into complete acceptance of character and situation.

 
That is part of the play’s low-key brilliance, because in its slight two-hour two -interval span there are no situations which a more traditional dramatist would be bothered with. Just small – yet immense – quotidian happenings: family breakfasts, kids growing up, middle aged weary parents, awkward courtship, stifled yearnings to get out of the hometown mixed with love of it. For all its dated, anchored detail – in attitudes and mores from a century ago – it evokes Everytown, every street .

 
Which feels like a magic trick, or perhaps just one of those moments of piercing universal vision, when you startle yourself by seeing in a flash humanity poised in eternity, and  the littleness and immensity of life.  It feels unlikely that something so unshowy can achieve that:  even with one brief scenic coup de theatre five minutes from the end.   But it is remarkable; and so are the core performances. Cromer himself is assured, anchored, dryly funny and unselfconsciously sincere. He draws the same quality from his cast. especially Anna Francolini as Mrs Gibbs and Kate DIckie as Mrs Webb, and David Walmsley and Laura Elsworthy as the young wedded pair. Elsworthy especially  holds the final scene with mesmeric natural intensity.

 
box office 0207 359 4404 to To 29 november

Rating.  Four.  4 Meece Rating

Supported by Aspen , Barrow Street Theatre and Jean Doumanian

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THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE Trafalgar 2, SW1

A NEW EYE ON AN OLD SADNESS: THE WILDE TRIAL RECREATED

 

This is fascinating: the playwright John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland mark the centenary of the great man’s two fatal court appearances by dramatizing some recently disinterred transcripts. There is a great deal of dense verbatim recreation, notably in the first hour when Wilde has – rashly – brought a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry for that illiterate note accusing him of “posting as a somdomite (sic)” . When he loses and is arrested for the crime itself, the second hour reproduces what it can of the criminal trial.

 
So it shows Wilde in a newish light, at first fighting flippantly (with green carnation and flippant asides) for his reputation; then more soberly, broke and disgraced, his children’s very toys sold at auction, trying to keep at least his freedom. We hear his flamboyant defence of any artist to express himself in any damn way he likes, set against the prim prosecutor’s view of ‘normal’ and ‘balanced’ discourse.   And from time to time, we catch him on edge, uncertain, suddenly aware that this is going horribly wrong.

 
The exchanges raise wide issues: of artistic freedom, of defiant individuality – constantly he pleads his right to talk in “moods of paradox, of fun” – but also of Victorian society’s revulsion from his social mixing with the young and the louche: “feasting with panthers”. Why ply a mere valet with champagne? he is asked, and scores a rare point “What gentleman would stint his guests?”.

 
But it sours: exhaustingly (for Wilde) the barrister Carson reiterates not only lines from the stolen letters  – Bosie’s “slim gilt soul”, red rosepetal lips, etc, but also detailed paragraphs from The Picture of Dorian Gray. We hear the judge’s thundering absurdity about the “worst case he has ever tried” – this in an age of frequent murders and child prostitution – and the legal pomposities of “Acts of gross indecency, against the peace of our lady the Queen, her crown and dignity”. We cheer (but shudder, knowing the end) at Wildean ripostes like “Yes, I gave Alfonso a hat with a bright ribbon. But I was not responsible for the ribbon”. We respect the desperate lofty lines about pure and perfect Platonic love, but know that regarding the carnality he was pretty certainly lying on oath. Because he had to.

 

 

John Gorick plays Wilde: the right look, and an accomplished air of self-protective arrogance, but he does not quite have the ability to deepen and nuance the interpretation in this very difficult verbatim task, freeing himself only with the rare interpolations of Wilde’s letters and other writings. But maybe he should not attempt characterization too much: we are watching for history as much as for theatre. The other two players – Rupert Mason and William Kempsell – adroitly play barristers and various witnesses, Mason particularly good switching between Queensberry, Carson, a creepy comedian-cum-blackmailer, and a myopic hotel chambermaid.

 

 

It isn’t pure theatre, but has deserved its European tour, and fills an important place in the record of homosexual oppression and of one flawed, courageous, tormented and ill-starred genius.
box office 0844 871 7632 to 8 November     http://www.trafalgartransformed.com

Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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EAST IS EAST – Trafalgar, SW1

COMEDY, BRUTALITY, UNCERTAINTY IN  A BYGONE SALFORD

 

 

There is a telling moment at the end of Sam Yates’ production of Ayub Khan Din’s portrait of a Pakistani Muslim family in ‘70s Salford. Abdul, the eldest son, after a series of tragicomic brawls and conflicts, resolves to take over control from the bullying patriarch, defend his English mother and ensure that none of his siblings need marry by order or live under duress. Then over the cramped, bricky railside terrace (brilliantly realized by Tom Scutt) we hear an aeroplane. Bringing in another generation of migrants, to face the same challenges and confusions.

 

 

The play, first staged by Tamasha and subsequently a West End hit and film, is largely autobiographical: and here Khan Din himself plays the role of “George” the tyrannical father, creating alarming – often violent – authenticity with roars of “Why I tell you my business, Mrs?” at his English-born wife Ella. She is Jane Horrocks, returning to the stage with a drop-dead, pitch-perfect portrayal of long-suffering pragmatism and steely, competent maternal backbone. One son (like the author) has run off to be a hairdresser and is deemed dead (“He’s not dead, he’s in Eccles!” snaps Ella). To the rest the message is “I am your father! I don’t have to listen! You should show respect!”. Despite the cowed obedience of his children working in the family chip-shop and obeying at home, he gets nastier still when roused by his sons’ unwillingness to be married off, assaulting Ella with“Next time you talk to me like that I kill you and burn all your bastard family while you sleep!”.

 

 
It is a more uncompromising performance than anyone not directly, physically and authorially involved would dare, but Ayub Khan Din manages to infuse it with glimpses of insecurity and desperation. He is struggling for the status of what he thinks is a proper Muslim father, while loving an English wife and living in a suspicious white neighbourhood; on top of which there is the cheerfully jelloid Auntie Annie, forever off to lay out another corpse, and a pack of children bored with mosque, indifferent to Pakistan, feeling English. George is isolated.

 

 
The young cast are a joy, with lovely ensemble rowdiness: Abdul the sober worrier (Amit Shah), Maneer (Darren Kuppan) who wants to be a good Muslim, rebellious Tariq (Ashley Kumar), Saleem the art student whose father still thinks he’s doing engineering at college, and a wonderful blinking, troubled performance by Michael Karim as Sajit, the one they forgot to circumcise until his teens, who refuses to emerge from his parka hood and hides from rows in the coalshed. Among them dances Meenah (Taj Atwal) the only daughter, larkily tomboy, disgusted by being forced into a sari for the visit of the richer Shahs. That scene is a classic of social embarrassment, brilliantly done by all and culminating inevitably in the horror of Saleem’s art project. But beneath all the comedy throbs the reality: that this family can’t last in its present form, and must either revert to something alien, ancient and un-English, or fracture and lose the precious bits: the love which however erratically flows between them.

 

 

It would be a shame to take it as mere social history, a Pakistani Taste of Honey. There are modern parallels and contrasts. Much of George’s panic is fed by news bulletins about the Indo-Pakistan conflict and massacres; today plenty of immigrant communities endure similar tortures from the nightly news. Reflect too that in the mid-90s few would foresee that rather than flowering into English freedoms, too many British Muslims clench, close in, radicalize. When George roars that his daughter wears skirts “like a prostitute” Ella exasperatedly says “It’s her school uniform!”. Never would they have foreseen the burqa on the streets, the niqab defiance in British schools. Or the honour killings. Or the grooming scandals fed on contempt for white girls. East is East feels , dammit, almost cosy now.

 
box office 0844 871 7632 to 8 November     http://www.trafalgartransformed.com

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

IN WHICH YOUR CRITIC FALLS IN LOVE WITH A BENEDICK AND A DOG-BOWL

 

 

This is actually the one we know as Much Ado About Nothing – though some nifty Shakespeareology suggests that it may have had the other title, usually thought of as a “lost” play. The doubling with Love’s Labour’s Lost (reviewed below, well worth catching them in order, and reading them in the right order might help too) was inspired by AD Gregory Doran’s theory that the witty Berowne and spirited Rosaline from LLL should get together in the end, like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado. Hence director Luscombe’s use of the same company, the same lovely Charlecote Park set, and (not least) the way that Nigel Hess’ fine score weaves through both, moving between Crown-Imperial heroics, subtle atmospherics, and sweetly sung ballads to pastiche Edwardian tunes.

 

 

The cross-casting is not all literal (you couldn’t turn Chris McCalphy’s magnificent monosyllabic Constable Dull into a yattering Dogberry, so Nick Haverson ramps up his hectic comedy still further , to the point of mania indeed, with high-speed pomposity, verbal confusion and an unforgettable tic of outrage. As we join them in 1918, as Charlecote Park is requisitioned by the returning army. David Horovitch, still pedantic and bufferish but less absurd, is now Leonato and gives the horrified father real power in the church scene; Michelle Terry is the striding, head-girlish, scornfully witty Beatrice, who like her more delicate cousin Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) has been working as a VAD nurse. That, artfully, makes her air of cynical new toughness credible. And Edward Bennett, who was lively and fun enough as Berowne, now flowers into the most likeable, funniest and most genuinely touching Benedick since Charles Edwards’ fabulous Globe performance.

 

 

The Charlecote set comes even more into its own, as does the machinery. The stage has immense depths so that distant rooms glide forward, and far beneath the sliding floor unseen subterranean stagehands (take a bow) enable fine little rooms rooms to rise on that ever-surprising platform: a billiard-room, a boudoir , a bier, and most superbly poor Dogberry’s overcrowded scullery. It is serving as a police station, where Haverson tries to iron his shirt while interrogating, teapots get in everybody’s way, the washing-up is still in progress, and nobody can get out of the room because the towel-rail is jammed against the dishrack. Dogberry gets his foot stuck in a bowl marked DOG, which is particularly pleasing.

 

 

Once again, the anachronistic period setting serves the plot just fine: intrigues and jealousies are entirely credible in a regimental setting, all mess-dress and missed promotions. Sam Alexander is a sullenly malevolent Don John, Chris Nayak an over-willing Borachio (his remorseful moment near the end is more convincingly done than I’ve seen it, happy debut-season Mr Nayak). There’s real solemnity and horror in the church scene and the grieving; and broad, beautiful comedy in the eavesdropping. Especially the bit with Benedick and the giant Christmas tree. One of my more solemn colleagues felt that the near-electrocution moment was a bit over the top, but hey – some ideas are just too good to drop.

 
And that’s a moral which applies to the whole doubling, WW1-referring enterprise. So four each, but between them, they earn a fifth mouse.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
(and the CD is now released, both plays)
Rating: four 4 Meece Rating
and a fifth director-mouse for  the double…  Director Mouse resized

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LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

BEFORE THE DAWN OF WAR…THE LAST LARKS 

 
This is the young Shakespeare: making his way, dazzling with wordplay, confecting improbable japes and charades, laughing at absurd elders, revelling in what his Lord Berowne calls “the kingly state of youth”. And in this improbable but finally triumphant treatment, Christopher Luscombe hijacks this lesser play to create one of the merriest, saddest, most unexpected centenary tributes to the 1914 generation.

 
He sets it in 1914, in a Simon Higlett set which is parquet-’n-portrait perfect , an artful faux-brick reconstruction of the Elizabethan manor at Charlecote Park, near Stratford. Shakespeare’s plot – in which the King of Navarre and his nobles swear a pact to fast, study and avoid the company of women for a period – fits surprisingly well with languid, earnest flannelled young Edwardians: it was, after all, the era of public school austerities, reading-parties, and cold baths to quell lust. And the lads are a delight: Sam Alexander as the slightly preachy leader, his mates Longaville (William Belchambers) and earnest Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), with Edward Bennett as the doubter Berowne, who finally agrees to sign the pact. But the Princess of France and her three gorgeous ladies are nearby, so the chaps obviously fall in love with them, and try to do their wooing without the others knowing. Light relief and confusion is added by John Hodgkinson as a comedy Spaniard with language difficulties (ramped up mercilessly with lines about “Men of Piss” ) various servants, notably a barmily rustic Nick Haverson as Costard, an even more comedy policeman Dull (Chris McCalphy, who scores two rounds of applause all for himself on his RSC debut, once for an inexplicable ballet moment) .

 

 

And there’s a wickedly mocked schoolmaster and parson, joyfully the butts of that young Shakespeare: David Horovitch is a harrumphinly, pedantically wonderful Holofernes, and Thomas Wheatley gets a particular moment as the curate which, dammit, brought tears to my eyes.

 

 
The plot – think Downton Abbey rewritten by PG Wodehouse with some terrible Elizabethan puns and sudden great poetry – is mainly driven by the men, not least when they dress up as Cossacks and attempt a Russian dance. There’s an absurd charade led by the Spaniard, and in a fabulous rooftop-eavesdropping session in Jaeger dressing-gowns which culminates in Berowne threatening to throw poor Dumaine’s teddy over the parapet. But the women get their moments too, forming a kind of white-satin-clad Girl Gang to torment their four lovers: Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry, Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Frances McNamee sometimes moving in synchrony, sometimes breaking away to offer moments of real emotion near the end.

 

 

Which is – and this is another reason it all fits so well with 1914 – a downbeat end. In the play, the Princess of France’s father dies and they must all delay their happy endings. In the theatre – well, you only need to put the four young men in khaki, and have the civilians left behind singing to Nigel Hess’ lovely score, and you’ve made the point with gentle, appropriate sorrow. Edwardian certainties and jokes, gone forever with the kingly state of youth. Never glad confident morning again.

 

 

box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
(and the CD of speech and music is released: for this and its companion-piece, Love’s Labour’s Won, aka Much Ado. Whose review will follow tomorrow…)

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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GYPSY Chichester Festival Theatre

EVERYTHING COMES UP ROSES FOR THIS ONE. OH YES.

 
It is not often in a big musical that you remember the silences: the pin-drop, tense waits. But then, Gypsy was no run-of-the-mill musical, even in the golden age. In most shows the moment when the thwarted, ambition-crazed stage mother Rose cries “Everyone needs something impossible to hope for” should make her a feelgood heroine, a follower of her star, or at least a sad victim. Not a deluded, irresistible engine of family destruction.

 
But in Jonathan Kent’s superb, tense, funny and melancholy production Imelda Staunton both grips us in her headlong pursuit of showbiz fame for her children, and shakes us in those few deep silences. Her alarming stillness as she reads the letter telling her that the favoured Baby June has escaped her grip makes more violent the explosion when ,like a heat-seeking missile, she turns to her dowdier daughter Louise and cries “I made her – and I will make you!”. The audience actually gasps, even though as loving aficionados of this extraordinary chronicle, we knew that Mama Rose is about to launch into the enormous Act 1 closer, that hymn to dangerous ambition, “Everything’s coming up roses!”.

 

 

Staunton was last on this stage – and also singing Sondheim lyrics – in Kent’s equally magnificent Sweeney Todd. But that moment alone tops her Olivier-winning Mrs Lovett. She hurtles at it, jumps in frenzy, claps violently like an out-of-control clockwork toy, filling the immense theatre as if she was standing a foot in front of each of us, forcing us against our will to seek the evanescent goal of stardom. It’s like that all through: stubborn craziness veiling vulnerability, envy, fear of defeat. She is magnificent from the first moment when she erupts through the stalls clutching a terrier and harassing Uncle Jocko to give her daughters top billing . She’s all the Mama Rose that the show’s creators – Laurents and Styne and Sondheim – could have dreamed of back in 1959.

 

 
She is not its only jewel. Kent’s production is finely judged, trimmed a little of the show’s sprawl, staged with minimal fuss, the theatre’s new machinery delivering interiors for boarding-houses, dressing-rooms and atmospheric, looming backstage flies. Stephen Mear’s choreography is as witty as ever, expressing all the nuances: the half-baked performances of Mama Rose’s touring troupe, the cheerfully hopeless family ensembles with good old Herbie, and – when Lara Pulver’s gentle undervalued Louise emerges as Gypsy Rose Lee – her gradual transformation from terror to extravagantly brittle flamboyance. Pulver carries it brilliantly. As for Staunton’s own final enraged aria of thwarted ambition, the mixture of extreme foxy moves and sudden lapses into the diffident stumping of the middle-aged matron is both funny and profoundly moving.

 

 
What else? Everything, really. Kevin Whateley, beloved as Detective-Inspector Lewis, deploys his gift for intelligent rueful likeability as Herbie (and he can sing, never knew that),. As the child June at the beginning, Georgia Pemberton on first-night duty delivered some atrociously brilliant high-kicks, cartwheels and earsplittingly shrill Violet-Elizabeth-Bottery before being artfully morphed into her adult self (Gemma Sutton) by way of strobing lights and hurtling ensemble dancers. The three Act 2 burlesque strippers are pretty unforgettable too: Anita Louise Combe with some nicely dirty ballet moves (don’t sacrifice your sacro, working in the back row!) Julie Legrande with flashing tits and pubes, and Louise Gold towering muscular and ferocious in her centurion kit and bugle (“if you’re going to bump it, do it with a trumpet”).

 

 

Sorry, can’t stop quoting Sondheim lines it’s an illness. But if you can wrestle, wangle or seductively pole-dance a ticket off someone, this one’s well worth sacrificing your sacro for.

 
box office 01243 781312 to 8 November
rating    five 5 Meece Rating

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HERE LIES LOVE NT Dorfman, SE1

DORFMAN DOES DISCO, HURRAH

 

 

Oh, fabulous! Nicholas Hytner could have done lots of traditional things to launch the recreated third auditorium, the jewel of “NT Future” with its great glass walls and grand public walkway over the scenery and props shops. Instead, the Dorf rocks into life with a surging, dancing, jumping, shimmying and shimmering immersive event: joyful yet serious, youthful and historical, throwing its arms out with glee and grace.

 

 
On paper, the idea might startle: a political history of the Philippines from the 1950’s to the peaceful and long-overdue 1986 People’s Revolution which sent that corrupt, extravagant, murderously brutal couple Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos packing. It centres on Imelda herself, and started life as a concept album by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (it was first done at the NY Public Theater). All of this might suggest parallels with EVITA – another chronicle of an ordinary girl who used her beauty to marry a dictatorial leader, became obsessed with wealth and prestige, and maintained a conviction that the poor people loved her and that she loved them back, even when milking the exchequer dry. Imelda’s great cry of “Why don’t you love me?” could have been Eva Peron’s, had she lived.

 

 

But this show makes EVITA feel thoroughly old hat. It is pretty much sung-through and staged as a club night: a third of the audience on foot used as the People, on a wide and ever-changing floor down below (respeck to Times, Observer, Standard, and The Stage crits, not to mention boppin’ Baz Bamigboye of the Mail). The rest of us are galleried above, but drawn in emotionally by the racket, the wonderful catchy songs . Here Lies Love, Imelda’s anthem, stormed out by Natalie Mendoza, is tremendous, but even better is her bewildered friend Estrella (Gia Macuja Atchison) with “When she passed by”, and a solemnly beautiful lament for her son by the mother (Li-Tong Hsu) of the brave opposition leader Nino Aqino after his murder: singing how as a child he said “I wanna be a drummer” to bring people together, with the beat.

 

 

Which jerks the heart, because that is exactly what it does; this rowdy, life-affirming, fascinatingly detailed, newsreel-flashing, full-hearted tribute to a people abused and dignified and finally freed – well, nothing’s final in politics, but impressive nonetheless is the moment when the now diabolic, shrieking Imelda is drowned by helicopter sounds and the DJ – Martin Sarreal – comes down from his eyrie and quietly, with a simple guitar, sings the actual words of Filipinos on that day, with the refrain “God draws straight with crooked lines”.

 
And then as we wipe our eyes the ensemble dance – many Filipino in reality – dance crazily for us again. And we in the gallery slightly wish we’d opted for the floor tickets. But then I wouldn’t have had a notebook, to tell you about it properly.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 to 8 Jan
rating: four   4 Meece Rating and a Meece with mask tiny compressed salute to the new auditorium

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HENRY IV Donmar, WC1

BACK TO PRISON:  WOMEN WIN THE HOLLOW CROWN

 
This is epic and intimate, mischievous and macho, truthful and painful and bleak. A two-hour condensation of the Henry IV plays, set in the grim neon-lit gym of a women’s prison, is the second in Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of all-woman Shakespeares, in collaboration with the prison arts company Clean Break. Their Julius Caesar, I wrote last year, was one of those rare theatre moments when you feel  that something genuinely important has happened:  a seismic shift in the possible.  Harriet Walter’s Brutus shook off every preconception about gender onstage, for good.
 
I was not relying on Lloyd pulling off the same shock again. Bunny Christie’s original set, finessed by Ellen Nabarro (andI have seen drama in enough prison gyms to vouch for it’s authenticity) is familiar. So are the unsmiling warders ushering us in, and the motley cast of “inmates” in grey tracksuits and scraped-back hair. At first, Clare Dunne’s Irish-accented Hal failed to convince me, though I was rapidly drawn in by the gaunt commanding presence of Harriet Walter as the eponymous King, guilt-haunted Bolingbroke in a crown made of Irn-Bru cans, and by Jade Anouka as a superfit, gym-honed passionate Hotspur beating hell out of a punchbag. But we needed to know that this most macho of the History plays could, by being transposed from 15c monarchy to a women’s jail, show us something new.

 

 

It can. It did. What Lloyd achieves, with respect for the verse and a series of feinting, elegant scenic overlaps,  is a breathtaking double vision. These are women sometimes wholly being men, sometimes implying that they are women damaged by life, slyly aping male swagger and aggression. Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff is a delight: part natural-born market-stall virago, part cross-dressing parody; always carrying that quicksliver burden of wasted intelligence in Falstaff which fuels that essentially womanly speech despising male “honour” for its inability to heal wounds of war. McGuire does this alone under the pitiless searchlight, and achieves a seriousness as great as Roger Allam’s marvellous treatment of the part at the Globe.

 

 

Amother double vision flickers throughout: prisoners of circumstance and their own fallibilities, the cast’s status as inmates remind us of what Shakespeare compassionately knew – that Kings and princes, drunkards and whoremongers, like all of us, are prisoners of circumstance too: guilty anxious Henry, rebellious Hal doomed to change beneath the ‘polished perturbation’ of the crown, impulsive loyal avenging Hotspur, Falstaff in his prison of flesh and flippancy. Just as we forget they are playing prison inmates doing a play, twice quite shockingly they get too involved and the lights go up as warders rush in to break it up. Once it happens when the sexual taunting of Mistress Quickly becomes modern and explicit, and she screams with sudden real womanly revulsion “We agreed we weren’t going to do this fucking bit!”. And once again at the end, when Falstaff’s rejection meets a violent response, warders intervene as we see inmates mastered and wounded by the power of the tale they have enacted. As we all should be.

 
But the core moments of the play are straight, unambiguous and fine. Harriet Walter, once again, achieves depth and reality to match any of her great predecessors in the role: androgynous, gaunt, thoughtful, troubled, “Myself, mighty and to be feared”. Dunne’s Hal grows in stature, their deathbed scene together superb. Other moments startle with their virtuosity: Ann Ogbomo’s passionate Worcester, Cynthia Erivo’s mischievous Poins. It’s tremendous, a brick in theatre history. I hope they auction off the terrifying paper masks of Walters’ face which her troops wear in the battle. I’ll be bidding.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7624 to 30 Nov
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating
Sponsors: Barclays / Simmons & Simmons

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SEMINAR – Hampstead Theatre, NW3

THE INTERIORITY OF EXTERIORITY EXAMINED..ER..

 
Theresa Rebeck’s play about a creative-writing seminar in New York, directed with pace and flair by Terry Johnson, has met some sniffy reviews. Well, I may be out on my own here, but I thought it was hilarious, touching, and sharp as a tack. Maybe it doesn’t reveal any eternal truths, but then neither do creative writing classes. Perhaps it revels too joyfully in verbal pyrotechnics and has characters in danger of vanishing up their own back-references, but that too is horribly faithful to the subject-matter . Oh yes. Having published twelve novels and then stopped, and struggled through a year’s worth of overwritten literary splodge as a Booker judge, I frankly revelled in Ms Rebeck’s crueller moments. And maybe the fact that the characters are American (though home-grown actors) distances it enough to ease the pain of recognition.

 

 
The youngsters paying $5000 for ten weekly sessions include Kate, a child of affluence who after six years of writing-classes perfecting a novel about a girl obsessed with Jane Austen, remains unable to speak plainly her love for her friend Martin. He is an earnest scruff who believes that “constructing a universe out of language is a sacred and reverential act”. There’s Izzy, who plans to write sexy novels and flash her breasts on the cover, and Douglas, who has literary connections and likes to describe “the interiority of exteriority” and “trees so present, you can feel them growing”.

 
Enter Leonard the tutor: Roger Allam, swagger-perfect in jeans and a tormented scowl. He is a magnificently bad-tempered, pretentious bully enjoying the humiliation of the young, bragging in a style all too recognizable from Vanity Fair and New Yorker journos that he “ate cabbage with a Chechen psychopath” and received confidences from Rwandan amputees, because as a Writer he is charged with the “relevant” and can despise everyone else for being insufficiently “muscular” and unlike Kerouac. Who Izzy admires and feminist Kate despises. Lovely.

 

 

 
The play has no distinct message – why should it? – but for me the intertwined hostilities, subterfuges and bafflements of the five characters (and their sex lives) create a satisfying pattern. Kate (Charity Wakefield) is particularly well-drawn, furiously consuming cookie-dough and Doritos to console herself, and succumbing to silent despair as Martin (Bryan Dick) gets off with the insouciantly vampy Izzy (Rebecca Grant) . Oliver Hembrough’s Douglas is first overconfident, then flattened, then vengeful. And Allam’s great bitter peroration about the life cycle of a literary novelist is showstopping: that hit first novel, the agony of the second, the painful achievement of the third, then the decline into editing or teaching writing-classes to “overprivileged droning children” . Meanwhile the private despair, with no skin left…

 

 
It’s a memento mori for those who trap themselves in self-regarding style, vain literary ambition and terrible metaphors (“nail polish bottles like lost and terrified soldiers”). Rather than just, for God’s sake, sitting down and writing a story they want to tell. I rather loved it.

 
box office 0207 722 9301 to 1 November

rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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SELFIE – Ambassadors, WC1

DORIAN GRAY IS BACK. AND THIS TIME SHE’S A GIRL.

 

 

I am usually too humble about my exiguous visual gift to dare remonstrate with designers, but in this case would plead, tears in my eyes “Ditch Basil’s Act 1 beard!”. Ragevan Vasan does his best to carry it off, huge black excrescence that it is, but the effect is not lessened by the baffling fact that the artist’s friend Harry (Dominic Grove) also has one, and in the next scene yet another character is luxuriantly black-bearded. Possibly this is to indicate that they’re all Brick Lane hipsters and fashion-followers (if you hadn’t already guessed that by the fact that a chap in a girl’s gymslip and monocle is mending a penny-farthing bike). But I am sure Oscar Wilde would have something to say about one beard being a misfortune, three carelessness…

 
Sorry. But it is Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” which inspires this collegiate creation by Brad Birch and the National Youth Theatre Rep company, running alongside their Macbeth in the annual, enterprising and wholly praiseworthy rep season at the Ambassadors’. Last year they did an excellent production of James Graham’s Tory Boyz, and there is never any shortage of enthusiasm and unruly budding talent. But this one doesn’t quite get there: though it is a neat idea to modernize the tale and make Dorian a young woman who has her head turned by her own beauty and gets corrupted into the modern equivalent of Wildean excess: modelling, wild-childing, illegal drugs, big money earned from celebrity and marketing.

 
At its core – possibly part of its very inspiration – is the promising, statuesquely tall and strikingly attractive Kate Kennedy as Dorian. Wilde’s artist Basil Hallward becomes an expert photo-shopper who beautifies people’s Facebook pictures; in her case, he has had to do nothing but light her, and treasures the remarkable result. Which, of course, in a nifty bit of projection and adjustment , appears in a screen at the back becoming harder, sourer, and eventually hideous as Dorian’s corruption develops. She becomes ever warier of her iPad as she checks it after each betrayal, seduction and murder: Kennedy carries this well, from initial naive excitement at being taken to cool parties to callousness, brittleness and final despair.

 
There are problems, though. One of them is that the script is mainly plonking – only occasional faintly Wildean lines like “Lovely is where you go when Beauty has exhausted you”. And “People love you. Can you imagine how profitable that is?”. Another is that in the first act the corrupter – Harry – is played so preposterously, such a manic, gropey, pawing little horror, that you can’t believe this tall beauty would follow him anywhere, let alone to a party in The Hashtag Bar.

 
Another is that in the second act – possibly to soak up as big a cast as possible – there is too much confusing side-plot about urban regeneration, affordable housing, and someone called Jasper going broke; and that the quite striking character of Sybil Vane’s brother (Fabian McCallum) is not used as helpfully as he could have been. On the other hand the (lesbian) seduction of Sybil herself is well done, and there is a real spinechilling thrill in creating her as a Winehouseian dark-jazz chanteuse (songs by Ellie Bryans, who plays the part with moving conviction). Stuart Wilde is good as the bastardly branding-guru who eventually – dontcha know it, this is yoof talking – gets a safe Tory seat in Parliament. And the final disintegrated face on the screen – video designs by Simon Eves – is splendidly nasty. Must give the gorgeous Ms Kennedy nightmares when she thinks about it….

 
box office 084 4811 2334 to 29 Nov
Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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