SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE – Noel Coward Theatre SW1

RUFF TRADE….

 
Young Shakespeare, a struggling player and playwright, falls for the upper-class Viola de Lesseps, not knowing that she has dressed as a boy to join his cast. She is to be given in marriage to a boorish aristocrat, and it all goes wrong enough to inspire him to write Romeo And Juliet.

 
Mills & Boon stuff? You betcha. The film was pop-schlock: posters blaring “love is the only inspiration” – but was redeemed by the wit of co-author Tom Stoppard, with sly theatrical in-jokes and pleasurably recognizable references: a Banquo moment, a Malvolio moment, an Othello joke. Now it gains another authorial layer: the stage premiere is adapted by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliott, and directed with fun-loving brio by Declan Donnellan. Whose only real mistake is letting it run a good ten minutes too long.

 
He adds one particularly precious gift. The film’s Oscar-winning Viola was Gwyneth Paltrow: glacially glamorous but not noted for humour. Whereas Donnellan has cast that gorgeously antic spirit and adornment of the RSC, Lucy Briggs-Owen. She is that rare mixture, a sly comedienne who is also an honest conduit of emotional truth. I am less sure about Tom Bateman’s Will, but it is not a cherishable part: a sulky hunk dependent on Kit Marlowe (a nice ironic David Oakes) for his best ideas but oafishly giving Kit’s name to get himself out of trouble. He conceals the existence of his wife and twins at Stratford from his trusting virginal admirer, and succumbs to self-pity when Marlowe is killed. Even in a pastiche, this combination of caddishnesses makes it dangerously hard to believe in the great words and sentiments emanating from him.

 

Great cameos,though. Colin Ryan is the creepy boy Webster who loves corpses, Ferdy Roberts the backer “I am the money!” seduced by the offer of a bit-part and fretting about his hat; Henslowe and Burbage the rival impresarios, and Anna Carteret coolly magnificent as Queen Elizabeth The in-jokes keep on coming: rehearsals full of “insurmountable obstacles on the way to immiment disaster”, funny auditions, and Henslowe’s wailing insistence that a play needs comedy, love interest “and a dog”. The dog is real, and achieves glory near the end (I assume Alistair Petrie has a portion of steak secreted up his gallygaskins to create one pleasing moment. It also permits the line “out damned Spot” (should have cast a dalmatian).

 
At times it did all feel like a we-know-Shakespeare sixth-form revue, though Briggs-Owen’s balance of exuberant clowning and real sharp emotion always raises it. But Donnellan deftly manages the switchback between well-rendered tragic verse and bathos, and there are splendid fights, especially the stage-fencing rehearsal which degenerates into a real brawl.

 
It is beautifully set within a section of Elizabethan theatre, balconies serving for domestic – and, of course, balcony – scenes; conversations are held in circling, stamping galliards, and group compositions are fit to paint. There’s also a nice conceit whereby non-participants hang around on the galleries watching scenes. Paddy Cunneen composes the incidental music (on which rather too much of the mood depends): the songs oddly shrill but the instrumentals mellow.

 
So who’s it for? Teenagers will enjoy the permission to roust and laugh about the too-often sacred Bard, summer visitors score a Shakespeare-lite experience without getting rained on, fighting for a parking spot in Stratford or having to puzzle over which Lord is which and why the sentences work backwards. I really wanted to love it, and thank it for some laughs and for Briggs-Owen. But to be honest it isn’t quite funny enough, or quite clever enough, or quite touching enough.

 
box office 020 7400 1234

rating:  three     3 Meece Rating

 

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AMADEUS Chichester Festival Theatre

DIVINITY AND DEADLY HATRED

 

 

One day someone will put Milton’s Paradise Lost on stage and cast Rupert Everett as Satan, the bitter archangel. For now he is Peter Shaffer’s Salieri: court composer to Emperor Joseph of Austria. Here is a functionary ploddingly competent in his task of “ceremonializing the mediocrity” of a stultifying court, but who has dreamed childhood that he would write something transcendent and“blaze like a comet across Europe” to the glory of heaven. He made a bargain at sixteen with the deity of the frescoes in his native Italy: not the soppy compassionate long-haired Christs but the “old, candlesmoked God the Father.” He swore to do good works and be chaste in return for that divine gift.

 

God threw it back at him. Exalted music did spring in that 18th century court: a miracle of “crushed harmonies, glancing collisions, agonizing delights: an absolute beauty”. But it was not Salieri who wrote it but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: a childish, obscenely foul-mouthed, capering sensualist with a high infuriating giggle who “without even setting down his billiard cue” is somehow visited with music perfect, complete, and immortal. With still bitterer irony, it is Salieri himself who is first doomed to recognize its greatness while the court dullards say “too many notes”. Enraged at the unfairness like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, he sabotages and undermines the ebullient young man’s career and bring him to an early death.

 

The brilliance of Shaffer’s play, immaculately served by Jonathan Church’s cast, is not particularly in the plot – which is linear, a downhill slope – or even in the powerful raging jealousy of its antihero. It lies in the identification of a particular and individual agony: a man with deep belief in the transcendent and a gift of rare artistic perception who cannot rejoice in the art of another because it is not his own. Everett – tall, gaunt, hot-eyed, quivering with fastidious distaste for the clownish romping Mozart – expresses that “agonizing delight” in his finest stage performance to date. On the night I saw him he seemed to be fighting vocal problems, but in a performance this finely judged moments of hoarseness actually added to that terrible sense of discord, a croaking envy. Fits the play’s time-frame too: for this is an old, wispily grey man telling us his story. In unfussy transformations – a swift dark wig and a straightening back – rhe re-enacts the time 32 years before when his hatred flowered.

 

The play, though, does not all stand or fall only with this towering portrait. Joshua McGuire’s Mozart – a head shorter than the black-coated, pallid, square-browed Everett – is perfect; a rounded, rosy-lipped romping sensualist, irritating and shrill, flawed and human conduit for divine music (which Church uses judiciously, without the overkill which marred the film). In his last moments McGuire achieves profound pathos, as does Jessie Buckley as his wife Constanza: a little common, earthily sensible, defiantly devoted. All three performances shine; around them a perfectly judged court swirls and hisses, Simon Janes particularly funny as the philistine Emperor.

 

It is, altogether, a beautiful start for the recreated Festival theatre: Simon Higlett’s open design expresses with palatial simplicity both Mozart’s glittering splendour and Salieri’s imprisoning darkness: six glittering chandeliers rise and fall before tall dim windows, and the opening moment is a thing of masked, hissing figures: “Ssss…sssalieri…asssasssin…” around the bitter old man’s hooded chair. When Everett rises and conjures up the witnesses of history – us, curving around him in the great arena – the house lights go up . And we are, in the timeless theatrical miracle, involved.

 

box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312 to 2 August
Sponsored by Harwoods Group and Oldham Seals Group
Rating : four    4 Meece Rating

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MEDEA – National Theatre, SE1

IN WHICH GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS MUCH TO ENJOY, AND ONLY A LITTLE TO MOAN ABOUT

It is always exciting to have a new Medea, possibly the most controversial of all Euripides’ tragedies, documenting a crime still felt to be fundamentally shocking and unnatural: and Ben Power has given us a tense, profound and horrifying Medea which recalls Euripides’ original closely in mood and pace. The simple clarity of Power’s text brings the play easily to new audiences, and while it doesn’t quite have the acid brilliance of Euripides’ wordplay, Power still treats us to occasional moments of real poetry (childbirth is “the unknown agonies where life and death dance together”). Meanwhile, Carrie Cracknell’s fast, dynamic production gives us an urgent sense of the inexorability of Medea’s terrible outcome. Designed by Tom Scutt, the split-level set subtly recalls a classical temple in shape, with Jason’s second wedding going on upstairs in an appropriately-fragile-looking glass box (complete with cake, flowers and white piano), while below in Medea’s house the peeling walls, eerie garden and sparse furniture speak of opulence run dry. Scutt’s elegant costumes fit this changing mood: the Chorus are prim bridesmaids one moment, dark horrors the next,  partly thanks to inspired lighting by Lucy Carter.

Helen McCrory is luminous and magnetic as Medea, showing us all her seductive qualities and sensitively unravelling her descent into murder in a powerfully intelligent, vibrant performance. We can see and feel the deftness with which Medea manipulates all the men (and women) around her: the warmth with which she meets her saviour-to-be, Aegeus (the brilliant Dominic Rowan), whose fatal mention of childlessness gives Medea the idea for Jason’s ultimate punishment, gives real verve and significance to a scene which could otherwise have felt merely convenient. Danny Sapani is an appropriately smug, weak and self-justifying Jason, turning up to drink Medea’s whisky and patronisingly flourish his chequebook at the problem: Sapani carefully exposes Jason’s drastic underestimation of Medea, even managing to gain our sympathy at times. The bitter antipathy of a modern divorce in progress bristles nicely between them, with all its petty vindictiveness and messy emotional history sharply delineated.

Lucy Guerin’s choreography is assured, with a great deal of disciplined twitching and jerking: while superbly executed, this danse macabre often distracts our eye from the protagonists, and only truly fits the sentiment of the fifth ode (just before the children are killed). The intention behind their movements is that the Chorus evoke Medea’s state of mind: the effect is that the Chorus are drained of personality in order to become ciphers for Medea’s emotion. Given the ferocious psychological power of McCrory’s Medea, we don’t need the Chorus to gild this lily: much of Euripides’ human interest in the Chorus’ own predicament, as stateless refugees who will be victims of whatever Medea decides, is consequently lost, though their dancing and singing are immaculate. The music, by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, is often beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric, but tends to overflow at times into a cinematic expanse of swelling emotion which can’t honestly fit the compressed, neurotic and psychotic world of Euripides’ masterpiece.

Nevertheless, McCrory’s fiercely brilliant central performance makes Ben Power’s threatening, thought-provoking Medea a must-see.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

At the National Theatre until 4 September: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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RICHARD III – Trafalgar SW1

LOCK, STOCK, AND NO BARRELS OF MALMSEY                The Bard Mouse width fixed
A credit in the programme for “fish care and health” answers one distracting question about Jamie Lloyd’s rackety production. “Do goldfish mind fake blood?” . For the Duke of Clarence (Mark Meadows, after a fine rendering of the famous drowning-dream) meets his end not in a butt of Malmsey but in a fishtank. With added stabbing.

His murder is a fairly brisk affair (possibly so as not to upset the fish). Later there is a prolonged, Tarantino-screaming torture of Rivers (Joshua Lacey in a sky-blue suit and Geordie twang), and an almost pornographically prolonged grunting strangulation of Lady Anne. Richard himself does that, on an office table under an Anglepoise lamp. Just as well there’s an 18+ warning: the murderous usurper is Martin Freeman, beloved as Bilbo Baggins.

The murdered princes are represented, thank God, only by Tyrrel reappearing covered in so much gore one suspects him of massacring a passing buffalo on the way back. Hastings is beheaded offstage, enabling Lloyd to commission another of his bloodsoaked plastic heads, as in in his ferocious 2013 Macbeth.

For this production is aimed fair and square at the action-movie generation (excellent ticket deals, £ 15 on Mondays) and Lloyd expresses the hope that many will not have seen theatre before, let alone Shakespeare. It is fast, violent and greatly appreciative of Richard’s black jokes and ironies. Frequently the cast pick up microphones and amplify part of a speech: this would work better if it either always indicated a public statement, or an inward thought. But illogically it does a bit of both, as if someone feared that the text itself might not keep us awake without occasionally becoming three times as loud. Though never as loud as Ben and Max Ringham’s bursts of soundscape, including at one point a few bars of the Ride of the Valkyries.

If these crudenesses are at the expense of depth, but thrill newcomers, they may be worth it. Freeman is a brisk staccato Richard, and with a few exceptions (mainly the women) the verse is treated with a brusque naturalism which gets the jokes and story across, but can jar. Notably it sabotages that most audacious of scenes where he woos Lady Anne over her husband’s still-bleeding corpse. A speedy, jerky manner entirely robs Freeman of the necessary nasty magnetism, the Richard charm: it makes her capitulation downright baffling. Most of the moments which really thrill are from Maggie Steed’s tremendous, cursing Queen Margaret and GinaMcKee as Elizabeth, who in the second act deploys a powerful,terrified, defiant grief while brutally gaffer-taped to an office chair.

Ah yes, the office furniture. Lloyd sets the play in 1970’s Britain, with programme notes on the CIA plot against Harold Wilson a. There are electric typewriters, an executive Newton’s Cradle toy clacks away, Jo Stone-Fewings’ Buckingham looks like a cartoon tax inspector, Simon Coombs is a gangsta Tyrell, and the little Duke of York bounces in on a Spacehopper. Whether this ‘70s setting will mean much to a younger audience I do not know: it might be wiser to set it in some indeterminate military coup. The text sometimes sits uneasily on the explicit office set, too, to the point when “My kingdom for a horse!” causes even the speaker to smirk.

But the ghosts before Bosworth (some promoted to hallucinations in the battle) are strikingly effective amid flashes, crashes and taserish crrrrkkkkK! effects; and Freeman does achieve real Shakespearian power in the reluctant self-horror of his “I am I” speech. It made up for a few earlier moments when one felt that he’d really be happier six feet under a Leicester council car park.

box office 0844 871 7632 to 27 September     http://www.trafalgartransformed.com

Rating: three   4 Meece Rating

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GET UP AND TIE YOUR FINGERS! Touring

FOLLOW THE HERRING,  SALUTE THE PAST 

 

 

That early morning cry that woke the herring lassies: women who, through the great days of the Victorian herring fisheries, met the fleet as it crowded into the east coast ports so dense that “you could cross the harbour boat to boat, dry-footed”. They had to tie rags round their fingers to protect them from the viciously sharp knives and from the preserving salt. The fast ones could gut a fish every second.

 
In Ann Coburn’s play – which has become immensely loved in these small places which remember their history – young Molly doesn’t want to gut herrings. She is bored at home with her dour mother Jean, who cleans obsessively. Molly loves to hear rorty tales from the widowed family friend Janet, who used to be a travelling herring-girl following the fleets from Scotland to Great Yarmouth with a “crew” of friends. They’d crowd the railway carriages, stamp through the towns in their heavy boots and scandalize the quiet locals with their laughter and liberty. Molly wants to see the world a bit, as they did; her mother wants to keep her close.

 
The play – touring through the summer down the coast from Musselburgh to Margate and beyond – is a simple thing, and a delight. In each town a local women’s choir forms and gathers around the principals, to sing the haunting score by Karen Wimhurst incorporating folksong and hymns and strange sea-harmonies. 400 women have learnt it over the run, and it creates a warm local involvement, palpable in the room, as the choir troop on in aprons and headscarves as their great-grandmothers might have done. I caught it in Great Yarmouth, in the fabulously restored church which is now St George’s Theatre. It rang to the rafters.

 
Fiona MacPherson of the Guild of Lillians directs with a straightforward unpretentious energy, confidently allowing deep tense silences and wordless moments of emotion. There is plenty of that, because the event at the heart of the play – once the women’s relationship and the fascinating niceties of their craft is established – is the disaster of October 1881. A hundred and twenty-nine men and boys were lost in a sudden storm, many of them swept to their death in clear view of the women waiting and hauling on the shore.

 
Years ago in a tapestry in Eyemouth museum, I discovered that two of my kinsmen were among the lost that night: Charles and James Purves (there aren’t that many of us with an -es, even in that border country). But even without that, anybody would be touched by this honest, gentle memorial to tough lives, courage and the endurance of women. Barbara Marten’s Jean is a superb, restrained performance with great depth: the tragedy of her own youth and the root of her anxiety only gradually unveiled but subtly apparent all through. Samantha Foley’s Molly is a delight, ingenue without a touch of selfconsciousness; and Sian Mannifield is a fiercely funny, warmly human Janet. It’s a treat. It’s as well worth the catching as the silver darlings themselves.

 

TOURING    Touring Mouse wide
Theatre Royal Margate 17-19 July / Quarterhouse Folkestone 25-26 / The Stade Hastings 31 July – 1 August.
Rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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JULIUS CAESAR – Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

BLOOD, POLITICS, RUFFS, AND TOGAS: MUCH TO DELIGHT GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI

The Globe audience are still filing in as the Roman rabble break into a raucous, drunken football chant of “Lupercal! Lupercal!”  And so Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Julius Caesar begins: organically, almost unassumingly, yet moving steadily into a reading of tension and power which finally makes the giggling groundlings fall silent, listen, and pause. Jonathan Fensom’s design is entirely in sympathy with this period-conscious theatre: his Romans wear Elizabethan ruffs and hose, even if they do throw a toga over the top to go the Senate. Meanwhile, some sharp choreography by Siân Williams, as well as slick delivery and seamless scene-shifting by the company, brings an energy which stops this production descending into fustiness.

Julius Caesar unpicks the psychology of assassination: its anticipation, in frenzied and anxious plotting, polarising political ideals; and its aftermath, in which mutual suspicion leads to betrayal, mistake and unbridled bloodshed. The constant jockeying for position between Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony is mesmerising, coming out clearly and movingly here in three memorable lead performances. Luke Thompson is a revelation as Mark Antony, winning the audience at his first playboy entrance (clutching his head in wry hungover glee), yet still keeping enough back to make his step-change in grief for Caesar truly terrifying: even in his anguish, we sense the political opportunist par excellence. Thompson delivers his Shakespeare in genuinely contemporary style without unsettling the flow or sense of his lines, revelling in his great speeches, and developing his character with satisfying depth and precision. Tom McKay makes a perfect foil as an earnest and sincere Brutus, who only becomes more fascinating as he grows more desperate. Anthony Howell moves Cassius skilfully from a strong, coherent and articulate start to his defensive, despairing end.

George Irving is a suave and sophisticated Julius Caesar, his elegant delivery tinged with a Transatlantic tone, reminding us how long Caesar has been away on campaign. A confident and charismatic leader, Irving’s stabbing (choreographed by Kevin McCurdy) is brilliantly horrible, the plotters falling instantly into disarray and panic. Cue bloodbath: and, especially in a nice twist in the final scene, Caesar is revenged indeed.

Joe Jameson depicts everyone from the young Augustus (Octavius) to a garrulous cockney shoemaker with enthusiasm, skill and disciplined distinction, always bringing presence even to his smaller parts. Catherine Bailey is clear, poised, subtle and animated as Portia. Katy Stephens plays Calpurnia with focused anxiety and beautiful delivery. Christopher Logan is an unforgettably saucy, camp and believable Casca, while Keith Ramsay is a delightfully sleepy, musical Lucius.

The Globe has its drawbacks: initial misplaced laughter from the audience is always one, and then we have the aeroplanes to contend with, and of course our own dear weather. But every time I go, the Globe stage produces something those other temples of culture, aesthetically sanitised with frowning connoisseurs, sometimes can’t: a freshness and pure physicality of performance, which can suddenly release the meaning of Shakespeare’s darkest moments – when you least expect it. This production is a perfect example.

- CHARLOTTE VALORI

At Shakespeare’s Globe (Box Office 020 7401 9919) until 11 October.

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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THE CRUCIBLE – Old Vic, SE1

THE GATES OF HELL CREAK OPEN…

 

It will haunt the memory for months, this profound, dark-lit, smoke-scented deep-booming production of Arthur Miller’s play. In the round arena it creates a ring of pity, guilt and judgement: the physically intense direction of Yael Farber makes Salem’s crazy diabolic terror rise again, as fresh as yesterday and as threatening as tomorrow. No need for updating: not in a world where women are murdered by their own families for marrying or converting, confessions are beaten out of suspects and even our milder law sees malicious denunciation, false memory, and a lust for scapegoats.

 

Miller wrote that when he approached the idea of expressing 1950’s McCarthyism through the 17c Salem witch trials, the “story’s lines of force were still tangled”. But that very tangling enriches the play. John Proctor (Richard Armitage in a commanding performance) has slept with the maid Abigail; when her hysterical accusations threaten his wife Elizabeth with the gallows, he fights with desperate self-reproach, and only through final degradation walks upright into dawn and death. That private tragedy, and the pair’s progress from delicate marital adjustment to terror, are given breathless intensity by Armitage and a fine-drawn Anna Madeley as his wife. But the wider tangle matters as much. Complex political, social and psychological subtleties jab at the sorest places in any society.

 

The action is driven by the religious witch-hunt, spreading beyond the village’s control: Christopher Godwin makes Judge Hathorne a striking-cobra of a man. But Miller underpins the ludicrous fanaticism about dolls and visions with hints of the small things that corrode communities: rows about pigs or lumber, poor crops and infant mortality feeding an instinct to purge and control which ends with orphans wandering the streets, cattle loose, crops rotting. Hard not to think of the Balkans.

 

The speed with which Miller plunges into tension is remarkable. After a sinister opening moment when in near-darkness the slave Tituba circles the stage with a smoking cauldron: soup or diabolic incense, depending on credulity. Then we are in the bedroom with Betty in a swoon, the other girls turning their evasive schoolgirl guilt into infectious hysteria, and the suspicion of witchcraft rapidly inflated by Rev.Hale, the pompous theological terrier with books where the very devil is “caught, defined, calculated”. Adrian Schiller as Hale is particularly impressive even in a cast as strong as this, his gradual loss of face and conviction dwindling him to remorse and horror before our eyes.

 

But the strength of this majestic, perfectly judged production lies in faithful perspective and contrast. After the first hysteria the Proctors in their kitchen provide a glimpse of sane, if uneasy, normality as they reach towards one another, trying without words to forget the adultery, laying the foundation of the heartrending closeness of their final prison moments. As for the ‘children’, girls led by the jilted Abigail in jerking, shouting, hair-tossing accusatory seizures, they display all the bodily ferocity which is this director’s trademark: somewhere between St Trinian’s and Bacchantes. Abigail is Samantha Colley: all glaring black-browed control, her decision to deploy her only weapon visibly growing from the moment she is rejected by her lover after a yearning “I have a sense for heat, John! you are no wintry man…” This ticking bomb is finally detonated by the fussy reproofs of the clerics, but Farber allows us brief levity as male horror at Betty’s faint is set against the calm of Goody Nurse (“She’ll wake when she’s tired of it!”). In this small but pivotal part Ann Firbank is unforgettable, a small pool of sanity amid the chaos.

 

Soutra Gilmour’s design is a masterpiece of smoky atmosphere, and Richard Hammarton’s soundscape cracks open Hell itself. But above all the beauty of Miller’s lines is relished, explored, set like jewels. “An everlasting funeral marches around your heart..” ”I have signed seventy-two death warrants, my hand shakes still, as with a wound”. Or the final admission of Proctor that he finds in himself “a shred of goodness. Not enough to weave a banner with”. But do weave one for this unstinting, profound production. It does honour both to Miller and to the Old Vic.

box office to 13 Sept
Supported: Bank of America Merrill Lunch / CQSspace/ pwc
rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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FORBIDDEN BROADWAY Menier, SE1

CAN YOU FEEL THE PAIN TONIGHT? NOT A BIT.

 

Miss Saigon rhymes with One Big Yawn, a tiny helicopter wobbles over the stage and the “Viet-numb” cast. A huge-breasted “Matthew Warchus Trunchbull” domineers over a flouncing oversized Matilda and tutu-ed Billy “I love exploiting children!”. Pajama-ed figures attempt a Hernando’s Hideaway, with torches.

 

Yes, it’s here! forget the World Cup and the Olympics: for some of us the longed-for event turning up only every few years is the latest Forbidden Broadway by Gerard Alessandrini and his confreres. Musicals addicts – audiences, performers, obsessively completist critics – cram onto the Menier’s benches to cheer and hoot at parodies, subtle musical jokes and unsubtle horseplay guying our beloved shows.

 
I say beloved, because the curious thing is that the more you liked the original show, the more joy is in the send-up. Particularly with four such remarkable performers – Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis – who can not only sing like birds but have a rare and rich ability to parody themselves and their musicality in the process. Indeed the better the show targeted, the longer and more loving is the insult.

 
Thus Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gets just a brief, withering moment (“And now Alex Jennings will show us his Willie”) with “Pure Imagination” rightly guyed as lacking any. The Book of Mormon is dealt with by its creators Parker and Stone in white shirts crooning “I believe” in inflated ticket prices, clumsy lyrics, obscenity and their own lyrics. Mamma Mia gets a quick blast of “Super stupor” and Spamalot’s joke “Song that goes like this” is borrowed wholesale on the grounds that Eric Idle stole the idea in the first place.

 
But Sondheim gets an affectionate attempt to make us sing along to a high-speed patter song “Into the Words”, and the Les Miserables sequence is glorious. Its target is the show’s very longevity, as the cast shuffle woodenly round an imaginary revolve and Casey explains that when you get rotated upstage to the darkness “behind the Miserubble” the only way to stay sane is to text your mates (“On my phooone” she croons). “Bring him Home” becomes – in skilled falsetto – a plea to bring the damn thing down a key; “Master of the House” becomes a furious resentment at a half-empty matinee…

 
Other shows get a fiercer stiletto between the ribs. Like Jersey Boys (“Walk like a man, sing like a girl..”) and a memorable Act 2 opener of Humbley in Lion King regalia with a saucepan and Mickey-mouse on his head, while miserable animal characters lurch around in surgical collars spinally oppressed by their enormous headdresses. “Can you feel the pain tonight?”. There are generic sendups too: a hypermanic Liza Minnelli, prim Julie Andrews, Patti Lupone and indeed Cameron Mackintosh humping the piano in glee at the international profits. But the jewel of the evening – which quite made up for the unaccountable absence of a Stephen Ward sequence – is a marvellous take on “Once”.

 
Again I felt that curious hate-to-love, love-to-hate alchemy: I actually adored Once, with its mournful Irishry, unresolved romance and that huge “Falling Slowly” song as the bar-room band joined in. Yet there was a cathartic pleasure in seeing Lewis’ exaggeratedly morose guitar-bashing resolving bathetically into Frere Jacques with an appalling recorder-and-accordion accompaniment and leprechaun capering. It’s all bliss. And noisy. And cruel. And camp. And welcome back!
box office 0207 378 1713 to 16 August
sponsor: Pinsent Masons
rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS Southwark Playhouse, SE1

AN AMBULANCE RIDE:   A CITY’S HEARTBEAT

 

 

Some theatre enterprises are quixotic, site-specific, small-scale immersive and probably economically ruinous. Gotta love them: especially if the message and experience they deliver is worth it. This time it is: Curious Directive, under Jack Lowe (who directs) and Russell Woodhead (co-writer) have produced in a one-hour touring show for the Norfolk and Norwich festival a moving, thought-provoking take on the modern NHS and the legacy of Nye Bevan . Paradoxically, it hits home harder than Max Stafford-Clark’s recent bigger, angrier play This May Hurt A Bit.

 

Five of us at a time – better book early, only six shows a day – are loaded into an ambulance, issued with radio headphones and jolted off round South London streets (a trajectory is convincingly projected on the rear door). A young paramedic, Lisa (Emily Lloyd-Saini) travels with us: it is her first night shift out of training, exciting but daunting after working in a callcentre. Calls appear onscreen – lacerations, embarrassments, heart attacks. We hear 999 calls. Lisa fidgets, snaps her latex gloves on “in six seconds!”, folds towels, checks equipment, wipes bloodstains from the walls. Unseen, the older, seen-in-all virago Sylvia argues and reminisces in our ear, presumably from the wheel Sometimes she vents a cynical angry callousness about the decline of the NHS and the feeble rising generation like Lisa. But in contact with patients we hear her as a miracle of practised, tender tact and reassurance.

 

For there are patients. No spoilers, but at several stops, cast members (some local volunteers) appear as the rear door is flung open. Each of us in turn is beckoned by Lisa to join her. Cleverly, we are gestured to perform small, uninvasive services – wiping of the ‘patient’s’ face, for instance – while on the headphones rather more alarming things are being done. Our small contribution, symbolic as it is, brings home the intimacy of paramedic work. I got the drunk clubber girl in a onesie, falling off her chair and using the wrong end of the hairbrush. There’s another outbreak of bickering as the ambulance moves on. Sylvia despises the urban drunks; Lisa protests “Everyone in that club gets up and goes to a job they hate”.

 

We jolt on (covering, I suspect, less than two blocks in reality) hearing the argument and following Lisa’s thoughts which on call sometimes rise to a Dylan-Thomasish urgency – “Red lights. Rail Bridge. Two lanes. One land. Skoda, Volvo, Tesco – dirt track, double back, rucksack, out-the back!” Lloyd-Saini delivers this beautifully; but so do all the unseen performers, Sarah Woodward’s Sylvia is particularly powerful in her pragmatically poetic reflections on what her old boots have seen and done since the ‘60s, what lives her busy hands have touched, saved, or consoled in dying.

 

And yes, there is a story, and it rises to a dramatic climax. Theatre requires that. But the high drama is not what you take away: rather the doggedness, dedication, weary kindness, common humanity.

 
Box office           020 7407 0234 / southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 16 July
supported by Norwich Playhouse, ACE and the Wellcome Trust
RATING:  FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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WONDERLAND Hampstead NW3

THIRTY YEARS ON: A TRIBUTE TO THE MEN OF THE MINES

 

 

Down the dark pit, Bible-bred men quote the Book of Job. “He putteth forth his hand upon the rock; he overturneth the mountains by the roots. God was a miner!” A rattling cage brings up singing men. A square-cut pit yawns beneath ladders, gratings and pit-props, a hot deep hell within a giant arc of grimy steel. Ed Hall has made his theatre into a hospital, a running-track, a spacecraft and a Kinks gig. Now it’s a Nottinghamshire coalmine.

 
For Beth Steel’s play marks thirty years since the bitter miners’ strike, the 1984 clash of wills between Thatcher’s Friedmanite free-market economics and the stubbornness of Arthur Scargill, who unprecedentedly called a national strike without a ballot. Communities were fractured, families impoverished, long hatreds bred. Now, as schools at last are told to teach the culture of the white working-class, and while we celebrate the humble heroes of WW1, this anniversary too is fitting.

 
Steel’s theme is the gap between political decisions and the mining communities’ inherited pride in graft and craft – even if, economically, pits made less sense than before. In the first act, apprentices of sixteen are lashed into shape by the gaffer (Paul Brennen, credibly tough). Men josh, stripped to boots and underpants in immense heat. Above and around them stroll the masters, impervious: Michael Cochrane as the American Ian MacGregor, Andrew Havill as a more hesitant Peter Walker. “The public are fond of the miners. They’re seen as the backbone of the working class”. “I don’t believe in class” snaps the American. They are not caricatured (though it is hard to play Nicholas Ridley straight without sounding like one, and Paul Cawley does it justice). There are moments of artful contrast; in one of the many deafening rockfalls the power goes off : the scared voices of the new boys as they dangle helpless in the cage are counterpointed by Walker’s “The government is hanging by a thread..”.

 
The story runs from the first disingenuous NCB reassurances through closures, the strike call, flying pickets, and the Battle of Orgreave. Steel reminds us of other events – the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher while we still badly needed Gaddafi’s oil, and the Brighton hotel bombing which for all its horror enabled the Prime Minister to talk of enemies within, and to heroicize her stand against the NUM too.

 
But this is not agitprop but a memorial, a replaying of ironies , follies and the sweet sad music of humanity. Steel’s text is well served by Ed Hall’s direction (Ashley Martin-Davis designs, Scott Ambler choreographs stirring movement, and the mining ballads are restrainedly moving. ) Scargill’s folly is acknowledged as much as the government’s savagery (no sacked strikers were reinstated). The preposterous figure of David Hart, ‘undercover stirrer of anti-strike feeling, needs little exaggeration, and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart allows him to provide a sour kind of light relief. And it is, amazingly, true that pitman Spud (Gunnar Cauthery) ,who rejected the unballoted strike, ended up as Hart’s chauffeur.

 
It is not mawkish, though as Christmas approaches the pitmen’s shamed poverty is painful, as proud men scavenging coal-fragments are caught by a security guard, fearing for his own job (nicely, it’s Cawley again). The sense of old pride scorned and humbled is quietly painful. So is the bitterness (the BBC had to apologize for biased reporting of Orgreave, the strike cost billions and was looked on with disgust by fellow European countries). But it makes a piece of thrilling and personal theatre.

 
box office 020 7722 9301 to 26 July    Supported by Lin & Ken Craig

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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