In quiet England we stand in silence. In Australia, at least in this play, they shout it from the rooftops and down it from the bottle. ANZAC day – a day to remember Galipoli. A tragic loss. I had genuinely never heard an intelligent discussion on the purpose of remembrance until tonight.

Pride beams from father Alf – a slurry, sweaty, hilarious but not in the least bit cartoonish Aussie alpha male – but talk of ‘waste’ drips from his freshly educated son, Hughie. Deep-rooted pride and freshly-potted disgust – war years and university years – are pitted against each other with the arrival of a girlfriend. She has yachtING friends, pearls and, like all well-bred folk, a flagrant disregard for manners or feelings. ‘Ideas’ have been brought to the kitchen table for the first time. They saved all this money to send him to university and this is their superficial prize.

Mother and father (Alf and Dot), played with steamingly raw and touchingly real emotion by Mark Little and Fiona Press, see all the ambition and hope they transplanted into their son dashed. A family of ‘no hopers’ ,and their one sprout of hope has turned against them. Alan Seymour’s play struggles to get a grip of this argument at first. The dialogue slides past without you noticing as no one really says anything other than platitudes about class, family and ANZAC day. The set’s simplicity and the twinkly inter-scene piano music gives it the whiff of something to doze to.

But as the arguments start it takes hold, as pride and ambition’s tangible effect is rolled out. Hughie, played simply but very well by James William Wright, ties all this nicely together as the arbiter of argument and reconciliation. You see his frustration, but behind it his thanks as well. Some flatter lines persist, but feel fuller in this talented cast’s mouths. The director, Wayne Harrison, keeps it moving though, perfectly driving the shoebox space, trapping us as tensions rise. It is easy at first to mistake the play’s simplicity as spare padding from a slow week of Neighbours. It feels very kitchen-sink, but it has far more to say. A war-career that will never be topped is clung to, a lack of purpose realized, family support rediscovered , a history is properly appreciated. A beautiful and delicate knit.
Until 13th June. Box Office: 020 7244 7439
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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McQUEEN St James’ Theatre, SW1

“What is it about men with watching eyes…?” asks the ghost of Isabella Blow, she of the troubled soul and hilariously witty hats. One such man was the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who like his friend and patron finally killed himself. At one point in this fantastical, flawed, but sincere and spectacular play by James Phillips he demonstrates those watching eyes. He invites a crass journalist interviewing him (usual stuff – misogyny, violent perverse imagery, commercial priorities) to describe a nearby woman. She snaps “Thirtyish. Blonde hair. Five foot seven” but he goes off on a page-long riff, lovingly reading character, vulnerability, needs and dreams into the tilt of her head and the angle of her shoulder and leg. And suddenly you are moved to respect the eye of an artist who sees and imagines and wants to give that woman a transformation and a strength. The real McQueen’s sister – who has approved this evocation of the artist – says that he wanted people to be “frightened” of the women he dressed: he had, in childhood, seen her beaten up by an abusive man. Beauty to him was not fragility but power.

The play is not a biography but an imagining, based on the designer’s idea of a woman coming down from a tree in the garden and being empowered by a dress. It uses dramatic projections and marvellous balletic interludes of head-bandaged dancers who are sometimes alive,sometimes mannequins, creating very McQueeny tableaux of pompadours, shiny tutus, wrestling, skeletons, men in weird corsets etc (David Farley designs; Christopher Marney choreographs, and all the music is from the designer’s real shows). In ninety minutes Phillips whirls us through one night in London as McQueen remembers his tailoring apprenticeship, the moment when crazy, visually brilliant Isabella Blow bought up his entire graduation collection, and the experience of coming out front-stage to wave, spent and nervous at the end of his own spectacular shows , “A bloke in the worst clothes in the room, trying to stop his hand from shaking”.
At the heart of it is a very fine performance by Stephen Wight as “Lee” – McQueen’s real name : shaven-headed and booted, a tired, creatively blocked, drunk and druggy at a low point. The girl Dahlia (Dianna Agron from Glee) is less successful, which is not entirely her fault. Phillips has created her as American, gabby, self-absorbed, suicidal and, truth to tell, very annoying. Especially in the long opening scene: it takes great skill to write scenes where a kooky girl invades and challenges a troubled gay man: Breakfast at Tiffany’s it ain’t. There’s one funny line when she mocks him for responding to an intruder by ringing Philip Treacy (“a milliner?” – “He makes very aggressive hats” protests McQueen). But as Dahlia drones on about her loneliness and depression and how she “doesn’t get” Shakespeare and feels like Lee’s twin soul, you itch to slap her.

Things improve the less we see of this mouthy muse – a good scene with his old tailoring boss, and a moving, credible encounter with poor Isabella Blow. But Dahlia becomes central again when we learn that she is, in fact, suicidal and that it is his art (and a fabulous winged gold coat) which may save her, because “There is beauty..Survive the night!”.
The interlude with her, after Blow and being aware of McQueen’s final end, borders on the perilous territory of suicide-glamorizing. It only just dodges it, thanks to the solidity and sincerity of WIght’s performance. Not least in his encomium to his mother: “Brave like a lion. Faces life every day and doesn’t back down She is real. We should learn to live from people, yes?” Yes.

box office 0844 264 2140 to 6 June
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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FANNY AND STELLA Above the Stag, Vauxhall SW8

“The Unnatural History and Petticoat Mystery of Boulton and Park” cries the Victorian poster. “Men in Women’s Clothes – with Decision of the Magistrate”. In 1871, 143 years before Grayson Perry rolled up at the Palace to get a CBE dressed as “mother of the bride” they were a sensation: two lads of 22 and 24 arraigned for their habit of extending their rather ropey theatrical careers into cross-dressing in public places “with intent to commit a felony”.

To be honest, there s little doubt that the ‘felony’ was a part of their lives (cue a rousing opening chorus of “Sodomy On The Strand!” but intriguingly, a quarter-century before the Oscar Wilde conviction, they got off, after a year’s bail and six-day trial. And so did their more malely clad companions and lovers. Frederick, or “Fanny” Park’s father was a longsuffering judge (whose other son did hard labour for feeling up an unwilling policeman). And a combination of legal chicanery, skimmed-over medical evidence and dismissal of love letters as “boyish” meant that the jury spent less than an hour out.

Somehow, the pair slipped through the loophole between official Victorian propriety and the equally Victorian weakness for larky young men and music-hall romps. They were, after all, arrested in the Strand Theatre and appeared next morning in Bow Street Magistrate’s Court still in evening gowns. Irresistible. And a gift of a subject. Glenn Chandler (creator of Taggart on TV) attacks it with relish, writing the play-with-songs as if the pair are telling their story at a working men’s club, brilliantly hosted by Phil Sealey in a superbly curled moustache and sideburns. He is repeatedly forced into doing walk-ons as judge, aged solicitor, Scottish landlady etc. Mark Gee Finch, lanky and beaky, is Fanny / Edward; bouncily pretty Robert Jeffery is Ernie/ Stella. Both are competent singers and dancers as they break into a shuffle or belt out cod musichall numbers like “Has anybody seen my Fanny?”; and both are a delight to look at whether as elegant males or pie-frilled, bustled, oddly dignified laydeez. Alongside them James Robert Moore plays their dissolute protector, Lord Arthur MP and bankrupt; Christopher Bonwell is Louie, who loves Ernie but wishes he’d dress male and not embarrass him; and Alexander Allin the American consul, also in pursuit.

Jeffery and Bonwell are given most opportunity to express the genuine emotional difficulties of the situation before arrest: Stella particularly, pressed to get back in the closet and dress as a man, explodes “I want to be what I want to be!”. But you don’t go to this show in search of Cage-aux Folles sorrow and ambiguity, or the deep seriousness of The Act. Nor, really, even very much indignation. It’s done for larks, and the Above the Stag audience (next show, RENT BOY THE MUSICAL) whooped with glee at the discreet but explicit medical examination in the prison scene. The attempt of the MC to treat evidence as “of a medical nature and unfit to print” is undermined by a reporter howling out its precise nature.
The second act is best, after the arrest; the lads’ relationships being not that interesting earlier on, and the knife-edge peril of their daily excursions not clear until the actual arrest (Sealey springs into action as a detective). The two best songs by Chandler and composer Charles Miller come late too: a lovely alphabet riff on the Writ of Certiorari which saves them, and a rip-roaring praise of the mother’s evidence that her lad (Stella) is theatrical not – um – felonious. And it’s good to see Above the Stag relocated with a swish and a swagger to these arches in Vauxhall, and for this show decked out beautifully by David Shields’ design: it becomes an ornate music-hall in which characters enter and exit through huge wardrobes. Closets, geddit?
Box Office: to 14 June
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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We are short of good political playwrights: they tend to hail from the left and be either depressingly prosey or brainlessly ‘bouffon’ (ISLANDS at this very theatre is a memory to purge). But now we have James Graham. A self-described political ‘geek’, he does not start from partisan anger , though there is in his work great humanity and seriousness. Rather his shtick is fascination with ideas: how they grip people, and get them enmeshed in the complex political and pratical world and go awry. THIS HOUSE was set in the painful hung parliament of 1974; TORY BOYZ centred on a gay, working-class northern Conservative researcher; THE VOTE celebrated the oddity of the polling-station. This time he looks at 1971-2, and Scotland Yard’s hunt for the “Angry Brigade” anarchists. Marvellously retro (he’s talkin’ bout my generation – Mateus Rosé and grungy people in squats grinding on about how women having to do ironing is “The most violent act imaginable” . But in the modern age of Occupy and the Russell-Brand tendency, not to mention jihadis, it is also thrillingly topical.

Graham has researched and reimagined both the police operation and the lives, writings and ideas of the young bomb-makers who targeted banks, police, a minister’s home, the Post Office Tower and the 1970 Miss World pageant. The result, directed with vigour and toughness by James Grieve, is a marvellous play: as rich in ideas as a pudding in plums, compassionate and serious and dryly funny and fascinating. Produced by Paines Plough and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, it has toured and is reworked and cast for the Bush. Two acts use the same four players: first we meet a Scotland Yard unit led by an abruptly promoted DS Smith (Mark Arends) because the bosses feel that only young people can get into the mindset of the terrorists, who fit no familiar criminal template.

He is joined by Morris, snarky and bored (Harry Melling, always good value) and two WPCs who find difficulty not saluting (Pearl Chanda and Lizzy Watts). They read the rebels’ favourite tracts, listen to their music, at one point go into a surreal orgiastic dance of excitement as deduction gets close. Melling and Watts double as witnesses and suspects, and overhead projections show the printed, cardboard threats of the Brigadeers.
There are funny moments – as when “Camden” is breathed with horror as a place where dodgy types hang out – and good aperçus like Morris’ grasp that “the political spectrum is not a line from left to right, it’s a circle . When you go as far left as communism, which believes in equality and classlessness, the tyranny required to enforce such a change moves it all the way back to right-wing fascism” . An anarchist under questioning complains that the British police don’t fight back. “Other countries, we charge, they charge back. But you lot, you stand there rigid in your lines, smiling…the lines will hold. They’ve held for centuries, Nothing to see here’. (ah the nostalgia!)

After the interval the same four play the central Brigade group, holed up in an East London house, three middle-class and one – (Melling again) a working-class Northerner. Each is reacting to a different childhood rage. The interplay is tense, touching, mixing weakness, sincerity, anger, quailing doubt , arrogance, and anarchic nonsense (“Why do there have to be walls?”). No spoilers, but it moves towards an inevitable end when young lawbreakers and young enforcers must meet. Rising manic energy, a bomb-crashing of steel filing cabinets and wild careering through the auditorium are delicately interwoven with tenderness, doubt and sadness. It’s brilliant.

BOX OFFICE 020 8743 5050 to 13 June.
rating    four     4 Meece Rating

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Joe Stilgoe the piano man holds the stage as we settle, receiving a fusillade of unhelpful audience requests (“Bolero! Summertime! Pink Panther! Prokoffiev’s ninth!” – that last from Andrew Marr, cheeky monkey). Brilliantly, he delivers them simultaneously, singing Summertime over Bolero chords, and getting audience participation in Fever. Crafty to set a cabaret mood  before we get down to business with “Come see the rich of Oyster Bay / On this their daughter’s wedding day!” as the silver piano sinks ingeniously into the floor.

Some of us needed persuading: for all the glory of Louis Armstrong, Sinatra and Bing, I never enthused about the 1956 film : Grace Kelly draped on that yacht crooning True Love felt like being pelted with marshmallows. Didn’t even like the play The Philadelphia Story, one of Kevin Spacey’s first productions here. Caring about the romantic troubles of the East Coast plutocracy is not automatic: so what if Tracy is marrying the wrong man, misses her first husband and gets drunkenly entangled with an undercover reporter? Brittle high-society needs Coward wit or period distance not to irritate.

But this – Spacey’s last hurrah as Artistic Director – is a different beast from film or play: Arthur Kopit’s book has access to extra Cole Porter songs, with all their bitter-sentimental ambiguities and yearnings. Director Maria Friedman has cast it cannily and enlists Nathan Wright’ s athletic, joyful storming, whirling choreography and fabulous Tom Pye designs (I am a bit of a pushover for people tap-dancing on silver pianos, it’s a weakness). So once it gets going – the first act, to be brutal, still needs a trim – Friedman finds the real gold, an emotional reality in the wayward heroine, in the tough lovelorn girl reporter (Annabel Scholey) and even in the repentant adulterous paterfamilias. Above all, Kate Fleetwood as Tracy eschews all temptation to easy ingenue charm, evoking a tough egg who has been round the block a few times and is well on the way to being a discontented rich-bitch. So when she sings “Once upon a Time” and softens, melting into memory of sailing days with Dexter – the True Love – there is suddenly real feeling. He lean on the orchestra rail above, she watches a model cutter glide slowly across the floor (poor sail-trim, but pretty). And in the second half, Kopit brilliantly places Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me” as a serious dramatic moment.

All the singing is bang on: Rupert Young is Dexter, hampered by the essential dullness of any romantic hero, Jamie Parker has wicked fun with Mike, Jeff Rawle totters and taps gloriously as daft Uncle Willy and and Richard Grieve as Kittredge the wrong-groom looks pleasingly like Michael Howard, with an apt air of pained dignity. And the ensemble is tremendous, the formal maids and butlers a character in their own right.
The Vic is still “in-the-round’, a beloved Spacey innovation, and the arena – with cast dashing in from all directions – gives an unexpected warmth and immediacy . We are a circle of witnesses to a lantern-lit night by the pool, to awful hangovers (Fleetwood hilarious as a drunk, and even better as an appalled morning-after bride shoved anyhow into her wedding dress) . Most spectacular of all, we are sitters-out, enthralled, at the tremendous ball. That Act 2 opener is fifteen minutes of explosive, butterfly-bright spectacle not to be missed: what with the firework light effects, the tap routines, the multicoloured taffeta explosion, double-bass-twirling and crazy brush-percush, and what I can only describe as a bout of competitive homo-erotic piano duetting. Well, you had to be there. As Tracy says about the yacht, it’s designed with care, built with love, and emerges “easy to handle, quick on the helm”. Fit for Kevin Spacey’s last sail into the Old Vic sunset. We thank him.
box office 0844 8717628 to 20 August

Rating four    4 Meece Rating

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…Which is to say, the question of whether time-travel would enable you to change the past, hence the present, via parallel universes of possibility. Sir Alan Ayckbourn confected this odd , ultimately enchanting tale of thriller-noir skulduggery by a greedy financier and his murderous sidekick.  Thanks to a hotel-suite closet proving to be a portal into the past in twenty-year increments, doughty female practicality from two doomed wives and a leather-clad tart overcomes evil and safeguards the future. Except, naturally, for the preposterous baddie, played by David Bamber with a camp menace equalled only (Ah, memories!) by Kenneth Williams doing his send-up of Charles Boyer in GASLIGHT in Round the Horne.

In classic Ayckbourn mode it begins with a slow burn, establishing – by way of a dying man improbably hiring a dominatrix to witness his confession – a back-story which is destined to be disrupted by time-travellers from twenty and forty years earlier (pay attention there at the back! Actually, don’t bother: Lindsay Posner’s direction and Ayckbourn’s courteous clarity keep matters perfectly comprehensible, even once the time capsule cupboard starts rotating).

The play speeds up no end once scientific impossibility and determined women take over control: for it has three of the larkiest imaginable female comedy drama roles.
Rachel Tucker is the prostitute Poopay, condemned at first to be merely stroppy, baffled, horrified and nearly throttled. Not enough to work on at first, but when she meets wife no. 2, twenty years back from her own time, the glorious female interaction around which the play rotates can really begin. The catalyst is Imogen Stubbs as the middle-aged Ruella , fabulously scoutmistressy with an underlying warmth. This is the sort of formidably pragmatic Good Woman who on being invaded by a terrified whore from the future takes it in her stride with prison-visitor breeziness, and commands her to assist in preventing the murders. “None of this feeble attitude! Shape up, girl!”. Between them and the portal success seems achievable, but comes up against that philosophical puzzle about whether being dead in one time-frame necessarily means a chap won’t turn up in another one wearing leather murdering-gloves and a younger wig (grand barnet-work from Richard Mawbey the wigmeister, as men and women change decades in no time at all).

The youngest woman of the three is another incomparable dramatic comedienne, Lucy Briggs-Owen, a heroine of mine after lately lighting up evenings from Srtatford to St Martin’s Lane. Her second posh-airhead appearance is – well, nonpareil. I eschew spoilers, though there are at least four indescribable scream-and-giggle shocks and a magnificent three-woman physical cliffhanger not to be missed. No complaints about the men either: Robert Portal morphs over forty years from evil dodderer to dashing newlywed, and Matthew Cottle – also time-travelling – blinks and gapes for England as the hotel security man with a nervous dread of women and potential “lesbianity”. And talking of security, the 2020 bits are set in a London of gun battles on the Strand and precarious peace talks between warring boroughs. Sir Alan’s little joke, circa 1994: but hey, getting closer all the time…

Box office 020 7378 1713 to 27 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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WOLF’S CHILD Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk


Last time I went a Norfolk and Norwich Festival outdoor event, I had to spend the night suspended in a nylon flower-petal up a tree and get hugged by tree-kissing Belgians called “Starlight” and “Hummus”. The time before, it was Artichoke’s elegant Alice in Wonderland adventure-dinner-concert. So you never know. This time, they have recruited WildWorks, famous for the Port Talbot “Passion” with Michael Sheen, and set it in the deep woodland surrounding the 17c Felbrigg Hall.

So here we are, stumbling through chilly darkening woods, mocked by ragged giant crows for being human (“Queer little walkie-talkie-two-leggies! Driving dead machines! Craaaahh!). After gathering us round a smouldering fire and a ritual of “summoning the bones” they hustle us to and fro, 250 of us in groups led by crows with ragged umbrellas called Sorrow, Funeral, Birth, Mirth, Bone, etc. The dark harsh birds, often from up trees as we progress, need to tell us a story: a mythic tale of Rowan (superbly played by Kyla Goodey) raised in an authoritarian orphanage. Shamed, she runs away in the woods and gives birth among wolves. We follow her into the darkness, coming to scene by scene as the dusk falls, until like her we change sides and learn to look at human beings through the wary, judging eyes of beasts.

It’s a beguiling idea, and Bill Mitchell’s team (professionals and community together) approach it with a fierce theatrical dedication which – in the end – pays off to memorable effect. Vocal harmonies by Victoria Abbott accompany us: a Crow choir reappears at each scene with primitive raw sound, while the orphan “Maids”, neatly Edwardian in white dresses and corseted back-braces, ceaselessly chant the rules of constricting civilization under the authoritarian, white-haired “Mother” (given chill authority by Sue Hill).

There is some puppetry, notably wolf-skeletons pawing and leaping; there are flaming torches underneath the trees, but it is the human-animal players and tensions which create real silences, so you hear the breath of those around you and even the gits put away their smartphones. Even the fact that the ushering Crows (my boss was Mirth) repeatedly cry “Keep to the path!” for obvious elf ’n safety reasons gets incorporated into the sense of folk-tale danger.

Some scenes are unforgettable: a tiny golden child born among grey-clad wolves (the physicality is excellent) romps with them like family dogs until cruelly “rescued”. At this point we are called “back to civilization!” by the crows, to watch the infant grow up. I cynically thought “Yep, good call, Mr Mitchell, get the punters out of the stumbly tree-root darkness onto the nice manicured National Trust grass before the light goes”. Shame on me! WildWorks are not timorous about us. Minutes later it’s “quick, quick, into the woods!” and a ten minute scuttle up hill and down in the darkness, following the escaping child towards intensely dramatic final tableaux in a cathedral of tall trees lit by torchlight (and a single star above, that night).

By which point none of us has the slightest idea where we are or how far from the Hall, and we are entirely on the side of the wolves. The last vision, as they mournfully howl their loss, is of the child walking down a long, long dim avenue alone, empowered by her dual nature, free.

By then I was with it all the way. It took time – maybe the first of the two hours – but was well worth it. And the weather forecast is reasonably good. But wear something sensible. Wolves and crows always do.
box office 0)1603 766400 to 23 May. Details:
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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