RAGNAROK – Hush House, Bentwaters Air Base

VALHALLA IN A VALHANGAR

Deep in the bleak Cold War desolation of the old US Air Base in Suffolk stands a shed where once jet engines were tested. Inside, the old Norse gods gather to bicker, swing axes, rip out eyes, bind Fenrir the wolf whose jaws will eat the world. They brag of feuds and love affairs more entangled than Dynasty, and move inexorably towards their Gotterdammerung twilight. Walls rumble away, giants with gnarled heads and fiery eyes lumber out of the tunnel where once the jet-flames roared. Puppet eagles fly overhead.

 

Eastern Angles, with a commendable desire to express the ancient mentality which sent the funeral ship to Sutton Hoo up the road, have commissioned Charles Way to tell the tale of the bickering gods, with Hal Chambers directing, a gleefully site-specific design by Samuel Wyer, and brilliantly ominous soundscapes from Benjamin Hudson. Audiences are either fascinated – like me – or, in a few cases, baffled (“I don’t do f—ing goblins!” muttered one. But he did like the giants).

 

For Norse myths have tended to be outranked in general awareness by the Greek variety, and unless you are a keen Wagnerian (or, like a delighted twelve-year-old boy near us, well up on Marvel comics) it is prudent to Wikipedize a swift refresher on what happens in the Eddas to Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, Baldur and the rest of the Asgard set. Remember the difference between Nibelheim and Midgard, why the gods hate the giants though related to them, and why the tree Yggdrasil matters. If you prefer to come to it cold, sit back and accept that hairy Norsemen round winter fires had to make up something to explain their violent weather and volcanoes, and entertain themselves. And us: not least because Oliver Hoare’s vigorous Loki looks more like Russell Brand every minute, and it is gratifying to imagine Brand being held over a volcano with a magic eagle pecking his liver, or being electrocuted by Thor using a moose’s antlers as a lever.

 

Amid all the roaring uncouthness (Theo Ogundipe a fabulous Thor, Gracy Goldman a foxy provocative Freya) it is fascinating to notice elements echoing Christian or classical myth: significant apples, sexual misconduct, miscegenation, disguises, even an oracle: Sarah Thom in an alarming spidery-raggedy outfit with a rat-skull in her headdress and a lot of booming echo. Antony Gabriel’s Odin is striking, as is Frigga his wife (Fiona Putnam): they’re the only ones allowed a trace of nobility. The rest – apart from the necessarily bland goodie Baldur – roister and fight intemperately, and when the walls of Asgard need mending are stupid enough to hire a disguised enemy who demands the sun and moon as payment (Josh Elwell, particularly adept at suddenly turning into a huge puppet giant).

 

Well, you get the idea. It rolls along to a spectacular final doom, with flame and shocks and drumming. I can’t entirely admire Way’s text: sometimes it takes off in poetic epic flights or adds adds nice Anglo-Saxon constructions like the mason’s horse – “tail-swinger, grass-muncher, stone-shifter”. But when it descends into slangy modernism the bathos grates without amusing. But the narrative is always clear, even if some side-stories need a cut. And the death of innocent Baldur, with the fire-ship vanishing down the tunnel as the world sinks into “Axe-age, sword-age, wind-age, ice-age” finally brings a creepy sense of eternal themes, immolation and the world’s fall from grace.

 

And then you’re out into the dark concrete wastes of the old air base, monument to more recent follies. Brrrr.

 

box office 01473 211498 http://www.eastern-angles.co.uk

rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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DOCTOR SCROGGY’S WAR. Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

A GALLANT SADNESS : FACES OF WAR

 

“We don’t do glum here. Glum just doesn’t work”. Clipped, officerly with an edge of confident eccentricity, cradling his Cambridge Blue oar and musing on blood vessel repair, the speaker in Howard Brenton’s WW1 play is James Garnon as Major Harold Gillies. He was the Army surgeon whose pioneering work in plastic surgery at Sidcup saved, or made bearable, hundreds of young men’s faces blown to horror by the burning, spinning, infected, jagged weaponry of trench warfare.

 

Taking him at his word, Brenton avoids the centennial pitfalls – prurient wallowing in misery or simplistic hostility towards the officer class. This is neither Birdsong nor Oh What a Lovely War, and frankly a better play than either. Never ‘glum’, although at times the tale of one young volunteer, blown into the hospital of ruined faces, is compassionately poignant, and never dodges the irony that many such young men took their mended faces straight back to the front.

 

Soldiers are not glum, and will not be made so. Furious, suicidal, bitter at moments, male youth will extraordinarily defy gloom. And Gillies, famed for his practical jokes, does not allow despair. “The medicine of fun” has him prowling the wards by night in a comedy Scottish rig and ginger beard as the mysterious Scroggy, dispersing nips of champagne and vaudeville jokes, and outraging the Matron and senior officers by encouraging bandaged, faceless patients to drag up in frocks and do a cabaret for the visiting Queen Mary.

 

Which may sound mawkish – consoling fodder for our softer age – but is balanced by the baldness of facts about mutilation, by almost casual scenes of VAD nurses checking through corpses for signs of life, and by the attitude of our hero Jack (Will Featherstone). He is a Thames mudlark who won a Balliol scholarship, a “temporary gentleman” promoted for his intelligence but explicitly despised by toff officers and a purblind Chief of Staff (Paul Rider). Featherstone gives Jack a chippy patriotism and an adolescent stubbornness as he resists Gillies/Scroggy all the way, both in his initial suicidal despair and then in needy, restive determination to go back to war.

 

Gripping historically and emotionally, and often very funny in laddish soldierly humour and domestic vignettes, the play lightly conceals its subtlety. Brenton knows how to play the Globe: clean simplicity, speed, and a few casual comradely addresses to the groundlings (“You all know what’s going to happen to me” says Jack early on “I’m going to lose my face”). But within the first minutes interesting undercurrents are flowing: the decay of the old class order, the brittleness of fading Edwardiana, the parallel seductive challenge of both warfare and experimental medicine, the naïveté of propaganda.

 

Nor does Garnon fail to indicate, fleetingly but credibly, the need for emotional release of the doctor himself in his practical jokes like the (ooh, fortuitously topical) comedy kilt-and-beard. And goodness, how the music helps: not least if you recognise the odd snatches of “When a knight won his spurs…” from trumpeter and ‘cello above. Another sad, necessary echo of understanding. We will never entirely empathise with these great-great-grandparents, but theatre gets some distance.

 

So altogether, ia perfect Globe piece. But I hope that like this author’s Eternal Love and Anne Boleyn, similar leaps towards understanding of past sensibilities, it soon tours to other stages.

 

Box office 0)20 7401 9919. To 10 oct
Rating: Four. 4 Meece Rating

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BALLYTURK Lyttelton, SE1

A PSYCHOTIC PUCKOON

 

Watching Enda Walsh’s surreal new 90-minuter, late star of the Galway festival, one reflection kept intruding: that there is, God save us, a dangerously fine and porous line between Beckettiana and bollocks.  Not that the writing isn’t fine, swooping from small-town comedic observation to bleak philosophical uplands as the trapped characters confront mortality and terror within “the prison of the self”.  Nor is there a single thing wrong with Walsh’s direction, or with the performances: indeed Cillian Murphy’s emotional intensity and Mikel Murfi’s wild LeCoq-trained physical clowning are breathtakingly good as they interact and fantasise in an inexplicable garage-cum-flat with scrawled walls and no door.   Stephen Rea’s arrival halfway through, as a business- suited mystery man presaging death after playing Jenga with a tower of biscuits and crooning into a ceiling mic, is impressive too.

 

Some comic moments (though I suspect Galway laughed more merrily) are fed by the two men rushing, leaping, doing wild things with balloons, a golf club and gym equipment.  Better received are the passages – powerfully reminiscent of Under Milk Wood – when in role- play they evoke the village they no longer inhabit . Actually, maybe they never did, or possibly they were banished from it to this weird graffitied limbo for being crazy. Murphy, pretending to be the old shopkeeper Joyce Drench while hunched on top of the wardrobe is fine; so is Murfi’s physical evocation of each inhabitant, changing in a second. But that is a matter of applied craft.   More enlightening, oddly, are the ghostly recorded voices from the walls (one is the inimitable Pauline McLynn, hurrah). They offer scraps of barmy but recognizable elderly conversations – (“I always felt my body was following me around”)  as if scripted by a Hibernian Alan Bennett in the process of emerging groggily from a general anaesthetic.

 

But that word, scripted… Yes, there lies the problem. Not only do the whimsical passages about five legged rabbits make you fear that the dialogue is in danger of vanishing up its own craic, but some more serious long monologues near the end destroy any illusion that we are among real suffering individuals (and they are indeed suffering in their dislocated universe, it’s bleak). Twice or thrice I felt that awful jolting sense ‘he isn’t speaking, he’s reciting”. And for all the atmosphere, the cleverness, the small good shocks which set and events offer – that gap between text and humanity sort of kills it.  Maybe Walsh means it to: maybe it is a rueful paean to self-harming introverted Irishness: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” See:  Yeats said it better, a century ago.

 

box office 0207 452 3000 to  11 oct

rating: three3 Meece Rating

 

 

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FORBIDDEN BROADWAY Vaudeville, WC2

DAFT AND DARING,  WITTY AND WHOOPEE

 
Onstage a suave Robert Lindsay preens and pirouettes, a matinée idol sick of self-love, pivot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels running just across the Strand. Down in the audience the real Lindsay, on his night off, cringes in the dark amid the first-night guests. That is the sporting spirit which, for thirty years, stars and creators of musical theatre have had to summon up in the face of Gerard Alessandrini and Phillip George’s spoof ’n satire revue of musical theatre. From broad amiable joshing to startlingly sharp digs of the knife, this incarnation takes care to reflect the London streets around it: more West End than Great White Way, and all the jollier for it.

 

 

It feels soon for a re-review – my take on  the Menier’s July show can be found by scrolling down a few inches here – but this transfer is studded with new numbers (not least some astonishing diva-impersonations by the new cast member, Christina Bianco, who joins Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis). It nods to the coming Evita and Cats revivals and the new Miss Saigon, has a wonderful time with Once and even squeezes in a Stephen Ward joke (brief, because the creators prefer to kick shows which are winning, rather than relative flops).

 
So plenty of remembered treats from July: the child-exploitation sequence with a Warchus-Trunchbull cursing “vermin! vermin with Oliviers!”; the super-stupor Abba, Cameron Mackintosh as producer-seducer humping the grand piano (where Joel Fram presides with brilliant panache). The glorious quick-change costumes are each more absurd than the last, the vocal and lightning wit of the foursome cast intact. But seeing it again draws out its sheer cleverness, verbal and musical. The barbs are finely tuned to each show’s weakness: Miss Saigon is pilloried for noisiness and show-off helicopter, and given a snatch of West Side Story to guy its derivativeness. Sondheim’s oeuvre is a scholarly gabble of antonym and metonym and tonguetwisting internal rhymes as the cast challenge the house to an impossible Sondha-singalong. That’s an almost loving parody: others – like the Book of Moron – are startlingly savage. Though among the barbs about that show’s smugness and crudity I’d have liked a swipe at its racism too…

 
Almost best though are the moments when sympathy lies with the actors – the CATS revival sequence has a row of disaffected moggies longing to be in A CHORUS LINE but finding “One. Singular. Degradation” instead of Sensation. In the Les Mis section weary veterans shuffle round an invisible revolve (“Ten more years…”) .Valjean struggles to bring down the high notes in Bring Him Home – “Bring it down!” and Eponine glumly texts behind the barricade: wage-slaves of long musical runs, loving steady pay and starting to hate the show. The Lion King, soldiering on, hear their vertebrae crunching under enormous headdresses and sing resignedly “African baloney, but we won a lotta Tony”. An Evita revival meets a demonstration against itself; a Frankie Valli Jerseyboy resorts to helium.

 
Cleverness and silliness entwine, as they should: physical jokes and puns like “Vietnumb” alternate with parody so clever you only get it seconds too late. It’s party-time, a riot of an evening, a love-hate insider treat for musical-junkies.

 

box office 0844 412 4663 to 22 nov

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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TRUE WEST, Tricycle Theatre, NW6

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES WATCHES A GOOD IDEA STUMBLE AWAY INTO THE DESERT

This is a drunk play. It rambles a great tale at you, mildly hooks you, then fluffs the end as it totters off for another tipple. We’re promised a great modern classic from Sam Shepard but the result is uneven, strange but interestingly cinematic. Our view is a widescreen picture of a house in LA. The kitchen is perfectly even, the plants scream 70s from the far wall and the sky is piercing blue. The designer Max Jones has built a creepily smooth Stepford house; the kind you can easily picture yourself having a breakdown in.

The play, however, has no such vision; no coherence. Austin is a successful screenwriter with an all-American face and bright blue shirts. He is house sitting for his mother. His rough-looking brother, with muddy hands and an unwashed t-shirt with many tales to tell, has arrived unannounced. Austin has a screenplay to write, but, uh-oh, Lee has an idea. An idea from the desert, no less. This sets us off nicely. The dialogue is hit and miss, a little self-absorbed, but with enough shine to make it promising. A suitable but not particularly exciting turn comes from Steven Elliot (as a ‘moooovie’ producer with cash to splash) who appears to get Lee’s idea rolling. An outline is written, the brothers clash; it is thoroughly usual but is lifted by good humour and nice outbursts from Alex Ferns as Lee. There is nothing more intriguing than the mentally unstable and Alex starts with this well.

Its biggest crime at this stage is simply self indulgence. It rambles, stagey arguments bubble from nowhere, and this Tricycle audience gasps with horror at snide remarks about producers, and roars at jokes about agents’ fees. This is the best, I thought, that a play about screenwriting could do. Until it twists. It is as if Sam Shepard, or the director Phillip Breen (who draws some nice tense moments in the first half) utterly lose faith in the will-they-won’t-they ‘brothers who work together’ dynamic. It flips into a horrible dream; the lights are cranked up, the performances are strained and the script melts into nonsense about stealing toasters and whether the desert would be a suitable home. All of the tepid momentum about their father, different upbringings and contrasting lifestyles (which we attentively waded through with the promise of a payoff) is cast aside in favour of getting the brothers pissed and trashing the mum’s house. The cinematic style, tense edge and average humour are lost. Eugene O’Hare becomes absolutely cartoonish, Alex Ferns ditches all character in favour of the obscene and the script droops lower and lower until the excruciatingly obvious return of the mother. An interesting premise bottled.

- LUKE JONES
Rating: Two Mice 2 meece rating

Playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 4th October
Box Office: 020 7328 1000

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COMEDY OF ERRORS, Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS AS MUCH TO KEEP AS TO THROW AWAY

Uneven, but with big laughs, confused but not entirely to fault; this production nestled itself almost perfectly between brilliance and rubbish. The text has great, solid laughs, but they are drowned by the poor farce, which only rarely grabs attention. This was a messy show. The stage was littered with the straws it was clutching at. At any one point, half the audience was laughing; the other wincing or blithely inspecting the woodwork. This was a pick-your-own comedy with just as much to keep as throw away. This Comedy of Errors had arrived via farce, stumbled over the language, was picked up by a few plucky performances and then had a bucket of bad comedy staples poured over it. It was knackered, but we laughed.

Two identical brothers are split at birth but 30 years later run the city of Ephesus amok with confusion, mistaken identity and unfortunately identical servants. 4D confusion with too many slamming doors, entrances and exits to handle. The laughs are there; why did they feel the need to add their own?

The good performances hold this production together. Hattie Ladbury gives us her best Carry On edition of Adriana, but the entire show is stolen by Brodie Ross, the servant Dromio, who serves the brother from Syracuse. He commands the audience on multiple occasions, reaping big laughs from mastering the gags available and not playing with rubber props. At points he is in such control that his pauses, glances and delivery let him ride the audience, cueing our roars and conducting our silent concentration. His was a great performance; the funniest I have seen at the Globe. Jamie Wilkes is excellent but his scenes with Simon Harrison (the brother from Ephesus) are ridiculous slapstick. The fighting is dull. The poorly executed highs (e.g. a squid being thrown and then a struggle to ‘accidentally’ have it latch onto his face) had as many eyes rolling as mouths laughing.

The two brothers, Matthew Needham and Simon Harrison, were thoroughly acceptable but with little variance in their expression of ‘huh?’. They were confused, constantly, but a little dull, grabbing fish to slap people to get a handful of laughs when they needed it most. Their range was trills in the voice and looks to camera and nothing more. 70s sitcom at most.

The interest was primarily farce, an added feature, which was average and played as if stodgy routine. The highlight was strong Shakespeare delivered from bold, funny performances; quite the mix. It was exclusively played for laughs so when it finally tried to show its heart, cash in some drama, eke out some substance, we had no time for it, and it no enthusiasm left. Funny, but little else.

- Luke Jones

Rating: Three Mice 3 Meece Rating
Playing until 12th October
Box Office: 020 7401 9919

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TOAST Park Theatre, N4

THE STAFF OF LIFE: ORDINARY LIVES.

 

A shift in a Yorkshire mass-production bread factory in the 1970’s: Richard Bean , at eighteen, was there. In that perceptive, new-fledged moment of adolescence he met, he says “some of humanity’s most desperate, funny and tragic human beings”, and recognized that he was one himself. Twenty years later he wrote this play. It’s a comedy, with moments of disconcerting darkness and threat, but beyond that a lasting tribute to a world – still with us – of resigned, morose, dry-witted industrial workers.

 

The set (James Turner’s design) is brilliantly grimy, with a sink from hell, artfully begrubbed floor and walls and an ironic sign “Please Help Keep your Canteen Clean”. Keep? Some hope. In this we find the chargehand Blakey (Steve Nicolson, every inch the powerful man enslaved to tedium, his back-story slid artfully in late on but pretty visible in his watchful self-containment). We find chirpy Cecil (SImon Greenall), Peter (Matt Sutton) , Dezzie (Finlay Robertson) the ex-trawlerman, Colin (Will Barton) and the great, ancient , lumbering lifer Wilfred – known as Nellie – a superb evocation by Matthew Kelly of a monosyllabic monolith, an institution, mocked a little but pitied by the others as a warning of how it might be to stay in this grim job forever.

 

The first half, for all its naturalistic uneventfulness, is constantly gripping: not least with the incursion of the student casual worker (John Wark) who unnervingly combines vulnerability and sadness with menace. At one point, to be honest, I wondered whether the character was a supernatural manifestation: there is a real weirdness in the second half of that first act. And when the ovens jam, and dangerous manoeuvres seem essential to keep these precarious men’s jobs open, the drama of the second act intensifies. And there is both a hint of tragedy and – with Lance the student and the watchful Blakey – a genuinely redemptive moment.

 

All of which is making it sound a bit heavy. It’s not. Bean’s dough, as ever, rises beautifully (Eleanor Rhode directs with clarity and pace). But it’s definitely wholegrain stuff, chewy, with nourishment.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 21 Sept

RATING  FOUR  4 Meece Rating

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PITCAIRN – Minerva, Chichester

NOT SO PEACEFUL IN THE PACIFIC

 

 

It is not often that the Chichester front-row is questioned about its sexual practices by merry brown girls extolling carefree Tahitian sex. “Our favourite thing! Young people go into the hills in a big group for days and do nothing but have sex with each other. It is a good way to make friends. Do you do that?”. A balding man froze in horror at being targeted, but I am proud to say that his white-haired wife called the impertinent bluff and just nodded serenely. Go Chichester!

 

It was only one of many odd moments in Richard Bean’s latest play, produced by Out of Joint (Max Stafford-Clark directs) with Chichester and the Globe. It imagines the two years after Fletcher Christian’s Bounty mutineers of 1789 cast Captain Bligh adrift, returned to Tahiti to collect (or kidnap) twelve local women and a few men to help with the ship, and found sanctuary and fertile land on the tiny Pitcairn island, one mile by two. When they were found some twenty years later, only one mutineer remained, surrounded by the women and children. To this day on the island a few descendants with English names remain (several of the men lately mired in a notorious paedophile and incest scandal).

 

Bean, however, focuses on the first couple of years and the desire for what Fletcher Christian calls “a virgin leaf of vellum…”. A fresh start for the Enlightenment era, an equal society without clergy, aristocracy or injustice, everything discussed at the “Yarning Court”. Utopia. Of course it falls to pieces, as in most such fables from sci-fi post-apocalypse tales to Lord of the Flies. Christian concludes, as various ghastly or ludicrous events transpire, that “the natural condition of man is violence, lechery, drunkenness, greed, suspicion and hate”. The Englishmen resort to muskets and manacles, the Tahitians rebel.

 

There are some good sharp ironies: not least that the islanders are more class-conscious than the Englishmen, Mi Mitti the ‘wife‘ of Christian discarding him when informed that his family has lost its money. The performances are fine: Tom Morley as the angst-ridden Christian and Ash Hunter as the appalling Bible-bashing hypocrite Young in particular. But the women – Anna Leong Brophy, Saffron Hocking, Cassie Layton, Siubhan Harrison, Lois Chimimba and Vanesse Emme – are particularly fine, not least at handling the Pacific-pidgin speech into which they have to fall, and in Chimimba’s case performing two extreme sexy-haka dances without loss of dignity. Which is important, because the most uncomfortable aspect of Bean’s text is the amount of dirty-old-man lines in which lovely brown women with tumbling black hair extol the joys of constant and group sex. I am sure it is meticulously researched, down to the expressions, but…tricky. On the other hand he also imagines a final revolt where the women violently take charge. I admire Bean greatly, and wish this cudgel-feminist denouement didn’t feel quite so much like guilty compensation for the raunchy stuff.

 

Anyhow, the islanders’ fragile society crumbles into rivalry, rape, religious fanaticism, civil war, Naveed Khan as the low-caste Tahitian wandering around with an axe and assorted scalps, and the worst villain’s death scene so prolonged (women! Can’t even beat people to death properly!) that actual giggles arose as poor Samuel Edward-Cook kept rising with a groan.
It is an interesting, far from dull evening, though it comes nowhere near Timberlake Wertenbaker’s noble Our Country”s Good (the last 18c imagining done by Out of Joint). It is wonderfully well staged with Tim Shortall’s design of bare rocks and Andrzej Goulding’s projections.

 

box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312  to 20 Sept then touring till 22 Nov

Rating three3 Meece Rating

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HAY FEVER Theatre Royal, Bath

BLISS?  OH YES IT IS

 

 

Here’s a 1924 creation: swooping and frivolously asymmetric as a drop-waisted flapper-dress, flashily well-crafted as a Deco windowpane. Its first critics complained that it has no plot, and indeed in that regard the 25-year-old Noel Coward was well ahead of his time. All that happens is a dreadful weekend, or 18 hours of it. The Bliss family, a quarrelsome quartet of fascinating but hellishly uninhibited bohemians, have each invited down a guest without warning the others. The matriarch Judith, an actress bored in retirement, has a young admirer Sandy (a nicely pop-eyed James Corrigan); her ill-tempered novelist husband David has absentmindely recruited a young girl to study as a “type”, while the daughter Sorel has asked an FO grandee old enough to be her father, and the son a fortyish socialite vamp who hates Judith.

 

All the family enjoy creating dramas, with no mercy for the hapless civilians who are in turn ignored, embarrassed, flatteringly half-seduced, manipulated, compromised, and driven to flight. And that’s it. Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning the Blisses stalk, confuse and appal their prey.

 

It is a play everyone should see in youth, and again when tempted to indulge parental dramatics in age; just as everyone should read and re-read Cold Comfort Farm and be armed against the ruthlessness of those who live in a “featherbed of false emotions” as one victim puts it. For this therapeutic treat, you could do a lot worse than Lindsay Posner’s sharp, gleeful two-hour production.

 

Felicity Kendal is Judith Bliss: not the Junoesque tragedy-queen she is sometimes played as but a petite, shingled no-no-nanette figure perfectly in period, hurling herself into the insincerely tragic scenes with gusto but always indicating the monstrous woman’s watchful steeliness, alert for the next opportunity of mischief, flirtation or ideally both. Kendal adds some lovely touches: whenever Judith does her famous line about “dreams trodden in the dust” she points at the supposed dust, every limb trembling hammily; but in seconds returns to her beady-eyed search for attention. The famous second-act closer has her draped, sobbing theatrically, halfway up the banisters as she recreates her favourite melodrama “Love’s Whirlwind” . The audience actually gurgle with pleasure.

 

As for Judith’s cat-and-mouse scene with her daughter’s diplomat boyfriend (a glorious, baffled-senatorial turn by Michael Simkins) it is like watching two perfect gears mesh. And in her pretended renunciation scene with her husband (Simon Shepherd) and the alarmed Myra (Sara Stewart) it is remarkable to watch them simultaneously emote weepingly and shake with suppressed laughter at the panicking victim’s expense. So yes, Bath delivers this precious antique as the joy – and the Awful Warning – that it always should be.

 

box office to 6 Sept – touring to 27 Sept, Richmond & Brighton

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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SOME GIRL I USED TO KNOW – Arts Theatre, WC2

ESSEX GIRL COMES OF AGE

 

 

I rather like Denise van Outen. A trouper, a trained musical-theatre talent who had to make it (and she did, triumphing in CHICAGO here and on Broadway) by first becoming a celeb: presenting a couple of vapid TV shows and being named Rear of the Year. That tells us uncomfortably much about star-casting shallowness, but equally proves van Outen’s determination, discipline and taste for the hard graft of the live stage.

 

And, of course, she has a glorious voice, considerable acting talent and endearing presence. Here, in cheeky TOWIE style, she plays Stef: a lingerie entrepreneuse, gossip-column veteran exploiting trashy fame but, in her thirties, ever more uneasy with its pressures. Hard to think of anyone more fit to perform such a part – and indeed co-write it (with Terry Ronald). The result is rather better than a couple of snarky male reviewers suggested during its recent tour. Maybe it’s a girl thing.

 

It’s a simple, slight plot: alone in a hotel room (‘Minibottles of Molton Brown, a bed the size of Belgium but walls like Kleenex”) she restlessly shrugs into a tracksuit between media appearances, roaming around beneath a surreal dangling mobile of teenage memories – T shirts, a bike, an old phone, toys and fripperies of the girl she used to be.  She takes calls from  her loyal and broody husband, depressed by the way their sex life has become “polite”, hesitates about having a baby and reminisces ever more intensely about her schoolday lover Sean. He has begun to send her cheeky Facebook pokes, and fancies coming over to pick up where they left off now that she’s a Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year. That Sean is a pig is apparent to us, but not, at first, to her . Golden memories flood in.

 

The format is a brave one, a one-woman jukebox  musical (only the title song is not an 80s or 90s cover) but holds up surprisingly well. Van Outen has the character’s brittle-coarse Essex girl persona off pat, and adds an awkward gentleness which, for all her confidential asides through the fourth wall, builds an illusion that Stef is, indeed, alone and at a crisis point. She conjures up her teenage years with references to Aramis, Funny Feet, Guns ‘n Roses, Ibiza raves, and how her pal Slaggy Sue melted her Rampant Rabbit on the electric heater because Charles and Di had split up and she was “distracted by Nicholas Witchell”. It is not, I must admit, my own nostalgic period, nor are these anthems my songs of choice. But it’s a proper story, and I wanted to know her ultimate response to the booty-call.

 

The second act develops into sharper drama and deeper pain as she brings herself to remember how that firat love actually ended.  There is real courage and feeling when she scrubs off the defensive makeup and sings of loss and humiliation, pallid and distraught and looking all of Stef’s age.  If this is a showcase, I hope it makes some directors think seriously of making better use of Denise van Outen’s gifts.

 

box office 020 7907 7092 to 13 Sept

rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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