CITY OF ANGELS Donmar, WC1

 

Shabba-dabba-doo-wop! What a glorious evening. Grownup, dryly hilarious, sublimely jazzy. Josie Rourke’s Donmar walks away with the palm for the season’s top show. Or perhaps sashays away, tossing platinum curls and white mink. Or gumshoes down the mean streets of Seven Dials on the trail of dodgy dames, tipping its hat-brim bitterly over its eyes…

 
For this is the dark 1940’s glamour of Raymond Chandler and Spillane, of private ‘tecs with complicated histories, and blondes who turn up in their grimy offices and are clearly “a handful – maybe two if you played your cards right”. Better, we are watching that literary world intersecting disastrously with Hollywood as the novelist Stine (Hadley Fraser) sees his creation Stone (Tam Mutu) and assorted tricky blondes, pinstriped heavies and bitter Latino rivals traduced into a formulaic film-noir. The appropriately named studio boss Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou, manically perfect). knows that movies have different priorities “They’re light and dark, they’re faces ten feet high..I’ve been through de Mille, I know!”. Rosalie Craig, smart as a whip, plays Stine’s wife, editor and literary conscience: her number “It needs work” probably had every writer (and adulterer) in the audience wincing.

 
Larry Gelbart’s ironic story of artistic differences meshes perfectly with Cy Coleman’s trad jazz score (under Gareth Valentine). Rebecca Trehearn, as both Buddy’s real assistant and the fictional detective’s secretary, knocks the roof off with the sour elegant wit of “You can always count on me” , and Stine and Stone’s ferocious duets are breathtaking. Such big numbers could be showstopping, but with David Zippel’s lyrics are always intelligent, part of the story. And you have to love a man who rhymes “If you’re not celibate, we could raise hell a bit”.

 

 

It’s a handful to stage, as the two plots are kept distinct – real life in garish technicolour and the noir plot in monochrome – while sharing the same stage, mirroring and interfering with one another. There’s some brilliant jerky backwards-work from the characters in the plot when the author, typing overhead, has to cross out dialogue. But Rourke powers through it with panache, thanks to Robert Jones’ brilliant two-tier design, pinpoint lighting work from Howard Harrison, and some ferocious choreography from Stephen Mear . The backdrop is an immense wall of scripts and film canisters on which typed words flit around and witty visual shocks occur. When Hadley Fraser leaps onto an invisible box it is lit -at the second he lands – to become a pile of paper,. When he and his creation fight – Tam Mutu radiating irresistible Clooneyesque glamour as the imaginary detective – it is spectacular. The costumes and manner are fabulously parodic too: when the foxy Mallory (Samantha Barks) leaps on the hero with a Hitchcock-blonde toss of the hair, there are real dark roots on the platinum. It’s details like that you worship.

 

 

And the wisecracks! Gelbart, writing in the 80s, lovingly reproduces the tone and rhythm of a Chandler. “My husband” smoulders Katherine Kelly as the wicked blonde, “is a good deal older than me”. “How good a deal?” asks Stone, deadpan. Must remember to use that one. The millionaire husband is in an iron lung: a retro device wheeled on and off to general glee, getting its best moment right at the end. And I haven’t even mentioned the the wicked stab at Hollywood’s social censorship. Or the castanet-playing corpse.

 
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 15 Feb.
Supported: Barclays /H & S Williams Foundation for the ARts / Ray Bar-Salisbury

Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

and  design mouse, with extra respect:  Set Design Mouse resized

 

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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Almeida, N1

THE MERCHANT OF VEGAS RIDES AGAIN 

 

Three years ago Rupert Goold reimagined Venice for the RSC, taking ‘casino capitalism’ literally, setting it amid decadent gilt arches and roulette-tables with Lancelot Gobbo as an Elvis impersonator. The casket choice became a TV reality game with Portia as a pouting Barbie whose transformation into a lawyer was pure Legally Blonde. So now in charge of the Almeida, how could he resist bringing it back as his Christmas spectacular, partly recast but glitzy as ever? It’s a Gooldian pound of flesh: Shakespeare as savage rom-com with Elvis numbers, Antonio strung up on a butcher’s hook in Guantanamo orange, and plenty of lurex and leg.

 

 
Most is as per Stratford – including the carnival costume jokes with Gratiano as Munch’s scream and Lorenzo as Batman eloping with Jessica as Robin. But in the smaller theatre both better and worse things emerge. Scott Handy’s morose Antonio droops with such intimate despair throughout that it becomes ever clearer that his devotion to Tom Weston-Jones’ pretty Bassanio is so homoerotic that once the ring-nonsense is over at the end, Portia has every reason to look depressed in her weird hobbling finale dance: there’s a sense that we are moving towards a Design for Living situation.

 

 
As before, Susannah Fielding’s Portia is the most artfully nuanced and difficult performance. She is required to simper, wriggle and pout like Daddy’s southern princess during the garish reality-show sections, become more real but still pouting and spoilt amid her girlfriends, and then convince in the courtroom transformation. But even before that, one of the most strikingly and honestly directed moments in the play comes when Bassanio chooses the lead casket, and instead of a blaring and flashing neon triumph the TV show lights dim and the “unlessoned girl” steps off her stilettos and ditches the big-hair blonde wig to avow serious love. Fielding does it superbly.

 

 
By then it is about time for some reality. The comedy accents began to get me down; standard American, jive-talk, Elvis gobbling from Gobbo, a hillbilly gambler, squeaky girlishness and of course the two failed suitors. Vinta Morgan’s Prince of Morocco is a preening Mohammed Ali in gold lurex shorts, and Vincenzo Nicoli does a Fawlty-Towers-Manuel in a luminous flamenco shirt as the Prince of Aragon. Funny, but recklessly chucking away the poetry. More troubling on the accent front is Ian McDiarmid’s Shylock. He is a marvellous actor, and Goold pulls no punches about his treatment by the contemptuous antisemitic Christians, or the brutality of the trial scene. But earlier, the decision to adopt an extreme caricatured Jewish voice works against the subtleties of his delivery and attitudes, ruining many of the most telling lines. We never get a sense of Shylock as a successful banking figure with real power: rather he emits a jerky cartoonish whimsy. Only in the trial itself is McDiarmid given a chance to project an emotion both real and disturbing.

 

 

 

But when he does it reminds me – if I may wander off-message for a moment – of something I found once in the letters of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. In 1880 he wrote in distress to Ellen Terry, having seen her play Portia to Irving’s Shylock. He begged her to ask the actor-manager to cut Antonio’s insistence in Act V that the defeated Shylock convert to Christianity. “It is a sentiment entirely horrible and revolting” cries Dodgson, an Anglican deacon.“The idea of forcing a man to abjure his religion may be simply horrible..a needless outrage on religious feeling…in the very fullness of our joy at the triumph of right, we see him as victim of a cruelty a thousand times worse than his own”.

 

 

This memory came back to me during the end of the trial scene, as McDiarmid’s Shylock crawls broken away, and a cleaner wanders on to the empty stage and throws the Jew’s discarded black coat and kippah into a binbag. That memory’s surfacing is what, for me, won this eccentric, often gimmicky production its fourth star.

 

 

box office 020 7359 4404 http://www.almeida.co.uk

to 14 Feb

rating: four     4 Meece Rating

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POTTED SHERLOCK Vaudeville, WC2

SUPERBLY SILLY BUT FAR FROM ELEMENTARY

 

 

In a beguiling 221b Baker Street set, referencing clockwork and tyrannized over by a brassbound Victorian video-countdown, Watson is talking to a portrait on the wall. The actor playing Moriarty is confused and comes on doing Mariachi, when he isn’t being Irene Adler in a baggy nude onesie with fig-leaves, Mrs Hudson, or twenty people in one minute. Or just annoying his stage partner, as they struggle to relate or perform all the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories in 80 minutes ( (there’s an interval, for youthful ice-cream and loo breaks, so it runs 100).

 

 

A cheerful seasonal habit has West End theatres – this one is home to the ROH Wind in the Willows – sharing the day with larky shows for children and their weary minders, at decently lower prices and with charity buckets at the door. Ir provides a great introduction to plush-seat theatre for the young. This one marks the return of Dan and Jeff – Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner – whose “Potted Potter” assault on the entire Rowling canon in 80 minutes got even the New York Times cooing, and whose Potted Panto had even a Christmas-jaded Times critic (me) saying “Cheap, cheerful, deafening if you’re surrounded by ten-year-olds, but not dumb. “

 

 
That’s the key here too. The pair may be CBBC stars, and they certainly know how to throw you a mercilessly childish gag, but with co-writer Tom Clarkson and the sharp no-prisoners direction of Hanna Berrigan, they never become lazy but stay precise, clever, quick, and layered. Dan’s amiable-idiot mugging delights the kids (screeeaaaam!) but is never allowed to go on long enough to annoy the parents. Outbreaks of puppetry, vaudeville joke dances and a moment of conjuring keep it fresh: although its very theme is rush, the pacing is craftily slow-quick-slow, which works.

 

 
. And – we Holmesians being sophisticated types – the rapid drollery is peppered not only with sudden silly bumblebee or Batman costumes but grownup (if always clean) gags about things like Uber. And, of course, the running gag about absurd resolutions of Conan Doyle riddles. Oh come on: even ardent Sherlockians must admit that it is the Victorian fog, the personal eccentricity and atmospheric writing that carries such nonsenses as the Speckled Band or the bit where they poison next-door’s dog.

 

 
For this show they are joined by Lizzie Wort (after a lot of meta-theatrical argument about how the hell she horned in on the boys’ show). She is both a suitable hat-swopping quickfire comedienne and no mean singer, and I hope the three join up together again. And curiously – though technically this show consists of sixty high-speed spoilers – its real affection for old Sherl shines through so strongly that I am going to start re-reading. The real ones, that is: not the hipster Cumberbatchery.
box office 0844 482 9675 to 11 Jan

rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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BARBARA NICE’S CHRISTMAS CRACKER touring

MINCE PIES AND MIDLANDS MERRIMENT

 

 

I caught this in its heartland, at the MAC in Birmingham. Half of the audience were clearly experienced followers of Janice Connolly’s creation, Mrs Barbara Nice. They required no warm-up: no sooner had the star pranced onto the stage in her bargain-shop mac (“£ 9.99, WPM- Why-Pay-More?”) than we were cheering, raring to go, more than willing to start by putting up our hands to imaginary reins and swaying right and left, up and down to Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride music, as we followed a route through Birmingham described by a briskly grabbed audience volunteer.

 
Within minutes it was time for the inter-row balloon-batting race, the associated festive chaos kept under control by the smiling, bespectacled diva, always with her concertina-shaped novelty handbag firmly over one arm and ragged tinsel round her neck. We swear in chorus an oath “not to moan if the games get a bit unfair”. A patter of deceptively spontaneous one-line chatter accompanies this, on topics as homely and surreal as alternative uses for Greggs’ sausage rolls, picking up the perils of high-speed hand driers or picking up 5 Live on your Copper 7 IUD on the top of the 30 bus.

 
If you have not yet encountered Barbara Nice on her home Midlands turf, or in lightning appearances anywhere from Aldeburgh to Edinburgh, never seen a middle-aged woman in a sensible skirt hurling herself into crowdsurfing or offering instant uplift therapy, behold her now. Part dinner-lady, part Mum, part anarchic Asda goddess of misrule, she adopts as her own every random scrap of the culture, leading sudden bursts of singalong when a phrase tips her into it – Those Were the Days, Bohemian Rhapsody, whatever. “That’s lovely, yin and yang, feng and shui, Starsky and Hutch, are we having a great time?”

 

 

We are. Even without the local guest stars – at the MAC a memorable spot from the juggler Mat Ricardo and a slightly drunk front row, and a newcomer trainee standup called Lindsay with some ripe Jeremy Kyle references. But it’s Barbara we come for, and only she can be trusted to get the volunteers through the handsfree mince-pie eating contest in good order, and all the way to the legendary Christmas Raffle (we all get free tickets). Prizes range from a Fray Bentos pie to a bottle of Dettol (“the aromatic elixir of life, a dab behind each ear and you’re on the way.” ) And we did not, she assured us sternly, need any repetition of the previous night’s “Lambrini fight”. So no scrapping over the tin of marrowfat peas.

 
Ironic, iconic, homely and surreal, her shows are uniquely joyful. And yes, it is theatre not just standup: because here is control, identification, mood-altering moments, human connection. And a final dancing singalong to Fairytale of New York, with and the bells all ringing out for Christmas Day. I defy you not to love it. My husband – who normally has a morbid terror of audience participation – insisted on coming when he heard it was Barbara Nice, and loved every minute.
rating: four    4 Meece Rating
on tour now:   Touring Mouse wide

Tonight Komedia, Brighton 0845 293 8480.

Monday & Tuesday, 15th & 16th
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford
£13. Tel: 01483 440000.

Friday 19th
Dancehouse Manchester, 0161 237 1413

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GOLEM Young Vic SE1

ANIMATED, ANIMATING, ADMIRABLE, ADORABLE   

 

 

Let’s be honest. It’s nearly Christmas. You could flinch at the thought of staggering in after a day of guilty shopping to face a show – fresh from the Salzburg Festival, based on Jewish and Czech folklore as satirically used in a 1914 novel by Gustav Meyrink – excoriating a “politically impotent generation” in an industrialized 21c democracy hooked on the “heroin of market-driven popular culture”. Especially when you hear that it will be interpreted through movement, cutting-edge sychronized animation and free verse. You might opt for something jollier.
You’d be wrong. Rush for a ticket. For this is the latest piece of brilliance from 1927, who swept the board with their “The Animals and Children Took To The Streets” a few years back. And it has more real, guffawing laughs than most pantos, a sharper topical bite than any news-quiz, more humane and delightedly intelligent thought behind it than most media. There is immense (if rueful) delight in having our comfy delusions slapped about by a faux-naif mythic cautionary tale. Especially right now when we are all just awakening, blinking vaguely, to the way that information technology and network owners are manipulating us – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Tinder, cookies, a thousand apps and platforms seem to obey but control our very desires.

 
That is what the story, elegantly told in 90 minutes, is all about. A Golem is a clay creature brought to life and magically made to serve and obey, but which (like Frankenstein’s monster) takes over. Our narrator, squeakily simple, lives with her brother Robert and a knitting old-fashioned Granny. With her equally unambitious, underachieving friends she has a punk band Annie and the Underdogs, which screams out “music to ruin your Christmas”, protesting against everything with Russell-Brandian vagueness but never actually doing gigs because of stage-fright.

 

 

Brother Robert is a geek, smelling of “unwashed hair and mathematics” who frequents the workshop of an apparently hopeless inventor called Phil Sylocate. Who, Wozniack-like, suddenly makes something that works: a lifesize clay figure (lumpen, grey, primitive) which obeys and does Robert’s job and housework for him. In a sentence which gets whoops of recognition Robert says “I like my work but I’d like to get it done for me, so I could move into a position of authority more suitable”. very BBC.

 

The inventor is taken over, selling his hipster soul to big industry, and at home Golem takes charge – he never needs to sleep or eat – and gets new ‘orders’. “So” asks Robert’s sister worriedly “someone has access to Golem, other than you?” Indeed. It happens to our iPhones and Clouds weekly. So with more barks of shamed recognition from the audience Golem upgrades to new powers, changes Robert’s life, puts him in ridiculous fashion clothes in his own image, and undermines his one real relationship (“She’s a frumpy 35 year old who wants to trick you into having babies. A modern man can do better”).

 

 

Paul Barritt’s animations are a marvel: cartoonish, beautiful, satirically rich (you’d need to see them twenty times to get all the jokes and references). The five performers interact with them surreally well: sometimes as living talking heads through holes of crazy changing bodies, sometimes walking amongst them. But equal credit to Suzanne Andrade’s droll, dry, savagely subversive, hilariously perceptive text (she also directs) . Lillian Henley’s music is played live: light, ragtimey, melding perfectly with the dark mocking tale.

 

 

For Golem wins, of course he does: Grandma herself accepts her new uselessness as “keeping up to date”, trapped inside a high-tech knitting-machine, and the punk band is corrupted into a brand. As is the show itself, with a final triumphant Golem cry of “The arts! We love the arts!”. The clay chap “adores” Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren. Oh yes, the laugh’s on us. But it’s a very good one.
box office 0207 922 2922 http://www.youngvic.org
to 31 Jan (extended!)
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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THE FROZEN SCREAM Wales Millennium Centre THIS IS NOT A REVIEW

This is not a review, because the show is not offered for review until its transfer to Birmingham in January.
I went because I had heard about its development. And hell, Rula Lenska is a second-cousin of my late mother’s bridesmaid . Apparently.
It is therefore my duty to follow her career…
So: 1) Here’s the public domain information:

 

 

The play is said to be based on a lost 1928 supernatural murder-mystery novel by CC Gilbert, about a group of bright young things on the way to a fancy-dress ball, stranded in an abandoned lodge in winter. Some are dressed as Jack Frost, but one of them has Norwegian blood and tells them that Jack, the old Frost Giant, is not a cosy pixie but an ancient and malign giant. Odd things happen. A Mousetrappy murder-mystery-backstory is going on, but so is – aaaghhh! something else. Something lethal.
The idea delighted Sarah Waters, mistress of period and sometimes spooky novels, and Christopher Green, theatremaker, entertainer and cabaret star. They also enjoy the tale that the book fell out of print because of a curse (people kept meeting icy deaths). So they worked together on this adaptation, possibly hoping for a curse to liven things up.  Green directs, and also joins the cast of six. Or maybe seven. Or six. Or five. Never you mind.

2) Having seen it, I can say:

- The makers warn you not to bring under-16s, to wear warm clothes and sensible shoes, and leave large bags in the cloakroom.
I would add, be reasonably physically able, with a bladder that lasts two hours.

- There is absolutely no point expecting a production directed by Christopher “Office Party” Green to remain sedately inside a proscenium arch. There really isn’t. You knew that, didn’t you? Just because Barney George has created a conventionally detailed creepy 1920’s set, don’t settle back and start on your Maltesers.

- Nor is there any point expecting Sarah Waters to resist a teeny weeny lesbian subplot. Rather sweet.

- Rula Lenska’s entrance(s) are – um – unusual. That is one game lady. What a trouper. I am proud to be related to her by way of maternal-bridesmaid-cousinship.

- The Millennium Centre front of house staff are resourceful, patient and trustworthy. Probably.

- Beware the ice. Not the rice, or the mice. The ice.

- There is no interval yet there is a drink of mulled wine. Work it out.

 

 

In Weston Studio (sorry, Stiwdio) at the Milllennium Centre to 20 Dec, with matinees – tel 029 2063 6464 http://www.wmc.org.uk

7-17 Jan at birminghamhippodrome.com

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TREASURE ISLAND Olivier, SE1

YO HO HO –  PIRATES AND PARROTS ON A DEAD MAN’S CHEST
The first thing to say is that the sets are extraordinary: magnificent, nightmarish, romantic. Lizzie Clachan makes dramatic use of the Olivier’s great revolving, rising, falling drum.The stage becomes a cutaway three-tier ship, a bleak starlit ocean, a heaving volcanic swamp. And as in last year’s wonderful Emil and the Detectives, it is good to see all this top-flight theatre magic laid out for the young in a ‘family’ show, instead of shunting the kids into some low-budget folktale posh-panto round the back.
The second thing to say is that if you are taking children – or indeed, as I did, an baffled adult companion unfamiliar with Robert Louis Stevenson – you would be wise to bring them up to speed first. Bryony Lavery is a seasoned creator and adaptor, and Polly Findlay, on her second NT outing displays the same gift for shock and sincerity as in Antigone. But both seem to take for granted a universal familiarity with the tale of Treasure Island. Although Lavery often uses Jim Hawkins as a narrator, particularly in the first half the script fails to hammer home with sufficient vigour certain vital plot points, especially when the Hispaniola is being crewed by disguised ex-pirates and future mutineers.  I was fine with it, my companion less so.   HOWEVER – the pre-Christmas scramble meant that it was a penultimate preview I saw unofficially (bought own tickets)   and there have been improvements since: don’t trust me on that.  But do refresh the children’s minds about Treasure Island anyway.

 

 

Jim, by the way, is a girl: a bright-eyed urchin in britches (the excellent Patsy Ferran), and the gender-change is wittily handled in one of the best of the cod-18c lines.   Billy Bones staggers brutally to the Admiral Benbow and roars “Be you boy or be you girl?”. Jemima-Jim replies “That be my business!”. Very 21c . A good few of the pirates are female too, which is fine; though it is the men who, with roaring Roger Wilson and his fiddle leading,  fall into deep-toned, thrilling chanties from time to time. The parrot’s pretty good too, especially when it goes AWOL and flits, we genuinely believe, around our heads in the auditorium.

 
Arthur Darvill is a beguilingly slimy, dangerously likeable Long John Silver – an uncharacteristically quiet scene where he explains star navigation to Jim is magical – and among the pirates the one really good joke character is Tim Samuels as Grey, a rather Richard-Beanish figure whose problem is that nobody ever notices he’s there (shades of Mr Cellophane). On the island the pirates forget to tie him up, he’s so insignificant.That’s witty.

 
But for all that it is a remarkably dark show: literally – the lights are never bright, even in tropical sunshine, and the great looming ribs of the ship become part of the island’s ghostly nightmare as its very earth bubbles and swells horribly. Joshua James’ emaciated crazy Ben Gunn erupts from mud and dives down into filthy tunnels, moody half-heard music spreads unease. In one prolonged death scene a nervous child was led out, hands over his ears: the  lightness of the victim’s  “Thank you for the pies and the adventure” gasps the bloodied victim didn’t quite do it for that child. Indeed for all its tremendous physical spectacle – and final romantic beauty as the great ship flies homeward – the production seems unsure whether it is a ripping yarn or a meditation on brutality and nightmare. Actually, don’t listen to me. Children are better at blood-and-thunder than I am these days.   And it’s far better than an action movie.

 

 

box office 0207 452 3000 to 8 April
live relay in cinemas NT Live 22 Jan
Sponsor: Royal Bank of Canada

rating: hmmm….. 3 Meece Ratingbut maybe OK, design-mouse says four  Set Design Mouse resized

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NOEL COWARD’S CHRISTMAS SPIRITS St James Theatre SE1

NOEL COWARD’S CHRISTMAS SPIRITS St James Theatre SE1

“I’ll sing of home and love and work,
Of Magna Carta and Dunkirk
And Christmas bells and charity and pride…”

 

 

Who is this, melding private and patriotic sentiment to salute Christmas unembarrassed, heart on sleeve? It is Noel Coward writing to a friend, resolving in the depths of the London Blitz to stay put, work on cheer-up propaganda, and finish – for all his misgivings about the theme in such a deadly time – his “ghost play”, Blithe Spirit. On a hunch close to cabaret genius, this gorgeous little show has been devised and drawn from centuries of threatened Christmases.

 

 

Its creators are Nick Hutchison, who directs, and musical director Stefan Bednarczyk. Who also plays Coward himself, alternately twinkling and troubled, sitting at his piano or roaming around his Belgravia sitting-room on Christmas Eve, 1940. Behind him is the famous Blitz photograph of St Paul’s rising from the clouds; planes and the crump! of bombfall remind us where and when we are. Struggling with Blithe Spirit, Coward summons up his invented Madam Arcati – the marvellous Issy Van Randwyck in floating garments and green tights – and she in turn conjures the mediumistic maidservant from that play, Edith (Charlotte Wakefield). Between them, without gimmick or explanation, they call up Christmas words and songs from the centuries.

 

 

Not least Coward’s own: Bednarzyck’s strength is in not attempting imitation or pastiche of the master ’s delivery but in re-creating them for himself, skilful and expressive whether in the yearning sentiment of London Pride or the brisk humour of “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans”. There are Coward letters and diaries too, and that remarkable poem about the bombers, Lie in the Dark and Listen, with its guiltily appalled awareness of the young bomber crews overhead :

 
“City magnates and steel contractors, factory workers and politicians, soft lysterical little actors, Ballet dancers, reserved musicians – safe in your warm civilian beds, Life is flying above your heads”…

 

 

 

Yet the delight is not all Coward; he and Arcati and Edith are but the conduits , as from the cast flow songs by Maschwitz and Berlin, Novello and Jerome; words by Ogden Nash and Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson and John Clare and Dickens and that greatest of the world’s writers, Anon. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you channel the fear , frivolity and fragile goodwill of the ever-threatened festival: banned by 17c Puritans, despoiled by greed, redeemed by moments like the Christmas Truce (yes, that’s there too). The brilliance of the presentation and choice is that even the best-known passages – like Scrooge or Dylan Thomas – emerge suddenly fresh and new.

 

 

In short, it’s a wonderful piece of theatre, magically magpie and delivered with full heart. And on the tables there are clove-stuck oranges: breathe them in deep, drink mulled wine, it’s proper Christmas.

box office 0844 264 2140 stjamestheatre.co.uk
to 23 Dec. Some matinees.
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

CHRISTMAS 1914:  A TRIBUTE, A MEMORY, MANY QUESTIONS

 
That supermarket ad gives a potted version of the 1914 Christmas ceasefire in no-man’s-land: British soldier gets parcel with chocolate, hears Stille Nacht from the German trenches; lads emerge nervously, shake hands, play football, Tommy gives his chocolate to Jerry, smiles with stiff upper lip. Some have raged at the sentimentality of it; some applauded. But what it can’t show is the more painful complexity of this poignant, troubling piece of history.

 

 

You can’t expect a chocolate ad to explore the emotional and philosophical cost of fraternizing with men you must shoot at on Boxing Day; or indeed mention that one of the important favours exchanged before any football was permission for both sides to collect and bury the bodies of friends and comrades , frozen in the mud or impaled on barbed wire. You can’t show that some on both sides must have held back, feared a trick, others found it hard to shake hands; or mention that alarmed orders from top brass brought the truces to a rapid end.

 

 

That complexity is approached, at least, in Phil Porter’s play, woven in with a slightly clichéd subplot about young nurses at the Front defying their strict Matron to put up improvised bandage-and-paper decorations. The main story is built around Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwickshires, immortal cartoonist of “If you knows of a better ‘ole”. He was a participant and chronicler of the Truce and, appropriately, once a young electrician who wired the former Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. A fine exhibition remembers him upstairs.

 

 
So far, so good. Bairnsfather is played, delightfully and honestly, by Joseph Kloska; his whiskery sergeant Old Bill (looking exactly like the cartoons where he grumbles about the jam) is Gerard Horan. Around them a good cast josh in soldierly fashion, move – sometimes formally, sometimes naturally – play some nicely violent football (watch out, stalls and indeed circle), and narrate the realities of trench warfare in curiously bloodless calm antiphons. Some of the jokinging is good, and vividly soldierly, and Sam Kenyon’s songs and arrangements offer a real thrill of authenticity: could have done with more of them. But in the first half there is a curious slowness, a shrinking reluctance to come to the reality of war. Characters emerge, but slowly; even after the first death (Oliver Lynes in a lovely cameo as the hopeless Liggins – he returns in another great one as a disgruntled German) there persists a determined trombone jollity. Bairnsfather’s concert-party sketches are quite fun, but it all feels puzzlingly bland until you reflect that it is after all a Christmas family show, and part of its remit is to educate the new generation in the fact that its great-great grandfathers were just lads like them, thrown into a terrible machine of war. In those terms, it works. As drama, less so.

 

 
The second act, with some tremendous battle effects and the truce itself, is the best. From the cheeky notices on the British side (“Happy Christmas Fritz Have a Blinking Sossidge”) to the excursions over the top , the sharing and the games, it is truthfully and movingly done. Not least in a disgruntled conversation between Smith and Schmidt, who both think football is “scheiss” anyway and sympathize over disgusting food. And there’s a strikingly interesting diatribe from the German Kohler (Nick Haverson) explaining German paranoia on the grounds that as continentals they don’t have -as we do – the sea as a moat against neighbours.

 

 
But if there had been more to chew on, I suppose, it would be less of a Christmas family show. As such, it is an honourable addition to the year’s WW1 tributes, and a useful one for the 21st-century born: do take them.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
to March 2015
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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VISITORS BUSH THEATRE, W12

SO LIFE GOES BY, WITH MELANCHOLY BEAUTY…

 

Is there anything more healing, more reassuring of human kinship than the sound of an audience sighing together, murmurously anxious, fondly touched or momentarily afraid for imaginary strangers in a pretend room?  There were moments, in Barney Norris’ tender meditation on life, love and memory, when it felt so intimate that you wanted to reach out a hand to Arthur, Edie, Stephen and Kate in their solitary home, with two armchairs under suggested beams and a World’s Classics subscription bookcase behind them.

 

 

This is one of those heartfelt family plays which the Bush suits well – Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink, Rory Kinnear’s The Herd come fondly to mind. Like those it is an author’s first full-length play, and a treasure. Yet it is the simplest of situations. Arthur and Edie – Robin Soanes and Linda Bassett – are in their 70s, Darby and Joan in the farmhouse where chickens cluck outside and time has stood still, contentedly, since the departure of their only child Stephen. He opted for another kind of life as an insurance salesman.

 

 

But Edie is in early dementia. So Stephen (brilliantly evoked as a slick, tense, unhappy character, bravely dislikeable at first) has arranged a “Homeshare” lodger Kate: a recent graduate, a bit daffy with a streak of blue hair and no direction yet. As Edie’s condition worsens, harsher decisions must be made to solve the simplest and saddest of problems: life. And as Edie puts it “to get through it all ok, get to your grave without much trouble”.

 

 

 

Bassett plays Edie with such truth and grace that her curtain-call normality is almost a shock. She has much to work with: Norris has an uncanny knack of evoking the poetry which can emerge from those wandering on the borders between amiable elderly wittering and dementia. She will be suddenly sharp (uncomfortably for her son at times) but then from her occluded depths say something so fine that you almost envy her. Late on, immobile in her chair, she watches sunlight. “Outline of the window crossing that stone, that’s the whole earth spinning, whole lives changing. You can watch it all from here”. And in one of the heartshakingly fond joshing conversations with Arthur (whose farmerly solidity is utterly convincing, and I know a lot of them) – she reminds us that she was always fun. She muses on whether to booby-trap the house for those who might live there after their death, planting fake ghosts and creaking floorboards. Or on how being “a despot” would enable you to keep the shops open late.

 

 
It is in part a sorrowful meditation on the gap between generations – the parents rustic, stable, simplehearted, churchgoing believers who never asked much of life; Stephen the child of the ‘70s, anxious, brittle, impatient, mercantile, thwarted without understanding why. And Kate, today’s girl, speaking lightly of therapy and empathy but still adrift.
But Norris does not let the parents off the hook. Slowly it becomes clear how difficult the relationship always was between the awkward Stephen and his Dad, and how neither parent ever understood him; and how painful is the contrast with Kate – not a settled adult yet, but one enchantingly able to bond and sing Elvis with old Edie. Eleanor Wyld gives her solid reality and immense adolescent charm, clumping in her Doc Martens, sweetness in her half-grown heart.

 

 
And in all the best plays its themes expand beyond their lives and the room to a reflection on life itself, fleeing past while we do something else. As Edie says, you can never pin down a moment which defines what we’re about. And when dementia closes in, you “can hardly tell which of the millions of lives I imagined I might have lived eventually turned out to the the real one. They are all as vivid and vague as each other”. Shattering.
BOX OFFICE 020 8743 5050 to 10 Jan

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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