WHAT THE BUTLER SAW Emporium, Brighton

GUEST REVIEWER CHRIS PALING SEES AN ORTON OEUVRE IN ITS TRUE HOME..

Joe Orton would have liked The Emporium. This deconsecrated Methodist church has been a theatre and café for a couple of years now. It was at the vanguard of the regeneration of an unloved part of the city. Gary Blair and James Weisz work hard at keeping it afloat with sharp and well targeted programming. Beckett, Pinter, Sondheim and Orton have all been staged here – modern classics aimed squarely at the central Brighton demi-monde. The venue is fashionably scruffy; the food, beer and coffee are good.

Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell went house-hunting close to The Emporium; their last trip together was an outing to Brighton ten days before Halliwell bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. Orton was working on the first draft of ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the time. In his diaries he relates breaking free from Halliwell one gloomy, damp Brighton night. In a borrowed mac he visits a Gents’ lavatory beside a church where he meets a tall aristocrat and a dwarf “skulking in the corner.”

His plays are hard to get right. Play him too broad and comedic and the lines fall flat. Characters must remain unaware of their absurdities leaving work for the audience to do. Kearns’ cast are note perfect.Once the ear tunes in to the epigrams there’s plenty to enjoy – one of the biggest laughs of the night went to orgasm-faking Mrs Prentice announcing to her husband, “My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time.”
Director and designer Patrick Kearns has assembled a powerful company. Brian Capron (beloved in his murderous role as one of Gail Platt’s husbands on Coronation Street) effortlessly takes the lead as the priapic shrink, Dr Prentice, Jenny Funnell plays his highly strung wife with a nice harmonic of hysteria. Special mention to the superb performance of Michael Kirk as the senior psychiatrist: his strutting around and Herbert Lom mid-distance stares give real weight to the character.
The action takes place in the consulting room of a psychiatric hospital. The drama ignites when Dr Prentice is caught in flagrante by his wife. To escape her wrath he declares his victim insane, cue a couple of hours of characters in various states of undress, distress and consciousness dashing in and out of the four side doors of the stage. Farce relies on the audience buying in to the unfolding logic of the circumstances and it’s a measure of the success of this production that the audience were hooked in from the start. The first act, before the pace becomes too frenetic, is more successful than the second but this is a fault of the play and a reminder that it was still a work in progress when Orton was murdered. A farce it may be, but in tackling issues of insanity one can’t help feeling that he was mining the material of his own life and the unravelling mental condition of Halliwell. He never saw his play performed. He’d have relished this Brighton production.

box office tickets@emporiumbrighton.com to 9 May
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE Lyttelton, SE1

THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION AND ITS END
What do you do after a revolution? Tyrant toppled, lives sacrificed, people feeling entitled to reward, reformers aflame with rapidly diversifying ideas. Meanwhile things have to be organized, the starving fed, heroes re-examined, laws set up. We watch the factions and fanaticisms  of the Arab Spring and forget that it happened here once: our democracy was not born all at once , or easily.

Caryl Churchill’s play about the aftermath of the English Civil War draws on the pamphlets and movements of 1646 to 1660,   on Cromwell’s Parliament-men, on the factions of Ranters and Levellers, and the Diggers who moved onto St Georges hill and simply began digging it up because “True Freedom lies where a man finds his nourishment, and that is in the earth” .

Everything was shaken, even more than in the Reformation years. The idea of Divine Law was overturned by the defeat of King Charles I and his imprisonment; in the Putney debates of 1647 impassioned intellectual and religious questions were raised, resonant today in the age of Occupy protests and anti-globalization rallies. How can all men be equal if some have more property? Must all have the right to choose their representative, or only some? Is a person bound to obey laws he or she doesn’t morally approve of? “If a foreigner dwell here, shall he be content to be subjected to the Law?”. Meanwhile, out among the rabble and rant of dissent in the fields, wild-eyed starvelings declared that nothing was barred, not thieving or sexual freedom, because everything was new.
When Churchill’s knotty, impressionistic, tough-going play was last produced in London it was with a cast of six, switching roles. This one – launching Rufus Norris’ leadership of the NT and directed by Lyndsey Turner – has a cast of 19 plus a community ensemble of forty more. Es Devlin’s set is a vast table , at first loaded with meats and exotic fruits and surrounded by grandees, later a bare board around which white-collared Puritans sit scratching at documents. At one point the Diggers actually take it up plank by plank to start digging. Finally a ragged starving  remainder argues around a brazier, wondering why the Second Coming of Christ did not, after all , usher in the new Jerusalem as per plan.

The look of it is fine, the populace being clad in a nicely vague rural-timeless-modern manner by Soutra Gilmour . It does create a sense of eavesdropping on the far past. The moments of song are stirring and there are undoubtedly some excellent performances:  a headlong barmy Joshua James, an impressive Trystan Gravelle, Alan Williams as Gerald Winstanley and as a fine striking drunk, and Ashley McGuire immensely touching and restrained as a vagrant woman, Margaret Brotherton. And I have a pretty high tolerance, not universally shared, for 17c political prose: got a real frisson when Sargon Yelda as the Leveller Colonel Rainborough rises at the Putney debates with that great affirmation that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly Sir, I think it clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government..”
Tremendous. And you can see why Rufus Norris decided to programme it, his first show, in election season. But for all the fine execution and the unquestioned if oddball genius of Caryl Churchill, as a play it fails to ascend the heights. Too wordily dense, too much in love with the verbatim, and frankly a touch arrogant in its unwillingness to explain itself courteously to audiences short on homework. The birth of modern Parliamentary democracy deserved a more democratic approach.

box office 0207 452 3000 to 22 June
Sponsor: Travelex Rating: three

3 Meece Rating

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CLARION Arcola, E8

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE. WITH TONGS. 

The Clarion is a newspaper which hates immigrants. And liberals, especially those on the hated rival Sentinel, a barely-disguised Guardian. Britain, it says, is going to the dogs: betraying Nelson and Churchill and Mary Whitehouse and the Methodists. And the Romans, who were clearly acceptable immigrants, since the editor wears a shining centurion’s helmet at weekends. He hates multiculturalism, bisexuals, Glastonbury, lattes , sundried tomatoes, the Met Office (“They’ve an agenda. I don’t know what but it’s there. Incubating”). Oh, and Elvis, whose music caused “sixty years of culturally sanctioned underaged rutting and the fucking polytechnics. None of which happened when everyone went to lunchtime recitals of Vaughan Williams”.

This is morning conference under editor Morris Honeyspoon, played by Greg Hicks with a craggy, vulturous, leathery aggression which makes Malcolm Tucker look like St Bernadette. His Clarion is “an issue-led newspaper”, and if you think you can work out which one – or a mixture of which two – you really would be safer keeping quiet about it. Not that the barks and eddies of laughter in the Arcola, the yelling of Honeyspoon, and the soundscape of apocalyptic howling wind round the Shards and Gherkins of London make for much quiet.

Mark Jagasia’s first play – he’s an ex-tabloid hack – delivers under Mehmet Ergen’s direction an unnervingly enjoyable evening. If you have ever worked for a newsroom “run like a North Korean death camp” or as a reader been exasperated by the British press, there is both joy in the caricature, and an undertow of seriousness if you care to admit it. In the early moments I feared it would not progress beyond a wicked sketch, but plot develops nicely: an incriminating document, a comradeship and a betrayal, a bomb, a death and two sharp twists at the end.
Partnering Hicks is the glorious Clare Higgins as Verity, a veteran foreign correspondent. Once “a ferocious little kitty with the morals of Caligula”, she clawed her way up to OBE fame, hit the buffers and the bottle, and now supports a dying husband by fiddling her expenses and enduring complicity with Honeyspoon’s toxic headlines : “Immigrants barbecue llamas at petting zoo…Paedophiles in burqas stalk our kids…UK swamped by foreign gays”. Having been in Rwanda, she says, “I know what people are capable of when they’re fed lies”; but once sold, a soul is expensive to buy back. Higgins is superb: dry, scornful, half-reluctantly decent, defeated by life, a limping ragged integrity draping her battle-hardened carapace.

Hicks himself gives even the irresistibly appalling Honeyspoon a vulnerable streak of pathos, since he is under the cosh from the proprietor, a “Cypriot dwarf” who owns a chain of topless burger-bars, and his money man Clive, a god-bothering pinstripe (Peter Bourke, sliming for England). Honeyspoon is at least a proper newsman, whereas the proprietor wants headlines about a starlet’s lost dog, last seen in a frilly skirt on Hampstead Heath . “Wandering round a homosexual wilderness surrounded by Keynsians!” cries the editor “England in 2015, a bulldog in a tutu owned by a whore!”. Only the possibility of pinning the dognapping on Romanians cheers up this Farageian Canute. That, and the financial difficulties of the liberal press…
It’s a howl of an England struggling without grace for identity, and a newsprint industry in decline. Supporting characters in the newsroom are beautifully sketched: the hopeless news editor yearning to get home to Braintree for Curry Club, the pretentious young novelist earning a despised crust as “Immigration Editor”, the lunatic astrologer welcoming the end of days. And Laura Smithers puts in a fabulous London debut as the intern: a masterclass in, yeah, like, infuriating youthful entitlement and vacuous ambition. “She’ll be the next editor” breathed a nearby real journalist. Oh dear.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 16 May
rating : four

4 Meece Rating

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AH, WILDERNESS! Young Vic, SE1

THE SANDS OF TIME YIELD UP THEIR DREAMS
This is Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy: the moment when from his vortex of family addiction, illness, loneliness, romantic seaward longings and deep human empathy came a spurt of hope. It is set in the same East Coast seaside house as his fogbound, bitter autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The title is from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou, beside me singing in the Wilderness–Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” Teenage Richard, aflame with calf-love and rebellion, has the poem by heart. It weaves through the play, together with the lush, lily-scented despairing eroticism of Swinburne and Wilde, references to Ibsen and the daring literary fin-de-siecle spirits of the author’s youth (remember the father’s disgust in the later, harsher play: “Baudelaire, Whitman Poe, Wilde, whoremongers and degenerates!”
For we are in O’Neill’s youth, idealized a decade later in 1933, yearning back to the passion of banned books, a new century’s revolt against the parental rigidities. Wonderfully cunning of the Young Vic and director Natalie Abrahami to have ‘60s Bob Dylan tracks playing as we settle: another age when youth was hopeful and despairing, embracing love and disillusion and rebellion and times a-changing.

Observed by a wandering, curiously ghostlike figure who steps into remembered characters and then watches intently, unseen in the margins , this is a portrait of the family O’Neill should have had. One in which adolescent angst and anger could clash against a partially dysfunctional household and run wild in brief dissipation, but be contained and accepted in final mellow moonlit moments by solid united parents. Martin Marquez and Janie Dee give them that solidity: he a local newspaper proprietor rooted and respected, if testy; she typically strong as Essie, who knows her duty to object to “corrupting” books and behaviour, but is perfectly aware of convention’s unimportance next to keeping the family together.

Sometimes brother Arthur – Ashley Zhangahza – sits at a battered piano and sings the gentle melancholy parlour-songs of a century past, underlining that sense of a safe if stale old world before all this new poetry stirred it up. Not that family life is smooth: Dominic Rowan is Uncle Sid, an amiable (and very funny) habitual drunkard who was once to marry aunt Lily (Susannah Wise) until she demurred at his incurable behaviour. There is real subtle pain here, though delight in the scene, nicely indicated as pretty routine, where Sid demolishes the family dinner.

But young Richard is the focal point, and George Mackay is marvellous: flouncingly adolescent, self-righteously wounded when his chastely hesitant girlfriend Muriel is persuaded to chuck him. He goes on to a low bar, where his first-time drunkenness and squirmingly embarrassed encounter with a predatory tart are quite beautiful in execution. He poses as sophisticated, tries to play cool when Muriel reappears, hurls himself flat on his face in a sea-pool to express thwarted embarrassed adoration. He is glorious.

But what keeps me haunted hours later is Abrahami’s drifting, gentle direction within a wonderful set by Dick Bird. Fresh from its annihilation under the gravel of Happy Days, the Young Vic stage is now under tons of finer sand: sculpted dunes and breakwaters beneath faded seaside clapboard, sands of time in which characters will suddenly burrow to haul out books, a table, a sea-pool reflecting the moon. Memories are as drifting and reshaped as a windblown beach. Charles Balfour’s lighting gives it a Hopper-like beauty of sharp-lit silhouette and shadow, a remembered dream. I can’t get it out of my head.
box office  www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922 to 23 May
rating four     4 Meece Rating

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LOVE’S SACRIFICE Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THREE OF THEM IN THAT MARRIAGE…
You get plenty of cautionary tales in John Ford’s little-remembered 1633 play. For one thing, if you get three women pregnant at once with promises of marriage and then variously insult their appearance, age and morals they will take a nasty vengeance.  In front of a Cardinal, in masks, and with an anachronistic but weirdly brilliant use of 21st century ultrasound technology under their bodices.
Nor is it wise for a young courtier to spurn the Duke’s widowed sister, be she never so shrewish a cougar, claim a vow of celibacy and then get close to her beautiful young sister-in-law. No good will come of this. Especially if the spurned widow teams up with D’Avolos, a smooth, mutteringly poisonous Jonathan McGuinness. Such death-dealing intrigues are the lifeblood of vigorous, bloodthirsty 17c drama. But this play is curiously more thoughtful, and less randomly bloody, than Ford’s incestuous, murderous “Tis Pity She’s A Whore” (lately revived at the Wanamaker, (review, http://tinyurl.com/p9zenc9 ).
Indeed Love’s Sacrifice is traditionally written off as a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with its sub-plots which only confusingly mirror the main action: T.S.Eliot said it had “all the faults of which Ford was capable”. And yet, and yet…it turns out in Matthew Dunster’s admirable and physically spirited production to be far more interesting than that: ambiguous and questioning and psychologically intense.
The triple-seduction-pregnancy sideshow is briskly treated – Andy Apollo in his RSC debut season playing Ferentes like a caddish Elvis, smoothing his quiff and hauling the women around like giggling potato-sacks. Another random branch of the tale involves Matthew Kelly as a ridiculous old man with a huge white wig, yellow stockings (very Malvolio) and an endearing servant gorgeously evoked by Colin Ryan. He introduces an exiled Lord disguised as a Fool and previously rejected by the noble (yet illicitly pregnant) widow . And so on. Fear not, though: the trademark RSC clarity keeps things as credible as is decent.

In the first hour Dunster gives it the full romp-and-rampage treatment, as hypnotic religious chant shatters into high anguished impassioned fiddle shrieks and the court scamper and lark among cathedral arches and across a high wrought-iron balcony. But that contrast, sacred and profane emotions and problematical vows clashing into disaster, deepens fascinatingly as it develops. Success depends strongly on central performances, and here we are richly served. Jamie Thomas King is the decent, conflicted Fernando; Matthew Needham as the Duke carries it brilliantly from a larky, jokesome and rather endearing alpha-male laddishness to real anguish, confusion, remorse and violence. Catrin Stewart, lately so fine in The Jew of Malta, is a delicate perfection as the lovelorn wife who confesses her adoration to Fernando but vows not to go beyond a kiss for the sake of chaste wedlock.
In the second half there are some quite remarkable scenes between these three victims of “lawless love” and impossible temptation: moments as powerful as Othello, not least in a long, intense confrontation between the heartbroken confused Duke and his wife, in which Stewart delivers crazy, taunting, extraordinarily modern sentiments of defiance: thrilling. Anna Fleischle’s design, with curious iron pillars within which hellfire seems to flicker through cracks, and Alexander Balanescu’s extraordinary score, create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere and serve both the ferocity and the dark comedy of the tale perfectly.
So long-lost concepts of chastity and honour spring back to life, nearly four centuries on, and shake us. As much, indeed, as one particularly shocking moment near the end which wrenched a sharp, unison gasp across the house. It involves white funeral wreaths. Say no more.

4 Meece Rating
box office http://www.rsc.org 0844 800 1110 to 24 june
rating : four

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A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

FIFTY GRADES OF A?  ( EDUCATIONAL SADISM TODAY)
During the first half, parents of teenagers will cringingly hope that Jonathan Lewis’ play is fanciful: a comically exaggerated libel on a generation. Especially a generation of boys. Horrible, most of them they are: rackety, full of shouty toxic “banter” , contempt and their own dicks. In particular AJ Lewis as Zachir the Albanian Muslim is a courageously unsympathetic portrayal, as is Jack Bass as Aldous, the irritating prankster who has papered the entire room with identical gurning pictures of Nicholas Cage because it’s a room they will be “caged” in for Isolation between close-packed A level papers (a resort caused by timetable clashes, to prevent cheating).

The other boys, despite obvious nervy vulnerability in a couple of them, play along with the tone. Ugh: these are not the lively, affectionate, vulnerable children we know at home! The four girls are more civilized, contemptuous of the boys’ nonsense; but one is hunched in a corner with a misery not related to A levels, others selfie- and self-addicted, and a late arrival Twink (Elsa Perryman Owens) downright terrifying in her smudged aggression.

However, it is not really fanciful at all: Lewis workshopped the play with his son’s generation, and the eleven young cast are fresh out of school, non-professional. And my daughter, a co-ed close to their generation, reckoned the portrayal of group behaviour was bang on: to the point that I actually apologized to her in the interval for sending her to school and putting her through any such system of exams at all.

For that is the point of Lewis’ trilogy – which this opens – entitled “EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION” . It is a howl of protest about the dehumanizing, grade-obsessed, teach-to-the-test world of exams. As the play continues, the kids themselves alternate between clear-sighted cynicism and desperate buying-in to the A-star, Oxbridge dream . Entertainingly, there are brief freezes when each speaks the groomed, disingenuous language of the UCAS personal-statement “…and thats why I have a passion to study xxxx”. It helps, too, that the exam they are in the middle of is Politics.

What emerges – notably through the more eventful second act – is that they are, effectively, abused by the system and their high-flying school. This eventfulness is driven by the other thing parents will hope to God is fanciful – the fact that the school has messed up its arrangements, and the eleven are left unsupervised in the defaced music-room with no teacher even to remove their phones to prevent cheating. Hence the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere. Though when the teacher does arrive – Joe Layton a study in angry haplessness – and certain secrets emerge, things do not get better or quieter. Though often they are pretty funny.
And, in the end, touching. For these 18 year olds are not monstrous, just bent out of shape by what Lewis calls “the maniacal devotion to testing and prescriptive teaching, in which exams are not just a diagnostic part of learning but the sine qua non of an education based on conformity and compliance”.

The next two plays will have a different, less riotous tone as the same issue is expanded; first through the eyes of parents, then of teachers. As Lewis says, he has not pat answer: “I am simply sharing my despair at a system which seems so often to turn children with wonderful imaginations and joyous self confidence into depressed teenagers with appallingly low self esteem and a terrible sense of failure and hopelessness.” This one is sometimes hard going – the first half could be trimmed – but with Lewis’ skilled writing and pacing resolves into something valuable, angry, and (God help us) darkly entertaining.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 9 May
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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CARMEN DISRUPTION Almeida N1

WILL GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES TORE-ADORE IT?   READ ON
The best way to describe this play is as a sideshow. There is a performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen somewhere, and playing out around it are these connected lives. Think 2004’s Crash mixed with Shakespeare in Love. A mix of portraits, but with a master text to play with.
The Almeida, the West End’s cupboard cousin, has been stripped bare by designer Lizzie Clachan. Bare brick, exposed lights and no flats for the actors, yet delicate licks of red paint, gold detailing and ornamental lighting for the audience. We’re led to our seats through backstage – perhaps labouring a little too heavily the point that we’re peeling beneath the opera – past a dead, bleeding, but still breathing Bull.

I have no idea what happens in Carmen – I don’t know a thing about opera. You say ‘thrilling performance at Covent Garden’, I think man with a unicycle and flaming batons outside Boots the chemist. But thankfully this tension seemed to be in play. Michael Longhurst’s production – spare but madly theatrical – satisfyingly excavates the pop culture from the opera. In the ENO season-ticket holders, you could almost hear the Sauvignon curdling. Yes opera is about sex and death. But surely not in such a raw state as this.

In a way I’ve never thought possible, the lack of any real story, quite nicely made way for these character sketches. A business man, a rent boy, a disturbed singer, a troubled teen, a lost mother at first seem like the standard roll-call. But Jack Farthing – a latter-day Carmen as a witty Essex rent boy – and John Light – Escamillio of the square mile with sharp suits and semi-automatic delivery – were enrapturing. Carmen’s high power ejaculation about which it “is only fair to warn people” and Escamillio’s frantic defines of following people had us hooked. Their stories, perhaps linking in meaningful ways for the black ties in the crowd, were for the rest of us just masterfully told single stories.

However, these moments could be hit and miss. Katie West – as Micaëla, for the informed – had an absent unrequited love to battle with, into which she threw herself but which failed to move. And I never fully bought into Sharon Small – as ‘The Singer’.

A haunting chorus, with snippets from the opera, were for me were the only links. And eventually lost souls stumbling on the ‘chocolate box opera house’ Carmen, the curious lifestyles of opera singers, personal technology and ‘Europe’ were the playwright’s inspirations. I’m not sure all these were hit, but his skill in producing entirely entertaining and mostly crisp lives was an entertaining watch. Even if the Bizet did go straight down the bidet.
Box Office: 020 7359 4404  to 23 May

raing:  four   4 Meece Rating
Rating: four

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