TEMPLE Donmar, WC1

ALL FIVE MICE REJOICE (CHURCH MICE, CLEARLY)  FOR A MODERN HISTORY-PLAY

Above the table cluttered with  last-night’s paper cups, high windows show St Paul’s dome; the distant chanting is not of choristers but demonstrators, and the black-clad Dean looking out in weary despair is invaded by a dishevelled supply PA with her backpack hanging open – late because of a rail replacement bus. Thus within the first minute Howard Davies’ superb production establishes a clash: orderly ecclesiastical tradition meets the angry muddle of modernity.
Steve Waters’ play recreates an insoluble dilemma, imagining the final deliberations in 2011 when St Paul’s reopened after a fortnight’s closure. Would the Dean and Chapter co-operate with the City Corporation in injuncting against – and forcibly evicting – the Occupy protest camp? Ironically, that inchoate anti-capitalist demonstration was never meant to be there: it was the police who kettled it into Cathedral territory, thus providing Occupy with hot TV pictures and the Cathedral with a massive financial loss, a painful question of conscience, and countless sanctimonious remarks about moneylenders-in-the-temple. To make it harder the Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser, showily resigned at the idea of the Church seeming to condone violence.
The Dean, already under fire for closing a building which stayed open all through the Blitz, had to rule. For ninety theatrically gripping minutes we watch this lonely man beset from without and within, and played by the greatest actor of the day. For Simon Russell Beale gives him intensity, pain, fragility, fire and twinkles of unexpected wit : it’s a flawless, thrilling performance. Waters’ writing weaves absurdity, sincerity, personality and history into a piece sorrowfully perceptive , thought-provoking and necessary. And dares include some very, very good laughs.

For one after another, forces besiege the Dean as he tries to write his reopening sermon. The resigning Canon Chancellor, Paul Higgins all jeans and anorak and enfant-terrible vanity, prates of how “invigorating” and ‘joyous’ the protest camp is. The Dean’s confused horror at his colleague’s self-aggrandizing Twitter habit all through the agonizing day is cruelly demonstrated, their final reconciliation oddly touching. From the other direction comes a snakelike Corporation lawyer (Shereen Martin) urging brisk injuctions against the “scruffy, illiterate, unsightly” plebs.
Nor is our hero helped one whit by the Bishop of London, wickedly given orotund patriarchal life by Malcolm Sinclair. He refers to the occupation as “a gift” and urges some sort of washy PR campaign to please the vaguely distressed unseen figure of “Rowan”. But as the Dean observes with brief waspishness (Russell Beale managing always to convey the conflict of a man who wishes he wasn’t so provoked to sharpness) the Bishop of London is on easy street. “Without portfolio. No dragging a building around for him. No, he springs up here, there, a royal wedding, glamorous speaking assignment, at liberty to be endlessly visible”. Sinclair’s attempt at a reassuring man-hug of the stolid, appalled Dean is a comic moment to treasure. Though not, I suspect, if you are the Rt Revd. Richard Chartres.

Rebecca Humphries is beguilingly natural as Lizzie the PA (never sat her history degree, but did a thesis on “Witchcraft through the lens of Queer Theory”). She is pivotal both in argument and emotion, reappearing at every juncture. And so it goes: faeces and racket and earnest idealism and disorderliness outside, inside the Virger (a stiffly splendid Anna Calder-Marshall) talking of lacquering candelabras. And all the time, that impossibility of a right decision. For as the Dean says, St Paul’s has been there 1400 years and never asked to be the parish-church to Mammon’s towers. But since it is, it must keep the worship going and the roof on, try to be holy, somehow. The ending is graceful and profound: sad, human, gentle, honest.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 25 July
Rating: five    5 Meece Rating
Sponsors: Barclays / C & S Sherling

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THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM Olivier, SE1

SONGS, SCUFFLES, VILLAINS AND VIRTUE IN 1707

Towering staircases and sliding panels transform the big stage from tavern to genteel house, with a pleasingly inexplicable intermittent folk-band lurking on the top landing. Here for two and a half frenzied hours Simon Godwin zingily interprets George Farquar’s Restoration comedy with a cast of 21, not one part a dud. It is farce bordering on panto, edged with songs, enlivened with scuffles, glorified with random absurdities and containing a hard nugget of feminist polemic. You get scheming London beaux chasing rich wives ,confused by equally artful Midlands villains, a churlish drunk, a daft and deadpan comedy butler (O, Pearce Quigley, what a joy you are!). There are spirited womenfolk, a bossy matriarchal herbalist, highwaymen robbers, a magnificent rumpus of a fight conducted partly in stunning 18c ladies’ underwear, a lost earldom, an amorous French officer bursting into Piaffesque song, a French priest exposed as an Irish spy,  lies and redemptions and a Deus-ex-machina in a periwig . And – here’s the polemic – the conclusion, so daring in 1707, that sometimes divorce is the only thing for it.
For it is not quite your routine Restoration romp ,in which a Lady Teazle must return repentant to her husband. Susannah Fielding is Mrs Sullen, fourteen months married to a man who ignores and despises her, and values only her fortune. He comes to bed drunk, all cold feet and snoring, but she longs for his love and schemes uselessly to make him jealous by flirting with the Frenchman. With difficulty she resists the more congenial advances of the rascally beau Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild, holding a delicate balance between opportunism and growing decency). Her cry to the audience after the interval gets applause; “In England – A country whose women are its glory – must women be enslaved?”. Fielding perfectly evokes an intelligent woman in an age without rights, her misery curdling occasionally into cynicism “London is the place for managing a husband…wheedle your booby up to Town!”. At her side, the single Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is equally spirited but not yet trapped, though Samuel Barnett’s pretty, fake Lord Aimwell is moving in on her.
The delight of Godwin’s production is that it gives proper weight to the nastiness of a bad marriage while letting rip with splendid nonsense . It revels in faints and fake fits, cries of “Unlace your stays! Unbosom yourself!”, Ealing-comedy burglars, cross-wooings, double-entendres, some rich Brummie accents and wiggling wench-work, and sudden interpolations like Barbara Kirby as a dotty old countrywoman seeking herbal advice from batty Lady Bountiful – Jane Booker in unforgettable lateral-sprouting hair. But even at its most Benny-Hill moments the core problem remains: as Mrs Sullen sadly says to her spouse “Have we not been a perpetual offence to each other?”. Thus Dorinda’s happy marital conclusion must be matched by an equally happy divorce for her friend. So when they all dance farewell (including the tied-up highwaymen, jerking and squabbling) there is a real sense of release both comic and moral. And it’s a Travelex: all yours for fifteen quid if you’re quick.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 to September Sponsor: Travelex
http://www.ntlive.com: broadcast live to 550 UK cinemas on 3 Sept

rating;  four   4 Meece Rating

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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DARK, STARK AND DANGEROUS:  A MERCHANT FOR TODAY

What an odd, stark, angry, intelligent Merchant this is! Wholly unlike the last RSC production, Rupert Goold’s spectacular Merchant-of-Vegas gameshow. Polly Findlay sets it modern dress, on a bare stage whose floor and backdrop are gold bars, mirroring the auditorium and making us visible witnesses to the case of Antonio, the shipowning speculator, and his deal with Shylock the Jew. A gilded pendulum swings constantly at stage level; the three caskets descend too, 65 feet from the grid on wires , bald as geometry diagrams – cube, cone, cylinder .
Jessica’s window is right up there too, high over the blank gold. Lancelot Gobbo, face-painted and inevitably annoying (not Tim Samuels’ fault, it’s the least engaging Shakespeare’s clown), makes his entry sitting among us and shouting up. The Prince of Aragon shakes hands with the front row with bonhomous posh confidence before getting the caskets wrong. Young Christian Venetians swagger like Bullingdon-boys , mock old Shylock, steal his daughter and his money , cringe when he turns on them and cheer when Portia’s chop-logic strips him of all dignity.
It is a production full of jarring unease, its text mined with sharp intelligence by Findlay (fresh themes sprang up from lines I had never noticed before). Antonio (Jamie Ballard) sets the tone, staring alone from the stage as we settle, confiding his neurotic, edgy depression to a fully lit house, a man in trouble. The coxcomb Salerio comes on with a cowlick quiff like a raven- haired Tintin to josh with him: street-boy Gratiano romps with “skipping spirits”. But it is Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s handsome Bassanio with whom, Findlay makes snoggingly clear, Antonio is in love. Ballard handles brilliantly the Merchant’s borderline-hysterical agreement to the loan which will take his lover away to chase Portia, pledging “my purse, my person, my extremest means”. Yet having warmed us to him in his loneliness and need for his preening bisexual pal, Ballard jerks us back to discomfort by spitting in the old Jew’s face even as he borrows his money.

Shylock, inspired casting, is Makram J.Khoury: Palestinian, patriarchal, heavily accented, standing out from the brash youngsters in Semitic appearance and venerable age. He makes them seem small, petulant, vicious: but we know what he is going to want with his knife and this jars against our sympathy. His “Hath not a Jew eyes?”, addressed to the jeering lads, is electrifying, a real plea; it is mirrored in the court scene by Portia’s directing ‘The quality of mercy” right at him. It is as if the play, the very audience, pleads with each to be human, and fails.

Findlay finds in her Portia, too, a troubling ambiguity. Patsy Ferran (last seen as Aharrrr-Jim-lad in Findlay’s NT Treasure Island) at first seems permanently set to “sprightly”, but with her transformation into lawyer finds a sharp authority and something oddly nasty in her shrill taunts. It gives a raw, undeniable depth of disillusion to that final rom-com conclusion which always sits so oddly. After the tense trial , Antonio’s dissolution into unforgettable moaning terror and Shylock’s“I am not well” , the sourness endures. Portia is the boss , and like us has little faith that Bassanio won’t stray. Even more strikingly, hearing that Lorenzo inherits Shylock’s remaining fortune makes his stolen bride Jessica flee the stage in distress. Convert she may be, but her father’s humiliation shadows any happiness.
Gobbo (reduced now to candle-monitor) dresses the stage with dozens of flames reflecting in the gold; dissonant religious chants sound above. We are not convinced that all is resolved, nor should it be. Findlay’s achievement is in making that unease clear, sharp and decent: where nobody comes out well, nobody deserves to be happy,
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org to 2 Sept
Live in cinemas on 22 July   Rating :  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE ONE DAY OF THE YEAR Finborough, SW10

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

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

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

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

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McQUEEN St James’ Theatre, SW1

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

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

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

box office 0844 264 2140 to 6 June http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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FANNY AND STELLA Above the Stag, Vauxhall SW8

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

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

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

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

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THE ANGRY BRIGADE Bush Theatre W12

AN OLD ANGER, SPEAKING TO TODAY

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

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

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

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

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

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