THE END OF LONGING Playhouse, SW1

IN THE END, AN HONOURABLE PLAY

 

Its fame rolls before it: a debut play, premiered in London by Matthew Perry. To a generation of young adults (and to many far younger, thanks to ceaseless repeats) he is “Chandler from FRIENDS”. Moreover, Perry has openly talked about his alcoholism, amphetamine use and rehab, and contributes to allied causes. And the play itself, in which he stars, is about four of his contemporaries – the Friends generation now rising forty – living in New York and still not settled in life.

 

Small surprise, then, that the audience is young, prone to go “whoo!” at Perry’s first appearance in the bar-room set as the defiantly debonair Jack, declaring his unswerving dedicated to drink. Small wonder that some, near us ,were young enough to go “aaah’ at pushbutton romantic or touching moments. And, to be brutal, small wonder that the first half is low on subtlety or ambiguity (the four characters all, in US sitcom style, tend to say both to one another and sometimes direct to us, exactly what they mean and feel: no scope for guessing or revelation).

 
So there are moments of flat dismay in that first half, which had too much of a first-draft feeling for comfort. What happens is just that Jack the drunkard falls for Stephanie the beautiful, cynical high-class prostitute (Jennifer Mudge) and her neurotic, baby-hungry friend Stevie (Christina Cole) hooks up rather contemptuously with the apparently dim Joe (Lloyd Owen) even though he is, she moans, so stupid he doesn’t even have a therapist…

 

Thus there are moments in that first act when you glumly think that it’s just Sex and the City without the wit and one-liners, or Friends run to seed. The uncommitted might abandon it at the interval. But they shouldn’t. The second act catches fire, as at last some reality burns off the sitcom fluffiness. Stevie and Joe tentatively commit, because she’s pregnant, but Jack’s drinking becomes no longer cute and knowing but ugly and disruptive. An angry stalemate with Stephanie brings a rift when he won’t give up drink and she won’t give up escort work. In a telling line about drink he lays it out: without it, he is “needy, not funny and constantly afraid”.

 
A real crisis occurs around the pregnancy and the four find themselves in a hospital. The jokes become bitter; Perry is a terrific comedian (his gloomy announcement to an offstage nurse “You are not a nice person” is a delight). But when he leaves his distraught friends because he needs a bar, there is a real bitterness. Owen’s dim Joe, meanwhile, grows in decency and strength before our very eyes – a joy to watch = and this ironically means that the comedy around his comparative unsophistication is funnier (when he uses the world “vicissitudes”, the others stare in astonishment).
And it is Joe who finally bursts the bubble of frightened compulsion in the other couple. “There are ten million alcoholics in the world, talk to one of them! Life is not as complicated as you two make out. Stop being such fucking morons and sort your shit out!”.
So at last, in a moment of such genuine value to his generation that the play’s early weaknesses are forgiven, Perry steps forward as if at a first AA meeting, and delivers a speech which is wrenching, honest, deeply felt and lived. And if some fans leap to their feet in applause, you feel he earned it. As the author protectively says, it’s fiction, he is not Jack. But he knows him pretty damn well. And the use he is making of him is honourable.

box office 0844 871 7631.  http://www.atgtickets.com/venues/playhouse-theatre/
to 14 May

rating three

3 Meece Rating

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THE HERBAL BED Royal, Northampton then touring

SHAKESPEARE’S TOWN LAID BEFORE US

 
The year 1613: somewhere offstage old Shakespeare is dying, and in her husband’s physic-garden, competent and dignified, his daughter Susanna assists her middle-aged husband Doctor Hall. She manages her small daughter and the maid Hester, laughs with the neighbour Rafe Smith who comes by to sell ribbons, and impatiently fends off the young buck Jack, a local grandee’s son who is supposed to be learning herbal medicine from the doctor. Jack, bright but unreliable, rattles off his lessons about worm-poultices, women with “irregular lunar evacuations” and the use of lead and turpentine against “Signor Gonhorrea, the Italian disease”. That is, when he is not sticking his hand in Hester’s skirt or conjuring up unwelcome memories of boyhood days when he, Rafe and Susanna all larked together by the Avon.

 
Peter Whelan’s play, revived with perfect timing in the quatercentenary, draws you in with effortless grace, evoking from the start both the period and the intimate family tensions . Emma Lowndes’ Susanna seems almost an Ibsen heroine, married to an undemonstrative academic and more than tempted by Rafe (Philip Correia) who is in an unhappy marriage after the death of his two children. Lowndes gives Susanna a spirited individuality, at first seemingly wrapped in duty, but wilder, on the edge of infidelity when she finds herself alone in the night-scented garden with Rafe, and “Love’s alchemy” makes wrong things right. He is the one who, gripped by honour, hesitates.

 
Their desire, though unconsummated, is almost her downfall when the irritated, sacked and arrogant Jack (Matt Whitchurch, every inch the Hooray Henry) drunkenly denounces her in the pub for adultery. Clerical court records of the year show that Susanna did defend such an accusation. The doctor reacts with disbelief and horror and defends her honour vigorously yet – with a marvellous, layered, ambiguous performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis – he knows deep down that his wife’s heart is not quite his. Susanna, only technically innocent, suborns Hester to a whiteish lie about the order of events on that evening. Again, the two women’s relationship is beautifully evoked (and Charlotte Wakefield’s Hester gets her great scene later on).

 
When it becomes clear that the Church court will not sit before the mellow old Santa-bearded Bishop but his Vicar-General, a suitable shudder runs through us because in an artful opening scene Whelan lets us glimpse Michael Mears’ Goche: a tall grim figure in Puritan black and tight cap who looms and shudders like a tall disapproving ferret as he condemns the morality of the doctor’s trade, since illness is clearly a divine punishment. We foresee trouble, and indeed when Jonathan Fensom’s pretty garden set abruptly becomes an echoing Worcester Cathedral, Mears gives a terrific pouncing, chilly, hypnotically alarming interrogation as poor Hester the country girl sways with cathedral vertigo, looking up at the soaring God-filled vaulting overhead.

 

So we have a society in change: passionate modern lovers, a dutiful decent scientist (“I am no bigot, I treat Roman Catholics, even a Popish priest”). We have the arrogant gentry hooray-Henry making trouble, and the cold Churchman grasping atavistically at Godly power. Director James Dacre, who leads this theatre, a few years back memorably directed another Whelan play , the WW1 story of The Accrington Pals. Here the same sense of careful respect of period combines with universal recognizable humanity in a tight, instinctively connected ensemble.

 

In his programme notes Dacre reflects on modern parallels: intrusion, private lives hypocritically exposed, a dramatic inquisitorial public inquiry. But for me the greatest pleasure was the sense of 17c smalltown England, lovingly and domestically evoked. Scientific effort and religious power, private desires defying convention, serious debates about honour and the heart: Shakespeare’s world. He may have set Othello and Iago in distant wars and made jealous Leontes a king, but he had seen their archetypes in just such a Stratford as this.

 
Box office: 01604 624811 / http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk to 27 Feb
then touring to 7 May – Cambridge next.
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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RABBIT HOLE Hampstead Theatre NW3

THE DEEPEST GRIEF OBSERVED

 

Pretty much everyone agreed – here and on its West End transfer- that the American David Lindsay-Abaire’s GOOD PEOPLE was a masterpiece, with its defiant, vigorous lead played by Imelda Staunton on barnstorming form, and a dryly humane treatment of class divisions putting it streets ahead of most recent British attempts on the theme. Now, this time under director Ed Hall, we have a slightly earlier play by the same author and there will be more division. Some may find blandness in its understated naturalism and want more firecracker emotional outbursts. But I honour it, and suspect that anybody who has lived through a deep and shattering grief, and seeks commonality of understanding, will do the same.

 

The playwright admits that he wrote it when he first became a parent, to face down the worst fear. Here Becca and Howie lost their five-year-old Danny in an accident eight months earlier: torpedoed by grief, with no blame to attach, they are treading separate paths of sorrow, perilously unable to converge. In restraint and in growth, Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman-Hill play it faultlessly. We first find Becca, a smart college-educated Sotheby’s girl turned full-time Mom, carefully folding two or three years’ worth of little Danny’s dungarees and T-shirts for the charity shop. I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s Lady Constance in King John:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and own with me…
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…”

 
But no such lyrical expression comes from Becca. Controlled, patient, tensely sensible, she has to listen to her rougher-edged sister Izzy (Georgina Rich) peering at her refined desserts – “Is that a pie?” “A torte” – and recounting a bar-room brawl with a woman whose boyfriend has – oh yeah – made Izzy pregnant. But she refuses the offer of Danny’s beautifully kept clothes because it would be “weird” if her child wore them. The bereaved mother flinches. Meanwhile she is gradually stripping the house of reminders, and wants to move. But Howie takes the other track, cherishes marks of his son, and wants the comfort of embraces and lovemaking which his wife refuses: even a shoulder massage is too dangerous, it is the very tension holding her together. So the father sits alone watching the last video of Danny; the mother upstairs in the dead child’s room. Ashley Martin-Davis’ scrupulous, intimate set underlines their division: she aloft, he far away alongside the stage in a tiny den, kitchen and living-room their arena of conflict. Penny Downie, as brash as Izzy, is the two women’s mother; a deus ex machina is Sean Delaney as the high school senior who drove the car when the child ran out, and who bravely needs to meet them for his own peace.

 

 

He does, finally, and we get the metaphor of the rabbit-hole, the wormhole in the universe down which we all peer for a better, parallel universe. That meeting is just about the only event: most of the play is finely judged and beautifully nuanced conversations over months. The grandmother torpedoes Izzy’s birthday with a laboured discussion about whether the Kennedy family was cursed, and whether Onassis died of grief, in order to challenge Becca’s attitude: Howie’s hurt emerges in a demand to let him have his exiled dog back home because Granny is overfeeding it.
Bathos, absurdity, foibles and class clashes are allowed into the mix; strong laughs as well as painfully attentive silences.

 

Familiar side-effects of grief are admitted: the irritation of comparison (the family also saw an adult brother’s addiction and suicide, and Becca won’t accept that her mother’s loss is like hers. There’s the classic offstage friend who can’t bear to get in touch so the grieving family is unfairly forced to make the running; the other kind of wrong friend, who enjoys “sharing” grief but doesn’t assuage it. Emotional outbursts are brief and deliberately curtailed, as in real life. It is subtle and truthful and wise, sad and funny and beautifully paced and acted. The resolution it offers is not insultingly simplistic, only a small hope that one day you can crawl out from under the grief and just carry it “like a brick in your pocket”.

 
Box office: 020-7722 9301 to 5 March

Rating   four

4 Meece Rating

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THE MASTER BUILDER The Old Vic SE1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS OLD IDEAS COMING BACK TO HAUNT THEIR CREATOR

The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, is universally acknowledged by his townsfolk as a lucky man: self-made and supremely successful in business, his good fortune is not due to skill or merit, but to a terrible accident many years ago, which also killed his twin sons and destroyed his marriage. However, it also gave him the ability to build and sell houses on the land where his wife’s treasured ancestral home once stood; local competition soon crumbled away, “making me the builder of homes, but at the price of never having a home of my own again.”  Rob Howell’s design surrounds the stage with shattered timbers, creating a precarious, imaginary world in which Ibsen examines the exhilaration, and guilt, of getting just what you wish for. Solness is not a man who has survived life’s trials, but rather one who is permanently enslaved by them, haunted by shameful memories, yet clinging defiantly to the position he has gained, convinced increasingly that whatever he wills will irrevocably come to pass. Ibsen processes this existential paradox through references to the trolls and demons of Norwegian folktale, linking this late play to his earliest works and bringing a tinge of surrealism to this otherwise viciously real human drama. Ralph Fiennes gives us both Solness’ callous cruelty, ruthlessly and deliberately insensitive to the plight of others in securing his aims, and his extraordinary personal vulnerability: almost mad with unresolved grief, his fortune poisoned by the absence of children, the word “nursery” stabbing repeatedly through his lines as those little rooms lie, forever empty, upstairs.

Much has been made of Solness’ intense relationships with the young girls on stage, his secretary Kaja Fosli (a warm, intense Charlie Cameron) and the mysterious arrival Hilde Wangel (a passionately sustained and self-possessed Sarah Snook), which have ready parallels in Ibsen’s own life. For director Matthew Warchus, it is not the bonds but the gaps between old men and young women that come across most forcibly: the constant mismatching, the fundamental misunderstandings, the unsatisfactory self-deceptions which only ever provide temporary, delusional escape from reality. It is Solness’ broken marriage with his wife Aline (Linda Emond) which reveals the most: he calls her “a greater builder than I… A builder of souls,” yet pain has frozen their continuing love for each other, now always, tragically, expressed to others – never to themselves. Eventually, exhausted by “being chained to a corpse”, Solness hurls himself towards Hilde, who proves herself to be the tragic inheritor of his power to wish ideas into reality: Hilde’s ten-year girlhood obsession with Solness is destroyed as it is finally fulfilled in a powerful climax which shatters the stage, as well as characters’ lives.

From its subtle opening scenes to its bloodcurdling finale, David Hare’s faithful new adaptation of The Master Builder takes us well beyond mid-life crisis into full-blown existential crisis. Occasional falters in pacing early on cannot detract from the ultimate power of this piece, mainly thanks to the strong cast, with fine supporting performances from James Dreyfus as a serious, compassionate Dr Herdal and Martin Hutson as a tremblingly furious Ragnar Brovik.

– Charlotte Valori

Rating: Four mice 4 Meece Rating

At The Old Vic, SE1 until 19th March. Box Office: +44 (0)844 871 7628

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RED VELVET Garrick SW1

RED VELVET:   DEEP AND RICH AS EVER
This (I sneaked in to an early preview , because I am on holiday) was my third visit to
Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, starring her husband the matchless Adrian Lester (my Times review, paywalled, is on http://tinyurl.com/nbfj6dl – an earlier review is on this site. I liked it from the start, , as everyone else did; was please to be one of those who voted both Chakrabarti and Lester their awards at the Critics’ Circle a couple of years ago. I called it “sharp and entertaining”, and was delighted by the tribute to a largely forgotten theatre hero: Ira Aldridge, a black American actor who in the 1830’s, even before slavery was anned ,replaced the ailing Edmund Kean as Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. For two nights the “negro” strangled the milk-white Desdemona onstage before shocked, racist Victorian opinion stopped him. It is always fascinating to observe how much extreme racism has an element of sexual dread in it, a white man’s fear of the powerful black: living in South Africa as a teenager for an awful year, I remember that well. And you’ll find it too in that splendid musical MEMPHIS.

 

 

Anyway, I loved Lester’s performance – who wouldn’t? – and enjoyed the secondary theme – amusingly illustrated – of how acting was moving from Kean’s declamatory, stylized style towards more naturalistic and passionate performances. Thinking back, I remembered those things, and also moment when an embarrassed cast suddenly realize that the manager has bravely cast Aldridge and that he is black. I appreciated, too, the slyly feminist device of book-ending of the play with a scene in Poland as a young woman reporter, herself underrated and patronized, inveigles herself in to interview the aged actor whose successes across Europe never quite wiped out the memory of humiliation in London. I remembered the final scene when we see with a jolt that even this victory has required him, nightly, to “white-up” grotesquely with panstick to play King Lear, and the apposite rage of his final “I’ll not weep!” and threat of “the terrors of the earth”.

 

 

But seeing it yet again, and on the far side of Adrian Lester’s stunning and thoroughly modern Othello at the National Theatre – and, what is more – in one of those plushy Victorian theatres where it all happened – I can confirm again that as sometimes happens the play has grown bigger: stronger, more remarkable, finding deeper feeling in the deep red velvet folds of bygone theatricalia. There is now a more shocking magic in Aldridge’s deep, dark dignity and bitter banked-down rage; more charm and mischief of his lighter moments and the edgy intelligence of his discussions with his co-star Desdemona : once again a splendid, sparky Charlotte Lucas giving Miss Tree a courage and sexiness while maintaining our understanding that she has grown up Victorian. There’s real brilliance as the two meld stylized 1830s mannerisms with real emotion in the terrifying handkerchief scene which closes the first half. And there’s fascination – for us theatre anoraks – in comparing it with Lester’s interaction a couple of years back with his modern Desdemona, Olivia Vinall…

 

 

Mark Edel-Hunt is splendidly affronted as young Charles Kean, as is Emun Elliott as poor Laporte, the manager. There is real power and misery in Aldridge’s final row with Laporte, and generosity in the author’s letting him express the frustration of those who, faced with a moral choice, decide to keep their job rather than be Spartacus. Indhu Rubasingham’s production is a jewel in this Branagh season: we should all be grateful.

 
Box Office: 0844 482 9673
Online Bookings: http://www.branaghtheatre.com
 to 27 feb

rating five   5 Meece Rating

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JEEPERS CREEPERS Leicester Square, Lounge WC2

MARTY FELDMAN:  A GREAT COMIC’S ENDGAME
Next week at the Jermyn there opens a play which is a memorial to a late-life friendship with Lucille Ball; already on the far side of the Charing Cross Road we have this; Robert Ross’ 90-minute imagining of the last years of another even more troubled comic who struggled with success, its burden on a marriage, and a frivolous persona which tended to take over. Marty Feldman’s was a brilliant performer but also a key 1960’s comedy scriptwriter – for everyone from Archie Andrews the vent doll to Michael Bentine and the Bootsie and Snudge sitcom. He worked with, or knew everyone, in the last years of old-style Variety, even Max Miller; he drank with Dylan Thomas and compared “insanities” with Spike Milligan.

 
But then he was picked up to play Igor the hunchback in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and there came a lethal few years attempting to scale the heights of Hollywood and become an auteur-director himself . It ended in alcoholism and a lonely death far from home. Ross makes much of that dangerous distance; the Marty he portrays is always tugged by “an umbilical cord to the European tradition of comedy”, as his career falters and dies in that sunny, hotly commercial, perilously irony-free world way out West.

 
It is an imagining by Ross, though based on the researches in his biography; the first half consists of a late-night bedroom conversation with Marty’s wife Lauretta, and the second sees the relationship stressed, with him finally alone, drunk and depressed in New Mexico in 1982 during the filming of the excoriated film Yellowbeard he made with a few ex-Pythons (interestingly, it is a different ex-Python, Terry Jones, who directs Ross’ play.)

 
At first there is unease in watching this slow-motion crash: David Boyle plays Feldman, curly-haired and nimble, so well that you forget you are not looking at the pop-eyed reality, even when real Marty-jokes about his appearance crop up: like his claim that the studio insured him against falling over and getting “figured” rather than disfigured. Lauretta, supporter and patiently exasperated wife, is Rebecca Vaughan; she actually emerges faster than Boyle’s Marty does as a rounded and credible personality.

 

In fact Lauretta is in some ways the more interesting to watch: in the first half the rather pushy, determined backer who enjoys Beverly Hills and is keen to keep her wayward man’s erratic prattle from torpedoing his career on American talk shows, and therefore their new life. In this section there is a bit too much of his gagging and posing (indeed the play does not need its interval, and would tighten up beautifully at about 70 minutes).

 

Later, though, Vaughan shines as the wife’s brittle confidence dissolves into pain at his adulteries (“success went to my crotch” says Marty breezily, adding “…they all remind me of you, anyway” . We see a genuinely touching love and comradeship under strain. As he returns from another girlfriend with a gag, she grits “Not everything is a joke, Marty!’ to which, tellingly, he can only reply “It really is..”.

 

The endgame in a New Mexico hotel room is, of course, grim: but then, it was. We have been watching, in this close-up studio below Leicester Square, 100 minutes of comic, alcoholic self-destruction and ultimately self-pity, and that is wrenchingly sad. But Marty deserves remembering. The pity is that it is only his decline that makes drama.

box office 020 7734 2222 to 20 Feb
rating three

3 Meece Rating

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THE MOTHER Tricycle, NW6

THE EMPTY NEST, THE TROUBLED MIND

 

Hold tight. It’s the French genius litterateur Florian Zeller messing with our heads again. We are confused, wary, deceived and unsettled by the tricks of emotional distress and delusion, imaginary conversations which might be real, and real ones reimagined, all in a bleak white space. Gina McKee is a mother in her forties: sulky and resentful, desolate and impossible, demanding and lost and provocative and depressed and increasingly crazy. We first meet her when her husband – Richard Clothier, businesslike and weary, comes home talking about a seminar in Leicester he is to lead at the weekend. We learn that she is depressed, obsessively missing her adult son Nicholas and resenting his girlfriend; that life seems to her to cheat women, as now the children are grown she is lonely and unoccupied, pitying herself because “you all leave, after using me up”.

 

So far, so familiar. We have all heard the plaints of unimaginative mothers about the empty nest which they somehow never foresaw. But this one is shot through with flickers of oddity: vicious asides, startling admissions that she never liked her daughter, only the son, and thinks her husband is having affairs. The same scene recurs, only with differences; suddenly we are unsure how much of it is real, how much in her head.

 

The son returns – William Postlethwaite, lanky and sullen and oppressed, and she is sometimes cooingly maternal, sometimes unnervingly flirtatious, sometimes worryingly dotty. The husband’s departure for his seminar recurs, sometimes fulfilling her suspicions, sometimes not. The absent girlfriend appears. But she is also the father’s secretary, the absent daughter, a nurse: all young and therefore threatening. There is a red dress which two characters wear at once. Time sllps and slithers. Sometimes characters say things – or seem to – with startling violence. The suggestion hovers (possibly just in her mind, but who knows?) that the best gift a young man can give his lover is matricide: putting an end to the incubus who bore him.

 

McKee, ever more lost, seems to hear a mocking young female voice: “You will grow old on your own, unhappy and alone”. But what with the blackouts and the jangling noises of memory, children’s voices, a school bell, discordant piano (Jon Nicholls’ sound design), we are not sure we anyone, other than her own brain, says it.
It was the gallant little Tricycle which brought in – from the Bath Ustinov – Florian Zeller’s The Father: a devastating, wilfully confusing portrayal (one could almost say, a shared experience) of dementia: a pure stark use of theatre demonstrating how it might be to live from minute to minute unsure of who is who and how much of it all is inside your head. Since then, Kenneth Cranham’s unforgettable performance has moved into the West End and gathered more five-star excitement: now the Trike brings us this, which Zeller wrote two years earlier. Again Christopher Hampton translates, and we can observe in another 90-minute tour de force how the playwright’s technique of alienation was being refined. So Zeller-minded has London theatre become that his latest is due to premiere soon in the Menier. His talent is a more than welcome revelation.

 

box office 020 7328 1000 to 5 March

rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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