THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH Mercury, Colchester & Touring


This is an artful wheeze. Take the story from the sunniest of films, a 1957 cheer-up British Lion starring Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles. Bolt on some classic Irving Berlin songs, and you’ve jukeboxed a stage musical. Director-writer Thom Sutherland has done this – fresh from a London success with Grand Hotel – for a cheerful touring show with a six-piece band. I saw it at the Mercury, which produces it, before it squares its shoulders and toots off round the country. A thin Monday house was hard to stir, but the frolicking energy of the cast and the sheer good-humoured Ealingness of the story got us going. Hard not to, with so much help from the Berlin tunes and lyrics.
The story sees a struggling screenwriter and his wife – Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford (so glorious lately in Seven Brides) – unexpectedly inheriting from disreputable Uncle Simon a fleapit cinema in Sloughborough (“the Venice of England, if Venice had fewer canals and more lino factories”). It has an ageing ticket-lady Mrs Fazackalee, her nerdy son Tom, and the drunken projectionist Percy. The blustering owner of the big rival cinema wants to buy it as a car park, together with his scheming wife Ethel (Ricky Butt, a born show-stealer). Their daughter Marlene rebels and joins the Bijou lot, who restore the cinema’s fortunes and honour its past as a music-hall by doing burlesque in the interval.

The scope for tap breaks and leaping ensemble choreography (by Lee Proud) is obvious, and done with ferocious verve from the very first scene in the Railway Arms, with Mrs F. on the piano and Uncle Simon drinking himself to death on a yard of ale while the rest of the cast leap on tables. There are explosions of energy all through, notably a fabulous cleaning-up scene (the set by David Woodhead is a gorgeous thing of barley-sugar-pillars, red velvet, portable townscapes and a neatly revolving staircase). A charming romantic tap shows off Tom and Marlene : Christina Bennington and Sam O”Rourke, the latter endearingly singing about stepping out in top hat and tails while actually wearing a duffle-coat with his woolly gloves on strings through the sleeves. And there’s much carolling of “Always” from the leads: Pitt-Pulford’s voice is pure honey.

As for the interval performances Matthew Crowe, having somewhat overdone the overemphasis as the dopey trainee solicitor, suddenly comes into his own as a full-on drag artiste in a bustle. And Bennington turns shy Marlene into a high-octane belter leading a spirited fan-dance with fans made, naturally, of celluloid film strips.

But as in the days of Rutherford and Miles it’s the oldies who walk off with it: Liza Goddard turns the ticket-seller into a middle-aged but game blonde mourning her boozy husband and doting on a pampered cat (“He can’t chase the rats, he’s allergic to animal hair”). Her “How deep is the Ocean” is genuinely affecting, properly cracked in character. And Brian Capron – completely unrecognizable as my all-time favourite Coronation Street villain – is a grand Percy Quill.
Regarding musical form, it can’t make the top table: Southerland and musical director Mark Aspinall use the old songs skilfully, with well-crafted dialogue breaks and attention to character, but in the first half songs tend to stop the action dead rather than move it on. The second half moves far better: and as the show moves on and grows, the first half will sharpen. And you can certainly go home whistling it. It’s Irving Berlin. You have to.
box office 01206 573948 to 10 Oct

then touring    Touring Mouse wide

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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We are in a pub garden in rural Hampshire, where landlord John is gathering logs for the fire (in high summer, “it’s part of what people come for”), and telling a joke about a ferret and a blow-job to cheer up Mark, a lanky, sad youth. Along comes Liz the bravely prattling church organist. They talk. A year later, they meet again. That’s all. But it is immense.
Sometimes a new playwright emerges bringing not only skill, but a determination to offer a perspective and preoccupation outside the mainstream of dramatic, and indeed national, discourse.  Barney Norris’ theme is unregarded lives in rural communities: villages hollowed out by alien money, agribusiness and a hypermobile world.   But his concern is neither agitprop nor nostalgia, simply an exploraion of how people inwardly navigate the rolling waves of life.
Norris first full play, Visitors, was a quietly, beautifully, tragic reflection on loss and memory, with an old farm couple at its heart. This time the three protagonists are on the face of it less vulnerable  as they  confront the universal problem of how life plods or races past you, unstoppable, unseizable except in fragments. It is also about the consolation of mere human interaction: chats in a drab pub garden with a semi-stranger.   But by pretending to no grandiosity Norris reaches out further and deeper – as Jez Butterworth did in the more swashbuckling JERUSALEM – into tradition, belief, identity, love, and the immense question of how anyone finds a place on a fast-turning uncaring globe. All this through jokey boozing John, young Mark the road-mender and odd-job labourer, and nervy Liz, who drives two hours to play the moribund church organ because it’s the only gig she can get.
The trio are variously likeable, and wholly believable (I find it hard to think of them as actors cven now, but they are James Doherty, Hasan Dixon and Ellie Piercy, perfect casting by director Alice Hamilton). They talk in the pub garden – first over a morning and evening, then a year later. At one point, two of them remember a verse from “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and tears rise; but Norris turns the mood in seconds to a shock laugh and a crassness and breach. It is not without outside incident : it’s the landlord’s last day, he having sold to a chain after his wife left: the same morning sees the funeral of young Mark’s old schoolfriend, which he is missing because he needs the council work of repairing the war memorial she crashed into. “It’s for the centenary” he says; and skinny in his work boots, fresh from sleeping alongside motorways in the van he seems an modern heir of those WW1 recruits. In the second act Mark has sorted out his life, John returns just for a day, still lost, and Liz is giving up organ playing.

None of them are yokels: John’s conversation, when not ferret-based, is sharp, literate, poetic and aware, and Mark has a restless wish to know more of the world and “fill up his bookcase from down at the Sue Ryder”. Both have travelled: indeed a sidelong delight of the play is Norris’ beautiful debunking of the great modern god Travel. John went to Nepal but “there’s only so many hours a day you can spend being fascinated by how foreign everything is”. Mark – now humbly learning FIlipino words off his work colleagues – came home from India after only a week having given his money to beggars. He was repelled in a proper, decent spirit by the filthy poverty. “I just thought, you cunt – coming over here like it’s an adventure, when it’s these people’s lives..Disrespectful, to be there staring at everything’. Superb.

box office 0207 503 1646 to 17 OCT then tour: Bury St Edmunds, Oxford, Salisbury, Bristol.
rating five

5 Meece Rating

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MEDEA, Almeida, N1


“I can unmake you the same way I made you. I write the story, remember?” Rachel Cusk’s brilliant vision of Euripides’ Medea for the Almeida transforms the barbarian witch into a modern-day writer: but, just as the ancient Medea’s spells had immortal force, so the new Medea’s power with words, particularly her fearless refusal to compromise on the truth, alienates and terrifies all those around her, and endows her with the ability to change her own destiny – at the terrible price of her sons’ lives. However, in Cusk’s profoundly contemporary version, Medea doesn’t actually shed blood: after all, “There are more ways of killing a child than just stabbing it to death like some wild animal.” She commits an equally unthinkable act: she abandons them. And sure enough, her children die, just as surely as if she had butchered them with her bare hands as Euripides decreed. From an elegantly restrained (Pinteresque) opening scene, Cusk sets and maintains an atmosphere of brutal tension which lashes out regularly into loud, snarling rows, placing the family on the psychological torture-rack of a messy divorce to reap a whirlwind harvest: gender battles, marriage myths, bitter recriminations about mid-life crises, all delineated with savage realism. Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have lovingly termed Euripides “the human”, but in Medea he shows us all the sides of being human we are ashamed to acknowledge, the play’s finger placed unerringly on our darkest secrets, nastiest failings, and most vulnerable weaknesses.

One of this Medea’s surprise strengths is how closely it can follow Euripides despite its modern setting, with many vital details (the cursed necklace, Glauce’s burning by poison, Aegeus’s childlessness and Medea’s clever bargain for safety in return for a cure, even her final vindication by the power of the sun) lovingly and cleverly transposed by Cusk, despite the introduction of an entire new character (a Brazilian cleaner, acting as a more sympathetic Chorus) and plenty of new ideas. Even Cusk’s text, which bristles and glowers with four-letter-words of all hues, will suddenly chime intimately with the original when you least expect it. Above all, Jason (a debonair Justin Salinger) is as suave, self-serving and loathsome as always; a man keen to have his way, and not interested in being made to feel bad about it. It says much for the failure of modern feminism that Cusk didn’t need to update Jason whatsoever to make his opinions, and his position, absolutely believable for a modern audience.

Kate Fleetwood is mesmerising as Medea, a taut, sinous pillar of vengeful contempt, turning her fury directly on the audience, as well as Jason: “It gives you a thrill to watch me suffer. The less I pretend, the more of a kick you get.” Our society piles just as much pressure on an abandoned wife to accept her husband’s decision as the ancient Greeks did; a Chorus of yummy mummies swap school-gate gossip and condemn: “How could she not have known?” A sudden switch from prose to rhyming couplets from a divine hermaphrodite Messenger strikes an odd note at first, but listen closely: the big finale is as horrifying, and disturbing, as ever.


Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

Until 14 November at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, as part of their GREEKS season. Box office: 020 7359 4404

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ROARING TRADE Park Theatre , N4


The setting is excellent . Terrible flashing screens of numbers, alerts, currencies; sometimes becoming a glass window onto a London scene made of banknotes and FT headlines, or at one memorable moment a park where a £ 20 butterfly floats past. As you sit down there is an equally horrible barking, jabbering unease of voices. This is a bond trading room, evoked in design by Grant Hicks, Alex Marshall, Chris Drohan and Douglas O”Connell’s video.

And – as we all now know rather too well, from Capital City on ‘90s telly to Enron to The Power of Yes and William Nicholson’s Crash! – they’re pretty horrible. Aggressive, ambitious, neurotically bound up in their fantasy world of real money, crazy bonuses and cruel or sexual banter fuelling the dark human sacrifice demanded by high-tech capitalism.

So this play – first aired a few years ago and now directed by Alan Cohen – always risked being a “Meh, so what’s new?”. Even though Steve Thompson , who wrote Damages, researched it and its people with a kind of compassionate horror, and introduces enough up-to-date references (Syria, Volkswagen) to make it modern. But in the event it is gripping because of the quality and depth in the performances. Nick Moran is Donny the working-class sharp lad trader, unforgivably jeered at as “scullery boy” by Olly, known as “Spoon” for his silver-spoon posh-Cambridge background, though not until Donny has treated him pretty horribly for most of the play. The cockney confidence of the one and the entitled, nervy arrogance of the other are beautifully done. Lesley Harcourt is the tough glamorous Jess, who will use both her steel-trap mind and her top button to win clients and make millions; there is perhaps not quite enough to see beneath her surface glitter and nastiness, or not until the final minutes. Michael McKelly is interesting as the battered, discontented older trader PJ who is leaving to have a life, and alone in the trading-room tries to start conversations about the outside world – global warming, spreadable butter, Tony Hancock, anything but deals.
Family lives are used to underline the arid horribleness of their long working days. PJ has a wife (Melanie Gutteridge) who is furious at the idea of his leaving, being wedded to the lifestyle: he protests that they have had three new lounge suites since they moved to the 7-bed house and he’s never sat on any of them, too tired; “trouble with being flash – she gets used to the stash and you’re stuck”. Donny has a teenage son Sean, and their interaction is one of the most poignantly depressing bits of the play.
So you’re with them all, all the way, and indeed pretty depressed, and there is an unfolding dramatic plot moment in the last half-hour (it’s 1 hr 45 including interval, which is about right). But the only conclusion is that it’s an awful way to live, and that you’re stuffed even if you try to leave. But they’re real, such people, and out there looking after everyone’s money. It would have been good to have more sense of that.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 24 oct
rating three

3 Meece Rating

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CRUSH Richmond Theatre


“Put on your navy knicks, pick up your hockey sticks – and bully-up, bully-up..”  Jeepers. I had completely forgotten that ritual “bully” of stick-bashing at the start of a vicious hockey encounter. But a friend of my youth persuaded me to sneak in to this peculiar, and not unengaging, new musical on the last leg of its short tour.  And there was much to see:  the crazed hockeystick tap routine, the sapphic  love duet in the locker room, and a barnstorming finale when the demise of the unrepentant demon headmistress  caused my friend sagely to think of Don Giovanni. – ” I like it when the goodies win but the villain goes down defiant. And the bit with the ghost of the dead headmistress – it’s the Commendatore”.

Not quite operatic, though. Taking the musical style , dances and barmy plot together, Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts’ show – directed by Anna Linstrum – is best described a schoolgirl-story Salad Days for the same-sex love generation.  A traditionally feminist ‘50s boarding school has been taken over by an unaccountably (till the end) fascist-retro headmistress (a vigorously strident Rosemary Ashe) who demands well drilled wives and mothers . She opens with the best number of the lot: girls to her are “The future mothers of the future Sons of England…breeders of our leaders, strong and hearty, never arty”.   She also gets a magnificent line about the dignified charity pupil Daimler (Brianna Ogunbawa) – “named no doubt after the stolen car in which her unfit mother conceived her!”.
Good Miss Austin (Sara Crowe) in grey plats and brogues resists her; two mysterious interlopers , played by Kirsty Malpass and James Meunier, the only man, turn out to be the dei ex machina of the rebellion , all the way to a truly bonkers denouement with writs plucked from bosoms , mistaken identity, and Brenda the Sneak being reformed, and doing a cartwheel to prove it.
There’s some larky dance (choreography by Richard Roe) , and odd sharp lines (“Schools without rules breed savages and socialists!”).  But a less Ealing-comedy , more 21c aspect is that our heroine Susan (Stephanie Clift) is in love, beyond mere crush, with lisping Camilla, and heartbreakingly betrayed when her paramour goes straight. Via a stonkingly insane dream sequence in a an imaginary London lesbian night club, with Meunier reappearing as a baritone Marlene Dietrich, she finds another girl to love. In full-on modern, non-crush style love such as Malory Towers never (at least openly) permitted. There’s a point being made here.
box office 0844 871 7651 to Saturday
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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You won’t see this show again, nor the other Showstoppers’ evenings I have loved in Edinburgh. If you weren’t there tonight you’ve missed a medley of Daily Mail headlines in the style of Fiddler on the Roof, a Mamma Mia finale, a Gypsy Kings’-style stamping love duet, a corgi chorus, Shakespeare rap, West Side Story rumble at the Cereal Cafe to a backing of “Snap Crackle and Pop”, and a moody Kurt Weill number. But don’t worry. Get down to the Apollo, shout a few suggestions at random, tweet some more dodgy suggestions in the interval, and watch your most feverish, late-night musical-theatre fantasies come true.
I adore the Showstoppers, because few sights are more enlivening than consummate, long-trained skill giving itself to the service of pure frivol. The runaway success of Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong proved that: do silliness well enough, and Britain will sit at your feet. This one may well follow it. The crowd-funders who have brought this musical improvisation company to its first West End run were right to believe in it: the tickets are cannily priced (it’s fine up in the circle, and under-25s get terrific half-price deals). As a way to spend a couple of hours with your mates just down the road from dreary old Thriller, it beats a lot of full-fledged musicals. Devised and perfected over eight years by Dylan Emery and Adam Meggido, with Duncan Walsh Atkins as musical guru and director, the group each night deploy seven out of the twelve players, men and women, and three of the five musicians in the tight company. They are all so well-accustomed to picking up off one another musically and verbally that a crazy, patchwork, but oddly satisfying musical results.
What happens is that the MC (Emery) on the side of the stage pretends to be cobbling up a pitch for a Cameron Mackintosh on the phone, and canvasses the audience for settings and titles (“The Daily Mail office” was the set this time, the title “The Lying King”). Other demands are randomly met: in this case the Cereal Cafe, the Queen’s corgis giving birth, and Jeremy Corbyn. The team take every theme up and run with it, occasionally freeze-framed by the MC taking an audience vote on the next development.
Sudden chorus lines appear, devising appropriate dances; two-player scenes flow naturally until one actor attempts to wrongfoot the other, who recovers magnificently; whole new musical genres are thrown to the musicians and created on the hoof by the singers. At one point on this particular night the MC demanded of us “some typical meaningless Cockney saying” and someone on the floor shouted “Up your bananas, Daddy!” . Seconds later, a riotous dancing Chas ’n Dave chorus was in full swing.

Always – each time I have seen it – the nonsense builds into huge, harmonic choruses which remind you why even quite lousy musicals jerk the heartstrings if you let them. Actually, you could acquire a full education in the styles and abilities of musical theatre by going every night . One is tempted. And this review, let me finally tell you, comes from someone who as a rule, really dislikes improv comedy. Must be the music that lifts it to something special.

box office 0844 4829671 to 29 November
rating Five. The fifth is for sheer nerve.  They deserve the cheese for courage.   5 Meece Rating

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TIPPING THE VELVET Lyric, Hammersmith

At last. The question tormenting many a fretful middle-aged man – what do lesbians actually DO? – is answered. Aerialism! When the giddy moment comes, in Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ picaresque-erotic novel of Victorian lowlife, the participants are hoisted ten feet above the bed, still in their corsets, to swing acrobatically entangled. From silk slings – if romantically and innocently in love – or if involved in a more vicious encounter, from a chandelieresque iron frame above a cupboard-ful of strap-on leather dildos. Think Fifty Shades of Gay. However, if the encounter takes place in a worthily socialist community in Bethnal Green it is more basic and just involves a blanket over the head to facilitate tipping of the more homespun Corbynite velvet. So now you know, gents. Rest easy.
Sarah Waters’ novel made a sensation and a TV series for the good reason that it treated female same-sex love as having always been with us, absolutely natural albeit annoyingly disapproved of by the mainstream. It tells of Nancy the simple Whitstable oyster-girl, drawn into a music-hall career and downhill from there – transvestite rent-boy, Mayfair sex slave – until socialism saves her . It is not Waters’ best fiction (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger, The Paying Guest, infinitely better and more credible). But it is, as Wade and director Lyndsey Turner demonstrate, ideal for a rompy, pantomimic show (there’s even a songsheet for a massed ukelele version of These Boots Are Made for Walking. You slightly expect the trousered heroine to slap her thighs and cry “Twenty miles from London and still no sign of Dick!”.

Turner, under whose authority Mr Cumberbatch is still being and not being over the river at the Barbican, lets rip with all sorts of merriment. There are singing beef carcasses with xylophone ribs, a seaside-type cutout of clients receiving masturbatory attention through groin-level holes which are bells and whistles on which Nancy plays the National Anthem. And a nice cameo from Ru Hamilton as a be-tighted Soho renter called Sweet Alice.

The adaptation – starting with a lovely joke about the 1895 Lyric itself – takes the music-hall format of a tophatted MC – David Cardy – narrating young Nancy’s romantic intitiation, banging a gavel to speed up scenes to the interesting bit, and alternately relishing and deploring her activities. And if you suspect it is a leeeetle bit creepy to have a middle-aged man jovially supervising the first sexual encounters of a teenage girl, you’re not wrong. It is. Though we get a redemptive moment at the end where she takes the gavel off him, accepts the worthier of her lovers, and becomes “empowered” . But sometimes yes, creepy all right.

It romps along, with Sally Messham making a creditable debut as Nancy (though her singing voice is not yet firm enough to hold the songs for long) and Laura Rogers as her first love, the swaggering male-impersonator Kitty, a Burlington-Bertie in tails and topper. I say Burlington Bertie, but the play does not use – or pastiche – musichall songs, preferring a sort of early rock-n-roll approach, which usually (not always) works.

The psychology of Nancy’s decline into prostitution – boy-clad, tending to the gents in Soho Square – and her instant capitulation as kept sex slave to Madam Diana is wobbly, though her final conversion to the socialist-feminist cause is fairly convincing, with a perceptive sequence in which every serious question from her girlfriend causes her to grow a spotlight and rattle off a series of standup jokes. And anyway, in compensation for any flaky psychology we have sketches like Diana’s evil posh-tweedy-lesbian club, which is funny if a bit tiresome with its clitoris-fantasies, and a magnificent riff in which Nancy explains how to eat an oyster with such slimy, salty eroticism that the tweedy ladies collapse into chairs.

Well, you get the idea. It’s a big sprawly picaresque novel rendered into a pantomimic, polemic, ironic- erotic, hurrah-for-the-gay-girls night out, about half an hour too long. And the biggest laugh of the evening, given which week it is, is not about sex. It comes when the Bethnal Green Municipal Socialists panic that there aren’t enough sandwiches, and heroic Florence (Adelie Leoncie) cries “It’s a socialist rally! People will SHARE their sandwiches!”. Yeah, right.
box office 020 8741 6850 to 24 Oct
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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