THE GRUFFALO Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue

THE BIG HAIRY ONE RIDES AGAIN…
Stage Hero of the week is Owen Guerin, aka The Gruffalo in the larky children’s play based on Julia Donaldson’s immortal book. On the hottest West End day for decades there he was, even more overdressed for the weather than David Suchet in his Lady Bracknell rig across town. In an immense tatter-tag suit and hood, he roared and chased and danced and, in the culminating moments when Mouse (Ellie Bell) has outwitted him, abandons the stage to dive through the shrieking audience and leap over seatbacks in manic panic.   Respect!
The third cast member has the lightning changes – Timothy Richey as all the predators is a birdwatching owl, an extremely vain snake and a bouncing fox. And all of it is set, beautifully by Isla Shaw in Tall Stories’ well-loved production which looks like the familiar Axel Scheffler illustrations , but offers sly playful surprises in the creatures’ look.
I say “shrieking” but a great merit of this stage Gruffalo-show is that unlike some drama for slightly older children (the youngest here are only three) it doesn’t channel the childrens-telly-presenter manic vapidity, demanding cheers and screams from the start. It builds properly, like a storybook, letting the Mouse’s journey through the wood draw the attentive audience with it and not unveiling the actual Gruffalo until quite late on (I like to think of him in hot matinee mornings, probably sitting backstage in his pants with a fan on until the last moment, but that may be kindly wishful thinking). So when he appears there is a real frisson, and indeed in the physical work a real sense of danger. And the children near me clapped with glee at the moment when Mouse has persuaded the poor dim tusky monolith that she – not he – is the reason all the other animals flee.

Having raved before about Donaldson’s STICK MAN on stage, this now joins it in the pantheon of shows I want to keep on running until I get my hands on some grandchildren – or great-nephews and nieces obliging enough to live nearby. Keep it up.

box office 0844 482 9674 to 6 Sept      4 Meece Rating
rating four (very young) mice
box office 0844 482 9674 to 6 Sept
rating four (very young) mice

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WONDER.LAND Palace, Manchester

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE 

Fifty minutes in, we got a 30ft yodelling falsetto caterpillar with flashing saucer eyes, and I cheered up. It also, as it happens, sang the central message of Damon Albarn’s musical, centrepiece of the Manchester International Festival in partnership with the National Theatre ( Rufus Norris himself directs). The message is “Who are you?”, ‘cos it’s all about teenage self-realisation in the age of broken homes and feral schools under the cosh of Goveian superheads. This necessitates a girl’s escape down the rabbit-hole of the smartphone, to become a braver avatar of herself.

So Albarn, with book-and-lyrics by Moira Buffini, dodges around Dodgson. Troubled Aly – Lois Chimimba – chooses to be a blonde Alice in the wonder.land virtual-reality game . It comes to life as Rosalie Craig, interacting with assorted Carroll characters who are fellow-players’ avatars: including a magnificent Dodo, a 12ft high sacking mouse, and a gluttonous Dum and Dee. The White Rabbit, in a gas-mask and huge balloon ears, is plain terrifying; Humpty is a battered infant with a balloon.
Aly is addicted to the game, doesn’t like her Mum and is jealous of a baby brother; her Dad (Luke Fetherston, one of the merrier characters) has moved out after losing everything to online gambling addiction. So she’s bullied at school.

A pretty standard High-School movie plot, then, including a Dahl-style demon headmistress: Anna Francolini on spiffing form, banning phones with “These little portals will lead you astray, the danger is mortal, your brain will decay”. When she confiscates Aly’s for using it in school (a disciplinary measure we are encouraged to consider mean and evil, cos Rufus ’n Damien are determinedly down wid da kidz) she pirates the avatar and turns Alice to the dark side. So there is a big denouement, heroic rescue, partnership with a bullied gay boy, etc. No, that’s not a spoiler: it’s the most basic Grange-Hill of plots, and this unsubtle internet tale is not The Nether…
What it depends on is design. Vast projections overhang and steal the monochrome “real world” scenes; Rae Smith’s set, 59 Productions projections, Paule Constable’s lighting and Katrina Lindsay’s mad fanciful costumes just about carry it, with help from occasional glints of Buffini wit in the script (I like Aly’s doomy teenage wail of “How can you say I’m wasting my life online – online IS my life”). And Albarn, who has said that modern musicals are mainly “garbage”, remembers enough about them to have a dancing first-half closer and a rousing fight at the climax.
The curious thing, though, is how dull and derivative nearly all the music is. The one good song is the Caterpillar’s Frank-Ifieldish yodelling of “Who are youuuuu?”. Otherwise plonking choruses, hesitant sub-Sondheim recitatives and some direct steals from music-hall: Dad’s Act 1mad-tea-party finale is more or less “My Old Man’s a Dustman” and the opening row with his wife after the interval owes much to “Any Old Iron”. And I cannot be alone, during Francolini’s staccato patter about always being right, in remembering Rex Harrison doing “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”. The Albarn apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree. But for all the spectacle and earnest topicality, it all ends up feeling a bit like – well, a grin without a cat.

box office 0844 871 7654 to 12 July
To NT in November.
rating three

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Vaudeville, WC2

A HANDBAG?  A WHOLE TRUNKFUL OF TREATS
The heart sinks beforehand: Oscar Wilde’s sunny comedy melodrama is too familiar: skipping from one well-worn epigram to the next, from handbag to muffin, butler to Bracknell until a theatregoing audience can be tempted to join in. Directors have tried every resuscitation technique – play-within-a-play, high-speed cutting, star casting, unexpected crooked sets – with no guarantee that it’ll work. But this time, Adrian Noble and his cast pull it off, and the old dear comes up fresh as a daisy, in sets of such traditionally gorgeous Edwardiana that they get their own round of applause, and without any gimmicks at all. Unless you count casting David Suchet as Lady Bracknell: and that is not a gimmick, but a welcome extension of the great man’s ability to rule a stage with one twitch of his black, black brows.
And Suchet – we’ll come to him in a moment – is not carrying the burden alone. The whole production is marked by a nimble comic delicacy, smart body language and thoughtful line-by-line work on emphasis which often brings up the old jokes scrubbed clean, jerking us into surprised laughter. Algernon and Jack – Philip Cumbus and Michael Benz – handle the banter of the opening scene without either stylized “I’m doing Wilde” crispness or undue modernization, just as naturally as a brace of Top Gear mates whose natural communication is only in jokes. Imogen Doel’s Cecily is priceless, cooing and scampering with a steely girlish feyness and spot-on physical timing, Emily Barber’s Gwendolen stiffly fashionable in contrast: every inch her mother’s daughter, so that one trembles for poor Jack’s marital future.
And at the heart of that central garden scene is the best comedy courtship of the year (possibly the decade) as Michele Dotrice’s unmatchable Miss Prism yearns and writhes and skips like a lovesick hippo towards the equally fearful Canon Chasuble, an unrecognizably rebarbative Richard O’Callaghan, who from limp grey mullet to skinny gaiters is everything that the satirical Wilde could have desired him to be.
And David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell? Heroically upholstered, threateningly wigged and hatted in the sweltering first night heat, he deploys a masterclass in how to revive too-familiar lines. Everyone was waiting for “A handbag!” so he denied it to us, throwing it away, loosing the explosive moment instead on the earlier word “Found???”. Other moments of cherishable Suchet-stress lie scrawled on my pad as -“What?’ “Parcel!” “Prism!”. The calculating gimlet eyes and overdone hauteur – suddenly melted by mention of money – place the character, without any pretentious actorly deepening, precisely where the laughing clear-eyed Irishman wanted it. This is what he saw around him: a socially defensive society parvenue in a carapace of confidence. When she speaks of “social outrage” and the French Revolution, her gloved hand flutters momentarily to her neck. Perfect.
box office 0844 412 4663
rating four     4 Meece Rating

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ALL THE ANGELS Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

COMFORT YE! HANDEL AND THE FIRST MESSIAH

Handel’s Messiah is a phenomenon: written in three weeks in the composer’s most disappointed phase, to this day it plays as sublimely as a chamber piece with eight singers as with the four thousand of us who annually sing it at the Royal Albert Hall in The Really Big Chorus (I operate as a semi-competent alto). It gets treated with high professionalism or as a parish singalong, truncated at the Alleluia Chorus or recorded as a “best-of” with some of the most beautiful moments missing, is done with heavy Victorian pomposity or bright original instruments, speeded up and slowed down. Nothing dents its shine.
The story Nick Drake tells in this simple three-hander by candlelight, is the story of its first performance in Dublin in 1742. Illustrated with fragments by the Portrait Choir it brings the story to musical life. Sean Campion is a scuttling, busy scene-setting narrator. Sometimes he is a ragged Irish music-porter and nocturnal bodysnatcher Crazy Crow, who merrily throws a horrid sack-wrapped corpse into the pit at one point. Sometimes he is the affable Lord Cavendish who invited Handel to try it out in the Fishambles music hall, so crowded that “the fleas went to the ceiling for a bit of air”, which was a bit of a comedown for the composer who decades earlier had ushered the King up-Thames with the Water Music. Sometimes he is the grieving, religiously anxious librettist Jennen who commissioned it and chose the Biblical verses.

David Horovich provides a gruff , demanding, perfectionist Georg Frederic Handel, and Kelly Price his contralto soloist Susannah Cibber, Who was not an oratorio singer, but an actress in low melodrama, on the run from an abusive marriage and a scandalously intimate adultery trial. Plenty of drama there, and despite a few early clunks (the Jennen moments tend to the portentous) Drake and director Jonathan Munby gradually raise it to something genuinely affecting, sometimes funny, and with pin-sharp significant interludes of aria and moments of chorus (“You are the people, all the angels, the chorus drives the music forward”).

The emotional heart of the play, one not historically incredible, is the interplay between the old composer and Mrs Cibber. At first it is about style – her actress gestures infuriate him when she fruitily attempts “But who shall abide the day of His coming”, and he berates singers who “bark, or whisper, or bellow, or puff themselves up”. He’d hate the X Factor. At one point he threatens to bury her in a barrel of sand to keep her still. He also scorns her vain terrors about “competing” with the Italian soprano whose showy high arias echo from backstage (even in the chorus we altos always slightly regard the sopranos with suspicion, even when blending with and needing them. It’s human nature).

But as their conversations – Handel often grumpily bathetic – reveal her suffering, working towards the great aria “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” it deepens and relates to other tragedies in Jennen’s and Handel’s life. The redemptiveness, the great “Comfort Ye” and promise of salvation for lost sheep, grows in meaning. And though the effect on the cynical Crow fels a touch overwritten, a touch Blarney, you’d need a nasty heart of stone not to feel it too. Particularly if the Messiah has meant anything to you in the darker times of life.
So yes, let the trumpet sound for this curious, short-running, honourable candlelit curiosity. It deserves an afterlife.

box office Box office 0)20 7401 9919 Showing tonight, 27th June, and 3-6 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE TRIAL Young Vic SE1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES IS CONVEYED BY A DYSTOPIAN INJUSTICE
The auditorium is a coliseum, with a tremendous conveyor belt slicing it in half, flappy black curtains at either end. K wakes with strange agents at his door. He’s arrested. But what on earth are his crimes? Shrugs and evasion are the reply. It’s a frustrating, but gripping , pencil pushers, forms, magistrates, hookers and lawyers curdling into madness. Scenery, furniture and people are flung down the wooden and Guantanamo-orange stage with fine precision. Trials “build up” K is told early on. The only time the conveyer reverses is to take him to his death.

This adaptation, by Nick Gill (who all of a sudden makes sense when you realise he is also a composer), is frantic, funny, strange and incredibly difficult to settle with early on. The dialogue is fine, although K’s asides and monologues are written almost in fragments. “Am almost woke ee up one morn -like baby”, are his first lines. It’s hard to tune to, you’re hardly tapping your feet along either. But this aside, the rest of the dialogue is incredibly engaging with good jokes and juicy lines.

It drifts on, we pick fragments – things he might have done wrong, solutions to his crisis, idle conversation – usually with another layer of people speaking on top of this. But it clicks. It has a strange frustrating rhythm which winds you and K up as heaps of court forms rise, unbelievable injustice is done and little sense is made. The story is clear but neatly obfuscates the legality. Richard Jones has thankfully staged this to perfection: somehow my attention was drawn to exactly the right snippets, and as people whizzed on and off it all mushed into meaning in the middle. Miriam Buether’s set is a workhorse which deserves lashings of oats for mechanically driving all this.
“We can only hope that information of tangential relevance slithers its way down to us”. Sian Thomas’s gloriously vague lawyer tells K. Rory Kinnear is excellent at the frustration, but the monologues don’t sit in his mouth properly. He has to engage all his training to enunciate, giving us clipped when what we need is panic. The rest is powerful rage, neatly drawn.

It is Kate O’Flynn, however, who steals the show as a host of characters. In this straight laced, authoritarian world, her brand of wild giver-of-no-shits perks things up brilliantly. Where many have to remain almost robotic and scenic, her, Rory’s and Sian’s performances fill in with beautiful colour.
It is maddeningly strange, but it still clings to me and haunts me.

Box Office: 020 7922 2922 22nd August.
Rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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THE SEAGULL OPEN AIR THEATRE Regent’s Park W1

CHEKHOV UNDER THE TREES
Fortune favours the brave, and the meteorological riskiness of outdoor theatre sometimes pays handsomely. A great heron flew over, squawking doom, just as Irina screamed her frantic possession of the appalling Trigorin and Chekhov’s tragicomic household moved towards disaster. The moon rose over the card-players as beyond the window under a darkening sky Konstantin found a deranged, ruined Nina. The thunderstorm and sluicing rain from behind Jon Bausor’s strange mirrored canopy were false, but the intensity and brooding darkness of old Sorin’s struggling estate were no more or less real than the rustling trees of the real park. Perfect.

Its the first Chekhov play to be done here, and the most obvious: its first act in a garden as Konstantin attempts his ambitious philosophical play and (very avant- garde) rips up the painted scenery. The greensward, chairs, parasols and nicely surly servants pushing a mower or morosely clipping shrubs relate nicely to the real family picnics out in the audience. Though one hopes that the characters’ troublesome, bored, self-obsessed angst and ennui do not…

Chekhov’s opening scenes – once the disastrous play is over – always risk the pre-revolutionary bourgeois ennui becoming – well, ennuyeux. But soon his deadly comedy pace quickens, as Janie Dee,vain I-am-an-actress diva mother of Matthew Tennyson’s frail thwarted Konstantin does her bouncing, preening, frightful poses, and her lover Trigorin (Alex Robertson, comedically vile) gets helplessly drunk with Lisa Diveney’s glum lovesick Masha, and leads Nina astray. Nina is given a sweet naivete by Sabrina Bartlett, though does not quite convince in her Ophelia dementia at the end. Colin Hoult is cruelly funny as whining Simon the schoolteacher (one of Chekhovs most malicious portraits), a majestically gloomy Ian Redford is old Peter, and Danny Webb as the doctor is granted his melancholy description of the pleasure of city crowds , a ” mass of souls” bringing a  sense of fellowship. Which is is one of the rare redemptive glimpses in this bleak, witty, knowing portait of a decaying society. (I always remember coming out of a rather dull Cherry Orchard and the woman behind observing, Yorkshire fashion , to her man that “Those people really had that Revolution coming!”)

But even before the majestic tragic dusk, underscored by a perhaps over-menacing musical soundscape, Matthew Dunster’s production is engaging all the way. Dee and Tennyson, mother and son, break your heart: struggling against their bond and their mutual resentment as he hurls rage at her “shallow, shitty plays” and she screams “You’re a failure, a nobody, nothing at all!”.
The free verbal adaptation by Torben Betts is slangy and vivid: overhead, the great slanted mirror lets us look down on them all like seagulls ourselves, and marvel and the struggle and absurdity of human life. And the servants, by the way, deploy the best sullen-serf body language I’ve ever seen: Fraser James as the “whingeing dullard” trying to make the damn farm pay is a gruff delight, and Lisa Palfrey’s pissed-off Paulina, eating the plums Irina can’t be bothered to take away, offers a tiny moment to cherish. And above them the trees rustle, and the night-birds in the distant zoo caw contempt. What fools we mortals be.

box office 0844 826 4242 to 11 july

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM Phoenix, WC2

BACK OF THE NET!  
Rejoice! In the midst of Fifa’s dismal doings musical theatre makes football beautiful again. Gurinder Chadha’s and Paul Mayeda Berges’ fable, of a British-Asian teenage girl longing to play football rather than cook dhal and live traditionally, was beloved on screen but emerges all the stronger for being driven by Howard Goodall’s music and Charles Hart’s lyrics. It’s a lovely show, with the rare quality in musicals of feeling all-of-a-piece: one solid creation by a team who understand one another and were allowed to get on with it.
It has comfortable specificity – the Sikh community in semis near Heathrow, Southall’s Asian high street, the local park and football ground all swiftly realized by Miriam Buether’s neat arc of revolving panels . Yet it is a universal fable about mothers and daughters, generational anxiety and teenage longings. We meet Jess “dreaming of somewhere where being other / Doesn’t incur the wrath of your mother”; teased for her tracksuit by her preening sister Pinky and her friends, but recruited by the footballing tomboy Jules, whose own mother (a hilarious blonde bombshell) is equally appalled by the athletic brawn of her daughter (“You’ll damage your girlybits!”).
All shine, but at the centre Natalie Dew as Jess is a new star: she has not only a friendly sweetness and lovely shy grin but sings like a bird and – crucially – can boot a ball into the coach’s netting bag from ten feet away, three times running across a West End stage. Lauren Samuels, lean and keen, is a powerful Jules, and Preeya Kalidas slinkily funny as Pinky. Jess’ gay friend Tony (Jamal Andreas) has a glorious number too, about how young people bend the truth to disapproving parents: again Hart’s lyrics hit the spot with “Don’t say your tastes incline to men – just say “have you met my flatmate Sven..?”. And Chadha is a playful director: up pops a token Sven, an instant blink and you miss it gag. Combined with Pinky’s temporarily ruptured engagement to the snobbish neighbours’ son and his surly rebellion (“She’s fit, init?”) it all adds to the lovingly anarchic celebration of teen spirit.
The last time a new musical felt this good was Legally Blonde, for in classic musical style every number pushes the story forwards: nothing ever stops it dead, even the Bollywood-style set-pieces at Pinky’s wedding. Though one moment of peacefulness, the wedding song by Shahid Khan and Rekha Sawhney, is breathtaking. Indeed what could have been a crude tale of teenage victory is fascinatingly balanced, musically and dramatically, between the exuberant footballing ambition and Jess’ parents’ anxiety to protect their girl within the community limits and not risk “shame”. It breathes a rare decency, and that likeable British-Asian willingness to mock itself without belittling. The ensemble of three censorious grey-bunned Aunties nipping up and down the aisle is pure delight, but there is seriousness in Tony Jayawardena as the father, singing baritone memories of his early days fresh in from Nairobi: best spin-bowler back home, but here never allowed to play: “People like us don’t join the clubs, jump the queues, get served in pubs…People here are decent enough. Till you call their bluff”.

Charles Hart’s words have a simple lyrical honesty, clever but never forced; Goodall gives us rising joyful tunes, melancholy conflict, duets and quartets and big choruses blending traditional Punjabi tunes with western familiarity. But oh, best of all is the ensemble dancing when the girl football team are on. It might be tempting to have choreographed them ballet-style, in tribute to those leaping moments when great players do hit a line of grace. But Aletta Collins eschews that to express, rather, the strain and sweat and grimaces of hard training: kicking, stamping, swerving, separating, pointing. Proper footballers, chanting “Girl Perfect! Keep on trying, even when you’re dying!”. It is the the least chorus-girly dancing imaginable: one big number rises to a real haka ferocity before morphing, with quick-change costumes, to a scrubbed-up celebratory disco. It is a hymn to the athletic female body, as the team in their baggy shorts and team shirts exult in effortful joy and great waves of exercise endorphins wash over us from the stage. We grin in delight, not just for Jess and Jules and the accommodation they reach with their parents, but for all girls in all communities who leap and run and laugh and won’t be bound and tethered and primped into submission. Yay..

box office 0843 316 1082  benditlikebeckhamthemusical.co.uk
Booking to 11 July but betcha it goes on and on..

Rating five5 Meece Rating  (see how they run!  Girl mice! Goal!)
box office 0843 316 1082  benditlikebeckhamthemusical.co.uk
Booking to 11 July but betcha it goes on and on..

Rating five

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