BAKKHAI, Almeida, N1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES HAPPILY DEMENTED AT THE ALMEIDA

“Cleverness is not wisdom,” warn the Maenad chorus, as king Pentheus determinedly resists the rise of new god Dionysos’ cult in Thebes. Euripides’ Bacchae tells how the young god returns to his mother Semele’s home city to visit her grave, only to wreak terrible vengeance on Thebes’ young and arrogant king Pentheus, who refuses to respect his godhead. The Greek term for divine power, daimon, becomes a touchstone of Anne Carson’s new version for the Almeida: even the spelling of Carson’s title, Bakkhai, proclaims her intention to stay closer to the original texture of Greek. Euripides’ formal structure remains intact, lyrical choral odes alternating with intense scenes, and while Carson’s clear, crisp language (which retains ancient Greek cries of Euoe! Euoe!) mainly inhabits a timeless poetic world, she touches the contemporary from time to time: “Shall we call a cab?” elderly patriarch Cadmos asks the blind seer Teiresias as they set off in Bacchic regalia to join the revels. “It doesn’t sound very Dionysian,” Teiresias ruefully replies.

Carson’s commitment to authenticity is echoed in the Almeida’s classically-driven production, directed by James Macdonald. Our three leading actors double (and even triple) the principal roles, just as they might have done in ancient Athens, and we have a superb Chorus whose strong, graceful sense of movement and burnished singing tone regularly infuse a sense of the sacred on stage. Composer Orlando Gough mixes tribal, almost Native American sounds with soaringly Medieval harmonies and contemporary dissonance to give each Choral ode a wild, beautiful air. Consonants become percussion: describing how the god “has stung (Cadmos’s daughters) out of their minds”, the Chorus hold a nasalised “ng” until it sounds like a bee trapped in music. Elsewhere, the Chorus yelp, whisper, sigh and scream, or chant speech in unison with mesmerising slowness and clarity. While their choreography isn’t so original, the discipline of their group movement constantly impresses, rapping their thyrsi on the ground with gunshot-sharp timing to add a primal beat. Having changed their contemporary clothes on arrival for soft and ragged fawnskins, the Chorus steadily become more enraptured as the play progresses, rocking and shaking when possessed, smearing their faces with warpaint before Pentheus’ gruesome downfall: Dionysiac frenzy is certainly fun, but it’s also definitely frightening.

Antony McDonald’s design takes our contemporary world (Pentheus in suit and tie, Cadmos in dressing-gown and slippers) into the ancient, played on a flat dark stage surrounded by low hillocks of black soil. The sense of time and place is pleasingly mellow, though Pentheus does get a classic Chanel suit for his fatal Mount Cithaeron adventure. Ben Whishaw plays Dionysos as a whimsically gentle, long-haired cult leader whose many parallels with Jesus are enjoyably obvious: but Whishaw’s menace is very much hidden behind serene confidence, and sometimes this god does need more rage, more viciousness. Bertie Carvel is a nicely uptight, prurient Pentheus, but entirely outshone by his excellent, demented Agave to close. Kevin Harvey’s Cadmos quavers delightfully but lacks the gravitas, the sense of spent fire that would make him finally tragic.

– CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: four 4 Meece Rating

At the Almeida Theatre until 19 September. Box office 020 7359 4404

Comments Off on BAKKHAI, Almeida, N1

Filed under Four Mice

THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY, National Theatre, SE1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GLIMPSES A RUSSIAN SUMMER WITH PATRICK MARBER

Patrick Marber has taken Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and strengthened it in all directions, rather like an enthusiast restoring an aged, leaky old boat into a seaworthy thing of beauty. In Marber’s hands, these characters become more assertive, and considerably more interesting: their actions produce a plot with rather more fire in the belly than Turgenev’s original. The result is a sharply witty costume drama, echoing George Bernard Shaw both in its urbane comic bite (“He’s a dullard: meeting him is the same as not meeting him,”) and tragic emotional fierceness: “I’ve decided I can live with my unhappiness; I won’t live with yours.” Mark Thompson’s design uses the whole Lyttleton stage, a huge landscape painting providing the backdrop which pours across the stage floor, with windows and doors suspended on wires. Edwardian furniture is placed in distant groups, emphasising both spacious luxury and a lack of privacy, of closeness. The steady absence of freedom – of choice, of love – becomes an obsession for all.

The plot is essentially two intersecting love triangles – perhaps even squares or pentagons, so many people are hopelessly attracted to each other – which build into a perfect storm of tortured emotions for all concerned. We have the expected mix of delusional passion, idealism, lust and pain: despite its darker moments, it’s never quite profound, but it’s deeply watchable, well acted, and often extremely amusing.

Marber presides as director over a skilful cast. John Simm has a lovely freshness and clarity of delivery as Rakitin, his life laid waste by his useless passion for his best friend’s wife: Simm conveys a sophisticated, intelligent man at once making the best of life, bitterly aware that true happiness has passed him by. Rakitin’s magnificent soliloquy on the agonies of unrequited love is one of the play’s most powerful moments. While Rakitin is at the heart of this play throughout, Mark Gatiss constantly captures our attention with his brilliantly comic portrayal of the local doctor Shpigelsky, “the maestro of misdiagnosis” who is furthering the suit of boring farmer Bolshintsov (an adorably anxious and shy Nigel Betts) with pretty, brittle young Vera (Lily Sacofsky). Shpigelsky, meanwhile, has matrimonial ambitions of his own: cue the single funniest proposal scene I have ever witnessed, frankly unromantic in style, yet gradually exposing a vulnerability which tears at the heart.

Royce Pierreson’s luxuriously soft voice and restrained physicality make for a magnetic Belyaev, the handsome young tutor with whom nearly everyone is in love. Belyaev’s character benefits considerably from Marber’s touch, becoming a much stronger and more attractive man, conveying inner certainty and charisma despite being socially at odds with those around him. Pierreson conjures appropriately awkward chemistry with gauche little Vera, sensual passion with maidservant Katya (Cherrelle Skeete), and breathless adoration for his domineering, yet tragically vulnerable employer Natalya (a highly wrought, sassy Amanda Drew). John Light is deeply moving as Natalya’s burly, practical husband Arkady, long estranged from his wife (to his great sadness) and immersed in his estate, hectored over by his elegant mother Anna (Lynn Farleigh). The next day, it is Light’s tense, near-explosive pathos that lingers in the mind.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

At the National Theatre until 21 October. Box office: 020 7452 3000

Comments Off on THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY, National Theatre, SE1

Filed under Three Mice

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park W1

GLORIOUS BRIDES AND BROTHERS…  LP NIPS BACK  MID-HOL TO CATCH THEM ALL

Innocent virgins abducted from their family hearth, carried off  to wild territory by lawless bearded gunmen as domestic slaves and bedmates!  Men callously singing about the rape of Sabine Women, gleefully anticipating their victims. “Sobbin, sobbin, sobbin, fit to be tied”!  Shocking. But none of your Royal Opera House rape filth here. This sunny, witty, melodious show is wholesome as hominy grits, the crowning treat of the Regents Park season.  A slight and fairytale book indeed, but threaded with great tunes and heart and sense and mischief and tough 50s feminism.

Rarely has the stage version – devised in 1978 from the  famous 1954 film – been more fun than under Rachel Kavanaugh’s deft direction, beneath the trees which. (with Peter McKintosh’s neat sliding barn set) readily represent the mountain pines of old Oregon, where a pioneer backwoodsman might sing of himself as a lonesome polecat yearning for a mate. As the feral pioneer men, furious townsfolk and shrieksome girls roar around the auditorium in a gingham-and-buckslin tornado, and the avalanche (clever trick,Mr McK!) overwhelms the whole rake, we’re right there, believing the raucous romcom tale.  Such a surrender is facilitated by the way that each of Mercer’s and Hirschorn’s songs does genuinely move the emotional story forward.  And at two moments the music takes you, suddenly, beyond mere rollicking entertainment into real beauty: one a twelve-strong harmony of separated  men and girls yearning for the end of winter: the other a heartbreakingly simple welcome to a newborn child.

Everything works. Laura Pitt-Pulford as  Millie, the first and voluntary bride, sings like a bird, fiercely enchanting in her refusal to quit after being duped by the wily, arrogant Adam (a strong, swaggering Alex Gaumond).  The sequence where she gives courtship advice to the six brawling, Top-Gearish louts – still in long underwear and socks  – is glorious. Not least when within minutes their discordant lumbering becomes Nureyevesque balletry, frankly as camp as Christmas.

Indeed the movement and dance throughout is athletically, crazily witty and expressive (axe-dancing could become a disco craze, lock up your woodshed now).  Movie folklore from 1954 relates that the film’s choreographer  tried to turn down the job, saying : “Here are these slobs living off in the woods. They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there’s manure on the floor, the cows come in and out – and they’re gonna get up and dance? We’d be laughed out of the house.”   But he triumphed, and modern choreographers like nothing more than a bit of challenging character work. So before Alistair David sets them free here into balletic brilliance, and again during the dance-off at the Social, character and rivalry between the prim urbanites and the wild brothers are expressed with  consummate wit. So is the orchestration – some lovely discords as Caleb first takes the floor. Anyway,  top marks to anyone who can dance at all after being, as several brothers are, hurled with bruising violence across the floor and over tables.
Joyful moments, then, link a chain of easeful satisfaction: relish Millie’s  polite dismay as ever more unexpected siblings-in-law in law crash out if the Regents Park bushes, or wait for the mournful chorus as banished lads with “cupid’s cramp” clutch pillows to their frustrate groins in the barn. Sigh happily as that joke blends into sweetness and longing for real love as the chorus melds. Look forward, even to the abrupt economical brilliance of the quickfire conclusion.  And, as ever, enjoy the dusk falling over us all on the park, as the light filters through the trees  and the same bats swoop over both W1 and the Old West…

box office 0844 826 4242 to 29 Aug

rating four   4 Meece Rating
.
box office 0844 826 4242 to 29 Aug

rating four
.

Comments Off on SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park W1

Filed under Four Mice

MACK AND MABEL, Chichester Festival Theatre

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS PLENTY OF TALENT BUT LITTLE REWARD IN CHICHESTER

This is a tale of romance and of the lure of cinema: tricky on the stage. Mack Sennet, a clownish film director, is losing his beloved star, Mabel Normand, to the dreaded, meatier features. He leaves the emotion and the drama to the other directors, he says: D.W. Griffiths and the like. The issue is that, as Sennet would have wanted, Mack and Mabel is all performance and little gut. Extremely talented people are behind this production, but the material they chose does them little favours.

The musical elements are near perfection. Jerry Herman’s score is a gently bluesy and aggressively memorable delight. But Michael Stewart’s book has the charm of a self-assessment tax return.

Despite this, Jonathan Church has brought a large cast and this shaky material into something moderate, occasionally good. Tight choreography, thumping band, a seductively jazzy score and some of the clearest and accomplished vocal performances out there. It’s just after every triumph of a number, it is a lazy book which picks up where it left off.

As Mack and Mabel, Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance are on fine form; Ball with his boomy voice, imposing frame, but emotional delicacy, LaChance with her outstanding vocals, innocent eyes but later ambitious swag. But the text gives them nothing meaty to play with. At best, it’s the serious bits of Panto. The romance is gently introduced and quickly forgotten, the dialogue is trite, incredibly few jokes land and the rosy adoration for ‘the mooovies’ never really gets beyond people sighing, “Oh, has everything got to do with the movies?”

But despite being gutted of a vital organ, the show stands. Even though no one with any lines can explain the central fascination with cinema, Robert Jones’ set has the sweaty sheen of creative industry with cranes, cameras and projections wheeling around. This workmanlike aesthetic is relieved when the band strike up, with the glitzy glamour daubed on by the rather brilliant lighting of Howard Harrison. The stage is set alight, led from the front by the absolute machine that is Anna-James Casey. Each ensemble piece has her at the heart – a slice of vocal and physical perfection.

This poor cast then. Alive with the heft of talent in the room, with the piece itself gentle sapping it away from them. They sweat terrific number after terrific number but it’s never cemented emotionally by the threadbare story.

– LUKE JONES

3 mice 3 Meece Rating

UNTIL 5th September at Chichester Festival Theatre; Box office: 01243 781312

Comments Off on MACK AND MABEL, Chichester Festival Theatre

Filed under Three Mice

THE GATHERED LEAVES, Park Theatre, N4

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS AN EMPTY FAMILY DRAMA WITH GOOD GAGS TO KEEP IT AFLOAT

After 17 years away, the grown-up daughter returns with the illegitimate child which got her thrown out. One of her brothers is having marital problems, whilst also being a doctor. Her other brother is autistic. Her mother is a basic, frustrated housewife and her father doesn’t understand anything but definitely has affairs. The grandchildren also don’t get on.

If you’re starting to think that all sounds a little Sunday mid-morning on Radio 4, it’s because it is. Playwright Andrew Keatley has delivered The Archers and every other soap you could imagine. It is amusing but absolutely nothing more. The acting is entirely conversational and anything overly dramatic falls flat. All of this over Easter weekend with the ’97 election looming – for no reason whatsoever.

It is baggy, for 2 hours, and needed hefty trimming. The only relief was a decent joke every 4-5 minutes.

The play calls open season on all issues. Tracey Letts’ Orange: Osage County got stuck in with vividly entertaining relationships and acute deconstruction of each misfits’ dilemma. This play kicks the problems around with simplistic language and zero poetry, pumped with gags which almost never suit the character they come from. Wherever this dies, another random problem is added into the mix. Textbook family woes for Playmobil characters.

The best plays put issues under the knife, dig a little depth. There is no dramatic use to ambling around, airing them.

Despite much of the cast being related (Jane Asher/Katie Scarfe, Alexander Hanson/Tom Hanson), none gel. Huffy delivery of over-explained lines gives them little to work with. Basic emotions are handed to them and nothing is left to drama, atmosphere or the audience. Every little thing has to be over-explained in the dialogue for fear of someone 20 miles away missing it.

The only decent performances are from Clive Francis as the grandfather – a painfully conflicted character he makes sense of – and Nick Sampson as the autistic uncle. Although delicately and almost movingly played, he is the butt of every joke. A room of 200 laughing at someone pretending to be autistic is frankly not my cup of tea – no matter how much it tries to make moral conversation of it.

This is a basic play, with no direction from Antony Eden, but had some laughs.

– LUKE JONES

2 Mice 2 meece rating

Until 15th August at Park Theatre: Box Office: 020 7870 6876

Comments Off on THE GATHERED LEAVES, Park Theatre, N4

Filed under Two Mice

THE MENTALISTS, Wyndham’s Theatre, WC2H

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS THINGS GET MUCH BETTER AFTER THE INTERVAL

The jokes bought this play some time. Richard Bean, a former standup, is hot property at the moment after a slew of critical acclaim. One Man Two Guvnors, Great Britain and Made in Dagenham have all built to this crafty delve into the archives.

Bean wrote The Mentalists in 2002 – his two strange protagonists are based on two strange acquaintances. But in the glow of his late triumphs, this play cowers, its juvenile flaws exposed.

Ted and Morrie are in a hotel room in Finsbury Park. Ted has discovered the “Holy Grail of how to live”. His plan is a new society, based on “benevolent control” and “cleanliness”. Morrie, who usually makes dirty films, is there to help produce Ted’s idealistic and mental party political broadcast.

The entire first half is anecdotes, wistful tangents and the set-ups for later gags. It doesn’t bore, but there’s no hook. If the show had suddenly ended due to some emergency in the first act, I’m not sure anyone would have minded.

Steffan Rhodri – as the neatly camp but defiantly heterosexual Morrie – comfortably inhabits all these quirky stories and brings a gently enjoyable performance. Stephen Merchant as the uptight yet unfinished Ted struggles. His entire first half is spent cueing up the second. The real drama frustratingly tunes in after the interval and both rise to it well. For me, the good stuff came just in time. Others I fear may have been left behind.

Post-ice cream /gin and tonic, the play suddenly acquires bite. We’re finally given the punchlines to the ramble we were given earlier and an actual story emerges. We learn of murder, lies and madness.

The director, Abbey Wright, marshals both actors well. There is the right amount of physical comedy and the gags finally land with the kind of satisfaction you only get when you’ve had 45 minutes of build-up. Although Stephen Merchant has sizeable comedy chops, and the face of a cherished family pet, his solid performance is still some way behind the engaging Steffan Rhrodri. But Merchant handles the gear change from gentle standup to tragic comedy well and plays the vacant madness hilariously.

It is not the storming two-hander you might expect; it is too slow for that. But from almost nothing this play grows into something funny, shocking and unsettlingly tragic.

– LUKE JONES

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

UNTIL 26th September at Wyndham’s Theatre: BOX OFFICE 0844 482 5120

Comments Off on THE MENTALISTS, Wyndham’s Theatre, WC2H

Filed under Three Mice

THE INVISIBLE, Bush Theatre W12

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI LEARNS ABOUT LASPO*…

“When I was growing up the poor were seen as unfortunates. Now they’re seen as manipulative. Grasping. Scroungers. It’s very sad.” So reflects Shaun (Niall Buggy), a charming, penniless old Irishman with more than a touch of the blarney, facing yet another Kafka-esque nightmare negotiating with the sullen, unyielding bosom of our Housing and Benefits systems in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Invisible. On the day of the Budget, when the latest plans for supposedly solving society’s biggest problems have been touted across every media channel, it’s always tempting for pub philosophers and armchair politicians to make sweeping judgements and dangerously inhumane generalisations; we all have our private theories of blame and retribution for the taxpayer’s burden. The Invisible reminds us that, inside those synthetic statistics, thousands of real individuals – vulnerable, defenceless and alone – uniquely suffer the consequences of each government’s so-called solutions. If the problems they encounter are legal ones, recourse to free help is now dwindling fast, thanks to swingeing cuts to our Justice sector meted out by Grayling and Gove. Hence, these victims become The Invisible: the poorest and weakest in our society, whose voice can quietly stopped by lack of representation or, simply, despair.

However, on the front line of social justice, our heroine Gail (a fabulous Alexandra Gilbreath) is struggling on an ever-fraying shoestring to keep her legal advice service open, ably supported by her neurotic, passionate assistant Laura (Sirine Saba). Beside Shaun, Gail meets Ken (Nicholas Bailey), an estranged father who asks her on a date only to solicit free legal advice, and Aisha, suffering domestic violence in her arranged marriage. The extreme frustration and stress of Gail’s clients becomes a constant theme, along with their fundamental human need to talk: but time is always running out, just like the money. Ken’s disastrous court appearance as a Litigant in Person sees him tragically lose his cool – and, we suspect, his children.

Director Michael Oakley oversees a dynamic, minimalist production almost in the round. Ruth Sutcliffe’s design includes a ceiling of floating legal documents hung in serried ranks, suggesting death by a thousand paper cuts, each one a sword of Damocles hung over our protagonists, whose cases may fall on deaf ears or get lost in our latest Circumlocution Office. Lenkiewicz gives us much to ponder, though there’s a significant missed opportunity to draw important parallels between the Legal Aid system and the NHS by making her doctor a middle-aged, white, male, misogynistic snob; this tired trope gets an easy left-wing laugh, but only detracts from the overall debate. Bursts of song punctuate the piece, sometimes unsuccessfully disjointed, occasionally aptly matched to the mood.

Lenkiewicz’s language is refreshingly natural: she depicts the insidious rhetoric of the abusive husband Riz (Scott Karim) with particularly chilling brilliance. The finale, for me, crosses the borders of melodrama into plain emotional blackmail, but despite its heavy-handed ending, The Invisible is provocative, edgy and dark enough to take the sheen off this Budget’s claptrap – or any other. Grab your nearest armchair politician and propel them forthwith.

– CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

At the Bush Theatre, W12 until 15 August: 020 8743 5050

* The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

Comments Off on THE INVISIBLE, Bush Theatre W12

Filed under Three Mice