PETER PAN GOES WRONG Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford & touring


My latE Dad hated the theatre, for the kindest and most dignified of reasons. He preferred cinema : in live performance he feared that someone would get something wrong and “Show Themselves Up”. But he did like a good joke, and enjoyed silent-movie pratfalls; so I wish I could take him to see Mischief Theatre. Where with masterful precision, cast and crew make everything does go wrong for their fictional avatars; theatrical peril and pomposities alike are pitilessly defined, ambition meets its nemesis, props misbehave and sets collapse, extravagant gestures freeze into helpless stares, and jagged interpersonal relationships poke through the rubble.



I have had a soft spot for this gang ever since the short version of The Play that Goes Wrong, fresh from a drama students’ lark in a pub. It set me raving in the Times,whereon the producer Kenny Wax nipped round to check, and took it on. It lengthened, grew a bigger and even more technically tricksome set, toured, and has now settled up West in the Duchess, filled houses, covered costs, and extended well into 2015.


So last year I hurried to see the same writers and cast do Peter Pan Goes Wrong, with the same idea of an inept am-dram company. I gave it a reckless Christmas five, though it wasn’t perfect yet. Now here’s a return tour, with a new cast (the originals being busy in the Duchess) and a new director, Adam Meggido (of Showstoppers). And it’s better, leaner, more inventive. Authors Jonathan Sayer and Henries Shields and Lewis made a wise decision in sticking close to JM Barrie’s original text with its fey sincerity and faery whimsy, rather than attempting a panto. Indeed a good running joke is that the “Director” – Laurence Pears – who plays Hook becomes glaringly enraged whenever the audience, on nicely subtle prompts, shouts BEHIND YOU or O NO IT ISN’T. “It’s a traditional Christmas vignette! It’s not a panto” – “Oh yes it is!” we cry. The cast utter Barrie’s Wendyish lines under hideous duress as harnesses, props , scenery, and (memorably) costumes let everyone down .



This new cast is very good at doing suppressed panic with edges of miserable resignation; particularly enchanting in deliberate awfulness is Leonie Hill as Wendy, all stage-school overacting and worryingly inappropriate dance moves. Naomi Sheldon plays Mother, the maid and Tinkerbell with a sort of panicky determination, suitable to her fake biography as Annie the promoted ASM; and Cornelius Booth is the heavily bearded co-director and emergency substitute infant Michael.
Sound effects tapes played in error fill the stage with back-bedroom revelations about how much the directors despise the crocodile and only cast him because his uncle is funding it (Matt Cavendish is so nicely woebegone and put-upon that he gets a cheer every time he comes on).


Mischief’s trademark physical courage and skill are deployed in the botched flying scenes (including one unexpected moment of audience participation),in hairsbreadth-timed musichall head-bashes, and in the unfortunate electrocution of Tinkerbell, whose light-up tutu trails a mains lead. Some of the jokes I remembered, but under Meggido many physical ones are brand new and excellent. So is the chorus of genuine children, who relentlessly sing a jolly song during a dangling medical crisis overhead. They too get their comeuppance: Italia Conti mothers, look away…



Joy was pretty much unconfined, in one of the most technically challenging and funniest shows of Christmas. There is certainly a challenge to the touring theatres in the fearful culmination, in which the revolve -with a collapsing seesawing pirate ship – becomes unstoppable and reveals dozens of small vignettes of conflict, repair and dissolution, And am glad to report that they list a lot of understudies. Some of that stuff must really hurt. But down in the stalls, we’re very, very happy.



Guildford till Saturday; then touring!      Touring Mouse wide

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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Immediately this play had the whiff of a concept. This is a shoebox theatre, and the tiny clearing at the front (stage?) was occupied by only a plain white kitchen. Suli Holum, who performs the piece on her lonesome, appears in the audience (strange) but paints over the blanks with the kind of oomph only an American can muster.
A joint effort from writer/director Deborah Stein and performer/writer Suli Holum, the play is largely dull argument, but with a thrilling story poking in where it could. Broadly it is a story about a woman, who for various scientific reasons I can’t remember, has a son who is not hers. She gave birth but it isn’t her DNA in him. It’s vaguely common. Apparently.



The story is emotionally gripping and the characters are well drawn. A garishly accented American coffee lady/narrator is nicely cartoonish and pronounces ‘chest’ as ‘cheyesta’. Every syllable is a new invention.
The mother is only just about there; angry and sharp, cold yet a bit weepy. And the son is freakishly good. Suli pulls this shy yank student (think pre-crime Bieber) literally out of nowhere and it is thrilling.


Unfortunately here ends the praise. The script veers from witty to shitty and loses sight of the actual nub of interest – the story – far too often in favour of lecture. It is also regularly far too cerebral, talking about Darwin and DNA instead of people or experience. It also goes so meta for so many minutes that all we’re left with is jokes about how the taps don’t work because it’s a set. This feels like filling in the gaps for the boring science. As does the trippy pseudo-scientific projections which at first have a point, but end up just facilitating what looked like, and has the intellectual fibre of, the Galaxy song bit from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. You know the bit where Eric Idle comes out of the fridge into the Milky Way. This happens, although with far less substance.



It is a shame because the central performance was excellent and the lost story had the beginnings of something solidly dramatic. Unfortunately it throws all this to gawp at the great unknown / some facts I first heard on QI circa 2009.
Box Office: 020 7229 0706 to 20 Dec

Rating: two   2 meece rating

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There is nothing funnier in the world than kids swearing. This play gets us as close to that as possible without without social services getting involved.
Class 4N are a trial class. They are the fortunate guinea pigs being tested with a new
child-led style of teaching. At the head of the classroom sits Badger Be Good whose bland morality tales will guide the children painlessly into compliant adulthood. “It shouldn’t even have any capitals” remarks one of the children. The walk into the theatre is one of the first thrills. You arrive at a devastatingly realistic looking primary school classroom. The detail is outstanding. Chloe Lamford’s nudges gasps from all who enter and mutters of “shit, look!” from one patron to another.
The play, like setting, is uncanny. The story is disjointed and sinister – a form of something we think we know. Children sing, plot and tell spooky tales of what happened to the kid who ate too many super-green smoothies. Middle class parents of the world look away now.  Amanda Abbington is the prim powerhouse Sali Rayner. She is the creator of this scheme and the kind of ball-clenchingly terrifying person who is both an educator and a star of ITV1. Think Mary Portas but with ‘thinking stools’ and felt tips. She is fierce and delightfully patronising to the children but they bite backfz. “She is called Sali which is a normal name but she puts an ‘i’ at the end to make her interesting”.



However the Guardianista wares she’s come to peddle are not welcomed by the kids. The kids say they are ‘stressed’ and the headteacher talks of ‘phases’ and ‘logs’. It stinks of an educationalist with a plan.  The kids start by playing along, but eventually rise up. Their teacher Ms.Newsom (nicely frantic by Ony Uhiara) breaks down and leaves. The quasi-corporate headteacher (snappily played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) desperately tries to keep the school afloat whilst the pleasingly no-nonsense northern Mrs Bradley (charmingly brought by Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh) gives the children brief freedom.



The real joy here is how horrible the child Louis can be. Or “King Louis” as he manipulates his classmates into calling him. Brilliantly played the night I went by Bobby Smalldrige (a new acting dynasty name if I ever heard one), he is calmly and terrifyingly in charge. He cuts through a terrific amount of bullshit and looks barely 6.



But although Molly Davies’ play is politically fierce, sassily spoken and expertly staged by Vicki Featherstone, it suffers from a lumpy structure. It runs for 1 hour with an extra 45 minutes weighing it down. There are far too many scenes which cloud the gems and its neat politics get lost in setup and explanation.  Faulty but joyously original. Educational policy made punchy drama – no easy feat!
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 to 20 Dec
Supported by the Jerwood Charitable  Foundation
Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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GO SEE King’s Head, N1

Here’s a curiosity worth catching: the only full play by Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer (who greatly admired it). It was born at the Actors’ Studio and is directed by another veteran American legend, Sondra Lee. The two players are also transatlantic: Peter Tate, who was so impressive in American Justice at the Arts, and Lauren Fox, an award-winning NYC cabaret performer. You could say that it taps right in to a particular New York neurosis and a particular time – 1985, the height of the AIDS epidemic.



But Mailer is too subtle a writer to leave it pinned down in time and place: literal as it is, tracing an odd-couple relationship over a few weeks, it has eternal echoes of myth. Tate plays a cultural anthropologist in his fifties, balding and scholarly. Making notes for a book he goes to a “sex booth” where behind one-way glass – she can’t see him – the scantily clad Fox preens, poses, and talks dirty to clients while they masturbate. A dollar a minute – the punter must keep pushing the money through or the light goes off (the tiny theatre is imaginatively papered on three sides with luxuriant giant red flowers, half-savage and half-seedy).

The girl is truculent, brittle, practised, appearing in her glass box in a variety of wigs and props. In several sessions he gets some kind of a life story out of her, about youth in Texas and seducing the local preacher – all very Tennessee Williams. Eventually he graphically tells of his own homosexual experiences in a tribe of Papua New Guinea cannibal headhunters.

But the twist is that in between booth sessions he has managed to be knocked over by her bicycle as she cycles home in sweatpants and good-girl hair. Scraping acquaintance through his scraped knee, he begins to date her. She has no idea it is the man from the booth; he pretends to be an out-of-town businessman (though unable to remember whether he said Indianapolis and Minneapolis). In return he gets a more respectable version of her own life, as a doctor’s daughter and Vogue model.

The clever thing is that until the dénouement you are never sure whether this is a classic Shakespearian wooing-in-disguise myth, or very creepy indeed, borderline Hitchcock. Tate, battered and unsmiling, carries the double possibility brilliantly; Lauren Fox moves between her brittle sex-doll persona and the real vulnerable girl cooking gumbo in her little flat and hoping for marriage. Until he gives himself away, and it all explodes into sad, credible angry confusion. And an acknowledgement that it is never just sex that answers the deepest need, but intimacy. Even between liars.
Box office 0207 478 0160

Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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In the interval of this headlong, crowded kaleidoscope of a play it was hard to know where the second part of David Hare’s script could go. With a 34-strong Asian cast, it is shaped from Katherine Boo’s painstaking three-year documentation of the Indian urban poor in Annawadi: the “undercity” scrabbling a living from the rubbish around Mumbai airport. Hidden behind the vast cosmetic posters for “Luxury Apartments” or “Beautiful Forever”, these are the ones the tourist board prefers we do not see.

And that first breathless act, using the vast panorama of the Olivier stage as a corrugated shanty town and bleak police station, felt like every human drama: a neighbourhood catfight, a cynically corrupt police-procedural, a social and environmental comment on global capitalism, a comedy of post-colonial manners, a touching portrait of teenage friendship, and at least two Greek tragedies. One involving fatal envy and self-immolation, another a young man’s a gesture of heroic idealism as powerful as Antigone’s. All this beneath the thundering shadow of jumbo jets, and centred on a patient, careful figure sorting rubbish. Plastic bottles fall like blessings from above , and Abdul (wonderful Shane Zaza), fills sacks, supports his family, only mildly grumbles that bottletops are half-metal half-plastic and need separating.

It is more than a documentary, though: India lives on tales, and the narrative is heart-hammeringly strong. My interval qualms were only because for the central Husain family – the ever-magnificent Meera Syal as its matriarch – it seemed to be all over.  They are accused of beating up the stroppy one-legged prostitute Fatima (a fiercely spirited Thusitha Jayasundera) who burns herself to death. The family fail to pay a bribe fast enough, and are variously imprisoned, tortured, and ruined. Life, however, goes on: and the second part is almost stronger, directing us not to schmaltzy “Slumdog Millionaire” feelgoodery but to an ironic conclusion of the case, and more importantly to something which can only be expressed in cliché: a tribute to the human spirit. Without spoilers, let me say that a line near the end about walking to a bus sparked an unexpected tear; and moments later a boy’s leap roused a cheer.

But as documentary too it is important, a good omen for the play’s director Rufus Norris, who takes over the NT reins next year. Katherine Boo’s book makes it firmly clear that these are not the abject, the poorest of the streets. In a rising economy, a BRIC nation, and they are the “not-poor”, economically active but intensely fragile in global changes: a Wall Street crash, observes the spry lad Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera) means they start cooking rats again. Vincent Ebrahim’s Karam curses “Don’t drop litter” posters, because without litter they starve. In the good times Syal’s matriarch swanks that although Abdul was born on the pavement outside the Intercontinental Hotel like a naked rat in the gutter, his hard work means they can afford a shelf in their shack and need not squat to cook. One rung above her is Asha , the local Mrs Fixit whose assignations with officials yet another rung above enable her to educate her daughter Manju – who in turn secretly teaches her friend Meena, a despairing unschooled captive of her family’s marriage plans.

With hilarious post-Colonial absurdity, what Manju passes on is Mrs Dalloway (“Who are these people? what do they do?”) and Congreve’s The Way of the World. Though she spots that Congreve is all about money, corruption and negotiated sex, just like Annawadi . Meanwhile the police chief can educate his son because of the bonus he gets for a 100% clear-up rate of murders, a statistic easily achieved by writing off a horribly mutilated young victim’s corpse as “Tuberculosis”. You do what you have to do, in Annawadi: as Zehrusina resignedly says “Everything is stolen!”. Or as Asha puts it more grandly “I have learned from First Class People, if you don’t think it’s wrong, it isn’t”. Sharp.

Box Office: 020 7452 3000 to March
NB TRAVELEX sponsorship: half the seats £ 15, others £ 25-£35.
NT LIVE in 550 cinemas 12 March 2015:
Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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ACCOLADE St James Theatre, SW1


The accolade is a knighthood: services to literature for the debonair Will Trenting, already a Nobel for his novels on the seamy side of life. The play is set in his elegant library (a rather shoestring-flimsy set, but that’s the only unclassy thing about this marvellous evening). The writer jokes with his wife Rona that he is not respectable enough; she laughs and retorts “Falstaff was a knight!”. For she broadmindedly tolerates his occasional binges with booze and tarts in a bedsit at the Blue Lion pub in Rotherhithe. Their bookish young schoolboy son doesn’t know; Albert the valet-secretary-chauffeur is at home in both sides of Trenting’s life, and even when Harold and Phyllis from the pub turn up, a wide boy and a cartoonishly tarty barmaid, Rona is cheerfully welcoming. Nothing rocks the family boat. Yet.



One of the remarkable things about Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play, with two quite superb performances from Alexander Hanson and Abigail Cruttenden, is that you believe in this marriage and menage. In the cunningly crafted early scenes – which director Blanche McIntyre wisely does not speed up – you are drawn by Trenting’s charm: Hanson (so recently both Stephen Ward and Guy Burgess onstage) deploys satanically-browed, peaky assurance and an undertone of beguiling sincerity when he says of his lowlife fictional characters “Are they any worse than couples who nag each other from twin beds every night and are cruel to their children?” He also offers, when forced to admit his Blue Lion life to his censorious publisher Thane, a classic literary-slummer’s apologia: describing a big prostitute Diane sitting topless on his frowsty pub bed drinking Guinness and talking about her mother’s death. He contrasts rowdy, consensual warmly proletarian promiscuity with the deadness of a literary lunch. It is a perennial form of bad-boy romanticism: suddenly reminiscent of Stephen Fry’s sentimentalizing over “incredibly decent” cocaine dealers….



But as the first act ends the author detonates his bomb. And if we have been lulled into a period-play mood, reflecting smugly on how different things were in 1950 (who’d care if a literary knight was a bit of a party animal? we’ve had Sir Mick Jagger for years) we are jolted into reality. The lovable libertine’s classic plea that his vices are victimless is exploded, on the eve of his investiture. For one of the girls in the last orgy was not what she seemed. Neither (rather shockingly) are Harold and Phyllis. A blackmailer arrives; a wave of police, press and public outrage rolls in.


No detailed spoilers, but quite apart from Hanson’s terrific evocation of shock and regret, the performance of Bruce Alexander as the blackmailer is fabulous, a study in menacing, devious humbugging black comedy which simmers tensely before crashing into unexpected passion. And as if all that wasn’t enough to justify this wonderful play’s revival, a final scene between the father and Sam Clemmett – splendid as the son – is at once truthful, moving, heartbreaking and shockingly funny. A real find. Once again, all credit to the Finborough for digging it up.


box office 0844 264 2140 to 13 Dec
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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LA SOIREE South Bank SE1

There’s a towering, assertive giant gay blue rabbit in skintight Spandex, a stripping trapeze artiste hurling garments at the front row, a sadfaced clown who sings Cohen’s Hallelujah like a depressed angel; there is juggling and jokes and a superbly rude faux-baffled reading of a Mills and Boon sex scene. There are brief acts and sustained ones, a provocative diablo, a worrying contortionist, Ursula Martinez’ legendary hanky turn, hulahooping, quick-change transformations and a bathtub aerialist. And dammit, here’s the blue bunny again: lurking in the back stalls of the gorgeous mirrored Spiegeltent…why? Who knows.
I have loved these evenings ever since the first, in Edinburgh in 2004; call it new variety, or performance-cabaret, or circus burlesque, or whatever takes your fancy: it has been riotously successful, giving a platform to individual acts and forging an identity both pleasingly louche and unthreateningly friendly. That last quality is important, because not everyone is a natural nightclubber. As for the tag “not recommended for children” and the nudity warning, it must be said that its sexiness is not of the dead-eyed Soho variety. It is so joyfully self-mocking that I would very happily take a young teen (actually, it could be a useful corrective to the dreary porn they all see online).

And goodness, it’s fun. Partly because under the production of Brett Haylock the two-hour show is immaculately paced. This matters: I have been to similar events (with some of the same artistes) where heavyhanded ringmastering and a tolerance of iffy, slow-moving banter took much of the joy out of it. Here, however, there is no self-satisfied ringmaster but a swift, skilful segue of one act to the next, varying between the mainly funny and the breathtakingly acrobatic. It’s brilliant.



Aficionados and world travellers should know some names which headline this anniversary London run: Puddles Pity Party, an astonishing voice, is the big glum singing pierrot; Tanya Gagné of the Wau Wau sisters of NYC strips on the trapeze, you might see The English Gents, or David and Fofo from Sweden who spit ping-pong-balls. And from Australia Asher Treleaven is our Mills -and-Boon interpreter. His sad outraged “No – that’s not a Thing!” stays with me still.



Top night out, essence of joyful skill. I’m going again, on proper paid-for tickets: that’s how good it is.

+44 (0)20 7960 4200 To 11 Jan

rating: five   4 Meece Ratingthe fifth being a Merry-Christmouse  libby, christmas cat

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Aled Jones is wonderful. Honestly. He is. Won’t ever hear a word against him. This contentedly hokey stage revival of Irving Berlin’s 1954 seasonal heartwarmer is his West End debut, but you’d never know it: not only because he sings with a fluid insouciant ease which relaxes you into the classic songs with a sensation not unlike swimming with dolphins. He dances, not half badly though less spectacularly than the amazing Tom Chambers as his mate Phil . And – as Bob the WW2 veteran turned song-and-dance man – he exudes such industrial-strength, powerfully benign likeability that dammit, you can’t take your eyes off him. You feel safe.


And it’s a show about feeling safe, possibly the most unthreatening theatre experience on the planet right now.   It’s a rom-com two performers getting together to save their old General’s failing Vermont ski lodge with a pair of (highly respectable) showgirl sisters, a foghorn-voiced diva turned receptionist and a winsome stagestruck tot (Sophia Pettit, managing to play it both abominable and rather touching). The jeopardy is slight – Betty (a gorgeous Rachel Stanley) misunderstands Bob just as their awkward romance is blossoming, but not for long. The General, given genuine presence and personality by Graham Cole, resolves his yearning to get back to the army without undue stress. The slow farmhand in charge of the curtains more or less gets it right, the Vermont locals dance with improbable precision, and the show goes on, as it must.

It’s a relaxed enough pace to cause impatience in some – expect no great spectaculars, no emotional catharsis, no political swipes – and its success is mainly as a period piece. But that relaxation gives you an opportunity to reflect on that world of sixty years ago, and what it needed. America in this show is not questioning itself, but cosying down into domesticity, looking inward, putting its faith in sleigh-bells in the snow, acknowledging the war so lately past and wanting to forget it. The parallels in dialogue between war and showbiz are brief but noticeable: the men adore the General who “would have gone through hell for them” and make parallels with the solidarity of performers. It is as if they were saying “right, Eisenhower was what we needed then, but now it’s over to Ethel Merman…”

But enough of the social anthropology. In its terms – and they are, by modern musical theatre standards, limited – it works a treat. By the time the snow falls on us all and a prolonged curtain call of red-and-green, velvet-and-tinsel-and-fur-hat chorines has hoofed its last, we are ready for Christmas. Except hell, it’s only the 13th of November. But that, every year, is the lot of the theatre critic…
box office 0845 200 7982 to 3 Jan
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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WILDEFIRE Hampstead Theatre, NW3


Gail Wilde earned her nickname at Hendon. A firecracker, an enthusiastic gym-bunny aglow with desire to be a good copper in the Met. She turns up early for her first day in a tough South London nick, stalwart and bouncy. She exemplifies the ideas spoken – moments earlier under a lone spotlight – by Sir Robert Peel in an earlier century. The police are civilians, he tells us, keeping order by consent and co-operation with the public; use minimal force only when “persuasion, advice and warning” have failed, offer“service and friendship” to all, regardless of social standing.



Brings tears to your eyes, it does. But once Peel has left the stage and Roy Williams’ play takes us to the modern badlands, it’s goodbye to shades of Dixon of Dock Green and the start of PC Gail’s decline into canteen culture complicity, fear, cynicism, grief, misjudgement, betrayal, violent delusion and final ruin. Lorraine Stanley achieves all this in a tour-de-force performance in ninety minutes straight, against a strong mobile ensemble under Maria Aberg’s fluid, high-speed, jump-cut direction.



Ironically, though, the play’s brisk exciting pace militates against its story: we are shown every stage of Gail’s decline from a happy wife and mother enjoying the comradeship of her new job, but her dissolution happens so fast that credibility becomes strained. The play would have been better given room to breathe: her relationship with a job-seeking husband and invisible daughter in particular is handled with peremptory sketchiness. Though perhaps this is intended to reinforce the fact that there is more vivid importance for her in the banter, frustration and urgency of the police world . That is indeed beautifully drawn, especially Fraser James as the weary sergeant passed over for promotion and Ricky Champ as Gail’s decent partner, who both commits something shocking under provocation and then is victim of something worse.



Williams is frank in the programme notes about his gradual journey from 1980s resentment to a more sympathetic view of the toughness of police work in a city of gangs and a time of riots. Aberg certainly knows how to direct a riot, and her use of vulturous hoodies watching overhead during the officers’ work and domestic travails is brilliantly chilling. But just too much is packed in to those ninety minutes: from the first stream of vomit to several riots, an unofficial grass, a drugs raid, police brutality, a murder, an inter-colleague affair, prescription drug addiction and domestic violence both sides of the thin blue line. It would be a better play if he focused more closely, gave us time to hope that each disaster might resolve before plunging us neck-deep in awful consequences.



There is also a technical problem caused by Naomi Dawson’s sparse gymnasium-style set: the acoustic is so echoey, and the style so naturalistically shouty, that you miss a lot of Williams’ best lines. Which is a shame because if you read the text a lot of them are very sharp indeed.



But it’s certainly not boring: and salutary for a theatre-believer to observe that whereas a murder in a TV police-procedural or detective story rarely even puts you off your macaroni cheese, done onstage it stops your breath with horror. I hope this playwright returns to the police theme. More slowly.

box office 020 7722 9301 to 29 Nov
Rating: three3 Meece Rating

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On this evening of Armistice day a hundred years on, no more fitting place to be than at this finely drawn revival of Stephen MacDonald’s two-hander about the WW1 soldier-poets. Here are Sassoon and Owen, young men in an unexpected friendship struggling with their own nightmares but also with the need, as a terrible new world dawned, to escape from orotund late-Victorian lyricism and express the grief of war without empty phrases or sentimentality. It was Wilfred Owen who wrote that his book would not be about heroes or “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power”: simply the pity of war, the poetry in the pity. He also wrote that his elegies would not be consolatory to his generation but “may be to the next”.

And so they are. More, in a way, than his friend Siegfried Sassoon’s: nothing in the century matches Owen’s immaculate directness in Anthem for Doomed Youth. When he reads it to his friend halfway through the play, a palpable tremor runs through the room, as if the bugles were still calling from sad shires.
But the power of the play – a respectful but inventive imagining of the friendship they forged at Craiglockhart War Hospital for nervous conditions – lies in more than the skilful use of letters, journals and poems, and in more than pathos.

The men rise as personalities, their friendship jokey, combative, and evolving with Owen’s growing confidence. Young men laugh sometimes, whatever times they endure, and so may we, surprisingly often. Alasdair Craig is Sassoon: taller, chiselled, with an upper-class brittleness. He was few years older and already a published poet, and a decorated war hero so independent-minded that he risked an public statement of “Wilful Defiance” against the war’s prolongation in 1917 and threw his military cross in the Mersey. So, with political cunning, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than court-martialled.

Knocking on his door comes little Owen: stammering, hero-worshipping, sweating with social diffidence, Simon Jenkins is every inch the provincial clerk of the period: smooth centre parting and small moustache, a figure like Forster’s Leonard Bast. The relationship begins with Sassoon as amused mentor and critic, until he recognizes the ardent gift and becomes Owen’s champion, introducing him to figures like Robert Graves (“A man one likes better after he’s left the room”). Woven into their passionate discussions of poetry are moments of war news, of 250,000 lost at Passchendaele. For both will go back, Sassoon with death-wishing anger -“More like being drunk than being brave” – Owen because he is afraid after his first experience, and needs to know whether he can endure side by side with those whose deaths he mourns in verse. He could. He died a hero, a week before the Armistice. Sassoon had to live on nearly fifty years, but published his friend’s poems.

Caroline Clegg’s magnificent, understatedly fine production for Feelgood has toured to Craiglockhart, to Catterick, across Britain and to Northern France. It is good that it finds a home so close to the Cenotaph this winter. Don’t miss it.

box office 0845 505 8500 to 6 December
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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