GUYS AND DOLLS – Chichester Festival Theatre

A WINNING ROLL OF THE DICE FOR CHICHESTER

 

 

There is a sort of generosity, an overflowing vigour, when Chichester’s great three-sided arena does the classic musicals. They can’t be safely confined in a proscenium frame but have to pour out in three directions, sharpening the need for story and character, spilling the cast sometimes among us, bursting into 3D choreography with dazzling movement and gorgeous compositions of colour and piled-up shape. And of all the great musicals, none offers more of everything than Frank Loesser’s exuberant 1950 fairytale of gamblers, showgirls and tambourine-banging missionaries out to convert them.

 

The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows drew on Damon Runyon’s world: a sunny, larky, almost Wodehousian interpretation of New York lowlife. And here, beneath a great illuminated arc of nostalgic advertising posters – pure Disney, in a good way – Gordon Greenberg’s production sings and soars unfettered. The choreography – acrobatic to the point of insanity – is by Carlos Acosta, no less, supported by Andrew Wright: the gamblers in their suits and ties leapfrog, hurtle, somersault in a melée of precise chaos. “Siddown you’re rocking the boat” is phenomenal, and the crap-shooting dance down the sewers almost equally astonishing. As for the women, Anabel Kutay leads a Havana dance which becomes still wilder as the degenerating brawl incorporates Clare Foster’s disinhibited missionary Sergeant Sarah, and Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide in the Hot Box club is backed by plenty of slyly witty, naffly innocent ensemble hoofing in gingham corsetry or strippable mink stoles.

 

When the cast are in motion there is always something to amaze: while Peter McKintosh’s overarching design of ads (Oreo! Cadillac! Camel!) is sometimes reflected in the shiny floor until the cast seem to be floating in a circular mirage of light and colour. And they themselves – perfect right down to the men’s two-tone co-respondent shoes and snazzy socks – form patterns rarely less than perfect.

 

But enough about the look of the thing. Its wit is more the point: the spoken dialogue (of which there is more than many musicals) is sharp and funny, giving scope for subtleties of character. Jamie Parker, chiselled and cool, lets the character of Sky Masterson breathe and genuinely change as he falls in love with Sarah; Peter Polycarpou’s harassed Nathan Detroit has a nice unwilling charm, his confreres (especially Harry Morrison as Nicely Nicely and dour, towering Nic Greenshields as Big Jule) each stand out distinct. Neil McCaul as Abernethy the minister creates in his small moments something genuinely lovable and precious. And Greenberg’s detail never misses a passing joke, not least when he makes momentarily solid the women’s dreams of a ruralized Nathan and domesticated Sky. It takes only seconds, that, but adds to the sum of happiness; so does the real steam from the New York pavement gratings and the momentary appearance (twice) of a wobbly nun on a bicycle with a collecting-bucket.

 

Hard to pick out stars, but the obvious, irresistible, fabulously broad performance is Sophie Thompson’s as Miss Adelaide. Who could resist that high Bronx twang swooping down to a dismayed baritone, her barmy dancing, or that angular anxiety – both hilarious and heartbreaking – about the ever-vanishing wedding day resolved in a final sisterly duet with Sergeant Sarah? Not me.

 

box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312 to 21 Sept
Sponsors Henry Adams / Reynolds / Seaward
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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DOGFIGHT – Southwark Playhouse, SE1

WARM, WONDERFUL,  WISE..THE YEAR’S BEST NEW MUSICAL

 

 

Strewth! What a wonderful show.  In this trade we are cautious of superlatives, lest omething even better comes along and renders us weaponless. Nor am I a target audience for American fringe-musicals chewing over the emotional wreckage of the Vietnam war, and the green boys who came back (if they were lucky) to find themselves both traumatized and unpopular. No Woottom Bassett welcomes for most of them, poor devils.

 

But this –  book by Peter Duchan, with plaintive, both folky and rock-wild music and lyrics by Banj Pasek and Justin Paul – is special. Not just because the young men are so roughly, endearingly young and nervously macho, and  move with an energy both joyful and menacing (Matt Ryan directs, Lucie Pankhurst choreographs). Nor is it mere nostalgia, though set in San Francisco in 1967, sliding back as a memory-play to ’63 and the night before embarkation. It has real dramatic energy, never flagging or overstating the obvious, and within the musical form lies a very good play: a romantic, hard-edged and humane love story with universal feeling at its heart.

 

The “Dogfight” of the title is a nasty squaddie ritual for the last night : a pre-brothel prize for whoever can pick up the ugliest girl and get her to a dance to be judged.  Marine Eddie (a waiflike Jamie Muscato, half-lost boy, half-lout) finds Rose, a chubby shy waitress. His basic shy decency makes him gradually hesitate as she blossoms in innocent delight at her first date, but macho comradeship defeats his doubts. We cringe for her, singing to herself anxiously as she dresses (in a truly awful bow-belted party frock) and hoping her beau will be “nothing short of wonderful”.   By this time, I have to tell you, the entire room is helplessly in love with Laura Jane Mathewson, fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music and in her first job. Gotta be Newcomer of the Year: she’s a jewel.

 

Goodness, they say, writes white: but Matthewson gives Rose a beautiful guileless sweetness , never bland, wholly credible, girlish, emotionally vulnerable but with a fierce intelligence. She shines, but – no Madam Butterfly – delights us further with some sharp feminist-cum-motherly scolding when she discovers her humiliation, and more when Eddie remorsefully tries to make it up to her. Their rapprochement is enchantingly – and funnily, and melodiously – achieved. Add a lovely swooping voice, clear and warm, and a seemingly unselfconscious womanly physicality and..well! strong men swoon, and women who were once chubby girls in wrong dresses whoop and cheer. Remember that name. Laura Jane Matthewson!

 

Around these two is gathered a strong cast, notably Nicholas Corre as a geeky virginal fellow-marine with nervous doubts, and Rebecca Trehearn as a minxy tart. Behind them on a towering section of the Golden Gate Bridge an six-piece band sounding twice the size. Ask no more. It’s almost perfect.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 to 13 Sept

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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WUTHERING HEIGHTS – Theatre in the Forest, Nr Ipswich

OUT IN THE FOREST,  SOMETHING STIRS…

 

 

The slope beneath the great chestnut trees makes a perfect arena: on tiered seating or below it on chairs, the audience are held breathless by Emily Bronte’s unfolding melodrama, as players with whitened faces, mummer-style, appear from the depths beyond or roam between convincingly aged tombstones.

This is outdoor theatre for the summer, surrounded (on “Jimmy’s Farm”) by strings of lights leading down paths through the gloom, and that rejoicingly summery mud-and-Portaloo festi-vibe we love. The informality is enhanced by the fact that your ticket will probably be taken and your steps guided, by Edgar Linton in his pink top-hat (Laurence Pears) or by one of the Cathys: the dark impassioned Cathy Earnshaw (Kirsty Thorpe) or her scampering spirited Linton daughter (Anna Doolan). And that Heathcliff, saturnine and savage, the white makeup eerie beneath dark curls, peers out from nearby trees in the person of Daniel Abbott.

 

It is a sharply, neatly adapted version by the director Joanna Carrick, moving spirit of the splendid Red Rose Chain Theatre. It works with a mixture of naturalism, narrative split between the players as if in some ancient ritual, and occasional chanted choral lines which raise the hairs on the back of your neck. I wondered, in the headlong first half – from the Earnshaw childhood to Cathy’s death and Heathcliff’s crazed grief – how she would handle the second part. The novel’s shape is very different from what a classic tragedy asks, its climb towards reconciliation and the rappreochement of Hareton and young Cathy less arresting dramatically than the wildness of the first part.

 

But Carrick uses the deepening darkness of the evening cleverly, with a constant sense of the haunting Catherine and the haunted Heathcliff set, in black moments, between particularly charming and cleverly adapted Hareton-and-Cathy scenes. Indeed Joel Johnson’s Hareton – childish, then loutish, then earning a wounded dignity – is one of the high points of the show. He’s still training at the Bristol Old Vic: watch out for him. Also worth watching is Rachael McCormick as Nelly: she holds the narrative together with authority and humour. But they’re all good, and the production of a standard you don’t often find outdoors, not on a dank evening up a farm track near the Orwell Bridge. It’s in rep with Red Rose Chain’s COMEDY OF ERRORS, which word of mouth is also recommending. May it stay dry for them…

 

box office http://tinyurl.com/mjgg4r2
01473 603388

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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PRODUCT BY MARK RAVENHILL Assembly Hall guestreview

GUEST REVIEWER PHILIP FISHER ON RAVENHILL’S EXTENDED HIT

 

 

It is amazing how quickly contemporary events become history, and recent history becomes the distant past. Mark Ravenhill’s 45 minutesatire was first seen at the Traverse during the 2005 Fringe, less than a month after the London 7/7 bombings. It uses as its central figures Al Qaeda activists involved in the War on Terror, and even features a cameo from the late Osama bin Laden. As such, it already feels dated by the advent of the latest generation of terrorists such as ISIS.

 

This new production stars Olivia Poulet, best known for her appearances in The Thick of It. She plays a role originally taken very successfully by the playwright himself, both at the Traverse and in a remixed version at the Bush a couple of years later: a movie producer trying to sell the role of a modern girl named Amy in her latest project, the comically-bad Mohammed and Me, to some big-hitting Hollywood starlet.

 

Where Ravenhill’s guest was played by a real actress, albeit a silent presence, in this version she is a void located somewhere near the audience. Oddly, this does make a difference to both audience perceptions and the performance, which has slightly less focus. The gender change for the producer almost comes off but that too alters the piece, reducing the irony inevitable when a middle-aged man was telling a young woman how to react and express feelings that she would understand far better than he ever could.

 

The story remains compelling,though, filled with dark humour. Amy, having lost her lover when the Twin Towers fell, meets a “dusky” fellow on a plane and due to force of circumstance takes the Islamic virgin straight to bed. In heavy-handed Hollywood fashion, we discover that he is a suicide bomber and as love blossoms, Amy is left with a series of decisions which only ever occur in bad movies. The story builds explosively to a blockbuster denouement.   Yet Product is effective both because it shines a light on terrorism and cruelly lampoons Hollywood blockbuster movie for shallowness and unthinking tactlessness. Poulet urges the text along in an entertaining performance but one that cannot quite match that of Ravenhill who conceived the role. But it will still draw audiences and has been extended to the Fringe’s end

 

http://www.edfringe.com now to 24 Aug
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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CALAMITY JANE Watermill, Newbury

BUCKSKINS, BURLESQUERS, BLISS

 
Yee-ha! Calamity Jane strides in, beefy in buckskins, more beltingly, braggingly alive than any man in the room. Or, indeed, any room. She’s been ridin’ the stagecoach through war-parties of redskins real and fictional, likes to accentuate a point by firing her six-shooter at the ceiling, and presents the more feminine Sue-from-the-saloon with a dress-length of gingham roaring “I wouldn’t know how to act with sump’n like that hangin’ off me”. This dame can make Wild Bill Hickock look prissy, and as for poor Lieut Danny whose wounds she binds up with yearning calf-love, he’s plumb terrified. As is the extravagantly bearded Rattlesnake, stagecoach-driver and bass player (Paul Kissaun) who recoils timidly from her fabulous swagger, like the grizzly-b’ars. Of which she says she just shot two. At once.

 

What a treat is this stage version of the great Warner Brothers 1953 Fain and Webster musical . A few minutes in, cosied up under a rope chandelier with the regulars in the Golden Garter saloon, you feel a daft grin spreading across your face which never deserts you all evening. I’d forgotten about the Doris Day film, but every number in this feast of feelgood ‘50s Americana is a classic, as the Deadwood Stage rolls again through the Black Hills of Dakota, whipcrackaway! Unbidden, the audience softly sings along with the Black Hills in the dance scene. And Nikolai Foster’s production is a joy: a cast of storming actor-musicians seizing instruments from fiddle to spoons and percussing the scenery, then breaking into brilliantly hokey line-dance movement from Nick Winston. All this within Matthew Wright’s saloon–and-stage set, perfect in its battered intimacy. The show tours onwards next month and is tough enough to take any theatre: but within the little wooden Watermill it is a particular kind of bliss.

 

And of course Jodie Prenger was born to play Calamity. She’s a belting singer, as we all know from OLIVER (she won ‘I’d do Anything’) but also a smart mover and a dab hand at the spoons. And she radiates a lovable vitality which, in the old cliché, lights up the stage. The plot, diverging somewhat from history but in a good cause, has her braggingly promising to bring a top Chicago act – Adelaid Adams – to the saloon where the guys fight over cigarette-card pictures of the star: the landlord nearly got lynched when he accidentally booked a man (Rob Delaney with a hilarious tap-and-uke routine) instead of a burlesquer. Calam brings a substitute, the ambitious Katie (Phoebe Street) and a romantic tangle ensues, with Prenger dropping her macho act in genuinely moving disappointment and sadness before finding – ta-daaa! – true love in Wild Bill.

 

Hokum, hokum all the way but a blast of playful energy. The rattling stagecoach ride is created by Rattlesnake and Calamity sitting on the top of the old upright piano and the rest shuddering behind , Phoebe Street has a gorgeous feather-duster ballet to “A Woman’s Touch”, Tom Lister’s is sultry Rhett-Butlerish Hickok, and we learn the best Wild-west insult any sister coulda wished for: “Ya frilled-up man-rustler!”.

 

box office 01635 46044 to 6 sept then touring nationwide to Dec.
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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ANIMAL FARM – Assembly George Square

GUEST CRITIC PHILIP FISHER IS AWED BY GEORGIAN ORWELL..

 

 

Anyone expecting a children’s show from Guy Masterson’s adaptation of Orwell could be in for a shock. This deeply political production, performed by a large ensemble from Keti Dolidze’s Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre of Tbilisi, Georgia can be quite terrifying. In fact, its impact and mood are closer to what we expect from 1984 rather than Animal Farm.

It takes a little time to tune into the 90-minute play, partly because it is performed in Georgian with English surtitles; but also because the animals (a large menagerie) are only identifiable thanks to the strong physical acting capabilities of cast members. Once they get going, the classifications become pretty clear and the audience is treated to some chillingly effective imagery, courtesy of designer Simon Macahbeli.

The story is familiar but even so, takes on new connotations when delivered by actors from a country that was for so long a Soviet state and home to Josef Stalin. What seems like a hopeful beginning, when the animals are freed from the established tyranny of Farmer Jones and his human henchmen doesn’t last long. The seven commandments laid down to regulate life are soon forgotten as the terrible Napoleon, given a fearsome mien by leading actor George Kipshidze, begins his civil war against the more benign Snowball, Vano Dugladze.

Soon the animals are divided into two factions and the farm has become the USSR under Stalin, complete with plans, empty promises and enslavement, state-sponsored murder not too far behind.
The animals react very differently to Napoleon and his black hench-dogs, but one the most poignant experiences is that of Zurab Getsadze’s stalwart, workhorse Boxer who keeps the faith to the end. Which comes in the knackers’ yard, not the promised hospital ward.

This very special production is an undoubted Edinburgh highlight, thanks to a powerful adaptation and the commitment of its talented cast. It would be good to see it transfer to London in the autumn.

http://www.edfringe.com to 24th

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HUFF Traverse, Edinburgh

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?
I thought it was a children’s walk-through amusement, something to keep the little bleeders willing to accompany parents to the serious Traverse plays below. Had too many reviews to do anyway. But that heroine of fringe and innovative theatre, Lynn Gardner of the Guardian, said “Go. It takes twenty minutes. Go”.  So I booked a slot, divested myself of shoes and bag, and crept into a tiny room and sat down on some suitcases to watch revolving musical china pigs on a dresser . And I saw that she was right as usual. One must abnegate adulthood sometimes if one is to maintain balance.
What Shona Rebbe and Andy Manley have created (for Catherine Wheels) is indeed child-friendly: a series of miniature rooms taking you – surreally and obliquely – into the domestic world of the three little pigs: the reckless jerrybuilders who used sticks and straw, and the prudent one with the bricks.  The joy is in its weirdness: you are encouraged to handle and touch things, and you open the kitchen drawers to find bricks, find a fridge worryingly full of Italian ham, and a washing machine spewing straw. It has an unpretentious Dali-cum-fairytale appeal.

 

A disembodied kindly voice leads you on, telling you which wall is the door out (my favourite instruction is “pull on the underpants”. The bathroom is upside down, lav on the ceiling: sometimes you are in a cupboard, once a garage, always with offbeam, slightly threatening suggestions of the prowling wolf only countered by determined porcine domesticities.
It is quite lovely. Thank you Lynn. Unaccompanied children should be 8 at least (CCTV watches out for panic). But with siblings or parents , six year olds have loved it. As for lone adults…well, I played with everything and had a little dance once or twice. Bliss.
box office 0131 228 1434 to 24 aug
rating four

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CASTING THE RUNES – Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

A CREEPY GENTLENESS 
I found this maverick pair, “Box Tale Soup”   out in the boondocks last fringe: Antonia Christophers and noel Byrne, creating a wonderful Northanger Abbey out of cardboard suitcases, paper props and puppetry. I wrote ‘wonderful’ and I hope it helped. Anyway, they are still touring that delicate, gentle Austen – one of the best and truest treatments, bar none, in any dramatic medium – but this year up on the Mile they fill their little space with something different. There are fewer puppets – though one sudden and very scaring one – and a creepier, more oblique piece of storytelling. They still have their trademark costumes and solemnity: charming ties, facings and belts made of bookprint, indicating a literary rather than wholly naturalistic mood. All props are paper, deliberately simple, indicating that this is literature made visible.

 

The playlet’s story is typical of its author M. R. James: a sceptical exposer of occultism , played by Byrne, tangles with something dark and powerful and a beautiful girl who warns him of its threat (Christophers plays several characters with the minimum of fuss and open changes).  The style is elegant. Ritualistic, even: they create an odd magic of attentiveness in the audience with deliberate, quiet moves, a solemnity: occasionally they briefly leave character to sing (the fine score is by Dan Melrose) a couple of those frightening lines from the Ancient Mariner about the man who “turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend /doth close behind him tread”.

 

This simplicity builds to something really odd and alarming: James’ “Who is this who is coming” genuinely arouses the terror of myth. Often it is more like reading, alone, than watching a show. And seeing them handle costumes and props reinforces what M.R.James wanted: “Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently until it holds the stage.”

 

http://www.edfringe.com           http://www.boxtalesoup.co.uk to 23 Aug

rating:  three  3 Meece Rating

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THE QUANT Hill St Solo, Edinburgh

THE BONUS BOYS UNMASKED…

 

 

Jamie Griffiths is not a quantitative analyst in the City. He’s an actor and playwright. Not a “quant”, a risk-taking star of the city betting and hedging and ducking and diving and making billions and then losing some and panicking and covering his tracks. But his hard, chiselled smartness and edgy delivery ring so true that at times in this remarkable monologue you drift into thinking the performer is telling a true story.

And in essence, true it is. As a maths graduate, enraged by the bank bailouts, Griffiths became obsessed with how it all worked, read widely, hung out in forums for quants and traders and got even more enraged. Fascinated, too, by the bizarre, risky casino culture of young, wet-behind-the-ears adventurers encouraged to bet not only their own institution’s money, but imaginary money it doesn’t have. So he begins his presentation as if we are trainees being told how it works; as it goes on, the story shades into autobiography and a final reveal about the Quant’s own biggest, baddest bet. It becomes ever more gripping, ever more brilliantly appalling.

It is full of fierce little wisdoms, which might be spoken by a real practitoner. “We do not grow anything, we do not manufacture anything. We manufacture risk”. He explains the levels and types of risk. Execution risk, in which the other guy might be faster, so it is vital to be near the server hub (“ever 93 miles away you lose a millisecond”). There’s Excel risk, in which you model a computer programme but it doesn’t deliver. There’s counterparty risk, in which you win but the other guy can’t pay up. And there is people risk, in which human beings simply don’t behave logically (“Why didn’t Greece default?” etc). We learn about derivatives, leverage, arbitrage, and above all the giddy triumphalism of the successful trader who is dealing in sums so vast, and earning sums so vast, that he feels omnipotent. “Staring into the face of God and realizing you are looking in a mirror”.

Watching him, listening to this impassioned impersonation, I found it easier than usual to answer the humble layperson’s question, “why don’t these people just take the first couple of bonuses and bail out, buy a farm or something pleasant, get a proper life?”. They can’t: it is addictive behaviour. And, as becomes clear as his narrative unfurls, even the maddest of this behaviour is not likely to be controlled, curbed, or even condemned by the big profitable institutions in charge. Until it goes seriously wrong and they need a scapegoat. Riveting.

http://www.edfringe.com to 24 August

rating  four 4 Meece Rating

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JUVENALIA – Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

THE GRUMPY OLD ROMAN RETURNS…
Terrible times we live in. A decadent civilization, a crumbling empire, hypocrites in power, toadies fawning on the rich, women strangers to chastity and hard work, who live obsessed with celebrity gossip , hairdos and “crushes on ham actors”. There’s nobody much believing in the old religion, cheats and scroungers declare fake dependants, ghastly foreigners show off, and there’s urban racket everywhere “How much sleep , I ask you, can one get in lodgings here?” cries our host, to a roar of laughter from a hungover Fringe audience. Even the canapés these days are ghastly – “half an egg stuffed with a prawn, faugh!”.
The times he excoriates are two millennia past, the decadent noisy city is Rome; the satirist snarling at it is Juvenal. It is 38 years since Simon Callow first strode onto an Edinburgh stage, scowling, in the character of the Roman satirist Juvenal: now with a mop of curly white hair and an easier route to summoning up the eternal grumpy-old-man, he probably suits it even better . This revival of Richard Quick’s adaptation of the writings (translated, with wonderful vigour, by Peter Green) certainly roars along. He’s an equal-opportunities insulter, is Juvenal, and while women get a pretty rough deal so do the gay collectors of pretty boys – “Soon” he snarls “male brides will yearn for a mention in the Daily Gazette”. His explicit remarks about their sufferings from piles and the boredom of slaves tasked to serve their needs remain quite shocking enough to answer my vague wondering about why we never did any Juvenal for A level at the dear old convent…
His lines, though, have fed into the language – “who will guard the guards?” ‘Bread and circuses” “A healthy mind in a healthy body”. And the skill of Callow’s presentation, and the structuring of this bravura character recitation (directed here by Simon Stokes) is that it lightens and sweetens towards the end. Just as you think you’ve had enough grumping, Callow pauses and looks, reflectively, into an imaginary mirror to mourn that “all old men look the same..an aged baboon, trembling lips…impotent dodderers, senscent in mind…”. And that those who live long will live through grief: bury sons, wives, sisters. So live well, friends: it ends with a gentle, wearily lyrical evocation of that healthy mind and body, needing just simple food with friends, sun on your back..and “a valiant heart.”
http://www.edfringe.com to 24 August

rating:   four  (well, three plus a virtuoso performermouse)  3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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