THE WITCH OF EDMONTON – Swan, Stratford upon Avon

DORAN CALLS UP DEMONS 

 

 

Devils! Not Hallowe’enily cosy at all. Obscenely beguiling, tenebrous creatures of evil, they lurk inside all human nature and they know it. Mother Sawyer’s derisive familiar “Dog” makes that clear, in one of the central couplets of this rural horror-story set in the reeds and fogs of ancient Middlesex:
“Let not the world witches or devils condemn;
They follow us, and then we follow them!”

 
This finale to the RSC’s “Roaring Girls” season is the oddest of the lot, and by no means the least. Gregory Doran directs the 1621 collaboration between “William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford&c” (who knows how many spoons in this dark pudding? ) It is a play with two centres, one supernatural and one human melodrama. Mother Sawyer is an impoverished, brutalized old woman regarded locally as a witch (common at the time, not least because of King James I’s obsession with the supernatural). She isn’t one, but in her resentment decides she might as well call up the Devil and serve her persecutors right. It is a marvellous role for an aged woman and Eileen Atkins gives it a brilliant, stroppy, beaky, sardonic presence, with just sufficient pathos to hold sympathy and enough spite to command respect.

 
The demon she calls up is “Dog” – Jay Simpson near-naked in black body paint, red eyes and a truly horrible tail beneath jagged vertebrae: a starveling rabid cur of a creature who appals and fascinates (worryingly sexy). She sends him to lame horses and ruin the butter of her main foes, but is irritated that he can’t kill the more virtuous.

 

 

Because in theology, devils can’t. They work from the inside. So the main tale of the play concerns human misdeeds: seduction, deceit, brutality, hypocrisy, eventually murder. Ian Bonar is the serving-man Frank who has secretly married Winnifride, herself pregnant by her employer. To get a dowry and please his father (Geoffrey Freshwater, all bonhomous bourgeoisie) Frank bigamously marries Susan. His journey from fool to villain is played out with tense, conflicted realism. All the performances are, as you’d expect, fine,: but Faye Castelow as Susan, in her debut RSC season emanates a calm, luminous intelligence, defying the mantra that it is hard to play straightforward goodness. Her scenes with Frank – and her death – are electrifying.

 

 

The collision of the two plots, and the local hysteria that “maids who fall” and murderers are being influenced by the Witch, makes it sometimes weirdly and rather excitingly unclear as to what the authors wanted us to believe. This is no CRUCIBLE, because Mother Sawyer does really have a horrid familiar. On the other hand, all her pet Satan can actually do is to upset horses , play tricks and lure poor Cuddy the Morris-man into a bog (nice pondweed on Dafydd Llyr Thomas’ head, I hope he has some good selfies) . Otherwise Dog merely lurks, relishing the natural wickedness of the mortals. Though in a showstopping moment at the end of the longer first act, he takes over the morris-dancers’ fiddle and causes a mass-hysterical diabolic St Vitus’ dance (respect to Paul Englishby’s terrifying score) . What with the skeleton hobbyhorse and the crazed choreography it is definitely one of the must-see sights of this Swan season.

 

 

It’s odd, it’s dark, often funny, sometimes touching, and above all it feels like a deep insight into a past moral sensibility: a post-Reformation superstitious unease. The last ten minutes of remorse, forgiveness and wordy justice disengage us, making it retreat into that past again. Unworthily, briefly, you think “Greg Doran could have cut some of that!” . But no. You then reflect that the Royal Shakespeare Company is not just there to give us barnstorming nights out and move us to tears at half the West End prices (both of which it pleasingly often does). It is also there to display, fully and respectfully, our common ancestral past. Demons, moralists and all.

 

box office 0844 800 1110 to 29 Nov http://www.rsc.org.uk

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

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’TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE Wanamaker, Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

DARKNESS VISIBLE:  CANDLELIT HORRORS, ANCIENT SORROWS

 

 

By the end of three hours the gilt-reflecting candlelight of this little jewel-box playhouse is flickering over a birthday party littered with bloodstained corpses. Father, son, bridegroom – plus the offstage corpse whose heart has been waved around on a sword like a kebab. And that’s not counting the one murdered an hour earlier in a terrifying total blackout, his death agonies revealed by dark-lantern. Or the plotter who died a slow, agonizing and eloquent death by her own potion. The robed Cardinal, meanwhile, being Italian Catholic and therefore a convenient satirical villain for post-Reformation England, winds up the play speaking the words of the title and coolly ordering that the matter be hushed up (by sending another victim to be “burnt to ashes”) and confiscating that the dead family’s riches for the Church.

 

 

None of these magnificent disasters, however, are the reason John Ford’s dark drama spent a couple of centuries pretty much unperformed. Its real scandal (nicely emphasised this week by Transport for London banning the poster) is sexual. The tragedy is triggered by the incestuous love of Giovanni (Max Bennett, carrying it through convincingly from touchingly young and ardent to deranged) and his sister Annabella (Fiona Button gives her a spirited beauty and startlingly contemporary assertiveness).

 
That this will lead to disaster is clear from the first tense scene in which Giovanni confesses his desires to the Friar with “It is my fate that leads me on” and then lies to his sister – who is equally inclined – that he “asked counsel of the Holy Church” and got permission. And so, with tumbling naked grace, to bed. While other suitors and side-plotters pursue their ends the knotty text – beautifully handled with clarity and pace under director Michael Longhurst – is studded with fascinating philosophical efforts to justify this incest. Though more endearing is from Morag Siller, a delight as the bawdily robust maid Putana: “If a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody!”.

 

 
Indeed an admirable pleasure of this production is in its balancing of violence, darkness and horror with earthy comic absurdity. One of the most striking performances is from James Garnon – lately brilliant in the big Globe as Dr Scroggy – who plays an idiotic lad forced by his rich uncle to try for Annabella’s hand. He delivers it as Tim-nice-but-dim crossed with a less bright Boris Johnson: larky and tactless and hilarious until the extraordinarily touching moment when he falls in love with another girl entirely with a burstingly boyish “Lass, pretty lass, come!”. Yet this lovely bearer of comic relief is doomed too: murdered by mistake. The ultimate engine of his destruction, and of much else, is a slighted hellcat Hippolyta, given a terrifying energy (and some good rude twerking in disguise) by Noma Dumezweni.

 

 

The production is particularly fine when you consider how complicated and treble-stranded Ford’s plot is: newcomers, do not read the synopsis, it’ll only scare you. Onstage there is absolute clarity and accessibility not only in the speech, but in Alex Lowde’s skilful use of costume: tweakingly updated and carefully distinctive to character, whether Giovanni’s student-casual tights, Annabella’s anachronistically wispy dresses, or the slyly absurd, ultimately horrifying presence of gold party hats at the disastrous final banquet.

 

 

And there is the candlelight. I am a pushover for the Wanamaker’s rising and falling beeswax candelabras, the handheld candles throwing alarming shadows, and the ritual gradual dowsings. When the Friar describes hellfire to a desperate Annabella, around them like her hopes the flames die out one by one at the hands of dark servants. Brrrr.

 

Box office 020 7401 9919 to 7 Dec

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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BUT FIRST THIS… Watermill Theatre, Newbury

RADIO FOUR THE MUSICAL?   ABOUT TIME TOO

 
Radio 4 announcers tend to have a dry, contained sense of humour, honed by years in their lonely hutches listening to that most literate of networks, observing its idiosyncrasies and reading both news bulletins and programme introductions without ever betraying their secret opinions (you had to know the legendary Peter Donaldson for decades before you could detect the undertones of satire in his bland deep-brown announcements. Even then it was uncertain.)

 
So there is a real buzz in encountering, in this tiny adventurous producing-house, a comedy musical written by Kathy Clugston, one of those announcers. It has music and additional lyrics by Desmond O’Connor, and a spirit of mischievous affection shared utterly by her first-night audience . You knew she was preaching to the choir as soon as the defunct UK Theme, axed by Mark Damazer, began its Rule-Britannia chords before the start and everyone went “aaahhhh!”.

 
In moments we were into the first number, with John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie (Michael Fenton Stevens catching the Humph with uncanny accuracy and deadly humour) and Jonathan Dryden Taylor, who actually looks more like Peter Hobday but who got the monologuous questioning style bang on. And as the weatherman (Neil Ditt) and newsreader (Helena Blackman) sparred with authentic dawn ill-temper as the romantic juveniles, we learned the engine of the plot: that the Controller (Louise Plowright) was threatening dreadful cuts to the network, reducing the pips and abolishing Woman’s Hour and the Shipping Forecast.

 
To be honest, the first number and early minutes made me wonder whether it would sink beneath the weight of insider affection (though the wealth of groanworthy punning programme titles from an invisible Alice Arnold was fun from the start “The Classic serial will be – muesli”.). It is really more of a revue for R4 lovers, sending up musical-theatre itself and disguising a slightly too-fey plot with quick changes and daft beards. But Clugston’s strength is in big numbers, and some of them are lyrically brilliant. A trio led by Naughtie sings of a sneaky male addiction to Woman’s Hour; a marvellous interlude in the Pronunciation And Grammar Pedantry department hits many grudges about language (“What’s the use of saying utilize? And impact is not a verb!”) . It should be played on the real Radio 4 daily. Another showstopper is Humphrys’ confessing his secret love for scented candles, petting zoos and Michael Bublé.

 

There are flashes of real wickedness, not least the downfall of the evil Controller (Plowright storming the role) as she accepts the standard management punishment of being “moved to a higher position in aa different department”. So I was won right round. And in the style of the Shipping Forecast, whose fate provides a running theme , let’s just say:
General situation: Plot fair, occasionally rough. Scilly, gags advancing , becoming strong. Cast good becoming very good. Intermittent puns, poor becoming adorable. Over-Forties: very happy with occasional singalong. Outlook: possibly moving Westward. Good.

box office 01635 46044 to 8 nov http://www.watermill.org.uk

rating: –    3 Meece Rating ….oh all right, musicals mouse says four Musicals Mouse width fixed

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DON Q – Old Fire Station, Oxford: pre-tour

FLINTLOCK STRIKES A SPARK – IN A LIBRARY, TOO…

 

 

Cervantes’ story gave us a word: quixotic. From politics to artistic enterprises, it defines all extravagantly romantic, chivalrous, visionary but impractical enterprises. A middle-aged man goes off, inspired by too many knightly romances, riding a skinny horse with his despairing squire Sancho Panza alongside. He seeks adventures to place him in the annals of great deeds, and always fails or is gulled. Next month Carlos Acosta will be dancing the tale at the Royal Opera House. Meanwhile here is the quirky foursome of Flintlock Theatre – artists in residence at the Oxford Playhouse – doing their own take on it.

 
Or, at least, on its spirit. Anna Glynn’s version, designed by Robin Colyer, is set in a library at closing time where four geeky, fawn-cardiganed figures – Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies – bustle ineffectually around, excited by being amid books and stories (the set is a nice stepladder and door) and perform various slightly too long balletic mimes (the first thing to say is that the show would be sharper and more fun at a straight 75 minutes, rather than running with an interval).

 
The meat of it, and the real interest, comes when they go into character and act out the story of an old man called Norman (Davies, playing it pretty manic throughout). He is confused, causes a scene in the library and is put in a kindly but dull secure home. Assisted by his friend Sam (Kate Colebrook, in an earflap hat and nicely down-to-earth manner) he escapes. Sam has to be his Sancho Panza, as Norman cobbles up a wonderful suit of armour from a tea-tray breastplate, colander helmet and oven-gloves as pauldrons. His steed Rosinante is Sam’s scooter.

 
Once the quest gets well under way it becomes both funny (quite a bit of interaction with the front rows, watch yourself) and oddly touching, as they conflate a modern pensioner’s dwindling sense of reality with Don Quixote’s desire for exotic and heroic adventure out of old books. The best moment is when he convinces himself he has met two hooded holy friars and must confess: they are teenage hoodies (Barlow and Binefa are splendid vocal shape-shifters), and the glow of their smartphone when they attempt a selfie with the old loon has him greeting the bright light as “a blessing!”. The ultimate encounter is with a burger-shop benefactor and with a damsel in distress: an immigrant care assistant at a bus stop (Binefa again) finally realizing that if they are to help the old boy and take him home, they must join in his fantasy. It feels, at that point, oddly serious.

 

http://www.flintlocktheatre.com Touring through 2015
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MEMPHIS – Shaftesbury Theatre, WC2

“LIKE A SAD OLD MELODY, TEARS YOU UP AND SETS YOU FREE,  THAT’S HOW MEMPHIS SEEMS TO ME’

 
“Ain’t no daytime on Beale Street, only nighttime!’ Delroy’s joint is jumping, Felicia (a glorious Beverley Knight) belting it out at the microphone. Around them, dancers hurtle and dazzle. In walks Huey (Killian Donnelly), beautifully brash and geeky in a pork-pie hat. The dancing stops, Huey wonders why. “You notice anything different?” enquires Delroy sarcastically. Yep. Everyone else is this Memphis joint in 1951 is black. The only “White folks” who call are police requiring bribes.

 
And there, neat as you like, is the core and the point of this fabulous musical, fresh from Broadway and done with honour and huge heart by a British cast. Joe diPietro and composer David Bryan have imagined the moment in the early ‘50s when rock and roll was born, or “stolen”, for white kids to share and adapt the wealth of black r & b and gospel. Huey is a composite of several radio DJs who championed the music to the horror of white society: the story follows his passion for R& B – “the music of my soul!” and his star-crossed love for Felicia (in Tennessee “miscegenation” was still illegal). She, played with glorious vigour and pathos by Beverley Knight, is another composite of the early black divas. Huey gets his first radio job by literally breaking in to the studio, becomes a star, gets on TV, and perilously – ultimately disastrously – tangles with a social establishment which even “up North” in New York can’t accept mixing.

 

 

But oh, how the staid white folks of the ‘50s needed the new music! Some wonderful comic moments show tidily dressed shoppers and passers-by seduced by the energy, hips suddenly starting to wiggle free beneath tight repressed little suits (“Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday niiiight!”). Even Huey’s grumpy racist-Christian mother Gladys (Clare Machin, fresh from Pajama Game and hilarious as ever) undergoes a conversion, slyly assisted by their new financial prosperity. One visit to the gospel church she once shunned , and she is ready to “Testify!!”

 

 

There are individual great numbers, both high-energy and plaintive, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is breathtaking. But the joy of the show – kept moving with neat transitions by director Christopher Ashley – is in its belief that energy and music and youthful goodwill can win in the end, despite time and tears. There is comedy (racism is always absurd, as are radio studios, and Mark Roper’s Mr Simmons the WHBC boss is lovely). There are brief shocking brutalities. There is an immensely moving subplot involving Gator (Tyrone Huntley) whose father’s lynching left him mute from the age of five but who finds his voice at the crisis.

 

 

Altogether, the balance and line of the story work perfectly: on Broadway, I hear the end is more downbeat; here despite Huey’s professional downfall here the explosive joy is restored, if only in the music. Fair enough: “Say a prayer that change is a-coming” doesn’t imply that it’ll be quick.
And on a personal note, let me confirm that the stiff-backed sexual horror of “good white Christian folks” at music crossing the race border rings absolutely true. In my year in a South African convent in 1962, the nuns banned Elvis records because he sang and moved in a “black” way. Cliff Richard was allowed because he sang and moved in a “white” manner. True! So I danced out singing the last chorus “Listen to the beat, hear what’s in your soul, let it make you whole! Don’t let anyone steal your rock ’n roll!”. Even nuns.

 

 

box office 020 7379 5399 shaftesburyboxoffice@shaftesburytheatre.com
to 28 March

rating : five  5 Meece Rating

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OUR TOWN – Almeida, N1

A STUNNING SIMPLICITY, A HUMAN HEART

 

 

Only the dead see life clearly.  In the last strange simple minutes of this undramatic drama, half of Thornton Wilder’s citizens become their own speaking tombstones, drifting towards oblivion or eternity but roused for a moment by a new arrival’s travails . “Wasn’t Life awful?” says a voice. – “And wonderful”. chimes another.  I think a third dim voice assents: or it might be one of us, sitting round and among the action in the never-dimmed auditorium, drawn in to the humdrum wonderfulness of daily doings, marriage, work, failure, success and suicide, birthdays, bereavements. Life.

 
The 1938  play won a Pulitzer and broke convention: a bare floor, a couple of tables, quotidian jobs mimed, New Hampshire small-town life, hills, homes, horsepower and starlight at the start of he 20c expressed only in description by a wry, wandering stage manager; but enacted by a cast who in fragmented scenes under his direction relive routine, a wedding and a loss. David Cromer’s production – in which he is our affable onstage narrator and guide – ran in New York, but here the universality of it is underlined by the British cast with British accents. Some have cavilled at this, because of Wilders’ US idioms and references – the ‘I declare’, the ‘ma’am’s, baseball and the rest. But after a few minutes I found any awkwardness fading into complete acceptance of character and situation.

 
That is part of the play’s low-key brilliance, because in its slight two-hour two -interval span there are no situations which a more traditional dramatist would be bothered with. Just small – yet immense – quotidian happenings: family breakfasts, kids growing up, middle aged weary parents, awkward courtship, stifled yearnings to get out of the hometown mixed with love of it. For all its dated, anchored detail – in attitudes and mores from a century ago – it evokes Everytown, every street .

 
Which feels like a magic trick, or perhaps just one of those moments of piercing universal vision, when you startle yourself by seeing in a flash humanity poised in eternity, and  the littleness and immensity of life.  It feels unlikely that something so unshowy can achieve that:  even with one brief scenic coup de theatre five minutes from the end.   But it is remarkable; and so are the core performances. Cromer himself is assured, anchored, dryly funny and unselfconsciously sincere. He draws the same quality from his cast. especially Anna Francolini as Mrs Gibbs and Kate DIckie as Mrs Webb, and David Walmsley and Laura Elsworthy as the young wedded pair. Elsworthy especially  holds the final scene with mesmeric natural intensity.

 
box office 0207 359 4404 to To 29 november

Rating.  Four.  4 Meece Rating

Supported by Aspen , Barrow Street Theatre and Jean Doumanian

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THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE Trafalgar 2, SW1

A NEW EYE ON AN OLD SADNESS: THE WILDE TRIAL RECREATED

 

This is fascinating: the playwright John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland mark the centenary of the great man’s two fatal court appearances by dramatizing some recently disinterred transcripts. There is a great deal of dense verbatim recreation, notably in the first hour when Wilde has – rashly – brought a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry for that illiterate note accusing him of “posting as a somdomite (sic)” . When he loses and is arrested for the crime itself, the second hour reproduces what it can of the criminal trial.

 
So it shows Wilde in a newish light, at first fighting flippantly (with green carnation and flippant asides) for his reputation; then more soberly, broke and disgraced, his children’s very toys sold at auction, trying to keep at least his freedom. We hear his flamboyant defence of any artist to express himself in any damn way he likes, set against the prim prosecutor’s view of ‘normal’ and ‘balanced’ discourse.   And from time to time, we catch him on edge, uncertain, suddenly aware that this is going horribly wrong.

 
The exchanges raise wide issues: of artistic freedom, of defiant individuality – constantly he pleads his right to talk in “moods of paradox, of fun” – but also of Victorian society’s revulsion from his social mixing with the young and the louche: “feasting with panthers”. Why ply a mere valet with champagne? he is asked, and scores a rare point “What gentleman would stint his guests?”.

 
But it sours: exhaustingly (for Wilde) the barrister Carson reiterates not only lines from the stolen letters  – Bosie’s “slim gilt soul”, red rosepetal lips, etc, but also detailed paragraphs from The Picture of Dorian Gray. We hear the judge’s thundering absurdity about the “worst case he has ever tried” – this in an age of frequent murders and child prostitution – and the legal pomposities of “Acts of gross indecency, against the peace of our lady the Queen, her crown and dignity”. We cheer (but shudder, knowing the end) at Wildean ripostes like “Yes, I gave Alfonso a hat with a bright ribbon. But I was not responsible for the ribbon”. We respect the desperate lofty lines about pure and perfect Platonic love, but know that regarding the carnality he was pretty certainly lying on oath. Because he had to.

 

 

John Gorick plays Wilde: the right look, and an accomplished air of self-protective arrogance, but he does not quite have the ability to deepen and nuance the interpretation in this very difficult verbatim task, freeing himself only with the rare interpolations of Wilde’s letters and other writings. But maybe he should not attempt characterization too much: we are watching for history as much as for theatre. The other two players – Rupert Mason and William Kempsell – adroitly play barristers and various witnesses, Mason particularly good switching between Queensberry, Carson, a creepy comedian-cum-blackmailer, and a myopic hotel chambermaid.

 

 

It isn’t pure theatre, but has deserved its European tour, and fills an important place in the record of homosexual oppression and of one flawed, courageous, tormented and ill-starred genius.
box office 0844 871 7632 to 8 November     http://www.trafalgartransformed.com

Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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EAST IS EAST – Trafalgar, SW1

COMEDY, BRUTALITY, UNCERTAINTY IN  A BYGONE SALFORD

 

 

There is a telling moment at the end of Sam Yates’ production of Ayub Khan Din’s portrait of a Pakistani Muslim family in ‘70s Salford. Abdul, the eldest son, after a series of tragicomic brawls and conflicts, resolves to take over control from the bullying patriarch, defend his English mother and ensure that none of his siblings need marry by order or live under duress. Then over the cramped, bricky railside terrace (brilliantly realized by Tom Scutt) we hear an aeroplane. Bringing in another generation of migrants, to face the same challenges and confusions.

 

 

The play, first staged by Tamasha and subsequently a West End hit and film, is largely autobiographical: and here Khan Din himself plays the role of “George” the tyrannical father, creating alarming – often violent – authenticity with roars of “Why I tell you my business, Mrs?” at his English-born wife Ella. She is Jane Horrocks, returning to the stage with a drop-dead, pitch-perfect portrayal of long-suffering pragmatism and steely, competent maternal backbone. One son (like the author) has run off to be a hairdresser and is deemed dead (“He’s not dead, he’s in Eccles!” snaps Ella). To the rest the message is “I am your father! I don’t have to listen! You should show respect!”. Despite the cowed obedience of his children working in the family chip-shop and obeying at home, he gets nastier still when roused by his sons’ unwillingness to be married off, assaulting Ella with“Next time you talk to me like that I kill you and burn all your bastard family while you sleep!”.

 

 
It is a more uncompromising performance than anyone not directly, physically and authorially involved would dare, but Ayub Khan Din manages to infuse it with glimpses of insecurity and desperation. He is struggling for the status of what he thinks is a proper Muslim father, while loving an English wife and living in a suspicious white neighbourhood; on top of which there is the cheerfully jelloid Auntie Annie, forever off to lay out another corpse, and a pack of children bored with mosque, indifferent to Pakistan, feeling English. George is isolated.

 

 
The young cast are a joy, with lovely ensemble rowdiness: Abdul the sober worrier (Amit Shah), Maneer (Darren Kuppan) who wants to be a good Muslim, rebellious Tariq (Ashley Kumar), Saleem the art student whose father still thinks he’s doing engineering at college, and a wonderful blinking, troubled performance by Michael Karim as Sajit, the one they forgot to circumcise until his teens, who refuses to emerge from his parka hood and hides from rows in the coalshed. Among them dances Meenah (Taj Atwal) the only daughter, larkily tomboy, disgusted by being forced into a sari for the visit of the richer Shahs. That scene is a classic of social embarrassment, brilliantly done by all and culminating inevitably in the horror of Saleem’s art project. But beneath all the comedy throbs the reality: that this family can’t last in its present form, and must either revert to something alien, ancient and un-English, or fracture and lose the precious bits: the love which however erratically flows between them.

 

 

It would be a shame to take it as mere social history, a Pakistani Taste of Honey. There are modern parallels and contrasts. Much of George’s panic is fed by news bulletins about the Indo-Pakistan conflict and massacres; today plenty of immigrant communities endure similar tortures from the nightly news. Reflect too that in the mid-90s few would foresee that rather than flowering into English freedoms, too many British Muslims clench, close in, radicalize. When George roars that his daughter wears skirts “like a prostitute” Ella exasperatedly says “It’s her school uniform!”. Never would they have foreseen the burqa on the streets, the niqab defiance in British schools. Or the honour killings. Or the grooming scandals fed on contempt for white girls. East is East feels , dammit, almost cosy now.

 
box office 0844 871 7632 to 8 November     http://www.trafalgartransformed.com

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

IN WHICH YOUR CRITIC FALLS IN LOVE WITH A BENEDICK AND A DOG-BOWL

 

 

This is actually the one we know as Much Ado About Nothing – though some nifty Shakespeareology suggests that it may have had the other title, usually thought of as a “lost” play. The doubling with Love’s Labour’s Lost (reviewed below, well worth catching them in order, and reading them in the right order might help too) was inspired by AD Gregory Doran’s theory that the witty Berowne and spirited Rosaline from LLL should get together in the end, like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado. Hence director Luscombe’s use of the same company, the same lovely Charlecote Park set, and (not least) the way that Nigel Hess’ fine score weaves through both, moving between Crown-Imperial heroics, subtle atmospherics, and sweetly sung ballads to pastiche Edwardian tunes.

 

 

The cross-casting is not all literal (you couldn’t turn Chris McCalphy’s magnificent monosyllabic Constable Dull into a yattering Dogberry, so Nick Haverson ramps up his hectic comedy still further , to the point of mania indeed, with high-speed pomposity, verbal confusion and an unforgettable tic of outrage. As we join them in 1918, as Charlecote Park is requisitioned by the returning army. David Horovitch, still pedantic and bufferish but less absurd, is now Leonato and gives the horrified father real power in the church scene; Michelle Terry is the striding, head-girlish, scornfully witty Beatrice, who like her more delicate cousin Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) has been working as a VAD nurse. That, artfully, makes her air of cynical new toughness credible. And Edward Bennett, who was lively and fun enough as Berowne, now flowers into the most likeable, funniest and most genuinely touching Benedick since Charles Edwards’ fabulous Globe performance.

 

 

The Charlecote set comes even more into its own, as does the machinery. The stage has immense depths so that distant rooms glide forward, and far beneath the sliding floor unseen subterranean stagehands (take a bow) enable fine little rooms rooms to rise on that ever-surprising platform: a billiard-room, a boudoir , a bier, and most superbly poor Dogberry’s overcrowded scullery. It is serving as a police station, where Haverson tries to iron his shirt while interrogating, teapots get in everybody’s way, the washing-up is still in progress, and nobody can get out of the room because the towel-rail is jammed against the dishrack. Dogberry gets his foot stuck in a bowl marked DOG, which is particularly pleasing.

 

 

Once again, the anachronistic period setting serves the plot just fine: intrigues and jealousies are entirely credible in a regimental setting, all mess-dress and missed promotions. Sam Alexander is a sullenly malevolent Don John, Chris Nayak an over-willing Borachio (his remorseful moment near the end is more convincingly done than I’ve seen it, happy debut-season Mr Nayak). There’s real solemnity and horror in the church scene and the grieving; and broad, beautiful comedy in the eavesdropping. Especially the bit with Benedick and the giant Christmas tree. One of my more solemn colleagues felt that the near-electrocution moment was a bit over the top, but hey – some ideas are just too good to drop.

 
And that’s a moral which applies to the whole doubling, WW1-referring enterprise. So four each, but between them, they earn a fifth mouse.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
(and the CD is now released, both plays)
Rating: four 4 Meece Rating
and a fifth director-mouse for  the double…  Director Mouse resized

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LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

BEFORE THE DAWN OF WAR…THE LAST LARKS 

 
This is the young Shakespeare: making his way, dazzling with wordplay, confecting improbable japes and charades, laughing at absurd elders, revelling in what his Lord Berowne calls “the kingly state of youth”. And in this improbable but finally triumphant treatment, Christopher Luscombe hijacks this lesser play to create one of the merriest, saddest, most unexpected centenary tributes to the 1914 generation.

 
He sets it in 1914, in a Simon Higlett set which is parquet-’n-portrait perfect , an artful faux-brick reconstruction of the Elizabethan manor at Charlecote Park, near Stratford. Shakespeare’s plot – in which the King of Navarre and his nobles swear a pact to fast, study and avoid the company of women for a period – fits surprisingly well with languid, earnest flannelled young Edwardians: it was, after all, the era of public school austerities, reading-parties, and cold baths to quell lust. And the lads are a delight: Sam Alexander as the slightly preachy leader, his mates Longaville (William Belchambers) and earnest Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), with Edward Bennett as the doubter Berowne, who finally agrees to sign the pact. But the Princess of France and her three gorgeous ladies are nearby, so the chaps obviously fall in love with them, and try to do their wooing without the others knowing. Light relief and confusion is added by John Hodgkinson as a comedy Spaniard with language difficulties (ramped up mercilessly with lines about “Men of Piss” ) various servants, notably a barmily rustic Nick Haverson as Costard, an even more comedy policeman Dull (Chris McCalphy, who scores two rounds of applause all for himself on his RSC debut, once for an inexplicable ballet moment) .

 

 

And there’s a wickedly mocked schoolmaster and parson, joyfully the butts of that young Shakespeare: David Horovitch is a harrumphinly, pedantically wonderful Holofernes, and Thomas Wheatley gets a particular moment as the curate which, dammit, brought tears to my eyes.

 

 
The plot – think Downton Abbey rewritten by PG Wodehouse with some terrible Elizabethan puns and sudden great poetry – is mainly driven by the men, not least when they dress up as Cossacks and attempt a Russian dance. There’s an absurd charade led by the Spaniard, and in a fabulous rooftop-eavesdropping session in Jaeger dressing-gowns which culminates in Berowne threatening to throw poor Dumaine’s teddy over the parapet. But the women get their moments too, forming a kind of white-satin-clad Girl Gang to torment their four lovers: Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry, Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Frances McNamee sometimes moving in synchrony, sometimes breaking away to offer moments of real emotion near the end.

 

 

Which is – and this is another reason it all fits so well with 1914 – a downbeat end. In the play, the Princess of France’s father dies and they must all delay their happy endings. In the theatre – well, you only need to put the four young men in khaki, and have the civilians left behind singing to Nigel Hess’ lovely score, and you’ve made the point with gentle, appropriate sorrow. Edwardian certainties and jokes, gone forever with the kingly state of youth. Never glad confident morning again.

 

 

box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
(and the CD of speech and music is released: for this and its companion-piece, Love’s Labour’s Won, aka Much Ado. Whose review will follow tomorrow…)

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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