THE JEW OF MALTA Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE BOUQUET! IT WAS POISONED!
We are supposed to be thinking about the history of European antisemitism, tracking back to the 16th century when Christopher Marlowe wrote this play ,and the 15th, where he set it. And it’s all here – the ‘blood libel’, the accusations of physical dirtiness combined with greedy wealth, the spitting contempt and – not least – the undercurrent of awareness (Marlowe was no fool) that the thing which most annoyed Christians was that Jews were so damn clever, and that the fear of them was fuelled in a vicious circle by guilt at the violence meted out to them. We all fear the people we maltreat.

Thus our anti-hero Barabas – after the governor of Malta seizes all his property to pay off invading Turks – vows vengeance and runs rings round the ruling élite. He uses his daughter as bait to make suitors kill each other, then when she gets angry and converts he poisons her entire convent with rice-porridge, thus enabling the deathlessly plonking line “All the nuns are dead. Let’s bury them”. Moving on, he murders one friar and frames the other, and poisons his blackmailing servant, a courtesan and a pimp by disguising himself as a pantalooned “French musician” banging incompetently on a lute and giving them a poisoned (albeit fascinatingly slow-acting) posy of flowers to smell. Oh, and he fakes his death, admits the invading Turks through a sewer, gets made governor but burns all their soldiers to death. Which, accidentally, enables the Christian governor to turn the tables and drop him through his own secret trapdoor.

A clever Jew, see? And, as performed by Jasper Britton under the gamesome direction of Justin Audibert (a riproaring RSC directorial debut), disgracefully likeable in a confiding, Richard-III way. When he brags “”I walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls; sometimes I go about and poison wells…” we get a strong sense Barabas is parodying the prejudice he meets, and probably couldn’t be bothered to do any of it. And anything which could be uncomfortable about this cheerily brutal evening – pitched somewhere between farce and mumming-play – is that Christopher Marlowe is disgusted with the Christians too. They’re stupid, cruel, lecherous and as keen on money as anyone. The two friars are greedy, venal and competitive and deserve their fate. Only Abigail, used as a pawn by her father and converting when she grieves her dead lover, is at all decent (Catrin Stewart gives her great dignity and the only depth of feeling in the play). As she expires with “I died a Christian” the friar can only gropingly regret that she died a virgin too.
Audibert is not afraid of incidental comedy : even the bearers removing a corpse do “stone paper scissors” to decide who takes the messy end, and the poisoned nuns, to a background of yearning plainsong, actually foam at the mouth. Lanre Malaolu’s Ithamore , bought in the slave-market by Barabas’, escapes his early degradation to be caperingly wild and deliciously depraved. And there’s even a line prefiguring a centuries-later satire on human behaviour when Barabas says “I am my own best friend”.

Yessir! Marlowe got there before CHICAGO…
box office http://www.rsc.org 0844 800 1110 to 8 sept
RATING four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE LIONS St James Theatre SW1

THREE MEN IN A (PROBABLY RIGGED) VOTE…

In 2010, three men came to a Zurich hotel to present (to a scandal-ridden FIFA) Britain’s case for hosting the 2018 World Cup. David Cameron the chirpy new PM was backed by two icons from different strata of British society: David Beckham and Prince William. William Gaminara, alone among playwrights (very slow, TV commissioners..!) saw that this was a gift. In 2013 I loved the result in Edinburgh; now it’s back, in from a pre-London tour (I caught it in Ipswich) just as FIFA stumbles through the fallout of its next bad decision, Qatar.

From my recce in Ipswich I can report that it is still a blissful farce: sly, sharp, its impersonations just the right side of caricature. A sycophantic Indian hotelier pops in and out of the bedroom where the men deliberate; offstage Boris is in the hotel bar and becomes involved in a reported trouser incident. Each of the men repeatedly has his leash jerked as he fields phone calls from home: Beckham being told to hang his clothes up and blag a seat at the coming Royal Wedding, William fending off Kate’s fear that if invited Posh might sing, and Cameron at one point offstage in the hotel bathroom fending off Nick Clegg while the Prince and the footballer earnestly discuss haircare.

The beauty of Gaminara’s approach is that none of them is cast as villain or gratuitously mocked in tedious leftie news-quiz style. This is more P.G.Wodehouse than The Thick Of It, as he plays not unaffectionately with the interaction of three very different Englishmen united in a quixotic, patriotic attempt which we know will fail. Cameron (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Beckham (Séan Browne) are not close lookalikes, but rapidly become credible. The PM is jerkily, selfconsciously masterful as he was in his early days in the job, matily trying to get his kids a playdate with Beckham’s (he is caught secretly practising keepy-uppy before the others arrive). Beckham exudes friendly decency and slow-thinking literalness. Tom Davey however is uncannily like Prince William, with beautiful deep rounded royal vowels: his earnest well-bred goodwill leavened with schoolboy practical jokes (the best capped with “it was Dads idea, I promised I’d give it a go” when he pretends to think the meeting is about cricket, and enjoys the polite panic of the others)..

In the first half relationships ebb and flow, sometimes the two Etonians bonding in reminiscence and pedantry, sometimes William and Beckham affronted by the PM’s arrogance. As they return from ‘pre-meetings’ with FIFA grandees each has his weakness revealed, not least a lovable British incompetence at bribery. Ashok the butler does, at times, become a little tedious with his learned verbosity and rather dated Empire-loyalist caricature, but it transpires there’s a reason for that.   The second act becomes nicely farcical, as Cameron imposes the old Tony Blair / Enoch Powell trick of making them all fill their bladders to add urgency to their big presentation. Which, without crudeness, leads up to the classic trouser moments.

So once again I enjoyed it no end. And there’s a joke I didn’t remember from Edinburgh. The daffy intern gushes that Boris Johnson is “cute”. To which the PM replies “Cute is not the word I”d have chosen. Almost, but not quite…”

Yes, think about it. The Ipswich matinee audience got it immediately, the dirty beasts…

box office http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk to 2 May

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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RULES FOR LIVING NT Dorfman, SE1

SITCOM DOESN’T QUITE STAND UP

First the good news. If there is an award for best-choreographed food-fight, it’s just been won (take a bow, fight director Kate Waters).  Stephen Mangan leaps on tables with the agility (and the hairdo) of Erroll Flynn, Miles Jupp looks terrific with gravy on his head, John Rogan delivers from a largely wordless wheelchair role some of the best reaction faces this year. Maggie Service has all the fearless absurdity which marks the rising generation of female stand-ups, and Deborah Findlay is, as ever, heroic in suggesting layers of painful character with little to work on.
But that’s it. Out of ten the cast score 8, the play about 3. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy of a dysfunctional family Christmas never makes the jump into reality, even with Marianne Elliott as director and a kitchen-diner set so huge and smart that it makes David Cameron’s look poky. The theme is built on an idea behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that people set themselves unachievable “rules” which make them unhappy. Offstage until the end is Emma, 14-year-old suffering from fatigue syndrome and what her fussed, unhappy mother Sheena (Claudie Blakley) calls “negative core beliefs”. She is deemed too poorly to come down to the family meal.
Her father Adam – failed cricketer turned junior solicitor – despises psychobabble and won’t go to couples counselling (Sheena is currently unhappy for the footling reason that he didn’t book a hotel for their anniversary). Brother Matthew is a more successful lawyer, who fancies Sheena but has brought a horribly extrovert actress girlfriend (Service on galumphing form). Mother Edith is under stress, attempting to do a perfect Christmas as her husband Francis is wheeled home with a post-operative stroke. Matthew is trying to diet, Sheena to stop drinking, Adam to give up smoking. None succeed.

Mangan and Jupp almost become credible characters, but Holcroft gives the women no subtleties at all to work on; indeed there’s a formulaic, cardboard case-history quality in all the characterisation. This is not helped by the gimmick of a lighted scoreboard overhead, detailing the “rules” for each character. Once or twice this is funny – Matthew always has to sit down in order to lie, and Carrie can’t stop dancing around telling jokes until someone laughs. But it woefully prevents the actors developing any fluid honest realism.

Just as well one doesn’t care much for any of the characters, because before the big row kicks off (over a complex card game, a clunky metaphor) the second act opens with an uneasily sadistic scene, modishly “dark”, as the younger generation confront the speechless wheelchair father and revert to childhood rivalries. If the best laugh for fifteen minutes is a stroke victim shouting “Fuck off” and groping a breast, you’re in trouble.

Indeed the trouble with the whole play is that until the final food fight it’s not as funny as it needs to be. You can see the jokes coming a mile away, and the one about a clumsy showoff visitor breaking an ornament and being tearfully told “It was my father’s” deserves a geriatric wheelchair of its own.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 8 July
Dorfman Partner – Neptune Investment Management
rating three3 Meece Rating

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BUYER AND CELLAR Menier, SE1

SUBTERRANEAN STREISAND: SILLY AND SUBLIME
It’s a heady cocktail, the Hollywood Heartbreaker: tartness and syrup,  firewater and froth ,l served in the campest crystal with diamond sparklers.  Heady delusion meets hard dollars, and schmaltzy folksiness erects steel gates against the overpressing adoration of the faithful.  Rarely has this L.A. la-la land been skewered with such loving laughter as in Jonathan Tolins’ one-man play, a fantasy about Barbra Streisand.

That is, about her basement. He read, in her extraordinary vanity coffee table book “My passion for Design”, that as an avid hoarder of costumes, toys, antiques and curios the megastar actually built, in her Malibu basement, a row of old fashioned folksy stores .  He began to wonder how it would be if she employed a floorwalker to play shops with her, down there under the pink (flattering) light whenever she cared to wander down the spiral staircase.
Hence this 100 minute virtuoso piece, hedged carefully around with insistence that – with “a person so famous, talented and litigous” it is definitely all made up. Although apparently acquaintances of the real Streisand have cautiously admitted a certain truthfulness in the characterisation. Who knows? There are strong gates, and she is an actress born…Anyway, its too good a fantasy to spoil, and comes to the glorious Menier (directed by Stephen Brackett) garlanded with off-Broadway awards.

The performer is Michael Urie – known from Ugly Betty – as Alex, an actor sacked from Disneyland (“Mouseschwitz”as embittered ex-employees refer to it ). who takes the weird subterranean job. Urie is ,from the opening moments, an elfin delight: entrancingly entertaining word by word,  and controlledly camp. That control enables him to drop in and out another character, his boyfriend Barry who is thirty degrees queenier and has a typically schizophrenic and terrifyingly well-informed love-hate relationship with the Streisand legend .
Urie also gives us the cynical no-nonsense PA, and Barbra herself . She visits her deranged mini mall, playing improv shopping games with Alex: at this point it gets so funny you can hardly breathe. When he pretends to haggle there is “an almost erotic pleasure in denying this woman something she wants”. Then she begins to seem to show friendship: if it is ever friendship when the deal is so one-sided. Once , she demands that he stay on all evening in case she wants frozen yoghurt from her street’s candy store. Poor as a church-mouse, Alex mentions overtime and the diva cries : “It’s always about dollars and cents..why can’t people CARE as much as I care?” . Ouch.
The trajectory takes the story beyond mere sketch: Alex’s involvement torpedoes his real life by degrees, and ends in a lovely bit of disillusion.  And froth-light as it is, the play gently, affectionately teases out serious themes. It’s about fame, fortune and unbridled acquisition: the terrible glamour of the famous boss who seems for a moment to care, and the gap between rueful strugglers at the base of the showbiz pyramid and lonely deluded billionaires at the top, clinging with absurd pride to the hard-luck legend of their youth. It is about aspiration and perfectionism and the way, as Alex admits, that we are all “struggling to create our own perfect little world” and watching the stars’ lives for “the comfort of the totally impossible”.
But I would hate you to think it’s in any way a sober evening. Never stopped grinning all the way through…
box office 0207 378 1713 to 2 May
rating: four4 Meece Rating

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PLAYING FOR TIME Crucible, Sheffield

A GRAVE GRANDEUR, AN UNFORGOTTEN HORROR

Hard to overstate the impact, the sense of event, commemoration and bleak grandeur in this extraordinary evening. There is, in this 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, obvious solemnity in staging Arthur Miller’s “memory play” from the testament of Fania Fénélon. The Parisian chanteuse survived by forced membership of a rag-bag orchestra recruited for the entertainment of the SS officers and, horribly, to march fellow-victims to the gas chambers and pander to Dr Mengele’s experiments on music and insanity.

But add to that a central performance as Fania from Sian Phillips: eighty-one now, a war-baby with early memories of being taken outside at night to watch Swansea burning. We use some words too lightly in the arts, but Phillips’ wholly committed gently controlled performance is a marvel of fearlessness, sorrow and sincerity. It is one of those rare memorable nights when you come to believe you are not watching acting at all, but remembered experience: a necessary ritual.

It is a huge cast: fourteen women and three men, amplified with extras from Sheffield People’s Theatre. So shaven-headed women in rags are herded and surged around the big open theatre, edges of violence being glimpsed – as they were by the appalled, conflicted Fenelon – around a central area where for much of the play the hungry, fearful musicians struggle with ill-assorted instruments under the nervy, disciplinarian Alma Rosé. She was Gustav Mahler’s niece: the Jewess virtuosa violinist who with Fenelon’s orchestrating skills and grainy, Weimar cabaret voice somehow held them together.

Richard Beecham’s direction is supported by extraordinary lighting and design by Richard Howell and Ti Green, creating a darkness visible, a grey despair around the vivid individuals . It is further served by unobtrusively sinister sound design by Melanie Wilson – whistles, thuds, shouts, guard dogs barking, at last the distant artillery . And even more by the musical direction and some lyrics by Sam Kenyon, creating shattering moments. Here are the Commandant and Dr Mengele sitting splay-legged with imperial power, sentimental over the desperate gentleness of the scratch orchestra playing von Suppé, and saying approvingly “it strengthens us for this difficult work of ours” – that is, murdering twelve thousand a day.
At another moment, after playing marches as the prisoners head for the ovens and the smoke rises, Fania must sing Madam Butterfly’s hopeful song about “a thread of smoke rising on the horizon” from the ship bringing back her lover. Congratulated by the Commandant, she bravely denies her stage persona with “My name is not Fenelon. I am Fanny Goldstein”. A terrible silence.
But nothing is milked, nothing is sentimental, and Miller allows rein to the tensions between Jew and Gentile, Pole and French, the Zionist and the racially indifferent, the despairing and the defiant. Nor does he flinch from the brutalities that brutalized people pass on: the Polish women guards shoutingly bully the “Jew shit”. Marianne asks early on: “Why are they doing this? What do they get from it?” Unanswerable.

Sian Phillips is the powerful centre, but around her other performances rise too. Melanie Heslop is Marianne, moving from naive fear to greedy dissolution, whoring herself to the very executioner on the day her friend’s beaten body is left hanging dead in the rain until dark. Amanda Hadingue is stiffly Austrian as Alma, Kate Lynn-Evans is Mandel the officer whose half-humanity becomes, to Fenelon, the “problem”. A problem horribly reflected in her own honest conflict about using her art in collaboration, struggling to hold something back yet survive to testify .
And always the Beethoven and Puccini, the cabaret songs and accordion, remind us that this was Europe, this was recent. That savagery is not something alien and far away, for humanity can go downhill very fast and very far, without losing the superficial trappings of efficiency and aesthetic culture. As Fania says, “The aim is to remember. Everything”.

Box Office 0114 249 6000 http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk to 4 April
Rating five5 Meece Rating

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REBECCA – a study in Jealousy Richmond Theatre & touring

MANDERLEY AGAIN,  AND VERY WELCOME TOO 

“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” The famous opening is spoken from the sea-bed: a dim otherworld where a jointed lifeless body descends from far above, crushed beneath a wrecked boat. Which – as a vast chandelier descends in turn – becomes sometimes a table, sometimes floor, beneath the leprous plaster and high broken banisters of a grand ruined house above. So the set itself is the ghost of Manderley and of the rockbound Cornish bay where the first wife Rebecca met her end. Within this frame, between a dark past and a smouldering end, the story will play out. Fishermen intone the first shanty “Go down, you blood red roses”. Brilliant.
Kneehigh, and Emma Rice’s direction elsewhere, are generally original, quirky, larky, musical, a touch camp, prone to outbreaks of puppetry, but focused on storytelling and above all theatrically atmospheric. This touring production, I am happy to say, is their finest since Brief Encounter . It’s a glorious evening: both faithful to the spirit and shape of Daphne du Maurier’s chronicle of second-wife paranoia and Bluebeard dread, and mischievously subversive of it.

Perhaps the Cornish setting inspired the Truro company even more than usual. In folkish Kneehigh tradition it is interwoven with shanties (and that lovely Wilburn brothers ballad Give Them The Roses Now, sung by Frith the butler to cheer up poor Mrs de Winter after the ball débacle). Cast members casually pick up instruments – bass, banjo, fiddle, accordion – and deftly create interiors with props, often singing in hair-raising harmony. There are tweaks: Rice has made Maxim de Winter’s sister Bea and her husband a pair of rip-roaring, huntin-shootin’-shaggin’-drinkin’ County party-animals, at one point executing a spirited sand-dance routine in Arabic costumes and leading a vo-de-o-do outbreak as an Act 2 opener. Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams give it their all, to general glee, Winkler seeming to channel a hypermanic Edwina Currie in her prime.

The footman Robert (Katy Owen) becomes an elfin, broadly Welsh lad, tearing cheekily around and, in opening scenes, startlingly discussing his mother’s menopause symptoms over the phone to the lodge-keeper (“bit of a dryness in ‘er tuppence”). She’s very funny too. Danvers – Emily Raymond – is perhaps not quite as terrifying as one would hope, possibly due to modern sympathies towards her plainly lesbian passion: but having her entrances heralded by a flapping puppet cormorant is grand. So is the puppet dog, especially when he greets the terrified new bride with a nose up the crotch.

Not that she is terrified by the end. Imogen Sage is a real find, as tremulous and cotton-frocked and virginal as you could wish, but hardening and sexing-up convincingly when she discovers the truth. It’s a genuinely striking transition. So, in its way, is the decline of Maxim – glorious Tristan Sturrock, who was the original lover in Brief Encounter. He has just the casual, haughty, scornful affability and moody hawkish demeanour of a romantic hero in the 1930’s mould. As they say, you would, wouldn’t you? Even though you’d definitely regret it in the end.

His bride doesn’t: even in the genuinely dark,shivery moment when the corpse is raised and laid to rest amid shifting suspicions. The school parties around us shuddered with pleasure. So did I.
Box office 0844 871 7651 to 21 March

then TOURING    Touring Mouse widenationwide to 19 Sept – Kneehigh tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/lqvo5jo

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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THE HEART OF THINGS Jermyn St Theatre SW1

POST COALITION TRISTIS…
The best line in this rather overstuffed play comes from Keith Parry as Bob, a magnificently slow-thinking lummox. In the corner of a scruffy Norfolk kitchen Bob is the blinking, half-aware witness of an emotional scene in which a drunk, despairing middle-aged English teacher relates a failed proposal, underage sexual blackmail, personal confusion, schoolyard violence and a crashed career . The teacher’s sister and nephew stand transfixed with horror, and in a brief silence bearded Bob surfaces in his corner with: “Ah. All goes on down London, don’ it? Fancy a bit o’toast?”. It’s a beautiful bit of bathos, an unkind reminder of what certain impatient GPs put on patients’ notes – NFN. Normal for Norfolk….

Which is, of course, unfair. But such flippant thoughts do tend to surface during in Giles Cole’s play. His last one here, The Art of Concealment , was an excellent and well-researched biographical imagining of Terence Rattigan (same director, Knight Mantell). But maybe the freedom of pure fiction was a bit too heady this time. For in its two-hours space, and in the trajectory of Peter the teacher (Nick Waring) over his sister Ros’ birthday celebrations, Cole hurls in questions of sexual identity, paternal post-traumatic guilt and contempt (Ralph Watson is a splendidly curmudgeonly old bastard father in a wheelchair), plus potential incest, thwarted ambition, self-publishing, rape, and the question of whether dim Bob will ever finish his model ship after twenty years (it’s a truly terrible prop: the mast is all wrong). Oh, and there’s an advance condemnation of Michael Gove’s education reforms, because the action is set in 2010, during the discussions which formed the present Coalition, and Peter has brought along a fierce Tory PR lady called Jacqui, who he now wants to marry because he’s tired of being gay. But he is really, deep down, longing for his big sister. Frankly, if Peter is on Facebook he’ll need something more comprehensive to post up than “It’s Complicated”.
This overstuffing is a pity; and so is the character of Jacqui, played with a rather retro, overarticulated 1930’s brittleness by Amy Rockson and never allowed to develop into anything beyond a clumsy plot device. On the other hand there are some wonderful performances, especially from Patience Tomlinson as Ros, the countrified sister whose life has been a trap between curmudgeonly father and dim pointless Bob, by whom she has a nice son William . Tomlinson conveys without fuss multiple layers of sadness and warmth and hurt and daily decency, and your heart goes out to her. Ollo Clark too, as William, nicely evokes a generation – one I know well – of citified educated youth emerging, laughing slightly shamefacedly, from dull rural homes and returning with a gentle patronizing kindness. As for Waring as Peter, he does everything possible with his melodramatic unhappiness, confusion, and back-story. But the cast are streets better, and more authentically credible, than the material. It’s always dangerous for a playwright to quote four lines of WH Auden in a scene: reminds you that the rest of the lines are not nearly so good. Except that one of Bob’s. That I treasure.

box office 0207 287 2875 to 4 April

rating three  3 Meece Rating

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DIFFERENT BUTTONS Avenue, Ipswich

MEMORIES OF A MADHOUSE

Hard on the heels of her admirable PROGRESS, Joanna Carrick of Red Rose Chain revives (in this elegant new studio theatre) an earlier piece devised as site-specific three years ago for the closing of the old Victorian asylum in Ipswich: St Clements. The sound design, indeed, by Laura Norman, has used recordings made inside that haunting space, in corridors and abandoned wards: the stories threaded through small scenes and monologues reflect reality. And, of course, the history of the great Victorian change, approaching the ‘lunatic paupers of the borough” in a way more humane than the old imprisoning madhouses . Though still, to our modern eye, wincingly difficult to watch.
In a bare but convincing space – old radios, old magazines, hospital chairs – the five cast switch roles . Tom McCarron is sometimes a foul-mouthed inmate but often a doctor, or a Victorian journalist giving his account of the place’s foundation; Herbert Brett and Daniel Abbott as other male inmates, the former rantingly aggressive, the latter curled, terrified, foetal and trembling; Rachael McCormick as an older, longterm female inmate, working as a maid, put in by her father as an uncontrollable “moral imbecile” in 1924. There is – when one has just walked to the Avenue across it – a particular jolt when she remembers being brought across the stone bridge by the station on the day it was opened, amid free and happy crowds: it reminds you of the resonance of this kind of powerfully local theatre.

But at its centre is Lucy Telleck as a modern young woman, seemingly hard-faced , resentful and unhappy, waiting for her appointment and haunted by these ghosts of earlier time. Carrick makes good dramatic use both of contemporary writings on madness, with old obsessions like measuring people’s heads (“Cranium – narrow”) and also of the sad tickbox forms modern depressives are asked to fill in “I am feeling useful / Hopeful / confident – Most of the time / some of the time/ none of the time…” etc: Telleck develops into a powerful emotional presence, both in her modern defiant indignation and in the moments when she regresses into an overwhelmed Victorian mother interned against her will.
The piece does provoke thought: about changing ideas, and the perennial struggle of the “sane “to help or contain “mad”. It pulls no punches about irrationality, persecution mania, violence, the difficulty of comforting the unreachable, and the simple frustration of dealing with the silent, trembling youths played by Abbott (another strong presence). Dramatically, sound and light are strong, and it is a short piece, ninety minutes including interval.

But it is not easy to watch: sometimes you feel like a rubbernecking onlooker in an older Bedlam, and correspondingly uncomfortable. Which, of course, is a tribute to the actors. The interwoven stories do become clearer as time goes on and there is another real emotional jolt at the end when the ghosts bid farewell to the troubled, modern Ruth: “Live without fear, no need for endless grieving.”

Box office http://www.redrosechain.com to 28 march
RATING three 3 Meece Rating

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THE CUTTING OF THE CLOTH Southwark Playhouse, SE1

A BESPOKE PREMIERE, TRIBUTE TO A TRADE

1953, a tailors’ basement workshop under Dover Street. Five people work eighty hours a week or longer. Out front, unseen, the smooth cutters and measurers greet bespoke clients; down here the “makers” work. In a set of breathtaking immediacy tools, clutter, and casual expertise come alive. Old Spijak the Pole works cross-legged on his bench as his forefathers did, sewing by hand and despising Eric – faster, earning more – for his sewing machine. Each maker has a “kipper”, a female assistant for cuffs and lowlier “ kipper-work”; Spijak’s is his daughter Sydie, Eric’s is Iris. Maurice, Spijak’s tyrannized new apprentice, spends his lunch-hour in the bare washroom writing a play…

For Michael Hastings – who died only in 2011 – was such a teenage apprentice to his father’s trade, though he became a distinguished Royal Court playwright (famous or TOM AND VIV). This slice-of-life play, never before performed, emerges from that youth. But Two’s Company and director Tricia Thorns love forgotten, truthful testimonies of the past, notably with workplace themes: LONDON WALL brought a 1931 law office alive, WHAT THE WOMEN DID gave us WW1 munitions-girls.

So it seems a period piece, larded with snatches of ‘50s pop and references to clients like Macmillan, Charles Clore and the impresario Henry Sherek, who was so large that at one point Sydie and Maurice stand side-by-side as Eric drapes the basted (tacked) jacket over both. But it bites because then, it was social realism: a portrait of a transitional moment. Spijak , powerfully played in an (at first) improbable accent by Andy de la Tour, is devoted to hand-stitching, persecuting his apprentice (James el-Sharawy) for not sitting cross-legged enough, being left-handed and insufficiently Jewish. His craft has, through disappointments we gradually glimpse, become his obsessive sole pride.

Eric (Paul Rider) is light-footed and brisk (all the cast are uncannily convincing as lifelong craftsmen, trained up by a modern bespoke tailor). He gets his joys rather in the unseen toffs he dresses: at one point, glorilusly, puts on Harold Macmillan’s new jacket and demonstrates how he allowed for the sloping shoulders of the Housing Minister , and how it would work when he was on the grouse-moor, with proudly double-lined pockets to put dead birds in. He dreams of Ascot and the Mirabelle and (with a Hancock echo) is never happier than with a Racing Gazette and “the old Puccini knocking the lid off me gramophone”. The two “kippers” are Alexis Caley as the quietly sceptical Sydie – Spijak’s daughter, taken from school at 14 to replace a mother dead from overwork – and Abigail Thaw, a marvellous drop-dead comedienne as Iris who feeds the pigeons and dreams of the seaside. And, it turns out, of Eric.

At first the wealth of detail – facings, inlays, gorges – and the noisy altercations threaten to lag or mystify; but it becomes absorbing, they become your own workmates in the L-shaped intimate room. Brown parcels of work thud down, chucked from the front office, goose-irons and blocks and half-jackets are nimbly manipulated so that the never-still movement of continuing work beneath every line and silence is masterful. We see regrets and griefs, the decline of Spijak, the progress of Maurice from victim to acolyte and beyond. A theme – unexpected in Hastings’ Angry-Young-Man, Osborne-and-Wesker generation – is how sweated labour in a time of change can be perpetuated by the exploited craftsmen’s own deep pride in expertise, and condemn those who could have escaped or embraced new technology to crippling lives. Spijaks’ father “died on a bench in Warsaw, happy doing what he could do best”.

Neither a sentimental threnody for dying craft or a shout of socialist rage , it is idiosyncratic, human, funny, sad. Near the end switchbacks of comedy surround a private tragedy and twist back to a lesser one. Thorns’ direction and the cast handle this brilliantly.

Box Office 020 7407 0234     http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk    to 4 APril

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

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RADIANT VERMIN, Soho Theatre W1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI IS CHARMED TWICE OVER

Miss Dee arrives. She’s from the newly-created DSRCDH: “Department for Social Regeneration through the Creation of Dream Homes.” She makes Ollie and Jill an offer which is surely too good to be true: Miss Dee explains it’s a government project inspired by the Amazon jungle plant, “The Shimmering Glimmering Tree”, which looks drab until you polish one berry, at which point, all the berries begin to shine until “the whole tree sparkled like treasure.” To have a free house, all the Swifts have to do is do it up: Jill has excellent taste, Miss Dee notes, and Ollie is a dab hand at DIY.

The dream home in question is a shell: it needs rewiring, has no hot water, and is in a deserted suburban development mainly inhabited by wandering tramps. But Jill and Ollie, with a baby on the way, take the chance. They do renovate the property, to their own astonishment, in a macabre and surreal method in which Ridley’s dark humour begins to wax lyrical. And, sure enough, Gilead Close begins to sparkle as predicted, with aspirational neighbours moving in to take advantage of the property boom, culminating in a shiny new shopping centre round the corner, offering “The Never Enough Shopping Experience: because enough is never enough.”

Radiant Vermin has two strengths. One is its macabre twist, which I won’t spoil for you: but just watch Ridley’s twist grow, strengthen and become ever more prominent, with the characters’ actions becoming ever more hysterical and desperate. While maintaining a tone of cheerful surrealism, Ridley slides in questions about religious hypocrisy, our attitude to the homeless, consumerist greed and neighbourly one-upmanship. You are swept up into the joke: but afterwards, walking away through the streets of Soho with beggars on every side, I felt a kind of horror at the hilarity which only applies to the very best of black humour. You almost can’t believe you laughed at it, but you did.

The second strength is the sheer talent on stage, directed by David Mercatali. Sean Michael Verey begins Ollie as a quiet, ordinary bloke, but steadily builds him into an extraordinarily brilliant character performance, including two hilarious one-man fight scenes, in which he fights his invisible assailant while commentating on and explaining each punch in real time, causing the audience to collapse with laughter. The speed of Ridley’s writing, and Verey’s natural comic instincts, seem made for each other. Gemma Whelan is wonderful as his socially-upward wife Jill, a nice girl who likes to get her own way, cheerfully sacrificing her morals until guilt begins to eat away at her. The play builds to an insane crescendo in the fabulous “Party from hell” scene, which has Whelan and Verey playing no fewer than eight different characters, all with scrupulously distinctive accents, body language and gestures, in bewilderingly rapid exchanges, reducing the audience to helpless, uproarious laughter. Amanda Daniels is bewitching and unsettling as Miss Dee, the devilish Fairy Godmother figure, and heartbreaking as the shattered vagrant Kay.

– Charlotte Valori

Box office: http://sohotheatre.com/whats-on/radiant-vermin/, 020 7478 0100, until 12 April

Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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