THE RETREAT Park theatre, N4

MANTRAS AND MONEY

 

There is a useful play to be written about the lure of fashionable Western Buddhist retreats, and the way discontented rat-racers can transfer their competitive ambition directly into “me-and-my-enlightenment” oneupmanship without breaking a step. Or remembering the bit about faith making you nicer to other people. Sadly, this is not quite that play, though it has the bones to be one.

 

Still, Sam Bain, wisecracking creator of laddish shows like Fresh Meat and Peep Show, at least opens up the subject with his stage debut: a 90minute three-hander.  Luke (Samuel Anderson) is seen in a nicely conceived Scottish stone cell, shaven-headed and punctiliously balletic in his opening obeisances and Oms . He’s got a nice floor altar and brass bowl with a satisfying ‘ting!”. All the kit. We will learn that he is an affluent city worker who has decided to sell his flat to build a temple ( without mentioning it to his riotous, druggy younger brother and flatmate) and to get ordained as a monk.

 

 

His meditation is disturbed by the noisy arrival of the said brother Tony (Adam Deacon) ostensibly to tell him that some forgotten uncle has died but really, one quickly suspects, just to check up on him. Luke’s sanctimonious prating of his newfound beliefs is punctured repeatedly by Tony’s incredulous contempt; when Luke says he is too busy with his meditation to go to a funeral Tony delivers the unmatchable line “So, some important sitting to be done? And there’s nobody else with an arse?”. St Benedict (laborare est orare!) would be proud of him.

 

It would be more interesting if we were allowed to see some proper emotional underpinning: clearly Tony needs his big brother, and not only for somewhere to live. But whenever it lurches in an interesting direction Bain opts to put in a sharp sour bloke-joke instead. Mind you, some of them are good ones, especially from the hilarious Deacon.

 

 

When the third party, Tara, arrives disguised as her favourite goddess in green body paint and a cardboard tiara, the lads’ various lusts and confusions take over, though Tony’s attempt to talk her language is very funny. The dénouement reveals a flicker of proper brotherhood and a revelation about the financial underpinning of this holy operation.

 

 

It’s enjoyable, though others in the audience laughed more than I did. Kathy Burke directs, which at times made me surprised because her other work – notably The Quare Fella and Once A Catholic – has always been well-paced and engrossing. But perhaps because of the switch from TV to stage, and a conscious awareness that it’s a different and more demanding medium for audiences, Bain gives us far too much static talk without progress. And the talk isn’t quite as wonderful as it has to be to get away with that.

 

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 2 dec
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN Young Vic Se1

AN ANCIENT CRY, A TIMELESS THRILL

 

Across 25 centuries comes a harsh cry: not of war,  not from savage male throats but from a swaying, chanting, defiant chorus of young women demanding, in the name of the gods and of humanity, freedom, asylum and choice. Aeschylus’ early play , a fragment of  a lost trilogy,  could hardly be more topical. Firstly because the Danaids, arriving on the shore of Argos to beg asylum of King Pelagius, are refugees. Secondly because  because they are women refusing to be treated as chattels. Threatened with forced marriage in  Egypt, they have taken ship, occupied the sacred temple and assure the king that they will, if denied, turn to “the one god who never refuses asylum…death” and hang themselves by their black veils from the holy statues.

 

 

They mean it. They deliver great powerful speeches (what is that ancient magic in a tight chorus that shakes the heart?). They express both plea and defiance, fear and pride.  Sometimes they sing , sometimes voice deep ancient cries of oi and ai! The 27 bodies often move as one with sharp precision,  making shapes as if they were  a single resolute creature.  They are both poignant and terrifying. At one point in pitch darkness they become just points of the candle-lanterns each carries, until the flaring torches of their pursuers surround them and illuminate shapes of resistance, red fire and pale candlelight mingling and separating.  They are never offstage, and drive the action every one of the 90 thrilling minutes.

 

 

And barring their leader (Gemma May)) they are untrained amateurs, a community chorus of Southwark locals pledged only to rehearse for two months of free time.  Credit to the trainers, including Mary King, and to the extraordinary score by John Browne which drives the tension, percussive and weird on the ancient Aulos double pipe. But credit first to the volunteers. They achieve something unique. And although marauders and townspeople also appear, the latter voicing welcome and the eternal fear that “refugees bring cold winds” – most credit to that central suppliant chorus.
 

 

The script is by David Greig who (as i noted lately in his bizarre and wonderful Prudencia Hart) has the ability to write demotic, even slangy, modern language in a rhythmic style which makes it timeless, folkish.  This production by Ramin Gray for the Actors Touring Company delighted Edinburgh in 2016  and is a perfect fit for the young Vic with its tradition of community work.  It is, as in each of its touring venues (350 people in total have been the choruses) prefaced in Greek tradition by a local dignitary acknowledging the honour of supporting drama and pouring a libation to Dionysius. On press night it was John Glen MP.

 

 

The women are diversely  and colourfully in modern casual dress : loose , for the fluid exciting movement by Sacha Milavic Davies is central. That makes the formal politician- grey suit of Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos all the more strikingly apt: across the centuries he is every politician anxiously weighing up humane duty against, in his case, a real risk of war. “I am lashed to this quarrel, my boat hawsers tangled,…if a man intervenes in another man’s war he’s in trouble for ever”.

 
He does the right thing: the women argue a while with the townspeople over their ferocious determination to stay man-free, and Danaos the captain gently warns that migrants must always behave well and gently in their new land: “We’re foreign. We must be respectful and meek..make clear you committed no murder or crime”.
It is Europe 2017, and all times and all migrations. Wonderful.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 25 nov
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

 

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LEAF BY NIGGLE Touring

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MEETS MINDFULNESS IN THE MIDST OF TOLKIEN’S TIMEWASTING

J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other things, is famous for two: his unending ability to procrastinate, and his heated (and repeated) refusals that his work could (or should) be read allegorically. He dismissed those who looked for the mud of the Somme in the grim marshes on the borders of Mordor with cold contradiction; he may well have spent more time playing Patience than writing or working; and he would no doubt have been flatly unimpressed by the myriad allegories my brain kept irrepressibly chasing through Leaf by Niggle, a tale entirely free from elves or dwarves (though its enervating, endearing hero, “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make… but did not hurry with his preparations” might surely have just a pinch of hobbit). This is a story whose undoubted magic is surreal and spiritual, rather than wrought by sorcery: and its intensely imagined world, told with folklore simplicity, seems to glow with hidden meanings from every well-judged word, here delivered complete on stage with exquisite clarity by Richard Medrington in a virtuoso solo performance.

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle starts gently, discursively; the story comes upon us unawares, almost in spite of itself, but grows inexorably gripping, even terrifying, as it twists dynamically from lackadaisical charm to surreal brutalism, and onwards to curious, open-ended enlightenment. Performer Richard Medrington begins by telling us his own history: how, long ago, he thought of adapting Leaf by Niggle for puppetry performance, but the idea never got off the ground; how he started writing an enormous fantasy novel, then “triumphantly!” put it aside unfinished. Irrepressibly, life always kept getting in the way of his creative projects: life’s practical, intimate family tasks, like repairing a house damaged by flood, or going through the accumulated treasures of a large family attic when his elderly mother needed to move into sheltered housing. But this, he realised, on re-reading it several years later, is exactly what Leaf by Niggle is about: the “tremendous crop of interruptions” which constantly distract us from our chosen task if we let them. The props on stage, accordingly, are harvested from Medrington’s own “crop”, with many glorious finds from that attic: each one provokes its own history or memory, often intersecting with parallels or similar pathways in Tolkien’s life (or Niggle’s). Leaf by Niggle thus takes shape inside a peculiarly personal, well-fitting frame which feels genuinely original: and Medrington’s circumstantial, disarmingly direct chat quietly morphs into a masterclass of assured, compelling storytelling, Medrington acting all Tolkien’s small cast of characters in turn, against a gentle, intriguing folk-instrumental soundscape by Karine Polwart and Michael John McCarthy.

Niggle is a “footler,” “the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees”, and his kind heart constantly distracts him from the canvas he endeavours (but keeps failing) to finish, often helping friends and neighbours instead, to Niggle’s resigned annoyance. The gentle chaos of his life doesn’t suit the Government, and, torn summarily from his art, he is plunged into the horrifying ordeal of the Workhouse Infirmary. But here, in a punishing and boring work regime, “he was becoming master of his own time; he began to know just what he could do with it.” Focusing steadily on tasks which are themselves a distraction, he unlocks, and learns to harness, an extraordinary power of potential. Returning to his work, the results are astonishing.

You’ll have to see what you think it is about. While every tempting allegory can be teasingly dislodged, for me, it was about life, death, Purgatory and Paradise; or about artistic struggle, frustration and fulfilment; or about the price we pay to learn to cultivate raw talent into honed skill… And each time my every allegorical reading slid off the next corner of his multi-faceted plot, Tolkien just winked at me calmly. Ultimately, it’s not about deciding or imposing a final answer. It’s about noticing the thoughts this story provokes in you, mindfully – and learning from them.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating and a touring mouse: Touring Mouse wide

Touring across the UK until 25 November: details here  

Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on 15 November 2017 (but no puppets involved!)

Presented by Puppet State Theatre with the support of the Tolkien Trust, the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh and Creative Scotland

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MISS JULIE Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

SEX, SHAME , THE STROP OF THE RAZOR

 

 

I rashly confessed on Twitter that I spent the afternoon before this astringent production of a Strindberg play revelling in the happy furry world of Paddington 2. Got softened up.  Defences down,  comforted by marmalade.   So you may now appreciate the nervous collapse brought on by 95 minutes of this always alarming 1888 play.   Down from the Theatre by the Lake for its London premiere, this is a new, spare, fluent adaptation by Howard Brenton (whose THE BLINDING LIGHT a few weeks back demonstrated just how far he is willing to lurch into the crazier interludes of Strindberg’s soul).

 

 

Tom Littler directs, and is admirably unafraid to start leisurely, almost lazy, with desultory kitchen conversation , a meal eaten, long pauses and passing remarks between valet and cook behind the green baize doors of the Earl’s house while a midsummer servants’ dance is faintly heard beyond the door. But as Miss Julie joins them the pace rises and tragic energy swells, baleful and tense. It is like spending ninety minutes watching a clear, delicate polished piece of fine glass shiver, creak ominously, crack and finally shatter all over you.
 

If there is one image which will haunt my dreams it is James Sheldon as Jean the valet – clever, discontented, seductive, ambitiously angry –  stropping his cutthroat razor over by the sink. Swish, scrape, swish: its metronomic, relentless rhythm is in ominous contrast to the increasingly hysterical young mistress of the house, skittering and jerking across the kitchen, gabbling crazily to the impassive cook Kristin about the escape the three of them could make – a new life, Switzerland, trains, a hotel, art galleries, rich Englishmen to fleece or marry… No.  It’ll come to no good.  Swish, scrape, swish goes the razor, the dead pet bird drips on the sideboard.

 

Well, we know the end, because it is a famous play. But there is something particularly and deliciously unnerving about this production, on the face of it more straightforward than other recent adaptations (like the unbearably irritating Schaubühne Berlin “reinvention for the multimedia age” by Katie Mitchell). It is recognizably, though simply, a late-19c big house kitchen; no gimmicky updating. Jean has the fastidious pomposity of an upper servant who dreads being back amid the ploughmen (he can’t bear Kristin, his cook fiancée, ruffling his immaculate hair) . He brings it an edge of florid, handsome coarseness, the resentful brute slyly peeping out of the smooth exterior even early on as he piously reports the young mistress’ wild unsuitable dancing. Izabella Urbanowicz as Kristin is steady, pious, patient and weary, the social realist among them. And Charlotte Hamblin is magnificent as the volatile Julie, invading the servants’ territory in a midsumme garland, seemingly blithe with Sloaney entitlement, flirting, needling Jean until their disastrous consummation is inevitable.

 

 

It is on the face of it the slightest of stories: posh girl sleeps with valet, valet hopes for advancement and money, things are not so smooth. The brilliance, here clearer and sharper than I have yet seen it in any production, lies in exposing not only the disastrousness of the social and gender hierarchy o the day (a few years before Ibsen did the same) but the peculiar, private and individual disaster of these personalities.Jean and Julie are both needy, but want different things from one another. Sex, which seems a simple answer, is in fact the catalyst for disaster. Female panic and loss meets male rage, Sheldon’s Jean at one point quite terrifyingly vile. It holds you gripped in pity and terror, the angst of a bygone age rattling and echoing down the years with perennial truth. People don’t change: read the crime stories in the papers. There will always be an emotional and social impasse somewhere: that razor strop echoes down the century, swish, scrape, swish.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
to 2 dec
rating five

5 Meece Rating

 

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NETWORK Lyttelton, SE1

PROFIT AND  A PROPHET: RANTINGS AND RATINGS

 

 

I came to  this a day late for tedious domestic reasons, but
since the original film is about a news anchor , Howard Beale, going messianically nuts when he is sacked after 25 years for falling ratings – and then becoming a TV star for ranting against TV –  I felt a natural empathy.   Having  just spent six months sulking (alas not messianically) after 34 years of a Radio 4 show (without falling ratings), I felt a certain wistful solidarity.   Besides, the script is by Lee Hall and direction by Ivo van Hove, who never Van-hoves into view without at least being interesting. So, with yesterday’s first nighters starring it between 2 and 5, the humble mice needed a view.

 

 

It must be said that Ivo the Inventive has gone over the top this time. The wide stage is split in three – a glass TV control cubicle one side, a vast central screen, and on the right some onstage seats where richer and earlier-booking audience members  are actually eating (they also score a disconcerting closeup view of a very funny quickie between Michelle Dockery’s programme chief Diana and the angsty midlife Schumacher). I think the idea is to suggest that we all watch TV  while snogging or snacking, giving only grudging attention to the celebby performers we don’t care much about until they go nuts or get Yewtreed.  Which is, broadly, true.

 

 

In the event, it deserves  neither  2 nor 5, but wavers uncertainly, minute by minute in between.  Bryan Cranston certainly earns  every  award going for his craggy, convincing  Beale, moving from Dimblebyesque authority to a crazed Learlike  breakdown, a self-indulgent, unwell despair. WHen he steadies, he is more  than powerful in his detailed denunciations of  capitalism, and marvellously weird when the corporate boss Jensen (a terrific sinister Richard Cordery ) convinces him that only the money system works  now that there are no democratic nations only corporations (a slightly dated list of course, but we fill in Apple and Google for ourselves).

 

 

Cranston  is,  however ,given one or two too many cracker-motto truisms to cope with,  especially at the end. For which I blame Mr Hall.   It is the dementedly keen Diana who is  strangely the most credibly written: not least when she starts buying terrorists’ home videos, or analysing ratings while giving a businesslike shag to her colleague.  I think I’ve met her somewhere..

 

As to staging, there is mild irritation sometimes when a live  conversation is near-invisible in the clutter of screens and set, so we have to see it on the big screen: the pre- filmed bits fit in with technical perfection but add to the distancing and cooling of the real, hot theatricality the live cast bring.  This Katie-Mitchell I-heart-video experimentalism in theatre is becoming, dare one mutter, a bit of a bore.

 

And the message? Some things strike home hard, especially the rise of news-tertainment: some aspects feel dated now that  TV is being superseded by digital and social media. So does the rant against Saudi petrodollars – “you are owned by half a dozen medieval fanatics” – in the age of China. The  show runs two hours straight, and a cut or two wouldn’t hurt. And though the famous “I’m mad as hell” shout is well staged with vox-pop surround-sound video, it palls a bit when we have to join in for the third time.

 

But it’s a different night out. And  Cranston is fantastic, a proper star.

 

Box office.   Sold out to end of the run (24 march) BUT
tickets are still available through Day Seats and Friday Rush.
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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QUIZ Minerva, Chichester

MULTIPLE CHOICE IN A MANIPULATED WORLD

 

 

“We in this country” says the red judge grandly “Do not have trial by media or by mobs”. Hmm. Tell that to anyone now staring confusedly at the wreckage of reputation and career because an employers took instant fright at a Twitterstorm. James Graham’s new play is a sharp-edged, finally rather poignant comedy which reimagines the affair of Major Charles Ingram. He was convicted – with his wife and a supposed accomplice – of fraud, after his 2001 win in ITV’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. The case was treated as riotous entertainment by he world’s media as m’learned friends argued over whether significant coughs from the studio audience had been giving him clues as he hesitated – rather showily – over multiple-choice double-your-money questions.

 

 

Characteristically intelligent and twistily playful, set on a hellishly shiny neon-edged TV-studio floor, the play explores the crossover between the serious and logical worlds of law and of democracy and the shimmer , manipulation and deception of light entertainment. Himself clearly a keen amasser of facts, Graham enters gleefully in to the world of quiz fanatics (Mrs Ingram and her brother were obsessive autodidacts and Millionaire addicts) . The light-hearted first part of Daniel Evans’ showy production brings gales of laughter as he explains the development of quiz shows from the 70s, with Keir Charles nailing it not only as Chris Tarrant but as Des O”Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth; there is a Syd-Yobbo sketch of the head of ITV programmes David Liddiment, and Greg Haiste slimily watchful as the Celador creator of Millionaire, accurately targeting the psychology of competitive greed, tension, trivia-addiction and the fact that audiences really like to see people sweat. How far these shows were precursors of today’s reality TV becomes suddenly clear. So is Graham’s merciless exploration of the “profiling” of competitors , and the makers’ irritation whentoo many Millionaire candidates were straight, male, middle-class know-alls like the Ingram family, rather than their wider target audience desired. Did this influence the case they built? The edited tapes which made the coughing louder? Who knows?

 

 

The first half had me a bit impatient, fun though it was, because the queasy, toxic, exploitative world of light-ent TV is almost too well evoked. Mr Evans could well trim some of the immersive pub-quizzery (though the electric voting lanyards we all wear have a vital role at the end). But Graham’s gift is always for curious, not unkindly observation of the way that people are. So the human story at its core intensifies, and saddens. GAvin Spokes as Ingram himself is marvellous: a dutiful soldier now deskbound in Procurement: not the brightest, a bit bumbling but entirely decent , worried by his wife and brother-in-law’s obsession. He is drawn into it and coached by his wife as the next family candidate (the session where he learns 90’s pop culture factoids is wonderful, involving both a Hilda Ogden cameo on the revolving ring round the arena and a rendering of Ian Gow’s speech against TV in Parliament (a sharp Graham point here about government-by-personality: topical again on the very day of Gordon Brown’s glum Today interview about why we didn’t love him enough).

 

 

 

The defending barrister’s speech is electric, and the winner’s downfall despite it intensely affecting. In our preent age of public shaming, it is salutary to remember that apart from him resigning his commission and military identity, the Ingrams family had their home attacked, children bullied, dog kicked to death and pet cat shot. Evans and Graham stage that last fact so sharply, shamingly and gently that you shudder. Britain can be vile. Doubt still hangs over the conviction: we all had to vote at the end, and on the opening night it was Not Guilty.

 

 

extended: http://www.cft.org.uk or 01243 781312 to 9 December
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS Playhouse SW1

NEW GENERATION REVIEWER MICHAEL ADAIR UNMOVED BY MANSPREADING BUT LOVES THE SWEARING

The return of Glengarry Glen Ross feels rather timely. There is something striking about a play consisting entirely of middle-aged men arguing amongst themselves and battling for their place in the world. But where the idea is relevant, here the execution feels anything but.

 
David Mamet’s Pulitzer prizewinning drama about the dubious and duplicitous acts of four Chicago salesmen has been revived at the Playhouse. We meet Ricky Roma, Dave Moss, George Aaronow and Shelly Levene, each desperate to get their hands on ‘the Glengarry leads’ – the contact details of promising prospective buyers for the Glengarry Highlands in Florida, a piece of prime real estate, which each of our salesman is desperately trying to flog, with the ultimate prize being that they might just get to keep their jobs. As we’ve come to expect from these kinds of characters, they’re willing to lie, cheat, bribe and steal to get any sort of competitive advantage over their colleagues.

 
The premise is simple, which makes the entire first act all the more baffling. It is the slowest of slow burns, with three separate scenes all comprising of two men, legs spread, talking at length to each other over mugs of coffee, in a Chinese restaurant. The dialogue really flickers in and out of life – whole sections of exposition go missing as our British actors in particular seem to be concentrating more on maintaining their, admittedly rather good, American accents rather than delivering any weight. It’s a sacrifice that struggles to pay off.

 
It does, eventually, warm up and the starry cast is undeniably likeable, Stanley Townsend has the shtick of Jackie Mason with the timbre of Jeffrey Tambor as Shelley ‘The Machine’ Levine, a desperate and faded old schmuck well past his prime. Christian Slater provides the glamour and credibility that the role of top salesman Ricky Roma deserves -with his accent already in the bag, it is his effortless charm that commands the most attention and is a standout performance.

 
Where this play shines is in its Thick of It-esque descent into sweary oblivion – Slater provides us with the best moment with his furious tirade against Kris Marshall, playing boss John Williamson – whose role generally is to lean on things and get shouted at.
Credit to designer Chiara Stephenson, the set for the second act is a thing of beauty, a ransacked office covered in scattered papers and piles of cardboard boxes, broken window shutters and chipboard repairs, however it’s arrival seems to further highlight just how much of a non-event the first act is. There were some real flashes of promise in the second as our cast came together – the chemistry rose to a simmer and there was almost even a whiff of there being something at stake.

 
Ultimately, this feels somewhat like a missed opportunity. It’s amusing in places, and ends in much finer fashion than it begins – but feels disappointingly hollow for too much throughout. If you are a fan of watching men sat with their legs spread and talking loudly at each other, then this might well be the show for you.

https://www.playhousetheatrelondon.com/tickets/
Box Office: 0844 871 7631
rating  two   2 meece rating

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