The candlelit Wanamaker has proved its worth as a music-room, notably with All The Angels and the divine Farinelli. This takes it further with the first wordless performance: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble the master-puppeteers create a silent story with half-sized, fully-jointed physically expressive but undecorated hard-foam “bunraku” puppets. Five expert puppeteers control them, one or two at a time in perfect concord so human and object blend into something other. Their narrative is an expression of Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A six-piece orchestra plays overhead: baroque violins, viola, ‘cello and harpsichord/synthesizer.



Which all sounds a bit recherché: could be a tough hour, you’re thinking, since anything drawn from Japanese theatrical tradition can be an acquired taste . Actually, it is a beautiful and accessible performance, somewhere between mime, dance and theatrical epic. Sometimes, indeed, you are so bound up in the emotional lives of the pale puppets that you suddenly think “hang on, what’s that stuck on his foot?” before realizing that it is the fingers of the puppeteer, and that every movement of this seemingly vivid being is being controlled by humans you have somehow stopped noticing…



It is a story they tell – of lovers and their child, of ordeals, travels, death and loss and discovery. But as the creators teasingly insist, it is one onto which we project our own interpretations. However, there is certainly folktale in there, because the puppet figures are sometimes physically literal – walking, running, falling, struggling, fighting their handlers or slumped in wrenching despair – but they can also fly and float surreally as if becoming their own dreams. In one extraordinary sequence near the end the central figure relives the events of a whole life.



The story begins with a sweetly awkward park-bench courtship, and a breathless pause when father kneels before mother as she holds her belly. There is a suitcase and a parting, one parent gone far from a child-puppet who crawls, stumbles, takes first steps with the other. Separation, obstacles, struggle; deaths, a trek home, a graveyard or mortuary of strange gnarled shapes like old bark , weeping desolation. Once mother and child fight together through great hard shapes, leap a ravine. A river, swimming, a corpse…any of it could be a dream, or a real refugee journey, or both.



Late on a lonely figure fights for life, or maybe just sanity, against a cloud of blue flapping inchoate cloths which become ghost figures. You’re engrossed, the music sharp in your head, every note and move significant, very human. By the way, there are a couple of “relaxed performances”: for some, it may form an even stronger connection than it does to us “neurotypicals”. And that is overwhelming enough…



box office
to 21 April
rating four  4 Meece Rating


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This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…



Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review and every last mouse of it. Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER Empire, Haymarket



Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing . And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.



Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Noel Coward himself (I’d forgotten Go Slow Johnny.. you’re no Brando, rallentando..). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.



, My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment-room and station staff ,(Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ‘50s) . The live band onstage and the songs , especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930’s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto. But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.


The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh , sky-high. Glorious.



0844 8717628;  to Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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If there is one stumbling block for lovers of Graham Greene’s darkly thrilling gangster novel, it is the elegance of Gloria Onitiri. She is Ida; and Greene’s redoubtable warrior for justice is in the book a large Cockney with a beery laugh and a market-trader’s sharpness: her pursuit of the murderous young Pinkie for the sake of the “Fred” he killed is fuelled by righteousness, but of an indeterminate old-fashioned variety . She stands for a sense – so restful to the tormented Catholicism of Greene – that “right and wrong” are very different to sexual sin and virtue. She’s big and bonny and maternal and blessedly common. But in Esther Richardson’s otherwise faithful production of Bryony Lavery’s thoughtful adaptation, for all her excellence as an actor Onitiri is more cocktail-and-torch-song than beery, matey singalong. She just is.



So I stumbled a bit. But in every other way Greene is beautifully served, and not just in Sara Perks’ fabulous dark design – a fraction of iron pier towering overhead, steps which move and swirl and through which once, unforgettably, the skinny villain squirms between the steps to grab his quarry. As Pinkie Jacob James Beswick is physically perfect- scrawny, starveling child of the slums, he has a hard young face and a restless, jerky teenage insolence in every move. HIs moment of arrogant defensive pathos when he is beaten up, his sexual terror and his cowed moment when confronted with the (gender-switched) Colleoni are well-judged: you can’t take your eyes off him: the boy gone wrong. Sarah Middleton is equally perfect as the waitress Rose, catching both her naiveté and the sharp simple intelligence that threatens Pinkie’s alibi. She also makes credible that terrifying Catholic belief that she will “burn” and will be glad to, for love. The extreme youth of the pair is there in all its pathos, extremism and perennial warning. Their story holds you solidly , especially in the second half once the inter-gangster stuff is fading from the foreground.




The latter iswell enough done, though I would plead one cause with all directors who cast inescapably male characters as women (Spicer is Angela Bain) . Just pay more attention to small physicalities, like hair. If Cubitt, Dallow and Pinkie have unforgiving 1950’s cuts you get distracted by female hair under the hoodlum hat. You just do. Which is a shame when such immense care has gone into everything else visual, into beautifully fast, fluid staging moves and a loving creation of that dark 1950’s seaside underworld complete with its slang (lesser adaptors would have given up “buer” and “milky”, but not this one. But the two young principals are more than worth seeing. It tours on.

touring to 26 May. COLCHESTER Mercury theatre this week
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS Bury st Edmnds Theatre Royal, and TOURING




Putting great literary masterpieces onstage is an erratic business. Within the same week we see the Artistic Director of the National Theatre buggering up Macbeth – despite a stellar cast and centuries of interpretation to draw on – while elsewhere in our unpredictable theatrical jungle a shoestring company tours a respectfully inventive, pretty much perfect version of something which far harder to stage: Dickens’ Great Expectations with its knotty, preposterous interwoven plots.



But Tilted Wig, co-producing with Malvern Theatres, have done just that. Ken Bentley’s adaptation (relevantly, he is a radio drama veteran) makes unfussed use of Dickens’ narration, enabling him to include some of the author’s sarcastic asides on matters such as lawyers. It is picked up by different cast members as the scenes flow naturally into one another : some have to achieve instant changes from deep-involved character and accent to calm RP narration. Which is particularly striking in that it never actually strikes you at all – the story just goes on.



James Turner’s set is perfect: an iron-framed box on two levels, both refuge and cage, evoking just enough Victoriana. This elegant device (with Ollie King overhead on the concertina and some really classy sound and light design) contains with panache the set-piece moments – from the shock on the bleak marshes to the smithy, the filmy-draped world of mad Miss Havisham, with a dead rat in her jewel-box, the storm, the fire and the desperate moments by the steamer on the dark Thames tideway. Lantern-light, a trap and rapid-folding doors do it all.



So easy is it to relax into the story, and so neat and credible are the characters (nine actors for the 27 characters plus ensemble) , that it is surprisingly easy to pick up modern echoes : Estella (Isla Carter) after all is a trafficked child, stolen from the underclass by Jaggers and deliberately radicalized by Miss Havisham in her personal jihad against men. The theme of class barriers is more obvious, Sean Aydon beautifully carrying Pip’s yearning to be an educated gentleman , the overwhelming his decent nature by teenage cockiness, an his final taming to gentle regret at the sourness of his elevation. The heartbreaking division between him and Joe Gargery strikes home when that decent blacksmith gently but firmly refuses to dine with him in London because it wouldn’t be fitting . Actually, I have long regarded Joe Gargery as one of the most beautiful characters in fiction, and the performance by curly-haired, open-faced Edward Ferrow had me in tears several times. Actually, blast him, he rather set me off when he was Wemmick as well. Oh, and so did Daniel Goode’s Magwitch.



And I haven’t even mentioned the big-name star, the Olivier name: Nicola McAuliffe is Miss Havisham. Wow. A tower of lacy off-white netting, a vulturous, wearily ironic frilly tragedienne, she towers over Pip and Estella like a puppetteer. Her final emotional meltdown and immolation could bring Dickens himself applauding from the other side. Only my beloved Joe Gargery stands up to her with dignity: I nearly cheered.


So terrific. And while the fifth star or mouse is often supposed by tradition to belong only to life-changing innovation, in awarding it now I must make it clear that for me the fifth one is often more fitly represented by a heart. I loved the production. A thrill to see it in Bury’s Georgian theatre, but it will be a delight to Dickensians everywhere, and a means of conversion to others. Bravo.
touring to 23 June nationwide, Richmond next!   Touring Mouse wide

rating five   5 Meece Rating


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Is love a Gothic Cathedral, a yearning for a permanent, holy, respectful connection to the best in our nature? Or is it lust and fun, animal attraction, a reckless erotic adventure? Well, at its best it is both: but when Alma the minister’s daughter interprets her liking for John the medical student as part of her yearning for eternity, he meets it with impatient brutal words, makes her look hard at the ugliness of an anatomical diagram . She decries his gambling, even his pose – “Don’t sit like that, you look so indolent and worthless”, he shrugs and turns to Roza the casino-owner’s daughter. Who, in Alma’s view , is part of the distressing, threatening deeper south which alarms and fascinates anyone striving to be a Southern Lady – “all the Latinos dream in the sun and indulge their senses..”



And the sadness of their story, played out in a sultry MIssissippi summer when a disastrous gunshot is never far away, is that each converts the other , but too late. Four years ago I saw Rebecca Frecknell’s production of this rarely seen, elegiac Tennessee Williams play in the Southwark Playhouse tunnel: I called it a jewel. It is fine to see that her directorial passion for the piece endured, for this is the same director’s grander production. In the smart Almeida it is set with remarkable expressionist symbolism, Tom Scutt’s set a shallow ellipse of nine pianos on, behind, around and upon which assorted characters not necessarily in the scene are placed; sometimes playing an obbligato to keep the mood or giving a few notes to represent the coming of the cool Gulf Wind or a doorbell. Sometimes they light up. Composition is by Angus MacRae, musical direction by Mark Dickman.


And it is clever, but for me sometimes a little to the detriment of the play’s beauty. For Tennessee Williams’ world of yearning, damaged, misbehaving, disappointed, painfully lovable characters, hanging on to hope and life by their fingernails, is expressed as always in lyrical language and emotional images so heartbreakingly poetic that you resent missing even a single word due to murmured moments of extreme naturalism; or indeed having an agonised significant pause accompanied by a mere theatrical bit of cleverness. Williams doesn’t need that: the heart beats too strong for any of the modish tropes of modern productions to matter.


But oh, it is a lovely piece, and the performances at its heart honest and finely drawn. Patsy Ferran is beyond superb as Alma the preacher’s daughter, pious and ladylike, prone to hyperventilating, and changing before our eyes, with painful growth, to the moment when she says too late that wrenching line “The girl who said no doesn’t exist, She died last summer” and comes ironically to understand what courtship is after years of condemning the kind of woman who known for “making the acquaintance of travelling salesmen”.


Matthew Needham is equally strong, equally heartbreaking in the end. Their connection, despite his (very Tennessee-Williams) tendency to bully and mock her beliefs, is intense. With economical simplicity other parts are doubled or more, Anjana Vasan particularly impressive (with a fierce torch-song) as Rosa the Latina, the dark sensuous angel, and milder as Nellie. Nothing is wasted, no irony or brief sad laugh unmarked. At times the selfconscious staging irritated me, a little. But the beauty shone through, and honour to Frecknall for championing this gorgeous, gentle play.



box office 0207 359 4404
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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MACBETH Olivier, SE1




You don’t expect robes and battlements these days. This is a shaven-head-and-machete Macbeth, its theme an indeterminate, timeless squalor: possibly a feral modern war, possibly post-apocalyptic. The murder of Duncan, set thus, is hard to see as regicidal sacrilege – ‘his silver skin laced with his golden blood”. Though the always fine Stephen Boxer as the short-lived monarch does, with characteristic subtlety, manage to express something I had never really noticed: that his betrayal by the original Cawdor , who he had t,rusted, distressed and unbalanced him into over-trusting the tricky Macbeths. The problem, however, is that the world Rufus Norris directs in Rae Smith’s tenebrous, crumpled-binbag-and-blockhouse set with its dark steep trundling ramp ,towering diseased trees, disorderly roistering and makeshift armour fastened on with rolls of duct-tape, seems as if it never had any place for loyalty, moral codes or civilized reflection. Indeed the only times we glimpse any furniture that isn’t plastic or a folding old camping-table are in the home of Lady Macduff and the English refuge of young Donald (it may be that the presence of a carpet and sofa and tidier clothes is code for higher moral virtue). Though Lady Macbeth does eventually get out of her vest and pleather jeans into a ragged ,sub-Oscar, sequinned raspberry frock once she is Queen.



The bleak, smoky, savage setting makes Rory Kinnear’s task as the racked, tempted, murderous, hesitant, panicking Macbeth harder than it need be. Of course he is as ever a great Shakespearian, each word and gesture achieved with intelligence and feeling. His relationship with the equally remarkable Anne Marie Duff as his sexy, tricky, maternally hungry and tormented wife is as good as I have seen it. Their first eye-meet, when each knows that the other is thinking murder, is riveting, as is the moment when he holds her dead body in his arms for “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Norris’ technique of creating action-freezes for soliloquies helps in the first half too, detaching Kinnear for a merciful moment from the thuggish hopeless scene.



Yet somehow, I’m not quite buying it. We are used to gore and nasty things hung on trees and lots beheadings, ever since the technology for reproducing actors’ heads improved. Fine. But unlike the Hytner Othello – set in a modern army camp – or his Hamlet in a recognizable police-state, the misery-world evoked here gives no sense that there ever were nobilities to be breached by the Macbeths. It’s just chaos, and you expect no better. There are excellent Norris touches – the always problematic “comedy’ porter (Trevor Fox) is allowed to have seen into Duncan’s death-room, and weaves into his ramblings bits of Lady Macbeth’s speech about boneless gums and nipples. That absolutely works. So does Alana Ramsey as a cross-gendered Second Murderer, giving it large as a furious slaggy blonde in fishnets , fur boots and machete: the character’s claim that life has treated her so badly that she’ll do anything has a MeToo feeling about it, and Ramsey is superbly vicious, presenting Lady Macduff with her slaughtered babies in plastic bags like a nightmare Ocado delivery. Kevin Harvey’s Banquo is excellent too, with a dry civilized air about him which makes his return as a bloodstained lurching zombie ghost all the more effective.



Oh, and the witches? They’re OK: shamanic, acrobatic, eerie, one wearing what looks like entrails outside her body but which turn out to be bits of dismembered baby dolls. Or possibly actual babies, it’s that sort of show. But on the whole, by the time the three main zombie victims return to watch the final fight (King Duncan endearingly finding a plastic chair to settle down and watch from) there is no sense of a tragic fall. Just of another thuggish gang war,  an East End brawl with no sense to it and not much hope for young Donald.



box office 020 7452 3000 to 23 june
in cinemas NT LIVE on 10 May
and touring nationwide from Sept 2018
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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