The film by Danny Rubin gave us the expression for eternal déja-vu: Bill Murray played Phil the arrogant celebrity weatherman, sent grumbling to smalltown Punxatawney for the folksy ceremonies of February 2nd . That (as well as being my birthday!) is when the groundhog’s shadow predicts the next six weeks’ weather. The folklore is old English: “if Candlemas day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight”. But, mysteriously condemned to wake every day to find it is still the 2nd, weatherman Phil must learn to live it again and again until he grows kinder and earns a future.



The film is clever and funny. But a musical? Well, MATILDA showed that it pays to trust Tim Minchin – music and lyrics – and Matthew Warchus’ direction. And with the book reworked by Rubin, and Minchin’s quirky brilliance and fearless willingness to oompah when it’s needed, somehow the music explodes the smart little story into a big shining cloud of philosophical and moral questioning: laced with killer jokes, wickedly clever lyrics and joyfully witty choreography by Peter Darling (I have never seen a stage revolve so elegantly used). Ellen Kane co-choreographs, and also designs the intricately calculated set of tiny lighted houses and gliding walls; not to mention the wonderfully hokey smalltown winter outfits of the townsfolk.




These matter because the ensemble is really the co-star. Of course Andy Karl is quite fantastic as Phil, driving every scene with a high-energy, perfectly judged journey from furious sarcasm, through bafflement, cynicism and suicidal despair to eventual redemption . Carlyss Peer is likeable as Rita, the producer he hits on and eventually falls for. Others get solo chances: Minchin also lets rip his romantic soul in two unexpected, very beautiful songs from Georgina Hagen as Nancy the wistful one-night-stand girl and Andrew Langtree as the geeky insurance-man Ned. There is a marvellous scene with the town drunks, “Pissing, often missing” and an even better one when Phil seeks help from alternative Reiki-enema’n psychiatry healers all carolling – “I dunno what I”m sayin’, but this guy’s desperate an’ he’s payin”! “




For all that ,though, it is the big leaping, revolving, singing human stew of townsfolk who turn your heart over: officials, workers, bandsmen, carnival revellers, old ladies, slobs, shmucks. The ensemble sing big joyful anthems to spring, and hope, and groundhogs; they express all the innocent human smalltownery which Phil despises. Their magnificence makes Phil’s initial contempt stand out more strongly: “”I have been broadcasting too many years . To talk to these hicks about magical beavers!”.
Minchin playfulness romps through – I love a man who can rhyme toxin with “constipated oxen”, producer with juicer, and give a sad bimbo the reflection “No point protestin’ – cos if you look good in tight jeans that’s what they’ll want you dressed in”. The episodic repetition of Phil’s day speeds up so fast in the first half that you get dizzy, then the second half surprises you first with melancholy, and then with sulphurous darkening to rage, suicide, and a nightmare sequence of despair (with Karl flying aloft in his underwear, and uncannily bi-locating thanks to Paul Kieve’s illusion). The feelgood ending involves massed tap-dancing and a high-speed redemption involving a circling piano,a giant groundhog and a sunrise. And, dammit, a tear in the eye. Minchin magic.


box office 0844 8717628 to 17 sept Principal Partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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This trilogy, transferred from Chichester is an epic: a thrilling voyage through time to the earliest days of Anton Chekhov. And, if it is not too philistine a thing to murmur, it will draw to him even those people who don’t fire up with exciteent at the later masterpieces – especially the often morosely played The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. There are still a few chances to take in the ‘three-play-day”, and however hot and tempting the summer day, it will demonstrate even to doubters that eight hours of 19th century Russian drama can be a perfect way to spend it.



Three three theatre giants – Chekhov, adapter David Hare and director Jonathan Kent – with a brilliant cast create a world joyfully funny, vigorous, real and ruefully familiar to anyone who ever had a family, a neighbourhood and a heart.   Those who already love Chekhov will find all the themes there – passion, disappointed lives, debts, women emerging aflame with opinions and demands, and a 19c Russia trying to work out whether to look ba k to an age of peasants and leisured  landowners or to face a modern, vigorous but perhaps less ethical commercial age. The  set by Tom Pye is gloriously romantic: a woodland, reedfringed  garden with a stream which in the final play becomes a lake.




These are very early plays:  PLATONOV is a rumbustious chronicle of an educated, thwarted widow Anna – Nina Sosanya – and a Byronically handsome man who creates havoc in a family and within himself –  James McArdle, a magnetic presence whether satirically teasing poor dim Maria, passionately wooing Sofya, suddenly regretting it, bumming money off the local rich man and throwing it away, or finally succumbing to men-behaving-badly depression in grimy underwear. Irresistible.   At 20, Chekhov never trimmed the work down from six hours, gave it a name or saw it performed: but Hare’s version is tight, wickedly witty , emotionally honest and rife with snortingly funny one-liners . It is not as confusing at it might be, but fabulous entertainment, increasing pace with sudden entrances of all and sundry, often shouting and in ridiculous hats. It makes you reflect that this Chekhov – able to mix broad observational comedy with harsh shafts of painful feeling – is an ancestor of Ayckbourn and sitcom as much as of the greater modern names.



IVANOV was the young Chekhov’s first produced play , more tightly focused on the central character:  Geoffrey Streatfield is depressive, disappointed , self-lacerating, self-pityingly remorseful and broke:   out of love with his dying Jewish wife and beguiled by the lovely Sasha, his creditor’s daughter.  Olivia Vinall (who is in all three plays) is luminous, blondely angelic and gloriously tempting, but here firmly bossy – a one-woman “ambulance corps” for hopeless Ivanov – “My job in life is to understand him!”.  Her family elders , in a memorable upmarket party scene,  are variously awful and hilarious and rampagingly hungry, but Chekhov always allows gleams of redemptive humanity:  Jonathan Coy is superb as the put-upon father, begging the pair of them just to live a normal flawed life and get on with it.  Darkness rears up in one horrifying three-word shout which makes the audience gasp: then room and wife sink through the floor as if in despair  and Ivanov reels off, wrecked,  into the trees, reeds and water of the bleak beautiful set which serves all three plays.



The last is best known, but still vibrates with youthful melodrama and fury.  THE SEAGULL is the tale of geeky struggling author Konstantin  (an intensely felt performance by Joshua James) , his love for innocent Nina (Vinall shining again) and his diva mother, a bravura Anna Chancellor  with  a pretentious, weak, famous lover Trigorin  (Streatfield again).  The moment when she has rugby-tackled him to stay with her, and he stares helplessly over her shrieking head mutely appealing to the audience, was met with   gales of laughter.




All three plays have fireworks, real and emotional; all end in a single pistol-shot; all have glancing references to the figure of Hamlet, both embraced and toughly challenged. All three show us Chekhov not – as we know him from plays like The Cherry Orchard –  as a gentle dispassionate observer,  but as a fierce youth.
He was starting on his lifetime themes of frustration, debt, passion, escape, city versus country values,   human absurdity magnified by vodka, and suicide .  He is young, not afraid to mix hilarity and satire with deep shafts of complicated feeling.   The final curtain call on the three-play day brings everyone on:  McArdle (I am happy to say) back in his long underpants as the battered Byron of the first play , not as the a sober prim doctor he plays in the second.   We cheered them all to the echo.    If you’ve time for only one play,  Platonov is  funniest and The Seagull the most wrenching.  But all three are wonderful.

Box Office 020 7452 3000 through September. 7 more 3-day-plays on sale.
rating FIVE   5 Meece Rating

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YERMA Young Vic, SE1


“Allow for a three-gin recovery period” advised a tweeter, during the previews of Simon Stone’s take on this perennial theme of baby-hunger leading to marital, mental and murderous disaster. Quite right. It is the most shattering night at the ever-intense Young Vic since the psychiatric-hospital Hamlet with Michael Sheen, which kept me away till four in the morning groping for comfort-reading – Jilly Cooper, Wodehouse, anything. But it is certainly brilliant, and for much of its length horribly, recognizably, contemporarily comic.



Billie Piper’s smile is the thing which stays in your head: magnetic or piteous, likeable or terrifying, She smiles a lot , in the big bare glass box where this terrible tale unfolds, hushed audience ranged either side as if in an arena, characters faintly reflecting so we seem to see them from two angles. But each time her smile is different. A larky, confident sunnily sexy grin as she romps with her Australian partner (Brendan Cowell) in their new house, hinting at a baby. Months, years, chapters of their lives go by, flashed up by surtitles as the smile becomes defiant, forced, satirically bitter , angry, and at last – after crumbling into terrible grief for the loss of someone never born – downright demented. Can’t take your eyes off her. Piper is one of the most intense and exciting creatures on any stage: could be Medea, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear himself.
It is simply the timeless sorrowful story of a woman wanting, and failing, to get pregnant. The Australian Simon Stone adapts and directs a 1934 play by Federico Lorca – assassinated by Fascist Spain 80 years ago this month. It’s a very free adaptation indeed : Stone gaily says he “vandalized” it.




Lorca’s Yerma was a childless woman whose obsessive longing for motherhood and descent into violence was fuelled by pressure and contempt from rural Catholic Spanish society. This sharply witty, slangily modern updating makes the community our own , sometimes even more censorious and nosey, online world: she’s a lifestyle confessional journalist who blogs (“no, I post posts”) at every step of her struggle, betraying unsayable feelings of resentment, sorrow, jealousy, dark hope that her own sister will miscarry, and frustrated contempt for her husband.



Modern realities dart through, though no one of them can explain the failure, which IVF (twelve cycles and more!) reveal to be in her own desperate body: there’s the husband’s business travels and porn habit, her own former abortion, her smoking and party lifestyle, even her own mother’s character. Scenes chop and move on as she is with the increasingly desperate (and beautifully played) Cowell, with a sexually free and easy colleague, with an ex=boyfriend and a dryly funny Maureen Beattie as her mother . They are interspersed with intense, whirling chants in blackness, as the glass box changes to a garden or a rainstorm. Some chorales are Spanish songs from Lorca’s period, once a poignant lullaby, one a grand deceptive Gloria as a real very new baby briefly appears. The terror of the last scenes (one is very grateful for the glass wall) is mitigated by the delicate, painful, truthful weaving of web of longing which destroys her. It is a tale for all ages.



box office 020 7922 2922 to 24 September
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S Theatre Royal Haymarket SW1




It’s easy to get worked up by celebrities and big names crowding out the talented-but-unknown usuals. ‘They’re just there to get bums on seats’, is the most common cry. But somewhere along the line we have to accept that these people – these stars – are some of the most charismatic people to ever walk the planet. And when the rock-star du jour is Pixie Lott – impossibly attractive, entrancingly charming and dramatically fluent… BOOK THEM BOOK THEM BOOK THEM. Slap up the billboards, pay they whatever they want, just get them behind that curtain in time.




What alchemy then, when the part waiting at the end of the red carpet is Breakfast at Tiffany’s Hollie Golightly (see descriptions above, impossibly attractive, entrancingly charming etc). She’s the mystery neighbour who we want to know everything about. It’s a perfect, heady mix. It’s not a classically tuned theatre performance, but that’s not what you want. Lott’s Golightly is emotionally versatile, seductive and youthfully talented. 5 stars.



Such a shame, then,  that the rest of the production goes heavily. The superstar has shone so brightly across the stage, the rehearsal room and the desk of the producers, that the rest has been forgotten. Nikolai Foster’s production smells as if it started life as a musical. A shiny and glitzy number, which was forced to empty it’s pockets of songs as it walked across Haymarket.




Some tunes remain, and because Lott is an exceptionally talented singer they’re a joy. But the sheen of Broadway has translated into a needlessly mechanical and chunky set, which screams and whirs when moved, disco lighting which shines slutty, and incredibly irritating background music. It’s like seeing your favourite late-night bar with the big light on; good grief!




The cast too keep up to some speedy beat, despite their being none. They zip around and chatter, but lose all control and end up flat and cartoonish. Matt Barber (the frustrated neighbour Fred, our lost guide) is shrill and uncomfortably unfunny. Capote’s dry humour (direct narration carved out in chunks by the adapter, Richard Greenberg) goes stale in his mouth. The rest of the cast roll and rollerblade in and out of the stage aimlessly but achieve little. But when Lott gracefully walks in ,much of this seems to lift. You understand the infatuation the rest of the characters have for her. You see why they’re all turned to mush trying to understand her motivations and moves. But when you can’t see that glorious puzzle in front of you. You’re just left with the mush.Thank you, celebrity casting.

Box Office 020 7930 8800   In London until the 17th of September, then on tour.

Rating;  three3 Meece Rating

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HALF A SIXPENCE Chichester Festival Theatre




This 1963 show – based loosely on H.G.Wells’ semiautobiographical KIPPS – was originally a vehicle for Tommy Steele. And there were moments, as curly-haired young Charlie Stemp capered, frolicked, twirled, grinned with a whole keyboard of gleaming teeth and strummed a manic banjo, when I thought “Help! Some bastard has gone and cloned Tommy Steele. Where will this end?”.


For the part of Arthur Kipps, humble draper’s assistant who comes into money and nearly marries a posh girl, is pure quintessence of Steele in bad ways as well as good. Agile, likeable, fizzing with energy but shallow as a saucer. Becoming rich by inheritance, he forgets the childhood sweetheart to whom he gave half a broken sixpence as a boyish love-token, proposes to a posh and controlling girl whose family only want his money, realizes his mistake enough to be glad when the money’s embezzled, and returns to his old love. And that’s it.




The original work by Beverley Cross and David Heneker has been tweaked as to story by Julian Fellowes, the go-to man on Edwardian snobbery, with some new and revamped songs by Stiles and Drewe and loving oversight by Cameron Mackintosh. Immense fun has been had with the design by Paul Brown – an elegant diorama revealing English Edwardiana dripping with atmosphere whether in chandeliered drawing-room or ‘umble pub . Even wilder fun rules the choreography by Andrew Wright, which particularly in the second half is exhilaratingly witty. There’s a tremendous set-piece musical evening in which a nicely dreary bassoon solo by Lady Dacre morphs, with crazed psychological improbability, into a wild mass percussion event in bustles, led by Kipps on the banjo and culminating with the butler swinging from the chandelier. And of course the flash-bang-wallop wedding photo number ends it with dazzling precision and proper joy.



But for all Stemp’s valiant effort at character as the deluded hero, despite Devon-Elise Johnson as his beloved Ann (she has one fine moment of invective which got a small cheer), plus a dignified bland Emma Williams as posh Helen, the thinness of the story makes it un-engaging. Certainly it feels oddly dated, and devoid of the emotional kick we are used to in musicals all the way from Showboat to Sweeney Todd and Gipsy, and indeed Bend it like Beckham and Mrs Henderson Presents. Musicals can deliver a visceral, engaging, breath-holding thump but this one, overpacked with big numbers following relentlessly boom-bang-a-thump on one another’s heels carries you no further than foot-tapping and technical admiration. And there are some hellishly embarrassing lines illustrating Kipps’ social gaucheness: really, nobody on a public stage in 2016 should have to perform exchanges like “I suppose you like Bernini” “I don’t drink much”.



It would have been possible to drop a meaningless song or two to give us a lot more of Jane How’s magisterial Lady Punnet and Alex Hope’s Sid the Socialist (very HG Wells, but perhaps not very Fellowes). And I could have taken a great deal more of Ian Bartholomew’s bohemian actor-playwright Chitterlow, who beneath some very Donald Trump hair plays it genuinely funny with sparks of real eccentricity. It just needs something to throw a hook into our hearts, or at least our funnybones. But it’s fun, it’s vigorous, and the choreography and band are great.  And Stemp is a real find.   If you’d never seen a musical, it might dazzle.



box office 01243 781312
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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It’s not only Henry IV who gets two plays. Cry God for Harry, Hogwarts and St Joanne: the woman who (whether you love the tales or not) admirably got a telly-softened generation hooked on big, fat, complicated books with Latin words and old-fashioned moral values.  Moreover the two plays (in collaboration with Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany) not only take the story of the orphaned boy magician into a new genre after those increasingly tedious quidditch-CGI action movies, but enterprisingly nudge the narrative on a generation. We must be very, very careful of spoilers – everyone is issued a Keep the Secrets badge, and remarkably, the long previews have seen little leakage. But a few things may be told, and reflected on.

For Harry – Jamie Parker – is now grown up, married to Ginny Weasley (a disappointingly bland part in the main for Poppy Miller) and has children. He is seeing Albus, the awkward middle-child, off to Hogwarts, where the lad risks possible disappointment under the Sorting Hat (it’s a bowler, this time), may not even be as keen on Quidditch as his very famous Dad, and will have to make new friends. Sam Clemmett is nicely teenage at Albus, but his new surprise best friend – played by Anthony Boyle – frankly steals the show. Both the shows, actually. See how carefully I’m not even naming the part he plays: but let it be said that Boyle is a delight. Fresh to the West End, he’s funny and credible, awkward and brave and dry in his comic timing and wholly unexpected. The two of them are a sort of Hogwarts Jennings and Darbishire, not least in their ability to do dangerously awful things while meaning touchingly well…





That’s what they do. And Harry meanwhile is not terribly good at being a parent – what with having grown up being emotionally abused in a stair-cupboard – so that is another emotional engine of the plot. Around him are familiar figures: the adult Draco Malfon, Nazi-blond with a menacing ponytail, is Alex Price; the marvellous, solid, decent but edgily mischievous Noma Dumezweni is Hermione, now Minister of Magic and married to the still-quite-annoying larky Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley, nails it). Sandy McDade is a splendid, and not-yet-retired Professor MacGonagall, and doubles as – well, another person entirely. There’s a turn from another West End debutant, Annabel Baldwin in the “roles include” ensemble. And she too will not easily be forgotten: anyone else thinking of casting a faintly nymphomaniacal ghost who lives in drainpipes, you may have to wait a while as this will run forever, but she’s your girl .


That’s enough about actors. The staging is, of course, brilliant: there are illusions which, though Victorian and traditional, are so well done and with so little high-tech trickery that you gasp: but cleverer still is the way that Tiffany rations them to casual use early on, so that you genuinely get an impression that this is a world where magic tricks are as normal as cleaning your teeth. So when big magic is needed – remarkable prop work with books, shelves, trains, lakes or the whole set seeming to half-melt – we are ready to believe. There is also a rather splendid dominatrix in Part 2 to pep up the flagging Dads in the audience, and at one point a hilarious interlude in an OAP dayroom where the old bastards hex one another to pass the time. As you would.




The two plays both have to be seen to get the whole story: indeed the end of part I could send a sensitive child ,unbooked for the next, over quite an emotional cliff. Even without that flock of extremely effective Dementors moving in. And up. And over. But this double-barrelled demand of ticketbuyers is something I have a slight quarrel with: actually, the whole story could be one barnstorming 3 hrs 30 more effectively – and cheaply for punters – than the present 2 x 2hr 40 format. Because there are longeurs, occasional but regrettable, mainly due to the intricate back-story related plotting (bone up on the Tri-wizard tournament, do!) and the very Rowling-esque flatfooted spelling out and repeating of moral lessons (be brave, be loyal, listen to your children).


But never mind. It’s philosophically menacing, with a  barnstorming ending and of course a happy one: it even takes us back into a sort of Harry Potter creation-myth deep in the past, involving a vaulted church and a lot of flames. Think Gotterdammerung for millennials. And for those of us who are older and more careworn, it is piquant to see Harry snowed under with paperwork he hates, and Hermione presiding over Ministry of Magic meetings as disorderly as a Labour Party NEC (“Those of you with the Dark Mark, think carefully..” etc). Not to mention the fact that the whole magical world is in crisis because “trolls are travelling towards us across Europe and werewolves have gone undercover”. How true, how very true…perhaps a Muggle electorate rashly voted Hexit…



Box office 0330 333 4813 to – well, eternity probably

rating Four    4 Meece Rating

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FRACKED Minerva, Chichester


You can trust Alistair Beaton to keep a cast learning last-minute lines. Here, just as grace-notes alongside the main theme, are jokes about Brexit , Southern Rail, and the new Foreign Secretary. His central theme, though, in this new satiri-polemico-sitcom, is the cynical, corrupt, socially divisive hypocrisies, political manoeuvring and reasonable anxieties surrounding the technology of shale gas extraction: fracking. It doesn’t quite achieve the dark brilliance of Beaton’s Blair-era “FEELGOOD”, but makes for solid and horribly instructive entertainment.



Elizabeth, played by Anne Reid, is a retired academic who is opposing fracking rigs and lorries in the fictional Fenstock. Her husband (James Bolam) gently resents the time and attention this takes from shared gardening and Scrabble: both bring their genius for combining sharp sitcom timing with real depth of personality: particularly Reid, whose journey through the play takes her from well-mannered civic indignation to a willingness for direct action. Against them stand the fracking company. The MD Michael SImkins (again, catching a sense of human depth below the absurdities) is a straightforward oilman with – a nicely credible touch – a prim reaction to the torrent of f-words habitual to the real villain: Oliver Chris as a PR man. Watching Chris’s sinuous, supersmart panther grace and nicely balanced alternation of charm and menace, one can only reflect how deep the idea of Malcolm Tucker / Alastair Campbell has sunk into modern mythology: the foul-mouthed cynical ruthless spinner as a hate figure now stands alongside the “very fat man who waters the workers’ beer”.



Alongside these players we have Andrea Hart as a fortysomething activist cougaring in a tent in Elizabeth’s garden with a Swampy-type 22 year old: a pagan vegan environmentalist with green dreadlocks. In the part Freddie Meredith – and indeed the lines he is given – seemed for a while so unconvincing that I became convinced he would turn out to be an undercover stooge of the oil company, hired to make protesters look violent and stupid rather than well-informed citizens like Elizabeth. Whether this proved right or wrong, no spoilers, the performance was too cartoonish for comfort. There are indeed several nice twists and unexpected betrayals towards the end, never mind whose.



Beaton’s researches are admirable: on the technology of fracking, carbon emissions, pollution risks, and the degree to which we may need it to stop the lights going out. It is, as I say, instructive. Maybe a touch too much so at the expense of deeper social observation: I would, for instance, have liked to see some of the neighbours who, offered the oil company’s financial sweetener, would oppose Elizabeth and Jenny and cause bitter rifts like those we are currently suffering over Brexit.




But it is an engrossing and fast-moving evening under Richard Wilson’s direction, with a neat revolving set by James Cotterill which beautifully underlines the contrast between a glassy glossy PR office and Elizabeth’s homely beamed cottage. And you know it’s the great Beaton at work when you get wonderful observations like the PR man’s habit of always asking people “How was New York?” when they’ve only been to Scunthorpe or Newark. Apparently – one horribly suspects this is true – in his world people are always so flattered that they respond as if they had indeed just flown back. That’s good.


box office 01243 781312 to 6 August
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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