FORCE MAJEURE Donmar, WC2

MIDDLECLASS MOUNTAIN MISERIES

      Inspired programming here.   You’d find a decent overlap in any January Venn diagram of regular Donmar audiences and people who wish they were ski-ing;  and on the very day M.Macron let Brits back into France,  I was admiring the little theatre’s Alpine backdrop and a white sloping stage occasionally traversed by elegant skiers in competitive-cool outfits.  Better still, Tim Price’s adaptation of Ruben Ostlund’s film features every recognizable family ski-trip trope:  knows-best Dad not yet separable from his work-phone,  dragging them all on the slopes before getting some food in them, stressed Mum,  teenage girl who would rather have gone to St Tropez,  and a tantrum-prone kid brother whining about lost goggles and wanting to FaceTime the family dog.  Meanwhile friends,  a childfree and only semi-committed couple, are ready to be drawn into emotional eddies of family life they do not yet understand.   Perfect: one’s hopes rise for a middle-class meltdown in the style of Yasmina Reza or vintage Ayckbourn.   

       It doesn’t quite happen, the script workable but not special: yet in Michael Longhurst’s elegant production, led by Rory Kinnear,   offers a lot to enjoy along the way.  The inciting incident is darkly clever, and presaged by the eerie boom of avalanche-gun explosions.    As the family finally settle in a mountaintop restaurant for lunch, one of these is followed by a wonderful deafening roar and snow-mist half obscuring the stage,  as it is clear the avalanche is heading disastrously towards them.   

         It misses, but after the chaos it becomes clear that Daddy Tomas didn’t  – gulp! –  reach for his wife and children,  but took his phone, and ran screaming.   Silence on the subject at first (wives know how to wait their time, calm the kids). But  in conversation with the friends that evening she relates it, and he does the full Boris-cum-Andrew angry male denial:  didn’t happen, can’t run in ski-boots anyway,  she must be remembering wrong…

     Consternation grips the friends,  unable to deal with it if it happened and still less able to deal with the accusation if it didn’t.  A neurotic night follows for all.   Such trips are never quite smooth anyway (“It’s a family holiday, I’m not SUPPOSED to enjoy it” barks Kinnear).   Wife wants to go straight home and “talk about all this there”, having lost faith in life, and  especially in  him.  Tomas responds with more defiance, followed by a full admission and a crazed collapse into sobbing , wailing  neurotic self-loathing  “I hate what i have become!”.  

          Which, naturally, causes his the rest of the family to embrace and care for him, so he wins anyway.   Kinnear is quite wonderful, both in his confidence and his collapse,  deftly combining  comic absurdity and precarious maleness.   Lyndsey Marshal is good as the wife,  though even in this small theatre sometimes barely audible (TV-mumble acting creeping in),  and when the emotion rises is properly impressive, a barely-restrained female frustratee we all recognize .   The other couple, Siena Kelly and Sule Rimi (a natural comic) have a glorious nocturnal sequence as he starts to panic about his own male trustworthiness.   The children are horribly credible,  and Raffello Degruttola deserves a mention as one of his almost wordless parts is Man With Vacuum Cleaner.   It gets a good laugh every time. 

       I daresay some may have left the theatre musing seriously on the toxic potential of masculine identity,  but most of us, I suspect, were just laughing and wondering if or when we shall get to see real ski-slopes again.  As I say, genius programming for winter 2022.  

box office donmarwarehouse.com   to 5 feb

rating three

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LIFE OF PI Wyndhams WC2

Puppets move the heart

      It was a third attempt ( like so many, it has had cancellations and suspensions), and I missed it in Sheffield 2019 through illness. So  I bought any ticket I could get on a free day.  Row A, bang up against the stage,  thrillingly gazing up (technically a restricted-view) at enormous orang-utans and galloping zebras inches from my nose. The  famous oversized Bengal tiger snarled personally in my face.  I had wanted to see the puppetry, of course: Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s exquisite work, with operators uncannily sensitive to animal movement and moods, does bring such joyful suspension of disbelief that on noticing that the huge tiger has three people operating it,  I found myself thinking “Well, it needs that many, to keep it under control”.  As if it was working them,  not vice versa.

Yann Martel’s odd fable is now famous from the novel, a Booker winner, and a CGI-rich film:  its hero is an Indian teenager from Pondicherry, a sensitive dreamer who embraces all religions but maintains Hindu vegetarianism and respect for life.  He is shipwrecked as his family zoo flees political trouble to safety in Canada.  Orphaned and alone  he survives months of a Pacific ordeal in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a tiger called – due to a clerical error – Richard Parker .  His story is told in vivid flashbacks in a hospital , to a flatfooted insurance-assessor (David KS Tse, beautifully fussy and finally human) and to a Canadian consul. 

      Hiran Abeysekera is a delight as the puckish Pi: childlike,  deep still in trauma in the hospital  to which we keep returning, but  at sea with the creatures able to draw on every memory of adult advice. He hallucinates his mother, teacher, sternly realistic father and one (very funny) British naval officer explaining the manual of sea- survival.  Which, not funnily at all, means the dedicated Hindu must kill a struggling turtle and feed on it alongside the tiger he has learned to dominate. It is no show for the fragile youngest.

     Directed by Lolita Chakrabati  and designed by Tim Hatley it is of course spectacular in staging,  fast-moving and engrossing and takes  every advantage of exotica  : from the zoo and the colourful Indian marketplace to the wide starry Pacific night.   But I had not expected to be so moved.  It wasn’t so much the boy’s suffering, fiercely evoked as that is, especially in the final revelation of what really happened beyond his hallucinatory story.  It was a wider shaking of the soul: an awareness of the savagery and nobility of the universe, of  creatures struggling to survive with joy and purpose against all odds under the dead cosmic shine of the stars.   And, in that curious parallel sensitivity more commonly felt in energetic musical-theatre,  it was hard not to be aware also of the skill, thought, and design, dedication and sweat of  theatremakers, players and puppeteers.  Because they too are struggling for survival now.  

       And of course  beyond that lay the very story of Pi battling alone and homesick and half dead, grieving mutilated animals and lost family, bargaining with the remorseless tiger.  Hard not to think of the young in even smaller boats today in Mediterranean and Channel, survivors often of tigerish humanity. So yes, emotional. 

        Yann Martel would probably approve.  The novelist, whose book was so eccentric and unfashionable that many publishers turned it down ,  said once that the story was  summarized in three statements: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; and “A story with God is the better story”

Box office delfontmackintosh.co.uk       To. 29 may

Rating four

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FOLK Hampstead Theatre, NW3

SONGS FROM THE LAND

      There’s a lovely serendipity here.  The main theatre is running PEGGY FOR YOU  (till 29th)  while the little downstairs space has Nell Leyshon’s rather lovely new play imagining Cecil Sharp collecting folk-songs in Somerset.   Both are about mentor-midwives to artists,  and artists who in return may be both appreciative and resentful.   Upstairs there’s Peggy Ramsay, not herself a creative but a devoted playwrights’ agent;   downstairs there’s an Edwardian musicologist,  wishing he was a better composer himself  as he collects and rearranges “the true song of England” from rustics. 

       Sharp felt that England had since Purcell’s day fallen behind the Germans, who insultingly called us “das land ohne musik” (land without music).   Explaining himself to the cottager-maidservant Louisa Hooper he fulminates “Scotland has her songs. Ireland has nothing but song. Wales even has songs!  But England…” . 

        “They’re wrong”  says Louie boldly. “We got songs”.   And that’s the answer Sharp has come for:  something he sees as pure and English “before the machines take over and before it all goes”.   She sings to him,  one of the hundreds of songs she got from her newly dead mother.  And yes, the hairs stand up on your neck,   especially if you recognize “Lord Randal”. Because it’s  best known as an Anglo-Scottish border ballad,  and then as a borrowing by Bob Dylan.  That’s a clever choice, since it reminds us early on that for all Sharp’s anxieties about Englishness the magical thing is  the glorious, wandering, gipsy freedom of all these songs. They cross borders and oceans.   He was right to collect them in versions passed by voice and ear, to cherish and write them down as black-dots on staves.  But he was  wrong, some say, to take lordly ownership of the old songs, to fossilize and rearrange them for trained metropolitan concert artists. That argument still goes on in your local folk club.  It needs to. 

          Joyfully,  Nell Leyshon’s artful script takes in these divisive perspectives on the legacy Cecil Sharp as Louie Hooper, the poor cottage outworker with hands sore from glove-making,  repeatedly pulls him up short.  First when – though astonished  and thrilled by  her first hearing of the vicar’s “pianoforte” –  she asks incredulously   “Can you have a JOB doing music?”.    Later she spurns his arrangement of one of the songs she has sung him  with   “I can’t hear my mother. It’s rigid, it’s tidy, there’s nothing of the wild”.   And again “You pin it down so tight!”.  “I tidied it”  he protests, a bit hurt at her lack of admiration.  Scornful looks.   This is no malleable figure for a Pygmalion:  Louie knows who she is, what her home is, and the value of the deep untidy belly-feelings her mother’s songs evoke. 

      Sharp admits that her illiteracy has been his gain, because  “if you could write you wouldn’t remember so many songs”.    Subversively,  though, this daughter of the years  before free elementary education teaches him how to sing a whole scene properly, the old way,  moving your heart from field to field and flower to flower:  he stands abashed.   But he knows and we know, that a new century is breaking,  and life  must and will change.  Louie knows it too,  rejecting sentimental fossilization of songs and ideas.   “Nothing stands still” she says flatly.  The changing countryside, the very drainage scheme of the Somerset Levels, has taught her that. 

         The songs Leyshon uses – heartbreaking, familiar now,  with their trees that grow high and grass that grows green, sad graves and loves lost and maidens chased into the bushes – were collected from various people  including the real and well-documented Louisa Hooper.  But there’s a truthful dramatic core to the whole venture in the play’s narrow focus:  an imaginative light shone on this warily friendly relationship between a slightly arrogant musical academic and a cottage girl who sings from heart and memory and love. 

     Mariam Haque is a wonderfully moving Louie,  bringing the part shyness and defiance,  a noble straightforwardness both in song and argument.    Simon Robson catches the way Sharp’s academic arrogance is softened by a real hunger for human understanding which enabled him to listen properly to the peasant or gipsy voices his class often ignored.    Louie’s half-sister Lucy, sometimes singing alongside her and  suffering her own loss of love is Sasha Frost,  vigorously down-to-earth in contrast.   Ben Allen’s restless rustic John,  keen to escape the stinking leatherworks for a life in Canada, completes the foursome.

      The set is simple, cottage to vicarage marked  by lights rising gently on tapestries and piano as the women’s workstations are spirited away.  Roxana Silbert’s direction is gentle, unhurried, respectful.  As indeed it was in RAYA,  another recent jewel in Hampstead’s downstairs.  Come to think of it, it’s the third in a row under this Artistic Director which has made it sing to the heart ;   there was also Tom Wells’ BIG BIG SKY.  Tiny no-tech space , three new plays mid-pandemic, new shakings of the heart and thoughts for the head.   Respect.  Get this play on the road this spring, someone.

box office www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to 5 Feb.   

rating four 

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THE SECOND PLAGUE YEAR: 2021 REMEMBERED

PLAGUE YEAR Part 2  –   2021

 Below, if you care to scroll ,  I chronicled the shows that met my return from chemo-then-lockdown in 2020.   An enfeebled theatrical year.   Today a longer list and reflection pays tribute to 2021,  and tributes are deserved.   In  the months from May to December it was, once again, possible to see live shows and review them in London and across the country :  for me Birmingham, Sonning,  Lowestoft, Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester, Northampton and elsewhere.

      Audiences came back, often surprising wary producers with their enthusiasm.  Some were, and still are, nervous of  the illness itself, and certainly of the danger of a pinged issolation.  The Omicron variant, easy to catch and often slight, has closed a lot of shows and suspended others, which is economically a disaster.  But theatre has rolled on, brave and risky and loyal to itself and its people.   And  despite  repeatedly joining  masked, unmasked and half-masked audiences  and travelling by train and tube and bus,  I have to say I didn’t catch it.  Ventilation and care kept us safe.  What felled me in the end was just a social yacht-club dinner in Essex, with its accompanying stand-and-shout cocktail bit in a lousy acoustic. 

    On the whole, I was safest in theatres…

    So here are the figures.  Saw 60 shows during the year, two of them twice.   Paid own ticket for 26 of them rather than accept press seats, given the financial peril they face.  19 were revivals  in fresh productions;  nine were ongoing “returners”  from before the pandemic like Come from Away and SIx.  But a stonking 30 – half the total – were brand new!    To them goes  a particular congratulation.  

   REVIVALS in new production:

  A glorious Peggy For You at Hampstead is the most recent,  welcome back after years with Tamsin Greig note-perfect.  Shakespeare was served well, terrifyingly well,  in the Almeida’s Macbeth;  and  on a tinier scale the Jermyn’s Tempest was fascinating, sparking new thoughts about the play despite its apparent classicism.   Also there, it was a revelation to see Ayckbourn’s familiar Relatively Speaking at cosy close-quarters, as if you were in their front garden. 

        Oleanna at the Arts was as startling as ever in a year of cancellations and MeToo scandals;  Straight White Men was an  intriguing oddity at the Southwark,  new to the UK;  also new imports were Indecent, a remarkable evening at the Menier,  and the very peculiar, but gripping, White Noise at the Bridge.  

         To see Private Lives on tour, performed cheekily by two septuagenarians gave the bickering a surprisingly new feeling. As the NT, finally creaked back to life,  the Normal Heart was a period-piece of interest, and  Under Milk Wood was movingly  – and topically – set in a care home. 

         Other revival memories cluster around the big musicals:  Anything Goes, now streaming on BBCiPlayer, with the unbelievable Sutton Foster tapping like a fiend and singing like an angel.   Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning was my introduction to that unusual and glorious building.  And the return of Singing in the Rain had a particular poignancy, unintended, when we heard that that remarkable Adam Cooper had, during lockdowns, actually been reduced to Universal Credit and trying to get van driving jobs.  

and so to the new ones….new shows, born in adversity

  NEW-FLEDGED HEROES

  What can I say, beyond expressing awe?  That new work flourished and was put out there,  always at risk of sudden closure in pingdemic or government diktat,  is a tribute to the art and the people who practise it, onstage and off and crossing their fingers and praying in the back office.   

    We have rounded the year with James Graham’s Best of Enemies (about to start streaming from the 22nd, well worth it if you didn’t get in).  There was the pubby, riotous Wife of Willesden reaching out to Kilburn through Chaucer;  among the big shows  there was Lloyd-Webber’s long awaited and impressively rotating Cinderella,   and Frozen for the kids,  howing “Let it go!” in extraordinary icescapes.  There was a lovely, touching, funny  Bach and Sons at the Bridge, out of which we drifted dreamily on opening night to find ourselves in the middle of a raucous festival of football in the park outside.  I immediately bought tickets to go back again, with my husband; whereon it closed;  so I went later still with a friend.

       The third part of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell epic, The Mirror and the Light,  opened for less time than it should have;  nor was it quite as good as the  first two Mike Poulton adaptations, which shows you can’t always trust a novelist to make theatre come to life.    Manor, at the NT,  got monstered good and proper by all the critics except me because to be honest I rather enjoyed the quite broad acting, the scenery, and the sense of a gallant attempt to squash together a number of fashionable issues and not quite getting there.   It was genuinely not as bad as a lot of critics joyfully said….

      Whereas Rockets and Blue Lights, in the Dorfman, was really awful, and pretentious with it.  But I bought a ticket and gave it a chance.  And refrained from writing about it because I don’t drown kittens.   

      I never got to Yorkshire this year,  but some new plays demand urgently to  be seen if you can get there at all, and Northampton has weighed in brilliantly with Gin Craze:  depicting an 18c rather different to the  Jacob Rees-Mogg ideal.  The brand new musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks flew round the country, and was unpretentious, ingenious fun.  Down at Greenwich  Into Battle was a debut play, a labour of love throwing fascinating light on the WW1 generation of posh wasters who finally gave their all in the trenches.  At the Bridge,  the doughty atheist Pullman had his Book of Dust and the Herodish pursuit of a sacred baby  brought to life by Nicholas Hytner and the best ever projections creating rivers at our feet.   Ralph Fiennes pinned us to our seats with philosophical, spiritual intensity in his rendering of the Four Quartets.  

       Tiny houses sprouted demotic, quirky small plays:  Ipswich taxi-drivers were depicted in Our White Skoda Octavia,   Bobby and Amy recreated an earlier terrible epidemic in Lowestoft community theatre;   a ridiculous but gripping OPeration Mincemeat hit the dear Southwark (which later opened, and had to close,  Rhythmics, a mini musical which will definitely be back.)    The Park Theatre offered a first rough showing of the rock musical Tony Blair,  courtesy of Harry Hill.  And downstairs at Hampstead  there was Raya,  a remarkable tight little play, and Tom Wells back with Big Big Sky, as moving and real an evocation of his (and my) east coast than  ever.  

       Pride and Prejudice sort-of   was more than a sort-of delight,  and kept its tickets reasonable, unlike many West End houses.   The absence of the horrible crass racist Book of Mormon left space open for the gloriously cheeky  Windsors,  with Harry Enfield and the wittiest curtain-call ever (we had to stand and bow to the cast instead, while they just waved).  Arthur Smith roamed the land remembering his Dad  in Syd, and we found him in Colchester;  the Grenfell Inquiry and the  shocking shortcomings of “Value engineering” came to the  stage under the aegis of Nicholas Kent, master of important verbatim.   

         So there was old and new, reinterpreting and inventing,  playing and creating and believing and hoping and watching and moving hearts.  Theatre rose again. As I write, it is in danger still.  Support it, celebrate it,  let it shine. 


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REVIEW OF TWO PLAGUE YEARS,    2020-2021 Part 1

PART 1: THE ONSET

    I set out,  in this eerie Twixtmas gap,  to chronicle and celebrate the return of live theatre since May 2021.  And this will follow.  But when I totted up the 2021 score – sixty theatre nights,  30 being completely new  plays and 19 brand-new productions – it seemed to me only decent to pause, look back at the year before, and remember first how sad, how scrimpingly poor was live theatre after I returned to it in March 2020 after six months’ sequestration on chemotherapy.  The last treatment coincided with Day 1 of lockdown.   The frustration was proportionally greater…

           Theatrecat, for reasons of private principle, did not review ‘streamed’ shows,  bar one particularly valiant local effort, because it felt wrong to approach them in the same way one does after a journey to a theatre, sharing the same air as the players.    So there are gaps in this site:    t was September  before things flared into brief brave life.

          Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS at the Bridge, recreated the TV versions under Hytner and it turned out true that  one found new things and fresh nuances in seeing them live.  

  “..Amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic:   pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter…performers definitely made the most of that,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there”.

    There too in the weirdly social-distanced clumps of chairs I saw Ralph Fiennes do  David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL,  all about how Hare got Covid and it was basically all Boris Johnson’s fault.   And then – just before the iron fist of restriction closed it – there was A CHRISTMAS CAROL with the peerless Simon Russell Beale and sparky Patsy Ferran.   The joy of that – with a cast of three and careful budget – was that it took advantage to be text-heavy, DIckensian. By doing that it brought back 

  ‘“ some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street”.    

    I notice that I also wrote about SRB as Scrooge that:

    “…when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and  despised,  his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear”

     OK,  but spare my blushes. It was a bit emotional, getting back to theatre after even longer than everyone else.  A bit much, though.  

          Meanwhile other brave theatres struggled through, determined. Even with new work:  HOWERD’S END at the Golden Goose in Camberwell paid tribute to Frankie Howerd in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander.

“…[Howerd] fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way.   It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit:  tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.

      But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay  in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp  but abhorred the reality of same-sex love.  And, as in Howerd’s case,  drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims.  He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner”.   

      That was moving, interesting, good pub-theatre.  More purely entertaining was LONE FLYER at the Watermill, a tribute to Amy Johnson by Ade Morris.  And a fresh new musical,  THE LAST FIVE YEARS,  surfaced at the gallant Southwark Playhouse .   I liked it a lot and am glad it has returned in 2021 up West. 

         But the shades of night were creeping on us, the curtains falling.   Another Christmas Carol at Bury St Edmunds was outdoors, freezing cold,  with a cast of six plus a stilt-walking ghost  Hi-vis jacketed ushers,  distancing by traffic cones, all in headphones, in front of the Angel hotel in the square.  Back in London, .  POTTED PANTO opened in the daytime West End  and I noted that Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner had 

“ actually polished it up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing.  Nor is there any truth in the  rumour that panto  whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like.   There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying –  given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away”.   

 The final outing was to the Palladium and PANTOLAND,  much the same core of Wilmont, Zerdin, Havers and Clary as returned this year, with some of the same jokes.  Not complaining. Cheered us up no end in that dangerous December,  when lockdown loomed again.    I called it “a proper, silly, defiant  showbiz shot in the arm. “  And did wonder whether the royal children a few days earlier had been spared some of the broader trouser-related Clary jokes.  

         Probably not.  Anyway, it closed the day after we saw it, and the desert loomed again, for many months…. 

      Tomorrow I shall post up Part 2:  a celebration of theatre’s return to life in 

2021.   Meanwhile, as ever, all reviews are scrollable-searchable on this site for the record.

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PEGGY FOR YOU Hampstead Theatre NW3

A SHARP , SERPENTINE, SUPERB PERFORMANCE

     

    Lounging in the small hours on her office couch, under a wall of posters for her many clients’ shows – both famous and forgotten –  Peggy is fresh back from bailing out a client. Police stations, she finds, are interesting: everyone should go.  A script falls from her hands as she seizes another.  “Wonderfully written.  That’s really the problem”.  On her (bare) feet again she is soon batting off those who want her beloved clients to “whore” for Hollywood for not enough money.   “You have reached new levels of impertinence even for an American..discuss it with your fellow-pimps”. Assistant Tessa arrives,  to take down a sharp note to  “that ghastly bishop … sent me his play, retyped the title, pretends he has rewritten it’ .  There’s been a bit of confusion with the wrong cheques sent to her two Yorkshire Alans, Ayckbourn  and Plater.  She assumes they live close, Hull and Scarborough, surely virtually next door…?

     It is Hull-Alan (Plater !) who wrote this 1999 play about tPeggy Ramsay, midwife and defender of  the 20th century’s best playwrights .  Scarborough-Alan,  on first reading it,  said it gave so much about the nuts and bolts it was like inviting the critics in your bedroom.    Well, if you love plays,   this is an invitation not to miss: pile in!     Tamsin Greig, elegant as an anaconda and just as ruthless, is in herself a serious treat;   and Plater ensures both comedy and important hard-kernel ideas in her interactions with the longsuffering secretary (Danusia Samal) and three playwright clients – imaginary, but based on himself and memory of others.   The first is Simon,  Josh Finan as a gauche 21-year-old with a winning mixture of shyness and the headlong artistic self-confidence that not only sends her his play “Shades of Nothingness” but demands she come and see a scratch pub performance that very night.  She agrees, shrugging off the National Theatre’s new Uncle Vanya, on the grounds she knows the play so well she could virtually sing along.  And,  with a lovely barb, that such events tend to “put fifty thousand poundsworth of scenery between the audience and the play”, and that young directors should be kept away from “concepts”.  Glorious. 

          Any play about a real person must be, she once said, a pack of lies; but these lies are memories, appreciations, gamey flavours for which her shade should be grateful to Plater.  Not only for the reminiscences which must be real; Orson Welles eating all the biscuits, Ionesco making passionate love and taking passionate offence, Sam Beckett in Paris “two streets away from my abortionist”. 

         The second playwright is Philip, a smooth Jos Vantyler as a client at the golden-boy stage:  on Broadway and the West End, taking her to lunch, announcing his engagement.  She treats him no better or worse than young Simon.   Since the latter has asked the rare and tricky question “What IS a play?” she faces him with it, and gets some artsy clichés – “A celebration of our humanity. A message to the future..” etc.  But the best answer came earlier , as she mused about the Humber bridge:  you set out in the fog not knowing where it leads, then the mists clear and you have arrived somewhere.  That stops the heart; so does an extraordinary moment when she quotes Henry IV part 2  and the rejection of Falstaff “I know thee not, old man”. 

          That’s artful.  It prefigures the hard core of the play. For the first half,  I worried it might be just an entertaining tribute-band to Peggy and her era, darlings all the way.   But the third client is Trevor Fox hard-bitten, Geordie, fed up with her, giving his notice, refusing to be dazzled by her  whimsical distractions.   He is the only one to silence her, with a devastating “I wasn’t mad about the real Lucille Ball”  so why a “cheap imitation”?  He is angry at her assumption (clear in her dealings with the engaged Philip) that life has to be lived chaotically if there is to be art.  

           The mist is clearing, we are nearing the revelation at the end of the bridge.  For all the darlings and wit,  we need to see (and love, and forgive for art’s sake) the vital splinter of ice in her heart.   Calls from newspapers tell of another client’s drunken suicide,  and Tessa, genuinely upset,  is told to negotiate fees for obituaries by fellow clients.   Peggy  just says the man had stopped writing. She doesn’t care. “I don’t respect writers, I respect their work”.   Asks Henry about the obit and when he rasps “I don’t dance on graves for money” she replies “No point doing it for fun”. 

      But an apologia saves her for our exasperated, impressed love.   Roaming the cluttered shelves of plays she points out that her mind is full, constantly full, of every kind of drama –  new takes on Romeo and Juliet, rites of passage,  “two psychiatrists going mad in adjacent rooms, Casanova Meets The Government Inspector, set in Woking..”.

     Oh yes. Think I’ve seen most of them.   All honour to those who write plays and fund them, but to those who find, encourage, defend and sell them a special tribute is also owed.  This, I think, is it.   Loved every minute. 

box office  hampsteadtheatre.com   to 29 Jan

rating four 

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PANTOLAND mk2 Palladium, W1

A PRIMA DONNY JOINS THE FEARLESS FOUR

 

  Last year as a family we came to see the doughty quartet doing this variety show, an adult-joking  non-panto to fill the fearful gap.  It was the day after the royal children had been there.    Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot, Julian Clary and NIgel Havers, alongside Jac Yarrow and – that year- Elaine Paige and Beverley Knight.  Foolery, top ventriloquism from Zerdin, the Underground-stations song from Wilmot, big musical numbers filling in time, routine persecution of Havers as “underpaid minion”, and innumerable trouser-related jokes from Clary. 

          The next day, they closed for lockdown 2, haemhorraging money and hope.  So it became a golden memory of a gallant attempt,  light-theatre’s answer to the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

        So,  when my Life of Pi matinee was taken off for Covid,  I found the cheapest seat in the house – £25,  a marooned single in the stalls, not bad, always worth looking for singles – and joined a riotously determined queue down Argyll Street to get in to the 2.30 and report.

      Well, some of the jokes are recycled, as well they should be:  the Covid ones to a masked audience  still relevant (“looks like the invasion of the J-cloths”) though I didn’t hear my favourite one from last year, when Zerdin’s puppet leered to a woman in the front row ‘get your nose out for the lads!”.   One excellent new one (sorry, trouser-gay related again, that’s Clary for you) was the frou-frou MC saying he called Andrew Lloyd Webber and was told he was busy, “I’ve got Chris Whitty on my back…So I said Andrew, if that’s what it takes..”.

        The big turns are similar, though the Tiller Girls were a surprise. And, of course the outsider headliner was Donny Osmond.  I hadn’t noticed that on the poster,  so at last the shrieks of middle-aged ladies in that street queue made sense.  From inside an enormous mad blue kaftan and cloak he  howls out a specially written and truly atrocious opening number about how Pantoland “makes you who you are” or something,  and later does a rather fine mashup of Crazy Horses and a well-taken-up singalong of Love Me For A Reason. 

       Oh, and a duet with Clary,  whose shtick, as with Zerdin’s puppet duet last year with Knight, is sending up the song line by line.  I could have done with a touch less Donny,  but he was game, and it was fun, and all the acts – especially Zerdin – are top class. And the costumes, especially Clary’s, are quite wonderfully silly.   Oh, and of course there’s the pleasure of Nigel Havers,  who gets wild cheering whenever he comes on ever since his Coronation Street cad-with-a-finally-golden-heart affair with Audrey Roberts the septuagenarian hairdresser.   All respect to him at 71, leaping round the stage in a Buttons uniform or giant pudding;  in this break he’s actually halfway through a national tour of Private Lives (scroll down for theatrecat verdict).  

        And Nigel it is who gets to make the joke about a cheese and wine party with Boris. I hope by tonight they’re doing the new-baby jokes, and the fancy-wallpaper jokes.  The government owes us that.

      Inappropriate to rate it. But it’s a laugh, and it’s back, and the Palladium should always be packed in the Christmas season, for that is its nature.   Hope it stays that way.   

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BEST OF ENEMIES Young Vic SE1

1968 AND ALL THAT 

James Graham’s mission might seem unfashionable: trawling 20c history and public culture, looking not for villains and heroes but for the nuances of human behaviour,  the nature of argument and the futility of hating or “cancelling” an opponent rather than listening, and valuing the fact that they are fallible human beings shaped by idiosyncratic forces and habits of thought, just like  you. He did it with MPs, with Labour loyalists, with tabloid hacks and the very Murdoch himself; he did it with  possibly-cheating quiz contestants and their TV exploiters.  He bends his eye on them, recreates, wonders, tries to understand,  and without unsubtly banging the drum delivers lessons for today.  

      This time he is in the US, and  the famous debates between the extreme right-wing, patriotism-and-family, traditionalist William F Buckley Jr and the maverick cosmopolitan controversialist Gore Vidal, friend of Kennedys. They were recruited by the failing TV network ABC, whose ratings panic is very funnily evoked as they disguise it with flapdoodle about “elevating public discourse”.The idea is that the men should comment, from their different sides, on a series of election-year conventions.  In other words, entertain the nation by tearing lumps off each other in a style now common but then considered odd.  “Opinions?” Cries an old-school presenter “The News does facts!”  Ah, the old days.  (Another interesting prefiguration of the future, by the way, is when Justina Kehinde as Aretha Franklin torch-songs her way through the Star-spangled banner and some are appalled: today in the US  that showbizzation of the national anthem is a norm, but makes me grateful to think how rarely we do it. The only big example was Brian May twanging it on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Golden Jubilee..)

       Anyway:  Charles Edwards is a superb Gore Vidal,  his elegant lightness evoking the still-young controversialist who knew that you should “never refuse sex or a chance to be on TV”,  who got teasing fun out of calling Buckley “Billy”, but who after the brutally suppressed Chicago demonstrations is  genuinely shaken and afraid for what is happening to America.  Buckley, in a brilliant stroke of casting, is played by David Harewood.   The real right-wing bruiser was no respecter of people of colour, of course, so that might seem odd, excellent though the actor is:  but in the event there’s an interesting bite when in this very diverse South London theatre you have Harewood – who is black – eloquently condemning the liberal elite for self-indulgence and a lack of contact with ordinary working people.  

     Around the debates and tactical plotting scenes, up pop figures from Mayor Daley to James Baldwin, Enoch Powell to Tariq Ali;  between scenes, surges of demonstrators rush through the central arena with smoke and placards and racket (Director Jeremy Herrin is a master of keeping clarity and pace through quick-move, filmic fragments).  A flash-forward at the start keeps you aware we are building up to the explosive moment when Vidal calls Buckley (who had served, albeit Stateside, in WW2),  a “crypto-Nazi” whereon Buckley calls him a queer and threatens to sock him in the face.  At the start we had seen the TV executives horrified (“Sponsors? never mind that, my MOTHER  rang!”) . But in the reprise at the end they realize with delight how it has pushed up the ratings. Thus beautifully making Graham’s point that media behaviour has now driven us farther and deeper into this kind of ad-hominem poverty of constructive argument. 

    It’s an entertaining, instructive, questioning, honest play, with a downbeat and  moving end as the two men might speak after their death.  If like me you came of age in 1968,  shaken at the assassinations of Luther King and Robert Kennedy, arguing with your Dad about Vietnam and horrified at  Powell, then seeing it recreated is obviously catnip: student demos both sides of the Atlantic, hippies, an absurd flop-haired wimpy Andy Warhol.  But to newer generations would all this, I wondered, seem like just a history play?.  I think not.   In the interval I got talking to a young neighbour (the Young Vic atmosphere is always like that) and he was as engrossed as I was, and observed with sad wisdom,   “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”.   

Box office youngvic.org to 22 Jan

Rating four

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THE BOOK OF DUST Bridge, SE1

PULLING OUT THE STOPS FOR PULLMAN

    First things first: this is the most wonderfully evocative, romantic and dramatic bit of set-projection you will see all year. Bob Crowley, video maestros Luke Halls and Zak Hein, Jon Clark on lighting, take a collective bow.  They write with light. So on a rippling river sweet-flowing  or tempestuous, through a branchy,  steepled and Prioried Oxfordshire, two children pilot a birchbark canoe on a desperate mission to save a baby.  And we believe.      Ashore, cobbles or grassland, a college quadrangle and the Trout pub at Godstow effortlessly rise around them.  

     It is, ironically, more of a staging coup than all the rather annoying lit-up chatty “daemons” which express each  characters’  essential Id in the hands of scampering puppeteers. Though I do very much like the worst villain’s hyaena , with its papery head and nervous laugh. 

      For this is Philip Pullman’s fantasy parallel world again:  after the triumphant Dark Materials trilogy a few years back at the NT, Nicholas Hytner (and ace adaptor Bryony Lavery) have got their hands on the first bit of the  “prequel” story of the heroine Lyra’s birth. The  dread Magisterium – a sort of 15c Catholic police state, familiar from Pullman’s  rather dated paranoia about organized religion in the later episodes – wants to destroy her. 

       You might, in a woefully uncharitable spirit, wonder why a writer so repeatedly and  Dawkinsly passionate against Christianity’s stories would write a fable about – er – a sacred baby who according to a “prophecy” is born to save the world from cruelty , and who is pursued by Herodish authority and spies. And wonder also why a writer who inveighs against CS Lewis’ Narnia would populate his river with similar old gods and witches , and give everyone a talking animal as a daemon. Even if he does add woo-woo scientific stuff about matter having  consciousness and a scholarly divining device called an alethiometer (Lewis had mere old fashioned wands etc, clearly not hanging out with as many physicists and cell biologists as his humanist Oxford heir). 

    But never mind all that. It’s a kids’ book, a love song to Oxfordshire and  a grand bit of storytelling in this skilful ,fast-moving and visually beautiful production     Its hero is a young find too: Samuel Creasey, on his first professional show, leads with charming, stolidly nerdy brio as Malcolm, the pub landlady’s 12 year old son and potboy, full of heart and adolescent decency, drawn into a dangerous world as the icy grip of totalitarian prelates intensifies. Ella Dacres’ Alice  is great too: shoutily fifteen, angry and contemptuous of Malcolm  until in the timeworn tradition of older children’s books they become friends in adversity.  

      It’s lovely casting, and as chief enemy and sanctimonious preacher Ayesha Darker also does a fine spike-heeled ,smart-suited nightmare CEO-lady; Pip Carter is a villainous villain, with all the unsettling sadistic sexual menace Mr Pullman likes to add.  Dearbhla Molloy as a kindly nun, and later an equally Irish Doris in a rebel camp, effortlessly steals every scene she is in. 

      So did  the first-night baby, who while sometimes prudently replaced by a dummy and sound effect is often on,  smiley and self- possessed and drawing aaahhhs and sighs from the audience which palpably hopes for another look. Even when supposed to be paying attention to mad stuff about the consciousness of matter, dons upset about research funding,  or who’s got the  missing alethiometer.  

     So Hytner and the brave Bridge have thrown genius at it, a big show in an edgy time, and as there are two more episodes to come Mr Pullman would do well to confide them to this crack team of interpreters. Because (how did you guess?) I found  the books far leas then gripping, never could finish one for mere irrritation at not buying into the fantasy, but I rather enjoyed the show. Result.

Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk to 12 feb

rating four but the fourth is a design mouse


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THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE Birmingham Rep

A REVIVING REVIVAL

     Do you need to be of a generation to remember Morecambe and Wise, to which this play is a loving tribute-cum-amiable-ripoff?  Probably not. They are stamped on the national memory, probably genetically.  And anyway, there is universality  in the  idea of pretension overreaching itself in “the serious thea-tah”,  and even more in a comedy duo in which the straight man yearns to go legit with a  serious play and is conned by his larkier collaborator into thinking he has a contract.  

     The central pair do not attempt to be lookalikes,  but to channel the essence of our heroes.  Dennis Herdman is  taller, gangling, physically hilarious;  Thom Tuck smaller, neat, fussy, with a bit of a strut and a nice  edge of uncertainty.  At one point they actually quarrel over who will be the funny one with the black-rimmed glasses, but we know really, and so do they…. and there’s a real edge of pathos in that. Brilliant. Mitesh Soni is the butt of both, a theatre electrician persuaded into various undignified roles (notably a ginger Scarlett Johannson with knickers showing) when what he really  wants is to play a harmonica solo in memory of his mother.  That gives it an element not in the original shows, and helps it move away from tribute-band territory.  

     This production has a tour coming, but for me was worth a pilgrimage both to a notable revival and to the shrines of various comedy gods: not only Sean Foley who co-wrote it twenty years ago and now directs it for the first time in his new job as AD of Birmingham Rep;  and also (since nobody ever mentions them much) the producer and lover of all thing funny David Pugh, who is actually an character in it.  The hapless Arthur has to impersonate  him:  Soni plaintively Brummie, small and camp in a white suit and baker-boy cap.

     The great thing about  Foley is that as director , writer and sometimes performer he has happily spanned the breadth of comedy from drily intellectual all the way to the end of the pier, and off it with a resounding splash.   No awful pun, no repeated fall off a wall,  no ridiculous prop or set detail is too broad: designer Alice Power, take a bow and join the comedy gods.   We sort of expected the talking skeleton, but not the entire row of dancing ones, the dungeon rack and jenga moment, the inflatable towering  palms, giant breadstick or enormous curtain- dog. Thank you.  

     The Morecambe and Wise echoes, even apart from deathless Braben jokes like the ice cream van, are done with love and delight: Arsenal, “Rubbish!”, the odd cheek-slap,  the curtain gags and of course the breezy contempt for the guest-star dragged in to the eventual play.  Who was, on this opening night, Tom Hiddleston.   Not being a follower of the Marvel franchise in which he is Loki the horned god of mischief, I still thought of him mainly as either the Night Manager of the Olivier-winning Coriolanus (and yes, there’s a joke on those last syllables, as there should be. Never waste a rudery, it’s panto time).   Longtime fans of the play reckon it is always best if the guest star (they’ve ranged from Jeff Goldblum to Geldof)  isn’t a comic, and that if a classical actor they should mercilessly send up the fact.   Hiddleston is perfect,  pompously announcing that he ‘does his own stunts’ and demonstrating a school-gym forward roll before struggling, with classically-trained pain, to make  Thom’s subliterate lines work.  His “I am Loki” is met by Dennis with a sigh of ‘Mm.You’re pretty high maintenance tonight, love”.  He isn’t. Hiddleston must do more straight-man comedy. 

    There are plenty of surprise jokes which, amid the general merriment, stick out as memorable.    Birmingham should be especially grateful for one new word.    Thom Tuck’s lone plaint when he tries to leave the act is dubbed a “Solihulloquy”.  Now that’s  a word which just has to stick.  

Box office birmingham-rep.co.uk. To 1 Jan

Touring on until March.  –    Bath, Salford, Chichester, Malvern, Sheffield

Rating. Four 

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THE TEMPEST           Jermyn St Theatre SW1

ISLAND OF WONDER AND UNEASE

     

  One of the interesting, rewarding quirks in Tom Littler’s small-but-perfectly-formed Tempest is that Tam Williams doubles as Ferdinand, the ultra-virtuous shipwrecked Prince,  and  as a particularly farouche barebreasted Caliban — unrecognisable in a ragged white whole-head mask. Which is great for Williams, since Ferdinand is quite a dull part and Littler has, interestingly, directed Caliban as not only savage  and resentfully dangerous but a creature existing in real and constant pain, fear and confusion. When Stephano the sottish butler gives him a drink, one is rather pleased for the poor monster.  Given that Caliban is nowadays a problematic part  – an indigenous islander taught and harshly disciplined by Prospero – this is extraordinarily effective, and Williams’ writhing rage  gives it disconcerting reality. When Rachel Pickup’s splendidly vigorous Miranda confronts him over his rape attempt, the brief scene flies.

     The other doublings are neat, and the “clown” parts in particular work well: Peter Bramhill a Yorkshire Trinculo, Richard Derrington a bowler hatted and I think Welsh butler.  Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel is a Gauguin beauty, melodic, engaging, and again interestingly not (like some Ariels) cocky, but so cowed and eager to please that there is a nice edge of colonial unease there. “”Do you love me, master? No?”.  

       And as for Prospero himself, in this production which was a triumph of casting and hope before the pandemic hit it after six shows, he is no less than Michael Pennington. And classy as ever, despite the oddity that he is “on the book”, reading from it throughout. Which obviously reduces his eye contact with usand his physical moves. I was disconcerted by this aat first, but closing my eyes for a moment or two when he was alone onstage realized it didn’t matter:  I was beguiled by his impeccable, deep-felt RSC delivery and thought it rather increased the dreamlike oddity of the whole play (the shipwrecked party are all in pajamas or dressing gowns).  After all,  Prospero speaks constantly of depending on his books, of learning, of his library (nicely evoked by sea-wave curved shelves in his cell). Maybe he is reading us the story, and we are children, captives of a fantasy.

       It’s odd, and I’d like one day to see him an upright and authoritative Prospero, more dominant, thundering. But it’s a play I have loved all my life, and this bijou, quirky production has made me see new things in it. Result. 

BOX OFFICE  jermynstreettheatre.co.uk    to  22 Dec

rating four

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FOUR QUARTETS Harold Pinter Theatre

GLIMPSES OF ETERNITY 

(Review first published on D.Mail, in shorter form)

       This is wonderful. Sometimes a simple short  performance can shake, rouse, even change you.  So step away, I beg you, from the mundane rush of earning and spending, leave the gaudy Christmas streets and the scrolling, nagging screens. Sit quiet for 75 minutes while a tall, high-browed, slightly haggard man reflects on time, eternity,  mortality. Feel with him the “still centre of the turning world”, the piercing wonder  of those moments when suddenly something immense  fills you,  then slips away, uncatchable. 

   TS Eliot write these four long poems in the 30s and 40s: they are not easy, but their music and images have great power. Ralph Fiennes spent the two long lockdowns learning them by heart: he had recorded them before, but wanted to get closer to Eliot’s religious and philosophical vision. It feels, in this performance, that he did: reaching out (though no human ever quite grasps it) for the meaning of those moments of eternity.   They might come in a silent rose-garden, beside a crashing sea, in distant voices of children , or  fire-watching by night in the Blitz (as Eliot himaself did).  

     Fiennes learned the poems in two sessions – pausing between lockdowns to perform David Hare’s grumpy monologue BEAT THE DEVIL , which is about how Hare caught Covid and it was all somehow Boris Johnson’s fault). As he did, it came to him while the lockdowns made time seem to squeeze or stretch for everyone, and mortality brushed closer,    that the four might be performed physically. That somehow it might serve us all. He toured it first, exhaustively, without the high high prices of the West End. The idea of personal performance, directed by himself though without vanity I think, was genius: because we are carried along by his physical presence and his moves – sometimes dramatic, sometimes almost playful. It is set on a simple stage with great revolving grey walls: dark spaces open and close as he wanders between them,  sometimes pushing one to create a different space and perspective. The meditation moves from exaltation to despair, even amusement. Eliot is sometimes  lyrically beautiful, often learned, but also suddenly stops to consider his own baffled inability to express what he glimpses. Fiennes makes good use of this, sometimes seeming to appeal to us, sometimes alone deep in meditation. That long tour of this extraordinary show for months may have given it still more depth. It is worth drowning in. 

RATING 5.

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COME FROM AWAY   Phoenix WC1    REPRISE 

worth going again I say.. 

Just thought I should mention to theatrecat readers how wonderful this show it.  Saw it twice before the pandemic, nipped back to a matinee a week or so back.  To see if the human magic of it still holds.  It does

   It tells, with so gas and fiddles and stamping Celtic-Canadian vigour, the heartfelt and heartening true story of how the population of Gander in Newfoundland foibles in size over a few hours in 2001. It welcomed 33 shocked, frightened plane loads of travellers made to land at its normally quiet airport and stranded for days when US airspace was closed after the 9/11 attack.  If you didn’t catch it in London in those months before Covid hit, one’s the time.

    It stands tall, without pretension, above all the other familiar theatrical shoots sprouting up – and drawing crowds again, and ovations, and the odd tear. It remains a joy. It affirms, in its very particularity and eccentric local colour, the most immense and important generalities about humanity. The very fact that planes criss cross the globe bearing every class  and race  and temperament and religion all together and trustful in fragile metal tubes makes it universal.

      It is about fear and suspicion and suspense and bickering, kindness and bigotry demolishes, about  logistic inventiveness,  globalism and hometown. All at once. If you don’t shiver with a tear at the church scene, I pity you. Even more if the  wild fiddle tunes at the end and the exhausted triumphant grins of the big cast don’t get you on your feet. 

     If you can go, go. 

atgtickets.com      to 12 feb 2022

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MANOR Lyttelton, SE1

2021 BRITAIN IN A STATELY STORMY NUTSHELL

   Just what we needed, I thought!  A good old state-of-the-nation black comedy with a semi-derelict Manor in a howling storm,  the sea wall about to breach and motley strangers staggering in for shelter.  Very British. Even more so since their reluctant hostess is a titled chatelaine bewailing the uninsured ruin of the “wedding barn” which was going to pay off the debts, while  her more level-headed daughter points out that it wouldn’t have done anyway. Oh, and soon there’s a corpse on the kitchen table.  

     So sit back, eat a sneaky  Malteser, enjoy. Relish the theatricality, from ten vigorous performances to a glorious set by Lez Brotherston who has exploded the key elements of stately-homeliness into crooked slabs under a wild sky:  stained-glass windows, a vast staircase, a grand stone fireplace and a neatly sketched kitchen complete with Aga and corpse.  

       It’s no Ayckbourn though: Moira Buffini is attempting something more toughly topical: environmental disaster, a far-right upsurge, interracial unease, feminism.  This does mean that it’s a bit of a muddle, perhaps partly due to her characteristic glee in the absurdity of the ten characters. On the other hand, that lack of an earnest one-note direction makes it engrossing, often very funny, sympathetic.  Nancy Carroll is Diana, once a ’60s model who fell for a rising rock star, Pete (Owen McDonnell).  Now only their daughter Isis  likes him and he is off his head on magic mushrooms, brandishing a WW2 Lee Enfield  and lurching into druggy mysticism about creating art in the storm. Until he falls downstairs.  

     Cue sudden wet visitors:  a neat 57-Varieties of Brits. A stranded vicar  (David Hargreaves, master of innocent deadpan sweetness).has brought along the Ripleys:  Michele Austin as a black single mother, an A & E  nurse-practitioner attempting a quiet weekend in the country with a furious teenage daughter (Shaniqua Okwok, bare-tummied and wailing for WiFi).  Next come moody Ted and his sidekick Anton, reporting that their blind companion is still stuck in the flooded car;   to complete the fun, big hopeless Perry (Edward Judge, a master of hapless lovable comedy)  demands his meds from his waterlogged caravan.  “I’ve got blood pressure. And issues. And diabetes. And joints”.  He is pleased to meet Ted (Shaun Evans) because, like £5 millionsworth of crowdfunding fans,  Perry reads Ted’s “Albion” campaign website.  It’s all about restoring Britain to a land of strong men, warlike knights, empire, submissive women who are nonetheless noble “shieldmaidens” and lesser races kept in their place under strong authority.  

    It rapidly transpires that this fascist ideology stems from his lover, the blind academic, Ruth, who is brought in from the car with an unaccountable wound.  The comedy as she is tended with teeth-gritted professionalism by Nurse Ripley is beautifully handled, as is Ripley’s attempt to persuade her that as well as being a mad fascist she is an abused woman.  Indeed all the social nuances, rows and mutual dislikes are deftly done, with some great laughs. There are some overblown conversations about Buffini’s big basketful of issues, but great moments too:  as when Diana insouciantly goes to bed like any bored posh hostess, while in blankets round the fire  everyone else responds to an uncomfortable night  with degrees of resignation, self pity, selfishness, phlegm, or in Ted’s case a sudden ambition to make the manor  Albion  HQ .   

      He tempts the more vulnerable to his cause with the usual Mosleyish flapdoodle about strength and orderly joy, and gets some distance for a while with Diana as a “man of action”.  But he’s not quite convincing: Shaun Evans does his best but the character only comes together  very late on, when he moves from pound-shop Mephistopheles to panicking weasel. Never mind:  events keep coming,  up to a quite intense moment of temptation and decision and a proper apocalypse.   Which, frankly, is a bit  annoying because if ever a play needed a  third act (“The following day”), it is this.  

      But the very fact that I wanted more is evidence that I was enjoying it.  Carroll’s Diana is perfect,  Edward Judge blissfully funny in his moment of shoulders-back pride as one of the new “knights of Albion’,  Shaniqua Okwok as the nurse’s daughter a  powerhouse of youthful fury to watch.  They are all cast to a hair, though Evans not quite as fascinating as he should be,   and  Buffini is honourably evoking our age of cracking social bonds and baffled extremism.  That the gift of  truth might  reside in a drugged-up waster having a vision of time-and-space warps is one possible conclusion. Another is that wannabe fascist overlords become helpless cowering weasels in the face of love, solidarity, and a damn decent A&E nurse.

    It is in slight defiance that I give it the fourth mouse, because I had a great time.

Box office national theatre.org.Uk to 1 Jan 

Rating. 4.

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THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN Kiln, NW6

SIX CENTURIES ON,  IT’S GEOFFREY CHAUCER’S ROUND  

     Zadie Smith humbly refers to her first play as more like “homework” than the novelist’s usual dread of a blank page. Chaucer, after all, laid down its tale,  framework and attitudes 600 years ago with the Wife of Bath. She entertains fellow-pilgrims on the Canterbury road with a long personal prologue about her five husbands,  cheerful attitude to sex and clear-eyed view of male delusions.  And for those who have read Chaucer, probably long ago,  it is remarkable how close Smith stays both to the spirit and the stories in this deft and jolly modernization.   

      The rumbustious Clare Perkins in her tight red dress and Cockney-Jamaican patois may refer to wifi, buses , Jordan Peterson  and other pillars and plagues of modern life but she’s gloriously Chaucerian all the same.   Attitudes to clerics, St Paul, all male theoreticians and female prudes,  annoying husbands and – emphatically – a woman’s right to sexual pleasure are all there.  Especially the latter: if I was a man her line “Your body is my playground!”would set me trembling with nervous apprehension.  She’s a bit Donald McGill that way.   But it’s the intelligence, the witheringly female perception and realism, that are at the heart of the character.

          The setting is glorious.  She dominates a lovely, bottle-lined, patched-carpet London pub set by Robert Jones, conjuring up each husband, best-friend and pious auntie from the locals as she lays out her life story and robust views in the first hour,  and finally  in the last half hour turns the lot of them – carnival-costumed-  into the characters of the actual tale she tells.   It is the old one about the knight forced to wed a “loathly woman” who then becomes lovely,  transposed from King Arthur’s Court in Chaucer to 18c Jamaica with magnificently poetic patois. 

          This is, deliberately,  the Kiln’s joyful invitation to its local multicultural community to come back and come round to rejoice,  and I hope very much that a lot of it turns up, beyond this opening night’s theatre regulars.  It’s selling like mad, I hope to some big local groups with discounts,  but seats are always reasonable here and go down to £ 15 full-price:  and frankly, I’d go for the gallery or the back stalls anyway for a better view, and avoid the sides if you can’t get one of the pub tables.  It would be a pity to miss any of the pantomimic larking or have to keep standing up and craning as I did. 

       But wherever you are, it’s fun, and refreshingly faithful to the ancient larkiness of working-class England.  Among the ensemble with the wonderful Perkins I specially liked Ellen Thomas as Aunty P and the Old Wife, and Marcus Adolphy as, among other things, a black Jesus. Andrew Frame, as the lone straight-white-middle-class-male among her wives, is also shamelessly funny in his various humiliations. But they’re all great, and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction ( movement and fight directors have been painstakingly at work) is creative, fast and funny.  You get the sense that the fun they’re all having absolutely includes and invites you.  That means a lot.

Box office.  Kilntheatre.com. To 15 jan

Rating four

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VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE     Charing X Theatre, WC2

A CHEKHQUERED RESPONSE 

        Vanya and Sonia are siblings – though she is adopted – and have led dull dutiful lives in a remote country house surrounded by cherry trees and an orchard,  funded by a more successful city sibling,  Masha,  who is now coming to disrupt their weekend and tell them she plans to sell the house. Vanya meanwhile is writing an experimental play which will get nowhere.  Sonia reckons they have never really lived.  If you think you recognize a Chekhov set-up, you’re right and it’s deliberate: stiflingly so.   Openly, too, as the rural pair reminisce about their parents’ community-theatre obsession with the Russian playwright.

      It all feels very upmarket-sitcom, very laboured,  though brightens up a bit with the arrival of Masha,  who is the peerless Janie Dee at her most comically assured as a fearful and tactless diva five marriages down (“I”m beautiful, talented, charming, successful, why do they leave me?”). She is trailing a dumb boyfriend Spike (Charlie Maher) parodying every preening pop hunk ever, keen to get his shirt off and run round the auditorium in his pants to a supposed pond.   Masha is off to a costume party, where she will be Disney’s Snow White and the others are cast as the seven dwarfs in unbecoming costumes provided by her. 

     Only Sonia decides to be the Wicked Queen (‘as played by Maggie Smith”, instead) scrubs up, and opts to spend the party  (which occurs in the interval) talking in a nasally drawling Maggie Smith voice.  So far, so sitcom.Though Rebecca Lacey is very good in both the Maggie imitation and  – as the play finally develops – in expressing the real pain of a sense of empty forgotten life.

      Sometimes you go to a play which won an award, in this case a Tony, spend the first hour mystified by how this could have happened,  and find  the puzzle at last almost solved by a barnstorming second half.  Here, in particular, by a culminating rant delivered con amore and tempestuoso by Michael Maloney as Vanya.  Note to playwrights: leave us with a good memory and we forgive a dreary start. 

      Maloney, who had hitherto spent far too much of the play sitting on a wicker chair, often dressed as dwarf Grumpy, is provoked into a magnificent tirade against the callow dimbo Spike, who is texting rather than listening to his play.  “I worry about the future and I miss the past” he cries, yearning for the dutiful worthy dullness of a smalltown 1950s Main-Street-America when people licked stamps and posted letters,  and all wept together when Old Yeller the dog was shot.  He sets it against today’s vapid online frenzy, gnatlike attention span and toddler-accessible porn . It is rather  magnificent. It speaks for a generation,  even if they suspect (what with the racism and limitations of 1955) that it’s nonsense.      

      If Christopher Durang can write like this – and brilliantly conjure up the preceding emotional scene between two women, and the awful comedy of Vanya’s play voiced by a molecule in space –  If he can do all this, why waste so very much of our time in the first half,  strafing us with winkingly knowing Chekhov and Greek tragedy  references and random theatrebuff insiderism?  When a character mentions Pirandello some of us reach for an angry biro. And why, on top of that – introduce a semi-comic cleaning lady called Cassandra who – though doughtily played by Sara Powell – repeatedly delivers pointless and pretentious prophecies of doom just to justify her name? In the second half this maid proves to have supernatural powers for a few minutes, and so wearied by theatrical-literary references was I that I immediately thought “ah, Blithe Spirit”.  That’s how damaged you can be by extreme self-referentialism in theatre.

     But I wasn’t sorry I went, and this theatre is often the best value in the West End (alongside the dear Jermyn),  and it’s never a waste of time watching Dee, Maloney, and Lacey.     

Box office. Charingcrosstheatre.co.uk. To 8 Jan

Rating 3 

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LA CLIQUE Leicester Square Spiegeltent

      

ROLL UP! IT’S BACK!

Ah, Christmastime!   There’s nothing like a buff chap in spike-heeled patent thigh-boots somersaulting in the air to make you feel festive. Unless it’s a fire-eater in a glittery orange bikini, or a bloke dressed as a hotel bellboy who has painstakingly developed the rareified skill of chaning his entire outfit to formalwear while balancing on one arm on a pile of suitcases.

 La Clique, international circus-cabaret from newly liberated Australia, is on its fifth year in a  Leicester Square Spiegeltent after many an incarnation across the world, and the setting in the Christmas market absolutely suits it. We were  merrily inclined from the start, what with the fairylights and gingerbread,  and this year’s acts (visibly and glowingly delighted to be on the road again) are as beguiling as ever.    MC  is Bernie Deiter, a Weimaresque German-Australian  jazz chanteuse in a series of gloriously mad glittersome costumes (what is it with cabaret people and tartan?). She movingly tells us at the end how she was locked down in Melbourne for fourteen months, no work ot tours, and that they’re all thrilled to be back on the road.    Roars of joy from the crowded floor.  That sense of performers grateful to be back and appreciating audiences has been strong this autumn in concerts and plays alike; never felt anything quite like it.
     La Clique’s  performers are always quality, from several continents; :   top acrobatics, and the deathless Skating Willers (third generation incarnation)  turn up again this year with terrifying near-death whirling. But  it’s the unexpected acts which are is the joy of La Clique’s mix. Some are classic: Heather Holliday sword-swallows (can’t watch!sorry! especially the curved scimitar, that’s new to mr and just too inadvisable) but she also fire-eats , with spectacular humour and skill.   And the highlights were surprises.  Craig Reid,  The Incredible Hula Boy fresh from Vegas, is all beer-belly, lederhosen and pretzel-throwing in a whirling tangle of hoops (used to be a computer programmer, he says).  His hula act is great fun in the first half,  but in the second  the vaudeville classic quick-change tube-act with Mirko Kockenberger (elsewhere a dazzling acrobat) is pure joy, as witty as it is bafflingly skilled..   So is J”Aimime, who does a lovely variety-classic one-as-two ballroom dance act, with a jacket and hat on a stick. It has a very topical MeToo conclusion as her invisible partner actually gets her shiny dress off.  But her other act, described by her as “Balloon eats awkward blonde girl” was brand new to me, and glorious. I have no idea what magical fabric that balloon must be made of, and still don’t quite believe what happened.   But we were all just credulously gleeful by then; abd as we all were punch-drunk near the end, there was  a most extraordinary ,rackety musical parade round the tent by Leo P,  the pink haired saxophonist from Pennsylvania.  His twerking moves make the young Mick Jagger look like an arthritic Benedictine. , and Jagger only had to strum, not blow. The lad’s lungs must be phenomenal.  Ah, go on, mice! give them the Christmas cheese…

Box office lacliquetheshow.com to 8 Jan

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.       Southwark Playhouse, SE1

A HUMAN ZOO OF ALPHA MEN

There are good plays to be written about white male privilege, and about modern capitalism and its relentless expectation of self-promotion and constant advancement at the expense of sanity and morality.  There is also always room for more plays  about adult siblings reverting to childhood resentments.  This one, by Young Jean Lee  – reportedly the first Asian-American woman to have had a play on Broadway – has a fair tilt at all the above, but it left me a bit frustrated.   

        There’s  some banging rap music as we settle, and a nicely sly introduction by two nightclub-glitzy figures, of whom more later: they, not white at all, and in one case definitely a ‘her’ pronoun, are billed as “Person In Charge”,  curating as a show or zoo the performance of the eponymous white men.  This takes place in the Christmas-stockings, workaday home of widowed Ed (Simon Rouse) who has got his three sons round for the festive days. Well, Matt the eldest lives with him at the moment, very housewifely in his ways, and divorced banker Jake and youngest bro Drew have breezed in for the three days of Christmas. So far, so Ayckbournian – as the teasing persons-in-charge say,  that format is the straight white male of theatre. 

     The young men’s relationship seems based heavily on extreme banter, teasing, wrestling and – though not for long enough, because it’s interesting – getting out an adapted family Monopoly set reorganised as Priviege-checking. . For they are all well schooled in white male privilege and its guilts by their late mother, and none of them really knows what to do about it. Matt (a performance of finely judged benignly depressed helplessness by Charlie Condou)  actually says this in a late line – that he “doesn’t know what the answer is or whether  there is an answer”. 

       He is living at home, doing volunteer work and part-time, saying he “just wants to be useful” and that it isn’t political.  The pivot incident of the play (too much of which is taken up by the really annoying bro-banter of the others) is when Matt bursts into tears at a meal and the others don’t quite get why.  But it leads to the point of the piece.   Jake  (a vigorous Alex Mugnaioni),  is ashamed that in his company he knows he deliberately doesn’t bring on women or interns of colour  to client meetings,   even though his own kids by his estranged wife are mixed race.  He praises Matt because he thinks  his brother is being virtuous, doing the right thing,  because he’s a white male getting out of the way to leave success to the less privileged. 

       Matt denies this and clearly is mainly depressed. His question “why do I have to have a career?’ Makes everyone  annoyed, including Dad Ed who finds it “repugnant” that he doesnt want to make anything of himself. The idea that Matt might be a loser for no political or ethical reason enrages Jake.   Which is interesting,  but leads nowhere much. 

       The frustration for me was how little use was made of the nice device of book-ending it with the non-SWM characters.  Kamari Romeo and Kim Tatum, both in nightclub gear, glittery-slinky-sexy, one Zambian-American one Polish-Jewish-African-American (I think I caught that).  All very LGBTQ+++, gay-leatherwork-harness and, spikes in hair, much glitter:   ineffably charming both of them.  But they vanish after  the start and appear at the end briefly, meanwhile  only turning up once in a silent sequence where they fill a binbag with various things of no notable value, including a rainbow flag.  

      I really would like more of them:  they could have popped in once or twice to take the mick out of these men,  or at least roll their eyes a bit at some of the annoying bro-banter.   They could have  pointed out, for example, when the brothers start dancing (to banging rap of course,and a  female vocalist) that it is pure cultural appropriation.   As in any club night full of cool white kids, all the moves are shamelessly pinched off black street-dance.  

       It’s just one of the jokes – and we do need jokes around this subject- which the play doesn’t have enough fun with.  Condou is a real treat, though, wish we saw more of him.  And as with so many Southwark productions, worth it. 

Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk     To 4 Dec. 

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PRIVATE LIVES Touring, Chichester next

THEY DO NOT GROW OLD AS WE IN THE STALLS GROW OLD

     

May as well tell you,  last week I had the ultimate pensioner experience, and it was a blast.   A midweek, senior-price matinee in staid Richmond for the new touring production of Private Lives (no idea when press night might be is for Christopher Luscombe’s long delayed production,  it’s been to Bath already anyway.   I just bought tickets for curiosity).

          The curiosity was because Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are more than double the age Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda to be: 70 and 75.   That is getting on, even these days, for a runaway  romance with old flames, abandoning two new spouses in a Deauville hotel on their honeymoon and subsequently breaking things over one another’s heads in a Paris hideaway. 

        But goodness, it works.  Pensioners ain’t what they used to be, as the matinee  audience absolutely knew,  and there was much chortling at every bicker and making-up.    Love is love at any age, but we all fell  about with a particular glee at the gloriously recognisable way that when Amanda turns down Elyot’s lovemaking on the sofa on the grounds that they’ve had a heavy meal,   he gets up miffed but is caught by a sudden leg cramp. The only flaw is that the “five years” separation in the text ought to be rewritten , with the Coward Estate’s permission, as twenty five . Just for realism. Otherwise the fact is that play fits the quarrelsome exasperated affections of middle age quite perfectly..

       Of course both players are sharp and  brilliant comedians. Havers gets a roar of applause on his first balcony appearance, probably because way beyond the stage he is beloved for his stellar performance as the octogenarian Audrey’s dodgy paramour in Coronation Street.     But he always gives good cad-and-charmer, and here he is glorious:   from the first panicky twitch of his smart blazer when he spots Amanda on the next balcony,  to a peerless demonstration of how to eat a brioche with maximum  impertinence in the final scene.    And Hodge is his equal. She does look near to her age (well, to the most impossibly-chic versiont of it)  but in her striped pyjamas is sexier than many a younger women in her devil-may-care recklessness. And the pair achieve the fight, the smashing of a record over his head,  and the lounging and the reconciling. All done magnificently, lithe as well-preserved panthers. It’s a joy, sparking Oohs and aahs and giggles and barks of laughter all the way. Matinee idols both. Respect. 

         One thought did wistfully come to me  in the first scene. Simon Higlett’s design is fabulous – especially the Paris flat, very arty-twenties – but in the first scene there are two other  hotel balconies, looking functional,  above the principals’ ones. I sort of wanted another pair of couples – maybe their far younger selves – to appear ghostlike up there,   maybe even speak an amazed line or two, meta-style, about how strange and wonderful it is that we all grow old yet never change…

rating four

Touring: Chichester on Tuesday,  then onward till 23 April    www.noelcoward.com for details

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BOBBY AND AMY               Seagull Lowestoft, touring on

TWENTY YEARS AGO, ANOTHER HEALTH CRISIS CHANGED LIVES

  

Just before the pandemic closed everything down, Emily Jenkins’ deft two-hander  won a top Edinburgh Fringe award and many plaudits.    It took us back two decades  to the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis:  six million mainly healthy cows were shot and burnt on pyres, the army had to be called in;  family farms, traditions and carefully bred herds were ruined,  eight billion lost to the economy,  footpaths and whole areas fenced off to the public.  

        It is interesting to be taken back to  memories of that time, in the aftermath of our own human health crisis: you can draw private parallels about poor planning, slow response and authoritarian government enforcement creating a sense of unease in communities normally happy to look inward and get on with their lives. 

     Kimberly Jarvis and Will Howard play 21 parts,  at the centre of it being two teenagers in an unnamed small town in the Cotswolds.   He is an oddball – probably living with a degree of Aspergers, obsessed with counting and finding safety in facts.  They are friends, hanging out together round an old folly tower in the fields,  both with difficult family situations.   Vocally and physically they evoke a whole town:  an angry father, a weary mother with a troubling new partner a bit too keen on Amy,  local bullies, a pharmacist, a helplessly blustering council official and – importantly – a local farmer who gives them a ride on his tractor and lets them watch the difficult birth and survival of a calf in the barn.  Amy takes the farmer’s voice and hauls the calf clear:  Bobby, rigid with nervous fear,  strokes  the invisible cow’s nose, calming her, and when the calf coughs into life,  names it Abigail.   All this is finely evoked in the empty black-box setting: classic fringe skills from both performers.  

     So that when the fences go up,  and the government orders, and the terrible fire where they glimpse skulls, eyes, faces, Abigail, her mother –  the shock is considerable to all of us.  And the words “Something inside us has shrunk” are met with still, attentive horror.    And of course the farm will be sold. And houses built on the green land, and “holiday home” signs up, and Range Rovers, and their world has ended, and the farmer’s tragedy is completed. 

         But during the time of change the teenagers protest occupying the old folly,  naive and simple-hearted,  the misery of it all alleviated by the support of the town who, again rather wonderfully,  the two of them evoke from their eyrie.    And time goes by, and we glimpse their new  evolving near-adult world. 

       Because Jenkins’ intention is not to leave us all miserable, but to remind us in 75 minutes of a crisis, a neglected community suffereing its impact,  and the way that in the end, we all have to carry on.   If it comes your way, give it that hour or so. 

box office    bobbyandamy.co.uk      TOURING to  27 November:  dates left are 

    Artsdepot tonight, then Harlow, IoW, Tonbridge, Folkestone, Farnham, Colchester, Wells next the Sea, Swindon

rating four 

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TOP HAT The Mill at Sonning

FACE THE MUSIC, AND DANCE!

      

This was a new outing for me.    I have long loved the Watermill some miles west,  but I hadn’t really registered the Mill at Sonning with it’s even bigger – and working, and electricity-providing –  waterwheel ,  roomy ancient bar and elegant semicircular auditorium with perfect sightlines everywhere.  It makes you wish there were even more theatres in old watermills: they’re obviously ideal for it. 

     Anyway, several reports had assured me that Irving Berlin’s Top Hat was being given all it needs, out there by the Thames banks, not least top quality tapdancing.   They were right. This is the frothiest,  most absurd of the golden-age film musicals (everyone’s FredAstaire-way to movie heaven).  It is a gorgeous wisecracking nonsense ,  with a plot based on a single improbable misunderstanding spun into absurdity gold.   Kenny Wax got the rights to do it on stage in 2011, whence it toured the UK with extra Irving Berlin songs and duly hauled in Oliviers at the Aldwych.  

     But how does it do on a smaller scale?   Excellently,   not least because the extraordinary percussive mass tap-sessions are  even more exciting right up close;   and there is something almost pheromonally stimulating about being in the actual room,  not at all far from the energetic, impossible athleticism of top dancers. Whether hard tap, soft shuffle or ballroom it has  dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone, as witnessed in a certain amount of scampering and attempts to shuffle in the gravel on the way to the car park.  Well, in my case anyway.

      Jack Butterworth is a light-footed whirl of mischief as Jerry Travers,  Billie Kaye just the right foil for him, both of their looks pleasingly in period (Jason Denvir’s set is wonderful Art Deco,  and ingeniously turns the backdrop and cramped wings into a Broadway stage, a park, two elegant hotel rooms with big beds and the Venice Lido) . Tiffany Graves and Paul Kemble are irresistible as the put-upon producer Horace and his cool sarcastic wife Madge,  bringing the house down with their big late number about hating each other (“Outside of that, I love you!”).  Delme Thomas is suitably ridiculous as a cartoon Italian dress designer in snow-white spats, Brendan Cull suitably weird as Bates the Valet,  and Charlie Booker,  making a professional debut among the fantastic fast-moving ensemble,  gets a special camp moment of his own. 

       Actually, one of the pleasures of this daft piece is that so many performers do get their high moment,  as well as the four principals.   And of course the vaudeville-level wisecracking crosstalk is vital. Magnificently terrible 1935 jokes:   I had completely forgotten that gag “You don’t know what it means to come home to a woman who’ll show you a little love a little tenderness.  It means you’re in the wrong house”.  Beautifully delivered: we all barked delightedly.  

       Jonathan O”Boyle directs with speed and elegance,  and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is a marvel.  Well, show-dancers close up are a marvel anyway.    To make it all still jollier, for a proper night out under the ancient beams  the £69  ticket includes a two course buffet dinner (top steak and ale pie!) . I have rather taken to the Mill at Sonning, and am very glad its angels and the Covid Recovery Fund mean it’s still here.  A Christmas treat. 

 Box office  millatsonning.com    to 8 Jan (wisely having a Christmas break, though, so get booking)

rating four  

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SIX Vaudeville, WC2

Reprise: they’re still at it, as good as ever

     If I were a PR for the Society of London Theatres,  I would get these six performers together for a photocall with the five from Pride and Prejudice (sort of), and announce them as the female first-eleven of London theatre.  Sisters are doing it for themselves, all right. And both shows are a delight.

   SIX of course has been around ever since in 2017 a couple of students – Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss – for an Edinburgh fringe joke decided to give voices to the wives of Henry VIII, as if they had in the afterlife formed a Spice-girls style band and were competing for who had the roughest time with old Henry.  They will tell you in the programme that it was all about the authors’ “individual journeys discovering the discourse surrounding gender”, and that it’s aim is giving female historical figures a voice and drawing parallels with today, through use of the pop- concert genre.

    All valid and pleasingly millennial, though wise to put that stuff in the programme rather than the advertising.  Because the actual experience of this “historye-mix” is a gig: a pop-rock-ballad-techno explosion of highly-lit, rackety, jokey, booty-shaking in Tudor-inspired hotpant-and-hi-thigh slutwear and fishnets (hell of a leg show), with the odd dash of neon and a lot of sparkles.  It’s brilliant.  And goodness, it’s clever: daft rhymes like “tried to elope, but the Pope said nope” and “my loyalty is to the Vatican, try to dump me and you won’t try that again”, and plenty of high-spirited bitching,   but also slyly-inserted historical edges about everything from  the dissolution of the monasteries to Katherine Parr’s campaign for the education of women. 

    The music is well-paced: rackety numbers like Boleyn’s followed by the poignant love song of poor Jane Seymour so the audience can breathe a bit.  And in this incarnation, its second West End theatre since the post-pandemic revival, the casting is – like everything else – well thought out.  They’re all great singers and movers, but gorgeously diverse in physical type and character. Courtney Bowman is a mischievous worst-girl-in-the-school delight as Boleyn, constantly pulling rank because beheading scores higher than divorce or “ordinary death”;  Jane Seymour is given a romantic grace by Natalie Paris,  and as for the superb Anne of Cleves created by Alexia McIntosh, words fail me.  She’s glorious, furious at being dissed after the Haus of Holbein (a great chorus) creates a Tudor Tinder-profile,but gleeful at being pensioned off without a “wheezy wreck 24 years older” to boss her about. She towers over tiny Katherine Howard (Sophie Isaacs), a determined sexpot whose comeuppance is surprisingly moving;  and Catherine Parr rounds off the six with dignity before they all decide that women shouldn’t just fight among themselves and  in the end they win, because they’re a lot more famous than any other royal wives.   

       It is, in its return to the West End, yet again an utter triumph. And frankly, after a wasted afternoon watching the film SPENCER,  where a lachrymose and hopeless Diana is haunted by a rather less entertaining Ann Boleyn,  it redeemed my day entirely..

Box office.    Sixthemusical.com.     Booking pretty much forever

Rating. Still 5 royal mice.   

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THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE    Duke of York’s Theatre

 

THE MYTH AND  TERROR THAT CHILDREN KNOW 

  

     Sometimes a violent rip occurs in the thin veil of materialism ,commonsense, morality and law.    Children know this: a bereavement, a glimpse of a corpse you must be forbidden to look at again, an adult who beneath a smiling face is a chaos of filthy rags and crawling horrors.   Down the centuries storytellers and mystics and believers in the demonic have woven these terrors into stories and rituals.   Fun is made of it all at Halloween, and decorous solemnity calms it in the prayer of quiet evensongs. But it’s always there.   In a theatre, even a cherub-gilded playhouse, the sense of it can be released in sound and spectacle, clouds and crashes and half-seen giant batwings, set against the clash of homely reality.

      And here it all is.  I came to it cold, Neil Gaiman’s play (adapted by Joel Horwood) having  passed me by in the Dorfman just before lockdown. And coming to it cold has advantages: it is a story about children, and to some extent for them (though I wouldn’t take the youngest: they need to be of Narnia or Pullman age to be confronted by complex terrors and bereavements and take a story for what it is. The hero, James Bamford (a Cursed Child Potter veteran), convincingly plays a twelve year old . He has not only lost his mother without helpful talk about it by his frazzled father, but is alarmingly confronted with the darkest of adult mysteries when the lodger takes the family car and uses it to kill himself after, it seems, a financial disaster.  Wandering out to a duck pond down the lane he learns from a confidently cheerful young farm girl, Nia Towle as Lettie,  that it is an ocean. A strange coin is found a fish (50p not a sovereign, for the solidity of Gaiman’s myth throughout is in the mundane details). Lettie warns him that it may be a sign that the sudden death nearby has “woken up” something forever lurking, predatory and evil, on the edge of their reality…

    So the playmates , with her as experienced leader and mistress of ritual, head through thickets (wonderfully evoked by stage managers who also whisk furniture in and out, it’s a fast moving show). And they meet It:  the dreadful Something, unnameable except as “flea”.   And it is shatteringly terrifying, a vastness of ragged skeletal  wings and sticks and beak, in dim light, dark puppeteers part of it and its terror. Lettie can “bind it” but not destroy.   Later the pterodactylesque black spirits of hunger summoned to attack it are even more alarming,  and I am a grownup with a notebook but my heart hammered.  Worse still, IT can shape-shift and be a person, a smiling new family member.  Laura Rogers.  Lettie has power – whoever or whatever she is, possibly nothing at all, possibly one of a witchy trinity led by Penny Layden as a serenely powerful farm grandmother .   And the nightmare, or breakdown, or serious spiritual crisis, which the boy undergoes is real – as the old woman says “truer than any hard facts in this universe”.  And it is on a level more fearsome than any Narnian or Tolkienesque or Carroll tale.

      Some make simplistic metaphors about adolescence, puberty, bereavement, teenage mental health.   Not me.  I loved it because it is a new retelling of the most ancient of true legends,  the shivering courage that confronts supernatural evil.   And, of course, because the puppetry and ocean-waves are magnificently done:  a bow to director Katy Rudd, and to  Fly Davis and  Samuel Wyer, and the movement director Steven Hogget. They all earn the extra design-mouse below.

www.atgtickets.com    booking to 14 May

rating four and a set-mouse

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INDECENT PROPOSAL Southwark Playhouse, SE1

COULD YOU? WOULD YOU? FOR A MILLION BUCKS?

Here’s a struggling young couple (well, not that young,  both on second marriages and he has a daughter going to college). Along comes a billionaire, offering a million dollars for the wife to spend one night with him. Will they or won’t they, and what will it do to them? The film, from Jack Engelhard’s novel, rather confused the morality of some of us in the late  80s, n because the rich exploiter was Robert Redford , and even the blokes fancied him more than the drippy husband. 
       So there was an existing curiosity for me about what Michael Conley (book and lyrics) and composer Dylan Schlosberg, would make of it as a chamber musical.And  Southwark is always worth a punt.  And designer Anna Kelsey has set Charlotte Weatenra’s production in a beautifully seedy nightspot: the Ruckus Room In an awful casino resort in Atlantic City under a washed up compère-chanteuse Annie. Who frankly steals the show because she is Jacqueline Dankworth and a great credit to her parents. So atmospheric is that set hat you can almost smell the stale beer , vomit,testosterone, gambler-panic  and disinfectant.  

    So far so good. But one problem is that the music , absolutely right for the seedy, mawkish plasticky  setting, never rises to express the reality of emotions as it needs to in a musical.  Norman Bowman and Lizzy Connolly do their best as the couple, and she has some good low-key numbers alone in her bathroom, offering the best example of singing through cold- cream and eyeshadow remover you’ll see this year.  But the weakness of the early scenes means it’s  hard to believe in their relationship,   and the few zingers in the script rarely fall to the lot of the supposed stars. The best indeed are from Larry the rich tempter – a suave Ako Mitchell. Notably when, late on, the sacked old Annie in her spangly jacket drily asks “Any advice for an older woman who’s broke and unemployed?”. “Yes” he replies. “Don’t be any of those things”.  Ouch. 


       A puzzle for me is that nothing is made of the fact that in this casting Larry is black and the couple white. Which normally would be unremarkable race-blind casting but…this is Atlantic City, not unknown for racial tension, either in the past or right now with BLM demonstations . And in the original novel (an aspect ignored by the film) the husband is Jewish, and the billionaire predator Arab.  

   Yes, using that extra edge even subtly  would have made it a different show, but certainly a grittier and more satisfying one. As it is , all we have is the disintegration of a not very lovable couple’s relationship, and a few good lines about the sovereign power of money. But it is a reminder that I want to see a lot more of Ako Mitchell in big roles.  He deploys an excellently judged flatness in his most outrageous lines: so when he pleasantly says to the husband after buying his big night: “It was nice doing business with you”, hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

It’s unusual for any peace loving woman like me to want to see someone punched in the face, and to struggle with your own affront when it doesn’t happen…

 Box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. To 27 nov
Rating three

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (SORT OF) Criterion, WC1

UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED TO BE A HOOT

         It had to happen: someone had to notice that in the comfortable upper-middle and aristocratic worlds of Jane Austen’s novel,  nothing could happen without the servants:  cleaning up, cooking, delivering emotional notes between country houses in the mud,  refilling glasses. Yet they are rarely mentioned.   So here, even before the start,  five maids in white shifts bustle about, informing us with salty broad-spoken vigour in their various accents (Lizzie Bennett’s Newry brogue could cut granite) that it’s their turn.   This time THEY will relate the love affairs and frustrations of the Bennett, Bingley and Darcy families.

       Assisted by lightning costume adjustments and a scornful shrug at the superficial matter of gender, they do the lot, from a sternly stiff Darcy to desperate Mary interpreted as an explosion of pink ruffles and affronted specs.  And,  Georgian repression being what it was, they kindly explain that it will sometimes be necessary to release feelings in song.  Anything from The Shirelles to Carly Simon and – in a moment of wicked joy –  there’s a blast of Lady In Red. Because, obviously,  the immensely scarlet-ruffled Lady Catherine de Burgh had a nephew, Chris de Burgh…

       And if we had never before imagined Elizabeth Bennett swigging from the bottle or having a fag with Mr Wickham out by the wheeliebins (the “AUST-BIN”, neatly marked),  well, that is simply a failure of our imagination.  Because the point, being made with every kind of merriment,  is that Austen’s characters may have lived in another society but are, in their yearnings and frustrations and tempers and subterfuges and misunderstandings,  exactly like us. And that had it been available, they might well have assuaged the pangs of lost love by eating Frosties straight from the packet. 

     This magnificent Glasgow-born romp by a group of five women may present itself as an impertinent lark, Jane Austen irreverently reworked in terms of karaoke and caricature, but actually it is a wiser and more skilful take on the story than most of the film and TV versions.  It also has a grand pedigree in the world of innovative, clever but highly accessible theatre. The writer, performer and co-director Isobel McArthur,  alongside the well-hefted troupe of  Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler, were noticed and championed in Scotland by David Greig, in Bristol by Tom Morris and now in the West End  by the producer David Pugh.   This is a  polished version, elegantly set under a chandelier and a vast sweeping staircase whose underside is made of books,  but it retains the cheeky pub-theatre sense which sends audiences into helpless barking laughter and even (when poor Darcy is turned down first time) into more than one sad pitying “Aawwww!” .  

        It is also remarkably faithful to the original text,  for all the servants’ larking and wandering in and out to make points with random musical instruments.  We have small details like Mrs Bennett’s stratagem to get Jane a bed at Netherfield by sending her by horse (a lifesize model one, even) and the intricate conversation about accomplishments which first gets Darcy interested in Elizabeth’s mind.   Nor had I ever noticed the likelihood that Charlotte Lucas would deeply prefer a romantic relationship with her friend, who sadly never notices.  And I am entirely convinced by the probability that Lydia would borrow a long-barrelled pistol off one of her militia flirts to “have a go”, and bring down the chandelier.  And when they do diverge most startlingly from the text it is only to affirm, for us in 2021, its essential truths.   When Lizzie at last bursts out to Darcy “I’m sorry I told everyone you were a twat!”she may be paraphrasing,  but the truth is there.  

      It’s very funny,  a tribute both to Jane Austen and to the way that British theatre can, at the dog-end of a pandemic, fill a playhouse with something fresh, unexpected, and joyful. 

Box office. Criterion-theatre.co.uk     To 13 Feb

Rating. Five

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TONY! A rock opera newborn at the Park Theatre N4

NOT  A REVIEW BUT SOME JOLLY NEWS

Not a review,  because this was the first performance of a modest weekend testing the water:  a script-in-hand, moustaches-falling-off,  fresh-outta-workshop low key tryout.  But some of us, especially at a time when TB keeps trying to sidle back into the limelight  ,  pounced like starving cheetahs on this much-awaited blast of furious merriment at “Britain’s first pop PM”. 

    I had heard a year ago about Harry Hill and Steve Brown having another go (after I Can’t Sing met mixed reviews and pleased its hero Simon Cowell just that bit too much).  No danger of that problem this time.  

   Oh no. I can reasonably reveal that it will hurt, not only TB himself but specially him.  There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants.   There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes.   Hill himself, alongside Brown, popped up before the start  (to cries of “Fiiight!”, obviously).  

       The cast of nine under Peter Rowe’s direction morph between characters and atrocious wigs: Brown’s music is alternately pleasingly reminiscent of music-hall, G&S, Handel, Tom Lehrer and at one point Oasis. The PR says the show  “plays fast and loose with the facts, owing as much to Citizen Kane as it does to The Marx Brothers”, though the latter had less trouble keeping their moustaches on. 

 Diana appears twice, Mandelson repeatedly, Campbell once, and Saddam gets a song WS Gilbert would love.  To a shower of placards naming villains from Stalin to Kim Jong Il, a small but packed house sang lustily along with the finale “The whole wide world is run by assholes”.  And, I think, accepted its responsibility, here in the heart of NewLab north London.

     But it’s not a review. Script in hand despite some vigorous strutting and larking, it was as theatre makers say jus a “sharing” .  All I will say is that hell, Harry,  I do very much look forward to the real. premiere, wherever it is….

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GET UP, STAND UP! Lyric Theatre, WC1

  THE  HEART STILL FEELS THE BEAT

     

  Everything Bob Marley sings lifts the heart,  instructing it to rise and triumph and unite in joy:  lively-up yourself!   Let’s get together and feel all right!  Emancipate yourself from mental slavery!   No need to be Jamaican, or black, or Rastafarian: just human.  Buying a ticket on the first day for this musical of his short life, I hoped for that feeling from this musical (Lee Hall wrote the book, always a good sign). I pretty much, got it. 

    The stage is a castle of crates and amps and speakers; up front I was next to a DJ booth where a cheeky Jacade Simpson  – even before the start  – charms the nearest blonde (“You come wit’ somebody?”).   Then in the rackety world of 1950’s Jamaica , little Robert  Nesta Marley loses his often-absent father and goes to live with grandmother, meets Neville (who was to become Bunny Wailer),  moves to Trenchtown, and jams with his mates,  all  rude-boy pop and ska.  But slows it down, edges into reggae, spouts joyful words, gets  jammin’ with the Wailers in every dance hall and  fighting to get paid. 

       Arinzé Kene is all Bob, wonderfully in the spirit and musically perfect;   when he meets Rita , a defiantly independent lady whose vigour and musicality is given everything we need by a magnificent Gabrielle Brooks,   before she succumbs to that single bed in a glorious “Is it love?” duet.  Even so,  she tells Bob with his Syrian-Jewish streak of heritage,   he isn’t black enough.   Jacade Simpson’s Bunny, third of the central trio, is a joy too,  as is the leapingly energetic ensemble.  

       So to England on tour – great headline projections on the ever-changing wooden crates of the set,  and a splendid moment of disgust at the weather (in Leicester) and decision to go home.  The Wailers split up, leave him.  On goes Bob. tragically briefly,   trying to evade political attempts to enrol him,  surviving a shooting,  triumphant musically  and less so domestically in his multiple babyfather-life .

       This tendency alienates both Miss Jamaica Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes)  and Rita.  Who,  in a stunning musical coup de theatre,  is the one who sings No Woman No Cry,  with those tender memories of early, broke, happy days in the ‘government yard” (I met her once, proud moment, she cherishes that line).  It is very beautiful.   Finally Kene sings Redemption Song,  alone on the jutting front arm of the stage,  and there is proper awe in the room,  feeling that once again it is happening. This is followed, naturally, by a lot of leaping up and down .   Every little thing’s gonna be all right so get up, stand up, give it an ovation. 

       If the show has a fault, it is that the first half skates too fast over events and conversations,   in favour of one too many big numbers: a bit too jukebox. But the second is magnificent. In his diagnosis and rising sense of doom, and in that extraordinary duet with Rita,  Arinzé Kene is marvellously physically expressive, and  in the lasts great song,  heroic.    It is a huge affirmation of heart and humanity, and it’ll be hard to stop me buying another ticket.

box office   www.nimaxtheatres.com   to 3 April

rating four

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GRENFELL – VALUE ENGINEERING Tabernacle Theatre, W11

THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL: scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry 

  There was a spate of criticism when Richard Norton Taylor’s dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry was announced, despite it being a not-for- profit enterprise, set in and for the neighbourhood which grieves the disaster.  It’s directed by the legendary master of verbatim and inquiry drama Nicolas Kent (remember him at the Tricycle.? Guantanamo, MacPherson, the Afghanistan sequence?).   Some critics were angry that it might be making money for white theatremakers on the back of victims of colour;  others suspicious that it was not using their testimonies of victims, but those of  the engineers, builders, contractors and local politicians who were middle class and mainly white.   The response was obvious: yes, the victims matter intensely,  yes, it was a national  scandal and betrayal of council tenants in the richest borough in rich London.  Their griefs and memories dominated the first year of inquiry, but we also  need to know why?  who? how?   Who signed off what deal, when?  How come such highly flammable material was used for cosmetic improvement of the ropy old tower in rich West London,  rather than more expensive and safer materials?  Were corners were cut, or unpardonable economies calculated because the inhabitants were disadvantaged? Were whistleblowers and reasonable tenant complaints ignored?  (pretty much, yes).

     The point of appointing Sir Martin Moore Bick (which again was subject to misguided complaints because he is white and posh, being an elderly judge) was that he’s the right man:  his experience is precisely in knotty technical matters like shipping and logistics. Of course compassion was needed.  But for the future, and for any blame that will fall,  urgently needed was  that forensic, wordy, detailed digging of emails and questions about training, expertise, and the role of aesthetics and economies.  That is what the inquiry did. And what this play boils down, shows us in miniature.

            But what can a theatre production do? Ram it home, that’s what. In editing important remarks, clarify the central message: that Kensington and Chelsea council were more worried about aesthetics than tenants’ safety and decent facilities, that an architectural practice was not expert of interested in fire safety, that a cladding supplied who found it ever harder selling a flammable product in Europe was keen to unload it on the UK, that our regulations on this were either inadequate or ignored.   

    Don’t expect high drama or Rumpolean orations: it is carefully set in a bland room, with Ron Cook as the main QC and Thomas Wheatley as  Sir Martin Moore-Bick in the chair:  a calm, listening judge with a long career in technical shipping matters.  Actors speak the exact lines of  lawyers and witnesses.  Once, a horrified building control officer  (played by Howard Ward) admits he was the “final link” who might have defied what was being done.  Once there is a woman (Polly Kemp) admitting she “binned” her notebooks about crucial meetings even after the fire.  The actors have studied footage of the people they play, and do it understatedly, realistic.    Sometimes a screen shows emails between the Council, the contractors, the salesman in the cladding firm. 

       The civility, the calm, and the painful, painful questioning grip you:  I sat among some school parties from the neighbourhood, concentrating intensely.   The statements from suppliers of the Celotex material which replaced  a safer more expensive option offer real moments of underemphasised shock.  There are strong brief speeches from two barristers representing survivors,  but the devil is in the detail: in failures of careful  public duty.  Tells too much about a Britain, and a local authority,   that could do better.

www.GrenfellValueEngineering.com    to 13  nov. Then to Birmingham Rep.

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WHITE NOISE Bridge Theatre, SE1

 THE RACE WHERE NOBODY WINS

      This feels like a howl of baffled frustration, from a millennial generation ( writer and director, and all four characters) unable to deal with the emotional legacy of  a long-ago slave trade : none of them yet ,  often to their credit,  finding it possible in today’s America  to follow Marley’s instruction and “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.  A long stage thrusts defiantly into the audience:  eventually becomes a shooting-range, with a nice mechanical coup-de-theatre taking us by surprise first time (good old Bridge!).But  first it has to roll us into the bedroom and kitchen of two interracial  American couples as their old college foursome-friendship disintegrates. 

    Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer winner) in 2016 called it her “angry play” ;  reworked for this European premiere directed by Polly Findlay  it is angrier still after the George Floyd murder and the confused angers of identity politics and easy offence.  The young people’s hidden attitudes glide  like monsters under a smooth veneer of well-meaning wokery. Sometimes it is entertaining in a despairing sort of way; sometimes alarming. 

     Leo is a nervy, insomniac black artist not doing well, living with Dawn, a right-on white lawyer; Ralph is a well-off liberal lecturer whose girlfriend Misha runs a whoopingly cheerful online show called “Ask a black!!”   Showily supportive to Misha, really Ralph is  seething at losing a promotion he wanted to a Sri Lankan. There’s a sly suggestion that not being of African heritage, the brown man doesn’t really count anyway.  Meanwhile Leo has been stopped and thrown on the pavement  by police.  Dawn wants him to sue,  but he doesn’t trust the system to be on his side,  and instead demands that  Ralph buys him as a slave.   What?  Well,  “Back in the day”  , Leo reckons, a powerful man’s slave would have protection as a chattel. It is mad and tasteless, even for the forty days Ralph unwillingly agrees to. But the strength of the play is that we can both see his mad ideological reasoning and see that he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway.  One of the group immediately assumes it’s performance-art, being videoed, which again tells us something about the times.

     It plays on, sometimes for laughs but increasingly frightening as white Ralph, naturally,  gets a taste for being Master.  Even joins an absurd White Club which endorses him.  One  scene has the whole audience gasping, no spoiler here.  The second half in particular is peppered with monologues,   sometimes too long but rich in ideas about racial  misunderstanding and the sort of  hostility that gets a friendly well meant gesture condemned as  “white saviour!”.   It tangles  with other human discomforts:  unequal relationships, money and class. Ken Nwosu is amazing as Leo, Helena Wilson every inch the liberal lawyer in a permanent bind of guilt,  and Faith Omole beautifully evokes the irritation of a sophisticated black woman who, to get attention for her show has to “perform blackness” by playing the cartoonish bouncy diva her audience expect.  

     It is, frankly,  a stretch to believe how rapidly the slavemaster experience turns Ralph into a complete fascist, but that’s the only cavil. There’s a sex scene, a betrayal, which I suppose is pretty much compulsory, but adds nothing but more pessimism.   If  the message is that none of us can easily escape our slaver-or-saviour mentality,   it’s a grim one.  On the other hand,  irrespective of race you might notice that it’s the two men who go nuts,  and the women who don’t. Make of that what you will…

Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk.  To 13 november

Rating. Four.  

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THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH Almeida, N1

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH.        Almeida, N1

THE SCOTTISH PLAY WE NEEDED

  Say what you like about star-casting and auteur-ish directors messing with Shakespeare, but sometimes a multiple Academy Award nominee has a trumpeted on a British stage  –  opposite one of our own nominees – and you think yep, worth it!    Saioirse Ronan is a Lady Macbeth to remember for years:  a steely fragile pillar of ambition who crumbles before our eyes and haunts the whole play.    Yael Farber, the director who shook the Old Vic with The Crucible, has created a  timeless arraignment of human violence which takes its own path but serves the text immaculately in every second of its three smoky, tense hours.  If you can’t get in, see below for limited streaming dates. This is special.

    And frankly a relief, after the last two major Macbeths in  2018 (I exempt the tiny Wanamaker one) because both RSC and NT versions suffered grievously from directorial vanity and a glut of plastic baby dolls (though only one had a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper cluttering up the stage).  I did wonder for a moment ,when Farber’s opened with a bare stage , a wheelchair, a tap on a standpipe, a wheelbarrowful of old boots and a wheelchair  (it’s King Duncan’s, he’s very doddery here) . never fear. The fact that it is timeless and nationless – costumes range from kilts to battle dress to the witches in business suits –  serves the magnificent cast in their passionate, often flawless delivery of the great familiar lines,made musical by Scottish and Irish voices. 

     It is rich too in subtle, well-thought out psychological shadings.  Like the moment when James McArdle’s nervy  Macbeth dismisses his previously dominant, scrappy and  organised wife rather brusquely because he wants to order the killing of  Banquo and his son (Fleance played here as very young) . She glances back, puzzled but obedient, like any woman thinking ‘this is new..not like him..what’s going on..?’.   In the truly shaking moments when he falls into terrified hysteria at the coronation banquet, Ronan returns to a brittle celebrity hostess mode, excusing his extreme rantings at the (frighteningly sudden) ghost. It is with  a  self-possessed little giggle that she urges the company to ignore them.  Her journey downhill is beginning, her conscience awakening under the veneer.

       In many productions she almost vanishes until the sleepwalking scene, but here, because it dwells within a long dream of horror for them all,  she is rarely invisible on the deep always murky stage. She wanders  as a guilty ghost through the killing of the Macduff children and her sleepwalking and deathbed are part of the battle scene, just  as  Banquo and the witches are always with Macbeth, joining in his horned, surreally bestial nightmares.   The tap  standpipe on the stage, constantly used by characters to try and wash away the latest blood, finally overruns so that the lady’s body lies horribly still in a pool of water.  And there in the final moments Macduff and Macbeth grapple, soaked with wet, blood and guilt. Emun Elliott’s Macduff is tremendous, both in grief and rage, rising up to the churning, thrashing McArdle in equal power:  the macho energy pulsing off that small stage from all the men is overwhelming, speeding up your heart and terror.  Yet there is subtler meaning in every longdrawn bow of the ‘cello in Tom Lane’s score: it too is always there, played by Aoife Burke as a gentlewoman attendant, onlooker of this violent maleness.  

      Every tweak of the text and settings Farber makes is an addition,not an auteur-vanity: there is sense giving some lines to the witches and mercifully omitting the always tedious Porter with his clownish gags about brewer’s droop.  Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff sings gently to her children at the banquet, and later her voice again rises in high wild voiceless exotic grief for the wicked world .   As for the bleak staging,  with cast gathered at beginning the end around a lantern,  the chief witch (Diane Fletcher, bleakly authoritative) asks for a second time. “When shall we three meet again?”  And with awful certainty replies  “Anon..”    ///Farber leaves us with a sad unresigned certainty that human murderousness will always be there, somewhere on the edge of understanding, half-glimpsed in the mist. 

Rating.  5

Box office Almeida.co.uk    To 30 October

NB NB. From Wed27 – Sat 30 Oct. the play will be 

Broadcast live for five performances.   Tickets, almeida.co.uk

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INTO BATTLE Greenwich Theatre

AN OLD STORY OF YOUNG MEN

    Balliol College Oxford, 1910. Confident young Etonians are hurling crockery downstairs, yelling “I’m a bastard, I’m a bastard, rather be a bastard than a Trinity man” and making war on Keith, the  socially-conscious Northern scholar who runs a  boys’ club for hungry kids with striker fathers. The Junior Dean, anxious Rev.Neville, daren’t send the ringleader Billy Grenfell down because his rich parents dine with Asquith, his elder brother Julian is a college hero currently off with depression and a dangerous bout of social liberalism, and their father Lord Desborough is a national hero of sport, climbing, Channel-swimming, etc.   

   Billy, blithely throwing Keith’s possessions and desk out of a third floor window, explains “I can do what I like because lane I can pay”. His famously rich and beautiful mother  is vampily cougaring red-haired student Patrick , but takes a moment off to bribe Keith not to press charges for assault against Billy by giving the Boys’Club a building.

     It’s a mischievously brilliant moment for a history-play about horrible entitled Etonian louts in an Oxford dining club, who torment  animals for fun in the quad and bait Northern plebs . Not to mention a good time for the young Churchill in voiceover to say, as he did :

‘The greatest danger to the British people is not among the enormous fleets and armies of Europe. No. It is here in our midst, close at home, close at hand, in the unnatural gap between rich and poor’.

     But this isn’t the Royal Court, or hysterical Buller-beating exaggeration like Posh. It’s a debut play by Hugh Salmon, a former ad executive who researched it in convalescence because his grandfather played rugby  with one of the dining club set, the great international Ronald Poulton-Palmer, who is one of the Etonians though the least toxic.  And the century-old story of these real young men is worth telling,  because within a few years all of them were in the trenches,  side by side,  alongside teenage Tommies from boys’ clubs.  They died together, and it is not beyond imagination that before that they understood the absurdity of earlier attitudes.

    The story is imaginatively told  against a set of ragged gothic arches and scattered books, both the larking and the final wartime moments vivid and brilliantly staged by director Ellie Jones and Steve Kirkham. Only Neville, the longsuffering college Dean and decorated wartime padre (beautifully played by Iain Fletcher, the eternal anguished peacemaker) survived the war.  Julian died of his wounds, old enemies Keith Rae and Billy Grenfell fell the same day in 1915, as did Ronnie Poulton who had tried hard to curb the Etonian vandals at college. Patrick Shaw Stewart died in the Dardanelles, his last letter to friends full of self-deprecating fun.  Alexander Knox is a delight in the part, as is Nikolas Salmon as the burly, initially awful but finally gallant Billy; Molly Gaisford gives Lady Desborough a nice acid upperclass edge, though burdened with far too long a death scene over Julian.  Joe Gill is a solid decent Rae who conveys both his social indignation and the fact that like all of them, at college he is still a kid. And Anna Bradley, on a professional debut fresh out of drama school,  niftily doubles with glee as an urchin turned Tommy and a housemaid entangled with Billy. 

    It’s a play that could do with a bit of finessing still, but it has a proper, thoughtful historical sense (the sources in the programme are plentiful and fascinating). and  I hope it lives on , a reminder that the most toxic youthful masculinity might turn to self-forgetful heroism. Makes you remember some of the have-a-go heroes in recent terrorist attacks.   Julian’s Grenfell war poem with the, romantic heroics of his generation, gives the play its title and it’s ending: 

   “The thundering line of battle stands,

  And in the air Death moans and sings;

  But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,

  And Night shall fold him in soft wings”

Box office.  Greenwichtheatre.org.uk.  To. 31 October

Rating. 3

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OUR WHITE SKODA OCTAVIA Sir John Mills Ipswich & touring

EAST IS EAST, IN EAST ANGLIA 

     Shamser Sinha – who is on the National Theatre Connections project – relished the idea of writing a play about a South-Asian working-class family in England today which didn’t involve forced marriage, honour killings or  the temptations of teenage terrorism.  Nor does it major on racism, though like a troublesome ache that always runs under such lives:  the sensitive  son Faisal, who dreams of stars and the universe and reads St-Exupery’s The Little Prince, gets punched at school.  But then the problem is actually aggravated by his amiable but slightly muttonheaded Dad Amjad the cab driver,  who nags at him not to be girly but punch back.   And that is interracially relatable if anything is.  Indeed mostly we could be in any working-class drama of the last seventy years, in a good way.  Though as Amjad ruefully says, whenever a passenger gets into his cab,   he is “for them the only Pakistani in town”,  so he must always be professional, a credit to his race. And that’s a burden.

       Rachana Jadhav’s set, artfully tour-able for the play’s 15 next venues all the way to Guildford, has a car door, a section of cab office and some nicely sketched domesticity.  In the first half Tiran Aakel as Amjad and Freny Nina Pavri as Rabla are talking about the cab business (here in the East we have, it seems, the lowest fares in England)  . They hope to buy their own car.   Yasmin, still a child,  and teenage Faisal wander in and out.  Underlying it all is a quiet grief, and the parents’ decision whether to have another baby after losing their infant Ruksana.  

     They are an engrossing, finely drawn pair: Amjad is earthier, practical, stubborn, beautifully drawn; hypnotically interesting though is his far more educated wife, with a Masters’ in Eonomics but no chance of a graduate job:“Your name is not Brown but your face is!” observes her husband. 

Pavri is an Indian classical musician,  with a dancer’s grace and soulful eye; she opens the show with a mesmeric solo raga and in the second half plays tabla, mirroring the heartbeat of emotion and tragedy.  Her practicality is, however,  in actually greater than her husband’s.  The frustration of his accounting, and his stubbornness in wasting time chasing one bilked fare rather than earning four more , does not help the nailbiting quest to buy the car.  She is also more deeply religious, believing utterly that “to Allah we belong” and that ill-deeds to anyone are a sin against the universe.   At the end of the first act, though, she gives up and wants a separation.  Amjad is poleaxed – “Nobody gets divorced! Who does these things? I don’t beat you…”.   

       The second act sees the family some time later;  she having moved  away into a hippyish life and social work with prisoners,  he left alone with Guriot Dhaliwal’s patient Yasmin trying  to make him eat better.  Faisal is desperate to leave the cabbing treadmill and take up an unpaid internship in his beloved astrophysics. The play is woven through with moments when, framed in the car window, we see and hear infuriating clients: the girl without enough money saying no, she can’t ask her Dad for another tenner when she gets home, and being let off by Amjad.  Others ask endless samey questions  (“How long is your shift, when do you get off?”) and the equally endless “Where are you from?  No, really from?” which brown faces in polite customer-facing jobs get used to.  The author’s researches among cab drivers certainly pay off. 

          But at the same time there is  friction between the siblings:  Amjad promised the price of the Skoda between them:  if Faisal gets it all he can follow his dream,  if Yasmin does she might afford to stand for the Council and remedy some (rather obscurely and too glancingly explained)   injustices in the local licensing trade.

          I stayed engrossed, though frustrated at times by those small un-clarities,  and by Faisal being given a really difficult breakdown to negotiate:  the young performer badly needs to give it more changes of tone, a slower pace and better articulation,  in order to take us all the way with him. But that’s an unfair quibble because I saw it right at the start of the run;  director Sameena Hussain will have sorted that out by now.  

         And I’m glad I saw it:  all four characters stay with me a day later,  Aakel and Pavri as the parents  in particular.  In one of the deft doublings Aakel becomes a grumpy,  dim, slightly threatening white passenger and  then  – in the eyes of his overstressed son at the wheel –   suddenly mutates into his dead father.  That is a properly alarming coup de theatre. 

easternangles.co.uk for tour details to 5 November

box office 01473 211498 (Monday – Friday: 10am – 2pm) 

 rating  3 and a gallant-tour mouse because few others cover as much ground:

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THOUGHTS ON CUSH JUMBO’S HAMLET Young Vic SE1

AN EVER-MORPHING PROTEAN TEXT…RENEWS AGAIN BEFORE OUR EYES

     Every Hamlet should give us something new.  The play is a philosophical and psychological labyrinth,  its jewels and seams of gold hidden in unexpected crevices: there has never been a definitive performance or setting.  Last time it was at the Young Vic it was framed in a mental hospital, with  Hamlet genuinely disturbed,  Ophelia pushing the meds trolley offering rosemary for remembrance , like Prozac.  (you actually had to walk in through forbidding corridors with frightening doors and keypads.  On press night someone pushed a keypad at random and blew the entire lighting plot for half an hour or more so we had to be sent back to the bar).  

     That starred Michael Sheen, who was wonderful, a magnetic-hysteric:   and because we were assuming him to be as demented as the worried doctor Claudius thought, he found lines and expressions about mental disorders which immensely moved me, at a time I was hypersensitive to such.    I wrote this:

  “Sheen’s pallid elfin hypersensitivity and wide animated eyes bring us a Prince unhinged, lost in inner space.  The opening court scene is a circle of plastic chairs, therapy-group style; Claudius (James Clyde)  is a smooth, suited doctor,  addressing them with patronizing patience. Hamlet has his poor suitcase packed for the escape he will not be allowed, and  Polonius’ lecture to Laertes has the ring of advice to a discharged patient.   It could all be a tiresome directorial conceit, but the brilliant and horrible thing, which suggests that Shakespeare himself patrolled the edges of sanity long before Lear,  is that it fits.  The text, even away from Hamlet’s  tortured soliloquies and “feigned” madness and Ophelia’s dissolution, speaks the language of real mental disturbance:  times out of joint, weariness of life,   unbeing,  delusion, paranoia,  remorse”.  

     This time there is no such extreme interpretation:  Greg Hersov ‘s production is sober, modern-dress, set amid great semitransparent blocks which, with clever lighting, suggest depths of disturbance even outside the ghost scenes.  But it has its own revelations to offer.  At their core is the subtle, androgynous troubling performance by Cush Jumbo:  shaven-headed, lean and rangy and expressively physical, neither girl nor boy but the essence of youth itself.

       Hamlet, after all, has always spoken as powerfully to young women as to boys:  grieving, indecisive, hesitant, deploying feline feminine tactics in setting up the play to catch the King’s conscience.  He/She is fixed on a heroic but flawed father, resenting a mother,  feeling helpless, self-hating and despising;  bored by lecturing Polonius, pleased to see schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but rapidly outraged if they line up with the grownups.  And on top of all this,  awakened to the awfulness of the elder world,  and struggling – to be or not to be ?- with a very topical dilemma in the age of XR and the rest,  asking whether it is best to endure or to be an activist, take arms against it all and end it.

   See? Doesn’t need to be a young man:  just a teenager of either sex.  And this is what Jumbo’s performance gives us, most beautifully:  dancing with Ophelia (it is rare to be offered such a glimpse of how easy and happy the relationship was before the Ghost moved in on him)   then breaking up with her in despair at the state of the world.    From Jumbo’s first peerlessly sarky, shrugging line  at the family gathering (“A little more than kin and less than kind”) to the growl which demands the too too solid flesh to melt,  her Hamlet is us, when young, when angry.  The bravura swagger into Gertrude’s room to confront her,  and the crushed guilty grief at having stabbed the wrong man through the arras rings true;   her immaculate rendering of the too-familiar lines is both respectful and defiant.  This is a very, very fresh and classy Hamlet. 

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THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT Gielgud, WC2

 FOUR WIVES LATER,  MANTEL AND MILES COMPLETE THE JOURNEY

It was rising eight years ago  that the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s majestic Wolf Hall  trilogy came to the stage, adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin.  https://theatrecat.com/tag/wolf-hall/  And https://theatrecat.com/tag/bring-up-the-bodies/

I well remember the wild exhilaration of seeing them on the same day in the little Swan, most intimate of  theatres, and well remember feeling – as did others there – that if Mantel had finished the set, Poulton and Herrin made a play of it, and someone wound Ben Miles up for another show – well,  we would happily have stayed all night to see the story out.  Mantel, sometimes difficult to read, has a passionate understanding, or so it feels, of  the working-class Thomas Cromwell: the man who shaped Henry VIII’s reign and the English Reformation, manoeuvred through the court politics of the day and then came to grief at last . Like so many others. 

   This time it is not the  Swan , with an audience wrapped (and rapt) on three sides of the drama, but the conventional Gielgud and a proscenium.  Moreover, Poulton is not the re-shaper of the tale. Mantel, having loved the rehearsal process, wanted stronger input in the script, and her only collaborator aside from the director is Ben Miles, who for the third time is Cromwell. If there is any difference in approach, I would venture to say that the focus is more uniquely sharp on her hero this time: one of the joys of the first two was the confidence with which every courtier, and every woman trapped by her biology or its failings,  stood out as an individual.  

        But the untangling clarity (at which Poulton was a master). Is still there;  and Ben Miles remains a powerful and sensitive anchor.   And some other individuals do stand out satisfactorily.  Nicholas Woodeson as the Duke of Norfolk is a fierce, cross spiky little hedgehog of a man in a red bonnet, always putting the Howard women forward and detesting the promoted chav Cromwell;  Leo Wan as the sycophantic Riche is convincing and often funny; the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton) one of the few entirely likeable courtiers.   Melissa Allan’s primly Catholic Mary Tudor is a sharp little needle of defiance, and poor Anne of Cleves – the “Flanders Mare” rejected by Henry – is given immense dignity by Rosanna Adams,  high-chinned, immaculately evoking the position of a woman who understands the misogynist politics of the age all too well.  Promised a handsome prince and sold to an “angry old bear” for reasons of European political boundaries  and trade in alum for the English wool dyers,  she speaks with contemptuous Germanic dignity of the King’s inability to consummate. “I lie down for him and pray to Mary to give him strength”.   The courtiers’ cry of “What about the alum?” when he demands a divorce got a proper rocking tide of audience laughter. 

    And of course there’s Henry.  Nathaniel Parker at first gives the performance a little too much of the James-Robertson-Justice-playing-Sir Lancelot-Spratt,  but in the second half his grief for Jane Seymour and awareness of his own weakness become touching, as he cries “Make me happy, Crom!”. It is as much a play about physical decline as about politics. 

    But we get quite comfortably across the politics: or mainly so. The interval, inevitably, was a matter of people in the aisles who never read the books or much history, scrolling through Wikipedia to straighten out the bits and characters they didn’t quite get . The northern “Pilgrimage of Grace” against Henry’s (and Cromwell’s) depredation of the monasteries is dealt with in mere minutes with a big banner, some shouting,  and a royal roar about not being scared of “rural pisswits!”. But it had baffled my neighbours a bit more than was comfortable.  Probably because they hadn’t been to a Catholic school and firmly told about it by nuns.   The appearance of several ghosts to Cromwell caused one or two more questions in the run to the bar:  there’s his father (Liam Smith, who reappears as Holbein) and the long dead Wolsey (Tony Turner) with a nice line in self-important clerical hauteur even regarding God. 

But even if you came to it cold, like the others this play would grip you by the throat.  And if ,one day soon – let it be soon – the first two are revived by the RSC with this one to follow, I will happily pay to devote a couple of days to it.  Especially if it is back in the Swan.

Box office http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.   To 23 jan

Rating five

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THE WOMAN IN BLACK (yes, honestly)

NOT QUITE A REVIEW, MORE A TRIP DOWN A SIDE ALLEY

I was on the early train up when news came that poor old Southwark had ,for the second time, been forced by illness to cancel two performances of Tokyo Rose.   Having a matinee- shaped space to fill, and a light drizzle starting,  what does a theatrecat do?   Obvious.  Its  feline mission is  to sniff around the corners of the reviving theatrical world in search of forgotten or even stale morsels. Its what cats do.  And the only other matinee on a Tuesday – apart from the clever Jermyn, already reviewed below – is  that hoar old chestnut The Woman in Black.  

    It has been resident in the humble Fortune theatre opposite the stage door of Lloyd Webber’s palatial Theatre Royal Drury Lane since 1989.  An almost Mousetrappy achievement.  And I had not seen the film, read the book, or been told whodunnit or whether it’s a real ghost, or anything.  Perfect.  The cheapest  matinee ticket is £ 27,  and the one I chose was what you might call immersive, being knee-cramped right up against the edge of the stage next to a raggedly draped section of pit which I assumed to be a sinister grave.  Quite liked it, once I went numb:  the sense an actor might tread on you is always exciting.  Behind me, two school parties (it’s often a set book, Susan Hill’s descriptive lyrical passages of writing being worth it).   Also a scattering of tourists, lured by the promise of a slick two-hours-with interval with some moments of utter terror and – a German lady observed to her friend as they left – “proper good-speaking English for learning”.  

      So what’s it like?  Better than the Mousetrap, for one thing.  It’s a two-hander:  Terence Wilton and Max Hutchinson both in turn being the solicitor who meets terror on the wild eastern marshes, in a desolate house where the enigmatic Mrs Drablow has died.  It’s nicely framed (good for school drama classes) as at first the young man tries to get the story told more dramatically by the old, traumatized lawyer who is haunted by memory, and then takes over, playing the part of him long ago, as the real man plays all the other parts in a variety of Mummerzet accents which don’t sound nearly as east-coast as this North Sea purist would have liked.   But then, he’s an elderly London solicitor playing people he met fifty years ago, so fair enough.   And there is, of course, a woman. Who does not speak ,but terrifies the bejasus out of the school party, who squeak delightedly.  And let there be no spoilers (Mousetrap rules apply),  so let me just say that Robin Herford directs with tense aplomb, that our hero can scream for England,  that Mr Kevin Sleep’s lighting-plot is very important indeed, that it may be set (by Michael Holt). in grey drapes but there are Certain Things behind them.  Oh, and there’s an invisible dog.

    So I greatly enjoyed my two hours and don’t grudge it a penny.  Because it is wonderful to have theatre back at every level, actors and lighting crews working, audiences gasping,  and school parties remembering that it can be fun to gather and be told a creepy story without an agenda or the slightest intention to be ‘relevant and relatable’ to their lives.   And which isn’t a musical.

    I would not be so impertinent as to rate it.  It’s lasted 32 years and survived a pandemic, and it’s more fun than the bloody Mousetrap. I wandered on, contented, to the evening’s grander task of last-preview at the Gielgud of The Mirror And The Light. WHere, interestingly, my ticket was also a comparative bargain-basement one , knees against the stage front. Review later tonight after the embargo…

But here for the W in B cast and crew are some mice rejoicing at the end of the long, long Covid drought of theatre

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BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS touring UK

WHO NEEDS PANTO? A CLASSY FLIGHT OF FANCY ON THE ROAD

    

This show, which I had the joy of seeing in a packed Theatre Royal Norwich alongside many small  thrilled children,  knows exactly how to get their attention first thing.   A homely bedroom in a neat central window blows apart with a deafening bomb-blast , into a big frame of ragged bricky ruins.  It leaves  three children orphaned, rattled around on evacuation trains and dumped in a sinister civic museum awaiting their temporary home.  Candice Edmunds’ direction offers a bravura start, well-served by Jamie Harrison’s artfully tour-able design and the additional thrill of a real band  tuning up in the orchestra pit  beforehand (some of the kids leaning over excitedly before the start, realizing this was real not a movie).   

        Its pedigree is interesting:  in the 1940s, before she wrote the more famous Borrowers series, Mary Norton wrote two novels about three children and the prim witch next door. Eglantine Price enchants a bedknob, so that the brass bed could fly them either anywhere they want – if it is twisted one way – or to any period they chose if twisted the other way.  Wild adventures follow, including a journey to rescue  Emelius, a medieval necromancer accused of witchcraft.   I grew up on the book and can recommend it.  The 1971 Disney musical film which took it over  (with music by the Shermans) removed the time-travel entirely,  made the children world war 2 evacuees and gave the witch Miss Price  a mission to defeat a German invasion. 

     Fair enough, and it wouldn’t be a Disney production without big wild dances (“Portobello Road” especially good),  an undersea ballet of luminous fish,  and a rom-com relationship developing between the witch and Emelius (this time a failing magician with a joke shop).   But how, given the magic, will it work onstage?   

       The answer is, “brilliantly!”.  Adults looking for something that isn’t pure panto this winter,  and don’t fancy the high costs and weird plot of Frozen,  are in luck.  Dianne Pilkington is a spirited witch, posh and intimidating at first to the children (here reimagined as Cockney sparrers) but she has real emotional subtlety and deftly delightful physicality as she struggles with her first recalcitrant broomstick.   And yes it takes off, magnificently,  even able to transport her apparently through a window-frame.  The bed flies too, again unaccountably against an artfully dark background.  There is some classy close-up magic in the tropical island scene, from both Pilkington and Charles Brunton’s Emelius,  and the museum exhibits of armour and weaponry are impressively magicked into defeating the helmeted Huns.   

         But one of the great things about good children’s theatre is showing just enough of the workings, the sleight of hand and potentially home-made kit,  to send them home determined to make their own play.   We need that more than ever, as school drama erodes away or turns into therapeutic wokery.  So here there is puppetry (two characters turned into nice rabbits, and some wonderful animal characters on the island led by a speechifying pompous lion who made me suddenly remember the party conference season was on).  While swords fly magically through the air and shoes move on their own in the battle scene there are still moments of actorly deftness half-fooling us at the same time,  and a substantial, nimble ensemble make everything happen fast.   

         And there is real emotion too.  I thought Disneyfication would remove Mary Norton’s edge of postwar melancholy, but the last scenes become,  for a while,  properly tear-jerking as the kids accept that none of it happened outside their imagination,  the parents are still dead,  and they are three orphans alone in a strange and baffling place. The little girls in the row in front of me stiffened, fretful.   But reality came good: broomsticks and magical bedknobs are fine in their way, but adult kindness beats all.  The kids recognized that too.  

rating   four

box office   bednobsonstage.com

Touring to 1 May 2022. Next up Nottingham, Eastbourne

( in Christmas season Leeds , Southampton and Edinburgh get it!)

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THE NORMAL HEART Olivier, SE1

THE LAST GREAT PLAGUE

       If you lived as an adult alongside the onset of AIDS forty years ago you don’t forget it: the lost friends and workmates , the rumours of ignorance which had the macabre horror of undertakers refusing corpses and (on our rural patch) the frightened small absurdities of people boycotting a local deli because the manager looked a bit camp and they might catch it off the salami.   We remember how remarkable it was when Diana and Liz Taylor strode in and held the hands of sufferers, and the particular terror of the way a diagnosis was understood to be terminal before antiretroviral drugs: one dark skin sarcoma spelling a death warrant.  We remember not only the vast shock and sorrow of  so many young men struck down, but  the homophobia:  the voices saying that homosexual acts were being punished by God or fate because its initial spread was in that free-living, newly self-conscious and celebratedly open gay culture.    

       Lately we have had it remembered in Angels in America , in the rather overpraised epic The Inheritance,  in revivals of My Night With Reg and the TV  portrait of London’s dismay and tragedy in It’s A Sin.  But this – Larry Kramer’s semi -autobiographical account of the foundation in his living room in New York of the Gay Men’s Health Centre – GMHC –  was the first of the AIDS plays. And it remains the most intelligent, moving and sometimes even humanely funniest of them all . The Olivier, sparsely set in the round and packed to the rafters, gives it everything it deserves:  nearly three hours fly by, considerably more gripping than the Bond movie with which I had  whiled away the afternoon. It raises echoes today: about the necessity and limitation of identity politics, about different approaches to activism, and simply about love.

     Ironically delayed by our newer pandemic , Dominic Cooke’s production expresses the strange and terrifying time through the eyes of Ned, the Kramer figure.  He is played with furious skinny vigour and explosive passion by Ben Daniels: every line of his body eloquent either in defiance (often of his own confreres),  or in the brief happy discovery of domestic love with Felix,  or in despair and grief. But around him every other figure has its private and distinct energy, flaring in turn, perfectly in tune and each illustrating the others.   Liz Carr as Dr Emma Brookner, herself a polio survivor,  is a tiny dynamo,  practically kindly and frustratedly enraged both by the horror of the degradings and dyings and by the speed of the spread being aggravated by the bathhouse culture.  “Tell gay men to stop having sex!” she pleads baldly from the start.  Ned protests that for them casual sex was a means of  connection, which becomes addiction, which becomes peer-pressure.   Though he himself, never yet in love as the play starts, comes to   deplore  the idea that “promiscuity is our political agenda” .  As a writer and reader, in passionate late outbursts he pleads for gay men to claim a proud cultural tradition from Plato to E.M.Forster and Alan Turing, and not constantly want to “be defined by our cocks”.    The complexity and torment of his nature is marvellously evoked in a great date scene, funny and touching and recognizable to anyone of any orientation whatsoever.  Felix (another wonderful performance by Dino Fetscher) speaks for relationships, and says Ned’s “making love” phrase is wrong because “we treat each other like whores”. Ned bridles nervously, rants politically, hears himself doing it, recovers…

         That clash about promiscuity is one of the many political and ideological questions deftly handled by Kramer through character.  The men’s meetings, either together in flat or phone-crazy office or in attempts to get Mayoral attention,  as Tommy Boatwright drily puts it,  suffer badly from “bereavement overload and a lot of styles which don’t quite mesh”.  Kramer himself, like Ned in the play, was edged out of his own movement because of his intemperate style.   Danny Lee Wynter’s Tommy (“I’m a Southern bitch!”) is  both wonderfully funny,  the campest of them all but also the most grounded,   deeply touching in his dogged loyalty to the project , and tenderness towards the vulnerable, exhausted Mickey (Daniel Monks) who  spends his days working at the health department writing advice about breastfeeding and herpes .  and his evenings doing newsletters about this far greater mortal danger which the public authorities  refuse to acknowledge or provide for.  Meanwhile, still in the closet yet chairman of the infant charity, Luke Norris is Bruce:   beautifully  balancing his bankerly, besuited dignity against the scruffy furiosity of Ned,  but relating his own lover’s undignified last moments in one of the play’s most wrenching speeches.     Ned’s straight elder brother Ben is Robert Bowman: and there’s another of the key, understated relationships of love and conflict which make the pattern of the play so deftly,  timelessly perfect.  And in this production, brilliantly displayed. 

Box office. Nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 6. Nov

Rating. FIVE.    

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RELATIVELY SPEAKING Jermyn St Theatre WC2

A POCKET JEWEL

     We always knew that among the first sproutings of recovery would be a few Alan Ayckbourns, popping up as welcome as snowdrops.  I am always fond of this early one,  with its deadly-accurate eye on the British qualities of embarrassed,  pained civility and insane reluctance to ask the straight and obvious question.   The old Noel Coward congratulated the (astonished) young Ayckbourn on it, and I can see why.   The old hand saw that someone had come along who enjoyed wordplay and cross-purposes  but, unlike him, had focused a pitiless eye on a rising generation,  looser in convention and more middling in class than his characters.  It was, by the way, the first time that an ordinary unmarried couple were depicted on the West End Stage as fresh out of bed (and not remotely guilty about it).

         The play last surfaced in the West End in a lush production starring Felicity Kendal, with if I remember correctly some real growing flowers on the older couple’s patio. So it was irresistible to see how it feels up close in this tiny underground theatre.  Good, is the answer. And one can trust Jermynite stage management not to be afraid of turning a 1960s studentish bedroom  full of posters into a genteel Buckinghamshire terrace (one bed equals two benches and whoomp! Down comes a new backcloth, very neat.

     You may know the set up?  A  young couple – here a naively puppyish Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey, suitably minxier and more experienced – plan to marry. In a fit of  gentlemanliness (retro even for 1965) he is calling on her parents, where she said she was heading,  to “ask for her hand” .Ginny being less retro in her ways,  the  country house actually belongs to Philip, the lover she is trying to dump, and his innocent wife.

And so the dance progresses, a step-perfect quadrile between the two innocents and the two deceivers,  its mood rising to confused anger and subsiding to misguided understanding. With sherry and luncheon and gardening.  

            James Simmons as Philip is bliss:  a middle-aged alpha male with all the roguery and misplaced self-confidence of the species,  all the conviction that he deserves both cosy wife and young girlfriend, yet beneath that, in body language and wonderful moments of panic, the necessary Ayckbournian  undercurrent of potential real pain,  caused and (rather less) felt by him.  Rachel Fielding is a perfect foil, every inch the hostess,  without the skittishness Kendal gave it but getting calmer and kinder as every twist of misunderstanding tightens around the conversations.  Unlike Coward Ayckbourn doesn’t do epigrams: instead he gives her sweetly hilarious worries about sunstroke and the need to wear a hat in the garden.  And unlike almost any other playwright, he can make the plot turn suddenly and sourly on the lining colour of a bedroom-slipper..

   . The duologue of the two men in particular is immaculate, Bonwell dreadfully indignant at this supposed future father-in-law,  Simmons affrontedly pompous.   The edge of pain in Harvey’s Ginny – who after all is possibly about to lose her fiancé any imnute –   is shown in every line.    In fact the intimacy of the Jermyn is a plus: as clearly as on TV you see every twitch of an eyebrow, every pained smile of mis understanding,  the fact that the young man is actually sweating. Gorgeous. 

     Director Robin Herford is a veteran of Ayckbourn’s  own  SJT at Scarborough, and his task is to ensure that every beat of comic bewilderment hits home. It does. And you’re right up close to it all, a neighbour in that Buckinghamshire garden.  

Box office  jermynstreettheatre.co.uk     To 9 Oct

rating  five happy mice

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BLITHE SPIRIT Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

AN ARCATI MORE THAN MEDIUM

I once took a student nephew to this Coward masterpiece, and the thrill for me was that he didn’t know there was a g—–. Until there was. Therefore for a rising generation, with aunts who wisely buy them tickets, I shall unfashionably eschew spoilers, even if the publicity lets one out.  

    .  In any case, for me this time the thrill was different, and unexpected.  It was the TV-star casting of Jennifer Saunders as the dotty village psychic Madame Arcati. I admit I had not been expecting much: there have been generations of Arcatis since 1941, since from Margaret Rutherford onward ageing comediennes of distinction have been queuing up for the role, longing to drape themselves in mad scarves and beads,  pedal up the hill to the suave Charles Condomine’s dinner party seance on a trusty bike (“down with your head and up with your heart and you’re over the top in a flash!”), and then in a series of show- stopping tirades lecture the company on the afterlife and enact  a dramatic trance.  I have seen about six over the years, and didn’t expect to enjoy Saunders: loved ab-fab, but expected exaggerated fan-friendly mugging and too much recognizability. 

   I was wrong.  In Richard Eyre’s briskly directed production she stands out, even alongside Geoffrey Streatfeild’s expertly Coward-y Charles, Lisa Dillon’s brisk (and at times, later, even touching) Ruth, and Madeleine Mantock as a rather wonderfully nimble, dancing, writhing, coolly-smoking sex bomb Elvira.  Saunders’ Arcati is draggled but not cartoonish:  donnishly dishevelled, earnestly scholarly rather than exaggeratedly nuts. Legs akimbo, whether bossing the company into awkward table turning formation, wiping her crystal ball on her capacious bosom or dancing about speaking in tongues, she utterly inhabits and believes in the part.   No Edina Monsoon surfaces even for a moment.  No scarves either, just a paisley robe and hat I rather fancy myself.

      So, pleasure: it’s not new to most of us, this “Improbable Farce” Coward knocked together in six days by the seaside: we oldies know all too well its dryly regretful observation of  the farce that is passion, the dangers of memory  and the inevitability of matrimonial irritability.  We enjoy the   magnificent galleried library – one of those stage sets the audience longs to move into, almost  property-porn. We enjoy the elegant sparring, whether Private-Lives style with Charles and Elvira or all too recognisable in his spats with Ruth. There are dim lights and eerie blue-white on platinum effects, and one total blackout. And  – let me say this without an iota of a spoiler – director Eyre gives full rein to the final scenes of Rose Wardlaw as the housemaid. Full rein. Hurrah. Take your nieces and nephews. 

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com   To 9 November

Rating four

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THE LODGER Coronet, W11

A SHAGGY-DOG TALE IN CRUMBLING SPLENDOUR

    

  Sometimes the building upstages the play. I had not explored the late-Victorian, half-restored  glory of the Coronet before,  and my first thought was that it may be impossible for any show to lure people out of its magnificent subterranean bar.   But duty to the Art must be done,  Robert Holman is a veteran writer, it’s his newest play,  and a great cast: would go a long way to see Sylvestra Le Touzel and indeed young Matthew Tennyson.

      But it’s a rum one, this.   As at the Hampstead last week we are dealing with sisters whose mother has just died, leaving a residue of old female resentments. Esther (Penny Downie) lives in Little Venice with Tennyson’s  Jude , a half-companionable half-taciturn youth, who is probably a drug dealer . She rescued him like a stray cat when he was twelve. Down from Harrogate in her old car comes sister Dolly, Le Touzel .   Nicely costumed in no- nonsense Northern mumswear, she takes this moment to announce she has left Derek for good, the philandering beast.  She is suspicious of Jude,  yet jealous of Esther for this surrogate son (“I would have loved to wash boys’  clothes” she said, in a standout line of childless sadness).   

         But the pace is slowish, uneasy,  some of the dialogue only just ‘off” , so it feels like a cheese-dream after reading too much Alan Bennett.   Geraldine Alexander’s rather static direction in that long first scene had Dolly’s back to me for longer than is comfortable.  Things improve as we discover  this pair to be more entertainingly dysfunctional than they seem, since Esther admits to sex under a cherry tree with the groom on the eve of her sister’s wedding (Dolly’s response is that she plans to cut the tree down). Esther is slapped, forcing Jude to throw a glass of water over them, catfight-style. 

          After hasty stage rearrangement and some pebbles they all go together to Dungeness, though where more sisterly discord occurs with an even sharper revelation.  Then Jude (on whom it is impossible to get a handle)  reveals from behind a swimming towel that he too has a dark secret, viz. that he has had a play put on at the Royal Court.  It’s  about a boy who goes to Norway to track down his rock star grandfather…

           Well, no more spoilering,  let’s just say that I had an awful suspicion that Act 2 would be in Norway, so passed the interval in a confused wander round the foyer, enjoying how Coronet’s ramps up its artful attitude of disconnected Victorian strangeness with a creepy candlelit maiden-auntly decor of old chair backs,  obsolete typewriter and hatstand with a mirror into which one might look and suddenly see someone quite different , betraying a dark secret about something bad that happened in Harrogate in 1955.   See?  this theatre is becoming part of the story, simply because the story is less like a gripping play than like a rather baggy novel. 

         Norway was indeed there after the interval, complete with the lovely Iniki Mariano in a sari, with more astonishing revelations. And just as you are wondering what the hell happened to the two senior ladies,  they are back,  reconciled, and the three principals end up by planting an oak tree  onstage with admirably thorough trowelling , a full new sack of compost and many reflections in life, confidence, hope , love, and the point if any of the Christian religion. 

          It’s deftly performed,  not unperceptive,  but hard to accept as drama.  Stretching in too many temporal, geographical and thematic directions at once,  its elastic simply lacks twang.    

box office thecoronettheatre.com   to 9 oct

rating three  

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INDECENT Menier, SE1

AN EPIC OF PASSION AND PERFORMANCE

        Here is life, history,  theatrical passion, great migrations and  lyrical romance in the rain.  Here’s anger and humour and love and despair , jokes and vigour and a slap in the eye to prudery and prejudice , and many  messages from the 20th century to the 21st.  Rather than return cautiously with a safe old feelgood favourite the Menier’s artistic director David Babani  has taken  –  deep breath –  a new American-Jewish Broadway play about a 1923 scandal about a lesbian play in Yiddish from 1907, and its  1940’s aftermath in a doomed attic in the Lodz ghetto.   Could have been a tough sell, though the playwright Paula Vogel was a 1998 Pulitzer winner  and with  director-collaborator Rebecca Taichman it won a Tony just before the pandemic.   

        You can see why, and why it will hit the Oliviers lists. It’s a delight, seething  with life and feeling. A  silent line of eight unsmiling, muffled, mittel-European figures sits still as statues as we enter then rises, stretches, ash  around them dispersing as the fiddler strikes up and modest old Lemmi (Finbar Lynch) apologetically explains that he is just a stage manager, but has a story to tell, which the actors will help him to do. .  They are dancing by now,  accordion and clarinet amplifying the plaintive klezmer fiddle, and the tale begins.  It tells how  a play in Yiddish, God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) ran from St Petersburg to Berlin to Constantinople to New York, and back to Poland in the Holocaust when its author, Sholem Asch, forbade its performance forever. .  Or until Paula Vogel, a student tentatively finding her gay identity in 1974,  found it in a university library and was enthralled.  Across the decades it spoke to her understanding of love: a lyrical, passionate, transgressive tale from the shtetl,  of a brothel-keeper’s virginal daughter falling in love with one of his whores and driving the father to blasphemous rage which makes him hurl at her the precious velvet scroll of the Torah which his employee girls earned for him  “on their backs and their knees”.   

        Fast-moving, time and place  signalled by captions on the back of the gilded proscenium,  the cast show us young Asch’s anxious presentation of his first play to sceptical elders  (middle-aged bearded chaps reading as lovesick girls are wickedly funny).  The visionaries  understand that “We need plays in Yiddish to represent our people, speak of our sins.  Why must Jews always be heroes?”   Others fear – presciently – that its frankness will fuel antisemitism. But as Asch says, “Ten Jews in a circle accusing each other of antisemitism” is pretty normal.   And it is 1907:  Berlin will surely love its brave sexual fluidity?   “All Germans can talk about is Dr Freud!”  The cast briefly become a Berlin cabaret, complete with Peter Polycarpou and his beard in exhilarating feather-capped drag. 

          It runs all across Europe, the dramatic final scene gloriously reproduced from every angle as a scuttling cast represent the tour of European capitals,  the young women (Alexandra Silber and Molly Osborne) flinging themselves into the sometimes comic, sometimes beautiful love scenes.  Then it’s 1920  and Staten Island,  as dear Lemmi    (by this time we are in love with the humble faithful tailor-turned stagehand and his humane wisdom)  follows Asch  through the gateway to freedom.  In Provincetown and Greenwich Village the play, in Yiddish, finds so much approval in the community that a translation is made for a Broadway opening.  One original actress cannot master good enough English, and producers see they can’t have her sounding like “a girl off the boat”.  It’s the jazz age.   Immigrants must Americanize…

         New York, though, is more shockable than old Europe.  The American replacement actress is thrilled at shocking her parents with  the lesbianism, while  Lemmi murmurs in the wings  that all love is love – “When Messiah comes, I think, no hate..”.   Trouble brews: “Jews, Polacks, take your filth back to your own country..”.  In a famous raid the vice squad swoops on the first night, Officer Baillie hopelessly getting in the way in the wings.  The arrested cast suffer a famous judgement demanding Americans are served only “upright and wholesome” plays.  In one of the many ironies of the story deftly, skimmingly thrown out in this fabulous telling,    it is a sermon by Rabbi Silverman that fuels the protest.   

       Lemmi goes back to Europe, and at last finds himself in the ghetto in Lodz, sharing the last fragments of bread as a group defiantly put on a scene of the play,  their heritage.   We know what a sharp chord from the instruments means: another raid, another terrible line echoing the Staten Island queue of twenty years earlier.   The two girls, though only in a dream,  dance and embrace, white and insubstantial and free as real rain falls.      

box office   menierchocolatefactory.com  to 27 November

rating five 

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THE MEMORY OF WATER Hampstead Theatre NW3

A HISTORIC HIT BACK, BETTER THAN EVER 

    This portrait of three bickering sisters, trading memories and revelations  in the days before a mother’s funeral in a snowy Yorkshire winter, was a Hampstead discovery 25 years ago:  a debut by Shelagh Stephenson, herself one of five sisters.  Seized by the theatre and finessed to perfection by Terry Johnson  it won an Olivier, went to the West End and the US.   It hasn’t faded. 

            As we all creak back into live-audience mode there’s a particular joy in plays you can take any way, depending on your mood.  In this case you may furrow your brow on the nature of memory,  the fact that as HMQ observes “recollections may vary”,  and the depredations of Alzheimer’s.   Alternatively, especially if female,  you can wince pleasurably at its harshly salutary portrait of a particular  20th century generation gap: the failure of understanding and the edges of envy between ‘traditional’ housewife mothers and their freedom-seeking, taboo-breaking  career daughters.  The ghost or memory of old Vi  in the play speaks for many of my generation’s mothers with her sad line  “I can’t seem to get the hang of any of you”.  Or, as a third option, you can simply enjoy the play as an excellent dark-and-light comedy.   

            The cast is faultless:  Lucy Black is nervy, organizing Teresa , married to stolid Yorkshire Frank;   Laura Rogers is Mary, the sardonic clever nerve specialist having  a long affair with a married TV doctor;   Carolina Main is the youngest, Catherine, ricocheting helplessly, hysterically  and hypochondriacally between faithless boyfriends.  Early on, when it is just the three of them in the satin-quilted maternal bedchamber  the rat-a-tat-tat of fast exchanges is jaggedly funny,  laced with the absurd non sequiturs of girl-talk: arguments about who got forgotten on a beach outing swerving into lines like “The funeral director’s got a plastic hand..” .  Their physical language is perfect.  Catherine sprawls upside down, moaning that she was never the favourite or really wanted (“She thought I was the menopause!”).  Mary is studiedly languid and defensively sexless;  Teresa a tense bustle of resentment.

        When Mike-the-married-boyfriend arrives,  frozen and grumpy from a long unheated train,  the chemistry changes.   Adam James is perfect in his doctorly detachment and already visible unreliability about commitment to Mary.    When Kulvinder Ghir’s Frank appears,  to find the women gone hysterical trying on their dead mother’s awful cocktail gowns,  he gets one of the finest comedy entrance-speeches of any year,  fresh from a loathed sales conference, fourteen diverted hours from Dusseldorf sitting next to a crazy puppetteer-for-the-deaf woman who talked.  His is a hard lot, in the family health-supplement racket:  ”You try living on goose-fat and pickled cucumbers in some emerging democracy” while trying to sell them royal jelly.  

     The great lines keep on coming,  and every character has at least one bravura moment, one aria of  life’s frustrations.  Teresa, as Frank sadly predicts,  does get “demented” when swigging whisky from the bottle and spilling the play’s saddest central secret, a moment Ortonesque in its shocking vigour.  Catherine finally gets a dumping phone call from her latest Spanish restaurateur and loses herself to lonely miserable rage while the others in their body language make it clear that this is not the first such meltdown,and the men cringe.   Mary, her saddest secret always burning under the surface,   finally turns to challenge her slippery medical lover.  The argument about a possibly drunken vasectomy-event is, again, on the edges of Orton and all the better for it.  

          It’s all splendid,  including the wickedly specific place-and-period designs by Anna Reid (oh, posh Yorkshire! O, the bedspread and the mirrored wardrobes!).  It all serves Stephenson’s beautiful writing with laser precision.  It’s on until the 16th of October, and after the 27th of this month  will no longer be ‘distanced’.  Actually,  I am tempted to go again,  just to feel a more solidly packed audience laughing and gasping around me. That’s how much fun it was.

Www.hampsteadtheatre.com.     To Oct 16. 

Rating five.  

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BIG BIG SKY Hampstead Theatre

LOVE, GRIEF, AND A BRAD PITT ALBATROSS

  With loving detail, right down a glimpse of coat-racks beyond the far door,  the downstairs studio serving Tom Wells’ new play has become  a remote Formica-and-pastie caff on its last legs; a remnant of the pre-cappuccino age but still serving the birdwatchers on the sands of the East Yorkshire coast. 

        Jennifer Daley’s Angie is in charge, with Jessica Jolleys’ young Lauren to wipe tables and her rather hopeless Dad Dennis (Matt Sutton looking suitably moth-eaten)  nipping in for a free leftover pastie-and-beans just as they’re trying to close.  And, it turns out, suddenly announcing that after 45 years ignoring those things flying around in the vast skies overhead he has  become a birdwatcher.  And   thinks he can win a photography competition.  

       Enter Ed, a pawky, skinny, gabblingly shy lad from Wolverhampton burdened with a vast khaki rucksack and anxious vegan environmentalism.  He is Airbnb-ing in Lauren’s old bedroom in the hopes of landing a job as a wildlife warden looking after Little Terns in the sandbanks.  In no time,  to his slight bafflement,  he is being instructed in line-dancing steps by Angie because Lauren plays guitar for the community in this newfound pursuit. 

    We are in  Tom Wells country, out by Spurn Point and Kilnsea,   the kind of smalltown he immortally defined in The Kitchen Sink a few years ago as “A good place to come from because it’s knackered and it’s funny and it’s falling in the sea”.   I am a late catcher of this play  (it closes this weekend) but wanted to mark it, and barrack perhaps for someone else to pick it up and tour it.   I have loved his earlier work (you can still hear Great North Run on BBC Sounds by the way) and this did not disappoint.

         The beauty of what this playwright does lies in capturing and appreciating the glory of unappreciated, underpaid and fameless lives without making them into socio-political victims. Though God knows in the North-East a lot of them are.  He writes of simple pleasures, dry jokes (“Dad, we understand the concept of migration.  You’re birdsplaining!”). Or “An Albatross?  That’s the Brad Pitt of seabirds!”.  He has a keen eye for absurdity,  and is beautifully served in this by Tessa Walker’s cast.  Not least by Sam Newton’s wide-eyed Ed and his growing relationship (it spans a year or so) with the affectionately exasperated Lauren.  He happily throws away wonderful lines like the local news that  “there’s a lot of excitement about a Tundra Bean Goose”,  trusting in smiles rather than guffaws. .      

      But his themes are as immense as any:  unexpressed long griefs, loneliness, endurance,  the consolations of nature with its fragile innocence and the human capacity to spoil it by accident  (a quality in which Dennis proves champion in one awful revelation).   This writer can be lyrical without pretension, funny without emphasis.  He is not afraid to unfold a story slowly or to deliver a gasping shock;  he economically sketches for us not only the characters’ past losses but such invisible irritants as Neil, a gay retired accountant from Leeds with a £ 3k camera who pleases the women and annoyed Dennis by starting up the line-dancing nights. 

       They’re all good,  Daley as Angie giving an understated, modest, slow-burn performance which rises to moving intensity in the final moments  which resolve exactly as they should.   In 90 minutes we lived a lot of their lives, with love, and saw what they saw in the big, big skies of remote England.  Can’t ask more. 

Rating   Four.            

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FROZEN the musical         Theatre Royal Drury Lane. WC2

ICE WORK IF YOU GET IT…

       Phew. The Broadway-rooted, Disneylicious,  long-awaited red-carpet premiere night featured (of course) an ice -blue carpet.  And  the throng bursting out to meet the paps afterwards was met by actual snow-blowers,   so that  our soggy heatwave outfits blended nicely into the evening’s actual rain as we skittered out of range. As if we weren’t confused enough by this Lopez-and-Lee adaptation-cum-homage to the animated Disney film,  itself very freely based on The Snow Queen by that treasured oddball Hans Christian Anderson.   

            The film itself has, against all sense,  over its eight year life firmly gripped the global female imagination from age five to millennial.  It has caused tots to build countless Olafs in this spring’s snowfall, and their new-feminist single aunties to go karaoke mad every hen night with the anthem Let it Go,  resolving  “don’t be the good girl you always have to be..test the limits, break through, no rules for me”. 

      Which is only problematic if you pause to notice that Elsa’s personal liberation from trying to control her powers and regulate her emotions involves nearly killing her sister twice, plunging a country into perpetual winter and starvation, and gliding off to stay alone in an ice palace, seeing nobody.  More late-Ceaucescu than Cinderella.   Her sister Anna has to work for the happy ending without even having one decent anthem. 

    Cards on the table, I only watched the film a few days ago for research, and while mildly fond of Olaf the snowman found it odd going. And wondered why (apart from the obvious)    Michael Grandage, subtle and thoughtful director, would involve himself.  Unless for the sheer glee of big-show big-machinery, with Christopher Oram and video designer Finn Ross let loose to draw elegantly on Norwegian art,  and create immense shining northern lands and instant icicles while deploying astonishing lighting and snappy costume and set  transformations.  So OK, yes,  you can see why he would. 

       And being a savvy director Grandage does keep it speedy:  indeed the production’s greatest saving grace is in the choreographer Rob Ashford’s ability to pop in fast, short dance jokes and effects (ensemble  required to be sea waves, trolls, snowstorms, and at one point impressively frozen into a solid block).   Beyond that, I really don’t  buy the director’s valiant attempt to talk up the parallel with our frozen Covid year.  Or the feminism.

      One problem the adaptors met is in having to use quite a lot of the film’s dialogue, which is – in gallant Anna’s case – painfully half-baked high-school romcom banter (“Can I say something crazy?” “I like crazy!”).  Olaf the snowman, beautifully handled by Craig Gallivan, has better lines, and  manages to get his head separated from his chubby arse at one point,  a pleasing nod to the animated film.  Among the new songs the Hygge one is the most successful,   especially when supplemented by a faux-nude conga out of the sauna in some very remarkable hats.  Of the original songs (apart from Let it Go) the best transplanted one is “Fixer-Upper”.    

         But the jerking between Disney infantilism and moments of artistic grandeur is sometimes plain odd.  When the romcom high jinks of Ana and Hans precede the solemn coronation moment with a properly spine-tingling choir, it feels like two clashing shows.    On the other hand there’s good dramatic distinction between the sisters’  moves and voices: Samantha Barks gliding around as a pure fine classically-toned Elsa and Stephanie McKeon galumphing lovably with more of a  mid-Atlantic popster sound.  That works. 

       So it’s a decent enough Christmas show.   And whoever spends the time inside Sven the Reindeer, a proper panto-beast with excellent legs,  deserves a bow too. As they all do, and frankly, get the fourth mouse for it.  These big musicals have had to rehearse and solidify at warp speed after the worst year ever for the business.Honour to them.    But for all the design and directorial and choreographic brilliance,  I cannot lie:  Frozen the Musical is not a pig’s ear, but neither is it quite the silk purse it should be.  

Box office   Www.booking.lwtheatres.co.uk      To JUNE 2022

Rating four, one being bigmusicals-mouse 

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SYD touring

ARTHUR SMITH CONJURES UP HIS DAD

    These days our Arfur comes complete with an overture!  It takes the form of Kirsty Newton at the piano (artfully disguised as an upright 1940’s pub-battered joanna, in front of some equally retro wallpaper and a modest screen for the pics).   She appears in a fine and equally retro print frock,  to storm through My Old Man’s a Dustman,  Follow the Van, Tipperary etc while we settle down (in my case in the smart new Mercury in Colchester,  but it’s a tour of one-nighters so heaven know where you’ll be, see below).

       Then on comes Arthur Smith,  and we see that undimmed by lockdown-year is his tendency to merriment and causing merriment, whether in  Barry-Cryer-type gags, geezerish challenges to the audience,  or unmatchable stories.  So we’re soon into this tale:   a memorial ramble around the life and times of his late father Syd Smith.  He was a WW2 veteran of El Alamein, a Colditz prisoner  and  a South London copper.   Syd wrote a journal of much of his life in straightforward, dryly humorous police-report prose:   a handwritten volume which Arthur at the lectern cherishes,  and from which he reads the odd excerpt. 

         The timeline of the story moves zig-zag style, illustrated from time to time with photos and at one point with some wartime footage.  First come the postwar police experiences, with Arthur donning a helmet and jacket to conjure up  both the boredom of the beat and the duties of a good cop towards  Sarf London drunkards.  It’s very funny.  We love Syd already.

         Then it rolls back to the war and El Alamein and hardship and fear, slave labour in copper mines,  then lighter duties at Colditz  where he reckons he was sent to assist the posher officer-class.  He found it pretty cushy.   This experience is  interspersed with Arthur’s own time as a student layabout in 1968 in Paris, demonstrating about things he hadn’t really thought much about, but the shouting was fun.  In one way this double-vision narrative of 1944 and 1968 is distracting, but in another (something which our host could well point up a bit more sharply)  it provides an ironic contrast between the two teenage experiences, and reminds us how our postwar boomer generation lucked out compared to its Dads.     Kirsty Newton pops out from behind the piano to play some of the women they each encounter. 

        And they both sing a few songs, she expertly,  he with characteristic fearlessness (some of us wish he would do his Leonard Cohen show more often).   Many of the songs chosen work in context,   like the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset,  or a mournful “That’s no way to say goodbye”  when Syd gets a dear-John letter in Colditz from the girl he would have married.   Others are less so, and slow things up a bit.   

           But even then, you mainly think two things.  One is  “This is like a long session in a pub.  Bloody hell, I wish Arthur would come and liven up our local” .  The other is that we really love Syd  almost as much as we’ve always loved Arfur.  That’ll do. 

box office     https://www.arthursmith.co.uk/gigs/   for tour detail. 

   Wallingford and Guildford next weekend 10/11 and so onward across the land for weeks..

rating four

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CINDERELLA Gillian Lynne Theatre, WC2

THEATRE’S FAIRY GODFATHER DOES IT AGAIN

We needed this. The return of the big classic shows to packed houses  in the Barbican, Chichester and Sadlers Wells has been invigorating, but Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is brand new, a lockdown baby strugglingly finished,created and finessed  with once -unimaginable difficulties (dance auditions online…). It’s opened, closed, suffered pings, and cost Lord LW huge sums to back even while the old trouper campaigned and researched Covid-Safety. I wanted to like the actual show. Luckily, I really did.

  Who could not? Emerald Fennel’s exuberant version of the old tale is a sparky modern rom-com, led by a fabulous Carrie Hope Fletcher as the grungy, rebellious Bad Cinderella,  not only slaving for a stepmother but amusing herself in prim Belleville with a bit of vandalism, and a boy-girl friendship with weedy Prince Sebastian, while the foxy Queen and her court of leaping, leather-fetish hunks mourn the manly elder brother, Charming. The opening town scenes are a wicked inversion of old Brigadoonery, as a jolly chorus turns to a pitchfork mob against our sturdy heroine, the “unpleasant peasant, unwelcome present”.   Rebecca Trehearn’s nymphomaniacal queen (that first crinoline is positively explicit) turns out to have an old frenemy in Victoria Hamilton Barritt’s huskily bitchy Stepmother. The motive for the hasty royal marriage ball is the  tourist trade.  Sebastian is a pawn, mocked by the leathery hunks with their choreographed circuit-training push-ups and burpees. 

    The brilliant trick is the show’s have-cake-and-eat-it ability to debunk all the traditional glamour and romance while actually indulging it:  the central couple may address each other with lines like “Shut up you knob!” and question their inner motives in a very modern angsty way, and the transformation scene is actually a powerful and sinister attack on the love-island cult of cosmetic surgery.  But  we still have the spectacular costumes and oh-wow scenery, and the famous revolve of the entire front stalls for the ball scene, bringing the cast breathtakingly closer to every seat, and of course the music.  

    It’s ALW all the way: there’s the overture that tantalises you by  nearly turning into every tune you ever hummed from Loch Lomond to Lady Gaga, the pastiche nostalgia of a French accordion sequence,  a few gorgeous power ballads (Ivano Turco throws it out there as Sebastian, Hope Fletcher moves with fabulous ease between pathos and raucous)  and plenty of big orchestral emotion (are there really only nine musicians up there?)
   So yes, he’s done it, the old fox.  Got the right author, right lyricist, right director, designer and team, and with them pulled the perfect rabbit from his big, glittery-witty, musical revolving top hat. Respect.

BOOKING@LWTHEATRES.CO.UK running well into 2022 I bet

rating five

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THIS BEAUTIFUL FUTURE    Jermyn St Theatre, WC2

      Occupied France, 1944.  Two teenagers newly in love meet in an empty house.   Elodie is French,  Otto a German soldier.  They are both endearing and annoying, as befits their age:  she has pinched an unhatched egg from a neighbour’s bombed chicken-coop but has blood on her hands because (symbolism alert!) a fox had got in.  They lay it = in a bed of feathers together.  Something moves outside, a plane flies over,  he crouches in terror, gun out.  She stays jokey.  He speaks of the dullness of Dusseldorf and how he is looking forward to his upcoming trip to England: word is that the invasion is imminent.   

     Twenty minutes pass.  A bomb falls on the local church, and sweary, anticlerical Elodie is pleased because there’s some haunting rumour about an abusive priest there.   ~She  worries about keeping the room nice as “Mrs Levy”, her former boyfriend’s Mum,  always does.

   Otto tells her Mrs Levy won’t be coming back.   “I know what she is. We’ve taken care of her”.   He expatiates on how important it is, this great work for a beautiful future – “One people and they’re all born good”.  He is in love with Mr Hitler, as much almost as with this girl.  He tells her about his previous day’s work on a firing squad, shooting her old teacher and, it appears, quite likely having shot Mrs Levy’s son.    He is not pleased when she tells him the radio has revealed that the Americans are in Normandy, Paris has fallen, and there’s no way he’s going to England.  “You’ve lost”.  A Lancaster roars overhead (it’s a very classy soundscape, by Katy Hustwick,  and a thoughtful design by Niall McKeever)

      As scenes continue we flip forward to the liberation , his death, and the humiliating head-shaving awaiting her as a “Nazi’s whore”, then backward to their first meeting, and forward to the hatching of the chick, a stolen moment of innocence. 

        Rita Kalnejais’ play holds attention for its 70 minutes all right,  and Katie Eldred and a heroically bleached-blond Freddie Wise are compelling, very much any pair of modern teenagers (though perhaps without the social conscience).   Otto’s feeling that he gets ‘respect’ through his uniform is convincing, though Elodie’s ability to screen out the fact that her neighbours and family have been persecuted and shot by the same uniforms as her lovers is a bit startling. Maybe some teenagers did.   When Chirolles Khalil’s production  works it is by laying out before us the hopelessness of innocence in a savage wartime world,  and underlining the banality of evil.  Indeed the opening scene stays banal for so long one almost loses patience, until revelations of Otto’s attitude and his actions under orders jerk you back. 

    So I was halfway there with it, assisted by the fact that this little theatre has shown some of the best (often contemporaneous) plays about the second world war and the years leading up to it.  But much of the potential strength of this small sad, typical story is sapped by the author’s modern pretentiousness,  framing it in unconnected good-resolution voiceovers in the general tone of teenage “If I could do it again”  coffeemug mottoes: about wearing your hair down and believing in love. Maybe if I was younger and less jaded I would be moved by this rather than irritated…

    I wanted to like it more than I did.  If I had teenage kids I would take them, because they would learn much about war, and France, and the limitations of romance.    And it’s an interesting, accomplished attempt, with two fine performances. 

Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk   To. 11 September

Rating three.

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT Southwark Playhouse SE1

NOT A REVIEW BUT MIGHT SEND YOU THERE…

Take this as a report not a review, because actual work commitments made me skip at the interval.  But I was persuaded to the long 70 minute first half by a friend, who said “kill for a ticket” . And also by doubt. by having heard about the Spitlip  ensemble as clever, musical, inventively eccentric and – unusually –  60%female comedy troupe. Also I knew for years about the 1943 war office Deception Plan of the title, devised in part by Ian Fleming and recorded in the book The Man Who Never Was , later in Ben MacIntyres book Operation Mincemeat, and in a stiff upper lipped 1956  film lately on TalkingPicturesTV. There’s a new one out in 2022 I see. 

       Anyway, the scheme  was grisly: to persuade the Germans we were invading Sardinia not Sicily, by dressing the corpse of a tramp as  a pilot  with a briefcase of fake plans, and taking it refrigerated by submarine to wash ashore in Spain.  The body came complete with fake personal papers, receipts, theatre tickets and a love letter. Bill never existed in reality, but the paper trail was meticulous, spyproof.

        It worked. But was this something for a band of young singing, dancing, mocking 21c comics to turn into a cabaret show?

I  did wonder, which is why even knowing I’d miss the denouement, I bought a ticket. Southwark after all rarely disappoints. 

      So I cant star rate it, but can faithfully tell you that yes, it works and you’ll not regret it.  It starts full-on jokey, with the three women enjoying being absurd male MI5 stiffs, carolling about being born to lead, with the browbeaten nerd scientist Charles and, deliciously, Jak Malone as a prim Moneypenny. Character comedy doesn’t come much lovelier than a balding chap in a rumpled grey shirt channelling with deadly accuracy a middle aged government clerklady of the 1940s.  

     Until he morphs effortlessly into an  disgracefully guyed Bernard Spilsbury, coroner who locates a body.  Despite the squeamishness of the officials   All good fun. 

      But just as I started to wonder again about the treatment of war and death this way, like all good comedy troupes they turn it round to empathetic humanity. The love letter has to be written,  from the fictitious Bill’s fictitious girlfriend. And after a sentimental aria about birds from two others, Malone’s  Moneypenny primly reminds us that some of them have been through one war already..and she sings the most heartbreakingly , deliberately banal and restrained of wartime love letters.  We guess she had lost a boy, and says…”anything that gives any of those boys a fighting chance”…

    . And suddenly we are on the docks and the five are submarine crew singing deep and sailorlike,  plainer and more serious again, leaving the bright patter songs and clever rhymes alone, just men the mysterious container. Then there is  a nightclub burlesque where the team try to relax, intercut with the moment when the sub crew , horrifiedly obedient, send the body to its destiny.  

       I may go again. Meanwhile, do give it a go yourself.. /Friend who was able to stay says it goes on being wonderful…

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BASKERVILLE Mercury, Colchester

          This  is the Mercury rising, rebuilt over two years with a cool café and dance studio, modern eco-glazing and, to respect the town’s history,  a solemn archaeological display of Roman bricks and copper alloy nose-hair tweezers they found underneath.  It’s good sense to reopen with a family-friendly lark: Ken Ludwig’s take on Sherlock Holmes’ adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles.   It helps that many, like me, remember from childhood the atmospheric terror of the Great Grimpen Mire and the dog with shining jaws,  while actually forgetting who the killer was. 

           It’s a jokey five-actor show in the tradition of the  Reduced-Shakespeare-Company or National Theatre of Brent with a great many hats and wigs,  but has some impressively detailed sudden costume changes.  There are classily brilliant sets and projections  by Amy Jane Cook and Louise Rhoades-Brown,  plenty of theatrical smoke and unexpected trapdoor-work.   Richard Ede remains Holmes throughout and Eric Stroud a mournfully nerdish Watson,  while the other three whip through 38 others from Baker Street to Dartmoor  and an opera house finale.   Phil Yarrow  and  Marc Pickering  are elegant shape-shifters, Naomi Petersen is all the women and two urchins. Seasoned Vaudeville jokes abound: fake wind,  running-on-the spot, an upright bed, talking portraits and at one point the traditional profile gag: an actor in half a suit and half a beard, changing character by whipping round to face the other way.  Never fails, that one.

    Fast small-troupe comedies like this always work best with a degree of knowing self-mockery between the players.   Yarrow and Petersen are both improv veterans  but  this element was a bit tentative at first, maybe rusty after the long performance famine which actors, as well as us audiences, have glumly endured.  But it grows in the second act,  and their glee will ripen as the run goes on.  The new surround-sound system, by the way, does very well indeed by the Dartmoor gales and the virtual Hound. Brrr, Grrr. 

mercurytheatre.co.uk   to 22 August 

rating 4

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THE WINDSORS ENDGAME Prince of Wales Theatre, WC1

WONDERFUL OLD COBBLERS ON  ABDICATION STREET 

(longer version of review done for Mail)

      You know you’re in safe hands when a stagestruck Prince Edward, diffident and excitable,   bumbles through the curtains to explain that in this family show he does all the “utility parts” in lots of costumes.   Indeed his first role is as a banquet waiter at a Coronation feast as the tabs open.  Suddenly to gales of laughter a leering Andrew is manhandled out of the front row by a cross usherette, for not having  a ticket.  I saw this on the day he was formally sued by Ms Giuffre.  Imagine the audience reaction…

       The idea of the deliciously rambling plot is that the Queen has abdicated :   Charles in Coronation robes sings  triumphantly how he was as a youth always told  “Be a man!  Be a man! Be tough, be male, be brutish, like your sister Princess Anne!”.   Anxious William and Kate look on.  . Cut to Meghan and Harry in yoga poses, podcasting about compassion while their wheatgrass smoothies are served by the galumphing maid, Fergie (Sophie Louise Dan is glorious).  Back home in the UK Beatrice and Eugenie,  in drawling Sloane voices and insane fascinators, gallantly start a campaign to prove their father’s innocence…

           I loved the Channel 4 spoof by Bert Tyler Moore and George Jeffrie, with Harry Enfield as a deluded megalomaniac Charles, a scheming Camilla and a family of well-meaning dolts with peculiar (and not very royal) pronunciations – “MeGUN” etc.  It is oddly innocent, as only wild exaggeration can be:  less savage than the old Spitting Image and  far less damaging  than the sly inventions of The Crown and  the “insider” gossip reports on which they often seem to be based.   I did wonder whether Enfield’s muggingly preposterous Charles act could fill a West  End stage,  but blessedly,  it doesn’t have to.   Though only three of the TV cast join him – Matthew Cottle’s priceless Edward, Tom Durant-Prichard’s vacant well-meaning Harry and Tim Wallers’ Andrew – this is a joyful ensemble.  We know it has been put together pretty fast, as the Prince of Wales theatre (ha ha)  loses the ghastly racist Book of Mormon,  but they seem to have had fun with it. 

    Anyway,  Camilla’s scheming has made Charles absolute monarch, enabling him to return Britain to his peasant-rich ideal of “chaps with lutes going round maypoles” . Politicians and civil servants were all “ easily bought off with knighthoods”, and they send kindly Wills and Kate on a long world tour.

     Which of course involves LA where the Sussex and Cambridge duchesses have a magnificent physical catfight over who made who cry.   But when they find Britain a  feudal state dominated by Camilla as  Elizabeth I ,  the fab four are reconciled , and resolve to lead a democratic  revolution. There’s  a wickedly funny snog-off in  a yurt in their encampment (amazing what you can suggest with shadow-play)   and some ripe latrine jokes (this show is sweary and rude throughout).  

      No spoilers, because the fun lies in the pile-up of nonsense, all the way to a Stonehenge crisis when we are asked to revive a  royal Tinkerbell  by shouting “We believe in constitutional monarchy!”. Everyone did.  A few huffy blokes behind me but in the end they had to join in. 

       It sails near the wind-  Tracy Ann Oberman as Camilla sings “Diana – Goddam her!” to gasps as well as cheers – but the big numbers are  more village-panto than Broadway. That’s good, because it feeds a sense of  family ridicule rather than satire. The ensemble at last sings:  “We always do our duty, and never-ever fuss – we are the Windsors! – God Save US!”.  Then Enfield explains that it would be inappropriate for them to bow at the curtain call,  so we all have to stand up and bow to them, while they wave..

   Given our national relish for both monarchy and  rude jokes, my instinct is that this one will reign and reign. 

Rating.  Four 

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