BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S Theatre Royal Haymarket SW1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES LIKES LOTT A LOT…

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

Rating;  three3 Meece Rating

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HALF A SIXPENCE Chichester Festival Theatre

FLASH BANG WALLOP..

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

box office 01243 781312
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD 1 & 2 Palace Theatre, W1

  JUST WHAT WE WAND-ED?

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Box office 0330 333 4813 to – well, eternity probably

rating Four    4 Meece Rating

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FRACKED Minerva, Chichester

THE NEW F-WORD (AND A FAIR FEW OF THE OLD ONE)

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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INTO THE WOODS Menier, SE1

ONCE UPON A TIME, WHICH COULD BE NOW…

 

 

What a marvel is this Sondheim / Lapine classic musical: playful and deep, absurd and earthy, mocking and wise. And what a piece of luck to plunge into its eventful world of fairytales entangled and askew, just when we are stumbling through the tangled woods of nightly news – wolves, lies, witches, giants, temptations, choices, alliances, guilts, remorses, forgivenesses, necessary wars and dark revenges. As I went in, checking the newsfeed, Chancellor Osborne was wandering off alone into the distant trees. By the interval Boris was Foreign Secretary. Drunk with storytelling and news the head reeled: all it needed was Michael Gove offering to sell Sarah Vine for five magic beans. Maybe I need more sleep.

 
Yet by the end of this wonderful piece there is more than story, a deep human complexity and moral reflection: “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right!” says the witch, and one longs for her to take command. Here are the great arias and choruses about bewilderment and choice (“Is it always or, is it never and..?”) and the witch’s warning that “Children will listen…be careful”. I had seen Into the Woods before, long years and sorrows ago: but now the depth of Sondheim’s understanding felt far stronger. Maybe in another few years it will change again.

 

 

 

Yet it’s all done with folk-tales, the stories we offer our children (albeit in the grimmer versions, and with adult admissions that happy-ever-after may involve disillusion, princes falling for other princesses, blinded Ugly Sisters still needing looking after by someone, and Rapunzel getting post-natal depression and blaming her mother.

 

 

 

Fiasco Theatre ’s off-Broadway production has a pared-down vigour which makes 2 hrs 40 fly past, so that you can hardly bear being separated from the joyful, energetic cast in the interval. Ben Steinfeld – who co-directs with Noah Brody as one of the Princes (and the wolf) himself plays the central role of the hardpressed Baker , and greets us informally at the start with the observation that Jessie Austrian as the Baker’s wife is visibly pregnant. Which since the core plot is about her not being so, we were asked to excuse. No problem there: her touching, gutsy performance and gently soaring voice are worth it on any terms. But all the actor-musicians , who wander to the side to pick up instruments from time to time, play seamlessly and joyfully together. Andy Grotelueschen is a particularly expressive and hilarious bearded cow (and a prince)’ a dumbly deadpan Patrick Mulryan is Simple Jack. There’s a marvellously tough, street-smart Red Riding Hood from Emily Young, and of course the Witch: Vanessa Reseland, possessively human over her daffy, ariel Rapunzel (Young again) . Reseland has superb attack and a shattering voice as she moves from burning , terrifying need to blame, pragmatic ferocity and the uselessness of remorse.

 

 
Framed by old piano keyboards and crazy montages of twisted instruments, Derek McLane’s set emphasises visually that it is Sondheim’s music which carries the emotions and truths: never a note wasted or a word lost, lyrics as tangled as undergrowth or soaring above the forest canopy. In our woods of war and change and quarrel, wolf-harried, mistrusting our magic beans and trembling at distant giants, it was both a magical escape and a lesson.

 

Box office 020 7378 1713 to 17 Sept
rating five      5 Meece Rating

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KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

AYCKBOURN AT IT AGAIN..OR IS IT

 
There’s tennis without a ball (audience requested to do plock-plock sound effects on drums), a mini-farce, thriller and horror story also supported by audience playing birdsong, creaks and sirens. Oh well. Theatre begins after all with the idea of play, and needs an audience to complete it. Modern “immersive” work is all the vogue and one must play with the genre, must one not? Hence this mixture of cabaret, charades, improv and a particularly inventive family Christmas game with a dash of Victorian illusion at the end.

 

 

 
Not everyone may realize straight off (I only just did) that it’s a spoof; Alan Ayckbourn himself relates in the programme a solemn story of taking the ensemble under his wing, first meeting spoofy magician Oliver Nelson and Karen Drake “of Frenzied Flyweheel” in a fictional fringe theatre, and pub encounters meeting the others – Rufus Wellington and Anna Raleigh , the invisible Kenneth Benbow and Alyssia Cook, whose names (plus their dutiful stage manager’s) spell out KARAOKE. Ayckbourn’s story ends with him having offered to direct and being told “Sorry, we feel we don’t really need a director”.

 

 

 
Yet must assume that he did direct this. In which case, the spoof has gone too far in its pretence at non-direction. Directors are aware of the importance of pace, and the small annoying austerities which, gently inflicted, keep shows moving. And this featherlight, meringue-sweet offering could have been, without spoiling the gag, made into something properly special with a bit of snappy authority.

 

 

 

The ball-less tennis is delightfully funny, especially when one audience member entrusted with a drum fails to do it and the player has to grunt. But it goes on too long. The setup for the farce, with Anna instructing the audience in sound-effects, takes too long, praising every volunteer and block so that self-applause slows it terribly. The 15-minute playlet itself is OK, if silly. In the period drama spoof with brilliant Georgian wigs and a nice sharp plot (borrowed, I suspect, from a Saki short story) we suffer the same slow-burn setup, and then the damn thing is repeated, with an audience member as a key character reading from boards. The Scandi-noir murder takes a different tactic, using volunteers as talking subtitles and muting the actors, and works far better, partly because on press night a middle-aged man in a tartan tie and glasses did a superb vocal turn as the glamorous maid, top screaming there, mate. And the Victorian Gothic is enlivened by some ingenious traditional spot-effects – coconuts, wind and rain machines and a thunder-sheet: the sort of stuff Ayckbourn and us theatre-nuts love.

 

 

 

The very able cast throw themselves into parody-acting with gusto nicely send up the rather impressive find-the-lady trick with three secret cabinets for a finale. And the audience laughed a lot, especially the young. I’d bring along any child or teenager with a taste for larks and theatre games, and sit them close to the front to get involved. And the props are great fun. But a spoof on theatre and theatricality has to be – well, properly theatrical. And, ideally, hold an edge of insecurity. This doesn’t. I love Ayckbourn for his contrariness and adventurousness, but this is a baffling use of nearly three hours…

 
box office 01723 370541 to 8th October
rating two

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FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS Orange Tree, Richmond & touring

EIGHTY YEARS ON:  MEN BEWARE WOMEN

 

At a moment when both female leaders and would-be leaders are rampaging across the news – May, Merkel, Leadsom, Eagle – it is pleasantly instructive to see this revival have a second Richmond season: it’s a comic squib from the young Terence Rattigan (before the dark sensitivity of Deep Blue Sea and Cause Celebre). And as women in our century wield real power, it is a time capsule, a period piece reminding us that not so long ago, the culture created a real male terror and misunderstanding of women: at least, of women whose main route to power was through being maddeningly seductive.
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The play vanished from the canon for decades, eclipsed first by Rattigan’s greater works and then by the years when he fell right out of fashion. But the Orange Tree’s production with English Touring Theatre has proved both fascinating and endlessly amusing: a meringue with a drizzle of lemon sharpness. A group of public-schoolish young men are staying in a villa in France to improve their French so that some at least of them can pass the exam for “The Diplomatic”.

 

 
Brian (Alex Large) is a basic male, insouciantly going off with local tarts with names like Chichi. Kit (Joe Eyre) thinks himself in love with the vampy, flirtatious Diana, whose younger brother Kenneth (a very sweet Alistair Toovey, giving just that edge of camp which reminds us moderns what really was on Rattigan’s mind all his conflicted life). Alan, (Ziggy Heath) tries to stand aloof from all this cynically; especially when the older, all-too-briskly Royal Navy, Commander Rogers arrives and proves Kit’s rival for Diana. Tim Delap takes the crisp RN manner almost too far, but rather movingly in the second act explains why: nervous of the cooler young, he was consciously performing the role. But it’s very funnily done. Old M. Maingot huffles around Frenchly, and his daughter, the unflirtatious and altogether sensible Jacqueline (Beatriz Romilly, a lovely warm dignified performance) sighs for love of Kit.

 

 

 

 

It is neatly and wittily woven , and gallops merrily along under Paul Miller’s brisk direction and some lovely roundhand blackboard-scrawls of schoolboy French. Florence Roberts’ Diana, around whom the whole business revolves, is perhaps dated in her obviousness, but frankly no more than many women who are still around: there’s nice chill in her confession to Jacqueline that she just likes making men fall for her because after all it’s the only skill she has.

 

 

 

But the point is the men’s behaviour: ardent, enslaved, seeing resentfully but helplessly the deficiencies of their idol, held at bay where real sex is concerned, altogether tormented, and in the case of the one she eventually lights on plain terrified. Rushing for the nearest train. Whereas Jacqueline – in a sentimental coda – wins by being plainly human, unmanipulative, a women of character and a kind of modesty.

 

 

 

But the panic, the combat and the nerve-shredded nonsense of the other men is a delight to watch. Some call it misogynistic, though the character of Marianne suggests the opposite. But one cherishes lines of male panic like “You can’t judge women by our own standards of right and wrong..How can you, they don’t have any”. Not to mention Alan ’s cry of “I shall fall, God help me, I know it. Never leave me alone with that girl!”.

 

 

box office 0208 940 3633 to 30 July. Then touring Sept-Nov
orangetreetheatre,co.uk and ett.org.uk

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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