WOYZECK Old Vic, SE1

 

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS LOVE, PITY AND HORROR IN EQUAL MEASURE AT THE OLD VIC

Jack Thorne’s explosive new Woyzeck brings Büchner’s unfinished working class tragedy to Berlin in 1981, with our hero a British Army private, trying to adjust to life on the German border between capitalism and communism after a hideous stint in Belfast. Strapped for cash, patronised by those in authority, and frantic to shore up his fragile new family of girlfriend and baby in the face of widespread disapproval, Woyzeck’s increasingly desperate cries for help fall on deaf ears in a cynical, hypocritical world which only wants to exploit him. Quite what happened to Woyzeck on his service in Troubles-torn Ireland, and what dark deeds he witnessed in an exceptionally traumatic childhood, tease us throughout Thorne’s version; military characters mutter about Woyzeck’s past career, Thorne brings Woyzeck’s mother onto the stage as a terrifying spectre haunting his memories and nightmares (grittily played by a compelling Nancy Carroll, also glorious as callously posh officer’s wife Maggie), and a boy actor represents Woyzeck’s childhood self, witnessing casual atrocities whose psychological impact only deepens over time.

As his mind unhinges, Woyzeck clutches desperately at hope, love and goodness, but the perennial uncertainty implicit in hope steadily drives him mad. We tread the path of insanity with him as his nightmarish insecurities take over during a medical trial; even such staunch realities as the gender of his child become bewilderingly uncertain in his increasingly surreal mindscape. Meanwhile, Thorne gives Marie’s own story more prominence and poignance, her wholehearted commitment to Woyzeck clear, making her murder a final tragedy for them both. A selection of Büchner’s characters are synthesised into Andrews (Ben Batt), Woyzeck’s charismatic comrade with an unquenchable thirst for life, especially other people’s wives. Thorne has certainly been busy: but these additions all serve to build a quiveringly taut narrative structure, full of pathos, with Woyzeck’s disintegration implicit from early on. In other words, it’s a barnstorming success.

Joe Murphy’s blistering production does full justice to Thorne’s text, with no holds barred when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and gore, yet nothing otiose either; pace is relentlessly high, tension even higher. Design by Tom Scutt communicates a brutal landscape almost sterile with constant aggression and inactivity, as menacing walls of rough insulation swoop down from the sky, alternately enclosing and exposing characters who live by definitions, by barriers, and above all by hiding what they truly are. But it is John Boyega’s astonishing Woyzeck which is the powerhouse of this piece, beginning with unassuming gentleness and sincere affection, and culminating in a truly exceptional depiction of madness. In a performance of frankly terrifying physical and psychological intensity, Boyega balances a soldier’s physical machismo with profound inner vulnerability to produce a Woyzeck both utterly lovable and undeniably frightening, ravenous for an impossible level of emotional reassurance from Marie (movingly played by Sarah Greene), and endlessly haunted by his past, always worried that the present is “too good” to stay that way for long. Woyzeck’s betrayals by the two father figures on stage, Steffan Rhodri’s nicely observed Captain Thompson and Darrell D’Silva’s delightfully creepy Doctor Martens, feel as appalling as they are inevitable. Boyega’s profoundly affecting portrayal goes to the very heart of this character, a man driven to madness and violence by a cruel world – and, crucially, by his own doomed determination to do good in it.

In such a generally slick, potent play, it’s surprising to note that we do still find the odd clumsy or under-rehearsed moment, and lines don’t always flow seamlessly; but this is nevertheless an emotionally challenging, deeply unsettling must-see.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 0844 871 7628. At The Old Vic until 24 June 2017

Rating: four

4 Meece Rating

 

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THE ADDAMS FAMILY Touring

LOOK INTO THE DARK AND SMILE ALL TOUR LONG    Touring Mouse wide
This cheerfully macabre celebration of Charles Addams’ famous 1930’s cartoon is off on tour: link below. I saw one of the last shows in its opening Wimbledon week, and judging by the larky atmosphere of both audience and cast the cast are having enough fun to storm very happily round the country. The moment you see Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in a bald wig and banjo, dancing in a graveyard to rouse his random ancestors – a chorus who turn out to be Tudor, Japanese, and everything between – you are swept along in its rather magnificently silly, cobwebby train.
To be honest, the story is weak (it’s basically meet-the-parents, young Wednesday wants to marry a preppy muggle) and the music is – well, it just feels like a musical. Any musical. Only one song stands out, a beautiful “Death is just around the corner” by Morticia. But the general jollity of the evening is unarguable.

 
Matthew White directs this UK version: the book is by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, the lyrics and music by Andrew Lippa. Some lines are lovely in-jokes “Trapped! Like a corpse in the ground. Trapped! Like theatre in the round..” and there are some neat jokes about New York – they live in Central Park – and of course about Trump. And, of course, the dark Addamsy jokes. When the parents of the fiancé arrive (Charlotte Page daintily funny as the wife) the question “Do you have a little girls’ room?” is answered “We used to, but we let them all go”.The zombie butler Lurch is Dickon Gough, whose every move sparks gurgles of laughter;

 

 

Another focus is on the flirtatious and argumentative marriage of Gomez and Morticia – she a sinuous Samantha Womack, he a sharply comic Cameron Blakely (“Darkness and grief and unspeakable sorrow” – “Ooh I love it when you talk dirty!”. She dreams of Paris, where she wants to see the sewers. Uncle Fester has a sentimental love song to the moon, who is his ideal partner since a quarter of a million miles away is a good distance for romance: Les Dennis is the one you most warm to, and the most rounded romantic character. Which, for a chap playing ““a fat bald man of indeterminate sexuality” up against the gorgeous Womack and Carrie Hope Fletcher’s beguilding Wednesday, is not a bad result. The mainly young audience adored it. The final corpsy chorus “look into the dark and smile” does bring on that smile.

 
box office http://www.theaddamsfamily.co.uk/tour/
Touring nationwide till 4 November
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RICHARD III Arcola, London E8

TWISTEDLY IRRESISTIBLE 

I would not like you to think that I stalk Greg Hicks (though obviously I do: aaah, that odd strong Caesar, that agonized Leontes, that bonkers newspaper editor in CLARION…). But hearing that Mehmet Ergen had cast him as Richard III, close-up in the intimacy of the Arcola, meant a three-line whip. And there he was as we came in: sitting in a leather jacket at a bar table, ignoring us, spinning a brass miniature top, slouching and menacing. Everyone’s most feared biker badboy.

Ergen’s production is casually set, minimally propped, modern dress but with suggestions of robe or crown when we need it. The focus is on the text, served with respect and energy by all: especially Hicks, who always speaks Shakespeare as if he had just, in a fit of anger or mischief, had the thought himself. He has Richard’s irresistible wicked vigour: a painedly malicious tension, and plays him as more seriously crippled than most, dragging his lame foot by a chain to his withered arm. Often he bent almost double, head oddly averted from many of his families’ and enemies’ curses, a twisted satirical child grown monstrous. In the small space it sometimes seems a pity he does not catch our eye. But this Richard never willingly catches anybody’s.

Except by a fierce act of willpower and savagery, when he lasers in on Anne. The first test of a Richard is this: Shakespeare’s most audacious scene when he must convince us that he, misshapen and avowedly murderous, can seduce her over the very coffin of the husband he slew. This extraordinary scene, followed by the shrugfed “was ever woman In this humour won?” is particularly breathtaking in this production. Hicks’ hypnotic energy, and the sensuality in both word and fumbled gesture, is properly chilling.

But Ergen’s production is above all ensemble: a real actors’ show, glorying in the language, the violence, and evoking the perennial unease of any country fresh from wars and murders, under a weakening king (Jim Bywater is excellent – quavering, horrified, weakly blaming others for not making him prevent Clarence’s murder). In such a state nobody knows how the dice will fall. A heady neurosis hangs over every character, anxious and wary.  Each lord in turn balks at some Ricardian horror and is dispatched: from Mark Jax’ bluff Hastings to Peter Guinness’ long-serving Buckingham.

Only Catesby in his business suit and prim glasses (Matthew Sim, unnervingly a dead ringer for Lord Birt) endures to the last battle, an ice-cold functionary. Brackenbury the Tower keeper, is given an unusual gentleness by Jamie de Courcey; Paul Kemp is a poignant gentle Clarence. All serve the play, moving swiftly, too close to us for comfort, so three hours pass in alarmed fascination.

But it has to revolve around Hicks’ Richard: poisonous, sarky, sometimes hitting a one-line riposte to raise a bark of shocked laughter in the close audience, often hunched inside his private world of hollow hatred. Here is Richard the ultimate unreadable creepy uncle, baited by the cheeky boy Duke of York, who jerks him violently off his feet by his chain, rousing God knows what memories of crippled childhood in a macho world. Here is Richard sadistically preposterous in his final demand for the child Princess’ hand and womb: but also here is a Richard who, with a sudden involuntary jerk, reaches a vain hand towards the mother who has terrifyingly cursed him. His final rising fear is genuinely chilling: the hauntings on the battlefield stand quiet, free of melodrama, ruthless in the play’s flat return to moral certainty.

Box office 0207 503 1646.  To 10 June. Arcolatheatre.com
Rating four    4 Meece Rating

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LETTICE AND LOVAGE Menier, SE1

ENLARGE, ENLIGHTEN , ENLIVEN…ENTERTAIN!

 

 

Expatiating on the Grand Staircase of a dreary Tudor stately home (built with ironic love by designer Robert Jones) our tour guide Lettice Douffet opens with a virtuosa display of highly embroidered historical legends, growing wilder for each tour party. Felicity Kendal hurls herself through it, bright-eyed and irresistibly overdramatic, plucking ever more nonsense from the air: the gawping ensemble definitely give excellent Tourist, reappearing as a stage-army three days running in satirically diverse leisurewear. Only after her last wild flight about a tragic bride spending years mewed up “howling the wedding song specially composed by Henry Purcell” is Lettice hauled in to the Trust GHQ by the uncompromisingly stern Miss Schoen from Personnel. And sacked. And when Kendal sweeps in to her fate in a Mary Queen Of Scots full-length velvet execution gown, another piece of dream casting sees the desk of judgement occupied by Maureen Lipman in a stern tweed suit, deploying her most reproving bureaucratic staccato.

 

 

Yet after the deed is done Lotte Schoen cannot quite let go the acquaintance with this wild romancer who feels that fantasy must “rush in where facts leave a vacuum”; this storytelling self-dramatist who reckons that if an Elizabethan knight didn’t really leap fifteen stairs in one bound to catch Gloriana in his arms and feed her on swans and gilded hedgehogs, he damn well should have. So Lotte reappears, ten weeks and a slidingly ingenious scene-change later, in Lettice’s basement flat. Thence flowers one of the oddest, most beguiling buddy-stories imaginable.

 

 
The late Sir Peter Shaffer’s play is revived under Trevor Nunn in memory of his friend: it is not Shaffer’s most famous (that would be Equus – or Amadeus , so brilliantly realized now at the National Theatre. It is a curiosity, not just as an unfashionably rhetorical piece of writing, but because though nearly thirty years old it is startlingly in tune with modern defiances. For it is entirely about the friendship of two middle-aged women: eccentric women, women whose hearts and imaginations gloriously defy their plain-bread histories and single status. Indeed no mainstream play currently onstage would so triumphantly pass for the vast majority of its length the Bechdel Test: “two women talking together about something apart from a man”.

 

 
Lettice lures the seemingly stern Lotte into her world of dramatic historical romance; Lotte warms and unbends and tells her own story, with its own startling incident and deep-felt romance about the beauty of buildings and the atrocity of 1960’s architectural vandalism. Artfully Lipman, warmed by a terrifying home-made beverage of her new friend’s, regains a softer German lilt as she recalls her father’s love of lost European beauties: of Dresden.

 
It is a lovely duet, the two women’s natures and imaginations in contrast and counterpoint. Their talk expands Shaffer’s theme into the shrinking of the communal soul and the hunger for the beautiful and dramatic. Even if – as is generally the case with Lettice Douffet – it tips over rapidly into preposterous invention. As to the dramatic thing which seems to have happened over six months while we were out for the interval, the play is sufficiently forgotten now to prohibit detailed spoilers. Let it just be said that another startlingly unforgettable costume appears on Felicity Kendal, and that for a period Maureen Lipman’s face takes on an unwontedly sullen, grumpy, infuriated expression before lighting up – again and for good .

 

 

And that we all sail with the ladies into the mental world of Lettice , where despite the banal mere-ness of the age one may be “enlarged, enlivened, enlightened” . And warmed.
box office 0207 378 1713 to 8 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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LIFE OF GALILEO Young Vic SE1

LET THERE BE LIGHT!

 
The year 1632 : we are halfway through the epic conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Holy Roman Church, an authority in its day quite as ruthless as Stalin and as doctrinaire as Mao.  Our hero has wisely gone quiet for eight years after the initial exuberant stirrings of his realisation , deduced from the moons of Jupiter, that the earth does not actually lie “serene and motionless” at the heart of a universe of crystal spheres with immobile stars. No: it is one of many  spinning, orbiting worlds. What every schoolchild learns today is still for Galileo a dangerous doctrine: .the Fathers fear it will make peasants restless, destroy their sense of meaning, upset the orderly disciplines of Christendom and lead (as it did) to the Enlightenment and the age of Reason outranking Faith.

 

 
At this particular point, though, near the end of the first half of Bertold Brecht’s sprawling political fable, our hero is returning to his astronomical studies, inspired by a proof involving sunspots. His personal glee becomes ours as, to a great vibrating, deafening roar from Tom Rowland’s disco-dramatic score, we stare up mesmerised. The overhead planetarium screen, until now merely for stars or Cathedral ceilings is boiling and dazzling, the sun’s very surface a sea of golden swirling brightness…

 

 
But then comes the Inquisition, and in 1633, Galileo’s forced recantation. The moment feels horribly modern, ideology trumping demonstrable truth and reason overruled by power.
The play is intellectually and politically chewy, but despite one overlong rant near the end it should swirl any half-willing spirit along with ease. Joe Wright’s exuberant direction uses bursts of puppetry, an anarchic carnival scene, and the cast of 11 ripping round Lizzie Clachan’s circular (orbiting!) platform as 68 characters, often invading the sprawled young groundlings in the centre. The staggering projections by 59 Productions finally evolve into the heartshaking beauty of modern astronomical pictures of swirling nebulae. For a serious political play, it’s a hell of a light-show.

 

 
Glowing at its centre is the phenomenal Brendan Cowell as Galileo: burly and bearded, moving over its three hours from teacherly excitement and optimism – “People will be delighted..it is a new age! ” , to incredulity at the dreadful old clerical scholars who refuse even to look through the telescope but prefer an Aristotelian “disputation” about why it can’t be true. Thence he moves into cautious depression, alleviated by his practical empathy with “craftsmen, precision toolmakers “ (Jason Barnett is particularly good as the lens-grinder). He finds renewed energy at the advent of a Pope reputed to respect science. But the sight of the “instruments” of persuasion lead to recantation . It feels, in the hollow, echoing dramatic moment Wright gives it, a real blasphemy. Finally in old age there is Galileo’s self-loathing defiance as his old pupil Andrea (an excellent Billy Howle) returns to reprove him.

 

 

It is full of ideas: about power, truth, social structures (including economics) and personal cowardice or courage. When Andrea cries in disappointment “Unhappy is the land without heroes!” the riposte is “No – unhappy is the land which NEEDS heroes”. As true today as in Brecht’s restless 1940’s. So is the core message: “If you don’t know the truth, you are an idiot. If you know it and call it a lie, you are a criminal”.

 

 

box office 020 7922 2922 http://www.youngvic.org to 1 July
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR Duke of York’s, WC2

IN WHICH MICHAEL ADAIR LOSES HIS THEATRE-CRITIC VIRGINITY TO A PACK OF SCOTTISH MINXES

 

 

A few years ago, when High School Musical and Glee were in their pomp, we were forever seeing beautiful American schoolchildren with immaculate teeth, bursting into song and overcoming life’s adversities in glaring colour and merciless cheer.
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour provides the glorious antithesis: directed by Vicky Featherstone, adapted by Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s novel ‘The Sopranos’, it follows six Catholic school girls from Oban on a day trip to Edinburgh for a choir competition. Thy are warned by Sister that they are not just representing the eponymous school (nicknamed ‘The Virgin Megastore’) but also God himself. Their response? ’Let’s go fucking mental’.

 

 
What ensues is 105 straight minutes of wonderful chaos , as our girls wend their way through the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh – swearing, singing, searing with energy. At first we have the angelic choral harmonies of Mendelssohn, soon replaced by an angry and defiant burst of Jeff Lynne’s Mr Blue Sky as the school uniforms are inevitably ditched for mini skirts and fishnets as the anything-but-virtuous pupils authoritatively swagger around the set in true rock n’ roll style. It’s sneering and it’s sleazy, in marvellous fashion and Francis Mayli McCann as Kylah, in particular, gives an electrifying, caustic energy to the musical numbers.

 

 

The girls are funny – and what a joy it is to see a cast made up entirely of young, funny women. The banter and teasing are quick-witted and constant, in a way that feels almost improvised; their language is filthy. For instance Orla (Isis Hainsworth), recovering from cancer and with less sexual experience than her equally underage friends, asks Manda (Kirsty MacLaren) what jizz is. She is soon matter-of-factly informed that it is ‘just like snot, only warmer.’

 

 
Chloe Lamford’s set evokes memories of the worst worn-out British dive-bars of a certain era – a sticky tiled dance floor, inexplicable carpet and colour palette to match any childhood school disco. There is seating at bar stools at the side of the stage for some of the audience, leaving no place to hide for a hugely talented cast who are not given a single moment’s respite in an energetic performance.

 

 
The six leads are the only actors, joined by three female band members lingering in the background. The story is cleverly woven together as each cast member ducks in and out to play the motley crew of characters they encounter in their journey across the city- lecherous drunks, nuns, police officers. More to praise than to take issue with, but if there was to be any criticism it would be that the quick pace of the dialogue and static nature of the set sometimes made it hard to pick up when we were encountering a new secondary character, or indeed where we were supposed to be.

As the floor of the stage becomes more prominently coated in empty bottles, shot glasses and cigarette packets, the play fizzes with hormones and the quest for sensation. The six girls’ appetite for the moment is infectious, yet for these young women – of whom only one to aspires to university – growing into adulthood is essentially a process of losing your potential. To burn brightly seems like the most reasonable decision of all.

 

 

So for all of its humour and mischievousness, the play is ultimately lifted to a higher level by a flickering poignancy. The girls are perhaps no older than 16 and yet we see Fionnula (Dawn Sievewright) sincerely lamenting on ‘what we could have been’. Chell’s (Caroline Deyga) ‘We’ve got the rest of our lives ahead of us!’ becomes a rallying cry for self-destruction, and not an optimistic claim to a broader horizon. For Orla, death could well be part of that blind journey sooner than the others, and it’s an obstacle she’s ill-equipped to circumvent seeing losing her virginity, symbolising entry into adulthood, as a way to make it ‘all feel ok’. This tension of hopelessness and impending doom makes it more than a reversioning of St. Trinians.

 
box office 0844 871 7623 to 2 Sept
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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CAROLINE, OR CHANGE Minerva, Chichester

BLEACH, BLUES, AND BLACK AMERICA RISING

 
Here’s a pocket musical with huge themes, a blues opera of historic seriousness but with a singing washing-machine in a bubbled minidress. A tiny domestic upheaval opens up deep sorrow and the sharpest of human and civil rights: this intimate epic by Tony Kushner, with Jeanine Tesori’s music, wears far better than his Angels in America which occupied eight hours last week at the National.

 
There is apparent whimsy – the tumble-drier sings too, only more baritone and Satanic, and the radio is three foxy Supreme-alikes with aerials on their heads and a succession of fabulously tight costumes – but also real darkness. Its ending, balanced between revolution and resignation as Afro-American generations move on, is the first page of modern America. To see it with the fresh memory of the Obama White House farewells is moving.

 
On the face of it the story is tiny. Caroline – the redoubtable, powerful Sharon D.Clarke – is a maid, doing laundry in the hot humid Louisiana basement of a fractured family – ‘Sixteen feet down and feeling low, talkin’ to the washer and the radio!”. She has three children at home – including the rebellious, stunningly fiercely sung Emmie (Abiona Omonua) and can barely meet the rent and food. The father (Alex Gaumond) is a vague clarinettist, still grieving his dead first wife and disconnected from his 8-year-old Noah: a stunning little Daniel Luniko the night I went. He has remarried the New-York Jewish Rose (Lauren Ward) . She’s homesick for the Hudson river, and Noah dislikes her.

 
So the lad spends his time hanging out in the basement with the grudging, grumpy Caroline, sometimes allowed to light her one cigarette of the day for her. He has a habit of leaving his loose change in his pants pocket, and she saves it for him in the bleach cup. Until Rose, with a glorious mean-white-madam tactlessness probably all too familiar to many a Filipina here today, decides that it would both teach Noah a good Jewish lesson in the value of money and supplement the low wages she pays Caroline, if she tells the maid she can keep any coins she finds.

 

 

This system, and Caroline’s dignity, throw the whole fragile, artificial equilibrium of racism and inequality into a personal and political crisis. For it is 1963: Kennedy is dead, Luther King on the march, black America impatient. The frogs chirp at night in the damp, explosive heat: young rebels have topped the Confederate Soldier’s “Defender of the South” statue .

 

 
Under Michael Longhurst’s direction and Nigel Lilley’s musical leadership (its a substantial little orchestra) the almost through-composed score carries this domestic miniature into the huge theme of coming change: there are great blasts of blues and moments of mischievous exuberance : Emmie and two more young children pull out a stunning fantasy, assisted by Angela Caesar flying overhead as the Moon. There are moments mournful, demonic, whimsical, passionate, comic , threatening.

 

 

The gulf grows politically between the middle-aged maid- solid, enduring, unhappy and conflicted – and her fiery daughter and equally ambitious friend Dotty (“Some folks go to school at night, some folks march for civil rights!”). Another gulf is opening too, in a Hannukah scene both vigorously funny and dangerously threatening: Rose and her visiting New York parents fail to quench her firebrand grandfather (Teddy Kempner), a 1930’s Communist who thinks the negroes should give up this “non-violence nonsense” and get on with smashing capitalism for all the workers.

 

 

Yet the big themes all feed in to one point: the solid, the sorrowful, the melodious, the banked-fire unhappiness of Caroline herself, trapped in a cleft of history. The political is the personal, wonderfully so.

box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk to 3 june
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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