BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR Jermyn, SW1

THE SAVAGE BEAUTY OF THE FIRST AIR WAR

  

Britain did not stand alone  in WW1.    As our hero sings in John MacLachlan Gray’s  1982 play:

“South Africa and Canada and Australia to boot /   Are saying ‘Mother, here we are!  Now  tell us who to shoot?”

    This  1982 Canadian play is a fascinating sidelight in this centenary week,  a biography of one star pilot in that war.  It not only takes us above the terrible trenches and into the skies but reminds us of that  “Colonial”contribution.  Those Anglophone lands lost many sons but in the process  gained a new confidence in their future independence.  It also reminds us that WW1 began, incredibly,  with cavalry charges – Billy came over in a boat full of army horses – but ended with the newest of technology.   War moved aloft, in the canvas and prop planes of the Royal Flying Corps.   Without parachutes,  youthful pilots  flew them with an average 11-day survival , and in one model  were sent out – for reasons of weight -with only bombs, no guns.

 

 

. Among them was our hero. Billy Bishop, a callow, rebellious young Canadian who failed his military academy finals by cheating and arrived, seasick and shocked by a voyage through torpedo attacks, as a cavalry officer.    Weary of the mud and boredom in camp he looked up to see a plane, and discovered that he might manoeuvre himself into a job as an Observer. Despite daft laddish injuries,   a  weak heart and being disgraced in training he came good.  He trained as a pilot, patronised by Lady St Helier (who had Canadian connections). He   won the  MC and VC and to his horror was paraded socially before political grandees as a kind of human trophy.   He was  one of the highest scoring fighter pilots and so valuable as a symbol  that he was pulled off duties before the Armistice and sent home  because  Canadian morale needed encouraging and,  unaccountably to the sombre English mind,  that young nation preferred its heroes to survive.

 

It is the well-worn wartime  tale of impossibly young men  thrown into the desperate exhilaration of war, losing friends daily, impassioned against “the Hun”,but sometimes suddenly softening  at the burning realities of death.   But it is also a universal portrait of a bad-boy coming good, finding a metier,  hurling himself at his talent almost too hard, in and out of drink and depression: almost a rock star story. 

 

  Most of the time, in Daisy Blower’s painstakingly detailed set (including a piano for the many atmospheric songs),  two men are on stage:Charles Aitken as young Billy, lean and manic, half annoying and half irresistible, shares the narration with Oliver Beamish as his older self , the Air Marshal of the 1950s . Neatly and deftly each becomes other characters:   Beamish often authority figures, Aitken at one point almost worryingly convincing as a French bar chanteuse .  They meld beautifully, each a part of the other, singing together sometimes.

       There is for my taste slightly more evocation of dogfights and of  Billy’s remarkable solo raid on a German airfield.  But it is brilliantly done, probably necessary. Gray’s writing is often startlingly poetic;   the songs – some from the period –  vibrate with atmosphere.  Early on, the sense of a  lonely Canadian’s longing for his own peaceful skies is poignantly beautiful.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

to 24 nov

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ear for eye ROYAL COURT, SW1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL  ADAIR LISTENS, AS WE SHOULD

 

A glass box filled with smoke encapsulates the Royal Court stage. Shadowy figures patrol its perimeter, sometimes staring out at the audience, trapped. The play begins as the box is lifted, uncaging fifteen people, all of them black.  Over eleven scenes they take it in turns to address one another. 

 

     Sometimes they speak to specific people, they could be their parents, their friends, sometimes directly to the entire group. Each takes his or her turn speaking, but far more time is spent listening. Sitting on wooden chairs, sometimes they are assembled like a support group, other times angrier, arranged around the speaker as in  a boxing ring or slumped, as if a meeting of outraged trade unionists. The conversations are snapshots: of anger, of frustration, of exasperation. They are conversations about being black – witnessing and being subjected to police brutality, how to act and how to carry yourself without fear of unjust punishment, of peaceful protest and of the suggestion of violent protest in a desperate attempt to bring positive change. 

 

 

Written by debbie tucker green  [ the lower-case titles are her wish]   this is a searing, breathtaking work where listening is a recurring theme. In part 1, the snapshots of stories move along frantically, at first hard to catch on to. But  with the repetition – with the scenes ticking between African American and Black British voices, the anger the issues start to match, echo and twist into the same tornado – police brutality, protest, working to be perceived as ‘acceptable’. As this tornado picks up pace and whistles around the stage, we reach part 2. There is little left in its wake. Gone are our familiar fifteen faces, now we just have two. A young black woman (Lashana Lynch) and a middle aged white man (Demetri Goritsas). The man is incapable of listening:   the two are discussing a heinous crime – the man disagrees, twists and turns, interrupts, cites ‘ the research’, repeatedly references his own intelligence, mansplains, asserts things verging on hysteria.  He does not listen or , when challenged, accept that he is not listening. As the nameless white man keeps turning the tables, pontificating, the stage slowly rotates clockwise, screwing around and around, along with our own stomach. This is real, this stuff really happens. This is still a world of ‘I’m not racist, but…’ and tucker green is here masterfully showing us one of the most astonishing accounts of the modern black experience that I have ever seen. 

 

With part 2 leaving us on the ropes, part 3 is the knockout blow. We see a pre-recorded film, dozens of white American voices: children, elderly couples, families all sitting sadly and  uncomfortably whilst they read Jim Crow laws, the laws that enforced racial segregation in the USA, such as ‘It shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes or checkers.’ This is followed by British voices reading some of the obscene British Slave Codes for Jamaica. 

 

This is a merciless and frankly, traumatic piece of work, well deserved by our angry, divided times. As a work of drama, the lack of narrative sometimes causes it to feel like scenes wear on for too long after the emotional waves come crashing over the rocks. But it is  a work of art, a sincere and important message more important to be seen for what it is, rather than picked apart in a review.  

  My words are less important, go and listen to debbie tucker green’s.

 

Box Office: 020 7565 5000 to  24th November

RATING   

Michael Adair on reflection feels it inappropriate to offer star (or mouse) ratings  from 0-5  here, and theatrecat feels that this is as valid a judgement as ratings themselves:  we like you to read the words rather than count the stars…

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HONOUR Park Theatre, N4

LOVE’S PRECEDENCE AND CRUELTY

 

      George is a journalist-intellectual, award-winner, amiably vain and sixtyish..  He  twinkles for England,  with much black-rimmed-specs-play,  when being  interviewed by an ambitious young graduate, Claudia.   At home is his wife Honor, laughingly at ease with  him, the pair exuding long-accustomed affection and joking about an old friend who has left his wife for a young girl and, ridiculously,  goes out clubbing with her (“He’s so old they think he’s a performance artist”).  Claudia the interviewer  comes to lunch:  unsuspicious, Honor talks about their long marriage and how – charmingly –  enjoying sex becomes as much to do with memory and “knowing what each other used to be”.  

     

        But Claudia is on navel manoeuvres,  casually baring a bellybutton in the next interview session, letting her hair hang loose,  making her questing intellectual chat daringly intimate.  George succumbs.  and  announces to his baffled wife that he is leaving. So  begins the to- -and-fro of pain and disillusion,  adjustment and remorse.  And the play asks   hard questions about the primacy of the heart and the usefulness of dull old virtue. 

  

  It’s an old story indeed –  and an artfully updated 1995 play by Joanna Murray-Smith –  but so beautifully  performed in Paul Robinson’s austerely set production that it feels very up to date.  Its forensic examination of love , exploitation and the male-female balance enthrals, amuses and prods painfully at the emotional culture of today.  Henry Goodman is superb as the donnish George:    vain in his early self-possession, defensive in his headlong passion, wounded at last and  dryly saddened.  Imogen Stubbs is magnificent too as Honor:   she has a powerful capacity to portray love’s huge pain  yet hold within it a kind of surprise :  her finely timed humour hits hard at moments , and in extremis she can kick the furniture over with whirling force.   

 

      As for Katie Brayben  as Claudia, she is suitably dismaying in her icy, juvenile intellectual ambition and her very modern  feminist ruthlessness:  she sees no problem in  luring a husband from a woman she considers less worthy because of her loyal wifeliness and lesser career. She is brutal: not  so much MeToo as the MeFirst .   Her worship of her own sexual allure is coldly selfish,   and she  snaps “I don’t plan to give up anything for anyone”. 

 

    In sweet softer contrast to her damaged cleverness is the daughter of the wrecked marriage, Natalie Simpson’s  Sophie:   defiantly furious with her father, accusing her mother,   then  crumbling at the loss of safe familial warmth. 

     There are good laughs, not least the gloriously predictable moment when George rashly criticises Claudia’s writing for lack of nuance, and when she is horrified by his boyish dream to sail round the world with her instead of being a power-couple.   But at the play’s heart is the question even she finally understands enough to ask.  Why against fairness, loyalty and gentler loves,  does passion think it can take precedence?

 

  box office 0207 870 6876  to 24 nov  

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER Bridge, SE1

NOT SO VERY

 

  A wooden box swings, pendulum-regular, in a peerlessly spooky attic of Halloween horror,  designed with glee by Anna Fleischle .   It is inhabited. Difficult, says its captive (using the unaccountable cowboy tones of Tom Waits)  to hang yourself when you are shut in a 10 ft box with one foot sawn off and no rope or laces.   Hans Christian Andersen, downstairs,  receives plaudits for  reading aloud – with some unfamiliar stumbles – The Little Mermaid.  He comes up to tell the captive – a Congolese female pygmy he calls Marjorie – to make the next story she gives him upbeat.  No  more “cripples dying in the snow”. Otherwise he might saw off her other foot.   Every other word in their conversation is ‘fucking’ or “cunt”, though she at least is crisply intelligent ,whereas Hans is a stumblebum (who does stumblebums better than Jim Broadbent , eh ?  OK, he is sometimes genuinely funny despite the text’s  lazy limitations).  

 

 

 Hans is under stress  because two bloodstained time-travelling Belgians from the future are trying to prevent themselves being killed in that future by “Marjorie” , whose family they slew during King Leopold II’s appalling 1880s genocide.   Luckily she has a haunted concertina with a hidden machine gun,  in case they come for her while Hans is visiting Charles Dickens.  Who he confuses with CharlesDarwin, but who also got his tales from a captive but creative Congolese pygmy.  Dickens’ wife and small children, by the way,  also eff and blind a lot, which may be lazy dialogue but  is handy because it proves that -in defiance of increasingly compelling suspicion on my part  -Martin  McDonagh’s new absurdist play  is not just a string of dated Monty- Python sketches.   Its more modern: a sweary  gross-out horror fantasy , a cheese-dream for intellectual literati.

 

 

         You might enjoy it.  Matter of taste.   Dress it up  perhaps as a solemn metaphor about colonial guilt and exploitation.  Or go Freudian and decide that Marjorie is the dark  inner side of any tormented artist.  Alternatively just shrug. I did.  It felt lazy and silly in equal parts.    The brightest aspect   , though, should be celebrated:   it is a remarkable, assured, tough and sharpwitted professional debut for Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles playing the Congolese captive. She even gives it edges of proper emotion,  despite occasionally having to mime to that unaccountable cowboy Waits  voice. 

 

 

    So OK, glad she got the gig.  And mirth matters, wherever it is found, so glad too that quite a few of the audience laughed.  Though rather tellingly,  they never laughed never as heavily  as at a theatreworld  in-joke about German directors.   By the way, McDonagh in his Mr McNasty mood adds a really  unpleasant, and wholly gratuitous, little tale of a conjoined twin who dies slowly, deaf and blind,  of rigor mortis when his sibling’s throat is cut.  But hey, it’s dark comedy, innit?  Sick, man!

 

box office  www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 6 Jan

rating two  2 meece rating

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THE WILD DUCK Almeida, N1

LOVE,  LIES AND THE PAIN OF TRUTH

 

   Is it better to live in a lie,  a happy story,  or to admit the messy sinful truth?  Should you  assume that every person you meet is the worst part of themselves, even if there’s evidence of that worst?   

    

This is Ibsen,  so you know it won’t end too well. If there is a poisoned secret it will come out, if a gun it will be fired, and the sins (and sicknesses) of the fathers will fall on the children.   There will also be a metaphor, in this case a wild duck kept tame in the attic alongside a few rabbits , pigeons and old Christmas trees.  Old Ekdal,  broken by his business partner’s treachery and a prison term, likes to go up there and play at hunting.  The duck was winged one day by the wicked partner,  and legend says that when wounded,   a wild duck dives deep and holds on to the weeds until it drowns. But a dog retrieved it, and Ekdal’s son James  keeps it because his daughter Hedwig loves it. They’re all wounded, clinging on in the deep.  All their stories are broken-winged.

 

  Director Robert Icke, most ingenious of re-framers and refreshers, presents this classic of pain and lies with a touch of meta-theatre as Kevin Harvey’s  Greg -son of the corrupt rich partner – arrives on the bare stage with a microphone to inform us, with a touch of patronage, that when he wrote it in 1884  Henrik Ibsen had a secret  illegitimate child,  so this  underlies his sense of lies growing like tumours.  He adds that since the original play is in Norwegian and all translations are a sort of untruth, there is no point us expecting the ‘true’ version.   Props are at first picked up from the front row;   at various moments he, or other characters, will use that mic again to offer bits of narrative or stage directions.  Cards on the table:   I get a bit irritable at such devices, and didn’t quite buy the parallel between deep family lies and theatre itself.  

  

 

    But it pays off,  not least because Greg proves to be a walking truth-bomb himself, and in the final moment gets the contumely such irresponsible truth-tellers sometimes deserve.   And the emotional core of the play is beautifully, tenderly, sadly rendered:   true to the playwright, with all Ibsen’s fin-de-siecle desperation to blow apart 19c secrecies  and grope painfully towards a more honest society.  Most of it – as items of furniture turn up – take us to the household of the ruined Ekdal’s son James, his wife Gina and their daughter, the enchanting and beloved twelve year old Hedwig  (on press night Clara  Read, superb).  

 

        Edward Hogg gives James a brittle energy: fragile, eager, optimistic but wounded and ineffectual,  resenting the secret subsidy from his father’s old enemy and trying not to believe in it.    Lyndsey Marshal is superb as Gina:  she has her own secret, indicated by occasional malapropisms that create an odd unease.  When she says “men need something to abstract themselves with” and is corrected to “distract”, we pick up the other meaning.    Nicholas Farrell is touching as the old ruined hunter abstracting himself from reality with the gun in the attic.     The strength and love of family, soon to be shattered by revelations and heredity, is intensely affecting, the intermittent scene-change grabbing of the microphone taking nothing from its illiusion of reality.  Actually,  it is even more poignant to feel that the players are helplessly manipulated by Ibsen, the way  we all are by life.   The rising tension near the end is almost unbearable.  

    

      And although until the final five minutes one might  think designer Bunny Christie got away with providing nothing but a few chairs and tables, you eat your words when a black screen rises on the world above,  and the bitterest of fairylights.

 

box office  0207 359 4404  to 1 Dec

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE MARINER Touring

ALONE ON A WIDE, WIDE SEA 

    

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be studded with overfamiliar quotations,  but taken in its entirely,  has power to disturb .  It is about guilt, terror, hallucination, terror, “the nightmare death-in-life” and prescient sense of human vandalism of the natural world.  It yearns for forgiveness and the power to pray.    It came, after all,  from a man  brilliant,  revolutionary in his politics and sexual morality,  possibly bipolar,  a tricky husband , quarrelsome  friend and opium addict. 

         

      Now,  on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 246th birthday,  these Eastern counties are seeing a tour of this fascinating reimagining, from letters and records,   of the way the poem resonates through the man’s own life. Pat Whymark writes and directs;   her partner Julian Harries plays the Mariner.  Their tiny company Common Ground is better known round here for cheerful Christmas-show  spoofs  but this is more ambitious and  – despite some good dry laughs at the poet’s behaviour – more serious.   We find the poet (Richard Lounds) in lodgings in 1810,  away from his family and estranged from some friends,  doing his lectures on Shakespeare and Miltonwith the laudanum-bottle on the table,  the landlady chatty but exasperated,   and Thomas de Quincey (Anthony Pinnick) his loyal and exasperated friend and fellow opium-eater,  occasionally dropping in.    

 

 A series of flashbacks gives us his fairly unhappy marriage to Sarah and her grief at his neglect (when one of their infants died, he refused to come home but continued a walking tour of Germany and told her to “Bear it with Fortitude”).    There is also an amusing glimpse of the Wordsworths, William (Pinnick again) and his besotted sister Dorothy;  we get a nice evocation of how annoying they must have been to Sarah Coleridge, especially when her husband  cries “William and Dorothy are like food and drink to me” and points out that she lacks  “high sensibilities”  and that Dorothy is “perfect electrometer of feeling” .  

 

      Indeed the two women in multiple parts – Eloise Kay and Emily Bennett – are important not only in contrast to the self-obsessed Coleridge but because Whymark, also a composer,  gives the piece a hypnotic, disturbing vocal and instrumental score (the two women and Pinnick play guitar , serengi and violin).  Sharp harmonies and eerie sounds create almost as much atmosphere as the poem itself.  They sing verses from it,  and  from a sloping deck and ragged sail stage left,  the whole narrative is performed by the rather magnificent Julian Harries.  Each section reflects a time of  dissolution, temper or torment for Coleridge,   at his desk stage right or with the others at the centre.  Projections create sea, sky, cloud; but it is Harries’ grey beard and glittering eye that carry it.  

 

     This is one of the problems for the writer,  and for Lounds as Coleridge. As so often, the poet is a lesser creature than his work.  It would take a peculiar brilliance in any actor to make him more than mainly, frankly,   annoying.   Some trimming of the script showing moments from his life would  help (and may yet, tours always develop).   The saturnine elegance of Pinnick’s de Quincey certainly does help, though.  Lounds is best when at his most agonized, not least because that is when the Mariner Harries (not a bad electrometer-of-feeling himself) is at his most tormentedly stormy. In an excellent late moment the mariner explains to us why he bearded the poor flustered wedding-guest:  

 

     “I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.”.   Harries fixes the wayward poet with his glittering eye:  out of his own lines Coleridge stands rebuked.  Nice.  

 

Touring Mouse widetouring mainly one-night stands:
  box office https://www.commongroundtc.co.uk/shows    to 11 Nov.   Bures, Southwold, Aldeburgh next 

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

LECHERY AND TREACHERY,  MACHISMO AND METAL…

 

  ‘I had forgotten” said a companion as we staggered out, deafened by the final outbreak of crazed metallic drumming,  “how syphilitic that play is”.  Not a bad word for it:  or try bitter, angry, violent, messy:  more than almost any other Shakespeare play it rages at irredeemable human stupidity and anarchic unreason.  Which makes it curiously modern:  Jarry or Beckett would nod approval.   The director Gregory Doran helpfully gives us in the programme some of the great John Barton’s notes, accepting that it is “comical, tragical, historical, mythical, political, ..cynical, romantic, obscene, Homeric, medieval, intellectual, poetic and absurdist”.   

 

      Set in an endless, pointless war,   the sheer mess of its politics and its refusal to let any character be a hero or an innocent make you leave feeling oddly braced.  That, combined with deafeningly dramatic outbreaks of percussive music by Evelyn Glennie on any number of bizarre strikeable instruments,  not to mention an  appearance by about ten giant trumpets mounted on a bicycle.   Oh, and the fact that it opens with the crashing arrival of Greek and Trojan warriors on roaring motorbikes: you expect Meat Loaf to descend from the ceiling any minute.  Though when a cage does descend from a crazy metallic muddle of random discarded armour hanging overhead, it is a cool narrator  to  inform us that we are seven years in to a war between the Greeks and Troy,  after the abduction of Helen by the Trojan Paris.

 

  The political action begins with each set of princelings debating what to do – Adjoah Andoh’s elegantly creepy Ulysses laying out the problem at inordinate length  on the Greek side, and the Trojans doing their best to ignore the raving, raggedly demented but unfortunately accurate warnings of Cassandra (Charlotte Arrowsmith, truly terrifying, gulping and screaming in prophetic terror).   But before that, we have noted the love affair of the title:  Oliver Ford Davies as a benignly obscene Pandarus furthering his niece’s relationship with Troilus, which is going to help spark the final disaster.  Gavin Fowler and Amber James are touching in their all too brief conjunction,  but so is Pandarus in his way:   his shock at realizing that Cressida is a prisoner-exchange to the Greek camp seems wholly genuine: he is one of the more well-meaning of the play’s multiple misjudgers.   

  

      It does take patience sometimes: dense intricate speeches with the senselessness of the war ever more apparent. But Doran’s meticulous production works all the laughs too: Andy Apollo’s glorious bare-chested Achilles avoiding single-combat with Hector by hanging out in his tent and doing weights and press-ups with his sweet bare-tummied lover Patroclus (actually the sanest of the characters). And there’s  Sheila Reid’s tiny, mocking, gnomelike Thersites taking the mick out of them all,  funny in her irrepressibility  then suddenly creepy in  gloating voyeurism as Cressida betrays her lost love.  There’s joy too in  Theo Ogundipe as a gloriously preening macho Ajax, up for any fight.   The theme of reputation recurs,  Troilus and Cressida vowing not to become eternal  by-words for infidelity,  and golden-haired Achilles always worried about whether he is worshipped enough. 

 

 

        But as the story darkens with Cressida’s capture there is real, visceral, obscene horror in the extraordinary scene where each of her Greek captors demands a kiss.  For this is a play about women as pawns of war, trophies,  objects of derisive desire.  It feels horribly current.  The terrible story sweeps you up: the vigour, the clamour, the extraordinary racket of macho metallic madness,  shield and sword echoing Glennie’s extraordinary score and at last nightmare .  When Achilles is driven to fight,  his  “myrmidons” are  half-ludicrous and half alien, dark horned creatures right out of Dr Who.    It is a puzzle, an oddity, a cry of rage :  it builds to a climax you don’t forget.    

          

    box office  http://www.rsc.org    uk  to 17 November

rating four      4 Meece Rating

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