SNOWFLAKE Old Fire Station, Oxford

  CHRISTMAS,  BREXIT,   GRIEF, HOPE 

   

A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell ,  the little OFS      a  theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett.   Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed.  “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared”  mourns a young remainer,  while an older Brexiteer protests “we’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one”. 

  

        That this argument- now mired in technicalities about customs duties –  has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years, and rarely has.   It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers.   But for today  it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore,    how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the  cruel arrogant certainties of youth,   and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything  pre-millennial.  Which does mean  everything, from bootcut jeans and   the X files to  Blair, Savile and Morrissey –  “everything you grew up with –   most of it very offensive,  and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground” .   

    

         It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though,  and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point.  Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent  of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half , and a double reveal in the second.  Which works very well indeed dramatically , so I am not about to spoil it for you.  Others will. Watch out. 

        

    So just the bare bones:   it is set on Christmas Eve.  Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again.   So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and  a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there.   The first half , until the last moment,  is a monologue in which,  endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age,  the father imagines seeing her again.  It is probably too long a monologue,  the play’s one flaw,   though Levey handles it well.  When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen,  not respecting his  previous booking rights.  The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement,  setting the theme.  

  

Which it does, brilliantly:  the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a  policing of language before feeling,   is set against warm, baffled,  battered and bereaved parental susceptibility.  Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny,  occasionally heartbreaking.  Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander,  that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and  that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee.     Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it,  and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.

     

  And the ending?  Well, it’s Christmas.   Not easy, not pat,  but yes, redemptive.   

box office  oldfirestation.org.uk      to 22 Dec.  Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it. 

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

              

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DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT Oxford Playhouse

 I WENT TO THE PANTO.  O YES I DID.

   

  The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the  audience’s likely cultural uplift,  it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly,  and a firm grip on local in-jokes.    So we get puns on foccaccia and cannelloni,  and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: Anchovy and Cleopatra,  The Comedy of Herrings,  Salmon of Athens, etc.     We also get borrowings off Oliver and Les Mis , a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute. 

  

 

        As for the Cat,  he is a proper urban moggy,  cool as Stormzy:  Alessandro Babalola   breakdancing, cartwheeling,  rapping and hip-hopping and patronizing the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems.   There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), a election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”).  It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh,  so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.     

 

      But never mind the cultural-topical- political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked.  This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls,  the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon.  The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you,   O No It Isn’t,   Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of “Baby Shark”. Which even I know is a Thing. 

  

      The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last  year;  Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices,  Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic.  No reedy tenors here.  Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it,  Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness,   and Steve Marmion , its writer-director,  keeps it hammering along.  All, in short, is as it should be.  O Yes it Is.

 

www.oxfordplayhouse.com    to 6 Jan

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A WONDERLAND WINNER

       

  “Posh panto”,  for wincing parents fleeing the rackety showbiz ’n smut of the season, can be a bit chilly –  neither one thing nor the other.   But Christmas shows can power through both snobbery and the inverted kind, and be a complete delight for all. 

   

  I do mean all:   Joanna Carrick’s adaptation, a spirited three-hander,  is astonishingly faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text and, importantly, spirit;  the crankiest Oxford literary historian could find nothing to miss (despite an artful reference to Bake-Off and the fact that Humpty Dumpty, with his finicky use of words and economic illiteracy,  just happens to have a Boris Johnson hairdo).   It is very Carroll, including a marvellously elegant Victorian nursery set and brilliantly designed costumes by Katy Frost, beautifully echoing Tenniel’s illustrations.    Yet   a row of tiny pre-schoolers sat entranced  for two 40-minute halves, one keenly volunteering as Dormouse and submitting to a ventriloquist’s fake-mouth mask.   

    

    Leonie Spilsbury has the right look for Alice and such a smilingly witty gift with the smaller ones that one checks her programme CV and finds that indeed  she is no stranger to Children’s Theatre (in amid Brecht and Ibsen, it’s a varied life).  In her Alice frock she strides and twinkles around,  playing the guitar sometimes,  confronted by  – or collaborating with  – Darren Latham and Lawrence Russell as the series of Carroll creatures.   Father William, Tweedledum and Dee, Rabbit, a gloriously languid French caterpillar,  a stiffly mad Red Queen though not madder than the gorgeous Hatter,  a properly  barmy Duchess, an Aussie lizard and Dormouse,  the good old wallpaper-roll gag,   and a Cheshire cat who invaded the audience and lay across the laps of patrons, purring violently.   And despite Alice’s “this is not panto”,  there is a  behind-you and a perilous flinging of jam tarts.  Everything for the inner child,  and perfect for the outer ones.   

 

www.redrosechain.com  to 26th     A FEW TICKETS LEFT!!

RATING FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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UNCLE VANYA Hampstead Theatre NW3

,  GEESE CACKLE, LIFE GOES ON   

 

  I have a friend of Russian heritage who boycotts any Chekhov production which lacks scabby birch-trees, a samovar and some parasols.   She’ll do fine here, though the windy autumnal setting precludes parasol-work: Tim Shortall’s setting, indoor and out, is mournfully resonant of its 1890s, pre-Revolutionary rural world.    It is , on the surface, the gloomiest of Uncle Anton’s  works:  country drudgery stirred up by a visit, enervated family relationships , unspoken resentments, lost loves and lives wasted,  the city popinjays carelessly unfeeling and the  decent people stuck quivering like flies in circumstance’s web.   

 

   Yet its very accuracy prevents it from depressing the viewer: some moods,  looked at levelly and with a suspicion of mockery,   have the power to assert something rather beautiful in humanity.  One of the fascinating things about Chekhov’s studies in frustration, disappointment and  ennui is how unfrustrating they actually are. This one has to revolve around Vanya, and Alan Cox  is suitably winning in Vanya’s dismayed, demoralised self-aware failure to count in life,  and  his hopeless mooning admiration of  the lovely Yelena ,who has married his awful old brother-in-law the Professor. 

 

  Cox brings  he part a rare vigour and loveability  just, as it were, below the surface of the grumpy hopelessness.  He gives us all of it:   explosive fury at the Professor after his 25 faithful years of unthanked work on the family estate  “buried alive with my own mother” ,  a moment when he crumbles in painful shame, and the last scene as he weeps alongside his niece Sonia for their two broken futures.    All the cast are very fine indeed,  but alongside Cox a tribute  is particularly owed to Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia: with underplayed glances and tiny moves of urgency she shows all the misery of unrequited love, and how much more than the glorious Yelena she deserves it.  

 

  Terry Johnson, adapting from literal translations and directing, skilfully mines it for all the author’s dry humour and regretful human absurdity:I have rarely seen a more preposterously ghastly old Professor, monster of selfishness and vanity, than Robin Soans’s.  But the other Chekhovian fascination,  which brings  directors and audiences constantly back to the works,  is that because of the intricate subtleties and sympathies every production leaves you with a slightly different heartache. Twice lately,  in the final scene between Sonia and her uncle,   it has been Vanya I wept for (Roger Allan had me in actual tears). This time the greater sorrow  was for Sonia.  

 

And  even a little too for Alec Newman’s Astrov, a fiery forerunner of all our modern fears about the rapine of nature and the rich soil, yet one who cannot see how Sonia would suit his deeper needs because he can only see glorious, idle Yelena –  though “all she does is eat and sleep and glide around entrancing us all”.     She too has her humanity, trapped by her elderly horror of a husband and alienated from her one talent (oh, that slam of the piano lid in he long stormy drunken night !).    And , as if to remind us that only universal sympathy can save us, the awful Professor Sebreriakov,  self-serving hypochondriac fraud,   himself has his moment of aged pain,  looking back at the time when he was someone. “I am in exile from my past. My past, where I belong!”.

 

But  all of them, all of us, are anchored by the old folk,  Nanny and the sweetly useless Teliegin,  who know that geese cackle, life goes on, and as long as you have tea and bread and vodka, it just bloody well has to do.   Can’t think of a better morality for Brexitmas 2018.  

 

www. hampsteadtheatre.com    to  12 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Menier, SE1

L’CHAIM – TO LIFE!    A SPECIAL NIGHT

   

      We are there, over a century ago, beyond the Caucasus.   Designer  Robert Jones  has wrapped us around in rustic planks and ramshackle cottages, with a village pump and a woodland beyond showing skies of , as the wedding song goes “Sunrise, sunset..”.   Tevye’s dairy cart,   the buckets and brooms wielded by his five daughters and weary wife all  speak of establishment,  domesticity, a homespun and  sometimes hungry community in little  Anatevka .  It breathes old Jewish faith, irony, gossip, feuds , family.  But their world is changing, and before the end the Constable  – himself under orders, reluctant, fed up –   will have given every one of them three days to sell up and clear out.  Hunched, laden shapes will fade into the dusk.   

   

 

    My companion of last night had a father who, at the age of sixteen,  fled from just such a shtetl  in rural Russia, arriving penniless and wandering to make at last a life here. Even without that connection,  in that intimate space Trevor Nunn’s marvellous production would have struck deep into the heart.  For all the characterful jokes and romantic sweetness,  when Stein, Boch and Harnick’s classic musical is well done it always takes  on the air of a ritual commemoration.  So it should.   As Tevye says, they are all,  like the fiddler on the roof ,  “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking our necks”.    Like the Highland Clearances,  like any refugee tide in the world,  it is one of the saddest stories.  

 

 

         And the beauty of the show (especially here, so close to the clattering buckets, whirling dances and  exasperated family moments )  is how fast, completely and lovingly ,  the viewer is drawn in to a community which for all its feuds, flaws and absurdities did nothing to deserve it.   Sober, kindly, ancient,  benerous knowing that even for the poor it is “a blessing to give”,  they draw us to them.   Good people in a terribly changing time.  Where,   as our hero remarks “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, makes the whole world blind and toothless”.   

 

       Andy Nyman’s stocky, practical  Tevye is a joy from the start:   grumbling to his God with headshaking informality,  proud of his mastery as Papa and   wedded to tradition,   unable to repress a certain inner joyfulness even in his attempts at sternness.  He kids himself that he is master of his five daughters and who they marry, yet always proves too soft a soul not to talk himself out attempts at correctness.     The daughters are perfect:  Molly  Osborne’s serious Tzeitel determined to avoid the matchmaker’s elderly choice and stick with shy Motl the tailor,  Harriet Bunton’s Hodel who bravely risks dancing with the revolutionary student Perchik at the wedding;  later a more serious dereliction of Jewish duty as their younger sister marries out.   All five are perfect,  catching precisely the combination of irrepressible youth and  sober-frocked traditional demeanour as around them the men drink and laugh and quarrel,  and Judy Kuhn’s equally perfect Mama Golde rolls her eyes impatiently and holds family and community together.   

 

       Close up the show’s great set-pieces are intoxicating: wildest of Cossack dancing from the Russians interleaved with Jewish traditional moves,  every brief fracas timed to perfection,  every gloriously Jewish switch of mood from sentiment to sarcasm timed to a hair.  You gasp and laugh and shiver in recognition and , yes, love.   However many times you have seen it this tight, intimate, heartfelt production sparks new life.  Mazel Tov!   

box office  0207 378 1713  to  

rating  five 5 Meece Rating

           

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TRUE WEST Vaudeville, WC1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR EMPATHISES WITH DEADLINE FEVER..
Here is a tale of two brothers. First, Kit Harrington’s serious, intelligent and moustachioed Austin, Ivy League educated and with a family ‘500 miles up north’, he’s come south to California to look after his mother’s house and water her plants whilst she’s in Alaska. Then his brother arrives, Lee, played by Johnny Flynn – a nomadic waster who has spent months living alone in the desert. The pair haven’t seen each other in years. They appear to have little in common – Austin’s calm and quiet order is completely at odds with Lee’s chaos. The stage seems to be set for a millionth take on the Odd Couple format. 
But as the two brothers battle over a script that could make them their fortune – this becomes a play that is really about the writer, the late Sam Shephard. The two conflicting personalities on show serve to make one whole person. It’s a study in the struggle of any of us who might have a desire to be free, creative and unpredictable, but thwarted by that serious, uptight, niggling side, that needs to stick to the rules and play the game. Watching the pair reminded me of working close to a deadline – feeling the desperate need to focus and deliver, but suddenly also an overwhelming urge to procrastinate and learn everything I possibly can about how submarines work. Here, the serious Austin tries to play by the rules, having regular meetings with a Hollywood producer to try and sell his script, which he is diligently working on. Lee is a chancer – he assuredly flogs the same producer his half-baked idea for a movie almost immediately, but needs the talent of his brother to deliver a script. As the play wears on, Harrington’s once sensible Austin becomes wilder, drunker and begs his brother to take him to the desert. As he’s faced with delivering something he is not capable of, Flynn’s Lee begins to dream of normality. At one point he is seen trying desperately to phone women who might be interested in settling down with him. 
Visually, this is a treat – the house is in a washed out Californian palette, all green and faded orange – with a side of dusty Levis. Set and Costume Designer, Jon Bausor has done a terrific job.  Especially when considering the late Shephard’s stage directions are so meticulous – apparently he even went so far as to specify that the house plants should be ‘mostly Boston ferns’. Credit too to Joshua Carr and Ian Dickinson for light and sound respectively. The searing California sun rises and falls on the house, the moon whispers through blinds and all the while we are enveloped by the cries of crickets and the wails of coyotes. There is a Forced perspective of sorts to the house –  the kitchen seems to stretch further and distort – making our characters taller and more imposing the further away from us they are.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable exploration of the human psyche that is owned by the charisma and energy of its two leads. Harrington and Flyyn are both superb – the further they drag themselves towards the conclusion the more enjoyable their performances become. Amidst fighting and screaming, there is some great dark and physical comedy, with Harrington stealing all of the neighbourhood’s toasters to help him prepare a small mountain of toast being especially amusing. But at two hours with interval – the whole thing feels excessive and a little dated in such a large theatre. At times it feels expansive where there is a need for intimacy, and there is only so far the raging turmoil of a struggling writer can take you. 
Until 23rd February
Box Office: 0330 333 4814
rating three3 Meece Rating

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THE BOX OF DELIGHTS Wilton’s Music Hall E1

DARK MAGIC,  REAL THEATRE

 

  Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike.   Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a  precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil.  Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia  there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer,  elegantly cold and murderously homicidal.     And well before Pullman  there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says,  in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.

 

    The poet laureate John Masefield is ancestor of  them all,  in his children’s books  picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with magic of E.Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any.   This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.   

 

  So  I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday .   Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter –  must  struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles,  unassisted  (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction)  by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”.     Kay  knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”.    She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing.    The wicked lot want not only the important Box,  but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir are kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).   

  

  My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through.  There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral,  of it being dismissed as  retro and “charming”.  And,  indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes.   But any child or inner-child   should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart  but for the sheer pleasure of  its theatricality.  The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons;   there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky.   The only high-tech is projection, very well used  to create a village, a wood, a cathedral.  Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should:  demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.   

 

 

      Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria,  who likes guns, piracy, fights,  and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of  “parties in  dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”.   It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in  knickerbockers was welcomed.  As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly  cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side;  and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.   

     So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto  but bring them here too.  And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…

 

box office  020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm)   wiltons.org.uk

to 5 Jan

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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