It must be challenging to play a psychiatrist at work , maybe especially in Finsbury Park   where there are bound to be a few in the audience.  You have to convince :   catch the silences, the questioning ,  and  in responding to your client  the  professional detachment from their powerful ability to generate  mental storms.    Jon Osbaldeston does a very convincing job as Dr Greenberg, so respect for that;  equally adept in Nicolas Billon’s odd, intimate  75-minute play is Gwithian Evans as the patient, Michael.   He’s adolescent, impertinent, dead-eyed and pale and as the Nurse  says,  he is likely to play mind -games with staff.     The portrayal is of a young man both intensely dislikeable and palpably damaged;   as a performance it is admirable  but not enjoyable.  For Michael’s desire to  cause unease and irritation succeeds too well. 

         Therefore a slight problem  for the actual audience is that by the point, an hour in, when we are designed to  get some understanding of all his talk about a dead elephant shot by his Dad  and an opera singing neglectful mother,  the risk is that we don’t care enough about him.  Not Mr Evans’ fault:  even if Mark Rylance or Hugh Grant was playing him he couldn’t be likeable with this text.

  Anyway, Michael  is an inpatient and  Dr Greenberg the Director of the hospital. The psychiatrist is  trying to find out why a colleague has vanished and is uncontactable ever since his last session with the lad.    We sort of get an answer,  after a great deal of quite tedious lying and hints about  sex scandals in mental institutions.  We  certainly get a lethal final moment.    But alas,  by then both sympathy and credibility are gone. It’s  a shame, given the quality of acting and atmospheric use of the set, especially the metronome.   Billon has had this odd piece filmed and won plaudits, and the writing is sharp at times.   But it neither teaches nor entertains. Which is really unusual for this terrific little theatre.   to 11 Feb

rating two 


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Just a few new notes on this , as its completes its triumphant national tour with (amazingly) no stopping-injuries despite the heroically vigorous slapstick direction by Lindsay Posner (movement and fights, Ruth Cooper-Brown). Especially in the first section of Act 2.

Well, you know the play by now – below is my review from the opening in Bath with this production – but I just want to add a note or too , equally five-mouseable.

I had forgotten how good Joseph Millsom is as Garry, both in the physical work (OMG that stair descent with laces tied together) but also in his characterisation of a type of actor generally and mercifully rare, the pretentious yet inarticulate. A special shout-out too to Pepter Lunkuse as the exhausted, insulted ASM~: often in the background of more exuberant scenes but worth watching in horrified reaction. Soit was a joy to see this cast still so beautifully together , and one hopes on speaking terms, after a real tour as challenging as any of the old rep trudges which Michael Frayn so gleefully was sending up. His essay on farce, and spoof blogs, in the programme remain a joy every time too.

The only difference for me was seeing the production first in Bath with contemporaries of mine, who vaguely remember rep and awful bedroom door-slamming comedies, and seeing it with a much younger friend who was, frankly, gobsmacked that theatre ever got away with the sexism of “Nothing On” farces . I equally noted, in such modern company, that there were times not all the long ago when you could bung a sheet on your head and say you were “an Arab sheikh” without getting cancelled and told off in the Guardian. Anyway, here’s what I wrote about its marvels earlier…long may it live, right into the sternly correct future when rubbish rep farce is ancient history and even poor Freddie’s disability (fainting triggered at the mention of blood) is considered wrong to laugh at….

BOOKING is now to 11 March so ignore the old details in the review below..

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     Theatre can offer few more topical messages for a nation which might hesitate over Ukraine’s needs than this neglected one-set domestic play by Lilian Hellman. It is an artfully jolting picture of a comfortable, secure and affluent society abruptly reminded of an angry wolfish world in conflict,  and why turning a blind eye to it is both shameful and imprudent.   By coincidence it seems to be 1941 week on. Theatrecat:  two nights ago I saw (scroll down) Allegiance,  set in  an America which had hesitated  over joining WW2 but then was shocked by Pearl Harbour, and abruptly interned its citizens of Japanese heritage.   Then came this play, set in that limbo just before the US joined.  It ran on Broadway in 1941,  and with American mobilization was a hit film in 1943 with Bette Davis, the ending expanded to suggest an ongoing duty of conflict.

         Ellen McDougall’s  Donmar direction  plays on the idea of a ’40s film, a screen flickering, widening to frame the live action.  I thought at first this might be mere retro-chic and distance it from today,   but somehow it did the opposite as the flesh-and-blood players emerged and made one aware that no war is properly distant.  

        The Farrelly household in Washington DC – widowed Miz Fanny,  her bachelor son, the black butler Joseph and old retainer Annise  – are to learn this sharply.   Staying with them is an old friend’s daughter, Martha,  who married Teck, a Romanian Count now on his uppers as a refugee.  Fanny’s daughter is coming home with her German husband Kurt and their three children after twenty years away,  in which (as Fanny gradually discovers) Kurt has been daringly active since the early ’30s in anti-fascism across Europe, wounded in Spain.  

          Artfully, Hellman gives us a lot of breezy domestic comedy:  Patricia Hodge is superb as Fanny,  prickly and grand and rich but clever and observant,  and the three children are wonderful, meeting their Grandmother for the first time and proving very un-American,  German  in their polite earnestness. The youngest is a treat.    The gulf between their European lives and Miz Fanny’s is neatly indicated when they are offered breakfast on arrival. “Anything that can be spared” they say politely “Eggs, are not too expensive?”   Another layer of family life is that Martha’s marriage is crumbling,  the son of the house besotted with her.   

        The household  gradually feels the tension between the Europeans:  Count Teck clearly has a tendresse for Herr Hitler’s National Socialist Party and its values, and mistrusts Kurt to the point, we will discover, of unleashing a horror.   The contrast of the European men is impeccably done, right down to the costume clues : Mark Waschke’s engaging, warm, slightly shabby Kurt and the three-piece pinstripe and hair-oil of Teck.  The second half darkens as news comes of anti-Fascist arrests, the task Kurt has before him in going back, and the cost to his family.  Caitlin Fitzgerald as Sara is marvellous, restrained, palely steadfast in her readiness for the coming loneliness as her husband resists Fanny’s hope he will stay in family safety with the breathtaking Hellman line  “My children are not the only children in the world. Even to me”.   As we have been enjoying and laughing with those children for two hours, that hits home hard.   

     So, weirdly, does Teck’s smugly strange line about his treachery “I do not do it without some shame”. Both sides are trapped in the wickedness of the war – “thousands of years and we cannot yet make a world where old men can die in bed”.  A shocking violence breaks the drawing-room atmosphere, and Fanny has a decision to make.  

       Getting here was a third attempt – covid, the show’s own delay, rail strikes.  I could not be more pleased to have made it to a last seat in the gallery.  Power to the Donmar,  and a last salute to Hellman, a writer who knew that you must both entertain and awaken. 

Box office.  To 4 Feb

Rating five.  

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IN THE NET Jermyn Street Theatre


       Most dystopian visions set themselves quite far in the future. Misha  Levkov, however, keeps us in 2025, specifying that productions should always be set a couple of years ahead of real time, and the setting is London – Kentish Town. This does keep it  recognizable and clear of sci-fi fantasy, but it also demands that  Britain has gone downhill dramatically fast.  Laura and Anna, half-sisters, and their  father Harry are living in “The Emergency”,  with borders closed and immigration surging. A global drought and sudden  temporary local powers are  severely rationing water (while keeping plenty for officials, we gather ) and cracking down on asylum seekers with a battery of biometric tracking and brutal authoritarianism. 

      Tony Bell,  tripling as an Immigration officer, councillor and predatory estate agent taking their flat off them,  does an excellent job but is offered pretty cartoonish  lines,  representing every Nazified jobsworth the north-London liberal might detest. “No place to run, nowhere to hide. Vigilance. Total eyes and ears and global positioning” he says. And. “…I like the duty chart, the office caff and the khaki. The spiff. The tech. Also – why not say it? – I like the chase…it gets very primal very quickly”.   

        Against him are pitted three women. Carlie Diamond is admirable in a headlong professional debut as Laura,  afire with idealism about the ancient Jewish idea of making an “Eruv”.It is an ancient Judaic custom, originally declaring a neighbourhood as exempt from the strict Sabbath interdict on working or travelling.   Laura sees it as a way to create, by winding threads of yarn between homes and gardens, a sort of sanctuary.  Not just for Jews but for everyone.  Her sister Anna Is a bit of a Buddhist, fresh from a stint at a monastery but disillusioned about the exploitation of pilgrims there.   Finally Laura persuades her that their eruv will not be a ghetto but inclusive, loving,  supportive to all  -“It can be lovely inside a web”.  There is a lot of overwritten gush about this, and though it is all handled by Diamond with great skill and likeability it becomes  increasingly irritating.  Especially as she seems to have, or want, no actual work beyond winding thread round the neighbourhood.    Dad is not impressed either – “daydreams are as bad as nightmares” 

        This fey defiant impracticality is,  it is admitted, basically  part of the girl’s grief for her mother.  Who was the rescuer of the third, more interesting and better-written woman, Hala the Syrian asylum seeker (Suzanne Ahmed, impressive). I could have done with a lot more from her,  not least because she is unconvinced for most of the play by the threading protest.  She also raises the most interesting ideas in the play, questions about expected gratitude, the difference between hosts and friends, and what happens “when asylum seekers want more than we will give”.  

        My sense of frustration eased a bit in the second half, largely because – with a small-space elegance often found in the Jermyn – director Vicky Moran and Ingrid Hu the designer get them climbing, threading, creating the web in reality – with clever projection to exaggerate it into a big mad web in which the wicked Immigration Officer can be trapped and defeated. That at least is properly theatrical,  though the overwrought lines continue to come at you “Is that a yellow moon beyond the clouds or the white sun…Looking down on merry Eruv jugglers who keep the stars in their sky..”.

         Its heart is in the right place, though the fact is signposted so glaringly that it risks a perverse reaction (like being rather sorry for the officialdom  represented by Tony Bell).  I wish I was moved and inspired by it, but wasn’t.  To 4 Feb

Rating two.

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ALLEGIANCE Charing Cross Theatre WC1


      An old man steps onstage alone:  upright, soldierly in khaki as a former US war hero who is,  he says resignedly,  “brought out every year on the Pearl Harbour anniversary” .      George Takei, 85 years old, is the most beguiling of figures these days (even if you aren’t a Trekkie who misses Mr Sulu at the dashboard or a follower of his liberal campaigns and  frank remarks how nobody liked William Shatner) .  And this, fresh off Broadway,  is a serious, personal Takei telling the story of a great injustice done to fellow countrymen of his race.  

      At five years old, after a sunny and prosperous Californian infancy, he found himself sleeping on horse-scented straw alongside his bewildered family at a racecourse stable in Arkansas,  hastily adapted into an rough camp.    Japanese-Americans lost businesses, land and homes in  political hysteria after Pearl Harbour:   abruptly classified as enemy aliens they were cleared off the west coast and interned,  in squalid conditions and under armed guard between 1941 and 1945.  It took until the 80s for the Civil Liberties Act to offer proper reparations, apology and admission of its racist absurdity. After all, as one character says,  “we’re at war with Italy and nobody’s putting Joe di Maggio in a camp”. 

        Takei has long spoken about this period,  and is at the heart of this musical by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.  As the old soldier, Sam,  he book-ends a memory play in which Sam’s young self – played with fierce endearing energy by Telly Leung – is passionately patriotic and  wants to enlist, save American values from Germany and the distant Empire of Japan.  In the family Takei plays the grandfather,  insisting on building a garden in the grim dustbowl to which they are condemned .  Briefly we see them first as a contented group in California, full of immigrant ambition and energy. Sam’s Dad (Masahi Fujimoto) is urging him towards law school,  his big sister Kei (Aynrand Ferrer, a beautiful singer) ever anxiously maternal. She becomes  the one most urgently trying after the arrest to make everything all right for the extended family in their undeserved humiliation.   Overhead looms the figure of Mike Masaoka in Washington,  pleading the loyalty of his fellow Japanese-heritage Americans:  he is both an advocate and, as time goes bitterly on,  seen as a traitor who hang them out to dry.  

       We sit in ranks either side of the central camp (neat, evocative design by Mayou Trikerioti) and watch them  being hectored by guards,  their dignity ignored, issued with the notorious “loyalty questionnaires” demanding extreme patriotic affirmations.  Papers which some, rather magnificently, make into origami flowers.   But young Sam still loves America,  enlists even as his father  rips up his insulting questionnaire. He becomes a reckless war hero,  America’s token “good Jap”,  and the rift in the group widens as his friend and eventual brother-in-law Frankie in the camp leads a rebellion burning draft cards.   

       The book is, as Broadway requires, a rom-com at times:  Sam falls for the camp nurse (a lovely, endearing performance by Megan Gardiner) and Frankie the rebel loves  Kei.   But the real engine of the plot and its best moments, is the ideology and division of loyalties which drag the family apart, through hardship and a tragic loss, all the way to the embittered figure played by Takei at the start.  

           The numbers are mainly generic Broadway, though rise wonderfully when  with high flute sounds they draw  most closely on Japanese music.  And indeed words:  like the urgent “Gaman” meaning “carry on, keep going” and the mournful Ishi Kara Ishi about moving a mountain stone by stone .   There are understated but  very Japanese moments:  the old man hanging a wind-chime,  Grandfather Takei’s meditative gardening, and his  respectful bow to his middle-aged rebellious son who is being led away in handcuffs.   

      It drew me in ever more, especially in the harsher second act as the war takes its toll with two real coups-de-theatre: the huddle of helmets and shots as Sam’s Japanese regiment faces a sacrificial raid,  and the news of Hiroshima:  the ensemble stilled with horror and the “light of a thousand suns” blinds us in turn before suddenly a mic-waving DJ leads a Victory Swing.  Nothing is said about the Japanese-Americans’ feeling about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it does not need to be.  The shock is real.   And as the fog of war clears, Sam is back and finds out how much he has lost , and how bitter is one seeming betrayal.  

     Good musicals can face tough bleak stories and irredeemable losses, however necessary the upbeat final moment and triumphant curtain-call. And this is a good one.  Not perfect,  not perhaps among the musical greats,  but a piece of storytelling and performance which holds you fast.  And there is shivering power in watching how much it means to old Takei to tell it. 

Box office    To 8 April

Rating 4.

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  The story of Nelson Mandela has become almost a folktale: imprisoned for 27 years for campaigning against the hideous “apartheid” regime which kept  the black majority poor and brutalized, he spoke only about “black and white working together” and emerged as a leader working for reconciliation.  It’s a heroic legend, not  a story that lends itself to political subtlety: this world premiere,  by Laiona Michelle and composers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, acknowledges “proud partnership” with his family,  tells the story with impassioned  and rightly partisan simplicity.  Michael Luwoye is a towering Mandela:  idealistic, sorrowful at violence,  deploying his familiar humour and unresentful humanity. 

           There could be a more nuanced side-story about the way his wife Winnie, in that long lonely ordeal, became a more savage and irrationally violent figure in the struggle: that tragedy is  hinted at only in an electric, furious confrontation as Danielle Fiamanya tells him  that for decades he has been safe in prison, gently befriending his warders, while she was out struggling and raising their children.   But for now this is a story of great-heartedness, a powerful one in our age of fashionable race theories which foster mistrust, resentment and dislike. 

 It pulls no punches about the awfulness of the regime:  we see the Sharpeville Massacre brutally mowing down peaceful demonstrators,  and the flat  paranoia of the white Afrikaner leadership convinced that making the slightest concession to democracy would been whites  “chased into the sea”. They stand rigid the balcony above the dancing, hopeful cast and the Mandela children dreaming of their father (it’s joyful at times); later other figures make it clear why America and Britain were slow to impose sanctions to protect their trade.  When President de Klerk and MAndela shake hands in prison there’s a shiver, and more in an astonishingly moving song when his last warder (who became a friend) feels rueful astonishment about how he thought before. 

          I admit approaching this with particular emotion.  My father’s posting meant that the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned I was twelve, in a South African school under regrettably racist nuns.  The illogical brutality of apartheid was obvious;  my mother, appalled, would take me to help distribute food to children in the impoverished  townships.  When after a year I was sent home to England I was afraid my father wouldn’t get out before a bloody  revolution. It felt inevitable.  That thirty years passed  before  the peaceful, reconciliatory open elections always seemed to me a miracle.  


rating four

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MOTHER GOOSE Duke of York’s Theatre WC! & touring


      I last saw Sir Ian McKellen onstage  as Lear,   missed him as the oldest Hamlet ever,   but far longer ago saw him in a frock at the Old Vic,  in Spacey’s day,. On that occasion it is reported that he and others had some trouble explaining to the American AD what a panto actually was.   I remember that one as a bit sub-prime, trying too hard to be grownup and a bit heavy on the innuendo.  This one on the other hand,  in which the great theatrical knight is actually going to tour, in his 80s,   is absolutely perfect. 

       The pleasure of it is in the feeling that despite the topflight cast and the direction of Cal McCrystal,  peerless physical comedy guru,  it has the feeling of a local panto, even a community one.  No big technical showpieces,  but plenty of old-fashioned gags: puppets popping out of pans,  a ‘self-raising flower’ swannee-whistling up from a table,  a custard pie scene and rapid costume changes.   For the Dame himself,  one happens rather brilliantly behind ostrich feather fans, another when his oppo John Bishop as Vic Goose is transformed from a Grenadier Guard to a leather-babe (“that went down better in Brighton..”)

        The jokes are well-worn too, with only a few nods to 2022 like the brief appearance without explanation of a blond slavering Boris-pig in the kitchen scene.  Though there is , for the London run, a humdingher of a Prince Andrew joke in the singalong. 

      McKellen’s Mother Goose and Bishop’s likeable Vic are accompanied by a gang of animals, monkey and penguin and tortoise and bear etc,  and a nerdy Bat who kept reminding me of Michael Gove.  The songs are jolly and familiar and never too long,  and McKellen himself is a dream. Because he’s loving it;  because he’s doing it for theatre nationwide, in hope; above all because his great range of expressions and reactions are as spot-on as you would expect .  He also gives us the Quality of Mercy speech straight,  to the cruel if rather camp King of the Geese, with the proper shiver down the spine;  but better,  watches visibly impressed as John Bishop,  a mere standup,  decides to do Sonnet 18 (Shall i compare thee..) rather beautifully. 

       And he puts up with the “Serena” gag. Of course. He’s a great old fabulous treasure, and traditional panto is a treasure too. For them to be touring together in this hard season for theatre is a kind of triumph. 

box office  to 31 Jan at Duke of York’s

Then touring to 1 April

rating  5

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THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich


     In Mole End on Christmas Eve,in a burrow cosy with domestic detail  they’re breaking out the beer and sardines and reminiscing about the adventures that brought them together.  They will take us, enthralled as we sit around the  big studio, from Mole’s first rebellion against housework on a fine spring morning  to the enlisting of Badger, Toad’s shenanigans and the showdown with the weasels.  

      As they tell it they re-enact Grahame’s Edwardian classic: three actors most suitably clad. Rei Mordue’s Mole is a little city gent in a dark blazer and bowler;  Darren Latham’s exuberant Ratty a Henley chap in straw boater and flannel bags, Badger’s huge black and white fur coat and hat is more animal but aha!beneath  it, in some very nifty offstage changes, Matt Penson wear’s Toad’s gentleman-rascal breeches and yellow weskit. For he plays both the dour working class scholar hero Badger,  and the preening narcissistic Toad.

     Joanna Carrick’s skilful stage adaptation is faithful too: while the show is fun enough for its school matinees – the physical comedy of Latham and Penson inparticular is lively and sharp- witted – she does not shy away, as many adaptors do,  from Grahame’s orotund dialogue exaggerations. When Mole scorns the doorscraper and doormat he gives Ratty the full querulous, almost Kenneth Grahame,  Edwardian chap-banter.  And the five year old in my eyeline was as agog for that as he was for instructions to shout or to patter his feet like a sinister wild wood weasel.  

     I liked that. And almost more, loved the instant, elegant prop and set work (design by Carrick, Newborn, Katy Frost and, apparently, everyone in this gallant, community-based but professionally smart outfit).  Mole’s homely kitchen furnishings artfully become – with prior artful arrangment and paintjobs –  a boat, a person, a canary coloured car, a car, a barge and everyone else’s home.  Nor are  chimney smoke and bathroom bubbles grudged, for  Red Rose Chain is ever theatrical. This fast makeshifting is vital in family shows: when you’re young it helps to know that you can put a show on with wooden spoons,  upturned tables, numerous hats and cheek.

        The songs are good too: short, jolly, once accompanies by Mole on the accordion and once, briefly but unforgettably, by an imprisoned Toad giving it the full Folsom Prison Blues mouth-organ lament.  

     I am an adult and I loved its wit and pace. Children have roared approval (I suspect especially for Toad). The company’s outreach means that many who otherwise  aren’t likely to get to another show this Christmas –  or indeed ever – have seen it. Including two busloads of refugees. For once, a bit of Arts Council money bore fruit and went the right way, sowing seeds for the nation’s creative future. Never roll your eyes at the word Ipswich: the town gave us Trevor  Nunn, Ralph Fiennes, Jane Lapotaire… and now Red Rose Chain.  

Boxoffice     To 31 dec

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SONS OF THE PROPHET Hampstead Theatre NW3


   Hard to express how much I loved Stephen Karam’s play. Maybe it just hit the right moment:  yomped through freezing night, strikes and ‘severe delays” reading about affronted sibling princes and the general sense of glumly compromised Christmases .  And then in the first moments  found I loved humanity again, having fallen heavily for Irfan Shamji’s Joseph. Here is a man whose lot is to repress irritation at a series of difficult but necessary people.  There’s his fearful employer, the independent book-packager Gloria (who he later describes as “a wealthy deranged woman”,  who he dare not quit because he desperately needs medical insurance for his crumbling knees, his athletic prowess suddenly lost. 

     She is needy and intrusive, wanting to exploit him for a book because she has read in the papers more than he wants about his Lebanese Maronite-Christian family, his mother’s death from cancer,  their distant descent from the cherished sage Khalil Gibran  and the fact that his father has just died after being in a car accident caused by a lethal prank by a lad who is nonetheless being allowed to continue the high school football season to save his scholarship.  Juliet Cowan’s Gloria is a superb nightmare, played straight.  Though we laugh. Painfully, and in sympathy with him.

      Then there’s Joe’s younger brother Charles,  damaged, dependent, stroppy, clinging on to the dead father’s faith,  superstitiously obsessed with a saint’s icon sending him messages.  And there’s equally enraging Uncle Billy, with whom the lad sits praying through the Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries (“I said I’d join him after the Scourging at the Pillar”.)   The setting is Pennsylvania, where towns called Nazareth and Bethlehem reflect the tender old immigrant religion.   Both brothers, by the way, are gay and Billy resents the fact that their family stops here.  Young Charles in his sorrow wants to ‘reach out” to Vin, the prankster who caused their father’s crash.  Poor Joe meanwhile, awaiting his full diagnosis on a series of even more irritating robotic phone lines,  gets into conversation with a reporter, Timothy, whose preppy entitlement  and gap-yah prattling about fashionable tragedies is to us as onlookers downright hilarious even while we feel Joe’s irritated helplessness. And, touchingly later,  his helpless attraction to the affluent prat. Lovely exchange where Timothy boasts that his mother came from poverty and Joe snarls that he lives there –  “it’s middle-income housing!”  

      Bijan Sheibani directs fast, fluently, in short almost filmic segments and minimal staging. and explodes it in the last ten minutes or so to draw the whole theatre into a televised debate at the school board about Vin’s sentence. Everyone risks boiling over, Uncle Billy howling furiously behind me on the steps and poor Joe, as so often, cringing up at the far side while Gloria declares her emotional pain over losing a HarperCollins deal and her very unwelcome desire to be part of their family.  

   All the players are flawless,  Shamji a gem and Eric Sirakian’s Charles subtle and touching in his bonding with the boy Vin and his one real cry of pain at orphanhood and Billy’s decline.  But its joy is in combining Chekhovian tragicomedy with light-touch commentary on many things:  religion, media, brotherhood, forgiveness, neediness, emotional colonisation of other people’s griefs, and the cruel absurdities of American healthcare.  

   There’s even a dryly happy ending,  publisher-fuelled,  because as Joe observes “To make it in this country you either need to be an extraordinary human being or make a series of extraordinarily bad life decisions. All of us in the middle, we’re not worth so much”.  

        Oh yes you are.  Sometimes the only people worth making plays about.  Five mice, hurrah.  Hijack a train to get there.  

Box office to 14 Jan. rating FIVE

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NEWSIES Troubadour, Wembley Park


    I love it when the theatre perfectly fits the show.  Artists can overcome a wrong space, but there’s gleeful concord when it suits this well. The vast new hangar-like Troubadour uses all its height and industrial chic to convey New York 1899:  fire-escapes, iron balconies, vast billboard for the Santa Fe railroad, walls all newsprint and windows and washing lines .   Morgan Large’s set is moody, monochrome, enlivened with pops of colour : a red apple, a woman’s bright hair, the apricot squares of twilight windows.  It’s immersively Disney in a good way, and director-choreographer Matt Cole makes his acrobatic cast use every bit of the theatre: thundering up and down the stairs, appearing behind us,  one swinging four feet from my head on a crane.  Which, by the way, pleasingly means that whether you pay around £ 30 or around £ 90 for a seat you’ll get a splendid view .  

           It’s a show, indeed, where the ensemble are the star: quite right, since it’s about the strike by ragamuffin street kids who sold newspapers on the New York streets in the glory days of press barons like Pulitzer and Hearst.  The Newsies, often living on the streets, sleeping in hammocks nicely slung under  fire escapes,  eked out a living collecting papers and selling them (there’s a lovely balletic evocation at the start of high-pressure selling to top-hatted or crinolined toffs, kids literally throwing themselves at the job).  The deal was buy 100 papers for 50c, no refunds for unsold copies.   They wait anxiously for the morning’s headline to be a good one that will make people buy:  one says that police sirens are like lullabies to him, because the more the sirens the bigger the story and the better he’ll eat next day. 

       But Joseph Pulitzer,  Cameron Blakely doing  a nicely cold-headed villain turn as his walnut desk and chandelier roll onto the bleak street scene,  decided to trim for profit and raised the price to 60c.  And in real life,  the newsies rebelled. 

          It’s warm-hearted Disney, with Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Jack Kelly the leader, supportive of his lame pal “Crutchie” (`Matthew Duckett),  supported himself by the friendship of Medda (Moya Angela) and her showgirls.  He’s initially a bit wary of the newcomer who has an actual home, and his own emotional yearnings are about going West, young man, to Santa Fe for a better life.    Like all of them he dreads being captured for the profit-making, rat-ridden “Refuge”  which rounds up street kids.  He falls for Katherine – Bronté Barbé – who is a young reporter who defies Pulitzer ’s ban on reporting the strike and turns out to be actually his daughter, rebelling in her own way.  She it is who persuades Jack – by this time flagging in his resolve, thinking of compromise and at odds with the strikers – that the way to win is to broaden the cause to “all the kids working in sweatshops, factories and slaughterhouses” . 

      Expect a pretty happy ending , complete with Governor Roosevelt shaming the baddies,  but Harvey Fierstein’s book (he wrote La Cage aux Folles, remember) is honest enough about the processes of a strike:   of hope and mistrust and despair and the difficulty of sticking together – “When you got a hundred voices singing, who can hear a whistle blow?”.    But the pleasure’s in the energy, the wild dancing and swinging from lights, the moment the tap shoes come out,  the ensemble glee of youth.   The music by Alan Menkin is not quite hummable – except the Seize the Day anthem – but dramatically urgent;  the lyrics by Jack Feldman are splendid,  never flat or laboured,  a reminder of why the HEX lyrics the other night didn’t quite work.  All the singing is terrific. 

         And there are some great old NY-biz lines: from the kids’ glee at getting publicity – “Folks we finally got a headline! Above the fold!”  to  “The only thing worse than a hard heart is a soft head”as Pulitzer realizes that his interest is to settle. 

I’d choose this over a panto this year for any kid with a rebel heart.     

Rating four 

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HEX Olivier, SE1


     Everyone’s got mental health  issues in HEX:  which is the Sleeping Beauty story extended to the troublesome folk-tale aftermath.   The tousled Fairy has no wings and low status,  while snobbish ones float gorgeously overhead in light-rippling 20ft robes.    It is panic over  Princess Rose’s cradle, where the sleep-deprived mother is yelling neurotically, which makes Fairy  hex the child into sleeping for decades after a thorn-prick at  16.     She then loses her magic  (delivered in spells sounding a bit Arabic)  and has to fake it with  cries of ‘sho lo lo” as she struggles to repair the damage.    As for Rose  she is a bratty teen and ,after the waking, a discontented wife. She feels neglected by  Prince Bert and worries – it turns out not unreasonably –  that her ogress mother in-law will eat the children.  Very Freudian, that.   Bert himself is a mother’s boy and knows it.  Only a chorus of yobbish thorns, a spiteful old retainer and a capering rat seem happy. Though the poor rat does get eaten.  I liked him. 

         At least all the characters’  deep psychological problems fuel big numbers, solo arias  with proper Nina Simone soul.  Lisa Lambe as the Fairy stands out, her voice soaring from sweetness to wildness: a proper star.  Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the ogress belts out her confusion and hunger with equal vigour and skill and some good sound-effects of cannibalistic gobbling:    Jim Fortune’s  music is not particularly memorable but it is atmospheric, and both women give it every chance.  

      Actually everything  is poured in to give the show a chance:  the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris directs and co-devised it (the book is by his wife Tanya Ronder) and he  throws the Olivier’s big resources at it, There’s   Katrina Lindsay’s lovely design, a 12-strong orchestra, big ensemble, aerial fairies, trapdoors and talent and terrific sound and lighting.    Norris also wrote the lyrics : but alas, he is not a natural lyricist and the rhymes plod along without much wit, sometimes almost with a sense of desperation. Just because “trampoline” rhymes with “sixteen’ does not mean that the metaphor in question works.  

      So it remains more noisy than enchanting, and the children near me, well-mannered, were  more interested than transported.  The first half is a bit slow but then livens up  with a decent dance routine and better jokes when Prince Bert appears,  and the chorus of disappointed princes in the second half are properly funny, especially Kody Mortimer . Anyway, after the plot has creaked neatly round a lot of  awkward corners, everyone gets over their issues,   and decides that the moral is that they should honour their natural inward self.  Nobody, in the end, is a real villain.   to 14 Jan

rating  three 

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ORLANDO Garrick Theatre WC2



One bespectacled, anxious-looking Virginia Woolf in a sensible brown skirt and dreary cardigan is never enough,  so Michael Grandage’s production generously opens with a whole pack of Woolfs – nine of them – in Neil Bartlett’s new version of the author’s classic whimsical-feminist fantasy.  They/She are there to tell, and assist with,  the story of a young court favourite of Elizabeth I  who miraculously lives on as an innocent everyperson, barely growing older while finding love, loss and adventure and changing into a woman sometime between the Georgian and Victorian eras. And, crucially,  particularly resenting being female in the latter. 

      Which is fair enough, since that was when Woolf was born, and out of which she and her heroines and her lover Vita Sackville West had to struggle until her suicide in 1944.   

    The crowd of Woolfs is effective, expressing the human need to be a lot of different people, not trapped in one role. There’s a nice irony in that,  since our age’s gender-neurosis and clenched identity politics  often feel more like a trap than the freedom Orlando demands to “honour happiness, and obey desire in whatever form it comes”.  The book is perennially interesting, and indeed a recent far lower-budget version at the Jermyn ( sent me to it,  charmed by that production’s  particular comic edge and unselfconscious jollity.  

         But Neil Bartlett’s version somehow felt a bit disappointing: insubstatial though witty and mischievous,  sometimes cheekily mashing up some awful cod-Shakespeare (I like the ‘lustful porpentine’) and pinching allusions from both Some Like It Hot and Cabaret.    The staging is lovely:  mist in the 1603 Frost Fair in London, constant movement and  Peter McKintosh’s absolutely glorious costumes – not just on the divine Orlando but whipped on and off as the Woolfs  become all the other characters he/she meets.  There are some good jokes, too, and Deborah Findlay as “Mrs Grimsditch” the dresser-minder who escorts Orlando through the centuries is a treat every time.  It ought in theory to be a bang-on treat for the genderfluid generation, but the one I took with me was a bit unimpressed: felt it old-fashioned in the distinction. He also observed that if it had been at the |Edinburgh Fringe it would have fitted. Whereas here, up West…not so much. 

  We also agreed in wishing `Neil Bartlett had courageously added a coda in which Orlando powers through women’s liberation and arrives in the present day to mix it with our own preconceptions.  But once the author dies in the 1940’s, it stops, there’s only a bit of be-happy philosophy and a walk into the light.  Also, maybe some of the encounters with great poets in the original had been allowed in, it would feel a richer stew. 

          Never mind. One thing’s for sure:  Emma Corrin is going to get lovelorn proposals from most of the alleged 74 genders. They don’t come any cuter, more androgyne gamin/gamine, from the first cheeky flash of ‘his’ tackle under an Elizabethan shift to the frills of “her”  18c underdrawers and the 1940s tennis-dress.  There is gallant likeability  there too, and if you were paying one of MGC’a  promised 10,000 tickets at £10,  you’d be well satisfied. Recreationally if not, perhaps, intellectually.  Still , to be fair there are also a lot of ordinary tickets under £60 as well, which for an 11-cast production in the West End is impressive these days.  So don’t be put off.  Fall in love with Corrin, maybe.  But don’t expect a thunderclap. 

Box office. to 24 feb

Rating 3.

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OTHELLO. Lyttelton, SE1


       It’s a cold unadorned monochrome scene: courts, brawls and bedchamber all framed on three sides by vast looming tiered steps and a high flat parapet. Sometimes a a soliloquy or confrontation is watched by the dark-clad cast who sit immobile on those steps   or suddenly mime a movement together. The programme calls them “System”.  Sometimes there are flaring handheld torches.  As it opens, the scandal of the Moor having run off with fair Desdemona is explicitly racial:  Othello’s noble speech about his wooing – “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them” is interrupted with  racist shouts. Rodrigo waves a noose.   

          There’s a powerful sense of class, too. Most British productions carefully make it clear that Othello is a gentleman, a general:  remember Adrian Lester in the role, ten years ago here but familiar from NT Live.  In shows like this his eloquent speeches help this sense of nobility and only villains see him as a savage. Yet Clint  Dyer,  the first black director to do the play at the National, actually hints in his setting that the black man has  some quality of dangerousness which is alien even to the brawling yobbish fellow-soldiers of the System. Giles Terrera (lately so gloriously likeable in this theatre as gay Dr Sam,  in Blues for an Alabama Sky).  opens with a spear-carrying dance, and  moves with a slinky athleticism different to the men around .  And  in an arresting moment at the end of the first half when Iago has just sown the seeds of jealousy,  above Terera’s lonely agony the dark figures on the steps suddenly appear  in crude horror-movie blackamoor masks – white eyes, red lips, the full  minstrel caricature.  I still don’t know what to think: is it an evocation of his paranoiac torment being especially a black thing?.   If so, it certainly felt  uneasy.

            That uneasiness, though, is perhaps the triumph of the production.  Paul Hilton’s Iago is masterly, terrifyingly efficient in his gaslighting of Othello and  visually an elegant opposite of him:   a cold dapper officer-class figure,  sometimes lit alone in front of the dark figures on the steps so that a ghastly light falls on his narrow pale face with its clipped moustache (my companion was reminded of Oswald Mosley).    But as the story moves to its fearful end it feels more like a play about another aspect of the System:  toxic misogyny, all there in the text.  Not only Iago but the other men, even good Cassio,  speak scornfully of women as things to be owned and conquered but never believed.  And they shine:     Rosy McEwen is a less gentle, more defiant Desdemona than some,  a little Sloaney, a bit stiff,   meeting her husband’s accusations as much with scorn at their absurdity as with hurt.    Emilia, a wife harshly treated by Iago,  seems gigglingly commonplace at first but rises to heroic defiance. In the final, properly painful bedroom scene their two heads, one golden and one flaming red,  are the only pops of colour in that dark world.  Maybe we do sometimes need, a cold angry production like this.  Which is the reason for the fourth star. 

Box office  to 21 Jan


A live performance will be filmed and then streamed from 23-27 feb in cinemas

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BEST OF ENEMIES. Noel Coward Theatre WC1


Leaving the former Young Vic production a lad far too young to remember 1968 said sadly to me “It was the beginning of Now, wasn’t it?”  He is right. James Graham’s play, now spectacularly in the West End,  is about the TV confrontations between the arch-conservative William F. Buckley and the maverick gay liberal Gore Vidal during an American election. But it also neatly prefigures today’s divisions, demonstrations and intolerances.  Thrillingly staged with projected news footage and sharply evoked riots in almost filmic fragments, it recreates the world of Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell,  Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon,  while above it hang screen-shaped  boxes where TV executives compete and plan.  But it speaks loudly to us now, because this was the moment when television companies first sought ratings with attention-grabbing rows,  and only fusty old-schoolers protested “Opinions? No, the news does Facts!”. 

At  its centre Zachary Quinto,  feline and vain and teasing, is Gore Vidal this time his opponent Buckley is,  brilliantly, once again the black actor David Harewood.  There is a sharp joke when in a flashback he approvingly interviews Enoch  “rivers of blood” Powell, and there is real cleverness in  that casting by director Jeremy Herrin. Right wing speeches about how left-liberals just don’t understand working people need not emerge only from white faces. Harewood catches all the poetic-romantic pomposity of the man who was  too easily provoked by Vidal’s drawling coolness: the cool cosmopolitan’s tactic is  “I may not convert him, but I can annoy him”.  But the  ailing ABC network gets more than it bargained for when Vidal goes too far and resorts to the “Nazi” word , whereon Buckley is needled enough to retaliate with ‘Queer!”.  Overhead the staid TV execs gasp in horror (“Never mind viewers, my MOTHER just rang!”) but are comforted by a ratings jump.

It is marked, like all James Graham’s work, by real humanity: a sense that people tearing lumps off one another in public or grasping for ratings are just humans, however imperfect.  As a play it never flags and there are memorable cameos:  brawny John Hodgkinson doubles as the senatorial anchorman Howard K.Smith and an unforgettable roaring, ranting Mayor Daley of Chicago. Syrus Howe is a thoughtful James Baldwin, and as Aretha Franklin Deborah Alli belts out the Star-Spangled Banner like a torch song,  to the horror of the old-school conservatives. Even if you have no special interest in or memory of 1968, and resist British obsession with American politics, go and see it. Well worth it. And horribly enjoyable.

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THE WIND IN THE WILTONS.        Wiltons Music Hall, E1


You won’t see a prettier, more refreshing or  sustainable stage this Christmas:  natural colours, riverbank rushes, a bare tree (which will have green rag leaves and bright rag blossoms hauled up it as the play’s seasons roll), and just a few white fairylights along the edge of this old hall of pleasure.   As we sit down, lovely dawn or dusk mistiness makes it special  (the lighting is particularly clever: Zoe Spurr’s design) .  

     Only few odd objects  – a vintage lifering, a ladder, a traffic cone, a faded buoy, a bit of rubbish  – artfully suggest that this sylvan setting is actually closer to Wilton’s home turf. .  And indeed Piers Torday has adapted the up-Thames rural setting of Kenneth Grahame’s book to be an urban take,  London’s own stretch of river.   And the weasels? You’ve guessed it:  the Wild Wood is the City,  the weasels and stoats the financiers and developers.   They’ve turfed poor Mole out of his hole in Hyde Park to build a private road,  and that is how the dear chap – Corey Montague Sholay, in a lovely furry black coat – gets to meet the insouciant Ms Ratty (Rosie Wyatt) and become one of the troop who are friends to one another and to the great River itself.

      It’s a lovely idea, and directed with gleeful pace by Elizabeth Freestone.  Chris Warner’s music is played on bass, fiddle, guitar and clarinet by the cast, sometimes picking up on Grahame’s words sometimes fresh, sometimes a bit rappy.  Rosie Wyatt has a particularly lovely voice – with a nice sharp music-hall edge, very fitting for the setting.   Sholay the mole is a pleasing tenor,  though nothing brings the house down like Darrell Brockis’ as Toad, a baritoad, a delight, we’ll come back o that.  The ducks in yellow tights and random beachwear lead duck-aerobics;  the weasels snarl and shout through loudhailers;  the faint wild music of the God Pan who rescues the baby otter from sewage poisoning has just the mystical shiver it needs. 

         The fun is in the modern message – keep the river clean, defy Weaselpower, have some sympathy for those like Mole who today search the capital in vain for somewhere to make a home.   But important too the characterization, pretty faithful to Grahame.  Mole is obsessed with risk- assessments and only rises to heroism in the final battle; Ratty on his rolling raft (built of recycled junk and pallets) enjoys his life and his river, with the famous picnic being made of scavenged litter food – kebabs,fried chicken bits, Pret salads.  Otter has a Tik Tok site about how he’s a hotter otter.    I wondered how in this context Torday would create the grumpy powerful Badger, but it’s perfect:  Melody Brown is a gruff hippyish old campaigner, garlanded with former campaign badges to ban the bomb and save the stoat.   She delivers a fine folksong in early Bob Dylan style,  and explains to the junior animals that Toad’s affluent absurdity is because he an inevitable victim of late capitalism and the intellectually bankrupt profiteering elite who are destroying the world.  

        But Toad himself!  Mr Brockis, possibly now my new comedy favourite if not pin-up, renders him as a fruity, middle-aged thespian showoff , springing onto the scene with a cry of “Ratty darling!”,  in a  silk dressing-gown and green pantaloons.  He leaps, he dances,  he brags, he poses with a nimble hilarious pomposity. When reformed by the hippie old Badger  as per the book, sorrowfully confessing “I’ve been on a journey” , he reverse-ferrets beautifully into entitled arrogance. His toys are not canary-coloured carts and motorcars but a ridiculous Toadbot – an Alexa-type device that interrupts a lot –  then a lit drone he flies on a rod over the front rows, an exercise bike and, of course, a lethal e-scooter.  His song of Toadish triumph – nicely picking up most of the original words and rhymes – brings the house down.  

      Honestly, it’s  one for our times and for ages, this. There’s even a puppet otter cub.   Two happy hours…  To 31 dec

Rating four.

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A SHERLOCK CAROL Marylebone Theatre NW1


I had come from the magnificent Old Vic Christmas Carol, where once again with mince pies,  bells and lanterns and Dickensian cheer and a message about how poor Scrooge was maltreated by his father long ago.   Still worth it, a cracking family show.  So it felt like fun to travel three miles north north across Dickens’ city,  beyond 221b Baker St to the new  Marylebone Theatre for  Mark Shanahan’s A Sherlock Carol,  which did rather well in New York and cheekily opens  with the Dickens echo –  “Moriarty was dead..”.

          It’s a mash-up, a tribute, potentially a great deal of fun.  And historically a good jokes: for now it is 40 years on from the time of A Christmas Carol,   and Holmes is terribly depressed and purposeless after defeating Moriarty the master-criminal at the Reichenbach Falls.   He is visited by the middle-aged Dr Cratchit:  Tiny Tim!  He has grown up and is earnestly curing other children in a hospital once funded by Scrooge’s benefactions but now a bit short of money.

         Moreover, Scrooge has been murdered.  And there’s a  shenanigan about  a lost will and the precious Blue Carbuncle, which could save the hospital but is gone.  It may or may not have been stolen by a descendant of Scrooge’s old employer Fezziwig. Who, in a completely pointless sub-plot, is in love with a descendant, of I think, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Fan.   It’s a brilliant and cheeky idea,  and Shanahan echoes lines from both books.   For instance, when Holmes who famously doesn’t believe in spirits is visited on  Christmas Eve by Scrooge’s ghost, the ghost mockingly quotes him  –   “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains ,however improbable,  must be the truth”.  

      I wanted to adore it.  I really did.  And it’s only two hours,  but the first half is fussy with sub-plots and awful comedy accents your kids may love but I didn’t.   You could trim down the longer first half very smartly and run it as 90-minutes-no interval, though that would cut down on the mulled wine which was rather good in the bar.     Kammy Darweish is a gorgeous Scrooge,   and the crinolined ensemble telling the story are fun,  but there’s a problem with Ben Caplan’s Sherlock.   I know it’s hard to act as if you’re disillusioned and depressed – you need Hamlet-style poetry for that –  but the whole of the first half saw him irritatingly mopey and low-key,  not a Sherlock we can love.   Maybe he will dial it up as the Christmas spirit rises. I hope so, because it’s a hell of a good idea.  God bless us, every one!    to 7 Jan

rating three

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   What could be more seasonal than Flaubert’s tale of wifely frustration, romantic illusions, disastrous adulteries and ruinous shopaholic debt?  This adaptation is a clown-skilled four-hander by John Nicholson – founder of the gleefully clever  Peepolyukus.  So there’s a lot of sudden hat-swopping and artful prop-work and chalk scribbles made real by pinpoint-skilful sound effects. There’s a scene of fine erotic prestigiditation (magic, to you) and a jokey meta-theatrical “framing” of the story by two travelling ratcatchers who encounter poor Emma Bovary at the point of her proposed suicide.   

     So it starts with an author-narrator explaining that since it’s Christmas there’s going to be a happy ending for once,  and begins at the end of the book , promising that  – after Emma has told her whole tale of frustration  – one of the ratcatchers will thwart her suicide and bear her off to the bright lights of Paris to fulfil her hopeless lifelong provincial dreams.    But will he?   Remain on edge of seat, though you might fall off laughing. 

       Any classic tragedy has a potential to be darkly funny:  this is. The amiably boyish Sam Alexander is Charles Bovary,  unsuspicious and devoted, while an irresistible Denis Herdman plays  her two lovers,  and Alistair Cope wears many hats as  – well, basically the rest of provincial 19c France (very convincing when he milks a table as a  cow, properly evil as a bailiff).  In the midst of the three men is Jennifer Kirby as Emma Bovary: the  axle around which they whirl.  And what is so brilliant about Marieke Audsley’s direction  – and Kirby’s assured, RSC-honed performance  – is that poor Emma is played pretty well straight. 

       That works wonderfully: the book, which profoundly shocked France in 1856, is after all a dark satire on the helplessness of energetic women trapped in an unreasonable male society,  stuck with dull unchanging domesticity while being fed romantic ideas in novels and tempted by aspirational consumerism.   It is also a study in depression.  When Kirby speaks lines like “life is a dark corridor with a locked door at the end” there’s a proper shudder;  when she flings herself recklessly at bored lovers,  there is good physical comedy because all four are accomplished clowns,  but she retains the grim dignity of her plight.  The show is laughing at the men, not the woman.

   Which is appropriate, given the theme.  But one of my favourite things  is that it pulls off the classic trick of suddenly, briefly, demonstrating that these are not just comics but actors who could have done it straight, had they chosen to. The old ReducedShakespeare Company used to do that:  in the middle of  riotous hat-and-prop jokes suddenly deliver  “O what a piece of work is Man..” or “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, to silence the waves of  laughter before rapidly stirring it up again.   Here the cast finally quarrel among themselves because Emma loses patience and wants the proper tragedy.  So movingly – and straight – she and Charles enact her last moments.   

       But well, can’t keep jokey blokes down, can you?   Cue a fine denouement.  Go and see for yourself.    But book.  This early matinee was packed solid.  

      Box office   To 17 december 

Rating four.

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MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION. Theatre Royal Bath & touring


1893, and here’s George Bernard Shaw passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours by centring the action on two women at odds , with surrounding men remarkably disrespected.  Mind you, to get this play onstage it took  32 years, a war and women’s suffrage:  and even then the Lord Chamberlain only just choked it down.  It belongs to that angry Ibsen,Chekhov, serious-Wilde era as Victoria was dwindling,  the press noticing child-prostitution , and intelligent playwrights thinking, appalled, about how the roots of polite society sucked the life out of women.

        It’s still a barnstorming play, especially in a final mother-daughter confrontation,  and with all the twisty argumentative vigour of GBS.   Like all his plays it is a challenge to modern actors, with no argument knowingly understated and the need to be natural even while preaching.    But Anthony Banks’ cast handle it bracingly: Caroline Quentin is excellent as the mature lady calling herself Mrs Warren,  and her own real daughter Rose Quentin rises to match her as the daughter Vivie who long ago she bore to – well, who knows who? . Vivie’s upbringing was lavishly  funded all the way to mathematical-wrangler level at the newly founded Newnham College, Cambridge.  It took money.  Not respectable money .

    Quentin senior is abundant, vigorous, bossy, overdressed , affluent but delightfully prone to betray in sudden vowel sounds her unladylike beginnings;  Vivie is a casual no-nonsense bluestocking in culottes , who enjoys a whisky and a whodunnit and enjoys working out actuarial calculations in a liberated friend’s legal practice up Chancery Lane.   They haven’t met that often over the years,  but we encounter them reuniting in a country garden (with a cottage so undersized in scale that I fear it may be a metaphor for trapped womanhood).  Mrs W is introducing her friends – a geeky architect Praed, who seems to have wandered in from an EM Forster novel,  and Sir George, a galumphing baronet with a silvertopped cane.   Shortly along comes Vivie’s half-boyfriend Frank and his father the Rector. Who ,to general delight, is played by Matthew Cottle, a man whose drop-dead comedy timing  has never yet missed its chance.

         Both the Rector and the baronet may, we quite soon realize, turn out to be Vivie’s father, though Mrs W would never tell.  You can see why 1893 panicked over this play once the baronet  (Simon Shepherd, beautifully high-Tory) has made a play for Vivie,  while Frank flirts toyboy-style with her mother.    But the core of the plot lies in the revelation – made surprisingly early by the mother to her daughter – that her wealth and position came from prostitution.   It was,  Shaw makes abundantly and angrily clear,  society’s guilt:  the pretty daughter of an unmarried east end fried-fish seller had a choice between marrying into enslavement by some drunken labourer,  dying of lead poisoning in a factory or  selling herself at a price.  All women do, or did:  “How does a marriage ceremony make a difference to the right and wrong of these things?”

      The topical fascination of the play is the way that Vivie at first buys into her mother’s story with compassionate affection for a victim of the system.  But in the second act, after a brief glorious appearance of a hungover clerical Cottle alongside another undersized building, his church,  there are some audience gasps. The baronet reveals to scornful Vivie  that the business –  houses of ill repute in Vienna, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin and other sinful un-English places – is still well up and running.   Mrs Warren is thus no longer a repentant victim of circumstance but a bit of a white-slaver .     It is made clear to Vivie that the whole society, from Dukes and Archbishops down,  is  rotten ,so one might as well join in and profit from it. 

    Appalled, she storms off,  pausing only to face another unwelcome revelation, and in Act 3  – the Chancery Lane set now full human size, which again may be a metaphor –  two showdowns result. Mrs Warren makes one last throw for the status of treasured old Mum: Caroline Quentin truly  magnificent, ropes of pearls swinging,  accent cruder,  frank about her needs.  She won’t give up the management of her houses – must have “work and excitement, or I’ll go melancholy mad!” .   Vivie, a chip off the old block, also wants work, but the excitement of actuarial calculations and legal papers is her shtick.    Frank,  in an authorial gesture of utter contempt for the supposedly likeable character,  makes a despicable decision too.   

             Here the scandal was about sex;  but 129 ever more sexually liberated years later,  generations are still at odds over hypocrisies , and a sweatshop global society selegantly veils  its abuse of the weakest.   Those who live on the profits need the same discomfort, and  shouting, and have decisions to make about who to shout at loudest.  The final moments were refreshing.

To Saturday in Bath then Richmond, Chichester

Rating 4.

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      It seemed worth the money – these were not press tickets – to check out how good old Fanty is getting on after 36 years at Her Majesty’s Theatre down the Haymarket.  It’s survived the Covid interruption,  worked its way through a phantasmagorical procession of Phantoms and Christines since Crawford and Brightman,   and has had to  pare its orchestra down from 27 to 14.    How would it feel?    I remember seeing Lloyd-Webber’s CATS onstage in its last London days,  and a terrible disappointing sense of its weariness. Hard to pin down why – with good talent, decent audience and the classic Gillian Lynne choreography – but it felt stale, hopeless.  I feared the same.  A decline into exhausted tourist-fodder.

    But no: Phantom is fresh as a daisy, its gorgeously over-the-top staging as hilarious and glorious as ever:   a gilt proscenium-within-the-proscenium complete with boxes,  a nostalgic opening at the auction with the great chandelier draped in sacking,  then a flashing reveal of a grand cod-opera rehearsal complete with stern ballet mistress and roll-on elephant onto which the heroic tenor struggles to climb.  Honour to the new resident and associate directors: the cast give the impression of  having a ball,  and possibly even enjoying the extreme costumes (I gasp at the thought of the wardrobe team).   And our latest Phantom is Killian Donnelly, back for a second go, or  third,  given that he has been Raoul as well.  

      He’s splendid: wide gorgeous vocal range, swashbuckling authority,   just the chap you need to punt you through a subterranean lake studded with giant candelabras, and pop up dramatically, whether from a giant winged horse’s head on the opera roof or looming on a tomb.   Lucy St Louis is a properly charming Christine, too  (last saw her as Diana Ross).  The ensemble are as tight and delighted and delightful as on any first night, and as a sober ROH regular I had forgotten the pleasure of the three bursts of grand-opera pastiche.  This time that enjoyment was  inflated further afterwards by the amusement of getting online to read reading anguished real-opera-buff commentaries on what their bete- noir Lloyd-Webber got, in their opinion, wrong.   

       I also realized, in the first song “think of me”,  exactly where Victoria Wood must have got the inspiration for the rehearsal scene in her Bessie Bunter The Musical sketch…the one with the line about Anthony Eden..

       It was a family outing, the show chosen because some 25 years ago, over 5 years into Phantom’s epic run, I took a posse of  11-year-old girls to it for (we think) my daughter’s birthday.  I had encountered the show first when it opened and Cameron Mackintosh came on MIDWEEK (radio 4).  I  remember saying to him, as a humble non-affluent punter,   “Gosh I wish I was a theatre-angel, an investor”. Not just because it was obviously going to run, but because it would be fun to be involved in something so gloriously preposterous, so drenched in the romance of bygone theatre and opera and staged with éclat,  sentiment, and jokes about the business.  And a collapsing chandelier… O, how many times has that thing been up and down, skimming the heads of row F?  Honour to three and a half decades of technical crews

      Anyway, the affection years ago was increased because when my rabble of little girls shot out chattering at the end via the merchandise stall, the cry that went up was not for T shirts or badges but an amazed, delighted “Look, Mum, you can buy the SCORE!”   Suddenly all those music lesson fees felt worth it.  Which is yet another reason I won’t hear a word against dear Fanty, not now, not ever.  The faint tooting of “Angel of Music” on many recorders afterwards is alone a justification. God bless ALW, I say.


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BLACKOUT SONGS Hampstead Theatre


    The  studio at Hampstead has been on a roll recently, with  intelligent and emotionally honest plays : FOLK, RAVENSCOURT, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM et al.  It nurtures new playwrights, gives actors scope and challenge, invites NHS and emergency workers in for a tenner.  It  did not deserve to be  stripped of its public funding just because someone  thought Hampstead sounded, politically, a good place to kick.   

         This is another sharp, pared-down studio production:  in 95 minutes Joe White delivers a necessarily painful two-hander about youthful  alcoholism and the disaster of  colliding addictions.  We watch two  lovers, over an uncertain wavering timeline,  who can neither control nor remember their lives and real selves: we get flashes, snapshots of their meeting, coupling, celebrating, fighting, betraying.    

         It is cleverly constructed in its time-shifting,  rather like Nick Payne’s  CONSTELLATIONS (though don’t listen to me about that:  I was one of the few who didn’t like its showy cleverness).   But here the blackouts and timeshifts  and crossed-confused memories of reality are put in the service of stark illustration of  what addiction to getting off your face does to people.     There are two brilliant, fiercely identified performances : Alex Austin is the more vulnerable geeky one, an art student;  Rebecca Humphries, posher, entitled, swishing around in a strappy dress and afghan coat falling off one shoulder,  is sexy and selfish and horribly lethal.  This is apparent from the first moment when she drags him away for a drink  as an AA meeting is about to start,  because he’s only just thrown up his last load in a passing bin so – “It’s medicine, one in twenty people die, going cold turkey” .   She also plans to have sex with him, because that is what she does when she is, as she says several times,  her true self. She is the classic drunk who believes she was born three drinks under par and will only be real when she’s had them. 

     Their relationship  is an object-lesson in  AA’s advice that you shouldn’t strike up relationships in recovery,  and for most of the first hour Humphries’ gives a fabulously dislikeable evocation of the poisonous self-absorption and cruelty of the career drunk.   Which I have to say I found a bit of a problem: there’s a fine line between brilliantly loathsome and unwatchable.  Though some critics (male) found a rom-com meet-cute sweetness in it at times,  and White creates a sketchy back-story excuse about a famous father who wasn’t there for her ,and  being sent to boarding school at six.  He also gives her some beguiling verbal flights of fancy . That helped a bit. 

            Austin as the man is less toxic,  eagerer,  scruffily hopeless and beguiled by her,  but ironically he is the one who does at some point in the switchback timeline  get sober.   Unless that is another fantasy.   He too is the one with some understanding of love as a gift of appreciation rather than a shag-happy snatching of fun:  his line about how you “carry” with you people you have loved is at the core of the play,  and underlines its sorrowful message  that carrying a fellow-addict is hard, perhaps impossible.

         “I might love you, or maybe I’m just drunk” she observes once; and another startling moment in their courtship comes when,  as they raid a church for communion-wine the man says  “you know we’re just drinking buddies? I’m going to forget you”.   But later he accuses her of having said that to him.   Brains are damaged. 

      Hard, clever, truthful.  And sometimes funny: there was laughing around me at times (Austin is physically good in clowning, dancing moments, and Humphries deft in the fantasy speeches).  But  it was the younger audience who were laughing, recognizing.   Not the parent generation .

Box office  To 10 December

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This cheerfully exuberant rendering of Oscar Wilde’s witty rom-com  is also a sort of political act. In the foyer a gorgeous selection of photographs from the Black Chronicles exhibition shows elegantly posed black and Asian Britons of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Onstage,  director Denzel Westley-Sanderson (whose last credit was for Steven Kazuma’s “Another Fucking play about Race”) has assembled a cast appropriately Black,  and promises a vibrant retelling of a tale about ” dysfunctional families, class, gender and sexuality” .  

       Fear not.  He’s having us on, a bit, and is as wild about Wilde as any director.  The cast are resplendent in all the right  bustles and tailcoats – plus  in Algernons case  a silky lounging gown and in Jack’s the most ridiculous Victorian mourning-hat ever. On the wall of Algernon’s rooms the gilt frames sing with bright African art: he’s just finishing one as it begins. Later ,down in Cecily’s drawing room the family portraits echo the exhibition outside.   Hell, people of colour were here too,  in the culture, so  why not the literature?  They were: remember how in  Vanity Fair there is not only the loyal black servingman but the heiress Miss Swartz: friend of Emmy at finishing-school and the nicest soul in the book.  So it is fun set today’s generation, so much more breezily visible,   to rollick through The Importance, and do it loud and proud and broad and devoid of traditional period primness.

           First thing to say is that Mr Westley-Sanderson’s direction pretty much worked: got roars and shrieks of proper laughter in Kingston, indicating that a lot of people hadn’t known the play’s jokes or had forgotten them. Old stagers might slightly regret the way the fine-clipped Wildean epigrams move past too quickly,  and are often shouted,  and yes, I did wish  Lady Bracknell – Daniel Jacob from Ru Paul etc – was less of a noisy Panto Dame.   Some Bracknell jokes work  better when she has an underlying  dignity based more on confident status than glaring drag-club bullying.  Others might find Cecily and Gwendolen a bit wildly shouty too –  Cecily is played as a full-on hoyden and Gwendolen a caricature of gloriously orgasmic bossiness.  Yes, I do mean orgasmic.  Her talk of “vibrations” at the name Ernest is well used.    But they’re funny. Just not quite in the delicate sarcastic way we’re used to.  

        And the chaps are perfect in anyone’s terms, and Wilde would have loved them.  Abiola Owokonira is one to watch, lithe and sharply funny and judging the lines perfectly on his first professional job as the elegant Algernon,  while Justice Ritchie is a good foil (and wrestling partner at times) as the more earnest Jack.  Oh, and it’s cucumber martinis, not sandwiches, and there’s  real bread and butter for Jack to abuse. 

           The programme’s appropriately earnest line about “class, gender and sexuality” made me half-expect a blokey Cecily in a Corbyn hat ,and possibly  an inserted lecture on the human right  to self-identify as Ernest, but no. In the event the only adaptation is that Canon Chasuble is a padded-out Anita Reynolds,  to provide a sapphic  frisson with Joanne Henry’s Miss Prism.  Unless you count an earlier frisson between Algernon and Lane the butler (Valentine Hanson, even foxier).  Both pairs  fun with that.    And the denouement is fantastic,  Jack ransacking an attic overhead with deafening crashes and making the lights flicker as they all stand frozen in panic,  finally to produce a very nicely sourced leather handbag and a deafening cry of “Mother!”. 

       Altogether, it’s a hoot. A lark.  Especially the gag with Cecily and the spade.  

Box office  To 12 November.   

Rating four 

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MARY. Hampstead theatre NW3


For four hundred years the reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been battled over:  she has been called victim and whore,  murderess and heroine,  flighty and heroic. Romance flowers in drama and opera: she was a young mother, beautiful,  imprisoned, finally executed by her cousin Elizabeth I.  Dramatists usually gather around that last period and imaginary meetings between the two women.  But Rona Munro here  is focusing on another point in Mary’s  life,  with a modern and feminine eye.  Her historical passion  lit up Scotland and then the National Theatre stage a few years back with the three “James Plays”, about the first three kings of that name in the 15c (there’s a fourth play, not yet come south).

But in this static but powerful 90-minutes, in which the Queen herself is offstage except for two glimpses, Munro concentrates on the period before her forced abdication in 1567.  Her husband Darnley  has been murdered by the thuggish Earl of Bothwell.  But within weeks Mary – a Catholic, which was a source of unease in newly Protestant Scotland – marries him under Protestant rites. Briefly this won him power before he was overthrown. The play opens with a court servant, Thompson,  having just been beaten up by Bothwell while the Queen”s paternal old adviser Melville  (Douglas Henshall). tells the young man to clean up and not frighten her, as she is already scared.  The third in the room is Agnes,  a devout Protestant enthusiast with little time for Mary.

We meet them again months later after the fall of Bothwell, in Holyrood Palace for a long, sometimes exhausting, courtroom-style argumentative assault on Melville  by Thompson and Agnes (imagined figures, but representing the political and religious passions of the time) .  They need his signature for her abdication and disgrace,  implying the Bothwell marriage to be labelled as whorish treachery and guilt for her husband’s death. 

Melville,  who was close to her court through the time of her abduction,  is convinced she was raped,  never consenting, assaulted and forced and silenced. Rona Morison’s Agnes, a pillar of unbending judgment and rectitude,  pours womanly scorn on the absent Mary,  reckoning that even if she was raped, she came to like it and was willing. Brian Vernel’s Thompson is all politics,  staccato, pushing away at the increasingly disturbed and defensive Melville, demanding  details like a prosecuting barrister.  The older man, hating to retell it of the girl he knew from childhood, is pushed to describe the assault – public, in front of roaring nobles, heard by him in the next room.  And, damningly, to admit to her calm afterwards:  not calling for help,  not visibly outraged. This, in the increasing temperature of the argument, is of course held against her.

Munro is making a very modern point about the self-blaming trauma of such assaults.  Melville knows what he knows, but slowly fades in his determination: Munro has said she wants to depict the men who let these things go unpunished,  and the last few minutes of this scene certainly do that. Henshall’s subtly shamed demeanour is sharply shown. But he’s a politician and a patriot: the future of Scotland, potential peace under a Regency, is at stake.  Conversely, the more Agnes hears of what almost certainly happened to another woman,  the more her mind changes in the other direction.  And she adds with shame a horrifying memory of her own willingness to stand by when Mary was taken prisoner and cried , dishevelled, from a window amid her male captors. Morison here is shiveringly powerful.

It is a good theme,  and the writing is taut. But it is a long slow burn, static, undramatic until the last third. The audience was tautly silent though,  shocked. That I suppose was the point. The denouement is sudden and dramatic : suddenly a chorus – credited in the programme – reminds us that beyond tight arguments in small rooms there is confused angry popular feeling and a country to save. 

To 26 nov.

Rating. Three.

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TAMMY FAYE. Almeida, N1


       Rarely in the history of Islington playgoing have so many first-nighters whooped so enthusiastically at  Gospel rock.  When cheers for Elton John’s anthems briefly abate it is often for quite different whoops , laughter at James Graham’s dry sharp script or moments of enchanted shock at an unexpected popup. This is a new musical telling the story of the accelerating frenzy of the 1970s televangelism boom, and the rise and fall of Ted Turner’s PTL (“Praise the Lord!”) Network  with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye. The couple  “reached out”to tens of millions of Americans and hauled in millions in donations before a string of scandals brought them down and Bakker into prison for fraud. 

            So here’s a 20c  history-play delivered as a camp Christian-rock spectacular, with the irresistible glory of Elton John numbers  with nifty lyrics by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.  A huge television studio becomes electric-church America with screens and galleries for sudden irruptions by characters from Reagan to Archbishop Runcie, Ted Turner to John Paul 2.   Rupert  Goold’s rollicking direction flashes  – between numerous passionate songs  – through scenes of marital collaboration and betrayal,  TV-biz negotiation and the preposterous commercialization of the faithful.  These holy-joes  sold everything from unbuilt hotel rooms to recipes to underwear, not to mention penile vacuum devices (demonstrated with balloons by Tammy).  Meanwhile infighting pastors talk moral-majority politics with Presidential candidates , and the Bakker’s hokey theatrical evocations of the crucifixion (with very camp flagellation) whiz past before you have time to wonder if they should.  Many scenes culminate in dancing of diabolical merriment by the ensemble: the vigour never flags.   

       In shape it is nicely book-ended:  opening  with Tammy receiving her final cancer diagnosis (comedy proctology) it later closes with her in heaven:  the first-act jerking frenzy of a Billy Graham rally  is mirrored in the second half by a riot of furious cheated punters. Revival, after all, is only a whisker away from riot. 

        At the show’s heart are some storming performances: Katie Brayben as Tammy catches both her immense likeability and her showgirl charisma  in the huge belting numbers (“A big-haired trainer-trash hoochy mama..” raves a furious rival, and Brayben gives it all that, alongside proper charm).   Andrew Rannells as Bakker maintains a deadpan geekiness alongside his cleverer wife until folie de grandeur gets a grip on him;, but  becomes genuinely moving in his downfall number “Look how far we’ve fallen” with  other disgraced TV pastors.  And Zubin Varla as their nemeis is fabulously basso, delivering a thrilling hymn to the TV satellites as the strait-laced Jerry Falwell , “last man standing” in the electro-church debacle and scourge of everything feminist as a road to death, hell and lesbianism. 

        It is detectably James-Graham, which is great: in all his political plays his humane strength is in being willing to accept that even the worst operators were, at least some of the time,  genuinely in earnest.   When Tammy, breaking with the strait-laced homophobia of most of the movement,  does her famous sympathetic interview with the gay Steve Pieters it is largely rendered verbatim, and is quietly moving.  When the Pope, chief Mormon and Archbishop Runcie worry about whether to let the American televangelism into the World Council of Churches as a possible “Awakening” , but then realize it is more like a reckoning,  we laugh but are not invited to contempt.  There is even proper sympathy in the penitent renderings of of “We thought that it was God’s voice calling but someone else was on the line”.  

       The show is also, finally, remarkably Christian in its vision of the chastened and impoverished Tammy and her AIDS- stricken friends being the real heart of what a decent faith means. . Meeting in heaven to compare deaths,  when Falwell says his fate was heart failure Tammy remarks , kindly,  that he didn’t die of it,  he lived with it.  

    It’s a piece of bravura and massively entertaining: should transfer up West – Elton John and James Graham in harness, for heaven’s sake – but the New York journalist next to me doubted that Broadway will open its arms to it.  We’ll see.   Some of the songs will live anyway, though, and be much covered.  I’d put money on Tammy’s last defiant number  “If you  came to see me cry..” ( you might as well grow wings and fly).   It could become a new “My Way” for women. 

Box office  To 3 Dec.    All showing sold-out,  but there are always chances and returns.

Rating. 4  I did wonder about 5, but a voice from heaven said..hmmm…

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MARVELLOUS @sohoplace


      Hard, on its first night ever, not to review the theatre itself.  Nica Burns and Nimax open the first new West End theatre in fifty years: agleam with brass and glass. neon and shine and bars and chutzpah, perching in perfect acoustic comfort above rumbling old Tubes noe intersecting at Tottenham Court Road with the elegant new Elizabeth Line after the years of Crossrail chaos and disruption.  Sweeping balconies show it off in the round for its first three shows, it has rehearsal spaces and the same fastidious theatre-architects (Haworth Tompkins) as the lovely Bridge.   

        It’s swanky, developer-modern,  triumphant: and fond though one may be of gilded Victorian playhouses and scruffy pub spaces,  I review-the-playhouse (terrible thing to do usually) because  it was a day the whole world shook its head at our financial disgrace and revolving-door of useless prime ministers.  So a bit of flash and nerve made it feel that bit better to be British. And before you harrumph about fatcat prices, they go down to £ 25,  and it looks perfectly nice in that top balcony. 

     Now to the show.  With characteristic foxiness, for all the glass ‘n gleam and firstnightery Nica Burns eschews all temptations to do something chatterati-chic.  This very metropolitan theatre explodes into life instead with a festive, eccentric, warmly inclusive celebration of family, community, clowning, neurodiverse glee and Stoke City Football Club.  It  ends with both a funeral hymn that makes you weep and  a custard-pie fight, and arrived in Soho from the Potteries, the New Vic at Newcastle under Lyme, and its remarkable director Therese Heskins.

       The story of Neil Baldwin,  born in 1949 with a learning disability and a startlingly vivid gift for happiness,  became a notable film with Toby Young.   It tells how he wandered into Keele University – not employed or studying – in a clerical collar and took it on himself to welcome students , and carried on doing it for decades.  Likewise, having decided he should be Stoke City manager he turned up, charmed Lou Macari and became  its kit man and mascot in loopy chicken and turtle outfits.  He worked years as a circus clown across Britain,  got the British Empire Medal from the Queen for service to the community,  and charmed innumerable famous figures from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Duke of Edinburgh.  His trademark became part of his ‘disability’, a dry, hilarious straight-talking friendliness, a sunflower spirit turning to the light.  

      The play is ‘meta’ – six diverse actors (some themselves neurodiverse or with experience of it) play Neil at different ages and the people around him, as “real Neil” – an extraordinary evocation by Michael Hugo – emerges from the front row with a shopping bag full of random props,  and supervises the telling.  But it’s a real narrative,  and at its care is his mother, first patiently coaxing the infant to talk, with a speech therapist; caring,  worrying, cooking, anxiously letting him go on his various crazy, potentially humiliating excursions while knowing – as she says at one heartrending  point – “Not everyone’s kind”.   

          Neil himself has knockbacks and snubs and is sacked from one circus, his caravan towed off-site and dumped in a layby,  but he hitches home and explains that he’s upset, but “In life you have to be upset sometimes”.   The wisdom of that knocks you out.  He loves making people laugh. His time with Stoke players raises the one moment when it is acknowledged that there is a wrong kind of laugh, mockery of his condition and speech.  But he rides that,  and plays his own pranks back (like wearing the entire team’s underpants, cue a panto washing-line gag).  

       Late on,  our anxiety for him is allowed to rise a little despite all his friends and backers:  his mother, movingly, starts teaching him to cook, for when she will be gone.  It’s done in full-on slapstick, rather brilliantly (eggs and flour everywhere)  and there are wonderful lines.  Wielding a pinny she asks “Now, what’s the first thing you do when you go into the kitchen, Neil?”  “Have a biscuit!|”.   But it touches on the fear of every parent of a learning-limited child, and you shiver.  His grief too feels real when she dies.  Actually, it all feels real.  

        The players are physical-comedy masters,  hefted and joyful in their interaction,  Gareth Cassidy particularly fine.   Beverley Norris-Edmunds deserves a shout-out for the  movement direction, and I hope they all survive the run intact.  But Michael Hugo is truly extraordinary: perfect in every move and in speech, catching the cheerful bossiness and reckless aggressive friendliness of the man;  indeed his impersonation is acknowledged by the real Neil himself as spot-on.  To 26 november

Rating four

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       Peter Gill’s  new play has a melancholy beauty about  it;  it’s a sort of poem as the veteran playwright and director engages with  age, regret and memory. The one-act, hour-long piece, performed with understated delicacy, recreates a world in memory drawn by two old men in cardigans sitting side by side in care-home chairs.   

         Christopher Godwin’s  Alex , the shakier of the two ,is in the foothills of dementia (we will only discover that as it goes on).  He is remembering a day by the river in Hammersmith in the early 1960’s and  the young man he loved then.  In Gill’s lovely, sparely  evocative language he pulls up before us  scenes of the historic river as part of his own history.  We see  the leaking sandbags at high water , the houses and pubs and alleys, feel the urgency of lovemaking that day and the low red sun over the Surrey shore.  

       Ian Gelder’s Colin,  next to him as he addresses  that long-ago lover, seems to doze as Alex reminisces,  then rouses and brings out eloquent memories of his own: of Dean Street and Chez Victor and Soho square, and a scrubby vivid world of postwar intellectual Aldermaston-march bohemianism and its people: a woman novelist, BBC intellectuals, the detail of houses. To and fro they go, remembering.  Two pretty young men,  younger selves or younger lovers, join in from the side of the stage as if conjured by memory:     blithe and vivid, they create in single lines  fragments of past scenes as they break into the rolling mist of reminiscence.

  .  .   Slowly we start to see that these two  old men are not of the same couple, though they lived in that same past world.   Ideas, arguments from their heyday emerge;  social justice versus individual freedom,  cheap clothes for all versus anxiety about sweatshops,   infidelity, the Cuban missile crisis…deaths, memorial services,  being gay when it was difficult,  meeting lovers again after years,  days and years fading onwards,  decades passing.   

      But now in life’s last waiting-room they are one another’s comfort, lightly touching or holding hands, Colin solicitous of Alex’s confusions.     Modern reality arrives to visit the old men; Alex’s son Andrew (Andrew Woodall)  is  an unhappy irritable middle-aged man , constantly mistaken  by the old man for his dead brother.   Colin’s niece  is Claire (Claire Price), brightly female and practical.  They are people of today,  still out in the 21c world, and   talk a little between themselves as the old men doze. Yet they are irrelevant to the central emotional drive of memory and love and long lives.  Andrew suddenly objects when the two old men hold hands – how dare his father act gay! – and is shocked that they asked for a shared room in the institution.  Claire says tolerantly, kindly ’they are friends’.   

     Their day moves towards dinner time.  “How useless regret is’ says one.   The young men, phantoms, speak of one another’s beautiful eyes.  Alex gently kisses Colin’s cheek.  to 12 November

Rating four  

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GOOD Harold Pinter Theatre SW1


    David Tennant is a fastidious actor.  That sounds negative, prim perhaps, but in fact expresses why his performance in C.P.Taylor’s extraordinary play is so riveting, honest and creatively discomforting.  It is a portrait of a man – a rather nerdy, self-consciously neurotic academic and author you could find in  any University,  but whose destiny is to be in a German one in the 1930’s.   This is not the  thoughtful brave dissident rebel beloved of such period dramas,  but a gradual Nazi convert.  Though he would find long-winded intellectual ways to deny that word even while putting on his SS uniform in the second act.  

       This is a gentle , ordinary downhill slope towards the very pit of hell.  Dominic Cooke sets it in almost featureless grey walls where Halder and two others interact, scenes rapidly changing  to evoke his life’s progress from Hitler’s advent in 1933.  The other two are skilful shape-shifters:    Elliott Levey sometimes his Jewish best friend Maurice,  and sometimes a Nazi functionary;  Sharon Small brilliantly turns , often within a sentence, between being his blind demanding mother with dementia,  his nervous wife, the lovesick student for whom he leaves her and a SS major.  It could be confusing but never is. 

        At first Halder shrugs off his friend’s unease – Maurice is fondly German, loves his home city and his forest cottage,   but has noted Hitler’s rhetoric on Jews from the start, and resents it with increasing nervousness and sense of unfairness  (“I don’t even like Jews, except my family”).   The academic  however shrugs off the “racialist aberration” as a populist fad,  something that can’t last since Germany needs its scientists and businessmen for its strength.     He is as nerdishly preoccupied with his own feelings as any modern therapy-junkie,   though Maurice scoffs that people don’t go into analysis to “streamline their lives” but only to alleviate real agony.     Halder is also – and this is brilliantly evoked by Tennant – a fatally impressionable man.  He talks a lot of music,  bands that haunt him; now a drinking song, now jazz or a crooner, now Wagner or Bach. Once (as he breaks into dance) the romance of a peasant Bavarian oompah when he dreams of taking his young lover to a simple life. There’s martial music too:  when he says how thrilling it was to do army service,  roaming around with his mates ‘looking for officers to salute”,  |I was chillingly reminded of something:   the 40-somethings of my teenage years in Hamburg,  who would after a drink start telling me,  remorsefully and unprompted, that yes ,  they were in the Hitler-Jugend as kids but they were poor, and it was only because you got a uniform with pockets and your very own penknife.  

    The way that this weakish, rather self-involved man is drawn into party membership and full collaboration is elegantly, fastidiously shown. He wrote a novel during his mother’s decline which seemed to make a c= case for euthanasia,  and Goebbels liked it and saw he’d be a useful-idiot to recruit, this Professor:  so he is persuaded to write a learned ‘paper’ about ending the lives of incurables and the ‘unfit’, and to collaborate.  He is ordered also to organise a mass book-burning (the bland set suddenly proves able to evoke this very startlingly) . So he confects a ridiculous academic excuse that it has a positive, vigorous side for academia  “as long as I keep my own copies”.   The deeper he gets in, the more official flattery and perks he gets, the more learnedly preposterous his excuses. 

          Levey’s Maurice is finally very moving indeed in the immense personal betrayal.  There is at the end a coup de theatre which must not be spoiled, and a curtain call that matters.   It’s an experience.    

www.    to 24 December

Rating four.  

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Three in the morning and Angel the showgirl is raring , glitterimg drunk “if you caint be drunk in Harlem..” she slurs furiously.  Her friend Guy brought her home, and explains to the staid neighbour Delia that she was sacked  for breaking outa line mid- show and cussing her gangster boyfriend “he’s not a gangster he’s  a BUSINESSMAN”  roars Angel before collapsing, to be roused only briefly by the happy sound of a cork popping.

    Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play creates a world, the world of  dreamers in the fading Harlem renaissance, the Depression starting to bite.  It’s domestic: Frankie Bradshaw’ s fabulous set  has two fire escapes,  a hallway, steps, rooms high and low , balcony (where we glimpse other neighbours, sometimes with quiet harmonies sung). Outside the street is barred with lamplight.  1930’s Harlem is around us:  hot jazz, cool kids, high spirits in a poor black population feeling its emancipated fragility alongside its power to perform and delight and build community:  – virtuous Delia next door is working on a maternity and womens health clinic with devoted  Dr Sam. Guy,  a gloriously likeable Giles Terera, is gay in both senses and labours at his sewing machine between parties and rescues of Angel. He’s  costumes which he dreams will take him to Paris to work for Josephine Baker. Sam , too busy to have been in love before at 40, adores Delia , who is preoccupied with her pastor and her good work.

        Dreams are hard to hold onto in this beleaguered time, but the little hefted community on the landings has to – their comradeship makes the lighter moments (the banter is excellent) feel like a version of Friends dry 70 years earlier and with real problems.  Into their world steps Leland from Alabama, Osy Ikhile playing it nicely flat at first as a  “southern gentleman” in a tipped hat and smart suit,  beguiled by Angel, able to take her out of all this if she’ll only give up her dreams of stardom “What do you see in him?” asks Guy, baffled. “A rent check that doesn’t bounce” she replies.  That never ends well. . 

           They’re all glorious: Samira Wiley’s Angel a Harlem Traviata,  a wayward and lively survivor , Guy’s wit and kindness and flouncing talent irresistible , Delia’s sweet frumpy frustration given heart and finally wit by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo.    Sam (Sule Rimi, debonair and kindly) is in his way the most  fascinating  character, one of the first black doctors in the city,  overworking, dedicated, falling asleep in seconds because by night, after many emergency childbirths, he still won’t exchange “two hours of Fats Waller for two hours sleep”.  

. There are some wonderful jokes and touching moments: and telling ones too: when Leland brings a gift of a puritan black frock with a peter pan collar to Angel Guy doubletakes in horror:   when Angel fixes it up with red bows Leland prefers it the old way.  It gives every clue to the way the  second half will intensify towards melodrama.  The darkness these bright-hearted people have held off  does not come from inimical white domination or even mere poverty. 

       Guy, returning bloodied one evening in his lilac satin proclaims with timeless fearlessness that he is determined to get out of Harlem but until he does, he will walk these streets and wear what he wants.  Leland’s piety, as he looks between the city buildings for the stars he knew in Alabama, is not the pragmatic humane goodwill of Delia and Dr Sam. It’s a piety more coldly Southern, not tempered yet by the sophistication of the New York negro diaspora.    So once he works out what it is about Guy, he invokes the hellfire and  Abomination school of Southern homophobia.

        He doesn’t really get what Angel is, either, for good or for ill:  her  line of escape  opens and then closes,  a timeless predicament triggering  a tragedy.   Not the tragedy I’d expected: which makes Lynette Linton’s arresting  production even better value.  It’s a loving, haunting play, done very beautifully To 5 november

Rating four.

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THE DOCTOR. Duke of York’s WC1


     This is the return of Robert Icke’s modern version of Schnitzler’s 1912 play – details below, as laid out in part of my original Almeida review. And no question, it is an opportunity to see one of the finest stage actors of the age – Juliet Stevenson – firing on all cylinders at the centre of a painfully topical play.  It is a satirical-philosophical meditation on the evils of group identity overshadowing real layered human personality, a questioning of medial ethics and the role of religion and  (in what now feels like an oddly bolted-on final section) a reflection on death and suicide.   The issue of a priest being barred from the bedside of a dying girl post-abortion because  is agonizingly topical after Roe v Wade.  There are some notably fine supporting performances,  especially Matilda Tucker as Sami, the doctor’s neighbour’s child.  The overhead drum ensemble is a brilliant device for raising the emotional enervation of the heroine’s situation. 

     So yes,  it’s worth the ticket,  and in a very good gesture the producers offer £ 25 tickets to health workers, though few may feel up to three hours of this gloomy intensity at the end of a long day.   It is challengingly staged and cast (the half-dozen newcomers to the production represent some tricksy cross-gender-cross-racial casting, even more than as described below. The weird shrillness given to the child’s father,  ranting that the child will be is condemned to hell fire  for lack of the last sacrament, is still frankly crazy, and if such extreme beliefs were ascribed to anyone but Catholids they would not pass theatre’s offensiveness-police by a mile.  As a cradle-RC  – albeit now lapsed –  I was taught fully 60 years ago, by nuns, that the deathbed principle of ‘between the stirrup and the ground’ and that there is nothing magical about sacramental absolution. 

       Yet although  it is mesmeric, probably one to see if you want three hours of serious theatre, there is something about the play’s translation to a big traditional theatre that doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe there are detailed tweaks; maybe it’s the casting. It feels ironic that the best scene is almost knockabout funny, satirically so,  as a panel questions Ruth on TV from every pious- victimcore point of view available, including “postcolonial”.  

       Here, though, to express the quality of the play, is part of what I wrote,  more beguiled, at the original Almeida showing..Here we go: 

“The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly  –  to our own.  Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents, hurrying home send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

      Icke takes this century-old story and conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters. He hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.  Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

        But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.    

     It is  essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson, but the director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving. ” 

Box office  To 11 December

Rating. Still 4

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    This is the big one.  It’s the National Theatre at its strongest:   unapologetic, classic,  unsparing, gripping, impassioned.    Here’s  the heavy artillery, intellectual and dramatic,  a big ensemble on a bare stage conjuring  – in Es Devlin’s moody set – an illimitable blackness beyond.    Hell and hysteria rage and choke and howl out across the centuries with all the power of irrationality.     It was in response to the McCarthy witch-hunt for Communists that Arthur Miller recreated the  still deeper savagery of 17c Puritan settlements in Massachussetts where hundreds were denounced and hanged (there’s an extra fascination if you have been reading  Robert Harris’  new novel Act of Oblivion, set in just those towns: a tight anxious theocracy on the edge of a new-world wilderness ). 

       But because Miller dug so deep into the human question of how-and-why  such murderous groupthink emerges,  and how heroic are its defiers, the play strikes to the heart of  every cultural era.  Certainly ours. When Matthew Marsh’s preposterously pompous judge says it is a time for “precision”  – for black and white without nuance,  when death sentences are passed on  the slightest evidence  or jesting word, it is impossible not to think of our  “terf” wars. When a hardscrabble little town, at odds over bits of land or sales of pigs,  suddenly blows its social grievances into willing violence we think of the Capitol riot. When religious authority falls with lascivious horror on innocents, we are alongside the morality-police of Iran or Saudi.   

          The hysteria here is of course the girl-children’s,  led by Erin Doherty’s hard-edged passionate jilted Abigail .  For this play to reach its full power onstage  we need to believe how infectious and how frightening, is girls’ mass hysteria.   The big ensemble in print frocks achieve this: demure rows sitting quietly, sometimes half-seen or heard chanting in the dimness upstage,  suddenly explode in terrifying seizures and screams.  Arditti’s sound throughout is astonishingly effective.  But more subtly,   we see the power of a more apparently dignified group-think from the men,  eager to spot Satan however much reason and law must be twisted to do so,  and aware of pleasing their superiors by doing so.    Fisayo Akinade is marvellous as the Rev.Hale,  at first a prim-little-trim-little bureaucrat, totally onboard with the program,   then doubtful; then pleading,  then ashamed,  finally growing as he signs death sentences into a horrified disowning of the whole hideous court.   

      But all Lyndsey Turner’s cast rise to the immensity of the play and it’s hard to pick names.  Though  Brendan Cowell as flawed, brave  Proctor and  Eileen Walsh as his sober, pinafored Elizabeth enact to heartbreak one of the greatest grimmest love stories of the stage;    Karl Johnson as poor decent old farmer Giles is unforgettable, and so  is Rachelle Diedericks’  Mary,  a proud little bundle of naivete and self-importance,   growing into loyalty and confrontational courage and increasing terror,  finally crushed by the hysteric power of Abigail’s girl-gang’.    Magnificent. 

boxoffice    http://www.nationaltheatre org uk   to   5 nov

rating five

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RAVENSCOURT Hampstead Theatre


 Georgina Burns  is a trained and experienced NHS therapist,  now with Hampstead support a playwright.  So, unlike most other writers tempted by the theatricality of talking-therapies and the emotional territory of the fifty-minute hour, she  knows the turf. It shows. 

      It isn’t a rant about government provision or social dysfunction, just a humane exposition of understanding:  she portrays with unflinching humour and sympathy the bravely patient people who are tasked with mopping up and taming  the mess of mental unwellness , and keeping the desperate alive  and reasonably functional. Even, eventually, happy.   

    Her protagonists have to do it, generally, in a series of six sessions rationed not by the patients’ idiosyncratic needs but by NHS necessity.   They’re  often deployers of black humour in private, ad are all crisis workers.  But as Robyn Skinner once observed of his colleagues in the psychological professions, quite a few who ply this trade or art are also carrying lead themselves, and seeking help through, as he put it, “the staff entrance round the back”.

   Such is Lydia: Lizzy Watts as a  clever, omnicompetent, organized newcomer, running miles and eschewing tea and coffee offered by the older, more battered and cheerful colleagues Denise and Arthur on the  Ravenscourt team. Her tense  “I don’t eat cake” tells you a fair bit from the start.

        Debbie Duru’s  set is wonderfully evocative of a daily NHS workplace: watercooler, clean plain walls in the counselling room,  a neutrally soothing abstract . Old Arthur’s cluttered desk is alongside with a bottle (? brandy) in the locked drawer, ready  for a quick staff stiffener when the next catastrophe hits.    Which it will. And it won’t be Lydia’s fault, not really, even if she does break one golden rule (which the set delivers in a good surprise). Not the managers’ fault either, though there was some question about giving her Daniel, a familiar heartsink client who has been round the block with various therapists often, and occupies – as Jon Foster’s wonderfully bluff Arthur puts it – the borderline between depression and “Obnoxious Personality Disorder”.  

      Josef Davies’ Daniel is enraging. Truculent, scornful, ungrateful, filled with class hatred of the posh people he blames.  Especially authors on radio4 writing books about their “journey” out of being depressed. He is not working because his managers “don’t understand” his mental health issues, was thrown off a deign course for not turning in his portfolio. He is still living at home with a mother to whom he is emotionally welded but despises.  He grudges her taste in boyfriends, possibly with reason. He’s furious and rude,  and Lydia patiently struggles to unlock him with real kindness. Though, as Denise the real pro observes, it is hard to know if she has too much ego or too little. One of the key skills of therapists after all is accepting  that you will sometimes fail. 

    The asides between the older therapists, glimpses of the clients they deal with, are revealing and funny and humane.  There are moments, I must say,   when listening in to the sessions with Daniel and Lydia is irritating – neither is at this point likeable enough to care – but the two older staffers are wonderful, Andrea Hall’s Denise  pragmatically wise, Foster absolutely endearing in his apparent slight cynicism and the way he becomes heroically kind and courageous when the crisis comes.   Daniel’s  peak meltdown is violently alarming; Lydia’s unwise involvement tensely frightening. It wont end well.

       Except that in a way, it does. Talking at last , admitting her own history of having bouts of frozen self- harming depression Lydia remembers how  it has usually ended. With a whatsApp chat that becomes a real one, with an invitation  for once she doesn’t refuse, with a sudden nice meal….

  We all mess up. Very often we recover, and learn. It’s a lovely play. I hope there will be longer fuller ones. Respect for Hamps, and some donors,  for growing it.

Boxoffice To 29 oct

Rating four.

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       There’s  a curious outbreak of reparations going on. The Old Vic, which binned Into the Woods in outrage at Terry Gilliam’s reportedly incorrect tastes in mocking comedians , has suddenly staged a fabulous “burn” of just such ultra-wokery,   in Eureka Day.   And now the Royal Court, excoriated for instinctive antisemitism after calling a rapacious cartoonish financier Herschel Fink, nimbly mounts this Jonathan Freedland piece. It consists of  mainly verbatim interviews with British Jews and – nice touch – starts it with a bolt-from-heaven visual joke about how the cultured,  educated be-kind  Left (including the Court itself) finds it curiously difficult to shake off antisemitism.  Or even to see it as real racism.

     So they set off to explain its roots,  actors using the words of professionals and MPs (Margaret Hodge and Luciana Berger), of a decorator and a social worker,  a doctor,  and the actress Tracy Ann Oberman who (scroll below) I had seen the previous night in Noises Off.   The idea that all Jews are rich, or related to wealth and influential, is tackled with amused contempt.   I love the geezerish decorator who says his mates at work wonder why he isn’t a lawyer. And adds – Jewish mother joke alert! – that his mother wonders the same.

        There is a bit of upstage medieval dressing-up as they run is through the 12c massacres at York, Norwich and Lincoln and reveal the theory, new to me, that it was actually England which first spread into Europe the “blood libel”, about Jews murdering children.  The automatic human desire to blame “others” provokes an entertaining mass singalong of “It was the Jews who did it, the Jews who did it – whatever it was” . And when it comes to conspiracies  we see some of the wilder US tweets about poisoned coca cola and secret Jewish levers causing wildfires. There are laughs. There should always be laughs about this dark paranoia, for only mockery will dispel it.  There are also useful observations about the difficulty too many British people seem to have in distinguishing between distaste for actions by the state of Israel and antisemitism in general.

      The mood darkens deeply in the last half hour, first with the MPs’ truly horrifying experiences of online hatred,  and an intense focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour years and the damage done there.  Finally some thoughtful, extended family memories.  Individuals quote their family experience of shtetls and pogroms,  the Holocaust itself, and less known horrors like the 1960’s rounding up of Iraqi Jews.   It’s powerful, though often oddly , ruefully gentle in the telling.  The cumulative historical effect gave me more understanding than I have felt before about Jewish friends who say that somewhere in them still there is a feeling that there should always be a suitcase ready by the door and a passport for flight.  Here! now!  In mild modern England, which has not only heavy discrimination laws but had a Jewish PM over a century ago,  and innumerable leaders and national treasures down the years.   But fair enough: the feeling is real in many. And if it is paranoia, it is a reflection of the opposing paranoia that for centuries alienated them.   

   It’s a useful show. At least I hope it is.  On the way out I met, amazedly, my most obviously Jew-mistrusting friend, a man who I have several times berated or teased about it, regarding his conspiracy theories as ridiculous.    “Did the show work, then?” I asked, astonished to see him there.

      He looked darkly at me, with the unmistakeable air of a  man who at some point lost out professionally to a cleverer-and-Jewish rival.  “I could tell you things” he said.  

    So no, it won’t work on everyone. Shame.  

BOX OFFICE.  To 22 Oct

Rating three as theatre,  five for usefulness.  

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THE RAVEN. Touring East


When you say you’re off to a Suffolk village hall to see a tiny company –  best known for its mini-pantos – doing a dramatised tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, you meet some baffled , even pitying glances.  They’d have missed a treat:  writer-director Pat Whymark of Common Ground has created something lovely, between gilt pillars and a filmy curtain and screen:  a funny, mournful, humane tribute to the Victorian-gothic horror  ornamentalist whose imagination created the Pit and the Pendulum.

      An  empathetic portrait,  with beautiful songs performed by Emily Bennett and brilliantly devised projections, draws us into the morbid world of the troubled soul who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart.  And it has indeed, for all the irresistible temptations to laugh, a lot of heart.  

      It’s framed as if Poe (Richard Galloway). is onstage in Boston in evening dress and, having mislaid the poem he was booked to read,  decides to tell his story. He is also batting off protests from a literary magazine grandee (Julian Harries, who doubles as his stern adoptive father who considered he was ‘bad blood’).   At issue are Poe’s scorching criticisms of the Victorian-American establishment of affluently bred writers like Longfellow. He claims to be “the first American author ever to subsist entirely on the proceeds of his writing”  It may turn out that Poe is hallucinating the whole thing,  after the desperate brain crisis at the end of his life when he was found confused, screaming, in the wrong clothes. 

     But he tells his life,  from birth in 1809, the loss of his mother when he was two, an uneasy childhood and the rediscovery – and then death  – of his brother Henry.  He diverts into telling and enacting three of his terrifying tales, rather brilliantly with the aid of Matthew Rutherford and  Harries and spooky, mournfully elegant movement and song from Bennett.  Interestingly he expresses awareness of his own absurdities, claiming that the massively overblown “Ligeia” is actually a satire on himself.  

     Indeed its heroine, “radiant as an opium-dream..preyed on by the tumultuous vultures of stern and extreme passion” for the narrator is marvellously preposterous, as is his response to her death by “purchasing an abandoned abbey and becoming a slave in the trammels of opium”.  When the possessed corpse of his next wife, “The Lady Rowena” revives in her shroud (a remarkable core-strength Pilates situp from Emily Bennett) you know you are in the hands of a grand-guignol master.  The Pit and the Pendulum is done with equal brio (I had forgotten that when one is tied down with a single long strap all one needs to do is smear meat-gristled hands on it for the rats to eat it through).  Then there’s the fiery pit..but it’s OK, the  Spanish Inquisition is foiled by French soldiers, with due exoticism. 

         But all through this fun run the travails of a real man, a real talent:  frustrated by the “aristocracy of wealth” and bien-pensant criticism in late-19c America,  desperately campaigning for copyright law as his own tales and plays got stolen.  Clearly  his grief for mother and brother is aggravated by his wife’s death; and as Dickens, an admiring visitor, says to him “Grief will out”.  Maybe that is what in the end killed him.  Certainly after a final battle with the literati , telling the Fall of the House of Usher,  poor Poe cries “I didn’t want to be IN the story”.  And his final recitation of The Raven, with its shadow on his lonely study floor,  is heartbreaking. Will these old griefs leave him?  

…..”tell me truly, I implore—Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

  Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”.

Breaks your heart.  

Box office     

Touring east anglia, village halls and theatres to 30 Oct.  COlchester next. RATING. FOUR

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Heavy footfalls pace overhead, enervating, raising anxiety. Anna Fleischle’s  galleried grey set is half Scandi-minimo-chic, half penitentiary. Downstairs two sisters meet after thirteen years’ estrangement,  including five while Gunnhild’s husband served a sentence for fraud. Aunt Ella raised their child Erhart to kee him far from the scandal.  Now the sisters are beginning to fight for the amiable young man,  who wisely shows no wish to be owned by either.  

Clare Higgins’ Gunnhild is a stumping discontented blonde who expects Erhard to bring her back to fortune and status, and resents her disgraced husband John Gabriel who is living upstairs like a hermit.   Lia Williams is Ella: skinny, ailing, drowned in a brown frock and extinguished by a rain-hat.  Yet this defeated Auntie-Vera figure will, within one tense winter evening and a 100-minute show, explode into the most dramatic passion we’ve seen on stage all year.  Williams will astonish us.

        On a balcony above this unhappy family scene Freda, a modest young friend of the house, plays Liszt’s dark thundering Totentanz – dance of the dead. (Daisy Ou is a professional concert pianist).  Its gloom causes young Erhart to nip off to a party with a foxy older woman (Ony Uhiara) for bright lights and jollier music.  John Gabriel loves the Liszt though, pacing or rocking on his makeshift bed ,  remembering  the heady clang of hammers on iron ore in the mines of his youth, metal wrenched from rock to build an industrial empire.  His  only remaining  friend is  Wilhelm, Frida’s Dad, who dreams of being a novelist and is almost as depressed as JG himself.  The two old men grumble together: Michael Simkins as Wilhelm gloriously funny in deadpan Eeyore style,  JG ranting  about how “exceptional people” like him are different,  all the clients he cheated would have been repaid if things had gone well, and how the world will exonerate him any minute and beg him to return and lead them.   (Eerie echoes of Boris must be hastily dismissed).  

    He then discards Wilhelm, supposedly for good, for being a lousy writer.   “We deceived each other and ourselves” says JG coldly.   But, cries Wilhelm, “Isn’t that the essence of friendship?” Never a false note.  Lucinda Coxon’s reworking of the literal-translation makes it all ours. Every actor hits every note, sharp as JG’s remembered hammers.

      In great plays a scene, character or domestic confrontation can be both appalling and comic: pity, terror and barks of shocked laughter are not incompatible even within a sentence. Ibsen knew that, but in the  Norwegian rebel’s grim late works  it  takes a relaxed director and some weapons-grade actors to keep that balance.   Cue Nicholas Hytner, Simon Russell Beale and Lia Williams: rescuing, for me and for good,  a play I hated  last time I saw it.

       Then, the antihero drew no sympathy – a self-aggrandizing deluded fraud.   Whereas Russell Beale, under a big scruffy beige cardigan,  draws almost too much.  He drags you into the  magic in his vision of industrial growth:  iron and steel and machinery and light and power across the empire he gambled too high for.   When he says he’s a “great wounded eagle” or a young Napoleon cut down at the point of victory,  you momentarily believe the old rogue.  Until you shudder at some sudden cruel remark, or a reminder that he ruined everyone he knew except Ella.  The man’s collapsed grandeur,  his tense staccato complaint broken by occasional devastating one-liners,  all hold you riveted.  Russell Beale makes you see why Ella ,  his first and only human love, adored him before he settled for the more pliable Gunnhild. The  backwash of that love continues: she wants her darling nephew Erhart to replace him and take her family name. But when JG returns for the first time in eight years to his wife’s sitting-room, a ludicrous  and again shockingly funny three-way battle is fought over the young man’s fealty.  It concludes,  as all such battles should,  with Erhart (debutant Sebastian de Souza)  wisely sloping off to warmer lands with his foxy cougar Fanny and the musician Frida.  

    And this is Norway and winter and Ibsen, so out into the storm goes our seductive, terrible, deluded miner of dreams and wrecker of women. But with that fine dramatic balance, before the inevitable tragedy we see Simkins’ adorable Wilhelm again in his bike helmet,  happy as Larry about his gifted daughter Frida having found a mentor for her presumed musical studies.  It is as if Ibsen wanted, just briefly, to reassure us that flawed visionary heroes aren’t the only kind of man available.

Box office To 27 Nov

Rating five.

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NOISES OFF. Theatre Royal Bath, and touring


        Millions know it by now, but in case like my enthralled companions last night you aren’t among them,   grant me a moment or skip the the penultimate paragraph.   Noises Off  has been a national treasure since 1982,  written by Michael Frayn after  realizing that the hurtling backstage business of doors, props  and actors under stress is funnier than most actual farces.  He wrote a squib called EXITS, the great producer Michael Codron encouraged something fuller.  You see an irritable dress rehearsal of a touring farce, the imaginary “Nothing On”. Lloyd the producer yells from the stalls beside you.  After an interval with the set reversed,  you watch  from backstage one month into a gruelling provincial run, with cast  relationships fracturing: once the scene begins they are, of course, wordless backstage and able only to air their murderous feelings in brilliantly spiteful mime and sabotage while the familiar lines echo beyond the flats. A brief breakneck change, then from the front you see the play’s  dissolution on the final night at Stockton-on-Tees.    

      .  The characters are an affectionate portrait of thespian types, gloriously described in the programme:  I am especially fond of “Garry Lejeune”, proudly credited as having at drama school won the “Laetitia Daintyman Prize for Violence”.  There is a fading but still glamorous and gossipy trouper Belinda, an even more faded veteran, Dottie, funding the tour from her savings and playing the charlady, a dim ingenue, an exasperating leading man, an older equivalent who has lost both his nerve and his wife, and dear old Selsden: sixty years on the boards and the bottle, kept from his habit of hiding whisky in every corner only by the vigilance of the rest of the cast and the heroic, exhausted stage crew Poppy and Tim.

    The whole thing is a love song to the stage and the high days of touring rep, and indeed to actors. For it is notable that for all the excellent jokes about actorishness in the rehearsal scene,  none of the issues within the fictional company are the usual sneers about prestige or stardom and all-about-Eve-ery. Just ordinary love affairs. They are us, they are troupers, struggling with the props and stuck doors and slippery dropped sardines of life,  needing panicky ad-libs, rescuing one another  more often than sabotaging.  You have to love them all, flawed beings earning a living while trapped in an unforgiving structure, under judgement.  And, let me murmur, earning it at a time  before actors and theatre-managers were so worried about “safe spaces”,  disapproving of liaisons between older directors and ingenues,  and taught to treat vicious directorial sarcasm as “emotinal abuse”.  Alexander Hanson’s suavely irritable Lloyd wouldn’t get away with it now. Not without an editorial condemnation in The Stage. 

         Of all plays it depends on pin-sharp timing and directorial precision, and Lindsay Posner, who previously directed the Old Vic production, fulfils that absolutely. It also needs actors adept at physical comedy, willing to fall down the odd staircase or behind a sofa, and able to do all this middling-badly as the fictional actors, and brilliantly as themselves.  Class acts, in other words.  Some are relishing their seniority by doddering for England:   Felicity Kendal is old Dotty,  Matthew Kelly a pleasingly boozy old Selsden. All are terrific, though I had a particular tendresse for Tracy-Ann Oberman as the authoritatively blousy Belinda,  fount of all gossip and – in curiously touching moments nicely maternal – both backstage in the jealous chaos and  inventing lines  desperately in the last scene.  Her dazzling desperate smile in the final moments is alone worth the ticket. 

       Too many pleasures to list. But seeing it for the fourth or fifth time in my life I was still noticing nuggets:  like the way Frayn can write awful traditional farce jokes, tired  double-entendres and trouser-drops which make much of the audience laugh, a bit guiltily,  while seconds later giving us a real human-insight joke which makes everyone laugh with proper joy because that  trouser-drop was, face it,  a small part of the larger human sadness.  Equally, I had never quite taken in before the monstrousness of Dottie, or the heroic comradeship with which the whole cast and crew repeatedly rally round at speed to keep Selsden and the whisky bottle apart and prevent the wholesale emotional dissolution of poor Freddie. It’s just all very beautiful. To 1 oct.   Then Cambridge,  then Brighton

Rating. Five.

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WOMAN IN MIND.        Chichester Festival Theatre


Susan finds herself in mid-life with a dull clerical husband (Nigel Lindsay  really enjoying it) , obsessed with his dreary parish history pamphlet.  His gloomy beige sister lives with them; Muriel (Stephanie Jacob equally relishing every stumping step and grudge) . She believes she can conjure up the spirit of her dead husband,  and cooks the worst possible food (for an Alan Ayckbourn play this one is short on big laughs, but the good ones are about her omelettes and coffee).    Their son has run off to join a cult in Hemel Hempstead.

     But after she steps on a rake, Susan’s concussion takes the form of hallucinating another family life:  a grand estate with tennis courts, pool, sunset lake and money.  The alternative husband is adoring, light-hearted, cooks fabulous lunches with homemade mayonnaise; there’s a posh laughing brother and a confiding, happy lively daughter Lucy, and in this life Susan is an acclaimed writer of historical fiction. It all feels like a Sunday supplement portrait, and most likely is born of such.  Not least in its sense of English class division:  the media-aggravated belief that somewhere out of reach lie lives not only more glamorous but happier. 

   The hallucinated figures are as real to us as to her,  wandering in and out, and conversations weave with her real life with puzzling oddity. Only the  local GP (a wonderfully bumbling Matthew Cottle) is half-aware of them.  In the livelier second half Susan’s mania intensifies and the situation escalates into some spectacular misdeeds (in real life) and a fabulous nightmare wedding-cum-race meeting  delusion (in her head). The dream’s disjointed structure, I have to say, felt eerily familiar if you are like me prone to long confused narrative dreams.  

      It is easy to see why director Anna Mackmin and Chichester thought it a good wheeze to revive this 1984 play: mental health  is trending, as is the anxiety that the menopause might drive some women off their heads.  And you can’t fault the acting, especially from Jenna Russel’s Susan  at its core, and where there is comedy the cast find it. The confrontation between the judgmental, alienated son and Susan is very strong indeed,  set against the marshmallow-sweetness of the imaginary daughter.  Ahhh, imaginary children…

     But for all its Chichester polish  the play feels oddly dated.  We don’t relish retrospectives a mere 30+ years ago.  Partly I suppose the disconnection (it was a cool un-Ayckbournish house on last-preview)  is because a woman this desperately bored with her life would now be able to blog, Instagram and communicate more freely with outside friends on email.  Maybe, indeed,   that is the 21c version of hallucinating a better parallel life. 

Box office to 15 October

Rating three

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     In a beanbagged, bright-coloured primary school in Berkeley, California,  its executive committee of five seek consensus over reclassifying the drop-down menu for applicants.  Is “transracial adoptee” as important a definition as “Native American”?  Should “Jewish” be an option separate from “White?” The newcomer – Carina – makes a faux pas by referring to her child as ‘he’ not  ‘they”, which is school policy, though  members kindly reassure her “we’re not saying you don’t know your child’s personal pronouns”. 

    We learn that Eureka Day is a school where kids cheer for the other team, where the school-play Peter Pan had to be cleansed of colonial issues by setting it in outer space, and lavatories are being expensively de-gendered by a contractor who sources local materials responsibly.  Yet already we are reminded how defensive-parenthood is red in tooth and claw:  the problem with Carina’s last school was that her child is superbright and  “couldn’t get special needs support unless he was failing”.  Whereon  she is insulted by a soothing “there’s a lot of neurodiversity here”. Still,  as old hippie Don meaninglessly says, before reading another truism from the Persian mystic Rumi about how lamps don’t give light until they’re lit “We are a school of choice in a community of intention”.  And at the meetings they always have organic donuts made by a mentally disabled but famous physicist.      

     So we know where we are: joyfully satirizing middle-class liberal-cum-hippie angst, parental protectiveness and the age of offence-taking,  as in  beloved recent comedies like God of Carnage and Clybourne Park.  But as it heats , the focus shifts to the even more topical theme : digital misinformation, rumour and fake news getting  indiscriminately sucked in and solidified into identity politics.  There’s a mumps outbreak, and the authorities want quarantine. A lot of parents – two on the committee – are antivaxxers, determined that Big Pharma isn’t going to con them into “poisoning” their children.  But the vaccinators are equally outraged by the risk to a herd-immunity which keeps their own safer.   Jonathan Spector’s play predates Covid, but couldn’t  be more topical.

         The last ten minutes of the first hour become something really special, as the committee do a Zoom meeting with invisible parents who join in – projected on the back wall and ceiling  – with classic, glorious, horribly recognizable WhatsAppery.  It begins with a lot of non-sequitur “Hi everyone” and chat about soup and someone who  moved to Vancouver, or was it Montreal? But as Don and the committee talk of closure and quarantine the heat rises, at first with people piously “not being comfortable” with various words,  moving on to personal remarks about whether chiropractors count as real doctors, and working up – in beautifully choreographed acrimony  – to  the inevitable words “Fascist” and “Nazi”.    The glory of it is the technically precise  use of this projected online onslaught as the cast centre-stage round the laptop gallantly keep up with the elegantly written script while being almost totally inaudible : simply because of the gales of helpless, choking, non-stop laughter from the audience reading the posts.  

        Actually, it’s that quarter-hour or so which wins it the fifth mouse: not because the whole play is stellar but because for two years we have all very, very much needed that experience of sitting laughing, helplessly, with a thousand strangers.   Don’s final line “I am feeling like this format is not bringing our best selves to the conversation” made me actually choke. 

     The second act sees the committee picking up the pieces,  afflicted by the darker fact of proper pain:  Eli’s child is seriously ill, having probably got it off the antivaxxer May, with whom he has been sleeping, to his invisible wife’s disgust. Though as a colleague concernedly chirps   “I thought you guys had passed through monogamy?” .  We learn that the co-founder Suzanne,  a finely nuanced performance by Helen Hunt,  had a past tragedy which solidified, probably unreasonably,  her attitude to medical science.  We see Ben Schnetzer’s Eli grow from the borderline-idiot hypersensitive wokey of the start to adult understanding. From Kirsten Foster’s May we get the most beautiful display of grit-teethed furiously aggressive silent knitting, then a crazy outburst of hatred for every modern thing from antibiotics to plastic. We relish too the sight of hapless old Don in his khaki bush shorts trying to write down their shared beliefs “respectfully” on a flip-chart, while being eviscerated by Carina (Susan Kelechi Watson). Oh, and Suzanne becoming even more hapless when Carina cracks up enough to snarl at the white woman’s assumption that  she is on “financial support” just because she’s black.  She isn’t.  Oh, the pain, the exquisite pain of it all. 

       So I loved it. And it comes to a sort of conclusion, but never again is it as satisfyingly over-the-top as during that Zoom meeting ending the first half.  Well, how could it be.  But it’s a lovely evening, excruciatingly topical, a neat two -hour counterweight to all our first-world-problems.  To. 31 Oct

Rating five.

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DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10


We are in a suburban drawing-room in 1926,  which some characters will still call  the “parlour”.  Near the front, close enough to touch the aspidistra, you feel very intimately involved, especially with the gaunt, melancholy figure of Matthew Ashforde as the man of the house,  Natty,  as he listens to a wind-up  gramophone  playing a sentimental ballad.  His tidy, aproned wife Mabel disapproves, due to a line in the second verse she regards as improper, especially on a Sunday. That word  “night”: suggestive!   

        Take that as a good sly comedy-of-manners joke, and at first that is the tone :  we watch Mabel deny poor romantic Natty a mere peck of a kiss,  disapprove of his giving the lady-librarian lodger a frivolous nickname, and refuse the shocking idea of going to the cinema due to her cherished delicate health and nerves (“Dr Board wouldn’t hear of me sitting in such an atmosphere”).   She also explains how well she has raised her flightier younger sister Gwen,  and her theory of male misbehaviour as “always the woman’s fault. They have no hold on their husbands, of that I’m sure”.      

        There is  absurdity, but this is a dark and angry play, as cross as Osborne in its way,  and after this comedy-of-manners first act with everyone’s emotions politely damped down,  it ripens into real emotional chaos and tragedy.   For Mia Austen’s Mabel is a dangerous monster:  her refinement truly vicious, her hypochondria and frigidity weaponized in control of Natty.  Austen somehow disciplines her naturally cheerful features into a perfect , unchanging resting-bitch-face, mouth down, permitting only rare little smiles of malice.  No wonder Kate O”Brien’s first play, before she became a noted novelist,  was received both as a “masterpiece” and as “squalid and horrid”.  Perhaps too recognizable to too many.  But at least her subtle treatment of sex,  of frigidity and longing and danger,   meant only a few ‘improper’ lines were cut by the censor.

         Small theatres rediscovering long-forgotten plays from the early 20th century are a treasure:  to see our own time levelly we need to understand the evolution of attitudes and taboos. These  people are our grand- or great-grandparents, closer than Shakespeare’s nobles ,Sheridan’s fops, Austen’s spinsters or even Shaw’s Edwardians. They walked our streets, staffed companies still flourishing, typed on Querty keyboards.  Women between the wars were in transition, more dramatically  than in the much-hyped 1960s.  A few days back we saw Dorothy Sayers’ steely, defiant abandoned 1930s wife and daring mistress at the Jermyn, women  rounding  together  on a pompous man who prizes housewifeliness and shrinking-violet humility.  Here by contrast it is a wife who exploits  just those supposed qualities, with the man as the victim.

          Natty, like Forster’s Leonard Bast,  longs for music and life and feeling,  something beyond the daily grind and frigid wife.  But he  hangs on as long as he can until the final explosion of trapped grief.   Fascinatingly, it is the more swashbuckling John,  fiancé of flighty Gwen,  who sees beyond the surface:  “Proud and remote as an eagle, that funny little beggar”.   Ashforde gives us all that, in a memorable performance and his disintegrating interaction with the cool, kindly lodger Frances (Holly Sumption) in the second act is stunning.  A lesser playwright would have made him declare love to her, but O’Brien knows that he needs more than cheap romance.

          The character of Frances herself I found a bit problematic: she is filling the authorial role of the observant, benign outsider to a trapped society, as in “The passing of the third floor back” or “An Inspector Calls”,  but steps out of that cool role into a less convincing affair of her own.  The two men who desire her – villainous, callous Alec and bluff hiking John – are a bit of a caricature,  Brian Martin’s John indeed is forced into real 1926 likes like “I must kiss you!”. But in a way those two are necessary to point up the extraordinary, desperate, heroic depth of poor Natty.   O’Brien is not saying that all men are trapped by virago wives, any more than Sayers was saying all women are men’s pawns: she is just dissecting one of the many ways in which social  absurdities can spiral down into deep human tragedy.  You may find the end melodramatic.  I found it credible, heartbreaking, and in Mabel’s final speech, as diabolic as anything in drama.  To 1 oct

Rating four.

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ROSE Park Theatre, N4


   It is no bad week to be contemplating the Jewish custom of sitting shiva:  spending seven days on a hard wooden bench when “you laugh, you cry, you argue” in tribute to the lost.  Rose is an 80-year old veteran, remembering as the millennium dawns. She says that the arguing is vital.  Sipping water to catch her breath, dipping into memories terrible or absurd, she is tartly,  acerbically insistent on that – her cousin’s  husband lived in the next street to Albert Einstein, after all. Jews , she says, are “a restless people, restless minds’  put into the world to ask questions that can’t be argued,  and to give us the vital  phrase “on the other hand..”.  She has – and is – a moral  message, but not a prescription.

    Martin Sherman’s 1999 masterpiece is an immense monologue – two halves, each over an hour – and Maureen Lipman tackles it with pin-sharp timing, humour, and controlled feeling, sitting on her bench remembering.  Her extraordinary performance was streamed during the Covid years but to see it live in front of you in this intimate theatre is different, startling and personal, heroic.  With the best will in the world any screen showing fades into being just more TV, more Holocaust history. This does not.

     Her story is a refugee tale, from childhood to atrocity into rescue, outrage, disconnection, trauma, and a kind of resolution. The strength of it, captured perfectly by Lipman’s nuanced changes from fondness to contempt, horror to amusement,  lies in the detailed individuality of all the characters she depicts.  Rose drily says that like all who live through history she sometimes finds it hard to disentangle real recall from Fiddler on the Roof and newsreels.  But she gives us idiosyncratic reality, a child’s clear baffled vision of her early life. The strong resolute pious mother, trading fruit by the roadside in the Ukrainian shtetl in the 1930s, is not quite as she seems but has a wild alarming gipsy side. iThe father is no Tevye but a hypochondriac idler, unmourned. The village is riven with dissent about superstitions; it takes little time for child Rose to ditch the idea of God.  Teenage Rose after “my first period and my first pogrom within a month”, cant wait to get to Warsaw and fall in love with an artist. “He wasn’t actually Chagall, but who is?”she shrugs affectionately.   But a mere month after happily eating chocolate cake in a cafe they are twelve to a room in the ghetto.  Which she  sees burning, smoke visible from her enforced factory-bench job.

     After the loss of her child and her man,  the hideous hiding in sewers and a rickety unofficial ship towards Palestine arrested by the British, Rose arrives in Atlantic City as an American wife   haunted by longing for her dead husband. An old-lady coolness relates it all, including  a crazy period of traumatic magical thinking and the prudent need not to seem at all “Russian” , hence presumed Commie, in the McCarthy years.    

    Cruelly, the generation of Jews who got out of old Europe earlier doesn’t want to hear too much from Holocaust survivors,  “not that I wanted to tell”.   Nor, eventually, does her shiksa daughter in law, one of those too-burning converts who knows better. As Rose stays running hotels in Florida, too weary now to obey the pull of the promised land, the daughter in law over there  berates her for not being a proper Jew,  and has to be reminded with a snap that Rose’s whole family died “while you were being christened in Kansas”.   

    At last we find who is the  nine-year  old girl ,shot in the head, for whom the old woman has been sitting shiva before us. Not her own long dead daughter Esther, for whom she kept shiva in the sewers (“no wooden benches there, but God makes allowances”). This time it is for an Arab child, killed in the occupied territories, “by my own blood”.

       It is an unforgettable evening: profound darkness of evil streaked with unconquerable human light, even humour.   What could be grimly unbearable,  is made bearable:  simply because people bore it, and we need to remember.  Speaking for many voices, Lipman holds that memory with faith.

Box office To 15 October

Rating 5.

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THE SNAIL HOUSE. Hampstead Theatre, NW1


         That’s a Nigerian saying, apparently.   But shiny though the shell is,   Richard Eyre’s play becomes a frustrating stew of ideas, attitudes and family tensions which doesn’t quite hit the finishing line. Directed by the author himself it is rarely less than entertaining,  always emotionally recognizable and interestingly topical: but it’s too humble, too restrained. It doesn’t presume to explode at you and shock your socks off with redemption as Chekhov or Ibsen does (especially when under this most sensitive of directors).   I wanted to like it more.  

      Its set is designed to oppress and make its own point:    a dark-green painted grand hall  lined with glum portraits in heavy frames and chairs to be deployed for a grim banquet in upper-middle Britain.  A public-school is pimping out its premises as a banqueting venue in holidays,  hired tonight by the eminent paediatric consultant and government health adviser Neil (Vincent Franklin).  He rose from the Lancashire working classes and proudly sent his son there, and now is marking the double occasion of his birthday and his knighthood. Lear-like,  he  wants a speech in his praise from his daughter Sarah.   

      However this Cordelia (played with terrifying conviction by Grace Hogg Robinson) is  all too ready to heave her heart into her mouth: scowling in military jacket, cotton frock and big black boots she has  rejected the parental home for a squat (sorry, “property guardianship scheme” ). She resents her parents for bailing her out after a night in the cells on an XR demonstration,  and seethes with  anger about everything from climate change and fracking to multinationals, xenophobia, Tories,  water companies, her Dad, the capitalist conspiracy and Brexit. Obviously as a school dropout aged 18 she is right about all the above.  “I can have principles, even if I don’t pay rent or tax or vote for your fucking government”.    This hatred of wealth does not prevent her from having an extremely expensive brand new bicycle.   Her brother Hugo, who is gay,  swings to the other abominable pole with a flash gas-guzzling car  and a job as a SPAD to the Conservative Education Secretary. He considers Coronavirus as a useful cull of the weakest, and is devoted to winding up his baby sister.  

        So that’s the host family in this dinner-of-the-damned.  In black tie and balldress Dr Neil and his wife skip through early,  but it is from the zero-hours catering staff we learn the details: eighteen to dinner on the heavy oak table (some brisk expert place-laying) and sixty for the dancing and speeches.  These workers enliven the opening scenes:  teenagers Habeeb and  Wynona  crash and sing and joke irreverently around: Megan McDonnell as a lass from Monaghan with a dream of stardom steals every scene she’s in, manically sweary, capering and caterwauling country songs and later pouring scorn on Sarah’s activism  – “so far up your own arse that on a clear day you could see through your bellybutton”.  Supervising these worker-kids with regal Nigerian dignity is Amanda Bright’s Florence.   Their scenes are wonderfully directed , the pragmatic vitality of their work a wicked contrast to the wordy  agonized debates of the employers.  That I loved.   But as the evening wears on – we never see the offstage guests, just  disco lights and sounds of Abba – conflict between Sarah and her father intensifies.  He finds her activism “self absorbed and selfrighteous”  but yearns for her approval; she feels she was never understood by him and cannot accept any merit in his  scientific work and saving of lives, even months in Romanian orphanages.   “My anger lights my world” she says, and suddenly there’s a flash of revelation of real unhappiness.  That works.

     But with  awkward suddenness we get to a meatier issue than these timeworn family dynamics: Florence the caterer suddenly tells Sarah that her father was the expert-witness for the prosecution who got her 19 months in prison for shaking her baby.  We know that recent research has suggested that such convictions may be unsafe, if symptoms are caused by a rare infant disorder.  Florence has learned this, knows herself innocent and wants Neil – who, embarrassingly, is in the process of paying her and the other staff – to apologize.  He blusters,  speaks of medical evidence, the balance of probabilities and his expertise. She tells him he was influenced by her race;  he speaks of statistics of abuse in precisely that racial group, and protests that the legal procedure didn’t let him speak to her to make a personal judgement .    Sarah wants him to be in the wrong and admit it, though showing weirdly little real empathy with Florence.  Will this be Neil’s Lear-in-the-storm moment, suddenly understanding the poor naked wretches of the world? Not quite.   And Florence’s complaint is curiously parallel to Sarah’s.  “Take notice of me! Not as a statistic but as me”.   There’s a dying fall rather than a redemption. It is frustrating.   And then the damn teenager starts on again.  “What have we done. Climate emergency. Brexit. This mess we’re in. And you making me feel like I belong somewhere else”.  It’s all about her again. 

        I suppose it proves dramatic realism, perceptive characterization and fine acting when an audience wants to jump up and slap a main character. But there is something better there, a useful only-connect theme:  the frustration is that it doesn’t quite gell.  

Box office to 15 October

Rating three

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LOVE ALL. Jermyn St Theatre


  Here’s a treat:  first half in Venice (with a glorious Canaletto backdrop) and the second, after some elegant Jermyn set-changing, in a London playwright’s chic flat,  complete with trumpet-mouthpiece bakelite phone and cigarette-box.   It’s 1940:  there’s a   touch of Noel-Coward wit at the expense of writers and the theatre, some arguments that are  more like a combative George Bernard Shaw,  and even – in a jokey throwaway – a passing homage to Ibsen.  But at its centre is something different:  a blazingly witty feminist assault not only on patriarchal assumptions but on  the cult of feelings-first.  “Romance is overrated, but I suppose you can’t have a third act without it”.

        Dorothy L Sayers’ only light stage comedy has been pretty much forgotten since its wartime launch in the first year of WW2.  We know her of course from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and – less prominently now – from her religious works.  Here, though,  find all the witty teasing structure of the detective novels , but released from the need to have a hero.  The result is a feast of deadly observation of sexual mores and a laughing, sisterly female revolt against a battened-down morality and traditional presumptions about wifehood .  Above all here is a hymn to the importance, in any life, of work and achievement.  Feelings, even the tenderest loves,  are not enough.  

        “Everybody hates work but it’s awful to be without it’ affirms even the shallowest and most hedonistic character, Lydia (Emily Barber),  pining  to get back to the stage after running away with our antihero ,the writer Godfrey, after “three flops and a fight with management”.  As the story goes on will encounter an even sterner work ethic  in the apparently dutiful wife he left for her.  

      In Venice the guilty couple are restive, she lounging bored in an elegant pyjama suit  while Godfrey (Alan Cox)  struggles with his latest romantic novel and the creeping advance of middle age. The loyal secretary, a nicely enigmatic Bethan Cullinane, smooths  both their paths. Both are differently frustrated because his wife Edith has not having filed the divorce papers, claiming to be “too busy”. This, Coward-style, leads to dangerously mellow reminiscence from Godfrey about Edith’s good qualities:  cue a shouting-match, the hurling out of the window  of his treasured “presentation inkwell” , and an irate gondolier whose inkstained passenger turns out to be an old friend from Lydia’s West End   world.  Karen Ascoe’s Mrs Mintlaw by the way is hilariously observed:  Sayers knew that world well. 

      We meet more  theatre people in the London flat after the interval, when both the couple have secretly fled back to London and are inevitably going to meet there.   The hostess, not that she wants either of them,  is a successful comedy playwright, found elegantly flatter-coaxing her leading man  (Daniel Burke, playing gigolo-smooth and vain). He wants to cut a few lines. Brilliantly, she agrees and says that yes,  its a difficult moment to express – whereon he wants it back.  There’s an ebullient producer (Jim Findley) ) getting the news that an elderly star is happy to play the vicar in the new play  but asks that the name of his church be changed from St Athanasius – ‘It’s his teeth, you see’.   Into all this merry thespianism plods Godfrey,  baffled to hear that his dull old wife Edith is staying at this address. Which she is, because – kaboom! – she herself  is the acclaimed playwright.   Under a pseudonym, having  the whale of a time with one hit running and another pending, the very play in which his runaway mistress wants a part.  So of course foxy Lydia turns up too…

     It could be farce, but for Dorothy Sayers’ point, sharpened with comic teeth, about the kind of man rampant in the 1930s and for a fair while afterwards who is horrified by any sign of female independent success. “Do you mean you wrote that play WHILE  we were married?”  “Well, you were always away”.   When he has to decide whether he will return to his wife or stay with Lydia,  he is confronted by the fact that one wont give up writing , and the other wont abandon acting, and he can’t bear eithr idea.  What makes him even more furious is Edith’s refusal to be upset by his desertion.   “Need you maintain this pretence of not giving a damn?”.   But she honestly doesn’t.  Her identity, her centre, is in her newfound work.  “I can’t believe a woman could feel like that!..I hate to see you making a wreck of your life”.  Her pals meanwhile float in and out, excited by the buzz of the new play.  She’s just fine: a walking, working revenge against all his kind.

      Godfrey, of course, is a caricature, designed to be entertainingly humiliated, and Alan Cox  makes the most of it:  a lovely moustached harrumpher, flatfooted and wrongfooted not only by the  sharper women  but the blithe theatre-folk who “don’t have much time for reading” his bestsellers.    There is a part of the third act when you sense a little flattening – the two women, working out their mutual feelings and what should become of him.  But as this absurd almost maternal discussion continues it heats up, and Sayers’ passion for females as workers, identities beyond romance and wifehood, continues to be strikingly refreshing. 

         When Godfrey – and his secretary, and the producer – have returned to join the two women, the play returns to the glorious pattern-making of farce,  and rollicks to a Wildean conclusion. I cite the more famous playwrights not out of disrespect to Sayers’ utterly female vision and wit,  but because this shows how efficiently, deliberately, she slotted into the dramatic idioms of her time (the opening scene sets character and situation with a real Rattigan elegance).  And because it makes me wish  she had given us more like this, not just a version of a Wimsey story. But thanks to Tom Littler, the director who is just leaving his triumphant spell at the Jermyn,  for finding it and giving it back to us.  The Godfreys may be scarcer now, or have gone sulkily underground.  But we need to remember them,  and salute a grandmothers’ generation who had them to deal with. 

Box office. To 21 Sept

Rating 4   

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Fringe opera festivals sometimes give us a chance to see new work in progress – i.e. unfinished operas currently in the making. This is especially interesting if you can then see the finished work a few years later, and compare it to the early draft; but it’s also fun to see a nascent opera and wonder where it might go, or how it might end. Grimeborn’s “in-progress sharing” of Penelope: Seven Ways to Wait provides 40 minutes of intriguing and accomplished musicality, loosely themed around the concept of waiting, with the classical heroine Penelope (long-suffering, long waiting wife of Odysseus) at its emotional helm. Composer and pianist Kristina Arakelyan offers a warm personal introduction to the piece, and follows up with a Q&A session.

After the briefest of rehearsal periods (a week and a half), this skilful cast show remarkable commitment, and the performance already feels tight and convincing. Mayou Trikerioti’s ingeniously simple design, a circle of black chairs with extremely simple props (a black scarf, some red wool, a few large candles), somehow gives director Lucy Bradley everything she needs to create seven different scenes: we whizz from Penelope’s palace in ancient Ithaca to a modern-day gym, as Arakelyan and librettist Helen Eastman examine different ideas of waiting across history. Anna Starushkevych’s Penelope is resplendent in a long, beaded cream gown and sandals, while her six-strong Chorus wear long red shifts, creating a slick, focused and resolutely classical look on stage. Surtitles and scene labels clearly guide us through the action as the piece moves briskly through time. After beautifully evoking Penelope’s famous weaving stratagem, we end up in a Soho restaurant where Penelope waits at tables (I’m still not sure why). Next, she’s the leader of a Suffragette movement advocating violence to achieve political change: they have waited for the vote long enough. There follows a beautiful, wordless, harmonic vigil against violence against women, framed by the poignant phrase “Text me when you get home” as candles are lit for Sarah Everard and other victims, whose families still wait in vain for them: deeply moving. We also visit a sweaty gym, modern-day war-torn Ukraine, witch-ridden Elizabethan England and our own inner creativity: this piece goes all over the place.

On the one hand, this gives Arakelyan an opportunity to show a rich variety of compositional styles and moods, and the variety is certainly impressive. Her elegant piano accompaniment lays a strong foundation for powerful, warm harmonies using a range of female voices; the piece is also peppered with occasional, well-handled speech. Arakelyan knows how to set English clearly, and key phrases (“Spin your story and then: unwind…”, “Deeds not words”) shine across. The chorus’ glorious singing does Arakelyan’s ideas grand justice, and Starushkevych’s Penelope, though opening with a somewhat harsh gravelled edge to her voice, soon finds fluency and lyricism, while she maintains a compelling stage presence throughout.

However, ultimately the piece is only carried through by the skill and commitment of its cast, fervently bringing us into its music. Conceptually, there is still some way to go before the work achieves a similar level of satisfaction. Such disparate images, yoked together often by only a passing reference to Penelope, or the mere fact of waiting, manage neither to shed light on Penelope as a character, nor on waiting as an activity. The first section, closest to Homer’s story, digs deep into Penelope’s resolve: “I waited, fought the war within my mind, slaying the daily grind” – and perhaps this golden seam could be mined further. There’s plenty of musical energy here, and much to enjoy already on that front; but shaping this opera into a coherent intellectual journey, and deciding which way to commit the concept (whether to Penelope, or to waiting) must surely be the next question for Arakelyan and her talented team. Currently, it feels unresolved, scratching the surface of various feminist issues without telling us more – yet…


Part of Grimeborn 2022 at the Arcola

Rating: Three

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INTO THE WOODS Theatre Royal, Bath


            Humanity in every century has needed to plunge into the dark forests, questing or fleeing,  finding wonders or wolves:    it’s in Dante, Malory and Shakespeare, and a thousand folk-tales and fairytales.  It is these  childhood tales which are entangled and questioned and enlarged in Sondheim’s extraordinary collaboration with James Lapine (who wrote the ‘book’ of this classic, jokily wise,  intelligently absurd musical fantasy).     Here a Pollock’s paper `Toy-Theatre frame, intricately Victorian in monochrome, surrounds Bath’s proscenium. Drawn figures blend towards the real galleries, actors emerge solid as nursery-figures from paper  boxes.  Jon Bausor’s design and Anthony McDonald’s costumes joyfully create a living toybox of people and creatures against fairytale houses and immense moving treetrunks.

        It’s a portmanteau tale,  as a humble baker and his wife yearn for a baby and try to escape a witch’s curse while Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, beanstalk Jack and Rapunzel all  mingle to confuse things and compete and argue.   Terry Gilliam is just the man to realize it:  his Python sensibility helps,  and he co-directs with  Leah Hausman who, with dancer-choreographer wit, can make every movement speak  whether in somersaulting pratfall or darkening tragedy. 

     It’s always an arresting show:  spiky Sondheim music and arresting lyrics you take away for ever, wild wit,  looming menace, dry jokes.  He is never without properly troubling depths, Sondheim, and here offers a harshly wise, hilariously serious reflection on the vanity of wishes and the power of childlike imagination in a world of flawed adults. And in hands like this – Gilliam’sand Hausman’s – Into The Woods becomes an event to remember for life.  I don’t want to depress the Old Vic, whose people I  revere, but I have to say  that they got a seriously bum deal when –  late on in preparations – they did worse than Idle Jack by exchanging this absolute five-star marvel for a handful of dubious ideological magic-beans. To lose such a show just because the old rogue Gilliam knocked out a couple of contrarian jokes feels  like… well, complaining that a wood is too full of trees. They could have had its giants in the sky, soaring theatrical realization and peerless satirical wit. Theatrical magic is scarce and precious: no tactless harmless gag by a mischievous ageing contrarian is worth losing such a show.  

        So far , alarmingly, no tour beyond Bath is confirmed, but it is admirable for this smallish theatre to serve us a cast of 22, ten-piece orchestra and spectacular singing, sound and staging (wait till you see the giant arrive in Act 2). So get to Bath if the late Stephen Sondheim means anything to you at all.   Relish the bold and striding Red  Ridinghood of the young Scot Lauren Conroy;  fall for Audrey Brisson’s Cinderella as she too subverts fairytale femaleness; enjoy Nicola Hughes’ witchy ferocity even when, magic broken, she dresses like Liz Truss.   Henry Jenkinson and Nathanael Campbell (who doubles as a worryingly Me-Too era wolf) are wonderfully funny as the two princes who once they have their princesses bemoan  the “intriguing, fatiguing” male yearning for the next one,  who is out of reach in her glass  casket guarded by dwarfs.   Enjoy the theatrical magic of owl and deer and birds  – it’s a very skilled ensemble – and a superb rendering of MilkyWhite the toy cow as Faith Prendergast becomes its innards.   Don’t  miss the bloodstained triumph of Red Riding Hood or the understandably staggering gait suffered by a giant chicken who has just endured the passage of a very large   golden egg. 

          An early criticism of the piece when it was first produced  was a lack of  psychological credibility in the  second act,  when everyone fails to live happy ever after owing to unfinished giant business, disillusion,  mother-daughter  resentment,  envy, boredom, parenting problems and the general human awareness that  “We disappoint, we leave a mess”.  The criticism was that the breakneck pace and absurdity blurred a real sense of pain and  character as the stage becomes as littered with corpses as any Hamlet.  But here,  Rhashan Stone and Alex Young  as the Baker and wife do find real pathos; so do the Witch and her daughter, Maria Conneely’s traumatized, resentful Rapunzel.   

      And so it should be.  Children around a toybox ,or hearing a story,  will live, imagine, enact and play out stories  with passionate intensity.  The genius of this piece is that if we give ourselves up to Sondheim,   so can we.  

Box office :  To 10 September

Rating five.

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GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – TOUR  (Marlowe,Canterbury & onwards)



This humbly immense, uniquely created show threw me for a loop five summers ago. It’s back on tour,  via Oliviers and Broadway awards,   with its miraculous marriage of poetic sensibility and hardscabble humanity.  It would be hard to find a better healing for difficult times.      Here is what I said before, at its Old Vic premiere: it gives the story. and the initial impact.

     But to recap if you don’t: Conor McPherson  (writer and once more director)  has woven into a play-with-songs six decades of Bob Dylan songs,  brilliantly taken out of the ‘60s context and placed in a boarding-house in Duluth, Minnesota in hungry, desperate 1934 where the landlord faces ruin, his wife is struck by early dementia, violent irrationality alternating with stark truths and a drifting population : on the run from poverty and failure and bad pasts,  hoping and deluding,  impotent, angry, despairing, suddenly brotherly, decent.  I stand by my sense of it in 2017/18 as “moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams,  storytelling resonant and drawing deep”.    The melodic, poetic yearning of the songs, divorced from Dylan’s too-familiar voice,  break into the heart.  The new production is faithful to the old: sparse and unpretending,  the cast telling the story in songs, with microphones and onstage busking instruments,  living it before us,  moving, dancing, vivid. 

       And in a context of real disillusion , poverty and gritty life,  individual agonies and hopes,  Dylan’s lyrics are extraordinary: “let’s disconnect these cables, overturn these tables, this place don’t make sense any more”…”True love tends to forget..:…”      The once-self-indulgent  “Is your love in vain..” is given to the blighted couple  with the unmanageable, dangerous lost son and rises into truthfulness.    We expect “Like a rolling stone” to work in this context ,  but wilder, freer comes the apocalyptic vision of Jokerman, and for Idiot Wind  suddenly a tableau of intense beauty, most cast grouped round the piano,  Marianne alone with her fears .   

         And this new cast?  All the singing is superb, which matters most, and again  Simon Hale’s arrangements thrownew colour and depth into familiar and forgotten words alike.  It will grow a stronger sense of ensemble as the tour goes on:   just two things I would urge.  One is a firmer, slower,  more explicit emphasis on storytelling in conversations: my companion, new to the play though loving it,  almost missed understanding an important event at the end of the first half.    The narration early and late by the doctor needs to find again the gentler melancholy of the original production: too harsh, too angry in tone.   But it’s still wonderful.  Justina Kehinde is a stunning Marianne,  Rebecca Thornhill’s voice is a thing of glory, and Colin Connor, fierier and angrier  than I remember the character being, is an impressive Nick. 

         And    “Forever Young” hit me again, sent me out shivering.     Probably will again, since I might follow it elsewhere..

at Marlowe, Canterbury till Saturday;  then touring to 18 March  (NB, Southampton cancelled)

rating  four    will grow back to five as tour goes on. 

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THE MAGIC FLUTE. Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre E8


Opera Alegria’s vivacious foray into Mozart’s Magic Flute for Grimeborn takes its inspiration from the theatrical superstition of the ghost light, a small light left lit on every stage in an empty theatre to appease the spirits which may (allegedly) haunt the wings. Director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith, in a poignant programme note, relates this tradition of “keeping a light on” in a dark theatre to the struggle which artists of all kinds faced through Covid: as the malevolent Monostatos (Robert Jenkins), a brutal Front of House Manager, threatens Pamina, “Maybe your next job’s in cyber.” Watching the Arcola Main Stage defiantly bursting with real-life, real world talent back doing what they were born to do, their energy and enthusiasm crackling out at us all night, the short-sighted callousness of that slogan has only got more toe-curling with time. We are lucky that Opera Alegria’s team were not won over to cyber, as this Magic Flute joyously proves.

Nevertheless, keeping the theatrical lights on is hard work, and the vortex artists inhabit between failure and success, nerves, money, talent and the determined pursuit of Art in the face of public criticism and private self-doubt is the central neurosis of this often rather meta production, as explained in librettist Lindsay Bramley’s equally emotional and punchy programme note. Pamina here is an aspirational young performer, played with fresh charm by soprano Naomi Kilby. Keen to escape the traditional theatre practices of her ageing diva Mother, the Queen of the Night (a majestic, show-stopping Fae Evelyn), Pamina has joined the experimental troupe of Sarastro (Alistair Sutherland), a Svengali-like Conceptual Director in a white Warhol wig and a kaftan, whose idea of theatrical heaven is “the Tantric Grunge Collective’s simultaneous treatment of the works of Samuel Beckett.” [Sounds like he has an instinct for an Edinburgh Fringe hit, anyway.] Sutherland’s rich and resonant bass, though not always diving right down to the very deepest pearls of Mozart’s challenging score, brings a commanding fascination to Sarastro, while a few brilliantly observed character tics (a fussiness in walking, deliberate over-pronunciation of words, and mystic finger cymbals) explain Sarastro’s cult leader status with ease and humour. The glorious casting only gets better for the Three Ladies, with Caroline Carragher, Anna Prowse and Frances Stafford forming a truly fabulous trio of cleaners, reappearing in death metal T shirts (and equally terrific voice) as Stage Management. With many roles doubled or even tripled, this ensemble never miss a note, a harmony or a comic beat: true luxury casting. Snapping at their heels for our attention is a honey-toned and remarkably lovable Papageno from René Bloice-Sanders, whose laddish disconnection from the artistic crises around him provides welcome contrast. Peter Martin’s pleasantly-sung Tamino, some skilful humour from Christopher Killerby and deft support from Matthew Duncan round off a strong cast. Lindsay Bramley’s lambent and expressive piano accompaniment sheds colour and a pulsing sense of rhythm across the whole.

Christopher Killerby’s clever, pared-down design keeps us in the world of an undressed theatre with clever use of puppetry to animate ordinary backstage objects, the “ghost light” chasing Tamino like an angry Chinese Dragon, while Papageno’s birds are flying music scores. Not everything works: the final use of projection, though elegant, happens at an angle not easily visible to much of the audience. More crucially, the innate problems of The Magic Flute, a nonsensical story whose plot turns on emotional hair triggers with little rational explanation, remain. Indeed, updating the Flute to a contemporary setting, with rather more “real” personalities for Pamina and Tamino, only accentuates the Flute’s intrinsic weaknesses: ironically for a piece from the Age of Enlightenment, it seemingly can never work as believable modern drama, because the archaic sexual and social dynamics constantly trip it up. Bramley and Newhouse-Smith are using it as a vehicle for a good discussion of modern problems, but sometimes, like turning one of Papageno’s paper birds into a carrier pigeon, the plot is just too weak to carry their admirable ideas home. However, as far as nonsense goes, it’s absolutely gorgeous, meta-fuelled, thought-provoking nonsense from start to finish; and the music making is sublime. Don’t waste too much time trying to make sense of it: there’s still plenty to enjoy here.


Until 20 August at the Arcola Theatre, 020 7503 1646:

Rating: Four

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TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS.   Finborough Theatre SW10


       Timely, enterprising, emotionally shattering, politically shaming.   These two plays were both  both first born at the time of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, the second  particularly in the Donbas where ugly divisions erupted between Russian sympathisers and supporters of the elected and legitimate government in Kyiv.    The first is called TAKE THE RUBBISH OUT, SASHA, by one of the most known Ukrainian playwrights, Natalya Vorozhbit:   it’s an absurdist-realistic fable about a mother and daughter who are grieving for the man of the family, a Colonel in the Ukrainian army who has died of a heart attack.  

    They are making pastries for neighbours in a memorial meeting and talk to his ghost, solid in the room,  the mother in her grief ‘angry’ that he is gone, bewailing the funeral costs, and needing to accept he can never come back.  But Sasha is suddenly adamant that after a further call-up of reservists he has to return to duty: “when we went into the army we made a solemn oath to the people of Ukraine to be loyal and true to them always and support the legal constitution of and Vova, Sergei, Lyosha..we all swore that we wouldn’t betray the Ukrainian people”…    this from a man speaking from beyond the grave,  a startling, arresting, solid figure in Alan Cox.  His wife, with a moment of real East-European dark humour, complains that if he returns from the afterlife he’ll only be killed, and they’ll have another lot of burial costs.. The direction by Svetlana Dimcovic is brisk and mostly gripping – though it feels like a bit of a slow-burn for a while early on (it’s only 45 minutes overall) but that contributes to the painful contrast between recognizable human behaviour and the  surreality. 

     The second play, Neda Nezhdhana’s PUSSYCAT IN MEMORY OF DARKNESS is a shattering  hour-long monologue of one woman’s experience, despair and hope, based on a real individual tale from the Donbas conflict.  Polly Creed directs a quite extraordinary, constantly gripping, grim but sometimes blackly humorous performance by  Kristin Milward. 

       She is telling us what happened to her, and what she lost as her family fled and she , supposedly briefly, stayed back to tend her cat giving birth.   She keeps  offering to invisible buyers three kittens which survived the sack of her home.  She speaks for every displaced, beaten-up, betrayed individuals in such wars:  “I would like to say to those who brought this on us, not only those who were drawn in but those who sowed it all and those who did not stop it – you have no idea how small and pathetic all these trivial passions of yours, your desire for power, your business interests – how insignificant they are compared to the horrible black hole you have opened, the appalling abyss into which our land is flying..”.   

         A long monologue can be hard going. This was not:  it is stunningly done.  In both plays the translations are excellent.  

     And in an afterword the writer of the first one tells of her own flight from Kyiv and says for all playwrights and indeed Ukrainians:  “Eight years we’ve been engaged with the subject of war. Eight years we’ve been trying to shout to the world, to alert them to the Russian military threat. And only after 24 February did they finally hear us…we want to win, and return home, and water our plants. And we need your help” 

         Honour to the Finborough – a room over a pub in the middle of boarded-up refurbishment – for crowning its season of readings with these two plays. Bigger theatres have done a lot less.   

Box office To 3 sept


And for the second

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CULT FIGURE. Jermyn St Theatre


    My first concern was, will they dare give us the sadness? Kenneth Williams was a comic marvel self-created, a versatile actor and comedy ham, raconteur , mother’s boy and man in hiding from the terror of love.   I. met and interviewed him several times, and he gave me the best of advice possible on my one appearance in a double recording of Just a Minute.  Clement Freud, always a man to sow discomfort when he felt like it, was making me edgy. Williams sidled up as we walked towards the stage and said with real kindness  “you nervous? Tell you what to do. Just behave really really badly. Like your mother told you not to. Interrupt. Talk rubbish. You’ll be fine”. So I did, and won.  I had always loved the Ken I grew up with on Hancock and Round the Horne, and that cemented it.   

     Later on I learned of his earlier, serious rep career onstage in Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as light comedy, later still read his diaries and his friends’ memories after his lonely death, and sorrowed for the sadness and alienation and closeted despairs;  it is sometimes chilling to read how he despised so many of the comedy  gigs, especially the talk shows after the acting jobs died out.  Celebrity without art is a fate which he rightly described as empty,  corroding.  So I was nervous that  this impersonation might swerve that sadness. 

     Colin Elmer does a good Williams, with the idiosyncratic, carefully created Cockney- camp drawl and shriek and the sudden baritone growl, the “Nyeeesss” and “Aoow” and stop-messing-about existing alongside a skilled perfection of enunciation. He performers some of the actor’s  memoir, about a 1930s childhood:   a hairdresser Dad who hated effeminacy (“irons – iron hoofs – poofs”) and then army life in CSE in Singapore with equally contemptuous attitudes, tempered by soldierly affection for dressing-up and larking. He tells us tales of Edith Evans (great imitation) , of Noel Coward (even better, dear boy).  and Binkie Beaumont.  He romps through the comedy shows – lots of Just a Minute moments and a bit of front-row baiting.  There is a sigh, but more affection , in his account of the twenty years of Carry On films: where there could be no intimacy of partnership there was  comfort and real warmth in the  professionalism and comradeship of such a ramshackle rep.   Some anecdotes never fail: Charles Hawtrey’s old  Mum’s handbag catching fire and being doused with a cup of tea.  

      The jokes are as good as they ever were, the impersonation almost spot on, but it is in the brief seriousnesses that Elmer is best: the prim Williams regret at the growing coarseness of the films as postwar whimsy turned more explicit, the real physical unease behind the incessant colon, haemorrhoid and fart stories, and the respect for theatre itself. In the final moments, almost with a shock, we see him take up the black diary on the desk and read some of the anguished midlife doubts and shatteringly self-aware self-blaming , bitterness. Hard not to reflect that he spoke for many in a pre-LGBT+ generation.  Though ironically,  he probably would have hated LGBT+ as vulgar.  

     So yes, in the end Tim Astley’s production and Elmer’s carefully  worked performance felt like what it should be:  a tribute. And, perhaps,  an apology on behalf of a 20th century culture to those it kept on the margins. To 14 August


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DAZZLING DIVAS. Jermyn St Theatre


       A basement hung with glitter strings, a small moody band with earthy bass,  a bar: few better places to revel in torch songs, deep-dug anthems and memory of bygone stars who flared and burnt and are not forgotten .  Up in the back row on the high seats, feet on the bar and can in your fist you can even fancy yourself in any smoky bar from 1930 onwards.  Good old Jermyn: just the spot for Issy Van Randwyk’s tribute to women who got out there in warpaint, feathers or wild hippie hair to dig deep  and fling out passion to a dull hard world.  Frankly , it was about time  “cis” women reclaimed the great diva images from drag queens (and no, officer, that’s not a hate- crime, I love drag dearly,  always have, but we need some Issys out there as well to rock their  full-on femalehood).  

     Nobody is fitter for the job than van Randwyck,  after years not only acting but on the cabaret circuit (the only “real” girl at Madame Jojos for a spell, and central to Fascinating Aida).  This time she is not satirical but sincere in tribute,  with a wide vocal range to conjure up women across the decades from Billie Holiday to Dusty Springfield:  blues, jazz, country, rock and pop.  It is not impersonation but loving memory,  despite some uncanny moments of reality:  she breaks off between songs, or even phrases,  with a gentle, idiosyncratic narrative of the lives behind the music.  That young Billie Holiday  had to sell herself for $5 a time to live,  that J Edgar Hoover and the narcotics police persecuted her after “Strange Fruit” and had her handcuffed to her hospital bed: these things we should know as we listen.  That “Ain’t nobody’s business” had lines about “not calling no copper if I’m beaten up by my poppa”  is relevant to the times, and should suffer no airbrushing.   

       Then suddenly, taking a swig from a bottle and dashing on some lipstick,  van RAndwyck  becomes Monroe,  her voice little-girl breathy,  the narrative half-mischievous half-dark, hinting at what surrounded her, at the dangers of generosity and having to sell to predatory men and a predatory business.  I had not known the song from the Western “River of no return”,  but again, falling as it did after a mention of Marilyn’s lost pregnancies and quiet enrolment to UCLA literature courses,  it had weight: a brilliant choice.  .  Then shazam!  On with a cowboy hat and a grainier, deeper voice and it’s the tale and sound of Patsy Kline:  mercifully after those two victim-sacrifices,  a roughneck “with a mouth on her would embarrass a truck driver”, as a Nashville colleague admiringly put it.     And just as you’re wondering if the narrator-singer’s voice can get any wilder,  here’s a flourish of an ostrich stole and it’s Janis Joplin,  boozing and drugging and growling and roaring and digging deep in the music “not floatin’ on top like a chick”…

        And on we go after a brief interval: Mama Cass, big and glorious, pushed about by bandmates, making “her own kinda music” till she died at 32.  And – with great emotional feeling from the singer – Karen Carpenter,  whose honey-smooth intimate melodious sound van Randwyk reproduces almost eerily while reminding us that poor shy Karen always thought of herself first as “a drummer who sang”, and was once reader-polled as better than Led Zeppelin’s drummer, so there.   And at last  Dusty Springfield,  “food-throwing, football-loving” 1960’s icon at 23,  flashing black-lined eyes, breaking into the US before the Beatles did,  declining into mental chaos and a tooth-smashingly violent love affair,  having an 80’s comeback and in her last days rising at dawn to go to Heathrow to watch the ‘planes, and remember past travels.   The last song – in yet another brilliant judgement by the singer and her director Ed Hall – is “Goin’ back’ with its wistful nostalgia for the freshness the world shows only to youth.  

    It’s a simple show,  two hours,  just telling some stories and singing some songs with sisterly admiration and no affectation.   But it stays with you, making you reflect on an emotional history the rest of us share and fed from:   women who blazed into the age of mass entertainment, mostly died absurdly young, were adored and abused,  flawed and fabulous, conduits for the music of the passions.   There are three more performances this week. Get on down there.

Box office.


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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.       Lyttelton, SE1


     A star danced, and under it was Simon Godwin’s joyful, 1930s Riviera production born.  Quite apart from the fact that it is nice to have the earnest NT enjoying two outbreaks of frenetic jitterbug dancing at once – Jack Absolute upstairs at the Olivier, and here  Much Ado set in  the Mediterranean hotel world of Noel Coward – where it feats with unexpected neatness.    Here’s the Hotel Messina,  at the heart of a society of banter-which-means-its- opposite, of prankish trickery both laughing and  lethal, where ladies in daring beach playsuits spar with lads in khaki who are more than up for bantz.   

    Hotel Proprietor, staff and guests interact perfectly:  right down to Dogberry’s famously ineffectual night-watch being a night- porter cadre told not to disturb rich drunks but 

‘let them be” till they be sober (David Fynn makes the most of it).  Anna Fleischle’s  gorgeous set has balcony, pop-up boudoir and steam bath, and  useful beach tents – who needs a shrubbery for overhearing-scenes?     As the plotters stagily speak of Beatrice’s hidden passion for him John Heffernan’s irresistible Benedick is even more well-served by the props department having thoughtfully created a fully functional icecream cart, capable of housing him on all fours after his Li-lo disguise is removed. This enables the pranksters to deploy syrups and sprinkles, lavishly,  so he can emerge well-coated to declare his conversion to a nicely dismissive Beatrice.   Perfect.  The lovelorn Heffernan’s next appearance is in a blue face-pack in the steam bath.   And OK, yes, it was lovely to see so much solid set building and prop-creation (fab sliding doors and a great bar) so soon after the pixellated magic of last night at IDENTICAL, qv below.

      Beatrice (Katherine Parkinson channelling a young Penelope Keith, poshly witty) climbs down the wall from the balcony with equal effect, until at the interval the French family in front of me rapturously exclaimed that it was  “marrant..tellement leger!”

       Light it is, gloriously so, but for all the clowning and farcical devices Shakespeare is thinking, as ever, about men and women and their positions in society,  about shame and forgiveness and redemption:  the rise of the ‘dead’ Hero even prefiguring The Winter’s Tale.     So the shaming of Ioanna Kimbook’s Hero is properly shocking,  and I have rarely seen the shocked intensity of Beatrice and Benedick’s declaration so shiveringly credible in the aftermath of that shock.  Rarely does her bald  “Kill Claudio” get met with a laugh, which was unnerving: often it is a dark sudden shock rather than an absurdity.  But Parkinson’s subsequent outbreak hauls us back into the proper horror of what shaming meant in Shakespeare’s day.   

    An added frisson is added by the casting of Eben Figuerido as Claudio:  his look of dark,  southern uncompromising nobility is set against the sunnier, drily modern manner and look of the flirtatious laughing Heffernan, who will probably be getting some proposals from the front row after a few well-directed glances. Claudio on the other hand properly looks the kind of man who would be too easily insulted by female looseness.  

        Talking of which,  there’s a wonderful moment when Rufus Wright’s horrified Leonato is getting over his shock at his daughter’s shaming by necking cocktails,  and an infuriated Antonia – Wendy Kweh – takes the latest one off him and pulls him together,  with an angry feminist speech I had quite forgotten about.  Just as good as Beatrice’s challenging snarl about “manhood melted into courtesies”.

    That’s the pleasure of a production like this:  “leger” as the French group said,  and gleefully farcical at times.  For thanks partly to the unconventional setting,  often it reminds you of Shakespeare’s extraordinary moments too easily forgotten.  It’s like the most painless imaginable form of close textual analysis…

   Oh,  and  Dario Rossetti-Bonell’s swing band is pretty good too.   It’s selling well.  It’s worth it,  usual big discount for oldies, under-18s and some for under-25s,  and even from the “restricted view narrower seat” bit of the stalls you can perfectly well see Heffernan peering from under the ice-cream cart.  

Box office  To 10 Sept.

Rating. Four.

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IDENTICAL Nottingham Playhouse


     Identical twin girls, separated at birth in their parents divorce, meet at summer camp and resolve to swop places.   Remember  “The Parent Trap” film, the 1998 remake or  Hayley Mills 1961 romp?  Forget both.  Both were heavily Americanized versions of a novel by Erich Kastner,  written twenty years after his more famous Emil and the Detectives, on the far side of wartime separations and losses. The jolly US versions transformed  the girls into modern teenagers who with artful mischief plot to reunite their parents.  But Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa are only ten: their delight in unsuspected sisterhood and  yearnings for a never-known parent are the same, but they are little children,  powerless beyond the daring substitution. They’re not aiming to fool the parents but in each case to meet them.   And the happy resolution is brought about by illness, not plotting.  

    There’s comedy in the situations – one child baffling her affluent composer father by suddenly being able to play the piano,  the other confusing the hardworking single mother by turning out to like camping and having  forgotten how to cook. But there is a hint of real trauma in the book too, the outrage of separation  acknowledged here in one child’s frightening nightmare of a witch forcing the newborns apart. 

    It is this original postwar Germany and Austria into which Stuart Paterson’s adaptation takes us in a fresh, bouncy Stiles and Drewe musical.  Auditions of hundred pairs of identical twins found three:  on press night Eden and Emme Patrick proved faultless in a complicated, sometimes emotionally intense performance, first disliking one another on sight and then rapturously realizing their sisterhood; they are playfully natural and assured, rarely offstage for long.  And the head spins at the thought that Nunn has had to rehearse not two but six children through the complications.  

   For the execution is state-of-the-art modern: on sliding, morphing flats and drops come some of the most arresting, fabulously detailed projections I have ever seen – set, Robert Jones, design Douglas O’Connell, take a bow, both.  Trevor Nunn’s fast-moving, filmic direction can therefore take us in moments  from a summer lakeside, trees waving, to the streets of Munich ,  the Vienna opera house frontstage and back, a ballroom, a mountain and at one point the nightmare.   Sometimes, as each little girl finds her way into a new household there is a split-screen version. Every  aspect of the production breathes skill, cost, concentration and care.  

     And risk.  It’s a good-hearted, family-friendly show – and moves on to the Lowry and probably elsewhere, I think it will last – but any new musical trembles on the brink. In the first minutes, as a jolly camp leader (Ellie Nunn) leads a big child ensemble boosted by  local recruits,  there is a bit of a retro school-play feeling: bouncy so-what tunes,   I did wonder at the effort. 

     But it grows.  The twins – rapidly working out why they have the same face and birthdate – draw you in to their gleeful private world.  Their singing is flawless too, alone or with the adults, and as the show goes on Stiles & Drew pull out some lovely numbers.  Emily Tierney as the mother has a beautiful reminiscent song about her teenage marriage and estrangement,  with a haunting, constant repetition  “we were young..”.  We don’t get quite enough of the men in voice ,though Michael Smith-Stewart’s Dr Strobl has a couple of welcome baritone moments,  and James Darch’s Johan as the vain composer works brilliantly alongside his daughter “Making it up as we go along” at the piano, and  there’s a fabulously furious quarrelling encounter between the child and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the vampy ballerina who wants to marry Johan.   (she can do the ballet bit, too).

      By the time the four finally meet, there’s a real emotional hit as they discover that a litle tune the musical twin made up fits, exactly, with the words of a simple poem by the other.  Tierney and Darch stand speechless, astonished for a moment in the grand Viennese drawing-room.   A sigh goes through the audience.  

Box office to 14 August. Then Lowry, Salford to 3 Sept

Rating. 4.

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MACBETH Theatre in the forest, Sutton Hoo


    “This castle hath a pleasant seat..”   Indeed it does:  Red Rose Chain’s traditional outdoor show now lives alongside the mysterious mounds where the Anglo-Saxon warrior king lay with his jewelled sword.  It’s a marvellous site, a tiered arena (much recycled )  and even more recycled set: the castle is built of an old van and doors and floors from previous shows ;   the gas-bottle bell in the tower is supported by the gravedigger’s spade from their Hamlet.     As we settle, the clown-ragged cast are playing beach-cricket with a guitar and a smiley yellow ball which shortly will represent  the Thane of Cawdor’s head on a pike.  As silence falls and Jack Heydon’s Macbeth takes up his accordion they explain in chorus, with washboard and tin-can accompaniment ,   that this is “A tale told by idiots, signifying nothing… fools to dusty death..strutting and fretting this hour upon the stage’.   

       The larking, and that chant mischievously pre-echoing Macbeth’s Act 5 speech,  make clear Joanna Carrick’s directorial vision.  It’s out of doors, it’s  a summer show with witches in it,  it’s old old story re-enacted  with almost mumming-play irreverence in ragamuffin costumes.   But Carrick respects the text,  and a remarkable professional discipline marks everything.  The cast tearing manically around the set and auditorium are all  professionals but pretty young,  alarmingly fit and vigorous and exuberantly expressive (a lot of  miming moments behind every development in the turbulent murderous court, and some ferocious fights).

         But whether alone or in choral speech they are spot-on: not a mic between them, every word audible and clear in the big auditorium, scenes well signposted as befits a family show.    Even when veering off the text to address the audience in asides it has control.    The witches  –  remarkable 20-foot puppets with terrifying heads of bird, turtle and ogre –  are deftly manoeuvred by three cast members each  as they grope at us with horrid limbs. And they  are for once given all Shakespeare’s lines.  Hubble bubble,  eye-of-newt, all that stuff which  the grand productions always swerve embarrassedly away from.    

           So when a sudden quietening takes us off the battlefield to the castle, Olu Adaeze as Lady Macbeth, reading the letter and resolving to kill,   has the responsibility of conveying  the first murderous chill, and  she does so with a dark queenly dignity, undisturbed by any larking around.   The midnight marital discussion  around the  bloody daggers is chilling too. And much later on  Matt Penson’s sober Macduff is similarly given the silence necessary for his appalled “What…all my pretty ones?   Did you say all?”. 

       We need that.     Alongside the hideous brilliance of the witches (even more so in their second-half in the dusk , conjuring spirits)  the show cheekily, without nervousness, keeps  that balance and blends a rampaging circus narrative with the tragic poetry.  Banquo,  Ailis Duff in half a naval uniform,  stands downstage in front of the castle’s  uproar to deliver the first  suspicion of his friend Macbeth  “I fear,thou play’dst most foully for’t”.  It is serious, even though it is followed by a ridiculous  murder-chase round the stage,  a freshly created song rhyming “I’m toast! I’m Banquo’s ghost!’, a twerk or two,   and  and a head popping up from a barbecue.    It works.    Later, doubling  as an exasperated wife of the absent, soldierly Macduff  she is is perfect: natural and domestic, so that her  (decently offstage) death is heart-catching.   Similarly Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene has a proper quietness:  Olu Adaeze in her nightgown shimmers helpless with guilt  in the gloom, under the great sighing trees.  

        Oh, and the porter.    Looking back at Red Rose Chain’s  rock ’n roll Romeo and Juliet I notice that I gave Darren Latham “my rarely given award for a not-annoying Mercutio”,  and this time he has the even harder task of making the damn porter bearable (OK, I know some people like it, but to me it always seems one of Shakespeare’s grimmer lollipop moments, and many directors cut it to almost nothing).   This time Latham goes the full red-nose comic,  complete with audience taunting and a song with the chorus “They don’t care!”  But  it’s all echoing the Porter’s original lines.  And the audience love it. 

        Love it too when, at the press night curtain-call,  Joanna Carrick summoned onstage for a final chorus  the community-group “Chainers”, some with disabilities,  and the new production manager Ryan .  Who got that challenging set together,  and who first worked with Carrick when he was inside HMP Warren Hill,  writing his own play about redemption which I wrote about in the Times a couple of years ago.   Theatre talks the talk about inclusivity and disadvantage, but few so cheerfully, walk the walk as Red Rose Chain, of Ipswich.    

box office  to 20 August.   Selling fast.

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