ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

  It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood.  Banter,  mild irritation,  passing jokes and  irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward.  It makes it real.  No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed:    as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.   It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus:  the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up,  finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.

  

 

        Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time :  there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set,  as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward  out of a video of wartime footage at the opening,  and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone.    Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered. 

   

  Bill Pullman is perfect  casting as Joe:   the “man’s man” and patriarch,  whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war.  He cherishes the surviving son,  Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and  amiably tolerates having his less-educated language  corrected by his heir.   You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes  and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives.   But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease.  One bad thing happened,   one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…

 

        Equally subtle  is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who  suddenly, electrifyingly,  moves  in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night:  her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines.    Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster:   a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread.   But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:.  Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear.   “Certain things can never happen”.

   

      But they did. The remorseless  tide runs on:   below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability  – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously –   as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting  manliness.     

 

      It is an intimate, unshowy production:  its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors:   sitting actors on the floor, downstage,  for  important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them.    But aside from that quibble it has real greatness.    Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos.   The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”.     Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide:  the key recognition is  that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes.  They are all his sons.  Kate’s final departure,  hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality,   breaks your heart. 

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

(Published in Daily Mail on Friday, one must moonlight to support this website’s unfunded free existence –   but here it is  for theatrecat regulars..)

 

       The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive.   Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg:   an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props ,walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960’s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols. 

        

  But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over,  and  every number is irresistible.  Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics,  tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to  Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  A  young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end,  overlook her sexual history.  Even if she was powerless,  seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes ,“Stuck on the flypaper of life”.  The old story still works today, as the MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.   

   

      The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity,  the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’  whose only friends are the other girls.  She is one of our finest serious actresses,   with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe.   She is not known or trained for musicals , so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced  energy and sweet physical wit.   By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down,  every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.  

           In the small space the dances are spectacular, and  Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive.  On one hand we have the aggressive,  sprawlingly sexy  moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music”.   But when Charity is herself,  naively dazzled by meeting  the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life  or parading triumphantly with “I’m a Brass band!”, it’s quite different.   She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl,  graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her  seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds.   She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.     

    

  There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”,  by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting .   On press night Daddy B,  terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin.    Here’s  another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance.  That showed,  hilariously, but he was having such an  indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around,  hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE SISTERS Almeida, N1

DOWNBEAT, DOWNCAST  

 

    Some years ago, leaving a particularly slow and uninspiring Chekhov performance in Yorkshire (never mind which play, spare the blushes)   I heard a weary man saying to his partner “Eh!  they were well overdue for that revolution!”.   Which is not how you should feel after one of the master’s plays.   This one – like several others – is about  household claustrophobia,  unfulfilled passion, mutual irritation,  disappointment and the fact that in some lives only stoicism and resignation will do.  Yet Anton Chekhov’s humour,  sense of character and artful observation of human ridiculousness can carry you beyond depression and leave you – even in the case of an Uncle Vanya ! –  oddly uplifted.

   

      But it can misfire. This – adapted into nicely rendered modern demotic speech by Cordelia Lynn – is directed again by Rebecca Frecknall,  whose plangent, rather beautiful Summer and Smoke won two Oliviers –  one for best-actress for Patsy Ferran (here again, as the eldest sister Olga).  Only one piano this time rather than a crescent of nine,  but the director chooses the same spare, open staging,  beginning with 18 mismatched chairs and the cast in a mimetic-balletic sequence as if at a strange funereal ritual. 

 

    Appropriate enough, since the three sisters and their brother are marking, on young Irina’s birthday, the anniversary of their father’s death.  But this is a play about households,  the grating ennui of trapped women and the hostility that grows between the clever, intellectually and emotionally frustrated sisters holding on to old ways and values and  their brother’s encroaching  , ruthlessly nouveau wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba, splendidly merciless).  And in the very long first half  (it’s a three-hour evening) to be honest the ennui is passed on to us, with interest.  The play sags, feels dangerously static, and delivers almost none of the dry humour available in the text.   

 

The performances are fine:  Ferran’s weary schoolmistress Olga,  Pearl Chanda’s sardonic, bored Masha with her growing obsessive love for the stumblebum husband (Elliott Levey, beautiful comic timing) and a sweet Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz)  who later moves from romping enthusiasm to despair and final determination with delicate strength.  

 

      After the interval , mercifully,  in mood and pace it could be a different play:  the action of course increases with the fire, the cracking of marriages, Natasha’s increasing horribleness,  the duel and the epic drunkenness and disillusion of the old doctor ( Alan Williams, a great treat ),    The lighting is still deliberately dim .  mainly Anglepoises and the odd candle throughout, until the last outdoor scene  ,  but the play finally starts to  crackle with energy and tension, as it should.   Natasha’s odd perch overhead , finely lit and still on the stairs,  creates a real edge of necessary menace.  The last great speeches from the Baron and from Andrey hit home;   and there is real shock of pathos in  Masha’s desperate clinging to her lover, the unresponsively callous Vershinin,  as her husband heroically consoles her.    I left happy enough. But goodness, the first scenes badly need more vigour.  And a trim.

 

box office 0207 359 4404 

rating  three     3 Meece Rating

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INK FESTIVAL – Halesworth Cut – envoi 2019

REFLECTIONS ON A RICH SEA OF INK…

    

  I saw 22 plays in two days,  but it was hardly half a bite of what was on offer.   In three days there were  40 , each performed several times.  Everyone made jigsaws, scuttled between them, as if at a miniature – and better-natured- Edinburgh fringe.

         There were  145 credits :  writers, directors,  actors,  designers, crew.    Overseeing it was a  host of even-tempered volunteers , a management team of superhuman equanimity,  and the artistic director Julia Sowerbutts occupying a minimum of three places at once.  But almost the most astounding aspect of the 2019 INK festival of short plays was the footfall:  from opening time on Friday until the last performance on Sunday night,   the Cut  – its cheeky satellite “Kings Theatre” in the car showroom next door, and the tiny Museum up the hill  – were buzzing. Queues formed,  timetables were scribbled on, recommendations eagerly swopped.  

      And, for here is no elitist separation of pros and ‘civilians’, for three days you could see  actors ,  directors and specialists  of all ages and types being buttonholed (sometimes in actors’ case while rushing to their next show)  to be congratulated or asked advice.  That’s one of the rich pleasures of this unique festival:  it feels democratic, discussive,  open:   in a way that  the making of theatre should be,  and too rarely is.  Some of the plays came from seasoned old hands, or known names (though often writers or performers shyly trying out something new to them).  A smattering of  celebrity names helps, but most every year are just submissions, filtered over months before,  from people who have never seen their work brought alive  in front of an attentive audience.   Certainly not by directors and actors of the high solid calibre that INK now commands.  Each of us learns from that, in fascinated humility at the alchemy of collaboration.

         The shortest plays are five minutes,  the longest rarely over 25.   Some you could  classify as good-quality sketches –  one excellent joke delivered with brio, one apparent cliché debunked with a wicked twist.  Others you sense are the germ of a full-sized play;    embryos,  waiting for more work now that the author has seen, live,  what aspects come most vividly to the fore.  Others again are complete  evocations in miniature of a world or a character you don’t quickly forget. 

       There is immense value in this gateway, too little acknowledged and not, I think,  reproduced with such grandeur in any other region.     One writer for this year’s festival is 18, another 14:   there will be in the future, playwrights of international repute who can say that their first modest effort was a fifteen-minute squib in Halesworth.  Possibly in the car showroom.   There are actors of every generation, teen to nonagenarian,  working together;  faces you have seen on screen or stage elsewhere,   others you probably will.  

      The plays were about love in all its varieties,  ageing, jazz, misunderstandings, enraging relatives,  revolution, politics, sex trafficking,  pig-farming, Tinder, being a dog, and theatre itself.  Those were just the ones I saw:  only half the total.  Some were for radio.  Some were wickedly funny,  others shockingly moving, one involved nudity and had to be restricted by the conscientious ushers to  over-16s only.  

     But because they are all short  – here’s another INK-miracle –   nobody in the teeming, fascinated crowds of audience shied away from anything.   Those who like their theatre solid and meaty can brave a brief few minutes of utter frivolity;  those who normally have a dread of earnest “issue drama” find,   using up a twenty-minute gap in their schedule, that they are  to their surprise easily drawn in to a tale of refugees or the pain of infertility.  

        It works.  It is the seed-corn of theatre and of new writing.  My only beef is about the ones I missed:  luckily some of them are on the Feast from the East Tour.   See below.  Two at least of them I loved.  Two I haven’t seen yet. See you there. 

        Small can be very beautiful.  Suffolk can be proud.     

THE FEAST FROM THE EAST TOUR

HE FEAST FROM THE EAST: BEST NEW SHORT PLAYS FROM INK FESTIVAL 2019

Please contact the theatres directly through their websites or box offices for tickets

Thursday 18th April – Sir John Mills Theatre –  Ipswich – 01473 211498

Friday 19th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Saturday 20th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Tuesday 23rd April – Sheringham Little Theatre – Sheringham – 01263 822347

Wednesday 24th April – The Garage – Norwich – 01603 283382

Thursday 25th April – Westacre Theatre– 01760 755800

Friday 26th April – Fisher Theatre – Bungay – 01986 897130

Saturday 27th April – Bradfield Community Centre– 01986 872555

Sunday 28th April –  Brandeston  Village Hall – 01728 685655

 

THE PLAYS

 

AFTER PROSPERO by Martha Loader

Comic parable for our times set some 400 years after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A storm is about to break over Prospero’s flooded island home. Squabbling sisters, Ariel and Miranda, are reunited for their father’s wake.

 

NINA’S NOT OKAY by Shappi Khorsandi

A night out on the tiles with 17-year-old Nina is fuelled by something far more potent than drink.

 

WELLINGTON by Scarlett Curtis

Three quirky women — granny, mum, and daughter — cram on the sofa and the watch the royal wedding on television.

 

MIXED UP by James Mcdermott

A comedy drama about music, mix tapes and feeling mixed up.

 

BUS STOP by Dan Allum

A clean-cut American is taunted and teased by a precocious lass as they wait for the last bus to the unlovely Green Hill Estate in Huddersfield.

 

THAT’S GREAT! by Shaun Kitchener

Rory is desperate to go out with Jake. His flatmate Harry is desperate to help him. So why does the plan go so desperately wrong?

 

THE SOUND GUY by Corin Child

A clumsy sound technician is having a serious problem with his plugs at a rally organised by right-wing patriots.

 

  

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HOTEL PARADISO          On tour pre Edinburgh Fringe

ANOTHER KIND OF HOUR

  

  Staggering back from holiday, I sentimentally booked this at the New Wolsey in Ipswich because 2019 is the 50th anniversary of my unremarkable student performance in the Oxford Playhouse in the Feydeau farce of that name.   I was Unnamed Little Girl 2.   I thought it might be nostalgic.  

      As jet-lag abated I realized that it is nothing to do with Feydeau,  but a gorgeous,  good-natured hour-long confection of acrobatics, aerialism and balance-work  by Lost In Translation Circus.   Probably better entertainment than ours for OUDS 1969, frankly…

      It is  loosely worked around a threat to the hotel’s ownership,  with a demanding couple with a briefcase (some fine briefcase-and-bucket juggling) ,  causing anxiety to Serge the Concierge,   Madame the owner,  the bellboy and the very sprightly maid.  After some larks with the settling audience, the six  embrace the challenges by standing on one another’s shoulders, using fellow cast-members as human skipping ropes,  juggling bottles and making teetering towers out of chairs   (“I realize this is not the way property law works, but go with it”  says Serge, in one of the few actual lines).

      The pace hots up;  the maid is dutifully dusting the chandelier and finds herself stranded up there, so passes the time with some gasp-creating swinging on various limbs and ankle joints,  and when her love affair with the bellhop seems fraught,  the obvious answer is for both to do numerous handstands and the splits.   A bankruptcy notice is met by Madame with first a wild swinging routine nearly knocking out the lighting rig of the Wolsey, then one of the best comedy hula-hoop acts I have seen, as she attempts to get at a bottle and glass and pour out her drink , which involves moving the hoops up and down from ankle to upheld wrist;   for the finale they all suddenly display, as the backstage curtain falls on the supposed swimming-pool,   that they can also actually bounce, to great heights.

       In this fraught time of Brexit negotiation,  this all seemed perfectly reasonable to me.   Here’s to indicative handstands, meaningful cartwheels and benign defiance of common prudence.    It’s touring, see below, then going to Edinburgh.   

Performing tomorrow Friday 12  

Bristol  7:30pm    Circomedia St Paul’s Church

0117 947 7288 www.circomedia.com

Then   Lincoln
Friday 19 April 2pm

Lincoln Drill Hall pay what you can

01522 873894 www.lincolndrillhall.com

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WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

   The Haymarket these spring mornings is dense with toddlers and their attendants (I’d say  by the look of it  20% parents, 50%  grandparents, and the rest nannies and millennial siblings /aunts).    They are  all emerging dead pleased from the Theatre Royal,  and what more glamorous for your first theatre than those gilded splendours?  One near me was gazing spellbound at the ceiling before the action started, and actually paid less attention to the show throughout than admiring the decor.   But most were rapt, and indeed  my one grudge against the Old Laundry’s loving Beatrix Potter production – first aired three years ago -is that they waited till my youngest toddler was 31.

 

      With Stephen Edis music and some Ayckbourn lyrics,   it is a thousand sweet miles from the ghastly film (Potter was right, in her lifetime , to turn down Disney).   Te set is perfect . There are make-it-at-home flats and simple props ( under fives need  it simple enough to put on their own show baack home) but also with an arch with changing Potter scenes projected like a living book. Joanna Brown as the author introduces  a series of tales for a simple hour, assisted by the dim but benevolent Mrs Puddleduck; we hardly need the celebrity recorded voices of Griff and Miriam.

 

      The main joy is in the puppetry, led by Caroline Dalton  and performed by puppetter-actors,  with notable characterization by Samuel Knight as Jeremy Fisher and Tommy Brock.   The pleasure is in their meticulously witty detail as they invigoarate the the very faithfully-Potter creatures. Great synchro beakwork from both ducks and top hopping from Jeremy Fisher (a gasp all round when the big trout  threatens).  The production takes the trouble to create a menacing offstage squeak from mr MacGregor’s wheelbarrow (another gasp)   and to make sure Mrs Tiggywinkle’s nose does indeed go sniffle-sniffle-snuffle .  But a particular bouquet ,please,  for the way disgusting old Tommy Brock searches his bum.   That’s  my second classy-badger encomium in two days (see below for In The Willows!).   

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE WILLOWS            Oxford Playhouse & touring

A FRESH WIND BLOWING THROUGH AN OLD TALE 

    

  Down on the Riverbank Club,  teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck,  telling the shy diffident Mole   “There is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”.  

  

    Er…blink: OK,  we’re not in 1908 any more.  This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by   Alan Bennett or Disney.  In Metta Theatre’s cheeky,  exuberant hip-hop musical version , Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school,  next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.   The show  raves, cartwheels,  windmills,  head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance,  only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime,  and our fear for the violence alongside it.   The sober grownup  among them is Clive Rowe as Badger ,the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he  exudes his marvellous solid ,tuneful benignity in the middle of therave.  

            Mole  (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically:  after losing a brother to violence at ten,  she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma.    Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on,  and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter:  Chris Fonseca from Def Motion. The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft.   Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping  bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter :  he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison.  Two frivolous rabbits whirl around,  grave Owl is in a hijab,   and the Chief Weasel  – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.      

 

  Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting .  This is  Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so –   pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood.   So it’s part gig.  But characteristically,  Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original.   These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit  he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…

   

    At first  it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable  rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me:  I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?).   But more importantly the musicl  grows emotionally.    In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother,   and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel .  In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs,  it feels oddly urgent.    

  

    Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all –   finds they’ve killed his only pet,  Alan.  This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants  attempting CPR on a goldfish.    There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young:  in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview.  Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism  alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it.  In the second,  he  pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed.  Tears to the eyes.

    

    Of course there is  a secret passage into Toad Hall,   and a battle to oust the weasels.   Naturally,  it’s a dance-off:   Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance  versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter.  But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” –  penal reform .    Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break.  But having seen this I like to think  he got Community Service.   

 

box office   https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows

touring to 8 June:    still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

   

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