THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY    Jermyn St Theatre WC2

RANCID LILIES, GORGEOUS WORDS  

 

  All the little Jermyn needs to complete this reimagination of Wildean epigrammatic decadence is to scent the auditorium overwhelmingly with lilies and light joss sticks round the tiny stage.  Oscar Wilde’s aim after all is to overpower us until we faint with forbidden aesthetic passion.    The  deathless tale of Dorian Gray, who stayed beautiful while his portrait in the attic betrayed his hideous moral corruption,   is one of Wilde’s most flutingly swoonsome hymns to art and beauty,  and warning against their innate decadence.  

 

Its a loose impressionistic take by Lucy Shaw, and Tom Littler’s handsomely staged production is a joint enterprise with the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, where it knocked them out (Ayckbourn it ain’t).   There are two vast frames,  mirrored or translucent:  we never see the portrait, wisely, but there’s a Narcissus-pool in which Dorian can gaze in admiration and later in horror.  Four actors switch round in versions day by day:  mine was Picture B, with Stanton Wright as Dorian,  Helen Reuben as Basil the painter and Augustina Seymour as Henry Wotton, while Richard Keightley does others or hangs about the edge of the stage speaking Wildean epigrammatica to fit the moment.

 

  It’s intriguing, and offers chances to see the parts played differently,  but there are inevitable losses.  The heaving gay subtext in Wilde’s book cannot simmer quite perilously enough if Sybil Vane is explicitly and verbally a bloke  (as in versions B and D).     A female Wootton and Basil work fine though,  Seymour is splendidly smart-louche as the tempting friend,  and Reuben as worried Basil. As to Dorian, the trouble is that it always helps if you look as if Aubrey Beardsley had drawn you in a fug of opium.    Stanton Wright’s handsomeness is a bit more in modern stubbly style than is ideal  . But on nights  C and D  I imagine Reuben is ideal:   ever so ethereal and soulfully androgynous.  Must make it all the more shocking to hear him/her being accused of “creeping at dawn from dreadful houses”.

  

  The style is broken,  witticisms and profundities about art and beauty dropped in whenever it fits;  the story is familiar, with the betrayal of Sibyl,  the brother’s vengeance and the horror and fate of the artist.   Sadly, Shaw leaves out what in my brooding teens I thought was the real kicker:   the irony when the final murderous degradation of Dorian shows in the picture and appals him.   He decides to be good and spare a flowerlike  maiden but it doesn’t work.  In the book he just looks into the portrait and finds it just as hideous  but with a taint of hypocrisy…  Put that back, I say!

jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  to 6 July

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Bridge, SE1

FLYING,   FUNNY,  FABULOUS

 

  This is a dream of a Dream.  One expected fun from the  combination of Nicholas Hytner,  a roiling mass of promenaders in the pit  and a Bunny Christie design which  makes the most of this fresh big theatre’s technical tricks.  Indeed there is nothing rude about the Bridge’s mechanicals:   beds fly and travel,  pits open, platforms appear,  gymnastic fairies  somersault overhead on six sets of aerial silks, and David Moorst’s nicely yobbish-adolescent Puck has one very “Wow!”  exit move.   

 

     But what elevates it to realms of unexpected glee is that the director has done two key things.  He   pursues, as most modern interpreters do,   the sense that the forest world, the “fierce vexation of a dream” , releases the humanity of people trapped in the formal stiffness of the court.  That psychological captivity includes Duke  Theseus himself and his unwilling bride Hippolyta the Amazon.  This sense is beautifully evoked, as the dreamworld’s brass bedsteads develop a thicket of leaves and flowers and the four young lovers leap and romp between them and finally,  sweetly, awake confused , four in a bed which was once a grassy bank,  looking up with real foreboding at stern Theseus in hunting-gear,  wakened from his Oberon dream.   

    

    But it’s the other thing that had us whooping,  even up in the gallery (I chickened out of the pit this time:  I was fine in Caesar at 100 minutes,  went twice,  but a full length promenade would tax my bad knee).    The big fun is that Hytner decided to “reassign” some 300 key lines,  so that it is not Titania who is conned and bewitched in their quarrel over a changeling child.  It is Oberon.  This is no commonplace modish gender-switch (though obviously the fairies and Mechanicals are mixed-gender, with a glorious Ami Metcalf as a sullen Snout and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Quince,  everyone’s anxiously mumsy am-dram director).    

      

     Making Oberon the patsy,  enamoured of an ass, is not only raunchier and funnier today than the original but a fine blow for female dignity (Gwendoline Christie is queenly and wise throughout, her kindness to the young lovers endearing).     Oliver Chris, on the other hand,  gives the comic performance of a lifetime.  He wakes to the spectacle of big looming Hammed Animashaun  in yellow boilersuit and asses’ ears with panting cries of erotic delight.    The king then embarks on a wild twerking stripping dance on one of the flying beds, to emerge at a key point later in nothing but a froth-thong and soppy adoring smile.   Animashaun plays up to this – indeed to everything Bottom does:  the immortal Weaver is, in any situation,   a miracle of happy self-flattery.   

    

    The flying fairies are gorgeously  sparkly and mischievous, and Arlene Phillips’ movement is stunning, asking a lot of  the young lovers.  I sneakily bought a ticket at an early preview because I am on holiday, so was prepared to refrain from star-mousing it and accept glitches.  But not a single thing went wrong.   

 

 And  there is an unexpected edge created by this cheerful role-reversal of the fairy  king and queen. It clarifies the moment when Theseus, awake and back in Ducal dignity the morning after ,  decides to accept the young couples’ decisions and becomes in this concession a humbler lover for Hippolyta.   I always wondered why:  here we know.    It’s because an echo of his ass-adoring discomfiture plays back in his mind.    There’s a quizzical look from his bride,  who like a Beatrice to his Benedick has won.   Theseus is humanized.     Thus, bingo!  the reversal serves  both the silliness and the solemnities of the play.  

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 31 August     

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse.  It was right to include them in the curtain call… 

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – a note Southwark, SE1

A NOTE ON A TREAT,  MOUSELESS BUT MELLOW 

 

The film based on Scott Fitzgerald’s story of a life lived backwards, born old and ending in babyhood,  was pretty awful.  So I did not leap at the news that Jethro Compton  and composer Darren Clarke had made a musical of it – transporting the action to Cornwall 1918, the war years and after.  But curiosity gripped,  Southwark doesn’t often programme anything dull,  and I bought an impulse matinee ticket.  Even though I knew guiltily  that owing to the annoying late slot (matinee ending at 6+) I might have to skip at the interval and miss the last 45-minute act.  

 

Which  I did.   So I can’t mouse-rate it.   But after 75 enchanted minutes I fervently hope this lovely quirky show goes on and upward, and especially on tour.  Take it to the  seaside, and to places beyond the London bubble.  It had me from the first Cornish  gull-cry, buoy bell, storm sounds, and folktale -vigourous storytelling.   It kept me all the way,  the modern-Celtic songs and dances driven by five actor-musicians reeling and stamping and ever in motion on the tiny stage below the fishing-nets.

 

The sincerity of the piece makes a whimsically impossible tale into something that drills rapidly into real feeling, real wondering compassion for all of us who whirl through our brief lifespans in the normal direction. The birth of the old, old man in a bathchair wanting his pipe is met by the parents with all the dismay of any grotesque abnormality:   his confinement in an attic with only a tiny window to see the moon is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current exposure of how some deeply autistic children are kept.  In those first scenes Ben is a life size puppet, gloriously devised by In The Bellows  from driftwood and wicker creel.  It – he!-is handled with intense  sensitivity. We see him breathing asleep, and his song of longing  “All I want is to live a little life, feel a little freedom, see a little sea”  seems to come from the ragged wooden mouth.

 

The  mother’s song before her clifftop suicide is equally  wrenching and real.  When released from the room as his age becomes more fiftyish,  he is played by the real James Marlowe:   meek and diffident and sweetly childlike .  As he sets eyes on his life’s love, he is any older man struck hopeless  by a young girl.  When, now young enough for the WW2 Navy he meets her again more equal it is any love story.  Love, loss, war, disappointment, hope are so real, so musically deft and honestly rendered that the whimsy is irrelevant. Button has his unique and difficult life  problem, but so do we all..

 

The tight  cast –  Marlowe and Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – tell the story in turn, sing harmony, and play fiddle, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and occasionally drums. The move wonderfully well and radiate sincerity and a sense of an urgent tale to tell . I suspect that if I had been able to stay I would have shed a tear at his infant ending. Hope to go back    

 

box office   0207 407 0234    southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

To 8 June

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THE STARRY MESSENGER Wyndhams, WC2

THE STARS LOOK DOWN. AND SIGH

 

  Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim.  This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching.   I loved that.  I wish more was made of it in  Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse,  deliberately low-powered play.  Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set.  Such ideas matter to them.  

 

It is about a mid-life crisis.  In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky.   These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best.  Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed.   His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated” , pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.  

 

  But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!).   She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar.  A sort of affair ensues.   The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid:  but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.    Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton)  and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews).    And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feele entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.  

   

    Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are.  There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.  

  

      But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace,   it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark.   There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him,  a wistful unfulfilment.    Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play.    But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and  the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..   

 

box office 0333 023 1550   to 10 August

 rating three  3 Meece Rating

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RUTHERFORD AND SON Lyttelton, SE1

BULLYING, BOMBAST,   BETRAYAL

    

The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying.     At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin:  “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade . . . never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy”.  Actually it is more like Ibsen:   a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society.  Not just the submission of women but the class structure:   all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus  marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them. 

 

    Sowerby knew the turf:  old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks:  she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace  and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers ).

 

But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment,  almost rueful sometimes in its even=handedness.  Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable:  his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman,   and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.  The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off.  The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness.   Richard , the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a  fool”.    And as for the workingman Martin, his  piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet.   Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he  is depicted with both contempt and compassion.

   

I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production  is subtler still.  Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety.  He rises to the roaring bullying tone  at the few times it is necessary,   and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”.    But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because  folk will  do what he wants,  end of.  So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant”  Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter. 

 

  Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit  period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world.  Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary .    Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class,  but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”.   Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution.   Psychology,  social rage,  human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it. 

 

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk         to  3 August

rating five   5 Meece Rating

      

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ANNA Dorfman SE1

EAST OF THE WALL, INSIDE YOUR EARS 

 

We are peering through a glass  screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s.  The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community  and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students.  Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager;  her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by he Stasi and replaced by a new boss , who may not be quite what he seems . But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.

 

After the querulous , inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic THE WRITER Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity:   a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving  everyone donning headphones.   So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or  in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’  promotion.  We’re bugging her.  During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory  from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.

 

Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end;  and puzzlement for us in our headphones,   not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking.  Especially as  the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.

 

Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss.   Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max  Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the  atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia.   Certain  sudden sharp  whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting  blackout do achieve that.

 

At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up  placards.  KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE . I obey.

 

 nationaltheatre.org.uk    To 15 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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DIDO Unicorn, SE1

DIDO, BUT DISMAL 

 

For young teens and sensible over-11s  there are few better introductions to classical, sung-through  theatrical opera than Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  It has a pure emotional line,  a sad simple tale of love and betrayal.  IT has simple clunkety-clunk lyrics by that worst of Laureates Nahum Tate, and  rousing choruses between arias.  Perfect:  glamorous yet accessible, it plugs in to adolescent romantic yearning and sense of life’s unfairness.

 

So I hastened to sneak into an ENO matinee at the good old Unicorn, directed by its boss Purni Morell.  Surrounded by school parties and weary teachers,  I had an enjoyable enough hour (just under, actually – they need not have cut that other Witches’ chorus. We  notice these things, you know).

 

But  for some tiresome reason of “relatability” the Queen of Carthage is now a single urban Mum (we are told she is a feminist “icon” but she looks more like a wine o’clock depressive).  Belinda the attendant becomes her dungareed daughter.   The chorus too are dressed in the director’s idea of Sarf  London estate scruffwear, and Aeneas is a chap Dido  met online (laptop open, the sonorous Ndjabulo Madlala first seen projected behind).  The lazy updating obviously makes  nonsense of the story, and there is oddity rather than subtlety in making Dido herself call up the witches of doubt and betrayal.   And  Morell’s flair has deserted her when it comes to blocking: there is a weary static quality to it all.  When the chorus of neighbours are singing “the hero loves as well as you” it would really help if they addressed it to Dido,  not  the front row with their backs to her.

 

Musically   it was OK, especially Eyra Norman’s  Belinda and the spirited chorales. But it could have been a piece of theatre magic, and wasn’t. There is something depressing , even patronising, in the dully  “relatable”modern setting too. This is a generation of kids  who love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and fantasy films:   they wouldn’t have been scared off by the odd robe or throne.  And it would have made for sense for them of   “When monarchs Unite”and Aeneas’ dutiful dereliction.

 

box office  unicorntheatre.com   To 2 June

rating two as theatre   but a musical mouse for the ensemble Musicals Mouse width fixed2 meece rating

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