JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN. Bridge Theatre, SE1

AMBITION , DISGRACE, RUIN, WOMEN

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 bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 27 Nov

Rating five.

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NOISES OFF. Theatre Royal Bath, and touring

GLORIOUS AS EVER

        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. 

Theatreroyal.org.uk. To 1 oct.   Then Cambridge,  then Brighton

Rating. Five.

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WOMAN IN MIND.        Chichester Festival Theatre

WISHFUL DELUSIONS IN A MIDDLE AGED DOLDRUM

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 cft.org.uk to 15 October

Rating three

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EUREKA DAY. Old Vic, SE1

LORD, WHAT FOOLS WE LIBERALS BE…

     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.  

Www.oldvictheatre.com.  To. 31 Oct

Rating five.

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DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10

REFINED AND FEATHER-DUSTED: CRUELTY IN THE SUBURBS

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.  

Finboroughtheatre.co.uk.  To 1 oct

Rating four.

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ROSE Park Theatre, N4

A CENTURY SURVIVED

   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 parktheatre.co.uk. To 15 October

Rating 5.

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THE SNAIL HOUSE. Hampstead Theatre, NW1

EVEN A SNAIL WILL REACH ITS HOME

         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 hampsteadtheatre.com to 15 October

Rating three

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LOVE ALL. Jermyn St Theatre

SAYERS, SAYING IT FOR WORKING WOMEN

  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. Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 21 Sept

Rating 4   

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PENELOPE: SEVEN WAYS TO WAIT Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS SOME INTERESTING THREADS SLIGHTLY UNRAVELLED AT GRIMEBORN

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…

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Part of Grimeborn 2022 at the Arcola

Rating: Three

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INTO THE WOODS Theatre Royal, Bath

A SPIKY AND SPECTACULAR DELIGHT 

            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 : theatreroyal.org.uk.  To 10 September

Rating five.

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

IT’S BACK:  A NEW DIRECTION HOME

  

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.

https://theatrecat.com/tag/girl-from-the-north-country/

     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

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS SWEPT UP IN THE MAGIC, THE MUSIC AND THE META

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.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Until 20 August at the Arcola Theatre, 020 7503 1646: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/the-magic-flute/

Rating: Four

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TWO UKRAINIAN PLAYS.   Finborough Theatre SW10

VOICES FROM THE GRAVE AND THE CELLAR, UNIGNORABLE

       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 Ukraine..me 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 finboroughtheatre.co.uk. To 3 sept

Ratings       

And for the second

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CULT FIGURE. Jermyn St Theatre

CARRY ON. OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, KEEP MESSIN’ ABOUT…

    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.  

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 14 August

NOT ONE TO STAR RATE REALLY…BUT HERE IS A BIG MOUSE FOR KEN ,WHO SPOKE FOR THEATRE

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DAZZLING DIVAS. Jermyn St Theatre

GLITTER AND HARD GRAFT

       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.    Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

  

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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Lyttelton, SE1

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.       Lyttelton, SE1

SHAKESPEARE IN THE SWING AGE

     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 nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 10 Sept.

Rating. Four.

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IDENTICAL Nottingham Playhouse

 STARRY SISTERHOOD IN OLD VIENNA

     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 nottinghamplayhouse.org.uk to 14 August. Then Lowry, Salford to 3 Sept

Rating. 4.

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MACBETH Theatre in the forest, Sutton Hoo

THE SCOTTISH PLAY ON ANCIENT TURF

    “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…..lighting 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   redrosechain.com  to 20 August.   Selling fast.

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101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1

101 DALMATIANS       Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park NW1

BARKING IN THE PARK 

      Wooof!    The OAT’s new show,  bounding and cavorting along  under the direction of that amiable alfesco showman  Timothy Sheader,  rolls over  (with quite a lot of success)  to make you give it a tummy-rub and fondle its ears.  Toby Olié,  master-puppeteer,  puts the dogs, Perdita and Pongo each under the care of  two handlers (the rearward one  bending in spotty trousers, well up for a bum-sniff) and their heads, tails, legs and wags are eerily, skilfully, thoughtfully made expressive. The 99 puppies are represented by adorable little heads, again in agile human hands, popping up everywhere.  And the dramatic escape scenes) four  are represented  in voice by real children of the OAT”s Young Company.  

     Multiple other dogs are represented with economical brio by the quick-changing ensemble and often roam the auditorium,  to the ecstasy of children and the occasional parent who took the trouble to dress in dalmatian-print.  There are Scotties in kilts, Afghans in flowing locks, a tap dancing pink poodle.   Towering over them all is the noble sad old Captain,  Tom Peters singing the two best songs in the show, all the sorrows of life encapsulated in the scent of lost loved ones and the memory of a buried bone. Which, in a real sense, we are all searching for in life, no?

         Dogs we see are trustworthy, stand together,   pass messages of danger and support through the “worldwide woof” and the Twilight Barking.   Humans on the other hand are shamingly fallible. The struggling but loving owners,  Dominic and DAnielle, have not much of a clue beyond warmheartedness.     Cruella  de Vil has, until they rebel,  two hopeless nephews under her thumb (George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon, very funny)  and she herself is, of course absolutely evil.  Apart from wanting to kill puppies for a coat at a social ball which showcases  “who’s in and who’s thin”,  she is an Instagram influencer . Excellent choice for a villainess, allowing lots of choruses of “Share, share ! Like! LIke! Comment!” and the waving of phones in the background.  Kate Fleetwood, slinky and glamorous,  is a perfect Cruella: powerfully melodious, enthusiastically nasty,   handling rock ballads  with glee and jeering with fabulous menace  at “welfare whingers”  and outsiders – “British dogs for British People! Take Back Control!”.  No trouble spotting the liberal values in this show, kids! 

        The show accelerates, after a shakier start,  until by the end you definitely throw it a well-deserved marrowbone:  there’s  a “no-pup-left-behind” drama in the snowstorm escape, a helpful cat who forgives past chases to help out and exhorts the pups: “Young – make your voices heard, claim your territory!”  (another message).  There’s a wonderful  exploding car for Cruella (Liam Steel’s choreography and movement direction is as fine as Olie’s puppetmastery).  And (third big liberal message) at the end the broke young couple  realize we all must  “open your hearts, open your doors” and accept hundreds of puppies taking refuge.   But  just as any far-right border curmudgeons might be rolling their eyes at the Paddingtonesque urging to virtue and wondering what Truss ’n Sunak will say,   our cunning director brings on a REAL DALMATIAN PUPPY. And a great British awwwwhhhhhh! rises over the darkening trees.               

        A brand-new musical is the toughest of risks, because however good the tunes and lyrics they’re unfamiliar: unless every word in every chorus is preternaturally clear,  which is a big ask outdoors,  some of the fun gets lost in the attempt at concentration. That  is why juke-box shows are so popular: we all have a running start and are inwardly humming along .  The show’s creator Douglas Hodge (better known as a fine actor) is also a good musician, folksinger and composer, but the only running-start he has here is that we know about Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians and the Disney film version (here the book is Johnny McKnight’s, the adaptation Zinnie Harris’). 

           But our Doug can turn a lovely tune (especially in the more folk-y mode) and he has some grand lyrics. Captain’s songs are best of all,  but  there are also some lovely doggy choral reflections like the necessity to “turn round three times before you sit down”,  and some inventive staccato panting.   Fleetwood’s Cruella numbers are sometimes  fine too, especially when “triggered” by failure and isolation  she laments that her only friend is enmity.    But kapow!  in a coup de theatre, she had to go.  Children and puppies can head home to sleep safe.

www.openairtheatre.com  to 28th August 

rating four


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CRAZY FOR YOU Chichester Festival Theatre

CHARLIE IS , ONCE AGAIN, OUR DANCING DARLING…

       Foiled by heatwave and trains,  I made it six days later to the summer’s highlight, the glorious absurdity of this wickedly successful mashup: songs by George and Ira Gershwin from various shows, reassembled years after their death by Ken Ludwig into a plot of brilliant cod-nostalgic absurdity,  and roaring into life under Susan Stroman’s choreographic wit.  It is the ultimate song-n-dance show. And, in this year of theatrical resurrection, the timeliest of celebrations of showbiz itself.

      Bobby Child, a nerdy ambitious tap-dancing wannabe,  pleads for work with Zangler the New York impresario but is packed off as a banker in the family business to Dead Rock, Nevada, population 37 after the gold rush expired.   Ordered to repossess a failed theatre surrounded by yawning, bored rednecks, he falls in love with Polly, the only woman in town,  and resolves to revive it.   Posing as Zangler in a disguise so improbably successful that it is positively Shakespearian,  he sets to work.  Everything goes wrong, then right again. Especially when (more comedy-of-errors stuff) the real Zangler arrives, equally lovelorn, and even performs a drunken doppelganger scene with Bobby.   

       Ridiculous, and perfect. Stemp, who threw us all into a pother of admiration here in Half a Sixpence,  is not only an extraordinary dancer but in this subtler story he satisfactorily changes and feels before our eyes, from the dreamer who can conjure up eight fluffily pink chorus girls from a tea-chest and can’t quite avoid standing on people’s feet,  to a lover who gives up hope and then repents it.  

    It’s constantly funny,   set-pieces and immense ensembles coming one after another, and the energy and quirkily characterful dances and bar-room brawls are its glory (as well as being, gentlemen, at times a hell of a leg show).  You can’t take your eyes of it for a second to make notes:  tap-athletic craziness, percussive precision , pratfalls, pastiche,  wild-west wisecracks, it all keeps on coming.  Jokey references, old and new: on  Mickey Rooney, on the looming birth of Vegas “who’d come to Nevada just to gamble?”   Even a deliberate Les Miserables pile of gold chairs surmounted by the red flag.   Ludwig even leaves in a darker lyric in for now: “What if Romania / wants to fight Albania ?/ I don’t fret, I’m not upset..”   It’s a recklessly necessary liberation: just dance.   

         Nor is it just all about Stemp and Carly Anderson’s strapping, tough and tender Polly.   There are top moments from Tom Edden as the real Zangler, Marc Akinfolarin slappin’ that bass and a fabulously filthy, serpentine, threateningly erotic  “Naughty baby” from Merryl Ansah. But too many to list:   a joyful ensemble , each redneck character neatly and perfectly expressed in movement. There’s remarkable  timing from Alan Williams leading an unseen orchestra which melds with the percussive precision onstage using feet, spades, pickaxes, jugs, saws, brooms, plates, hubcaps, corrugated iron…  

      It is immense,  perfected,  worked to a hair,  and so it’s worth mentioning that it has sponsors: Architectural Plants and R.L Austen jewellers. And that  (with Chichester’s famously good sightlines) tickets start at a tenner,  and go no higher than £ 60.   If you don’t put in a quick buck-and-wing step in the car park on the way out,  I despair of you.  

Cft.org.uk. To 4 sept.      

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CHAMBER OPERAS ON TOUR caught at Thorington, Suffolk

     Twice lately, under tall oaks and pines on what is becoming known as Suffolk’s mini-Minack,  I have encountered touring opera companies doing wonderfully, relaxedly, professionally.  Since they ARE both touring, links below,  let me tell you that Wild Arts with its opera evenings are of a breathtakingly high, ROH-level musical standard – a gorgeous quintet of musicians  and a most cunning choices of excerpts,  some of them mischievously well acted on the plank stage below us. I’d follow Orlando Jopling’s lot anywhere.

      And the other one is Opera Anywhere, currently rollicking through a Gilbert and Sullivan touring festival.   As an amuse-bouche they opened with the 45-minute Trial by Jury complete with “locally sourced chorus” rehearsed only once but happily bang on cue,  which among other pleasures introduced me to James Gribble as a diminutive baritone judge with a gift for natural physical comedy.  Then they did Iolanthe, and the standout was Dale Harris as Strephon  and a rather fabulous, grainy, Thatcher-tough Fairy Queen from VAnessa Woodward.   

        Surf their websites., below.   Catch tiny operas on the road!  Take the kids. They’ll see what fun it can be, and that it doesn’t have to be a grand country-house-opera-event.  

https://wildarts.org.uk/2022-opera-evenings

various perfs to september

and next year 

to 17 november 

to 17 november 

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JACK ABSOLUTE FLIES AGAIN Olivier, SE1

SCRAMBLE!   CHOCKS AWAY!

   Who knew that Caroline Quentin could achieve (almost) the splits, while strumming a ukulele?  Or that that Richard Bean and Chris Oliver – who a decade ago created the NTs world-conquering One Man Two Guvnors – would for their next 18c update attempt a mashup of Sheridan’s classic frothy Restoration romcom The Rivals, and set it  in  a WW2 RAF base?  But there we are, in a romantically perfect Sussex-Downs set complete with wicker chair, teacups, Nissen hut and dismantled nose cone. The romantic entanglements are taking place during  the Battle of Britain, and larded with RAF slang and numerous outrageously rude malapropisms.  There are from the start knowing asides across the fourth wall , eventually an unexpected but  suitably frenetic ensemble lindy-hop jitterbug , mickey-takes of 1940s socialist feminism and inter-service rivalry. And, slightly shaking some audience members on the way out , a clear authorial decision that since the Few were real heroes, old men now – if they were lucky enough to live – there’s a dark side you might as well express too.   

          It’s a nifty idea: although romantic entanglements in frivolous 18c Bath society might seem a long way from a Sussex airbase both were full of young people in full flower, constrained by class and circumstance but longing for love and sex .  RAF women, remember,  held many jobs: in this case Natalie Simpson’s swashbuckling Lydia Languish is a uniformed Air Transport Auxiliary delivery pilot and her friend Julia an army driver.   Cleverly, the 18c original heroine’s delusions about  the romance of poverty, wanting a plebeian lover,  is transmuted into our Lydia’s inverted-snob yearning for a Yorkshire mechanic rather than the heir to Sir Anthony’s Devonshire acres.  

       There’s  room for Quentin’s  Mrs Malaprop too,  since a requisitioned manor house must have a chatelaine, and she remains  just as happily delusional and romantically yearning as any of them. Though I have to tell you that her verbal mis-speaks are almost universally filthy (“..full to the quim” the least of them.  Though my favourite is her  protest at her lexical confusions being laughed at: “”How dare you suggest that I employ a mutilated Mexican?”).    There’s a comically earnest Sikh airman in the part of SHeridan’s comic Irishman,  a Churchill joke just at the moment you think the jokes have stopped, and a wedding-night conversation of the kind that probably absolutely happened in the 1940s but wouldn’t have got onstage. And in a sudden weirdly dark conversation there’s one of the lovers frivolously asking his girl if she would still love him without arms, or legs, or a face, and you remember that this might very likely happen to him, any night, shot down in flames literally rather than romantically. 

   Early on I wondered if the balance could be maintained between the reality of a wartime setting where any morning would see names crossed off the active board and iron beds cleared,  but they get away with it.  Emily Burns’ high-spirited direction keeps gales of laughter meeting good lines, disguises (oh the moustache gag)  and misunderstandings,  and the director’s prudent recruitment of Toby Park of Spymonkey to keep the physical comedy precise and frantic pays off (it was, remember, Cal McCrystal’s merciless phys-com that elevated One Man Two Guvnors).    You knew you were in Park’s safe clown-trained hands early on,  when Peter Forbes’ classically magnificent army buffer Sir Anthony Absolute is blocking a doorway . A terrified Jordan Metcalfe in the apologetic-innocent part has to squeeze, slowly and apologetically, round his embonpoint to get out.  Immaculate.  Later,  an incompetent four-sided boxing match shows the same dark genius, and I hope the NT has plenty of Deep Heat backstage for later. 

         Bean and Chris are accomplished jokesmiths, never failing to add an irrelevant laugh in passing (“We don’t live in Scotland any more. Because of the food”) and giving the great Forbes absolute licence in his vast raging rants whether about youth – including the front row –  or frivolities (“I didn’t die at Ypres so you could talk about biscuits.. Mafeking? Tremendous fun, we ate a lot of horses” etc.   Using Kerry Howard’s lively maid to shrug at the audience about theatrical absurdities in restoration comedy is fun too:  on one of the farcical knock-at-the-door-who’s-that moments she snaps “That’s how these plays work” and another time resignedly explains  “I”m a dramatic device!”.  

       Well, I’ll tell you no more. They get away with it all,  light and dark but mainly light,   until in the end you think to yourself that actually,  people did joke blackly and carry on calmly in those circumstances.  We know it from contemporaneous plays like Flare Path, and books, and memoirs, and old men who don’t talk about it until their last years.   It almost felt like a kind of tribute to a tougher age, whose jokes and banter were probably every bit as good as ours.

Box office http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3  sept.  But I guess it will move on, and on….

And it is being captured on video to be broadcast on Thursday 6 October in cinemas across the world

Rating four.

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ANYTHING GOES Barbican EC1


DECK-LICIOUS, DELOVELY,  SAILING BACK IN STYLE

A year on, and after a partly recast tour, SS America drops anchor back in the Barbican and in style. Actually feels even better than before. Aboard are Cole Porter’s champagne rhymes, Kathleen Marshall’s grand direction and peerlessly witty comic choreography , moments of 1930s romantic elegance for those with a tender nature and PG Wodehouse’s high-absurd plot for the rest of us.   Last year it loomed   out of the grey Covid fog like a sunburst, and had us on our feet.Same again.

   And is fitting in recessional and anxious times to remember that this glorious nonsense – of gangsters and molls and dim  toffs and sassy females putting every curve out there – belongs in the inter war depression years. I feel it is a lesson to us all to sing the Bluebird song and keep on tapping. 

   Much of the joy of it, in this cast which has toured together, is in the way that everyone gets their big moment, and some get several. When I saw Sutton Foster from Broadway as Reno last year I was dazzled by the energy, sweetvoiced likeability and sheer stamina of the woman , a legend already. But Kerry Ellis from Suffolk (o the pride) , is her match, and we are lucky to haul her back from Broadway. Samuel Edwards is back as Billy, and Haydn Oakley as Lord Evelyn – the latter possibly because  no human actor could resist another go at the unforgettable gypsy tango with Reno.  Carly Mercedes Dyer takes on Erma (and many many sailors) once again, neatly stealing every show in her few sharp lines, for beyond her glamour is a pinsharp timing on the ripostes which got her her own cheers.

    We have a new Moonface in Denis Lawson, less hat-tipping than Lindsay’s but demonstrating in the brig scene that there is  nothing, nothing on earth, as funny as a man in full evening dress and spats addressing an invisible  bluebird.  And Simon Callow is Elisha Whitney!  Spot on every laugh, doddering for England when required but  nimble as a goat in the tap finale, a treat. And the swing, the chorus, the dance captain Gabrielle Cocca and team…never forget them. They are the sea on which our leaping dolphin stars surf , skilled and perfectionist and a living froth of  joy.

I’m always rude about the Barbican theatre but the sightlines are all good and the cheapest seats under thirty quid and if you’ve had a hard day working-from-City-tower it’ll do you good.

barbican.org.uk to 3 sept

rating five mice this time.

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PATRIOTS Almeida, N1

  MOTHER RUSSIA AND ITS MEN

    Here’s a fresh history play: confrontational , shocking, classic in its focus on vast flawed characters and pretty close to documented  – and very recent  – reality.  It has all the elements:  a kingmaker whose creation turns on him, acolytes and shifting alliances, self-serving arrogance , passionate romantic patriotism, politics and big money and tragedy and  defeat.  Fresh from the new RSC Richard III, near the end I almost expected Tom Hollander’s mesmerising Berezovsky to offer his kingdom for a horse.

      It’s wonderful, never a dull moment and jammed with ideas:  political, ethical and, because our hero was a mathematician,  philosophical:  even i a brief discussion with his Professor as to whether the limitation of infinity is its own limitlessness.  

       It’s by Peter Morgan: not in the mode of his rather soap-schlocky, dragged-out Netflix The Crown,  but the sharp old stage Morgan who gave us Frost/Nixon and The Audience.   Indeed it demonstrates immaculately how  – as in Shakespeare’s histories – a huge, complex piece of history can be reduced to diamond-sharp focus on  a group of key players with clashing motives and characters.  

         We are in the 1990s:   Mikhail Gorbachev had reached  towards more Western ways and an open economy,  the rigid old Soviet Union collapsed and free market chaos grew in Russia’s. Yeltsin decade of crazy inflation, gangsterism,  state enterprises carelessly sold off to businessmen amassing huge fortunes:  the oligarchs we are even now feebly sanctioning.   Swathes of national assets fell into the hands of a handful of individuals as a weak premier, like King John, dealt with robber-barons: as the kingpin Boris Berezovsky remarks,  the political deals they made for their own prosperity were their  Magna Carta.  

        As Berezovsky,   Hollander deploys his astonishing capacity to move between smooth amused witty ruthlessness and terrifying explosions of rage.   He paints it as Russia’s new age of choice and opportunity, an awakening of a land too long frozen in sleep:  the play is book-ended with him musing on the Russian soul, warmly romantic and  misunderstood, a thing of snowy vistas and old songs by warm firesides.  The “kid” Roman Abramovich  (Luke Thallon) who this alpha-male takes under his wing has his own venal ambitions;  meanwhile the  hesitant, rather weedy provincial deputy-mayor Putin asks for Berezovsky’s help up the political ladder, gets it, and manoeuvres himself into the supreme power he still holds today.  The  upright security-policeman Litvinenko, a very impressive Jamael Westman, at first resists the Berezovsky approaches then , outraged by being officially ordered to kill him,  joins him and publicly denounces corruption, and gets arrested.   As Putin’s grip tightens,  Berezovsky defies him “across 11 time zones”  on the TV channel he owns.  We know what happened next .  We know what Putin became capable of, all the way to Litvinenko’s murder,  the bitter and rathe dodgy UK court case between the exile and the confident Abramovich, and the murder or suicide – open verdict still –  of Berezovsky.  

           Drama imagines, truncates,  emphasises clashes, and here it is done with elan under Rupert Goold’s tight direction,  set cleanly by Miriam Buether on and around a vast red platform before a brick wall with one huge doorway, sometimes revealing a mirror as Will Keen’s frightening, pallid little Putin gradually grows in cold-hearted confidence. No flashy effects: the script does the work in a series of seductive or confrontational scenes so numerous I stopped noting them . Though the moment when Berezovsky tears into his television studio to demolish the shameful lies about the deaths and negligence of submarine Kursk is unforgettable, and so is the moment when Putin, once a humble petitioner in an ill-fitting suit, turns on Berezovsky in his new autocratic confidence. “It’s a foolish man who ignores the President” he observes coolly, to which the oligarch explodes “Not if he created that President! Plucked him out of a deputy-mayor cupboard..you are my creature!”.

      It’s tremendous , electric drama, but its strength is the way that all four main protagonists travel through emotional growth or into decadence before our eyes.  Hollander’s Berezovsky burns at last with more than his original pragmatic vision, suffering in UK asylum a yearning exile’s heimweh.   Putin’s patriotism is a chillier, harder thing , expressed in a haunting scene on a cold fogbound eastern shore where he had sent  Abramovich as regional governor.  Line after line, especially Will Keen’s,  resonate grimly with the events of this year in Ukraine. The simplicities of commentators who assume that oligarchs or the discontented populace will  soon overthrow the monster are implicitly challenged. There’s power in calls to the Russian soul.   You leave  into the hot night both thrilled with the drama and full of difficult thoughts. Which is how it should be. 

Box office almeida.co.uk. to 20 Aug.     

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EVELYN Southwark Playhouse SE1

MOB JUSTICE, NO JUSTICE

     There are women who, seeing a friend in an almost-good outfit, cannot help reaching out: adjusting a belt , removing  an ill-judged frill, suggesting a hat.  Some new plays make you feel like this, and it probably annoys writer and director as much as  those interfering fashionistas annoy wearers.  But I cant help it in this case: Tom Ratcliffe’s play, directed by Madelaine Moore , could be brilliant, and grow bigger. 

        For I approve the theme, really love the carnival- brutality of the way it’s framed with Punch-and-Judy figures , and adore the live, beautifully-judged score of accordion ,fiddle folksong and the rest, which is by Michael Crean perched up top as a one man band ,  half seen and sinister in an executioners’ mask.    Moreover, Ratcliffe’s conclusion is twistedly fine, just when sentimental watchers expect an easy romantic redemption and are rightly denied it . 

          The problem is with the underworked text itself:  there’s a strong central theme of  the public judgement of people in horrible cases (in this case, a woman who gave her child-killing partner a false alibi, and served time for it).  Forgiveness is difficult in  an age of sensational media reporting, and mob condemnation online just to clickbait-easy. Nicola Harrison’s Evelyn is a newcomer, under a false name,  in a seaside retirement village. She is lodging with the slightly eccentric, affectionate Jeanne ( Rula Lenska, no less) who is on the edge of coming dementia.   But the rumour mill – nicely evoked with echoing scraps and projections of whatsappery and next-doorism – is going to get her. Yvette Boakye as an amiable single mother nurse fears, crazily, for her own child;  her brother (Offue Okegbe, a strong interesting performance) becomes fond of her, at one point  – the best writing in it – offering a tantalizing possibility of individual acceptance.   

        It is framed strikingly at the start  – and occasionally throughout –  by three of the figures in garish Punch and Judy show masks telling the story (the croc is particularly sinister).   Our seaside after all is  most famed for these violent babybashing puppet shows.  So overall, great idea.

         But the longer first half often fails to grip: Lenska is not given enough chance to do what she does best and go over the top:   too mumsy.  Her best line is when she explains why she rents the room so carefully  – “Don’t want some twentysomething doing horse tranquillizers in my bathroom”.  But…it drags. Only in the second half  does the play at last fire up:  Harrison,  understandably pianissimo in the first part, shows real pain,  Okegbe is quietly, heroically humane.   And the score even better than before.  

box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk  to 16 July

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BAREFOOT IN THE PARK Mill at Sonning, Berks

STEP BACK TO THE SIXTIES SIMPLICITIES…

  Once again , off to this most enticing dinner-theatre embedded in a historic treasure,  its big real watermill whirling away in the bar and the  Thames swishing past outside in the sunshine.  I reviewed Jonathan O’Boyle’s  stunning production of Irving Berlin’s  TOP HAT here (https://theatrecat.com/2021/11/11/top-hat-the-mill-at-sonning/)  and am happy to report that the prouction is  coming back for Christmas – 16 Nov to 30 Dec.  Some Cooney and Coward meanwhile,  and the Culture Recovery Fund grant has been (wisely) spent on some air-handling for the age of post-Covid caution.   So it’s well up and running again,  a Berkshire treat. 

    This one – wistfully framed in Paul Simon songs –  is   a gentle two-hour squib about New York newlyweds.   Neil Simon’s play made a famous movie rom-com with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.  It is now, of course, quite wonderfully dated,  not to say nostalgic: it’s pure 1960’s, though  not in the louche Rolling-Stones way wistful moderns imagine the period .    Hannah Pauley is  prettily frisky   and naively romantic as Corrie, nicely catching that period when girls felt independent and free in jeans but  didn’t cohabit before marriage , or particularly feel they had to go on working once they’d done it,   as long as they put dinner on the table and faffed about with furniture (it’s all there in early Jilly Cooper novels, honest. And  I remember it from my schoolfriends’ much older sisters).   

        Jonny Labey is splendidly gruff as the young lawyer husband who is anxious to get on, beguiled but baffled by the irrationality of his very young bride, and who, in their explosive first quarrel,  tucks himself up on the sofa for the night clutching his briefcase for comfort.       Another enchantingly dated aspect of the play is Simon’s  introduction of a Funny Foreigner,   James Simmons as  Victor Velasco the upstairs lodger .  Who is possibly Hungarian, or Greek, or Polish,  lovably exotic anyway,  and who drags the couple out to an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island,  complete with Corrie’s conventional widowed mother.  Who, of course,  ends up next day in his dressing-gown.    

         As I say, I actively enjoyed the datedness, and Simon certainly some brisk jokes and great lines. Especially in the second half, as the hungover  party struggle with the after-effects of ouzo (“I can’t make a fist…my teeth feel soft”) .    The denouement of the older couple’s cautious move towards acquaintance is beautifully done, Fielding and Simmons both perfect in pitch (mind you, he has the harder task,  funny-foreigner acting just isn’t  easy to pull off these days).     Between the young,   as  Corrie’s dream of perfect romance fades, there is possibly the best hysterically irrational lovers’ tiff since Private Lives.    And it’s all in a lovely, atmospheric New York loft set by Michael Holt with a perfect skylight and snowfall outside.  

   As I say, it’s a squib, a frivolity, a period piece.  An escape.  Which frankly, on Boris-Meltdown Day was no bad thing. Thank you all.

box office   millatsonning.com   to 27 August

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THE SOUTHBURY CHILD Bridge SE1

The review below is from its Chichester opening a couple of weeks back. So just a note on seeing it again: something that could well become a habit, because it really is rich snd fine. It works a treat in the Bridge’s huge but intimate space, audience wrapped round three sides of the Vicarage kitchen. and none of the funny lines – sharp, unexpected, mood-changing to the edge of shocking – risk getting lost. My link with the Englisnness of Jerusalem endures, but I felt more aware of another tradition: the whisky-priests of Graham Greene, the holy sot Sebastian in Brideshead… neither exact parallels, but part of a consciousness. I also reiterate the excellence of the ensemble as well as the unmatchable Jennings, the pinpoint sharpness of its class cameos, and the small half-heeded moments of human comfort in tragic absurdity

SO. anyway, enjoy. Saints, sinners, atheists, it’s for you.

VIA MEDIA ANGLICANA IN A NEW JERUSALEM

      We’re in  a vicarage kitchen in a small West Country town,  its incumbent dealing with parishioners, a resentful, weary wife and two daughters: Susanna is a dutiful verger and schoolmistress,   adopted African-heritage Naomi a cynical unbeliever who has come home from a struggling acting career and likes to scandalize the town in her  “Lithuanian prostitute” outfits.    It isn’t easy being an Anglican parish  vicar in an age of dwindling respect and attendance  (a sharp essay in the programme is well worth reading).  On one side he faces angry  sentimentality and scorn from council-estate unbelievers,  whose resentment drives the plot; on the other a smugger middle-class yacht-club agnosticism.  The latter is beautifully encapsulated in the doctor’s wife, Hermione Gulliford in gilet and jeans,  shuddering at “that morbid business with the cross at Easter”  and saying that her friends got married in a crop circle  because these days people “aren’t afraid to define their key moments” without clerical assistance.

           It is a fine play, sharply written with some real  strong unexpected laughs and a heartstopping ending.  Its subtleties of character ask a great deal (not in vain) from the cast.   Nicholas Hytner, who takes it onward to his own Bridge in a few days,  once programmed Stephen Beresford’s subtle, mournfully Chekhovian debut  THE LAST OF THE HAUSSMANS at the National: he curates  this new one himself with thoughtful care.   It deserves it:  as a reflection on England (not Britain) Beresford’s  dry  observation and undercurrent of poetic yearning place the play fascinatingly alongside JERUSALEM, albeit with piquant differences of tone.  To me it feels like an equally important one: those who deny that will likely do so because of its gloriously unfashionable setting and hero. 

        That hero is David Highland,  evoked beautifully in every line and gesture by Alex Jennings:  a moth-eaten, visibly flawed Anglican vicar fighting not only the retreating tide of faith but his own drink habit, the shame of an aborted affair (“rules for vicars: don’t fuck the flock”),  and the rebukes of a pompous offstage Archdeacon (“Angry? We are never angry in the Church of England. We are “grieved’”.  Ouch).  His dry humour and humane warmth recognize absurdities but he holds to integrity in matters of ritual,  and the way that centuries of tradition have grown it to assuage and accept the deep terrible realities of death.  His best moment of the year is the “Blessing of the River” when the fishermen who live and work close to those realities do, just once every year,  respect the processional prayer he leads.  

        Liberal audiences may boggle when, as the first act develops, we learn which  particular hill David seems prepared to die on – or lose his living and his home on –  as the diocese sends a brisk young gay curate to sort him out.    The Southbury Child of the title has died from leukaemia, leaving a skinny waif of a single mother, Tina, and her brother the  rough-cut, troubled, vulnerably manipulative uncle Lee.  The family want the church full of balloons and Disneyiana – “a celebration of  her life”.  David refuses:   death is real and funerals are there to serve grief, not neutralize it.   “Death isn’t about Disney”. 

     “So so happy ending?” says Lee.

      “No EASY ending” says the clergyman.

         The row over balloons magnifies, all classes uniting against him: a babble of voices offstage between scenes and the arrival of the (beautifully drawn) pregnant local cop Joy suggest a potentially ugly denouement.  That doesn’t entirely happen, though with the assistance of the Book of Common Prayer  Alex Jennings’ final lines did make me actually cry,  all the way to the car park in the dusk.

           There are fine performances, sketched with lightning skill in short scenes: Racheal Ofori as red-hot Naomi and Jo Herbert as her dutiful sister  each test their difficult identities on Jack Greenlees’  wary curate, and the final appearance of the bereaved mother Tina is explosively moving.  Josh Finan’s Lee in particular is wonderful:  seething with hopeless underclass rage but with a real connection to the vicar in whose untidy kitchen he is seen either yielding to distress, shame or malice or simply dropping unforgettable philosophical theologies like “Why is there anything?”  and “If Henry the 8th had kept his cock in his tights, we’d all be Catholics anyway”. 

      This was Chichester.    I very much want to see this play again, at the Bridge, and feel around me an audience probably more urban, more smugly agnostic.  Will report.

 bridgetheatre.co.uk  to 27 Aug

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RICHARD III Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

THE BOTTLED SPIDER, HEDGEHOG, ABORTIVE ROOTING HOG, IS BACK…MAGNIFICENTLY

          The winter of discontent made glorious summer is ushered in with a wild conga round the stage under helium balloons, one of which the newest RSC  Richard  squeaks and bursts with practised deftness during his opening speech.  That endearing levity of staging, though, is the last and only anachronistic gimmick in this magnificent production:   mostly we see a wide bare stage beneath a brick tower on which great important shadows are cast.   No onstage camera or projection this time until briefly at the very end;  no directorial vanities or nonsenses.  Sometimes a boy treble sings or a trumpet calls from overhead; in the final battle an extraordinary physical coup turns the ghosts of Richard’s victims into the horse that throws him to his doom  and carries the victor over him.  Mostly we see what Shakespeare offered us: human players crossing and recrossing the stage, speaking, striking out, spitting, flinching, defying.

          THIis is director Gregory Doran, retiring RSC leader, doing what he does better than any of his generation:  showing with love, care, scholarship and flair how fine Shakespeare’s play always was  , in both language and construction.  We all know now, as obedient historians, that the Richard lately disinterred from a Leicester car park is grievously slandered in it:  who cares when such a tale is told with such vigour? 

     Breathtaking, with a speed of event that many a dragging TV binge-series should envy, we have the wooing of Anne by her husband’s murderer over his very corpse, the terrifying curses of old Queen Margaret, Minnie Gale hurling around a yard-long sweep of silver hair;   poor Clarence’s nightmare and murder, moving but blackly comic. Suddenly there is the old King’s collapse,  treachery,  a grisly head of Hastings (the RSC is getting too good at this, the prop-store must be a shocker). We have  a populist acclamation involving – no spoilers –  rather magnificent joke when two monastic hoods are dropped.  And through it all runs the susurration of court politics:  unease, hope, ambition, uncertain loyalties and –  served with  genius in this production –  the anger, pain and defiance of the women who are mourning father, husband, sons, confronting the entangled monstrosities of past and present murders.  The scenes between Queens Elizabeth and Margaret and the Duchess of York, mother to Richard, are breathtaking, their direct defiances and curses shake the room;  Kirsty Bushell’s  Elizabeth, the last one to defy Richard’s intentions, is feline and marvellously subtle. 

        But every part shines in its moments,  whether in laughter or shock:  everything contributes,  whether a neat strawberry-related smirk from the Bishop of Ely or a sudden tremor from Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham when tasked with a murder too far. There has been obvious interest in the casting of Arthur Hughes , just turned thirty, who has a congenital  right-arm “difference” and so becomes the first RSC Richard to be actually “cheated of feature by dissembling nature” with a visible difference.    But it is important to say that Hughes brings far more to the role than that slight appropriate disability.  His talent, application and voice are fully of RSC standard but also he has youth, and spring, and fearlessness, and above all an innate cheeky playfulness which entirely suits Shakespeare’s most arresting psychopath.  

         He is splendid in his disgraceful wooing of Anne over her husband’s very bier, gives the moments of rage an unsettling hysterical edge and the smooth joking pretences an even more unsettling charm.  He summons barks of shocked laughter with Richard’s astonishing excuses (he admits to being “unadvised at times” regarding the murders of two children, various other relatives and his wife: the timing is such that we gasp, as intended.     Tiresomely fashionable to draw modern parallels,  but there is a moment when  he is confronted repeatedly by Queen Elizabeth over his murder of her two little boys,  and in sudden boredom he snaps “harp not upon that string ma’am, that is past”.  I admit to hearing a chime of some partygate dismissals. 

       But that sort of reflection – and even the far bigger reflection of the hubris and murderousness of our own age’s Putin  –  is the least of it.  Take this as purest Shakespearian tragedy:  vigorous but classic,  a magnificent magnification of the darkest human and political longing, of affection, terror, defensiveness, hubris and – in the women – a defiant courage. It rings down all mankind’s troubled ages.  Don’t miss this one.  

Rsc.org.uk to 8 october

Rating 5

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CANCELLING SOCRATES Jermyn St Theatre

ALL GREEK TO US, AND TOPICAL WITH IT

Fascinating to see how, despite many light tempting fatuities and sentimentalities onscreen and onstage, and the countercurrents of self conscious experiment and virtuous nagging at the heavier end, you can still pack theatres with conversations about ideas.  Provided, that is, they are  knottily entertaining and streaked with vivid eccentric characters . We have had Straight Line Crazy and now The Southbury Child at the Bridge, rich in both;  and the Jermyn – small as it is – has been rocking Howard Brenton’s latest, set in Ancient Greece and dealing with the last days and condemnation for sacrilege of the philosopher  Socrates.

    Our hero is  played with raggedly cheerful  donnish insouciance by Jonathan Hyde, bright-eyed from the start as he questions and teases his friend Euthypro,a nicely effete Robert Mountford, about the nature of holiness and the absurd legends of warring gods,  on which their fragile democracy is, for the moment, resting.  His legal accuser, delightfully to the grownup audience, is a pompous young man (“It’s great that the young take right-thinking so seriously” murmurs Socrates).  Much has been made of this parallel with todays censorious youth and closed minds. 

    But there is more than that topical twitch to it: Brenton creates a portrait of a particular kind of tiresome necessary questioning, a stubbornness which warms the heart in an age of group think on  half a dozen issues.  It is also a humane play, the role of Socrates’ wife Xanthippe and his mistress Aspasia forming its centre with a sharply argument between personal and  family values and the restless wider ambitions of the soul.  But the whole thing sings, under deft direction from Tom Littler.  It’s his last hurrah as Artistic Director of the Jermyn, and he deserves every plaudit and propulsion to bigger things:  he picked up all that was good in this marvellous little theatre and ran with it. 

     Which is why I am posting this, sold-out as it is, in the hopes that he takes it on elsewhere.  And keeps the marvellous central performance by Hyde and its counterpart by Mountford (who doubles as the jailer in the fascinating, eerie final scenes), not to mention both the women , Sophie Ward and Hannah Morrish  (the latter finally and eerily becoming his inner daemon-goddess near the deathbed, in a brief, brilliantly lit and imagined sequence.  It’s entirely a treat, a thoughtful treat, never dull for a moment,  leaving a dozen new thoughts.  Vive the Jermyn, vive Littler!   

Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk.  Running to Saturday, sold out, always worth trying..

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TONY!  The Tony Blair rock opera          Park Theatre N4

IT HAS COME TO FRUITION. REJOICE!

   In a spirit of joyful pastiche, it’s a Sweeney-Todd sound that opens the show:  “`Prepare! To be made Aware! Of the most successful Labour Premier! Now a Millionaire!”.   The deathbed scene, with faint attempts at confession, book-ends the show as Blair’s life develops and as musically it slides away from this brief  Sondheimery into – well, everything really. Touches of rap and tap,  golden-age ballad soundalikes, high-school cheerleader rom-com moments, Lehrer, Handel, and when Gordon Brown explains economic theory, a booming hymn with church-organ.  That Harry Hill is the writer explains the rumbustious irreverence of it,  but Steve Brown’s tunes and  lyrics are much of its glory. 

     This little theatre has form in irreverent, thoughtful biographical plays:  Thatcher and Howe in Dead Sheep, de Gaulle and Petain in The Patriotic Traitor,  the terrifying but necessary An Evening With Jimmy Savile.  And outside the very fringe it is hard to think of many theatres which would have plunged into Harry Hill’s absurdist but pinsharp demolition of the personality and pretensions of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair:  a figure still forever sidling into the limelight telling the world how to behave.  I wrote a note on it here in its workshop phase, script-in-hand,  and said:

“There’s real contempt for spin,  vanity, the Iraq invasion and even the grinning PM’s treatment of poor Gordon Brown with his basso-profundo and tartan underpants.   There are sparkles of rage amid the glorious Hill jokes and barbed, carefully finessed and divinely silly rhymes”.   

      All still true,  but this is sharpened even further:  the walk-on-water smugness, the innocent grin, Ugly Rumours, the conversion to Labour in a masterful Cherie’s arms,  the TB-GB rivalry neatly depicted in a boxing ring,  the oleaginous Mandelson, narrating and managing,  the gleeful Diana moment when (Mandy manipulating a balloon-dog with great skill) New Labour realizes it can “shape the grief, harness the grief and ride it back to No.10!”. 

     Jovial wickedness, and a conclusion veering from the sharp hard solemnity of the 100,000 deaths in our illegal war’s alliance to a challenge to the audience (“you voted me back! Yes, after Iraq!”) . Finally that triumphant chorus, with names and pictures of the world’s tyrants and pretenders from il-Jung to Putin to Hitler,  as we bellow with them  “The Whole Wide World is run by assholes!”. A tune so catchy that now I can’t stop singing it.

        Wonderful side jokes, because this after all is a Harry Hill reaction.  In  Blair’s early triumphalism amid the period’s big stars (Savile, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris)  there’s an intervention from the side with a furious “Is anybody else uncomfortable with the wobble-board?”as it is snatched away. Or the magnificently tasteless Diana interludes (the goddess is performed with magnificent eye-and-fringe work by Madison Swan) where we get an up to date touch of Bashir.   The moment when Gordon Brown at last gets the hot seat and picks up the phone to the news of Lehman Brothers is magic.  The global politics, guyed with a viciousness few satirists do so well, include Dick Cheney in puffs of smoke explaining to Bush how the answer to all problems has always been Bombs Away!,  and  how poor Saddam Hussein moaning on the phone to Bin Laden about the stupidity of “rattling their cages”,  before skipping into a self-exculpating neo- G and S number.  Bin Laden meanwhile sings that there’s “only one thing I detest, the entire population of the west! So unrepressed!”. 

       I hope some bigger theatre gets the bottle to pick up Steve Brown’s production.  I also hope it picks up most of this cast, a shape-shifting ensemble with  brilliantly ramshackle fast-moving, physically sharp enthusiasm. Salute Charlie Baker’s Blair,   Howard Samuels’ entwining Mandelson, and Gary Trainor’s Brown, who keeps  appearing with trousers down explained by a plaintive “politics isn’t about image” .  

     Of course New Labour achieved useful things, as well as damaging politics and international honesty. Of course history moves on, and we’ve suffered the coalition austerities and Boris since (get to work, Hill and Brown!).  But for anyone over forty at least, this entertaining evening offers above all a real sense of gotta-laugh relief.  All together now “The whole wide world is run by assholes..”

Box office   parktheatre.co.uk   to 9 July    Sellout. Some tix released daily. Good luck.

Rating five

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PARADISE LOST caught at Thorington, touring

OF MAN’S FIRST DISOBEDIENCE….

 Thorington is a new outdoor theatre, a beautiful bomb-crater amid tall sighing pine trees and beneath a great oak in Suffolk.  It runs only one-night,  occasionally two-night shows through the summer so won’t be reviewed often here, but this show by “A Certain Demographic” (founded to give older actors space to work) has got half a dozen more tour dates,  so is worth noticing.   

    It’s a curiosity, one of those delightful sproutings now going around after the loss of two Edinburgh Fringes and a lot of lockdown frustration.    Ian Sharp’s words and Tim Sutton’s music are applied with merriment – but some decent reverence too – to the great rolling iambics of John Milton.  Indeed it is the closest modern thing you’ll see to the old Mummers’ Plays: less repsectful than the Mystery Plays,  more a matter of mixing in broad vernacular, jokes and characters from everyday life. 

        In medieval times that was rural life,  but here it is bang up to date here, when Bonny Ambrose’s striding Lucifer becomes a sleazy striped-jacket lifestyle salesman offering  “everything from mojitos to medium-range missiles”,  and tempts Claire Cheetham’s Eve with an electric hedge-trimmer while Chris Walshaw’s deliberately  tedious Adam,  cast as a sweet septuagenarian with flowing locks  forever naming animals and pruning,  is getting a bit of a bore. 

          There are some early problems in the mix:  after an introduction from an affable Gabriel (Ian Sharp, who outdoors rather needs a mic)  the ensemble , under excellent Eden trees made of umbrellas,  open the show with a song whose words we can’t quite catch and an uninspiring dance. So the heart sinks a bit.  It rises though,  the moment Lucifer strides on, rebelling against God – “Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers!!!… and Milton takes over as he falls from heaven to the pit of Hell.    

       Thereafter the balance is perfect, Milton’s words used when most needed,  balancing the nonsense.   Cheetham is a sweet -toned Eve, with a lovely song and real innocence as she gazes on her reflection and  meets her new Adam,  and becomes serious fun when the bite of apple turns her  raunchy.   There is a fine cabaret number from Candy Fern’s Sin, offering us everything original and dirty  (some audience flinched happily at her advances) and a second half double-act with her son, Death:  who Harry Petrie depicts with considerable energy as a slavering, hungry malevolent ragged halfwit . 

          Jesus,  arriving with final rebukes and promises and Milton’s own words,  is Euan Lynch, another fine singer .  In short, from 1667 to 2022,  the old story echoes as it should. 

TOUR DATES I can discover so far :

July 3rd – Baysgarth Park, Barton upon Humber – Shakespeare Festival – afternoon performance

July 9th – Broadbent Theatre, Halton Hall, Wragby – 2 performances, Matinee and evening.

July 10th – Epworth Rectory, Isle of Axholme – afternoon performance

July 16th Harpswell Gardens nr Lincoln – afternoon performance, possibly evening

July 17th – Scunthorpe Town Centre (Library & Art Gallery, under discussion TBC

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THE SOUTHBURY CHILD           Chichester Festival Theatre then Bridge

VIA MEDIA ANGLICANA IN A NEW JERUSALEM

      We’re in  a vicarage kitchen in a small West Country town,  its incumbent dealing with parishioners, a resentful, weary wife and two daughters: Susanna is a dutiful verger and schoolmistress,   adopted African-heritage Naomi a cynical unbeliever who has come home from a struggling acting career and likes to scandalize the town in her  “Lithuanian prostitute” outfits.    It isn’t easy being an Anglican parish  vicar in an age of dwindling respect and attendance  (a sharp essay in the programme is well worth reading).  On one side he faces angry  sentimentality and scorn from council-estate unbelievers,  whose resentment drives the plot; on the other a smugger middle-class yacht-club agnosticism.  The latter is beautifully encapsulated in the doctor’s wife, Hermione Gulliford in gilet and jeans,  shuddering at “that morbid business with the cross at Easter”  and saying that her friends got married in a crop circle  because these days people “aren’t afraid to define their key moments” without clerical assistance.

           It is a fine play, sharply written with some real  strong unexpected laughs and a heartstopping ending.  Its subtleties of character ask a great deal (not in vain) from the cast.   Nicholas Hytner, who takes it onward to his own Bridge in a few days,  once programmed Stephen Beresford’s subtle, mournfully Chekhovian debut  THE LAST OF THE HAUSSMANS at the National: he curates  this new one himself with thoughtful care.   It deserves it:  as a reflection on England (not Britain) Beresford’s  dry  observation and undercurrent of poetic yearning place the play fascinatingly alongside JERUSALEM, albeit with piquant differences of tone.  To me it feels like an equally important one: those who deny that will likely do so because of its gloriously unfashionable setting and hero. 

        That hero is David Highland,  evoked beautifully in every line and gesture by Alex Jennings:  a moth-eaten, visibly flawed Anglican vicar fighting not only the retreating tide of faith but his own drink habit, the shame of an aborted affair (“rules for vicars: don’t fuck the flock”),  and the rebukes of a pompous offstage Archdeacon (“Angry? We are never angry in the Church of England. We are “grieved’”.  Ouch).  His dry humour and humane warmth recognize absurdities but he holds to integrity in matters of ritual,  and the way that centuries of tradition have grown it to assuage and accept the deep terrible realities of death.  His best moment of the year is the “Blessing of the River” when the fishermen who live and work close to those realities do, just once every year,  respect the processional prayer he leads.  

        Liberal audiences may boggle when, as the first act develops, we learn which  particular hill David seems prepared to die on – or lose his living and his home on –  as the diocese sends a brisk young gay curate to sort him out.    The Southbury Child of the title has died from leukaemia, leaving a skinny waif of a single mother, Tina, and her brother the  rough-cut, troubled, vulnerably manipulative uncle Lee.  The family want the church full of balloons and Disneyiana – “a celebration of  her life”.  David refuses:   death is real and funerals are there to serve grief, not neutralize it.   “Death isn’t about Disney”. 

     “So so happy ending?” says Lee.

      “No EASY ending” says the clergyman.

         The row over balloons magnifies, all classes uniting against him: a babble of voices offstage between scenes and the arrival of the (beautifully drawn) pregnant local cop Joy suggest a potentially ugly denouement.  That doesn’t entirely happen, though with the assistance of the Book of Common Prayer  Alex Jennings’ final lines did make me actually cry,  all the way to the car park in the dusk.

           There are fine performances, sketched with lightning skill in short scenes: Racheal Ofori as red-hot Naomi and Jo Herbert as her dutiful sister  each test their difficult identities on Jack Greenlees’  wary curate, and the final appearance of the bereaved mother Tina is explosively moving.  Josh Finan’s Lee in particular is wonderful:  seething with hopeless underclass rage but with a real connection to the vicar in whose untidy kitchen he is seen either yielding to distress, shame or malice or simply dropping unforgettable philosophical theologies like “Why is there anything?”  and “If Henry the 8th had kept his cock in his tights, we’d all be Catholics anyway”. 

      This was Chichester.    I very much want to see this play again, at the Bridge, and feel around me an audience probably more urban, more smugly agnostic.  Will report.

cft.org.uk  to 25 June then in London bridgetheatre.co.uk  1 july-27 Aug

rating five

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ORLANDO Jermyn St theatre WC2

WOOLFING ROUND THE GENDER BEND

A bit of a conversion experience for me, this. Disliked Woolf for years, Lighthouse and Waves and all, and therefore never read Orlando. Thought of it as a bit of neurotic whimsical Bloomsbury myth-making – which is not entirely wrong, but failed to discover that it is really funny and sweetly more simple and less angsty than the rest. “a writer’s holiday”, as Woolf herself said..  

      And this jolly adaptation by Sarah Ruhl, directed con brio by Stella Powell-Jones, is a 90- minute treat and holiday too.  And whoever found Taylor McClaine – fresh outa Dublin, a professional debut – needs an ovation.  This is an  Orlando any Woolf would gobble up. 

.   For thekid – pronouns they/them, which is appropriate and less annoying than it often is – is enchanting: boyish and ladylike in turns, rocking  agelessly from the Elizabethan court through Jacobean, Enlightenment and Victorian cultures and costumes (Emily Stuart’s   costumes for Orlando in both sexes are sumptuous, the chorus parts outfits historically-wittily nuts). 

      The rest too  are a hoot:  Skye Hallam as Sasha nicely glamorous with a ridiculous Russian accent, and –  forever changing hats –  three others: Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright each with a physical comic edge and nimbleless in narrating and reacting that serve the tale beautifully.  It’s a squib, a jollity, but perfect in form. Good old Jermyn St.

Www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 28 May

Rating. Five

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OKLAHOMA Young Vic, SE1

A DARKER HAZE ON AMERICA’S  MEADOW

Traditionally, audiences don’t go to Oklahoma to be unsettled . On the other hand you don’t go to the Young Vic to have your expectations cosily met by a singalong, with the dark bits tastefully brushed over. This Broadway production, stripped down and  serious,  is full of fun but also astringently bracing and darkly sexy.  We are on three sides of a hall, wood from floor to roof:  a great tan background sketches the wide open spaces.  The front rows sit at long tables with crockpots and beer cans, around which chaps in chaps will soon be stamping, and ra-ra  skirts flouncing above your head. The small, club-scale  band plucks and tunes at one end. . All round the gallery walls are racks of rifles, a hundred of them, again on the pale tan wooden walls.  At first it feels like sitting inside a giant IKEA wardrobe. 

         But the cast are freed, wild. They approach the numbers as if they ,and we, had never heard them before, with many opportunities for percussive thigh-banging and stamping .  The story is taken as dangerously as any modem noir.   Marisha Wallace’ s Ado Annie is very funny , getting gales of laughter, but when the girl who cain’t say no confronts the chilly, virginally   uncertain Laurey  close up there is a real frisson of hostile mockery. As for Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, reprising his Broadway role) , his troubling story is often hurried through as a joke in cosier productions,  but this Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein production throws everything at it – a full blackout with the sound of Curly’s nasty baiting contempt,  then an onstage-camera projection of the victim’s huge troubled face on the backdrop. Jud’s  own words about solitude and  needing a woman have pathos, but make him disconcertingly a clear forerunner and exemplar of every lone  sex killer in the news.  It always was a weird, uncomfortable bit of the show and this production majors on it. 

         Still,  most of the long first half is a riot, the small cast vigorous and rackety and real: Anoushka Lucas sings marvellously as Lauren, and Arthur Darvill is a heartbreaker; grounded by Aunt Eller (a magnificently tart Liza Sadovy with beautiful timing), the young lark beautifully. And it is always a pleasure to see the perennially terrifying Greg Hicks scowling with a shotgun on his lap and menacing poor Will. 

    The second half opens with the dream ballet putting an even stronger emphasis on the sexual dilemma as an  alt-Laurey in a shimmering short tunic – Marie Mence- dances with acrobatic, liberated, cartwheeling erotic frenzy in a cloud of smoke, freed in dreams (not least, we are thinking by now, by the menacing lust of the alarming Jud). The hoedown at the box-social is of course rumbustious, but for some reason there is a real deceleration in the show’s pace, some too-long significant plonking dramatic silences.  The bidding scene is tense , and heavy in its suggestion of it being totally a sexual auction. The light relief of the pedlar and will with Ado Annie  is all the fun it should be and fun and the front row  (especially men) get a great deal of attention.  But the last thing I had expected of such a vigorous production is the feeling that grew that it is, to be honest, too long.   Dramatic pauses fail to hold.  When it reaches, after nearly three hours, the big Oklahoma number we still have the even more problematic fate of Jud to face.  Which  is not the self-defence killing of the original but,  with Jud’s new gentleness,   Curley’s shot,  and the community’s  hastily fudged acquittal,  it feels almost like  a statement about America’s pioneer greatness being based  on gun power, dodgy legality, and being no place for durned outsiders who don’t know their place. 

Www.youngvic.org.        To 25 June

Rating four . 

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THE BREACH Hampstead Theatre NW3

TEENS FALLING, UNPROTECTED 

   An empty basement in a working class Kentucky neighbourhood in the mid 70s.  An offstage adult world is preoccupied with unemployment,  the mained young conscripts back from of Vietnam and tricky-Dicky Nixon.  Down here  is a teenage kingdom,  and from the first moments its clear ruler is Jude:   just rising seventeen, going out to work as well as school to pay the electric bill before the lights go out again. She cooks meals her mother cannot cope with,  fiercely protects her younger brother Acton,  both of them grieving a father who fell from 14 storeys of scaffolding.   Shannon Tarbet’s Jude is  a marvel, every line of her thin body defiant as she makes sure to be as swaggeringly bravura and talk as dirty  as the lads her own age.  These are boastful rich-boy Hoke,  whose Dad will pull “strings” for him,   and oafish Frayne . 

       Jude is cutting a deal with them to use the basement as a sort of club, with ten dollars (from Hoke) involved but mainly in order to make them protectors – despite her disapproval – of  the clever 14-year-old Acton.  He’s an A-student who is horribly bullied at school but who helps with the big hunks’  coursework (Stanley Morgan is very touching in the role:, indeed ultimately heartbreaking: it’s a professional stage debut flawed only by the screen-naturalism which at times makes him less than properly audible. But that’s more the director’s fault than his). 

         Within twenty minutes we meet the older three again as adults, seventeen years later at a memorial to Acton. Whose life, we gather, was not good or prosperous despite all those As, and who had somehow lost touch with the sister who was his champion and protector.   There are conversations to be had about the past because  the teenage quartet’s  complicated world of  loyalty, hot neediness,  initial domination by Jude and consoling fantasy had moved inexorably towards something monstrous.    The fifteen minute event at the play’s core  is, in its teenage whisky-fuelled party- night “dare”  almost banal. But nonetheless,  monstrous. As adult Jude says near the end , the young think  they’re in control, can walk away from one bad thing but  “we’ve no idea of the size of the thing barrelling towards us, the incomprehensible momentum of it”. 

    Naomi Wallace’s new play gives that momentum an onward acceleration,  as the longer first half switches between the kids in the 1970s,  each scene revealing more of that summer, and the reunion in the 90s .   Hoke, inevitably, is an executive in a profitable healthcare corporation,  Frayne works for him, and the late Acton was evasively referred to as an “engineer” in the building, meaning handyman.   Despite all his straight-As.  Jude is a weekend  single mother whose daughter “lives with friends of mine”.  

        Something simmers between them.  In the flashbacks we find out how layers of betrayal and weird needy teenage ritual and swearings of friendship have damaged all four . Jude and Acton were damaged already in 1977: a sorrowful secret sibling rite is the “Falling game” where together they fantasise their father’s final moments as almost a triumphal superhero flight (Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction is superb).  Another touching ritual is their devotion to reading the Encyclopaedia,  whose subscription stopped at letter P when the family disaster struck.   

       In the adult scenes, Tom Lewis and  Douggie McMeekin are fine-tuned in emotional ambiguity as the men,  Jasmine Blackborow as adult Jud still, dignified,  her old fire now only smouldering.   The play is so elegantly tense its two hour exposition that I won’t reveal more.   Except to say that it plays a more honest, grim, ambiguous ethical tune than most current variations on its dark theme. 

      There are some good sour jokes, with Wallace’s American-born bitterness about health systems;   Hoke’s father’s health company has joked about calling it YANSAH – you are not sick, asshole! Or THATAB, Thats not a tumour its a bruise. And a wonderfully cynical angry comeback is his when Jude, for the only time, threatens to reveal exactly what happened at her seventeenth.  “It’s quite obvious”  orates Hoke, every inch the corporate man now,  “that you were and still are warped spiteful and of unsound mind – all of which, by the way, can be treated with medication…”

      Yes, quite a few US issues here. But the central one remains perennial, terrifying, universal and sorrowful:  the fragile tipping into disaster of teenage children unnoticed by adults.  

Hampsteadtheatre.com.   To 4 June

rating 4

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CHINESE BOXING Touring

A SCRUTABLE TAKE ON CHINA

    This is a beguiling  70-minute solo show from the actor, writer, wandering maverick entrepreneur  and China pundit Mark Kitto.  He plays three parts in sequence. First he is requiring us to visit the year 1912,  becoming a be-tweeded  Sir Claude Macdonald,  former Minister Plenipotentiary to Peking (as it then was called) with a silver-topped crane and lantern slides.  He is remembering the immense siege of the Legation during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion:   a populist uprising of resentful, anti-Christian bandits in which 2800 foreigners and locals survived 55 days in the diplomatic compound .   They lived, he cheerfully recalls,  on “horsemeat, rice and champagne” , the latter having lately been delivered.  

     Reflecting on the brutality of the Boxers, and demonstrating with an aged pistol how peasants were deceived into thinking their spirituality would make them invulnerable to bullets,  Sir Claude’s serious point is “We have got China wrong”.  He is condemning the Europeans’ harsh tendency of carving it up for profit over decades,  the Opium trade and shortsighted colonialism, and pointing out that foreign improvements – railways, churches, telegraphs – were always a mixed blessing to many.   The portrait of the siege itself is fascinating;  the insurgents creeping closer one barricade-brick at a time, and  at one point a letter from a later massacred child read out in her memory, the old man growing sentimental. 

      But then,  hobbling off,  he returns in the guise of Rong Lu, a sophisticated, weary Chinese commander in the Empress’ court.  He is ordered to send local soldiery alongside the Boxers,  but knows what a bad idea it is to massacre Europeans, and is deliberately taking it easy  – “Have you any idea how difficult it is NOT to win a one-side battle in 55 days?” .  Foul-mouthed, contemptuous, intelligent, this is the fascinating central character.  Irritatingly, some theatres won’t take the show on because a white man – however good his Mandarin and his knowledge = mustn’t impersonate a Chinese one.   Though heaven knows the Chinese commander is the brightest of the three.   

      Finally,  Kitto becomes a bemedalled sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,  remembering the relief of the Legation and the subsequent, wholly disgusting, looting by legation occupants themselves and military of various European nations  (“Russians and Japanese, like a bit of executing don’t they? And the Germans, destroyed whole villages which had somehow escaped the Boxers”. 

     China is complicated and always feels alien,  its individuals often estimable, its potential immense,  but its systems strange and seemingly terrible.  Especially right now, with the crazy zero-Covid lockdowns in Shanghai, the enslavement and abuse of Uighur Muslims and its troubling response to Ukraine.   Kitto  – who lived and founded a business there before  leaving and being “very very banned”,  does a q and a afterwards:  that is equally fascinating,  but he does not have any simple answers,  and nobody will.    Still,  this is a show to see  because these moments of history absolutely matter  as pieces in anyone’s mental jigsaw of our hyperconnected modern world.  

          The show is wandering around, sometimes in one-night stands like the one I found near Beccles in Suffolk.  One of our audience was a chap who, as a boy, knew one of the relief troops.  It’s not that long ago, not really.   Try and catch it. 

www.chineseboxing.co.uk     has tour details

rating four 

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THE CORN IS GREEN Lyttelton, SE1

VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS

      It is a curious feeling to be half charmed and half irritated by a production: one moment absorbed in a confrontation and engaged with a character, the next irritated by a gimmick of style. Dominic Cooke’s directorial decision is to hammer home the autobiographical nature of  Emlyn Williams’ powerful play, about a doughty bluestocking teacher starting a school for the ragged children of a 1920’s mining village.

       So we first see a Brylcreemed author in evening dress – Gareth David-Lloyd –  leaving a dance sweating, haunted by a  group of grimy-faced miners softly singing that most beautiful Welsh song Calon Lan.  He begins agonizing by a typewriter. And, to my increasing dismay, then hangs around narrating and delivering stage directions all through the act  like a film director, even with lights arranged at the side, while the cast bring on furnishings in a black-box space. He is building his past: fair enough, but he doesn’t half get in the way of it.

      The characters when allowed begin to enact the actual tale: the arrival of Miss Moffatt and her interaction with the dim local squire and mineowner, the frustrated flirty young Bessie and the stern Baptist Evans. She recruits  the latter two as teachers.   Enjoyment mounts, especially because Nicola Walker is fabulously posh-bossy and direct as the schoolmarm, and Rufus Wright comic and horribly credible as the Squire. The miners, always around, often hum or sing for a moment in heartbreaking harmony. Some become the pupils  learning. Battles are fought.

         But dammit, all the time the pesky author bustles about the stage with the same anxious hangdog expression, ordering the cast about and describing things .  Yet Williams is not Dylan Thomas, and the clunking memory-play idea  palls rapidly.  It is best when he fades into silent observation and the tale can properly catch fire – a splendid scene where Miss Moffatt bamboozles the squire into backing her pet scholar for an Oxford scholarship, and another when the scholar Morgan rebels against her English upper-middle saviourism.  And the characters who grow do so  well  – Walker explicitly, but more subtly, rather beautifully, there is development in Alice Orr-Ewing’s Miss Ronberry, a “surplus woman” of that post WW1 era suddenly finding usefulness and contentment.

    After the interval suddenly we have a full naturalistic set, blackboard and dresser and grandmother clock and all, and mercifully less direction from the author, still roaming about anxiously. The play’s dated quality shows itself with the inevitable one- night fling resulting in a potentially disastrous baby,  but the negotiations about everyones fate are deftly done, even if it does take the author to butt in.

     Theres a fine eloquent heartfelt moment when the lad  expresses the intellectual power and freedom he felt at his Oxford interview , and there is power in the argument over  the nature of duty. Its a hokum resolution, very JB Priestley,  but  in its 1930s terms it works (might watch the Bette Davis film now).   How the poorest get educated and enabled to rise in the world is, after all, still a hot topic today.  And the miners’ songs and hums are very beautiful.

Nationaltheatre.org.uk.  To 11 June 

Rating three

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MARYS SEACOLE. Donmar, WC2


NURSING ACROSS CONTINENTS

     Kayla Meikle, stalwart in Victorian dignity and Caribbean matriarchy, addresses us firmly at the start of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s manic, sometimes  chaotic play about the Jamaican Creole nurse, “doctress”  and hotelier, who in Victorian times tended cholera victims, travelled to America and later to the Crimea. She met Florence Nightingale only once for about five minutes, and spoke admiringly of her, but in recent times it has been – for understandable sociopolitical reasons – modish to set them up as rivals. One was posh and white and educated and revered by uppercrust Britain, the other black (albeit proud of her Scottish blood which she often mentions), and taught her doctoring by a traditional Jamaican mother. She was never officially on the strength as a nurse with the British army, but earned a living as a provisioner and hostess for officers as well as aiding wounded soldiers. 

     But  inevitably, given the contrast, this play joyfully gives us interludes of Nightingale scoffing at Mary, alongside other white  “Karens” down the ages who disrespect her. It’s  a time-travelling series of scenes where black female nurses and carers get devalued or patronised.

     So far, so polemic. But it is good polemic, lively and engaging (though it badly needs a trim, and  director Nadia Latif is far too indulgent to long static conversations). And the point is well made: many a woman of colour tends white invalids, elderly parents  and children while sorrowfully kept far from her own. The  money is still mostly in soft white hands, the blisters on black ones . And Seacole was a hell of an individual in anyone’s terms. 

     So it begins with Meikle delivering a witty, whistlestop account of Seacole’s childhood , unquenchable energy, total self belief and – not least –  passion for travelling to new scenes and being in camp  (the set is a series of curtains with envelopes and zips, half tent half hospital).  Then in a quick change onstage she becomes a modern care home nurse, while a fussy middle aged white daughter and fed up granndaughter try to engage with a seemingly comatose granny. Who, of course, only comes to life when the brisk cheerful nurses – Meikle and Deja J Bowens – arrive to feed and clean her. In a later sketch the two nurses – one a nanny, her own child an ocean away –  are being patronized by a whiney white American woman who just looooves Jamaica on holiday  and had some actual “ethnic food” and heard reggae there. Eyes roll.  

     And so on, until the long, climactic, dramatically screaming bloodbath of the Crimea (lots of bloodied torsos and random heads) .   “I am more of a mother to these men than their mothers in England!” she cries, and all the ghosts and echoes of the earlier encounters reappear, as do Mary’s own mother-issues . The old mother then gives a lecture on the “fiction of a merit based society” in the West where “they need us but don’t want us”.  

        And its a good argument, and true, and anyone who has had a baby in hospital, a parent in a care home or been tended themselves  with  Caribbean humour, gentleness and tolerance  will find their heart go out lovingly to the Mary portrayed by Kayla Meikle.  The supporting cast are a treat too, Llewella Gideon and, as the white women, Esther Smith, Olivia Williams and Susan Wooldridge. All three are expert shape-changers. 

     The content-advisory, by the way, mentions “Strong language,Partial nudity,Blood, guts and gore, Dementia, Defecation, Euthanasia,Strobe lighting, Vomiting, Gunshot and cannon fire, Warzone simulation, Childbirth and Alcohol use” But hey, that’s nursing for you! 

Donmarwarehouse.com to 4 june

Rating.   Four, just!

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MIDDLE Dorfman, SE1

IN THE MIDDLE OF LIFE’S JOURNEY..THROW A PLATE OR TWO

     Ah, middle age! Waists spreading outwards, options  contracting, marriage all too familiar, parents getting older fast and children taking their time about it. Media culture nags you, especially if you’re a woman, to be your best, cultivate peak “wellness” and treat your “mental health” like a Ming vase.  And just as the nation becomes fixated on the idea of menopause as a living nightmare ,and all women of a dignified age  doomed without chemicals , along comes clever David Eldridge with this two-hander.

     It opens at 430 am in a six-bedroom Essex house, with Maggie in her nightie informing poor Gary (who has only got up for a piss) that she doesn’t love him any more. Various clues are in the programme if you can face it: essays on male workaholism and stress, the isolation of new Mums, and marriages going stale.  On cue, , once Barry has got his bearings a bit Magggie explains further: she doesn’t really  get on with their 8 year old daughter, suffered agonies of loneliness in five years as a full time Mum since she was bored by all the other Mums . Going back to work hasn’t helped much because she once dreamed, after “uni”, of a job in telly or film, and her friend got to be a Carlton TV runner and she just went into HR but “I am so much more than that”.  Oh,, and by the way, she didnt enjoy that Valentine weekend they just had, or the two bouts of sex. News which upsets Gary almost as much as the dearth of her love. He thought it was a good weekend.

      Eldridge is an accomplished writer, and both actors are magnificent:  Claire Rushbrook with her broad handsome sorrowful face and Daniel Ryan stocky and steady, a slightly geezerish city-boy feeling his age and adoring his little princess of a daughter. She – it transpires – has always felt herself a cut above him, cuddly though he is, because she grew up in a house with Radio 4, whereas he had a crowded council house and Dad on the bins. Now it seems she has met a soulmate called John, albeit still chastely, with whom she can talk and talk: John listens to Classic FM and has “read all the books on the William Hill sports book of the year shortlist… He’s from Royal Tunbridge Wells!”.   The actual husbandly crockery smashing occurs (it’s only pottery, and he sweeps up afterwards) because she breaks the news that she made John a cup of tea in the house while Gary was out and John touched a golf club – “He had  – a swing with my sand iron???!!” 

      The hilarity that meets this  – and other lines denoting middle-Essex aspiration – sometimes made me seriously uncomfortable, in a way that occurs when an NT Dorfman two-hander audience giggles at people unlikely to go to an NT Dorfman two-hander (I am the lone critic who found London Road  unbearably patronizing).   

      And that feeling is a shame, because Polly Findlay’s direction is deft and swift, and purely as individuals both characters, as played here, are heartbreakingly real.  Her discontents are common ones, her failure to take a grip on them and separate fantasy from commonsense and inventiveness with her life is maddening but sympathetic.  Ryan’s Gary is absolutely magnificent in his depiction of man as seemingly a simpler organism than woman, one who can live for the moment on his small family pleasures and getting the crackling right on the pork dinner he cooks. But a final admission that he is in the doldrums too is a showstopping cry of sincerity. “I’m lonely. I’m bored. I feel shit about myself.  And it takes a lot of bollocks to admit that”. 

         So it’s interesting, and I would have liked to see these same characters, and same actors, in a play with more event and jeopardy. The sort of situation Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams – or indeed a good TV soap – might have put them in. It is a sketch, a watercolour on the landing of middle life:  sensitive, accomplished  but not likely to stop you in your tracks. 

Www.nationaltheatre.org.uk     To 18 june

Rating three

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PRIMA FACIE Harold Pinter Theatre, WC1

SEXUAL ASSAULT , HARD LAW, AND AN ASTONING WEST END DEBUT

   Forget the cold sadistic clotheshorse Vilanelle from Killing Eve.  Actually, forget all Jodie Comer’s screen awards.  This extraordinary West End stage debut reveals not only strong vocal skill (something not universal in those best known onscreen) but an absolutely dazzling physical expressiveness and  high-voltage emotional power.  It feels as if she has been  pulling houses to their feet for decades –  utterly in charge in a mesmerising solo tour-de-force that never flags in 95 minutes. Vivid and vigorous, judged to a hair, and – for all the profound and shattered emotion of its climax – crackling with her native Liverpudlian wit, she is a phenomenon.   

        Moreover, Suzie Miller’s play is  one of the most important we shall see this decade.  It takes on the most troubling of gulfs:   the abyss in our culture between legal systems and safeguards for the innocent, and the difficulty of successfully prosecuting rape  in an age that licenses and celebrates the impetuous hook-up.   

      The legal term of the title translates as “At first sight”, meaning what seems believable to anyone witnessing it.  Our heroine is a barrister, seven years in practice.  Coming from working-class roots she revels in her sheer skill at the game of law.   As the play opens Comer,  against pale neat walls of case-files stretching to the roof, leaps on and off leatherbound  tables in chambers and expresses , with gestures and imitations and wily wit,  the professional delight of winning a case.  It becomes clear that she is getting a name for defending men accused of sexual assault.  

    There are flashbacks to her beginnings, self-doubting amid the poshos in law school,  visits to her office-cleaner Mum in Liverpool,  but the focus is on her achievement now. Forget the nerdy corporate lawyers, she likes the hard human battles.  “Got two sexual assaults – I”ll get ’em off – one has PTSD from Afghanistan – “.  Her glee draws you to her point of view for a while, arguing that even if the guy was guilty,  it is just her lawyerly job to tell his story well. The law of course pivots, terrifyingly,  on whether a man “believed” there was consent.  

         Then she has a happy hookup in the office with her colleague Julian, and after a successful dinner date takes him home, and they make love. But she is drunk.  So drunk the sake gets to her and she vomits, feeling weak and dreadful. And he carries her back to bed, apparently caringly, but moments later the rape takes place.  Comer’s skill is almost horrifying as without shedding a stitch she shows us how it was: held down, in pain, confused.   In an extraordinary scene she throws on a dress from the spare room, unable to face him again, and runs out into real sluicing rain in a dark stage. The comforting tidy familiar walls of legal filing have vanished (Buether’s set as ever plays a key atmospheric role).   

    We see the police interview, its tone, its uselessness, the horror of the fact that as she tells her pain and confusion the man is still asleep in her flat.  Professional instinct tells her “this is a losing case”.  

       Above, words saying DAY 1 make us expect to spring, as a TV drama would, straight to the court. But then it rolls on to Day 782.  Because in Britain now, that is about what victims have to  expect.  Two years of misery, self-reproach, awkwardness,  reproof on behalf of Julian “who is a good guy, does a lot of pro bono”.  

     Finally in court, the scene of her old triumphs suddenly an unfamiliar lonely place ,  she is in the witness box.   Intellectually she knows she is being “reeled in” by an artful defence counsel just as she once reeled them in. But  “This is me.  A system I devoted my life to is called upon, by me..”.  

     It fails. They often do.  In cases like this we can only marvel at the courage women find to carry on.  Both were drunk, both enthusiastically consensual partners on the same night…nobody else there, no marks of violence.  So two years later that she must argue about every action, every body part’s position…  

      Philosophically, legally, she finds her professional voice again to argue – in a final coda more politically passionate than strictly dramatic – that something must change in such cases.  Is this demand for detailed consistent recall by a harmed victim of two years before “really the litmus test of credibility?”  

       It is a remarkable and useful play. But what brings it to life is that truly  astonishing performance.  TV and film will line up to recruit Comer, but that wooden stage , sharing breath with a riveted silent throng in the dark, is where she belongs. She is astounding.

Box office http://www.atgtickets.com.   To 18 June. You might JUST be lucky to get one

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BARRY HUMPHRIES ; THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK Touring towards London

HALF A CENTURY OF HAPPY MISCHIEF

Full disclosure: I have been following this man around for the best part of 50 years. Went with my brother Mike to his first show, Housewife Superstar, at the Apollo in the 70s, drawn as fans of his Private Eye cartoon strip.  Stalls tickets severely denting a first job wage,  we stood with the gladioli Edna Everage had hurled,  to obey the final command “Tremble your gladdies!”. We went to every London show since, including the Last Night of the Poms at the Albert Hall where we lustily sang her anthem “Why do we love Australia?”.  Trembled in fear  many times as Edna strafed the front stalls with audience-participation moments. Saw  the Palladium “farewell”, all of nine years ago ( https://theatrecat.com/tag/eat-pray-laugh/) ,  and the non-Edna show about Weimar music ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/26/barry-humphries-weimar-cabaret-barbican/.

       Oh, and there was an unforgettable 2011 panto debut in which Edna flew across the auditorium on a giant possum. . 

 So here I am at Humphries’ feet again. He is 88, five shows in to a 27-date tour:  this time he is presented as himself,  the trickiest character of all.  Grandfatherly in a velvet jacket, he is joined only by Ben Dawson at the piano to play some  nostalgic snatches to move the mood on (though the pianist, clearly the New Madge, is seen in a pinny hoovering and dusting the stage as we settle down. Just one of those Barry gags). 

     He is here to tell us his life story, or tantalizing bits of it. Old photographs in a gilt frame above him pepper the first half: childhood in genteel Melbourne,  misdemeanours, first moments on stage , a shy Orsino embarrassed by his tights,  a  Coward hero disastrously drying mid scene.  Glimpses of his mother as “mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”, and the multiple aunts and lady mayoresses on smalltown tours who all, somehow, collectively became Edna. He speaks of misjudged performances, arcane acting tips  picked up and the comedian’s rule:    as with a skidding car, when disastrous embarrassment or offence looms because you misread someone, just “steer straight into it!”.  Making it worse might make it better. Less brave comics might learn from that.  

    Unease at Australian success made him “need obscurity and total neglect”.  Finding it in London he got work, as actor and cartoonist,   but also in the ‘60s hit the bottle and spent time in a secure “hospital for thirsty people”. 

         Waves of affection lap around him, the laughs  skilfully provoked during apparently meandering departures or brief conversations with the front row. And they are good laughs, professional:  because as he remarks in one of the few bitchy  comments, nowadays comedians ” don’t have to be funny. You  just have to identify as funny”. Ouch. 

    The second half explodes into some video of Edna in her pride, leading a singalong in the RAH and in a series of interview and talk-show moments over decades.  These include, with a historical frisson, a young Trump and a midcareer Boris Johnson talking rubbish about reclaiming Aquitaine and Burgundy, and being patronized as someone unable to learn from his own mistakes. Ouch again. 

         A passage of Edna condemning the “sick” habit of “female impersonation” by Barry strikes a refreshingly  gender-critical note.  We see him with Charles and Camilla and  Elton and have  commentary on it all from the man himself. There is a  modest,oddly decent acknowledgement  former alcoholism and the weight of it on others, and of being too grandiose to go to AA at first “because it was free”. 

     That leads to  a moment that shakes you out of comedy and into something greater:  the realization 53 years ago when he finally “put the cork in the bottle”,  that without it he was happy.    Just happy. And still is. 

   And looking back on all the years of fandom, I saw that this is why so many of us stuck with him, and will until the terrible day when he has to go.  Through Edna’s divine appallingness and patronising insults, Les Paterson’s vintage disgustingness and  every moment onstage and screen , this was why we wave our gladioli in fealty.  Like another legendary comic,  it is pure   happiness he stands for and spreads. And we rise to our feet for that.

www.manbehindthemask.co.uk. Touring UK, a dozen more dates, including a new one at   the Gielgud Theatre on Sunday June 12

out of lifelong gratitude

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HENRY VI REBELLION: and THE WARS OF THE ROSES Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

NOW THE TWO PLAYS TOGETHER

  1. HENRY VI: REBELLION.       

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

and now –  

PART 2 – SEPARATE PLAY, BOOKED SEPARATELY BUT FOLLOWS ON: THE WARS OF THE ROSES    

     The two plays (made from the original three part Henry VI set) each stand alone, but if you have seen the first – above – there is pleasure in meeting many of them again,   and in addition the ominous figure of York’s youngest son,   one day to be Richard III.   The casting of Arthur Hughes – who in real life has a shortened and deformed arm – attracted some attention as disability-casting, because he will be Richard III here later in the year . But so far it is no tokenism:  he deploys a playful quality, an impish nastiness which makes me much look forward to Greg Doran’s production later this summer.   

     As to this second play (H VI was originally three plays, remember, and the RSC has neatly split it into these two ,  it is far more battle-heavy: brawling blokes from the start, sons avenging fathers and fathers their sons,  heavy clanging swords,  cut-off heads thrown and abused as well as put on sticks.  There are moments when unless you are an aficionado of stage fighting you may feel a bit sated,   and if the RSC went in for trigger warnings it would have taken up half the programme, what with the truly nasty murder of a terrified child Rutland (York’s son) and almost equally unpleasant stabbings throughout. 

       But whenever that happens we come to some tremendous, character-driven face-off :  gentle Henry knighting his son, saying “learn this lesson, draw thy sword in right” (some hopes, in this play).   Or  Minnie Gale as the Queen even more poisonous than before in a breastplate and skirt,  taunting the captured York with a cloth dipped in his son’s blood, pulling it from her garter to do so;  spurts of mutual hatred between them, making even the Queen momentarily flinch, doubled up at a holy curse.  It is thrilling, as the young Shakespeare feels his poetic power and sense of drama evolving by the line. Or there’s York himself earlier, lounging on the throne forcing Quartley’s even more endearingly nice King Henry to disinherit his son.       Feral metaphors spring up: the monarch a “trembling lamb environed by wolves”,  York as a bear savaged by dogs.  

            It’s high-quality melodrama: there are odd almost farcical interludes among the bloodshed –   Paola Dionisotti’s Exeter amusingly politic in a shrug about the succession;   Henry in his Scottish exile with a couple of disbelieving hooded locals,  flinging off his cloak and departing nude  (Quartley’s performance has by  now made us all very much on his side: not a heroic monarch but a sweet lad). And there’s a  directly funny scene when Warwick goes to France (Richard Cant a rather camp King Louis) to sue for a royal marriage for the new  King Edward, old York’s son –   only to change sides  in a huff when betrayed by the fact that York has already married.  

     More use is made in this half of the roaming camera onstage showing huge monochrome closeups on the screen above :  it works, absolutely, surprisingly to me who is usually a bit irritated by such stuff.  And young York,  our future Richard III,  gets to borrow a speech or two from his own eponymous play, which is neat and gets its own round of applause.  

box office rsc.org.uk to 4 Jun

rating four

BUT  – A JOINT RATING FOR THE TWO- BECAUSE SEEING THEM ONE AFTER ANOTHER IS A GREAT BUZZ –  IS   5 MICE IF YOU MAKE IT THROUGH BOTH:

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HENRY VI: REBELLION.        Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford u-Avon

ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN

      We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead,  his stripling son married to  pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester.  Who is, of course,  resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.  

     The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti)  is clearly up to no good;  the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated  the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses,    and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife  Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting,  in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth,  for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize  power.  

      Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied  – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant,  and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace.  Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…

     Luckily,  this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen,  as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate.  She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall)  and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).  

And don’t accuse me of spoilers:  for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act:   haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a  ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell.  All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.  

     For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play.  Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next)  is  accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen,  up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group.  This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.  

     So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead.  It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.

       But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork  – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play,  with  the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for  ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents.  In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence,  torn pages rain down from the heights.  This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows? 

        But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph.  Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text,  clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And  – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh  up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings.  I enjoyed it.

Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may

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JERUSALEM REVIVED: REFLECTIONS

DO WE STILL LOVE ROOSTER?

   So it’s back, another St George’s day before a west country village fair.   Twelve years on from Jez Butterworth’s glorious shock-troop assault on metropolitan sensibilities we welcome back Ultz’s woodland glade and knackered caravan,  and surf along with Ian Rickson’s bravura direction.  Here once more are the  council officials slapping an enforcement notice on the rave wreckage and the filthy sofafull of hungover teens .  Here is the court of Johnny Rooster Byron.

       And Mark Rylance is back, twelve years after his first handstand dive into the water-butt I am happy to report that he still executes it with undimmed vigour, deftly another egg into a disgusting hangover-cure, mixes it  in his atrocious trousers’ and necks it before embarking on a dozen crazy yarns  and archaic bucolic-alcoholic spiritualities,  whether about giants walking or Nigerian traffic wardens kidnapping him.     Around him return four veterans of the 2010 run: Mackenzie Crook is once more the aspiring DJ and unemployed plasterer, Ginger,  Alan David the “Professor”, vague but prophetic pet distressed-gent of the rowdying teens,  and Gerard Horan as the pub landlord forced into spoless Morris gear for the brewery’s  publicity .  

           The rants, the vigour, the laughs, the shock are all there, and the undercurrent of anger at modernity’s callous uniformities (Davey’ s speech about his abattoir job, and Lee’s hopeless dream of emigration, both hit as hard as they did even before the Osborne austerity years)

      .  This is no review – no idea if there is even a press night,  I booked the day it was announced and the run is sold out already.  But it is  a reflection. In 2018  I saw the Watermill’s fine revival with Jasper Britton.  I had wanted to see if the play worked without the magic Mr  Rylance, and whether it had a new taste after the Brexit vote. Yes in both  cases. ( https://theatrecat.com/2018/07/07/jerusalem-watermill-nr-newbury/)  

        Now, on the far side of the pandemic, there’s another  new flavour which proves how well the play will endure as a classic.  One becomes aware of the altered palate of national taste after MeToo (it’s a very macho play, male predation taken for granted. Not all the shag-jokes got a warm response).  But more than that,  we have over two years been cabin’d and confined by regulations and jobsworth enforcers,  banned for months of restless springs from what the rural teens call “Gatherings”.    Would we, I wondered, feel that we are all Rooster Byron now? Angrily festive, heedless of health and law, rebels asserting our damaged individuality by breaking all social rules for liberty? 

         Oddly,  for me the opposite sense  kept rising in the first half. Rooster Byron is a classic Lord of Misrule:  a  charismatic, amusing, hedonistic, dishevelled , insouciant law-breaker with a preference for younger women over the tedious duties of family.     And I kept thinking “hang on!  We’ve GOT  one of those, in Downing Street. And we’re liking it less and less…”

       Hadn’t expected that feeling: interesting. Boris as a genteel Rooster, though more Bullingdon-and-Spectator than pig-killing and pub fracas.   But however you come out of it, it remains  a hell of a show.  Might as well exorcise our national weakness for wild, irresponsible, disorderly charisma in a theatre: better than doing it in than a ballot box.

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THE 47th Old Vic SE1

THE ORANGE MONSTER RIDES AGAIN

  The first thing to say is what everyone has said:  that Bertie Carvel as Donald Trump is magnificent. Eerily so,  capturing not only the ex-President’s showmanship, the gestures and unwholesomely needy yet threatening charm – gosh he is funny at times! –   but moving beyond caricature into something devilishly close to possession. At least if, like me in one of the too-close cheap stalls, you are near enough to field his stray golf-ball in the opening scene.  He also gives it just a tiny edge of camp, which I had not noticed in the real Trump but now,  looking back at old newsreels,  realise was always there. So this is Carvel’s show: the man who was both Murdoch in INK and the original Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.  May he be many other villains, up to and including Lear.   

        The premise of the play is that Biden’s term is ending,  the aged President himself losing it (a remarkable sleepwalking scene, one of the many Shakespearian echoes).  He hands over to Kamala Harris,  played with gripping sincerity by,  who in her confrontations with the Donald, who is attempting re-election,  grows in stature satisfyingly  through the play , as it accelerates from a frankly too slow opening half-hour.  Kamala grows in the later scenes into gritty liberal determination and moral struggle, after  being mansplained into silence in a TV debate – he walks out, having set his ghastly militia to fireworks and mayhem outside and crying  “ Don’t let them tell you what to do, OK?“  

 So Tunie is a treat,  and so is Lydia Wilson as Ivanka,   the Cordelia-substitute in his first Lear-like division of deputy powers.   She turns out, no spoilers,  to be far cannier and far more ruthless than her drippy brothers,   and to hold, rather horribly, the solution to Trump the Father himself.  As for spectacle,  enlivening a play about political ideas and the limits of political morality, the solution as so often is in the hands of director Rupert Goold and designer Miriam Buether.  Indeed the two young Americans next to me were wincing heavily (“I’m scared now”) at the explosion of violence when the first half hots up,  and there is a very nasty ritual dance of threat  around Joss Carter as that man in the facepaint and horns from the Capitol siege,  taunting a “MSM” mainstream media reporter to speak their “truth” on video: “Say it – cheating Hillary, murdering husband, stole election, vaccine!”

I have to admit I was a bit of an outlier , a sceptic. about Mike Bartlett’s first foray into Shakespearian iambic-pentameter and artful echoes in his play Charles III.  I  found the blank verse monotonous and the characters unbelievable – with the exception of one splendid onlooker who defined how strange Britain will feel, how disconnected and lost,  when the Queen dies.  Nor did I much like the veiled ghost of Diana: it all felt a bit too parasitically Tina-Brown-explains-the-royals for my taste.  But it was a great success,  and here,  with deliberate echoes of Shakespeare tragedies of more purport – the two Richards, Macbeth, and certainly Lear – there is more meat, more meaning, more threat and more thoughtfulness.   It goes from a slow start to accelerate nicely. The  the laboured iambics sometimes work well , because the five-foot line is a natural English language emphasis  (“You democratic motherfucking cunts!” Cries Trump).     But they also sometimes make the dialogue,  or speeches,  feel artificial. But it’s a novelty, a brilliant central performance, certainly one to see.

oldvictheatre.com.   to 29 May

Rating four 

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DIARY OF A SOMEBODY Seven Dials Playhouse W1

THE LOST BOYS OF THEATRE…

   The  tiny Actors’ Centre is reborn under its new name, and since this play is set in what was a  traditionally febrile, theatrical, subversively arty quarter in the 50s and 60s  before it got chichi, it’s a good place to remember Joe Orton and his killing by his suicidal, depressedly angry partner Kenneth Halliwell.  John Lahr’s painstaking and sympathetic work on his diaries and interviews with those who knew him is more famously a book and film (“Prick Up Your Ears”). But there is special power in this staging: two men and a versatile set of four actors playing everyone else,  around a basic bedsit and a wall of Halliwell’s collages.  For all the merriment of Orton’s pitiless verbal observation (which gives the ensemble plenty to work with) it is as wrenchingly sad as it ought to be. 

    In the first scenes George Kemp as Orton is eager:  a new Londoner escaped from a dull Leicester home to RADA and a Gower St bedsit, casually mentioning someone called Kenneth – 7 years older, posher, not easy to understand – in the background. Then thirteen years on he is a feted playwright, delighted with himself, and even more delighted with his dick and his crazy-obsessive promiscuous linkups in random streets, Holloway pissoirs and trips to Tangier for “hash and bum”. Meanwhile Halliwell is ever more morose, jealous and frustrated by his beloved’s hedonism “your definition of a man is a life support system for a penis”.  Also,  most corrosive of all, Ken  is convinced that he alone has the credit for all that Orton is and all hewrites.  The misery of  jealousy in a partnership of unequal success and fame is timeless, whatever the sexuality. Many wives and husbands know it well.

    Soon they both make you cringe: Halliwell at his spiralling unhappiness, and Orton at his vanity and, frankly, paedophilia: it used to be a giggly gay pursiit both upmarket and down, arty westerners travelling to a poorer country to pay Muslim boys, often underage, for sex. There is darkness on Orton’s  irritation that in England  he cant just grab a friend’s pretty son and take him home to be raped. But these were the gay dark ages before full  social acceptability (it was only just legal before Orton was murdered) yet well before AIDS.   It spawned  a gay male culture too often unhappy, angry, uncaring and emotionally inhumane. We  do not properly remember Orton the boyish mischief maker s d brilliant, disciplined  comic playwright without remembering that.

    You begin to see Halliwell too as one of that culture’s saddest victims (Toby Osmond is superb, holding the pain visible to the point that his amiable grin at the curtain call is a relief). But the vigour of the staging, and fine performances, leave you exhilarated as well as sad.

sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk to 30 April

rating three

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“DADDY”



QUEER AS FOLK BY THE INFINITY POOL

Jeremy O Harris is a much feted American playwright (a Tony for Slave Play) adept at drilling in to the moment:  BLM, fashionable white guilt, showy theatricality and retro-intellectual themes like this play’s deliberate reference to Hockney’s 1960’s  A Bigger Splash. And, the programme assures us,  the cult of the male body in the post-coldwar years and   “the queer gaze in modern American history”.   He specifies an infinity pool on stage, and  a Palm Beach mansion with glass walls and lots of challenging modern art in view. . 

    So here it is, with a beautiful very young black man – Terique Jarrett  – stepping out of the water in Speedos. And soon, for the benefit of an older white man who worships  his “Naomi-Campbell”  legs, stepping equally gracefully out of the Speedos.   The boy from the wrong side of the tracks,  Franklin,  isn’t just a pickup, of course. They speak of art ,because he is an aspiring artist with a show coming. Claes Bang’s Andre, the swooningly keen and apparently English  homeowner, is a collector.  A brief  moment of dignity for the lad  comes when he is sent to look at another room and, rightly, appalled that there is a whole roomful of Basquiats, crassly all together  (I found myself nostalgic for the Young Vic’s far more engaging and intelligent Basquiat link in The Collaboration-   https://theatrecat.com/2022/02/25/the-collaboration-young-vic-se1/)

      Anyway, Franklin is seduced, it seems for his  first time and not with total delight,  by Andre, who enjoins a bit of spanking, a “yes sir” response, and indeed “Yes Daddy” . It’s  all a bit  Harvey Weinstein , since the problem of young  bodies bought by rich old creeps with  flash houses and artistic influence applies to all sexualities.  Add to that the author’s contempt for black Christian tradition, in the comedic use of a three-woman gospel choir and.. well..it would have to be a good and gripping play to score.

  It isn’t. As it’s  is billed as “a Faustian melodrama of the soul” one hopes for a sticky end  for Andre and a bit of a proper plot, but alas as part 1 ends the  gospel choir is led by him in a crazed chorus in the pool , splashing the front rows as he leads them in “I will be your father figure, I will be your teacher preacher”. The mainly white audience claps and whoops along and I get really uncomfortable, because Jarrett   is a good enough actor to convey a lot of distress, puzzlement and anxious ambition. Though the director’s desire for tv-type naturalism does tend to mean that some of the pair’s conversations are borderline inaudible.

   The second half at least gives more scope to an excellent Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother, who disapproves of the whole thing, and then it hauls in the question of missing black fathers (it seems, she says,  that they give up because they see how dark the future is for their sons). She is a bright spot in an otherwise overlong, ill-conceived and pretentious evening, as are the comic poolside moments of Jenny Rainsford as a ghastly galleriste,  a selfie-crazed Bellamy (Ioanna Kimbook).  and Franklin’s best friend Max. I asked a black American friend later about the Broadway fame and applause for Harris’ work and he replied that he hated it ,and that the writer’s main fans were “intellectual wokey whiteys”. A description so layered with eyerolling contempt it took my breath away.

Almeida.co.uk to 30 April

Rating two

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THE FEVER SYNDROME Hampstead Theatre NW3

SCIENCE, SIBLINGS, SOUND AND FURY 

   This is a satisfying play.  To take a painting analogy, it satisfies not in the way that a perfect still-life vase might, but more like a Kandinsky or Miro: wild streaks of colour, apparently random blobs,  intriguing shapes and blurs all resolving into something thrilling to look at.   Some may consider it a bit thematically crowded,  greedily bagging a whole seasons’-worth of anxious playwrights’ themes:   stepfamily and sibling issues, gene-editing and fertility, carers’ fatigue, terminal illness, patriarchy, gay parenthood, the politics of research-funding, Sarah Palin, Christian extremism, academic  plagiarism, money, housing, Japanese knotweed, goats. American regions and their faint contempt for one another,  and  a bit of househusband- resentment. All that plus a streak of crypto-Oedipal desire and  a few lines about cryptocurrency.

     Too much?   Not for me. I found Alexis Zegerman’s new play exhilarating, credible and suddenly deeply moving in its final catharsis (the last few minutes have two catharses and a disastrous revelation).   Lisa Dillon cradles  her sick child as if in a modern Pieta,  with a perfectly grouped family shape bent around her all for once listening to the old man speaking (tranquilly for once) of miracles. Add to that the fact that it is often painfully funny, with sharp American west-coast wit and a blast of Tom Lehrer, and I left very happy.

       Framing the pattern is the family’s head, the  fictional Professor Richard Myers who is a  biomedical genius and (alongside the real,mentioned, Steptoe and Edwards) a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  Last time I saw Robert Lindsay onstage he was tipping his hat rakishly and shuffling a shoe in Anything Goes: now he is struggling to control the disease’s shaking, furiously resisting a wheelchair, and being spoon-fed by his younger third wife Meghan (Alexandra Gilbreath, every move showing anxious exhaustion).  They are still in the family home,   vast New York brownstone on the park which we see as a  three-tier cutout, peeling wallpaper and all,  its many rooms enabling small , economical filmic scenes between the various family members.  In  the last moments  it even reveals it has an attic and a cellar.  

    Lisa Dillon as Dot, the eldest sibling, wants her father and disliked stepmother to do the sensible thing and live somewhere “appropriate”, but she also is rackingly desperate that it  should provide a trust fund for her daughter, who has the dangerous autoimmune disease of the play’s title.  Her twin brothers, triumphs of the father’s IVF technology, are chalk and cheese: Thomas is a gay artist with lines like “I’ve spent a lot of money in analysis to be able to say this”, and has has brought along an exasperated pragmatic MidWest partner, Philip.  Anthony is a swaggering Californian entrepreneur who makes all but one of the party laugh: Alex Waldmann and Sam Marks play beautifully against each other.  The one who doesn’t laugh is Nate, husband of  Dot, who embarrassingly was disgraced for academic plagiarism, and has trouble with his more successful science-journalist wife as well as with her obsessive anxiety about their daughter.  All these people – except Philip the wary newcomer to the crabby family scene – need something from Professor Richard. 

           Robert Lindsay,  the powerful figure of the Professor, is stunningly good, both in his alarming temper and impatience (Thomas recalls his frightening heavy footsteps from childhood) and in moments of vulnerability. Once,  early on when we mainly think him a troublesome stubborn gargoyle of an invalid,  he turns his head suddenly to cradle his wife’s hand on his neck.  He rants politically about the status of embryo research and its opponents – “I certainly did NOT unravel the fabric of American society!”   Without authorly anger or agenda, and under the elegant direction of Roxana Silbert,  in just under three enjoyable hours it lays before us the hundred messinesses of a 21st century family feeling its way to resolution. And for me that itself is a resolution. 

Hampsteadtheatre.com to 30 April

Rating.  Five. 

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PINAFORE Wilton’s Music Hall, E1

CAMPING ON THE PLANKING

At the Coliseum last autumn Gilbert and Sullivan’s seagoing Savoy Opera was immense, with a huge revolving ship, Les Dennis as the first sea lord, a massive chorus and orchestra, a Boris-on-the-zipwire moment and an irresistibly confident hornpiping tot. Here it is stripped down,  performed by one of  Sasha Regan’s  strapping all male casts in gym-kit costumes, larking around on bunks and, in the case of David McKechnie as Sir Joseph Porter, wearing truly cherishable sock- suspenders. 

        I have raved before about these pleasingly ridiculous, artfully underdressed Sacha Regan productions, which indeed were responsible for converting me to G and S at all.  The production  suits Wiltons’ decrepit music-hall grandeur perfectly,  with the thumping unpretentious piano, the silly-clever rhymes, knowing gender-bending costumes and drag-comic behaviour.  It isn’t purist and doesn’t need to be,  because the plots are absurd and the rhymes clever and they belong to all ages and sexes.

        But the important gloss is the slickness, the discipline, the sharp Lizzi Gee choreography(sometimes balletic, always expressive. These things elevate to artistry the sheer high jinks, which by the way are brilliant in the elopement scene.

         Men have a particular way of being funny – not always universally appreciated by women – but when we do ‘get it’ as amused, headshaking big sisters, it is magic.  It has to be said that musically the choruses and  male-character numbers are more thrilling than female solos, because falsetto is difficult to sustain attractively for long unless by the best-trained  of counter-tenors. Regan’s cast are excellent, but sometimes Sam Kipling as Josephine makes you feel a bit sorry for him having to do it,  as well as for her lovelorn state. The temptation to take it down an octave does creep over you.     Scott Armstrong as a beefy LIttle Buttercup has it easier, because you’re meant to be laughing rather than sympathising.  But you can forgive anything for the sheer ebullient vigour of it, for the sock-suspenders and bowler hat on Porter,   and the swing ensemble’s magnificent legs. 

rating  4 

wiltons.org.uk to  9 April

then  Winchester – (theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk) 21-27 April

Then, who knows..

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Gielgud, W1

THE SHADOW OF A BEGINNING, ALABAMA 1936 

    

Forget, for the moment, both the fame and the the arguments over Harper Lee’s classic novel:  Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation is a freestanding triumph,  its poignancy, anger and argument perfectly pitched for our restless age of questioning not only the injustice of racism but  the perils of tolerance and the nature of  ‘allyship’.    Sorkin worked on this play in the age of Trump and of Black Lives Matter, and it shows.  A fusillade of trigger warnings  reminds us that it cannot be handled without numerous  racial slurs and acknowledgement of  violence, sexual and otherwise. for this is smalltown Alabama in the 1930s, held before us with 21c intelligence and sorrow. Sorrow for the way that despite the lawyer Atticus Finch’s sense of “the shadow of a beginning”,  we are not there yet.  

          Here the novel’s form is shaken up,   to put at its centre from the start the courtroom where Finch defends Tom Robinson from the charge of raping Mayella, the paternally abused teenage daughter of  angry, drunken Bob Ewell.  Scout, Jem and their pal Dil tell the story through the fourth wall with childlike directness as well as scampering,  playing and watching the steadfast idealistic Atticus go through the story. They stand mutely aghast, too in the courtroom in that torrid summer.  The brisk narrative breaches of the fourth wall do not for a moment detract from the power of the big dramatic scenes, both in court and most terrifyingly when Robinson is taken to the county jail,  in an obvious attempt facilitate the local Klansmen’s pre-empting any verdict with guns and rope.    Finch grabs a standard lamp (there is a wonderful domesticity of detail in Miriam Buether’s design, you live alongside them indoors and out).   As he meekly holds guard the murderers arrive: we are used to jokey images of the Ku Klux Klan in  pointed hoods but these are as they would have been:  murderers under scruffy flour-sacks.     When Scout innocently recognizes a voice of a classmate’s Dad her  childish  “Mister Callaghan?”  breaks the tension even as it reveals  the horrible truth about  how deeply ‘friends and neighbours’ have gone sour .   Brilliant.

        But much is brilliant, theatrically and morally, in Sorkin’s interpretation: Gwyneth Keyworth is a perfect dungareed Scout,  and the trio of her,  Jem and Dil (Harry Redding, a professional debut,  and David Moorst) have a teenage exuberance that defies the gloom and horror of the community.  And three  points in the adaptation  are important.  Firstly,  Sorkin gives Atticus more of a sharp dry lawyerly wit, half-consciously aware of the difficulty of holding onto his “some good in everyone” idealism.   Ralph Spall is extraordinary, both in evoking that, in his fatherly gentleness,  and in his single outbreak of violent rage.   Secondly, the adaptor puts into the mouth of the terrible Ewell (Patrick O”Kane) more rationalization of his racism than Lee did.  Every confected “fear” justifying the white community’s hatred of freed blacks is taken directly from modern Breitbart and other sites.  You shiver.    And finally, Sorkin gives more voice than Harper Lee to the black characters themselves.  This means not just the decent, too-humble Tom Robinson  but Calpurnia:    a fabulous Pamela Nomvete as the maid and substitute-mother in Atticus’ household.  She is  a sparring partner unconvinced by his saintlike philosophy that even the most vicious deluded racists should be respected as ‘neighbours and friends” with good in them.  When you’re respecting them,  she snaps,  “no matter who you’re disrespectin’ by doin’ it!” .  

            There are wonderful cameos too, enhancing the sense of a real community: Amanda Boxer is the abominable Mrs Henry Dubose, Jim Norton a  peppery Judge Taylor,  and Lloyd Hutchinson has a supreme late moment as the supposed town drunk,  with his harsh grieving intelligent kindness.  At the side of the stage a chapel harmonium and a lone guitarist play snatches of Adam Guettel’s understatedly powerful music. Your throat catches, often. 

       It is perhaps unfair,  but sometimes there’s  a reluctance to let oneself be moved to tears and driven to a standing ovation when a show is big-ticket, born and polished on its Broadway run with not an empty seat, and  when its producers were in 2019 so careful of their ownership of rights that they  would not tolerate even the humblest regional or amateur touring version of this famous tale.    But what the hell:  reluctance crumbled,  it had me by the throat .  Especially when, with Broadway sentimentality,  the last tragedy was met with a quiet congregation singing the words  “Joy cometh in the morning”.  And Calpurnia observed, saltily,  that it was takin’ it’s own sweet time.   So it is.

box office   tokillamockingbird.co.uk   to 13 August

rating five . No question.

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