GROAN UPS Vaudeville, WC2

ANOTHER SPIN OF THE BOTTLE FOR MISCHIEF

 

I admit soft  maternal feelings for Mischief Theatre – Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and their confreres – because I was one of the first to spot the comic precision and élan of their Play that Goes Wrong,  fresh from Lamda on a shoestring and a basement .  I have watched it grow,  tour, transfer, triumph, cross the Atlantic and spin off Peter Pan goes wrong, and the Bank Robbery play.    So I braved the plush red-carpet-and- XR  hell of their west end launch for this :  not a pre-honed fringe lark but  a new play tipped straight onto the Strand with more Ayckbournian ambition.

   

     To my slight dismay, it shows the join. The idea   – very on-trend in a stage year of Adrian Mole, Jamie and the awful Heathers  – is to show us five  schoolfriends at there stages:   6 years old in playschool outfits, subverting an assembly by sending up their parents, then at 14 breaking into their classroom with beer to celebrate end-of-year exams and worry about GCSEs while playing truth or dare and attempting awkward snogs.  Finally we meet them at thirty at a reunion, nipping away from the fray to see the old classroom.  

   

They all play all ages. There’s serious Archie (Shields) ,  Sayer as the geeky slow developer Simon,  and Lewis as a big bear of a lad ,Spencer,   at six on the verge of being put in  ”the Red Group, with the Problems”  and at fourteen fearing being ‘held back”. There’s the posher girl Moon, entitled and bitchy (the glorious Nancy Zamit) , and clever shyer Katie who has a feeling for Spencer. (Charlie Russell).  All are veterans of the Play That Goes Wrong, honed in the bruises and split-second timing of physical theatre and absurdity.

    But both these pre-interval scenes are too long.   Amusing at times, deftly acted but sorely in need of cuts. With all  these previously triumphant creators in the cast, it may be hard for director Kirsty Patrick Ward to tell them so.  Maybe the fear was that a 2 hr 15 play would be too slight, and an extra half hour would add heft. It doesn’t.    All these scenes need is to establish characters – they do, deftly and amusingly – to set up a running joke about a hamster (I now think of it as Schrodinger’s Hamster, both alive and dead )  and  to plant one key plot point for the denouement.   They did not need to spin out the 6-year-old scene so much (though I’d be sad to have missed Zamit’s superb tantrum),  and as for the teenage yearsI seem to have scrawled “Adolescence , bad enough first time round, why re-live it..”.   

  

I suspect  cuts will  happen. Because after the interval  it takes off , vroom! One is a barrister, one a pet shop manager, one a urinal-cake salesman so desperate to impress that he has hired a fake girlfriend.  The  sharp comic abilities of all five are off the leash, the jokes good (a fine hamster cage gag before the first line..) and enriched by the addition of the peerless Bryony Corrigan as the fake girlfriend in lurex, and Dave Hearn as the alumnus-from-hell partyboy nobody actually remembers.  It roars along, with all this group’s honed skill in doors, hamster- substitutions and unexpected subtler laughs. There’s a moment of real pathos,  and another one subverted with genius wickedness (O, Zamit!) as it swizzles into something more poignant“Aren’t they beautiful, the lives we never had?”.  

 

    You forget the longeurs of the first two scenes. And these kids know enough about showbiz to trust that we will forgive them a lot for Hearn’s walrus imitation and the final  dancing lobster.  Trim off some flaband it’ll run and run like a Captain of Athletics.  Though it’ll be too Brit the Americans, and that’s another good mark.   Good tickets in the,  20s and 30s range and so far no silly Premiums.   Fun.  

nimaxtheatres.com   to 1 Dec  

rating three but….  an added  comedy mouse. .

3 Meece RatingComedy Mouse

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ASSASSINS           Watermill, Bagnor Newbury

THE DARK AND THE CRAZY

 

    This is  – for us anyway – the first  production in the Trump era of this savage musical:  a revue reimagining of all the attempts, successful or not,  to kill American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to  Bush and Reagan.  Its mocking – though sometimes moving – portrait is of human fantaticism, disappointment,  inadequacy,  stupidity,  vanity, gun-obsession (“crook a little finger to change the world”)   and sheer attention-seeking.  Which, I have to murmur in passing, makes it doubly ironic and alarming in an age when the President himself  displays at least three of the above most days on Twitter.  

 

    But the show itself is deathless,  one to cherish.  To some it will always seem harsh and dark for comfort,  the brilliance of the Sondheim rhymes inappropriate for a lethal topic.   But Bill Buckhurst’s production has all the necessary vigour and the human seriousness too:  it helps having a stunningly gifted set of actor-musicians roaming the stage (and the sides, at times),  to give vivid life to Sondheim’s echoes of the great American musics:  bluegrass, honkytonk line dance,  gospel, vaudeville, Bernstein, jazz.   It also fits to have a young woman – Lillie Flynn in a western check shirt and jeans –   as narrator:  standing aside, plaintively asking from the start “Why did you do it, Johnny?”  as Wilkes Booth rants about his bad reviews and hatred of the “n—- loving” Lincoln.   

  

      In its tight, unbroken  100 minutes many performances stand out: flamboyantly  Eddie Elliott as the vain Charles Guiteau, Steve Symonds as the enraged, ranting Samuel  Byck in a Santa suit,  decrying and defining Americana; there is light relief in imagined conversations between Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore  – Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer –  who both failed to get Gerald Ford, for no reasonable reason; and pathos in   Jack Quarton  as poor mad Hinkley who thought that Jodie Foster might notice him if he killed Reagan. 

   

    They meet and interact across the decades,  most of all in a tremendous, marvellouslly staged ensemble when the ghosts of past and future gather round the miserable Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas and persuade him that the only way to become immortal, cited and counted in the hall of infamous fame, is to shoot John Kennedy rather than himself .  Their argument, perennial and  insidious , has you holding your breath. Even though you know the outcome. 

     It’s a bravura performance.  And always horribly timely.  Why else do American heads of state travel in armoured limousines even down the Mall, when ours, thank God, still braves a golden coach ?   

box office    watermill.org.uk      to 26 oct

Then to co-producing house, Nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk  ,    30 oct to 16 nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE NIGHT WATCH New Wolsey, Ipswich & touring

PEOPLE OF THE BLITZ 

 

Sarah Waters’ best novel, evoking lives during and after the London Blitz,  was told backward in time.  It is much the same way, indeed, as we meet real people  – see at first the way they are now,  then gradually on acquaintance roll back through their past year and come to understand.  With over a dozen characters, interlinked and significant,  it’s a tricky one to dramatize (easier,perhaps, to film in 2010 for TV).  But Hattie Naylor’s stage version flowers under the sensitive and poetic direction of Alistair Whatley,  and while the seemingly desultory opening scenes may baffle a few strangers to the book,  it grows in clarity and drama to become a  gripping piece of theatre, a testament.  

 

      At its heart is Kay:   gallant and brave,  “more of a gentleman than any man”,  coming of age in an ambulance crew in 1941 among the quiet heroes who saw horrors and returned to cocoa and comradely banter.    Phoebe Pryce is perfect for the role,  tall and boyish,   but in those early post-war scenes is a kind of wandering ghost, going out little,  visibly in private trauma. She is  boarding with the kindly but dotty Christian Scientist Mrs Leonard,   among whose patients is arthritic, emotionally riven Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) and his “nephew” Duncan:    Lewis Mackinnon, visibly the most damaged of all , cowering and awkward, veteran of something we will only learn later.  There’s Fraser,  the conscientious objector who shared his cell, and more, and reappears as a journalist; and the other women, Viv and Julia and Helen and Mickey,  variously involved with Kay.  

 

          Hard to imagine, now, having the city bombed night after night with a heavy toll of death and horror (dreading more mutilated bodies of children,   ambulance crewwoman Mickey blithely sets out in her tin hat hoping for “a slightly injured pink grandmother with a bag of boiled sweets).   Hard too to remember that attempted suicide still meant a prison term, as did ‘procuring an abortion’,   that conscientious objects had their own agonies in a world where their friends were dying,  and that lesbian affairs  – though not illegal  – were best kept hidden.   But as the back-stories unfold in the second half,  the staging serves to make vivid the raids, the rubble,  the quiet moments,  the fear and courage and strangeness of that wartime world. 

 

      Sometimes, as when an air raid makes the prisoners in their tiny lit square shiver in dread , while out in the town a betrayal of love is taking place amid the wreckage,  scenes can interlock at the same time. When Malcolm James’ Munby the warder sings “A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”,  depths of his own eccentricity, loneliness and future open before you.    Kay strides and works and loves and loses against a city in flames.  Nobody is wholly blessed or wholly damned.   It holds you fast.    But you’ll love it even more if you know the book. 

 

New Wolsey, Ipswich until 5 October

   then touring Touring Mouse wideon to 23 Nov.   Edinburgh next, then Coventry, Richmond, Salisbury, Croydon.    Original Theatre production.  

rating four 4 Meece Rating

   

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FOR SERVICES RENDERED              Jermyn St Theatre WC1

THE LOW DISHONEST DECADE…

 

It’s always intimate, the Jermyn,.  We’re in an autumn garden, apples on the ground and fading roses on the wall;  birdsong,  and a tea table set defiantly Edwardian-style by a maid in a cap.  But everything has changed.    By the end of two fraught, frustrated hours spread over days, the roses will be dead  and a chill fallen on both teapot and human hearts.   Somerset Maughan’s 1930s play surfaced last at Chichester, in the heart of the WW1 anniversary years, and reminded me  how much theatre taught me about that war and, not least, its aftermath (this refers btw:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html ).    If 2019 middle-Britain thinks it is in a social and political crisis,  it does well to glance back at those grim inter-war years.  

 

Here we have the Ardsley family,  smug prosperous Leonard and his wife Charlotte, and their three  children; Sydney is war-blinded and bemedalled, dryly unreconciled to Braille and tatting and more clear sighted about the mess of it all than any of them.  Evie is bereaved of her own man but yearns towards Callie,  who once drove a destroyer but now is a failing garagiste.  Lois longs to find a lover but  may  be doomed to being one of that generation of “surplus women”,  unless she succumbs to a loveless profiteering alliance with the concupiscent married Wilfred . And Ethel,  married to what was once a dashing officer whom “The king made a gentleman”  finds him reverted to bering a boorish tenant farmer, and not necessarily faithful.    

      

    Period and design are perfect (costume designer Emily Stuart has somehow sourced some retro long tennis skirts, fairisles,  and truly depressing greenish tweeds for Richard Derrington’s Leonard).   In most cases the period manner – stiffly upper-lipped – is convincingly held, though Sally Cheng’s brittle smile could do with a rest occasionally.   Derrington gives lethally smug precision to Leonard’s self-satisfied platitudes –  goodness. Maugham is savage –  and Diane Fletcher,  in her final resignation to the whole horrible mess,  is particularly fine.

 

  Rachel PIckup’s Eva, sweetly devoted and right on the edge of madness, handles the shock and rage of her final scenes well,    and  I admired Richard Keightley’s Sydney a lot:   for his stillness and, in one horribly revealing moment, for the wince when the appalling wittering neighbour Gwen  swoops on the blind man to kiss him (as I said, Maugham doesn’t hold back. This may be a play full of good female parts,  and an honest reflection on the particular grimness of their post-war lot. But face it,  the old devil doesn’t like us much really. ) 

      All in all, it’s worth its revivals,  and a fascinating reminder of how the aftermath of WW1 was harder to bear in many ways than the aftermath of WW2 when at least there was clarity about the wickedness of the enemy.    But it’s a  bleak number.    A few more days to run: worth catching. 

 

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk   to 5 oct 

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS Lyttelton, SE1

A COLLIDING WORLD

   

  Couldn’t miss this: for two years as a teenager (Dad in the Jo’burg Embassy)   I lived alongside the frightened, arrogant paranoia of  white South Africa under apartheid.  The memory cuts deep.   Athol Fugard has long been a voice chronicling with sorrowful understanding that toxic regime ,   its emotional fallout as well as its injustices.   The title matters:  I remember how universal and crushing was the word “boy”, as  the most dignified senior black man could be called it by even the trashiest white.

 

         This play is personal:  a hundred minutes of real-time in a small eastern-Cape tearoom in 1950,  written in tribute to two real men in  the young Fugard’s childhood:  waiters in the family business,   Sam Semela and Willie Malopo.    One of the ironies of apartheid always was the playful, happy familiarity of many white children with black servants or minders,  in even the most racistly convinced families.  But  the approach of adult dignities could turn that relationship sour and shaming,  as a  “Hally”  became “Master Harold” .    Under director Roy Alexander Weise, the play moves with slow atmospheric pace,  building a world before us both onstage and off.  

 

    We first see the ‘boys’ – Lucian Msamati as Sam  and Hammed Animashaun as Willie,  practising and discussing  a ballroom dancing competition.   Sam is older, dapper and dryly witty in his white coat and bowtie, correcting big gangling Willie’s steps and persuading him that if he wants his girlfriend Hilda to turn up to rehearsals he really must stop knocking her about.  Young Harold  stumps in to the family tearoom, fresh from school, shrilly adolescent verging on insufferable, moaning about his homework :  Anson Boon catches the Afrikaner accent, grating alongside the deep voices of the men, at first sometimes hard to make out but rising as the hour goes on.    Sam picks up books and reads with careful slowness, interested in new words,  approving of a history text about Napoleon’s belief in human equality.  Hally tends to patronize him.   But the joshing has warmth too, as they argue about Darwin, Caesar, Jesus;, the boy even forgetting his white dignity when Sam scores a point. 

 

        They start remembering how as a child he would sneak out to the servants’ quarters and hide under Sam’s bed.  Through phone calls from his mother we discover that the father – crippled, and a drunk –  is being brought home from hospital and that Hally dreads the chamberpots, the caring, the spittle, the drinking;  yet  on the phone to his father he is determinedly affectionate.  The mood rises and falls,  Hally’s anger spilling over sometimes to be vented on the patient Sam,  then abating again as they remember a kite the older man once made him.  In a marvellous evocation of excitement,  the two ‘boys’ explain about the ballroom competition and its grace and dignity.  Don’t couples ever collide? asks the lad and Sam .  “It’s like being in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen”.  

 

        Hally fires up, suddenly animated about an idea – “the way you want life to be…get the steps right, no collisions…the United Nations is – a dancing school for politicians!”     He scribbles notes – “native culture, the war dance replaced by the waltz”  but Sam kindly ignores that crassness.   The two  men dance, demonstrating moves;  Msamanti ,  always an actor of awesome depth of dignity and emotion (remember his Salieri?) is a miracle of physical wit and grace.   Animashaun is a touching, effortful Willie.  

   It is beautiful. Then it is ugly:  the father’s imminent return makes Hally defensive ,  defiant.  Demanding respect, sneering at the dance,  despising his father.   Not without reason;   but when the properly fatherlike  Sam pulls him up,   suddenly it’s young-master and despised kaffir.  The shock of the k-word  knocks you reeling. And  there’s worse, and as the world of harmony  tilts into filth you can feel the jolt going through the audience.  

        So it should. Are we given a hint of redemption, of hope?  Yes.  Only just. But it’s enough to bring the house to its feet in mere relief. 

      

www. nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  17 dec   

rating  five  . 4 Meece Rating

 …Note that the fifth is a dancemouse,  because the choreographer and movement director Shelley Maxwell does a fine, fine job…. Musicals Mouse width fixed

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THE WATSONS. Menier SE1

15 CHARACTERS OBJECTING TO  AN AUTHOR..

 

The Jane Austen industry never flags, in tribute or in parody.  You can barely throw a bonnet without hitting an  Austentatious improv,  popcorn movie, stripped- down Northanger Abbey staged on scaffolding,  or some updated  BridgetJonesery,  Right now we have two writers finishing incomplete fragments, both accepting that it won’t be quite what Jane woulda done, but hey….  Thus Andrew Davies  sexes up Sanditon for ITV with incest , brothels and Theo James leaping on coaches,  and up from Chichester, adapted a bit,  here’s Laura Wade taking on the earlier  Watsons. 

     

We begin in Jane’s world and words, as  Emma (a charmingly spirited Grace Molony) has been dumped by her rich aunt to live in reduced circumstances with an ailing father and two sisters. All of whom must marry or be destitute (or governesses or teachers, generally in Austen considered almost as bad).

 

     It gets going with deft economy under Samuel West’s direction, as Ben Stones’ panelled set slides and opens to establish  a host of locals, militia, toffs and possible husbands. There’s a beautiful dance-with-dialogue including a ten year old  in tailcoat, very authentic-Austen. But 30 minutes in, as the original author stops, Emma is about to accept the dull Lord – as indeed she would have without Aunt Jane to stop her. And  it goes all meta and Pirandello:  author (played by Louise Ford) dashes in from 21c literary reality  and stops her , because Austen heroines must make love-matches.  It baffles Emma, and provokes horror in her sisters who feel that turning down a “not particularly deformed” Lord with a pineapple hothouse is crazy.  

     From here on it’s a battle of wills between the modern author and the characters, who are appalled at being told they aren’t real and  stage a revolution. There are some fabulous laughs: the horror of Jane Booker’s Lady Osborne at the author’s  plastic chair and immodest jeans, the glee of the child discovering her iPhone,  and his poignant horror at the fate of having to be ten forever.  Wade is at her best sending herself up, and when the entire cast of characters start whingeing like am-dram actors (“I don’t seem to be in it much””My character wouldn’t do that”etc) .  

   It also opens up some lovely ironies about the artificiality of all fictional pattern-making, as author-Laura protests that it was a “Feminist Act” of Austen’s to make her characters marry for love, because in her society marriage was the only route to female independence.  The characters hurl arguments from Hobbes and Rousseau, and express  natural  indignation at having a path laid down at all.  

Pleasing  chaos and insubordination keep it moving, and there’s even a brief Napoleonic war, an erotic speech to scare the pants off even Andrew Davies, and a fine moment of glory for Nanny (Sally Bankes) as  the only working-class character.  

      But O, the temptation of writerly  self-pity and self importance!  One can see why, but the pace slows terribly  as “Laura”loses control and sobs at her lot while the rebel characters gather round, leaderless.  Her exhilarating final moral – that unfinishedness is freedom and  a myriad possibilities – is fine, But I (and the novelist pal at my side) both winced  at her injunction to the little boy “never be ashamed to call yourself an artist”.  No, no,no…just don’t..

       But it  was fun. 

Box office menierchocolatefactory.com.  To 17 Nov

Rating four4 Meece Rating

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BIRTHDAYS PAST, BIRTHDAYS PRESENT            Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

80 NOT OUT,  THE SAGE OF SCARBOROUGH  

  

Not everything would send me via  divers and standing-room trains from Stratford to Scarborough.  But this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, marking his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as a playwright.   And though it  may  (should!) last and travel like his other best ones,  I needed to see it on his home turf: the round SJT, the  Circus-Maximus where for decades he has thrown Middle England into battle with the wild beats of its nature.   On a wet Friday a sudden rainbow met me as I stumbled from the station.  Old Sir-Alan has earned it again with this :  a play very English, very Yorkshire,  streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkle of sparkles of hilarity as once again he shakes his head, not unaffectionately, at the puzzle of men and women. 

 

  He himself directs :  its a four-hander family tale told backwards through time (like Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along).  First meet Mickey, a graceless grump marking 80 with a fine dry wit,  tended by Meg with her tea-tray.  The son Adrian and his latest girlfriend Grace are coming to birthday tea.   Deft as ever, Ayckbourn reveals the family’s shape:  Adrian is the slowcoach, his siblings higher-flying and often abroad;  he had a failed marriage to a divorcee with children, and always in the background was once Uncle Hal, the black sheep.  This constantly funny opener is enlivened by Mickey’s determination to warn the mousy, churchy Grace that his son is famously sexually voracious,   what women of a past age hushedly called a “satyr” (“Once he gets you into bed, you do well to brace yourself!”).     This reputation feels  blinkingly unlikely as the great smiling lunk himself shambles in, all goodwill and hope for the 42-year-old he met at a church social.  What can Mickey mean? Is he really a sexual Superman? We shall learn. 

 

        For as the stagehands elegantly reposition and unfold the furnishings in the arena (Kevin Jenkins’s ingenious design is part of the pleasure)   the next birthday,  15 years earlier,  is his wife’s 60th, when she has become a bottle-blonde in mumsily pink glamour , brawling over the offstage buffet.  While Adrian and his still-married  wife with touching awkwardness  reveal how far from a satyr he is.  Aha: we are beginning to understand that actually, this is a play about the hardness of being a shy good man in a world of baffling women.  Jamie Baughan’s performance is immaculate in its underachieving sweetness, and later he’ll break your heart even more. For it is his lonely thirtieth birthday next,  and another clue to Mickey’s legend;  finally it is his brash elder sister’s 18th,  setting him at 17 on his life’s trail of kindly, modest humiliation.

     

    Baughan holds the play’s real heart,  and Russell Dixon and Jemma Churchill neatly grow younger over five decades as the parents. But the glorious set-pieces come  from the astonishing Naomi Petersen as four of the women in Adrian’s life:  thwartedly churchy Grace,  a disastrously depressed and self-absorbed wife Faith, a shy schoolgirl of long ago. And,  most gloriously of all,  a mouthy prostitute donated, on Adrian’s birthday  by his Uncle Hal .   For reasons not fit to disclose before you hurry up there with a ticket,  a major highspot is her hen impression – chicken-in-a-basque if you like.  

 

  Yet always underneath it beats Ayckbourn’s sorrowful, understanding heart, showing us that comedy is just tragedy on its way to happening.   Happy Birthday, Sir Alan!

box office sjt.uk.com    to 5 October

rating  Five 5 Meece Rating

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