Artificial intelligence and robotics have long been a boon to us ethical-scifi buffs,  films like AI and I, Robot mercifully saving us from rocket ships and aliens called Xzxvyvrgg.  In Jordan Harrison’s play it is inner space  – and a recognizable world –   which gets invaded by  parasitic cyberthink .  It takes us forward from our seedling moment with  ChatGPT cobbling up its banal cut-n-paste essays. Harrison decides to imagine uses which poke at the very stuff of human identity, memory and communication. 

      The setting moves on half a century from our present moment in which lonely people chat to Alexa or Siri and geeks dream of downloading their their consciousness into robots and metaverses.    In this coming world  the “Senior Serenity” organization will set you up a convincing humanoid called a Prime,  which can be briefed to chat reminiscently to an old lady with dementia  in the persona of  a dead husband who can retell her all the prettiest memories of their time together.   After all,  there is already talk of robotic carers for dementia sufferers.  

      Director Dominic Dromgoole wisely casts the splendid Anne Reid as Marjorie,  a woman who still has an edge of matriarchal cussedness and a not-quite-extinct satirical intent until suddenly her mind closes off,   like the closing blind behind her in the sparse kitchen set, quite a metaphor.  Her daughter Tess (an equally stunning and movingly truthful performance from Nancy Carroll) has an uneasy, unsatisfied relationship with Mum and a sense of unfulfilment nicely caught in her husband’s terrifying line “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your Mom any more?”     But in any case Tess doesn’t really approve of the creepy, stiffish Prime (Richard Fleeshman).    He – or rather it  – seems humanly normal,  if a bit shop-dummyish, until suddenly he says  things like  “I don’t have that information”.  

   Meanwhile her husband Jon – Tony Jayawardena – is all for the tech, and  likes to keep feeding helpful memories to the thing.  Including  one tragedy – a son’s suicide – which Marjorie has been trying to forget for half a century.   

        The ghastly but just-credible folly and absurdity of the culture which came up with this invention is nicely underlined by Tess’ sudden hysterical anti-religious anger at a neighbour having brought Marjorie a Bible.    Here is a civilisation which has rejected faith in the soul’s endurance  while clinging to  a childish refusal to accept that everyone’s gotta die.  We all, without dementia,  don’t want the past and its beloved people to disappear and never speak again , and it takes balance – or religious reassurance – to accept that it’s damn well going to.  

        Anyway, nightmare evolutions – gentle and seemingly mild – develop halfway through .  With a nasty shock we realize that time has passed and  Tess’s neediness is in turn being tended by android computer and  what sounds like prompting of a dementia sufferer is actually the priming of a prime.  Again Anne Reid does an uncanny turn.  There is a horrid circularity about the idea of telling a computer what it needs to tell you .

        It’s a clever play,  done with typical Menier panache (this little theatre is the home of unsubsidized intelligent originality at only £ 42 quid a seat)   and it’s creepily dark beneath the  surface.  But some of its appeal is in enjoying your own dislike of a future society, soothing its terrors of death and disintegration with AI lies.    You leave remembering that all flesh is grass and  all memory fallible, and both are much the better for it.   Well, I did anyway.  

box office  to 6 May

rating 4 


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    Daniel Mays has played a lot of tough-guy roles but has by nature a rather innocent and worried-looking face.  It is this quality that Nick Hytner spotted as perfect for his Nathan Detroit: lowlife but hapless, indecisive about the faff and cost of marrying his tolerant  fiancee of 14 years standing, Miss Adelaide (an irresistible Marisha Wallace).    Perfect too is the exasperated but unbreakable chemistry between them: the Benedick and Beatrice of the  Damon Runyon ‘20s-30’s world that Frank Loesser, Swerling and Burrows created.  Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson)  is a more suave leading-man part, though he’s deft at acrobatic comic chaos when Sarah the Salvationist falls for his charms and a Bacardi-laced milkshake in a Havana nightclub punch-up  (look, she had every reason to call time on his homoerotic dance with the chap in orange shorts).   . Both pairs are a treat, anyway,   Dutch Celinde Schoemaker as Sarah also deploys, for a glorious soprano,  a fine acrobatic recklessness. 

        Anyway,  tip your hat and get down there, spend your winnings.   It’s  comic perfection,  sly wit and timing ,gently endearing performances, rumbustious knock ‘em dead choreography in both raunchy and hilarious modes. And of course flawless musical numbers (I had forgotten that alongside great barnstormers like Siddown and wicked comedy like Adelaide’s lament over the psychology manual, there are  exquisite lyrical numbers:   not least  “More I cannot wish you”, gorgeously sung by Anthony o’Donnell’s  Arvide.   

       But there’s something else: from the immersed surge of prommers on the floor to the crowded galleries above,  the comments as we all raced for the last tubes before the strike were also about the staging:   Hytner directing another bravura circus-mood splash from the  matchlessly flexible Bridge. As in Julius Caesar and A Midaummer Night’s Dream, promenaders can opt for the floor and be immersive – some went the full Damon Runyon 1920s cosplay, girls in cocktail kit and men made hat-brim  debonair  by the theatre’s artful sale of pork- pie hats in the melee before the start.  

      So to add to the basic pleasure of a perfectly executed musical,  you get Bunny Christie creating the dream New York of old movies, with rising blocks creating multiple stages and a cast flawlessly choreographed to be in the right place at thirty seconds’ notice,   running from the cops, marching behind the Salvationist drum , appearing in a suddenly illuminated dive or emerging,  hat by trilby hat , from the manhole after the sewer scene. Almost invisible stage crew move the audience crowds safely around , streets and sidewalks rise and fall and divide: abruptly there could be a boxing ring, a cabaret, a bar, a roadworks…everything everywhere all at once.  Sudden landmarks appear (where did those Cuban lampposts come from,  never saw them arrive? and hang on, that chimney, smoking..if wobbling…and how the helldid the mission hall which wasn’t there a few seconds ago grow six rows of wooden chairs?  And hell, the Havana moment, sparkles and feathers and flesh everywhere, what happened to New York? 

    It would be a lovingly told tale and beautifully sung without any of this bravura, but we need dazzle too: life isn’t all Ibsen and Hare.     And I am happy to report that the stage crew got their own curtain call on another rising block.  We all cheered. They get the rare stagecrew-mouse as an extra. To 2 September

rating. 5.

And here’s the stage management mouse.

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   In  a week when tech firms shuddered at the shock demise of their favourite bank, how better to spend 90  minutes  withJoseph Charlton’s exhilarating, fast moving 3-hander about a guy who has a sharp idea for a ride-hailing app, its rocket-powered  ascension, and the effect on him and thousands across 653 world cities before hubris and bro-culture clips his wings.  Let it be said that when it first showed pre-Covid, Uber had the humour to send a works outing to it…

    Katie-Ann McDonough’s  direction is swift, the three players switching between a dozen roles: Shubham Saraf, a striking presence in a narrow suit and boxfresh trainers, plays Tyler the initial entrepreneur and   Craig, the Brentoid manager who is fraternal yet creepy with the men,  and dismissively awful to the women coders (“its awesome how confident you are not to wear make-up”, etc).  Sean Delaney plays among others a pleasanter, but lost-soul Irish coder drawn half unwillingly into the macho culture and its ridiculous work trip to Vegas. Charlton’s ear for  excitable startup  language gets immense laughs – the “champion mindset”, “super-pumped, hashtag wrangling microservices out of a monolith”, all that. The titular jerks by the way are the wheeler-dealing frat boys, clever toddler-heads with money to juggle and a taste for lowlife highlife in Korean cathouses

  Hazel Lowe’s design is a  table in the shape of the company logo, which nicely indicates by a curved funfair slope the likelihood of downturns and pratfalls. It is equally useful to represent the Glasgow taxi in which Mia – a recovering alcoholic who gave up her baby, reflects on the energies and moods of diverse customers, often hungover sesh-heds requiring “bargain bucket therapy” in the dawn. She is a reminder of what Tyler, creator and CEO, furiously reminds the board finally removing him after  “reputational” issues arise : I had, he says, “the responsibility of giving work to people who thought they’d never work again” – migrants, mothers, people on working life’s precarious edges.  And so he did. Though near the end we see Mia and the other uber drivers taking their case to court to be treated like the useful faithful workhorses they are.

    It’s entertaining and thought provoking, and all three players take on diverse roles with neatly elegant distinctiveness. But a particular hurrah to absolutely top work from Kiran Sonia Sawar – who is in turn Mia the Glasgow cabbie, a neurodivergent coding genius in the office, a torch-singer who falls for Tyler and then turns round to condemn his behaviour to the board, and a stern Indian businesswoman taking him on.  She shines, warm and moving and harsh and weird and tough by turns. 

But there is youthful exhilaration in the defeated Tyler’s final shout – “let builders build, let progress happen”. And you think yes, thats how it goes. The wild gamblers  build with glee and sometimes recklessly,  then prudent duller   people thwart and tame them. Both  must happen to make the world roll on. Love it.

To 25 March.

Mon-sat. Nb matinees tues & sat

Rating 4 

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THE CHILDREN Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds


         Since I watched Sizewell A going up as a child,  live close to Sizewell B and dwell amid a forest of local posters furiously condemning Sizewell C,   there is a particular frisson in seeing this play – which I missed a few years back at the Royal Court –  turning up just 45 miles inland from us.  It’s a future  Suffolk seaside world,  where a couple live  in a wooden holiday-cabin shack just outside the “exclusion zone” created by a disastrous meltdown of such a site a few years earlier.  

  Gillian Bevan evokes Hazel,   health-consciously fit,   mumsy and yogafied but visibly uncomfortable with something in her life.    Michael Higgs is a jokey, rather edgy Robin who near the end movingly reveals a deeply suffering heart.  Both are retired nuclear scientists who worked on the station, had to leave  their house and smallholding as it was too close,  and now exist in a world of annoying power blackouts and macerating toilets.    It’s not a post-apocalyptic drama:  there’s a local Co-op handy and the annoying bit is having to bribe the taxi driver to go anywhere near the edge of the Zone.  Their four adult children are elsewhere, one needily angry,  phoning with her troubles.  

            Into their dullish household from America erupts an uninvited former colleague,  Rose:  Imogen Stubbs gives a complex, fascinating performance: lively and  sexy, reminiscent,  sometimes irritating and sometimes touching, finally unmasking a more serious reality. She asks how it has been during and since the disaster, and  Hazel gives us terrifying glimpses of this:  the boiling sea, the “filthy glitter” of fallout ,  the flooded house full of dirty silt, the sudden relief of deciding they didn’t have to clear that up but could just decamp for the borrowed cottage.  This turns out to be a nice metaphor for the final decisions all have to make.

           Their relationship is exposed slowly when Robin, flippant and keen to uncork the parsnip wine,  betrays that he and Rose have torrid history .Some have felt, in its earlier productions, that the  trio’s build-up is too slow,  but this cast held the small theatre visibly gripped  by rising tension and moments of sudden warmth, left over from their old collegiate staffroom days.   But when it becomes clear why Rose came, it’s riveting.  No spoilers, but it’s inspired by Mr Yamada’s Skilled Veteran Corps,  after Fukushima in 2011.  Because radiation cancers are gradual,  the 72-year-old engineer said it was the job of the old  – not the young who deserve their lives – to do a full cold shutdown and clearing up on-site.   He had 250 retired volunteers over sixty, but was thwarted.    There is a proper and topically startling power in this idea of the old needing to clear up the mess their generation made: Lucy Kirkwood deploys it like a whip. 

      Her  famous Chimerica was a big complex  play about international relations , stunning in its grip of modern moral confusions.   Her shorter NSFW was a tight, viciously amusing generation clash.  This combines something of both qualities, with a particularly female grip on uneasy relationships and professional responsibilities.   It also contains a striking line for today “We don’t have a RIGHT to electricity, you know”.     I liked Owen Calvert-Lyons’  production a lot,  and hope it moves on from Bury.  

box office   to 25 March

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 I can never resist scribbling down rhymes in new musicals, whether in a spirit appalled or admiring.    Take a bow Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary – writers of this extreme carbohydrate tribute to Bake Off’s eleven years on two networks, for my biro sped across the page in the darkness.     I seem to have scrawled the words “Dont be so despondent, put more water in your fondant’  and I think it was admiration that time. 

        It certainly was in the signature number from Grace Mouat’s Izzy,  the posh-mean-girl character who is only doing it to get on telly – “I’ll get on Loose Women, and design my own linen, and Beyoncé will be my best friend”,  a superb summing-up of Generation Z dim-bition.    I also seem to have scrawled “dip your little finger in my raclette”,  which falls to Haydn Gwynne as the masterful she-judge.

              The idea, a nice one, is to consider the musical as a season that was never broadcast.  There’s  a cookie-cutter predictable cast of characters who we are under orders to consider lovable.    The presenters (Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige)  do a good job of being every bit as naff with their annoying questions as the real ones,   while the lofty judges (who are NOT called Pru Leith and Paul Hollywood,  though what with the motorbike, her  hairdo and the I’m-a-top-businesswoman number snarl you might suspect it. 

     Among the contenders there’s posh bad  Izzy (don’t worry,  she recants, after doing a terrible thing with a creme-brulée gun to the  humble heroine Gemma, a carer from Blackpool who needs to find confidence) . There’s an aircraft engineer with a taste for precision,  a  widowed Dad with a lovable kid,  and Hassan the Syrian refugee,  who discusses how British they both are with Francesca the Italian immigrant.  There’s earthy Babs – very important, Claire Moore turning the heat up to the edge of intolerable –  and hippie vegan Dezza,  who gets thrown out and in one of the few crisper edges of the plot keeps crashing back in.   All the contestants have a brief back-story – neatly handled – and it is no spoiler to reveal that the conclusion to everything is that it’s not really a competition (or a TV moneyspinner).  It’s a JOURNEY, and it’s all about being people together, er in a space, like a theatre.   

         So that’s got  the soggy bottom of it over with, and nobody is going to turn up thinking it’s going to be Joe Gorton,  after all.     There’s a lot of good to balance it out: some of the songs,  notably “I’ll never be me without you” ,  will become the sort of standards which in future decades Elaine Paige  will play on Sunday afternoon R2, and I mean that as praise.   “Babs’ Lament”  over the toothsome but unattainable he-judge may also survive, and  Haydn Gwynne as judge Pam actually does a full cartwheel at one point, one of those breathtaking proofs that actors are not like the rest of us in our mid-sixties.  

        But it’s the big showstopper in the first half  which is almost worth the ticket price alone:  “Slap it like that” led by John Owen-Jones in the Paul-Hollywood role involves mass percussive strudel-dough choreography.   Georgina Lamb – who keeps this big cast moving fast and neatly all the time – has had to liaise with Alice Power the “Set, Costume and Cake designer” to create a dough which could withstand the extreme slapping.   I must honour them for that.   Especially if they  er – knead –  to make a new lot twice on matinée days. 

    Yes, it was jolly.    Charlotte Wakefield has a particularly beautiful voice, too,  and if the storylines are beaten thinner than the airiest Filo pastry,  who cares?   I consulted theatrecat’s mice and the fourth one sidled in, burping, sugary frosting round its whiskers.   to  13 May

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THE TIME MACHINE          touring 


   H.G.Wells is the inspiration,  with a larkily extrovert Dave Hearn from Mischief Theatre pretending to be his great-grandson, heir, and owner of the tech-spec for what he ‘reveals’ as the real Time-travel device.  But don’t expect more than half a dozen lines about Wells’  Victorian-socialist foreboding about the future of the human race, divided a hundred years on into drippy gentle Eloi,   beneath whom the angry Morlocks do all the work and prey on them.   The script by Steven Canny and John Nicholson takes the 19c novella as a springboard for a three-person meta-theatrical romp in show-goes-wrong style,  the fourth wall abolished and the audience primed for involvement.

        It uses favourite Mischief-style  jokes like out-of-sync lines  (nicely appropriate to time travel)  and arguments between the cast  (completed by Michael Dylan and Amy Revelle)  ,  some of them pleasingly feminist as Revelle,  makes suggestions immediately credited to the men.   

     The structure is that the three were originally doing The Importance of Being Earnest for a low-grade live tour,  but got enthused by the idea of doing this instead, so they inevitably mess it up.   There are some cracking ideas,  and real wit in the hurried early attempt to illustrate the three famous impossibilities of time travel:   the Grandfather, Killing Hitler and Unchangeable Tiimeline theories. They do this in sketches involving among Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy,  and an attempt by Meghan Sussex to assassinate Queen  Victoria for begetting a dysfunctional royal family. Later they attempt to redeem their worst mistake by borrowing a phone and demanding a time capsule be buried by a university so future science can fix it in 100,000 years’ time:  the “Anyone here involved with a university?” saw some very cautious hands go up.  

         Sometimes the knowing larkiness palls a bit if you’re old and jaded, but the show doesn’t flag, and it’s a handsome enough production:   neat for touring with a smart giant clock in green marbling, a roaming door and a collection of labels.  The  ingenuity will amuse and surprise adults unfamiliar with this cheerful genre.  Most importantly (I caught the last matinee in Ipswich, after a week in which word-of-mouth filled the New Wolsey theatre more every night)  I can tell you that it absolutely thrills children and young teenagers, and may even get some arguing about the philosophy of time travel. 

       Orla O’Loughlin’s production for Original Theatre saw laughs large and real.  Hearn is particularly good at random wind-ups of the willing audience volunteers near the end (“How comfortable are you with improvised combat?” he asked one stately grey-haired figure)  .  And I am pleased to seen the trio’s final return to Oscar Wilde with a remarkably well-rehearsed  Importance of Being Earnest HipHop Dance Mix.  Handbag! Hand-bag! 

       Let critics sniff, and some will.  Audiences will leave feeling cheerful.   It is what it is: and that is  a lot of fun.  

tour dates:,  to 29 April

Derby now, then York, Eastbourne, Malvern, Bolton, Bath

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GRENFELL: SYSTEM FAILURE. Tabernacle & Marylebone


         An Afghan army officer flees the Taleban and finds safety on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower.  His local nickhame is  “Sabar”, meaning “patient”, in tribute to his calm kind nature.  When the fire erupts below them they obey the standard  instruction to “stay put”. When  no help arrives and his terrified choking wife has to be restrained from jumping,   he tells her and his son to go down but stays, soldierly,  to help four women, using wet towels against the terrible smoke. In his last moments Mohammed Abed Neda sends a calm farewell phone message:  “I am leaving this world. Goodbye”.   His wife and son escaped, stepping over the dying on the endless smoke-filled stairs.   

        There is a trigger warning before Imram Khan QC (played by Tanveer Ghani) calmly relates all this, but nobody leaves.  Nor should we.   

      After the  first part of this serious, devastating reconstruction of the Inquiry into Grenfell Tower. (( I titled the review “Devil in the details”.  Meet new devils of detail in this new selection of scenes from the careful, civil questionings by Richard Millett QC (played by Ron Cook). under Sir Martin Moore-Bick (Thomas Wheatley). As  before they remain as soberly unemphatic and untheatrical as the originals.  This second part reinforces the same messages and morals but provokes  new reflections beyond them.   It isn’t just telling us about one tower, one fire, one multiple tragedy, but bristles with salutary warnings for politics, administration and simple  professionalism across a range of duties and disciplines.  

       I had wondered how valuable would be the book-ending of this one  by two individual cases – that of Sabar, above, and some opening evidence from Hisam Choucair (Shahzad Ali) about the chaos of official reaction on the ground as he searched through eleven hospitals in the hope, never fulfilled, of finding six of his family alive.  My fear was of intrusive mawkishness, and besides my instinct was to leave the bereaved to mourn in private,  while hungering as a citizen for practical detail: the nuts and bolts, the idlenesses and cynicisms and sloppy messagings and back-coverings and cheeseparing dismissiveness which enabled the disaster to be so extreme.  I was wrong: both the quiet judgement of Choucair and the decency of patient Sabar contribute,  without emotionalism, to the power of the inquiry itself.

        It does return to the practical engineering – the disastrous choice of highly flammable cladding and designed ‘chimney’ gaps in the walling.  There is a particularly shocking sequence of internal WhatsApp messages at Kingspan “shit product…LOL..”  , a cultural cynicism which, unamazingly, their head of marketing claims not to recognize, perish the thought. And there’s a copybook example,  from a Building Research Establishment expert, of what happens when as a mid-range functionary you know something is dodgy but don’t blow the whistle loudly enough because that would  annoy a blustering, bumf-shuffling senior civil servant in a  government department.  “We spoke when we were invited to” says the BRE lady primly. Knowing, now, that she should have shouted. Or been encouraged to.     This leads – via a remarkable performance by Nigel Betts as Brian Martin of the DCLG – to an unveiling of how David Cameron’s war on ‘red tape” encouraged carelessness in building regulations with its blithe chat about bureaucratic “enemies of enterprise” and the “unnecessary burden’ of things like –  I dunno, checking that you’re not letting councils wrap skyscrapers in fast-flaming chemicals. 

         The overarching theme is in the title:  it was systems that failed all along, both in national administration and regulation and in simple ground-level resilience and care (the community did a lot better than the Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose abiding shame this all is).  The systems were ill-drawn and idly regulated, by people with insufficient respect for the masses beneath their attention.  

      But there is a sense of fairness, of seriousness in Nick Kent’s and Richard Norton-Taylor’s production.   Even the dodgiest witnesses do not  indulge in weasel faces and  Iagoesque stagecraft. They just say the words as they were spoken, including the real, hindsighted shock and sorrow the disaster brought them.   Chair and lawyers maintain the dispassionate tone, with only the tiniest flick of irritation as Moore-Bick introduces a new question: one finds oneself astonished at the lawyerly ability to concentrate on every word, every issue, every numbered piece of evidence: honour to them.  

      The only moment of comedy comes, and we are glad of it, in the evidence of LordPickles (Howard Crossley,  resisting caricature even as he speaks the verbatim arrogant bluster of that personage).   He is positively shocked that he should be expected “At My Level” to have known a damn thing about building regulations, and positively rebukes the QC for being “not familiar with how government works”.  

    Well, after a week of  Hancock & co WhatsAppery we all have more of an idea than we maybe did before. Boris Johnson gets a discredit too, by the way:  it wasn’t just Osborne’s carefree ‘austerity’ and the Kensington and Chelsea council mean minded maintenance of the block:   for who was it as London Mayor who reduced fire stations and manpower?    We see how it took a good few years to fashion the loopholes  through which the lethal cladding was commissioned, bought and slapped on to prettify a towerful of poorer, less influential tenants.   

      We must wait for the full and final report of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry.  But meanwhile,  take the time to watch these excerpts and reflect.  Every public servant should see it.  Every voter, too.

Boxoffice.        Tabernacle, W11 till 12 March.

 Then Marylebone Theatre 14-26 March

Rating  five.

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     It’s an architectural moment. Within the stark brutalist NT is a set in homage to a brutalist landmark:  the early 1960’s Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, the largest listed building in the world.  Three generations of tenants interweave in the clean-lined kitchen and living room,   ghosts in one another’s lives,  telling in their very existence a universal story of postwar British cities.  First the Stanhopes, thrilled by the modern kitchen,  glad to be clear of the leaking, rat-ridden slums below,  hoping for a baby,  Harry thrilled to be made the youngest foreman ever in the steelworks.   Then, 29 years later here’s the building ageing, crime-ridden and poorly tended,  housing refugees from Liberia who are warned always to lock the front door.  Roll on 25 years more,   and, after sale to private developers (it was too listed to demolish!)  Park Hill has been renovated and smartened up,  and Poppy,  quintessential yuppie digital exec, flees a broken heart in London (“its toxic”) and moves into the same flat  – “It’s a split-level duplex!”    She snaps defensively as her parents (very funny) settle her in with a middle-England political worry about politics  “They do tend to get a bit red this far north”.   

      There are some excellent, very local jokes (I went with my Sheffield-born husband),  notably about Henderson’s Relish (“the h is silent’),  which of course the first couple know all about,  the African refugees find  a surprising relief from the awful blandness of English food,  and Poppy of 2015 is given as a flatwarming present by her amiable colleague Marcus.   The show won “best new musical” when it launched at the Crucible,  and winding  through it like gobbets of Henderson’s Relish  are the soulful Britpop songs of Sheffield’s legendary  Richard Hawley , who co-created  it with Chris Bush.

       There are some spectacular musical moments, solo and ensemble with this big, heartfelt cast:  the first half ends with “Storm a-coming” as history rolls on to threaten industrial decline, and some of the quieter ones in the second act are beautiful. There’s a  problem for me though (it won’t be one for hardline Hawley fans, for the singing is terrific). This   is simply  that there are far too many big and quite long numbers,   and often they break the golden rule of musicals by simply not moving the story on, but interrupting it. 

        And the story is terrific, Britain’s  tale:  from the roof descend lit signs telling you of the year, as critical elections loom. The  personal anger and decline of poor Harry the  steelworker (Robert Lonsdale) is superbly done,  and so are the resentments, confusions and yearnings of the youngest refugee Joy (Faith Omole) .Sometimes a song actually infuriates. For instance, just as we are getting a historic frisson of reality in being shown  how passionately some hoped for a Kinnock government and a bright new Jerusalem,  we are thrown into a long torch-song.  It’s by Poppy’s modern lesbian lover who wants to come back to her.   

    That is the other problem,  perhaps an unavoidable one:  each group has some big crisis and trouble , but there’s an embarrassing and perhaps intentional imbalance..  The 1960 steelworks couple face the hideous waste of skills and people in the ’80’s industrial strikes, job losses and humiliations of the unions.   It’s real.  The Liberian family  are refugees, working hard to make a life despite homesickness and fear (Joy’s parents are still out there).  It’s real.   But Poppy, despite Alex Young’s likeability and humour,  has property and a job even when she has to go freelance, and only romantic and modern issues about love and identity to confront. Hashtag, Firstworldproblems.    Yes, theyre real to her, but a bit less to us.

        The one moment when this awkward imbalance is addressed is rather brilliant though: in the second half a new year party sees Connie the estate agent and overall narrator attending a party for Poppy’s friends,  and when the ex-lover Nicky crashes it suffering from resentment because she hasn’t got money or a flat like Poppy,    there’s a shouting match about how Connie the estate agent was one of the original tenants but now real working class people like her  had been forced  to make way for the renovation and rich private owners of today.   Connie (Bobbie Little) sharply skewers this romantic-socialism.   She’f fine.    “We moved on. That’s what people do. I’ve got a garden and a dog and sash windows!”.   

      Could have done with more of that, and more development of the characters’ stories rather than the weight of big numbers.  But it’s an achievement,  a proper story,  and one born well away from London, so honour to it.  But by the way, Ms Rush,  you don’t get a free pass for having a character say “You and your Richard Curtis bullshit!”. Not while at that moment they are  right in the middle of a classic Richard-Curtis dash to reconciliation. Even if it takes place on a balcony not at an airport.   

Box office. To 25 March

Rating four

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PHAEDRA. Lyttelton, SE1


    The Greeks just go on giving.  Writer-director Simon Stone’s play,  set today amid the upper-middle classes of Holland Park and second-home Suffolk,  credits itself modestly as “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine”.  Ah, here it comes again; two thousand years of blokes worrying about the ladies running amok when not kept under proper male control:  murderous Medea, uncooperative Antigone, and in this case Phaedra falling in love with her stepson.  Mr Stone has also explained that he has a great interest in menopause and its emotional trials,  and it is pretty clear from the start that our heroine  is ripe for this intriguingly fashionable trouble.  

      Janet McTeer plays Helen,  a shadow cabinet minister, with expensive blonde hair  and a symmetrical family.   The opening scene –  it’s  in yet another revolving glass fishtank, by the way – sketches them. There’s   Declan, an entitled teen from hell who jumps on the posh white sofa in his trainers and tells everyone to fuck off;  there’s grownup Isolde who’s been failing to conceive with her wet partner Eric, but fundraises for an NGO and is too socially conscious to do IVF. Paul Chahidi is the Iranian-born, tolerantly domestic paterfamilias.  Chahidi, thank God, is very funny and credible.  When Birmingham is mentioned he patronizingly gushes “nice town!”but asked has he actually been there says yes, er, no, it must have been Bristol…  Perfect. 

      The family talk at once, naturalistically so little sense arises for a while except a hint  that they’re all very preoccupied with sex. Into their midst comes Sofiane,  the son of Helen’s first love in her wild Morocco phase with rich Oxford mates: he was a dissident artist and of course Sofiane looks just like him so  Helen  (ooh, we menopausal menaces!) immediately wriggles and flirts like a teenager.  Well, Assaaad Bouab from Paris is beyond irresistible.   His father Achraf long ago died in what Helen romantically likes to relate as a crash caused by the secret police cutting his brakes,  but which – in the first properly dramatic moment – Sofiane reveals was more to do with the drugging and drinking into which she, a carefree affluent Western hippie, led a decent man.  He was just nine when she took him off his real family, once Sofiane saw them in congress while his mother wept.   Obviously his arrival rapidly leads to a steamy embrace with Madam Minister  in a number of sets the glass box magically contains ,  notably a floor mattress in an unoccupied ?Birmingham office block where one of his friends does security.   It also contains (top marks to the stage crew)  some breast-high reeds in Suffolk where the family bicker a bit more,  Isolde and Eric break up, and Helen confides to a weary MP friend that this new passion makes her  body feel alive and it’s forever.  

       Sadly Sofiane’s  is less determined,  and when Isolde confronts him about the affair – guess what, in no time there’s more work for the Intimacy Co-Ordinator!. This all happens in short chopped scenes between deep blackouts and bursts of dramatic exotic-tribal-sacred score by Stefan Gregory.   

    I was a bit jaded by the interval, frankly:  too many people shouting “It’s complicated” when actually it isn’t:  feels more like every confessional-cougar feature about How My Younger Lover Gave Me Back Myself,  crossed with BBC4 Hotter Than My Daughter.  They’re all just too shallow to be Greek, or tragic, or anything but mildly satirically interesting and well-acted (Mackenzie Davis as Isolde, a professional debut, deserves credit for making her as real as the script allows. I even believed the bit about being body-shamed by a German boy on the beach when she was twelve). 

         But never fear.  The second half brightens up no end,  with Helen’s restaurant birthday party two months on.  It starts with her friend  telling  her she’s a  self centred bitch, and as Sufian and Isolde arrive together  and Hugo turns out both more drunk and less tolerant than usual (I do love Paul Chahidi!) ,  it  descends into a comedy of unwelcome revelations. Good fun,  rather as if Alan Ayckbourn had popped in to give the author a hand.  A grand  moment from John MacMillan’s hitherto wet Erik, by the way,  and stalwart work by supernumaries  as other restaurant customers politely trying to ignore the screaming.   

          I did wonder how the  heroically self-absorbed heroine would get round to her  compulsory Euripidean suicide – as sketched so far,  her character seemed more likely to write an exculpatory piece in the Guardian and do Strictly – but when the tabloids get her,  the Cabinet career falters since “it doesn’t look good for the party’s stance on immigration” if ministers keep shagging illegal immigrants.  So in a  rather awkwardly tacked- on coda,  the great glass fishtank turns out to contain a snowy Moroccan mountainside where fearful truths about her delusionary romance come clear, albeit in hissed French with surtitles  delivered by a whole new character.  So at last  McTeer is allowed a full mad melodramatic  range.  Remembered how good she really is. Deserves a better, far less uneven,  play. , to 8 april

Rating three.

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THE LEHMAN TRILOGY. Gillian Lynne Theatre WC2


       Three hour-long plays, two intervals, three men in black frock-coats explain some financial history in a revolving glass box in front of a projected , mainly monochrome, cyclorama.  When it triumphed at the National Theatre in 2018 I wrote “this show has no right to be so much fun”.(   Recast and home again, it still is a treat after waltzing Broadway and LA and  a Tony for Best Play.

          First time round it was during Trump’s visit:  now it’s post- Trussonomics.   Clearly there’s  never a wrong time to tell this moral, intriguing, endlessly fascinating tale about the collapse of the immense American finance house Lehman Brothers, whose legal but lethal subprime activities triggered a global financial crisis. 

         The play earned every one of its plaudits,  for its Italian author Stefano Massini, adaptor Ben Power,  director Mendes and, not least, the designer Es Devlin, who created the  glass box evoking a NY office-block hell,  whose  interior shapes are constantly rebuilt by the players to create a past:  their building blocks are the cardboard file-boxes in which ruined employees carry home their belongings. If they survive at all.   

       As it opens, the three brothers are ghosts in that modern office,  drifting back to how it all began.   Chaim, first out of Bavaria in 1844, agrees with the 1844 immigration officer that OK, he’s called Henry.  In the Alabama cotton–fields he starts a small fabric and garment store serving owners and overseers (and slaves, who come in on Sunday when it’s the only shop open, Lehman having marked Shabbat).  Three years later Emanuel arrives, then the youngest brother Meyer , nicknamed “potato” and regarded by the family as a useful buffer between his strong-willed elders.  They move into selling seeds, tools and carts – “it’s all business”.    A fire devastates the crops, and with vigorous Jewish pragmatism Henry sees that when “everything is lost, everything must be re-bought and re-planted”. So they lend against future repayment in a share of the crop; cut a deal with the state governor , become a bank and  are soon selling on the cotton,  making deals with more plantations and big industry.  Denim was born so.  They think bigger,  dodge round problems and disasters and a Civil War with quarrelsome, inventive energy and ever-modifying dreams, scrawl calculations on the glass with marker pens.

         They have to find acceptance too:  be trusted, talk doubters round, marry.  When Emanuel goes to New York he is delighted to find Jewish names on offices  – Goldman, Sachs, Sondheim.   In their newly invented role as “middlemen”,  they confound doubters and soon millionsworth of business is “all passing through a small room in the South where the doorhandle still sticks”.  But New York is the magnet, and growth the imperative.   They survive,  marry, raise new generations, grow, change ….

        It is an acting challenge, a masterclass.  Nigel Lindsay is Henry, Michael Malogun Emanuel,  Hadley Fraser young Meyer.  Each drops deftly in and out of becoming other characters: locals, clients, politicians, their own wives and children with varying characters and ages.     Fraser and Lindsay in particular are excellent shape-shifters, clowns when needed;  but all three hold every diverse part, sometimes only for seconds, with clarity and wit.   Sometimes you laugh at their nerve and cheek and  family bickering (one leaves altogether, for politics).  Sometimes there is a still personal moment acknowledging the strangeness of the immigrant experience.  When  Meyer keeps his outdated striped-spats in his thoughtful old age it is because when you arrived from Ellis Island in the 1840s,   everyone looked at your shoes.  Often – the glass set is one of the stars –  one of them grabs a marker pen and scrawls something on the  walls: a new company name,  a calculation, an idea.

         The trilogy shape is elegant, a reproachful history lesson in how the West’s exuberant expansion blunted sense and virtue.  The first act is about firm but honest business, trading solid goods,  with the moral background of Jewish observant tradition : they sit shiva for a week for Henry.  The middle act is  expansion, industry, coffee, tobacco, railroads, the vaudeville whirl of ’20s New York ,  gambling  risk against responsibility:  the vaudeville tightrope-walker Solomon Paprinski crosses Wall Street for years without falling, until, a living metaphor,  he falls.   Yet as Lehmans came through the Civil war, middlemen between North and South, so they have to survive the ’30s.  The third act is grim with suicides on trading floors and poverty on the streets,  but a young Lehman  generation is rising.,   both in the boardroom and in hardscrabble families. Which will, finally, produce the whirling ruthless chaos of a business where there is no real coal or tobacco or railroads but money. And “money is a ghost, it is air, it is words…what if everyone stops believing?”.  And now shiva for the last family death is held not for a week, but for three minutes.   The last Lehman , power lost,  dances the Twist amid  tieless, ambitious tech-crazy colleagues in a frenzy of  20c speed and greed,  the cyclorama of New York windows whirling  behind them until you have to hold onto your chair, half laughing and half afraid.  As we should be.  Magnificent. 

Box office To 20 May

Rating 5.

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    Here’s a love story, an idyll of 18c Prussia:  Corporal Anastasius Linck, a Hanoverian musketeer in dashing white breeches and shiny buttons is espied  from a window by the lovely, undowered but extremely bored and rebellious Catharina Mulhahn.  Our hero is forced to desert the regiment and flee under the assumed name of Rosenstengel to work as a cloth-monger and dyer, since a medical examination for the clap would have revealed that he is born a woman. But love must have its way, and finds its idyll in a garret until an outraged mother of the bride  and the clumping simplicities of a bygone penal code catch up with them, comically but lethally.

     There is nothing new about people stepping outside the tiresome social conventions laid down for the body they were born with.  Across cultures  and down history there have been many  characters forceful enough either to live as the opposite sex, or to declare themselves as the current fashionable line has it “nonbinary”:  something beyond and different.    

       We hear much of the males, especially their persecution in cultures which lately included our own, but perhaps not enough of the women: amazons and military maids, girls who ran off to be pirates, sailors , soldiers. Some tales are of following a lover –  like Sweet Polly Oliver or Leonora in Fidelio –  some just wanted adventure and were – as many of us have been – resentful of female limitation. Others  were lesbian and fell in love with girls. Of those female lovers, some  knew perfectly well what was going on below their dashing partners’ breeches, others seemingly not.  And certainly stiffly conventional societies like 18c Prussia  preferred to believe such wives were dupes. So this is the backbone of a fascinating story which inspires a playful tragicomedy from Ruby Thomas,  who has already dazzled us twice downstairs in this  theatre which discovers new writers and tends them well. 

      She found the story of Linck and Mulhahn in a 1722 account of the court case which condemned both – “him” to death, her to prison needlework and exile.  With director Owen Horsley and some enlivening bursts of modern disco she goes at it playfully, in a clean stark abstract set which becomes barracks, bar, home, garret and finally courtroom. It is at times gloriously funny, often deeply touching in the portrait of their brief domestic fulfilment. Maggie Bain is glorious, crop-haired and swashbucklingly boyish as a soldier, grave and troubled in moments of unease at the dangerous social unacceptability of their love.Helena Wilson as Catharina is a likeable hoyden, clashing with a fabulously drawn Lucy Black as her mother,  a mistress of pass-ag petit-point who is eventually roused to terrified hysteria at the danger of the situation.

       The long first act is a delight, sharp and credible and funny,  with a bit too much young-intellectual chat about Locke and Liebnitz, but real heart.   After the interval they are in court, and Thomas’ gift for uproarious comedy this time is lavished on Kammy Darweish’s  bored old judge and the pious prosecutor and doddering defence. Mother’s panicked evidence is good, and the decent fellow-soldier Johann – who always knew, but respected a fellow-warrior female or not – adds to the sense of how absurd it was, and still is, for law to interfere in private love of any kind.  

      At which point I hoped that this sense of absurdity and celebration of diverse ways of being would lead our author on to some timeless, and still playful,  ending.  Alas, it was not to be: it goes literal ,and heavyset preachy. A touching but overdone last prison parting is followed by a scaffold speech too far, and the hammering of a message that “even if I am done away with , those like me will remain” . Then a modern couple in dungarees and t shirt meet in a theatre now to “weave their own story” of passion and suffering.  Until those last ten minutes I was cheering.  It faded a bit, killed a mouse below, but Ruby Thomas is absolutely one to watch , its a good evening, and I will follow every play in her future. 

     My only quibble is the hard insistence in the playscript that Linck must never be played by a “cis heterosexual male or female”. If another playwright ruled to exclude gay actors, imagine the row. If individual privacy in sexual love  is sacred, let it remain so. 

box office    to 4 march


Linck & Mülhahn has been kindly supported by the Godwin family.

The  T.S. Eliot Foundation commissioned Linck & Mülhahn.

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JUMPING THE SHARK Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds & touring


    It’s a very good idea, bang on the money:  David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (TV sitcom writers with a pedigree) set their play in a bland provincial hotel where five hopefuls are attending a weekend course on sitcom-writing.  Two are former or resting actors – Robin Sebastian as Gavin sending up his trade from poseur-to-pitiable,  and Sarah Moyle as Pam,  who may well be on the edge of divorcing an invisible Jeremy.  Jack Trueman is Dale, a manspreading braggart kitchen-fitter, Harry Visinoni is Morgan, a painfully cool would-be sci-fi-rap-fantasist,  and Jasmine Armfield  probably the youngest:   a slightly mysterious, self-contained Amy.

        Their magisterial tutor, supposedly half of a legendary writing duo,  is David Schaal as Frank:  full of handbook truisms about flawed protagonists,  jeopardy, comic misreading and  the need to avoid “jumping the shark” into improbability. 

There are a lot of good lines here, interesting in themselves,   and I love Frank’s passionate view that all of our culture has been shaped by the reassuring, happy gleam of the TV sitcoms,  we all quote and which console us that in the end we will laugh at life’s real embarrassments, disasters and humiliations.  

      All the potential private flaws of the five are clearly set out, as each tells a short ‘story about themselves’ for Frank to dissect and suggest improvements to;  but unfortunately the first half feels as if you are actually at the seminar.   There were good laughs in the Bury audience,  but even at just over an hour, the first act could do with a trim.

       A slow first half is forgivable, but the graver problem is that the only hint of a real crisis coming at the denouement is in the hands of Amy:  as the scene ends and they all scuttle off to write their sample sitcom scenes,  she reminds Frank that she has been at one of his courses before.  But Armfield, successful formerly as Bex in EastEnders onscreen,  gives  a downbeat TV performance on a real stage  . Too many lines are,  frankly, semi-audible even in this small theatre.  I am sure that as the tour progresses `(this is its very beginning) she will settle, slow down and project.  .  

       But it’s a problem because her back-story and Frank’s  is critical to the whole plot.  In the brighter second half,   properly funnily and with much glee from the audience,  all the characters attempt a different sitcom and unintentionally reveal their own hangups (Jack Trueman’s kitchen-fitter is genuinely touching,  Moyle’s Pam is of a Victoria-Wood standard).     And finally we get the scene where Amy does hers and outs Frank, and that should be electric.  It would be, if it were  only done with more conviction and pace and projection, and  I hope it will be. 

       Because, as I say, it’s a great idea and not unenjoyable:  but its denouement desperately needs theatricality,  something live and important and  painful and right in your face.   I wish it well.   And enjoyed the downbeat, gentle coda, especially for the kitchen-fitter’s sake.    to Saturday

touring  to 1 April, Westcliffe on SEa next.

Tour  details

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

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

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

rating two 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office.  To 4 Feb

Rating five.  

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IN THE NET Jermyn Street Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating two.

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ALLEGIANCE Charing Cross Theatre WC1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office    To 8 April

Rating 4.

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

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

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

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


rating four

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


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

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

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

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

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

box office  to 31 Jan at Duke of York’s

Then touring to 1 April

rating  5

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THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich


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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxoffice     To 31 dec

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SONS OF THE PROPHET Hampstead Theatre NW3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office to 14 Jan. rating FIVE

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NEWSIES Troubadour, Wembley Park


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four 

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HEX Olivier, SE1


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

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

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

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

rating  three 

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ORLANDO Garrick Theatre WC2



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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office. to 24 feb

Rating 3.

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OTHELLO. Lyttelton, SE1


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

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

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

Box office  to 21 Jan


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

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BEST OF ENEMIES. Noel Coward Theatre WC1


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

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

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

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THE WIND IN THE WILTONS.        Wiltons Music Hall, E1


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four.

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A SHERLOCK CAROL Marylebone Theatre NW1


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

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

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

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

rating three

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Box office   To 17 december 

Rating four.

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MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION. Theatre Royal Bath & touring


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Saturday in Bath then Richmond, Chichester

Rating 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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BLACKOUT SONGS Hampstead Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office  To 10 December

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office  To 12 November.   

Rating four 

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MARY. Hampstead theatre NW3


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

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

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

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

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

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

To 26 nov.

Rating. Three.

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TAMMY FAYE. Almeida, N1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MARVELLOUS @sohoplace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four  

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GOOD Harold Pinter Theatre SW1


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

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

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

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

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

www.    to 24 December

Rating four.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four.

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THE DOCTOR. Duke of York’s WC1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office  To 11 December

Rating. Still 4

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

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

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

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

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

rating five

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RAVENSCOURT Hampstead Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxoffice To 29 oct

Rating four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOX OFFICE.  To 22 Oct

Rating three as theatre,  five for usefulness.  

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THE RAVEN. Touring East


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”.

Breaks your heart.  

Box office     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office To 27 Nov

Rating five.

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NOISES OFF. Theatre Royal Bath, and touring


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

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

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

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

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

Rating. Five.

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WOMAN IN MIND.        Chichester Festival Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

Box office to 15 October

Rating three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating five.

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DISTINGUISHED VILLA.      Finborough Theatre SW10


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating four.

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ROSE Park Theatre, N4


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box office To 15 October

Rating 5.

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