TOUCHING THE VOID Royal, Northampton & Scotland later

THE HEIGHTS OF LIFE 

 

 

      Theatre sometimes gives films – and books – a remarkable translation, making stories deeper ,stranger ,  more tense.   Maybe  it is the very act of pretending:  the shared collusion it takes to turn planks and cloth into a new world (a knack which marks everything director Tom Morris  does). 

       Anyway, this is remarkable.  We know the story of Joe Simpson’s book: climbing in the remotest Andes with his friend Simon Yates,  he had a disastrous fall into a icy crevasse, smashing his leg and hip.  Yates held him on the rope for 90 minutes,  but could not pull him up and had not enough rope to let him down; he did the climbers’ unthinkable, terrifying forbidden thing  and cut it before they both died of exposure and starvation.       Which, as Simpson later acknowledged, ironically gave him a chance and a choice.  Deep in the crevasse, even more injured, in pain and delusion he dragged himself towards a patch of light and found, astonishingly, a way out through the bitter moraine towards the base camp.   

         I missed it at the Bristol Old Vic for logistical reasons,  but as colleagues in the travel-expenses cadre raved,  hastily bought a ticket for its co-producing house in Northampton (It’s off to Scotland in Jan., Fuel’s third collaborators being the Lyceum).   The poet-playwright David Greig has adapted it with his usual imaginative, oddball brilliance,  cleverly framing it by starting at an imagined wake for Simpson (Josh Williams) at the Clachaig  Inn in Scotland. This enables  the character of Simpson’s sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton) , a furious, sorrowful goth , to express doubt and fury at the absurdity of the climbers’ Gore-Tex-and-crampon world,  and to be persuaded by Simon (Edward Hayter) to understand the thrill and challenge of climbing,  -tipping tables and upturned chairs  Agile, scornful and intrigued,  the girl outsider draws us into their world  which is either “reaching for the heights of life”, or else “just another addiction”. 

            So does Patrick McNamee’s backpacking hippie Richard, who looked after their base-camp tents and was equally bemused by their dangerous pastime.    He narrates, often,  excitable and young, oddly suitable.   The wake, of course, is part of the delirium through which the struggling Joe passes;  later,  Sarah reappears by his side, urging and mocking her beloved brother towards life.

   

         The start draws us in, with no props beyond odd pub furniture, to a world, a brotherhood.  Violent jarring shirrrrrrs take us in and out of imagined moments; there is a song, strangely effective.  Then we are there, on Siula Grande:  just a suspended structure of struts , rags and cloth,  but curiously convincing as they clamber around it, dig a snowhole, hit the moment of disaster.

     Sometimes Joe’s struggle is almost too painful to watch.  Yet moments of universality and philosophy –   ice-axes of startling script –   keep us pinned to it, forgetting that we know the end already.   There is a kind of dance; an interaction between sister and brother that moved my heart more deeply even than the imminence of death.   Joe’s near-death brings strangeness, reflection on the animal resistance to dying and the danger of its “surprisingly nice” warmth.  But from that, to live, a struggler must be dragged back in pain.   Adventure, life, death, youth and hope lie all before us on the simplest of stage.      

royalandderngate.co.uk  to  20 Oct, hurry.

In Edinburgh  and Inverness early 2019

rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE WIDER EARTH Natural History Museum

THE YOUNG DARWIN RISES AGAIN

  

 

    The Jerwood Gallery is for the first time a theatre: in the small excitement of a new space dark shapes loom ahead of us,  angular, wooden.  Spotlights throw moving blobs of light on the floor, shining amoebae.  A voice speaks words from Genesis.  

   

      Thus artfully we are put into a settled,  clerical 18th century mood: a Biblical earth only 4000 years old,  unchanging, each creature designed and signed off in its permanent form by the hand of God.   Then, against an English sky,  young Charles Darwin returns to his future wife Emma after five years at sea, hoping she has not changed.  He has changed, though,  in deeper ways.  The voyage of the Beagle, and the natural marvels the young naturalist saw and reflected on,   would lead all the way years later to the  magisterial Origin of Species:   the evolutionary theory that shook conventional Christian bigotry and, God help us, in some quarters still does.  

 

     David Morton’s play has had success in Australia ,  and now is refined – with careful input from the Natural History Museum’s paleobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of Darwin’s Fossils.   It shows us a young man,  urged towards the clergy by his father but keener to wonder about things like why marine fossils turn up on mountainsides.   He is encouraged by the Rev. Henslow at Cambridge to apply for the naturalist’s post on a naval expedition and look at everything  afresh “It’s the small things that change the world…if you send a trained naturalist into the field, everything he finds with reassure him of what he already knows”.  

 

      Bradley Foster is perfect as Darwin,  youthful and keen, at first striking the wrong note with the dourly RN Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) . They argue about slavery, Darwin being passionately abolitionist and Fitzroy both approving its economic advantage and thinking “civilization”  good for the slaves.  He  had actually got on board a captive Fuegan he named Jemmy Button:  he had been tended with care and “Christianized”, to be delivered back to Tierra del Fuego as a missionary.   

  

    The  marvellous, revolving, tricksy angular wooden set (with projections by Justin Harrison of 18c drawings or roaring seas and volcanoes) becomes the Beagle’s cramped quarters, and English hillside,  or the ridges and tracks where from Patagonia to the Galapagos the young man clambers and slithers, finding new creatures.  These are lovely wooden puppets;  scuttling iguanas, a majestic giant tortoise, strange birds,  shoals of fish, a whale, fireflies,  a pricelessly dignified armadillo. 

 

 

      There is jeopardy in Patagonia,  a volcano,  Fitzroy feeling he has failed in his own mission and Darwin intent, always wondering, but understanding Jemmy’s tribal idea of “the heat of the gods” running through every living thing.  The Biblical Christian  impediment to the growing knowledge  of evolution and natural selection,  the realization that it is about millennia not years – is strongly evoked.  The cruelty of nature shakes Darwin too – “such suffering and such majesty”  but  the Duck-billed platypus recalls him to admiring belief in a Creator, so brilliantly adapted is it.    Something can be a natural wonder but still a miracle…

      A show like this, in a museum and with a simplicity of script perfectly adapted to school groups, might well be nodded by as an educational kids’ show for the Christmas season.  Actually, it is dramatically more than that.  Unassumingly spectacular,  unwhimsically playful,  it is an affecting, respectful,  important story of a green young man who kept his eyes open and endured seasickness and doubt  and discomfort and danger.  And made great discoveries.     

 

http://www.thewiderearth.com/  to 30 Dec

rating four highly evolved mice     4 Meece Rating

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Donmar WC2

LUKE JONES TAKES THE MEASURE..

 

This is a made for measure Measure-For-Measure. Its greatest achievement is hacking the flabby old Jacobian down to the right side of 90 minutes. It rollicks through, giving a booster jab to the drama but keeping quiet pauses and poetry. 

However. Director Josie Rourke is having so much fun she runs it twice. The first, set in 1604, is a flat-out 5-mouse rendition. Then, as the interval looms, in flashes of light and a booming soundtrack we wind forward in moments to 2018. Old dress is whipped off for modern,  and we’re back at the beginning.   Ed Miliband (sitting in front) turned to his wife the QC with gasps of delight. She nodded back like a mother responding to a young boy who has just pointed out a JCB.

 

 

In this transition Isabella (the abused sister of imprisoned Claudio) switches roles with Angelo (the pious Deputy ruling over Vienna’s vices who begins to indulge his own lusts with Isabella as the target).

 

 

The problem is that the first rendition was brilliant. Jack Lowden’s Angelo a charismatic menace. His incredibly natural, humanely sinister delivery is brilliant “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life, my vouch against you, and my place i’ the state” could come straight out of a modern tale of power, sexual assault and the justice system.  Likewise Hayley Atwell is a perfect Isabella, the rage bubbling in her incredible to watch. The lines dance out of her mouth as if written yesterday. Rather than silently accepting her fate at the end of the play she lets out an almighty roar which blew tears out of my eyes. When Lowden’s creepy hands run up her skirt, her trembles are petrifying.

 

 

The twist turns this on its head, and the result is fascinating. There’s Atwell’s vicious, leery smile when she takes the role of the tyrannous Deputy, Jack Lowden’s twitchy, emasculated desperation; even the way characters like Claudio accept their death sentence when it’s delivered by a woman rather than a man.

But fascinating doesn’t quite get me over the line. You are still being forced to watch the same play again, having just seen it a Gin and Tonic ago.

 

Although the 2018 revamp tries to be achingly relevant ,  what it reaches is just more laughs. Neither Lowden nor Atwell play the opposite role as well as their original. I never buy into his horror, and her abuse seems half-hearted. Everything is slightly watered down, a bit more glib. Jokes which landed well in the first half are skipped past in the second in favour of something shoehorned in. It’s the lean 1604 telling that is a punch in the gut:  a pertinent MeToo story with heart and bite.

 

Box Office 020 3282 3808   Until 24th November

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM Wyndham’s, WC2

A MASTERPIECE OF LOVE AND LOSS

 

    I saw this on tour in Cambridge, and heroically held of telling you until the West End embargo lifted.  It’s wonderful: puzzling, moving, clever and humane.

       A daughter, kind and faintly exasperated, coaxes her father .  He stares from the window, speaks with sudden authority about strawberry jam and biscotti and with alarming ferocity .   His ability to cope and think straight is fading before our eyes, and she is edging him towards selling the big book-liined house where he has lived fifty years with his wife. People keep bringing flowers round. So far, so sadly recognisable.  A widower..

 

   But hang on, the wife is still there, bustling in to make mushroom casserole and tutting st the flowers. What? And she and the daughter, then another daughter, are talking in the past tense about the old man’s fame as a great writer, and editing his diaries.  In the first brief, transparent-curtain pause of this 80 minute play the preview audience was muttering “which one is dead?  Both? What?”  “I think it’s in one of their heads”said an uncertain voice. “or the daughter’s”.    “Or she’w mourning because he’s got dementia”.    Which of course is a kind of bereavement too:  maybe the old man, sometimes strangely unheard by the others on thes tage, is the one who is gone..

 

We have learned in the past couple of years just how efficiently the French shape-shifter of a playwright Florian Zeller can thoroughly mess with our heads, and how well-judged and flowing are Christopher Hampton’s translations.  Our heads spin and then, in jerks, our hearts move.  Nobody forgets the sneaky sex-cheating brilliance of The Lie and The Truth, and even more vividly the aloenatied confusions of The Mother and Kenneth Cranham’s triumph in the heartbreaking The Father, exploring the dislocations and irrealities of Alzheimer’s.   He is a master of illusion, confusion, the fierce fleeting certainties and timeshifts of dementia .

 

       In this play, faultlessly directed by Jonathan Kent,  the strangeness and pathos are extreme. Because though indeed Jonathan Pryce’s patriarch is in rising dementia,  and Eileen Atkins his living – or dead – wife,  the theme above all is love:    settled, interdependent , half-century devotion.    It has had challenges;  a disturbing visitor , sometimes from the care home,  sometimes something else entirely, makes that clear.  But  the core of it is bereavement: and as Dr Johnson said , the condition of any friendship is that one party must one day mourn the other.  

 

           The reality of the characters is total: Pryce’s father , Atkins’ patiently affectionate  and occasionally acerbic wife, who at one point reflects, as many an ageing parent does,  that while it is nice when the daughters visit it is good when they go and the pair are together, comfortable.

       

         Gradually we learn which way round it is, which conversations are unreal because they are memories, and which are simply delusions. We are always in the same kitchen with the bookshelves and hall beyond, and the window where the old man looks out for his wife changes its light, so we grasp how times of day and evening shift.    A final lighting effect is honestly devastating.  

box office    0844 4825120  to 1 December

RATING five  5 Meece Rating

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I’M NOT RUNNING Lyttelton, SE1

A DOSE HARD TO SWALLOW

 

David Hare has chronicled Labour politics – and the state of the nation  -for nearly half a century,  brilliantly catching  truths and tensions. This time his main theme is the difference between campaigners who become treasured heroes on limited issues – especially the NHS, which pushes everyone’s button – and pragmatic machine-politicians in government or opposition . With  a certain ominous predictability, the politico Jack  is a male lawyer, and the shining campaigner  a woman doctor Pauline, saving her local hospital.

 

But it feels like a mess. .We leap and fro over years 1997-2009-2018, with a revolving box of rooms which become, elegantly, a vast moving tv screen on which campaigner and politician offer fragments of interview. A press conference opens it,  a spin doctor announcing that Pauline is not running for the Labour leadership (which, as  in the daydreams of all right- thinking citizens and playwrights,  is obviously not held by an immovable old geezer with an allotment and an army of Twitter trolls).

 

 

Then we whirl back to her student digs and a set-to with her boyfriend Jack, involving  furious accusations about her promiscuity, his boozing, and how he made love to her in the wrong mood on Friday when they were both sozzled (a whisper of MeToo here). So they break up,and she gets on with her essay on the oesophagus.

 

Next time we all meet it is 2009,  Pauline has done a tracheotomy and is campaigning to save the hospital,Jack is married ,a rising Labour candidate armed with the usual arguments about centres of excellence actually being safer.  But they have no sooner met than hurtled into bed, then  promptly fought again.  It’s  Noel Coward’s Private Lives done grunge: no balconies or cocktail frocks but Sian Brooke as a ferocious ball of female rage in leggings and biker boots . She plays this not-entirely-likeable part with ferocity,  gamine, tense, confident and fuelled by childhood damage:  shouting, her trademark stance is hands on hips and body bent forward from the waist like a dangerously angry Principal Boy . Alex Hassall’s Jack has convincingly morphed from a drunken needy student boyfriend to a Blairy smartass keeping his nose clean with a Suitable Wife.

 

Joining the party is an agreeable young person called Meredith – Amaka Okafor – who admires the charismatic Pauline and fights FGM – another theme picked up and promptly ignored – and Joshua McGuire sweet   as the hard tasked PR.  But neither writer or director seems  sure whether it is about an impossible personal relationship Coward- style, or politics. Especially when we are suddenly catapaulted back to the 1990s in a vignette of Pauline’s drunken  dying mother, romanticising her violent late husband in a tangled squalor of bedding and bottles like something out of Tennessee Williams. Only with more shouting.  Then we are at Westminster    with nice young Meredith delivering the best lines of the play about how “these days the moral high ground is overpopulated territory” ,and politics is more about buffing up your own image than doing good.

 

 

An abrupt  death happens -possibly just to move the plot along, for God’s sake – and to allow a Thick-of-It row between the  ex-lovers who both want to lead the Labour Party. That is better, with  some good lines and laughs and a brief lyrical speech about ducks at dawn which felt like the human Hare awakening at last again. But I have rarely seen one of the great man’s plays  so grievously in need of more work, more focus.

nationaltheatre.org.uk. to 31 jan

In cinemas 31 Jan

Sponsor Travelex. (£15 seats)

Rating. Three.  3 Meece Rating

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PEARLS FROM THE GRIT                     Bethel, Lowestoft, tour

THE EXTINCTION OF ENGLAND’S EASTERNMOST VILLAGE

        

     There is no Grit fishing-village now on the Lowestoft shore,  but in 1900 there were homes, shops,  bakeries, laundries,  and Happy  Wellum the Chimney-sweep with his donkey and cart.  You didn’t,  says old Ruby contentedly,  “need to go up town for nothin’”.  Town people would look down on the fisherfolk if you did, anyway.   But on the Grit all thirteen pubs had a piano , because 17 had been salvaged from a shipwreck, in good order in their crates and “bootiful” condition.   

 

 

       Stories like this are studded through this glorious 65-minute piece  of by the poet Dean Parkin, with music by Maurice Horhut and from tradition.   Parkin  himself sits almost apologetically at the back of the stage behind his books,  while in the foreground three actors with his wordsand verbatim memories,  recreate a world.    David Redgrave and Sally-Ann Burnett are in chairs reminiscing as Ned, born Jubilee year, one of thirteen, and Ruby who lost a father at sea.  Tim Fitzhigham is the third,  sometimes a rousing MC but more often the decent, troubled ghost of a skipper who used to send that little daughter postcards every time they reached one of the ports on the wild, cold dangerous North Sea.  

 

      Sometimes Parkin calls up voices recorded in his long painstaking study of Lowestoft past,  and we hear the  late Jack Rose with another drily salty tale or observation.  The men and their nicknames rise up before you:  Tar, Strawberry (for his red nose), Puffin, and one known as Posh because of his friendship (maybe more) with Edward Fitzgerald, who wrote the Rubaiyat and at one point bought Posh a herring-boat.  We are told of the vicar on the lifeboat crew tearing to a call, supposedly shouting the end of the sermon as he ran;   of the Scottish herring-lassies descending in thousands, sonsy and singing and tough as whipcord;  of the hooks on every cottage windowframe for the net-mending.  We are reminded    of the many floods, the 1897 one so severe that a Grit donkey was taken up cottage stairs for its own safety,  and the 1916 unexploded bomb .  Happy dragged it into his garden and demanded tuppence-a-look from passers by.  

 

      It was a homeland, a belonging-place of strong flavour, and for a while, never forget it, a source of huge wealth and success.  In 1913  there were through the port 770 vessels  – more than half Grit men – landing ten million herrings. Exports to Russia and Germany boomed.   The 1920’s saw poverty and decline, but the fishing industry carried on;  daughters ending up working at Birds Eye,  the town growing.  Then dying away.   “I don’t weep for it”  says Ned, from the past.  “It served its turn.  But they coulda kept some of it. It’s like they want to forget us”.

    

     Shows as powerful, thoughtful and elegantly assembled as this should travel beyond the small compass of towns whose very old people remember them.  As one remarks in Dean’s spare, powerful words,  Dunwich gets made much of because of its history, but that was centuries past.  The Grit is recent history, its mark still on families around. 

 

     Two more performances in Lowestoft, as I write.   But it should tour , as the herring-girls’ play by Ann Coburn did    – see https://theatrecat.com/tag/get-up-and-tie-your-fingers/ .   

four  4 Meece Rating

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SIX Arts Theatre WC1

DIVORCED BEHEADED DIED – REVIVED!

 

 

Took me a shameful while to catch up on this clever little riot of a feminist musical, down from an Edinburgh triumph and packing the Arts theatre for weeks with whooping gigsters. But just as I hit a late matinee came news that it’ll be back there in 2019.

 

So hurrah, and worth mentioning why you should book in  for 75 minutes of rackety song and dance about the six wives of Henry VIII, sisters in indignation springing loud ‘n   liberated from the dismissive old rhyme of divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived.

 

By Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who will go far, It’s a histor-remix: a  Tudor Beyoncé-castle funfair of a show. From Katharine of Aragon to Catherine Parr the ladies are reunited in the afterlife as a Spice-girly band in spectacular discobethan outfits – all jewelled splendour and fishnet legs. They  storm on to a techno Greensleeves,  to stage a competition and bitch-in (finally turning  sisterly) about which of them got the worst deal.

 

The types as it neatly happens are feminist perennials: wronged loyal wife, dangerous condemned flirt, loving but ailing , rejected wallflower (Alexia McIntosh is particularly funny as Ann of Cleves) followed by  Katherine Howard with her stained past, and the enduring, if not wholly willing Catherine Parr as the survivor. Who, as she sharply points out, was a scholar, supporter of female education, and worth more tribute than most popular history gives her.

 

It’s clever,rackety , the manic disco twerking alleviated by two quietly  heartfelt torch-songs of real emotion. It is also stuffed with laugh-out-loud rappy lyrics.  Boleyn trills “tried to elope – but the Pope said nope -everybody chill! it’s totes God’s will”.   So come in, get on down like it’s 1499. The  young audience whooped and cheered. So did I.

. All I long for now is for Dr David Starkey to come, admit its  historical smartness, and lead  the disco finale.

On till 14 Oct, but back in 2019.   artstheatrewestend.co.uk.

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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