MACBETH Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford


It is awkward that two major new productions of the Scottish Play, by two determinedly auteurish directors, open in the same month. Rufus Norris’ bleak “post-Brexit” apocalyptica at the National Theatre came first, and now Polly Findlay’s RSC version takes the Stratford stage. Double, double, toil and – yes – trouble.



Impossible not to compare the two: both modern dress, both strongly directorial in concept,  both led by eminent actors – the seasoned Rory Kinnear at the NT, and here Christopher Eccleston, far newer to major Shakespeare. Both productions also share a taste for plastic baby dolls: at the NT dismembered and fixed to witches’ tummies, here carried by three witches who are for some reason small girls in pajamas and pom-pom bootees . The creepy chants become nursery impertinence, competently , but short on impact.

But if the Norris NT version was a graffiti Macbeth , scrawled on a pee-stained blockhouse, Findlay’s is more like one written in bold block capitals (which indeed are projected overhead, echoing significant lines). Its pace is unrelentingly staccato, emphatic, and with little variety of pace.  Where Norris’s was all swagger and bash, this one is strut and fret.   Violence is largely offstage till the end, and it is mercifully free of decapitations. But there hangs about both productions a sort of dismayed ambition: a desire for modern relevance at all costs and resentment of tradition and of verse. Wrong to compare, I suppose, but I yearned back to the Michael Boyd production which launched this RSC theatre . With less fear of “historic” trappings, ironically it hit home with stronger human power.


Findlay has some interesting ideas: she picks up the play’s repeated mention of time, with a digital clock running inexorably backwards like a bomb timer on SPOOKS, from the moment of Duncan’s murder to the death of Macbeth. The flash-freeze LATER moments give impetus to the final battle. One very sharp perception too is that Lady Macbeth’s emotional deterioration is triggered by hearing the cries of Macduff’s murdered children relayed to her mobile phone (one can sometimes wonder why she loses it so abruptly).


But those are consolations. Mostly, the production suffers from one-note, race-the-clock vigour; Ecclestone’s delivery (with the sole exception of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) is a real problem: jerky, seeming actively hostile to the idea that it is a verse play. Even in soliloquy he seems to be fighting to prevent us recognising the familiar words or reflecting on their extraordinary painful depth : more The Bill than the Bard.  Niamh Cusack is more at home with the text but plays Lady Macbeth hectic: an ambitious Rotary wife who  never got over being captain of games. As a scold to her husband she is good, and the sleepwalking is finely done. But like her husband she is rarely allowed to express any of the the interiority  of feeling, horror, determination and remorse which make the play so disturbing .


The only frisson of real feeling and arresting, affecting delivery is from Edward Bennett’s Macduff: the only one of the classic scenes which strikes properly home is his receiving the news of his family’s murder – his “What, all..?” is superbly shocking, with Luke Newberry’s fine public-schoolboy Malcolm crassly interrupting his grief to urge revenge.


As to Fly Davis’ set, it might be a concrete hall in a brutalist 1960’s college of further education, with a sharp rectangular gallery.  You don’t feel that Macbeth wins any kingdom worth murdering for. The porter is an all-purpose janitor in white socks (Michael Hodgson does get a couple of laughs) and sits gloomily at the side throughout, delivering odd messenger lines or wandering round with a Bex-Bissel carpet sweeper.


Polly Findlay is an excellent director – BEGINNING, LIMEHOUSE, TREASURE ISLAND in London, an inventive Merchant of Venice in the big house here, two very good Renaissance plays in the Swan. But this is not her finest hour. And between them, the two March-beth openings make me cry “Hold, enough!” and hope that soon the pendulum will swing. And directors stop being scared of the Scottish Play and return to more reflective and respectful renderings . Meanwhile, the unfortunate A level set-book class of 2018 are at risk of associating it only with concrete, gaffer-tape, plastic dollies and carpet-sweepers.


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rating, three.  Just. 3 Meece Rating



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Lights up. A confederate statue. A blackout. And it disappears. It’s November 1963 and we’re in Lake Charles, Louisiana. JFK has just been assassinated. There’s a rumble of a shift of something in the air but for Caroline Thibodeaux, nothing ever changes in Louisiana. She’s 39, divorced, and has four children. For twenty-two of her thirty-nine years she has worked as a maid for a wealthy white Jewish family. She dreams of being kissed by Nat King Cole. 

Musicals rarely get to be this important. And important this one is. The Chichester revival of this play was performed in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting by then 21-year-old white supremacist Dylan Roof. Shortly after the end of the run came the Charlottesville Rally – a rally organised in protest at the proposed removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. It is sobering to think that though more than 50 years have passed since the time of this somewhat autobiographical Kushner piece, black Americans still are still fighting the same fight, still in all the same places.
The state of our world increasingly forces those who live in it to face the conundrum of trying to reconcile diametrically opposed philosophical ideals. It’s a recurring quandary in this play: Should we love the men who abuse us? Is an ally really an ally if they promise change but act in a complacence that perpetuates the status quo? Who is right in the conflict of the elder who just wants a quiet life and the younger who is ready for a revolution? Is it ever OK to use immoral means to attain moral ends? Can we justify the use of moral means to preserve immoral ends? In Caroline’s final solo number she calls to God for an answer, but there are no simple ones.
The power of the 17-strong ensemble produced the the kind of chemistry that draws you to the edge of your seat. I saw much of my younger self in Abiona Omonua’s portrayal of Emmie Thibodeaux, the sixteen-year-old ‘high-spirited’ daughter of Caroline, who doesn’t believe in the idea of unquestionable respect and spoke back to the adults around her accordingly. Similarly relatable was Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Dotty Moffett, the bobby sock and saddle shoe wearing black woman who was using education as a means to a better life. The Radio trio that was T’Shan Williams, Carole Stennett and Sharon Rose gave TLC mixed with The Supremes vibes. It was special. In fact, all of The Objects deserve a shout out: Me’sha Bryan as the Washing Machine, Angela Caesar as The Moon, Ako Mitchell as The Dryer and The Bus. inanimate by name, but definitely not by nature. And of course, there was Sharon D Clarke. There are places deep inside us that only song can reach; when her – sometimes mellifluous, sometimes scorching – tones reach that place, they shake your soul and awaken your spirit.
The two-and-a-half hour performance is visually gorgeous thanks to stage and costume design by Fly Davis and Ann Yee’s choreography. Jeanine Tesori’s music teamed with Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics were made for each other. Add to that the direction by Michael Longhurst – the man who brought us the five star spectacle that is Amadeus, currently on at the National Theatre – and it is a recipe for a perfect production. It is impossible to fathom how this musical was a Broadway flop; those Americans clearly don’t know a good thing when they see one.
Box office 020 7722 9301  TO 21 APRIL
£10 tickets for under 30s
5 Meece Rating

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The candlelit Wanamaker has proved its worth as a music-room, notably with All The Angels and the divine Farinelli. This takes it further with the first wordless performance: Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble the master-puppeteers create a silent story with half-sized, fully-jointed physically expressive but undecorated hard-foam “bunraku” puppets. Five expert puppeteers control them, one or two at a time in perfect concord so human and object blend into something other. Their narrative is an expression of Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A six-piece orchestra plays overhead: baroque violins, viola, ‘cello and harpsichord/synthesizer.



Which all sounds a bit recherché: could be a tough hour, you’re thinking, since anything drawn from Japanese theatrical tradition can be an acquired taste . Actually, it is a beautiful and accessible performance, somewhere between mime, dance and theatrical epic. Sometimes, indeed, you are so bound up in the emotional lives of the pale puppets that you suddenly think “hang on, what’s that stuck on his foot?” before realizing that it is the fingers of the puppeteer, and that every movement of this seemingly vivid being is being controlled by humans you have somehow stopped noticing…



It is a story they tell – of lovers and their child, of ordeals, travels, death and loss and discovery. But as the creators teasingly insist, it is one onto which we project our own interpretations. However, there is certainly folktale in there, because the puppet figures are sometimes physically literal – walking, running, falling, struggling, fighting their handlers or slumped in wrenching despair – but they can also fly and float surreally as if becoming their own dreams. In one extraordinary sequence near the end the central figure relives the events of a whole life.



The story begins with a sweetly awkward park-bench courtship, and a breathless pause when father kneels before mother as she holds her belly. There is a suitcase and a parting, one parent gone far from a child-puppet who crawls, stumbles, takes first steps with the other. Separation, obstacles, struggle; deaths, a trek home, a graveyard or mortuary of strange gnarled shapes like old bark , weeping desolation. Once mother and child fight together through great hard shapes, leap a ravine. A river, swimming, a corpse…any of it could be a dream, or a real refugee journey, or both.



Late on a lonely figure fights for life, or maybe just sanity, against a cloud of blue flapping inchoate cloths which become ghost figures. You’re engrossed, the music sharp in your head, every note and move significant, very human. By the way, there are a couple of “relaxed performances”: for some, it may form an even stronger connection than it does to us “neurotypicals”. And that is overwhelming enough…



box office
to 21 April
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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This terrific meteorological thriller, set in the crucial days before D-Day, is written by – and stars – David Haig. In 2014 at Chichester a lot of us predicted (nay, demanded) a West End transfer, and were thwarted. It has been touring, under the banner of Cambridge Arts and the Touring Consortium, and to catch it in Bath was more than a treat. Capital city, you now have your chance. Don’t blow it…



Directed by John Dove with sure, sharp concentration, it is a beautifully researched and immaculately pitched piece about the British meteorologist Dr Stagg (adept in spotting temperamental weather here) who had to defy Eisenhower’s own met-man and tell the vulnerable expeditionary force first not to go on D-Day – and then, even more audaciously, to take a run at it in the 8-hour lull between storms the next day. It should outlast the actor-writer who made it, and become part of the canon of WW2 dramatic chronicles, like Flare Path or The River Line. My 2014 review is here – and gives you the bones of the story:
But I would now add to that that Haig’s performance is even more refined, a scientist under terrible pressure to tell his truth to power, sometimes tremblingly afraid of being wrong, passionately calling in more and more information. To create an edge-of-the-seat thriller in which minutes on end have to consist of people taking down figures off the telephone is achievement enough: to humanize it like this, even better.
The casting is spot-on too: Malcolm Sinclair was born to be Eisenhower, snarlingly charming, towering over valiant little Stagg, softening in his encounters with his lover Lt Summersby (Laura Rogers, also excellent). And honour to Michael Mackenzie’s facial expression as Admiral Ramsay when – in charge of those flat-bottomed landing-craft and cumbersome concrete floating harbours – he hears Stagg speak of possible 10ft waves. Which would have drowned thousands, had Ike not believed the Briton.
And Mackenzie also turns up in one of the useful moments of light relief, as an electrician, one of the craftsmen drafted in to the D Day HQ at Southwich House. And not allowed to go home, because once you knew the immense secret of Operation Overlord, you were sequestered.
As I say, I stand by my original review and every last mouse of it. Richmond next week, then Park Theatre NW
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER Empire, Haymarket



Ten years ago Emma Rice and her Kneehigh group brought this adaptation of Noel Coward’s heartrending film to the stage – to a cinema stage, artfully and merrily referencing the golden age of cinemagoing . And we all found it utterly adorable. Irresistible. On the far side of her brief unhappy tenure at the Globe, here it comes again, with a few fine tweaks, to remind us what Rice does best, and how playful, inventive, sincere and inspiring Kneehigh can be when it beats its own path through the woods.



Especially when bouncing off beloved classics (their Rebecca was terrific). Indeed this revamped version of Alec and Laura’s story is even better, now with all its songs from Noel Coward himself (I’d forgotten Go Slow Johnny.. you’re no Brando, rallentando..). It’s a little classic in its own right, from the breathtaking moment when the real guilty lovers are sitting in the audience with us in the Empire, and Laura’s husband calls her from the black and white screen… and she plunges through it, away from the living passionate Alec and back into her monochrome home life.



, My daughter hadn’t even known the film, and she loved it: for those who do, there is no jarring in the vaudevillian opening-out of the action with larky refreshment-room and station staff ,(Dean Nolan as Godby is a right caution, as we’d have said in the ‘50s) . The live band onstage and the songs , especially from Jos Slovick, take nothing at all away from the simple doomed romance but actually add to it. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are not traduced here but worthily reborn in Jim Surgeon and Isabel Pollen, not stilted but delicately in period, respectable folk of the 1930’s swept up in the crashing waves of the Warsaw Concerto. But the layering of the three romances is perfect as a counterpoint to the exalted impossibility of their great non-affair. Stanley and Beryl (Beverly Rudd in all her glorious cartoon performances is another caution) are free to slap-and-tickle with the insouciance of fresh youth, Nolan and Kieve represent a middle-aged, battered kind of freedom. Love is all around, but only the principals can get nowhere.


The staging is even more fun than last time, with no fewer than four ways of making trains pass the station: entire cast juddering in time for the Express, once a toy train, once Beryl dashing through with a smoke-canister, and two kinds of projection, large and small. It’s Kneehigh , sky-high. Glorious.



0844 8717628;  to Sept
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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If there is one stumbling block for lovers of Graham Greene’s darkly thrilling gangster novel, it is the elegance of Gloria Onitiri. She is Ida; and Greene’s redoubtable warrior for justice is in the book a large Cockney with a beery laugh and a market-trader’s sharpness: her pursuit of the murderous young Pinkie for the sake of the “Fred” he killed is fuelled by righteousness, but of an indeterminate old-fashioned variety . She stands for a sense – so restful to the tormented Catholicism of Greene – that “right and wrong” are very different to sexual sin and virtue. She’s big and bonny and maternal and blessedly common. But in Esther Richardson’s otherwise faithful production of Bryony Lavery’s thoughtful adaptation, for all her excellence as an actor Onitiri is more cocktail-and-torch-song than beery, matey singalong. She just is.



So I stumbled a bit. But in every other way Greene is beautifully served, and not just in Sara Perks’ fabulous dark design – a fraction of iron pier towering overhead, steps which move and swirl and through which once, unforgettably, the skinny villain squirms between the steps to grab his quarry. As Pinkie Jacob James Beswick is physically perfect- scrawny, starveling child of the slums, he has a hard young face and a restless, jerky teenage insolence in every move. HIs moment of arrogant defensive pathos when he is beaten up, his sexual terror and his cowed moment when confronted with the (gender-switched) Colleoni are well-judged: you can’t take your eyes off him: the boy gone wrong. Sarah Middleton is equally perfect as the waitress Rose, catching both her naiveté and the sharp simple intelligence that threatens Pinkie’s alibi. She also makes credible that terrifying Catholic belief that she will “burn” and will be glad to, for love. The extreme youth of the pair is there in all its pathos, extremism and perennial warning. Their story holds you solidly , especially in the second half once the inter-gangster stuff is fading from the foreground.




The latter iswell enough done, though I would plead one cause with all directors who cast inescapably male characters as women (Spicer is Angela Bain) . Just pay more attention to small physicalities, like hair. If Cubitt, Dallow and Pinkie have unforgiving 1950’s cuts you get distracted by female hair under the hoodlum hat. You just do. Which is a shame when such immense care has gone into everything else visual, into beautifully fast, fluid staging moves and a loving creation of that dark 1950’s seaside underworld complete with its slang (lesser adaptors would have given up “buer” and “milky”, but not this one. But the two young principals are more than worth seeing. It tours on.

touring to 26 May. COLCHESTER Mercury theatre this week
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GREAT EXPECTATIONS Bury st Edmnds Theatre Royal, and TOURING




Putting great literary masterpieces onstage is an erratic business. Within the same week we see the Artistic Director of the National Theatre buggering up Macbeth – despite a stellar cast and centuries of interpretation to draw on – while elsewhere in our unpredictable theatrical jungle a shoestring company tours a respectfully inventive, pretty much perfect version of something which far harder to stage: Dickens’ Great Expectations with its knotty, preposterous interwoven plots.



But Tilted Wig, co-producing with Malvern Theatres, have done just that. Ken Bentley’s adaptation (relevantly, he is a radio drama veteran) makes unfussed use of Dickens’ narration, enabling him to include some of the author’s sarcastic asides on matters such as lawyers. It is picked up by different cast members as the scenes flow naturally into one another : some have to achieve instant changes from deep-involved character and accent to calm RP narration. Which is particularly striking in that it never actually strikes you at all – the story just goes on.



James Turner’s set is perfect: an iron-framed box on two levels, both refuge and cage, evoking just enough Victoriana. This elegant device (with Ollie King overhead on the concertina and some really classy sound and light design) contains with panache the set-piece moments – from the shock on the bleak marshes to the smithy, the filmy-draped world of mad Miss Havisham, with a dead rat in her jewel-box, the storm, the fire and the desperate moments by the steamer on the dark Thames tideway. Lantern-light, a trap and rapid-folding doors do it all.



So easy is it to relax into the story, and so neat and credible are the characters (nine actors for the 27 characters plus ensemble) , that it is surprisingly easy to pick up modern echoes : Estella (Isla Carter) after all is a trafficked child, stolen from the underclass by Jaggers and deliberately radicalized by Miss Havisham in her personal jihad against men. The theme of class barriers is more obvious, Sean Aydon beautifully carrying Pip’s yearning to be an educated gentleman , the overwhelming his decent nature by teenage cockiness, an his final taming to gentle regret at the sourness of his elevation. The heartbreaking division between him and Joe Gargery strikes home when that decent blacksmith gently but firmly refuses to dine with him in London because it wouldn’t be fitting . Actually, I have long regarded Joe Gargery as one of the most beautiful characters in fiction, and the performance by curly-haired, open-faced Edward Ferrow had me in tears several times. Actually, blast him, he rather set me off when he was Wemmick as well. Oh, and so did Daniel Goode’s Magwitch.



And I haven’t even mentioned the big-name star, the Olivier name: Nicola McAuliffe is Miss Havisham. Wow. A tower of lacy off-white netting, a vulturous, wearily ironic frilly tragedienne, she towers over Pip and Estella like a puppetteer. Her final emotional meltdown and immolation could bring Dickens himself applauding from the other side. Only my beloved Joe Gargery stands up to her with dignity: I nearly cheered.


So terrific. And while the fifth star or mouse is often supposed by tradition to belong only to life-changing innovation, in awarding it now I must make it clear that for me the fifth one is often more fitly represented by a heart. I loved the production. A thrill to see it in Bury’s Georgian theatre, but it will be a delight to Dickensians everywhere, and a means of conversion to others. Bravo.
touring to 23 June nationwide, Richmond next!   Touring Mouse wide

rating five   5 Meece Rating


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