GENESIS INC. Hampstead Theatre

RATHER LATE BUT WORTH IT….A FERTILE ARGUMENT 

 

Forty years ago as a Today reporter I helped cover the first IVF baby , Louise Brown. A Scottish cardinal told me that it was sinful:  not because of interfering with nature but because of “the means the sperm was gathered” – masturbation. The sin of Onan. The editor wouldn’t play the tape because we couldn’t, on the BBC,  mention seminal fluid.  Another row followed over whether the words “fallopian tubes” were suitable for early morning.

 

Well, as Jemma Kennedy’s lively play marks the anniversary,  Britain  and its notions of taste have changed. And, like most others, I know half a dozen happy young twentysomethings conceived that way . And, on the downside,  several women whose lives and marriages, were capsized by the  strenuous , disruptive and expensive processes of repeated failed in vitro attempts.

 

The social, political and attitudinal changes IVF brought need facing, and the virtually unregulated private-clinic industry challenging.    So,  good for Kennedy and Hampstead.  And one of the stimulating things about the play is that as well as painfully expressing female need and the awful self doubt – for some –   of infertility , it considers the fallout on men too.   Women of course have the  sharp end:  who wants a talking womb voiced by Jenni Murray, interrupted by two querulous ovaries and a judgmental mother vagina,  all bickering over her while she eats disgusting fertility recipes and surfs an AIBU-laden fertility forum?    Especially if Karl Marx appears at her bedside too, pointing out that for all the (rather ironic) victories of feminism over contraception and abortion,  our innards are now a patsy of profiteering capitalism..

 

    This argument rages, in one of the few surreal scenes , over  Serena (Ritu Arya in  a bravely heartfelt performance). She is the most pained of the clients, or victims, of the Genesis clinic run by a beautifully oleaginous Harry Enfield (love those faux posh consultant vowels –  “wimmin bettling infertility”). She   has borrowed, spent, hoped, abstained and tried her man’s patience (Oliver Alvin-Wilson is tremendous)  having  multiple cycles of a process where only 30per cent  ever succeed.  As another richer client, Bridget the investing financier with frozen eggs, exultantly puts it,   profiting from 70 per cent failure is a unique situation in business.   Laura HOward, by the way, absolutely nails the manner, aggression and vulnerability of the affluent corporate queen. Sure I’ve met her. 

 

But men suffer too.  From disappointment, from being regarded as sperm banks, from the distortions of love and longing,  Geoff, husband of the desperate Serena, already has a child , foisted in him by an ex but loved.   . Miles (Arthur Darvill)   is gay,  conflicted, and unwilling to be Bridget’s donor despite a close friendship. Which had, we learn with even more irony, once went further.  

 

At times I felt that in its 2 hr 30 there was one subplot too many – social worker Geoff’s struggle with his own adoption and with his rough-edged client Sharon. The disco fantasy clinic scene was annoyingly self consciously theatrical.  But this is cavilling.  Overall the play is fresh and funny, (Laurie Sansom directs , and knows just how to orchestrate a row in an A and E department with an eagerly caring security man).   If it is a bit more ambitious than is prudent, who needs prudence? The ghastly doctor’s  view that “love is unnecessary now we have deregulated the conception market”  is kicked aside by a final, beautifully sentimental hymn to all kinds of messy, awkward unsymmetrical human affection.    Worth catching, one more week to run. 

 

www.hampsteadtheatre.com    to  28 july  

RATING four  4 Meece Rating

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ALLELUJAH! Bridge, SE1

DRIPS ‘N DRUGS ‘N ROCK ‘N ROLL…

 

   Alan Bennett may fear he is a national teddy bear these days, but the crafty old bugger still has a gnarled finger on the nation’s trickier pulse points. This latest play, steered by his vicar-on-earth-Nicholas Hytner, delivers a proper theatrical punch. It does this the old fashioned way, by lulling you into sentimental affection in a first act rich in vintage Thora-Hirdery and affectionate laughs, then slapping you round the chops with a first act close which I hope no critic will spoil (oops,just looked, two of the previews just have, though west end whingers remain innocent).  And then he resolves it with a  mixture of black humour and genuine pathos in the second half.

   Classy. Moreover he lards it with retro song routines, both naturalistic and fantasy, from You Made Me to Good Golly Miss Molly and Get Happy, thus neatly  prodding the associative nerve in anyone from , say, 50 to 110.  Not to mention turning an aged-up Simon Williams into a  superannuated chorus captain in striped PJs , his game if wobbly ensemble in some cases still attached to drip- stands.

     It is set in the geriatric wards of a small Yorkshire community hospital, afflicted by “bed blockers” in substantial numbers because there are no care home places and families cannot or will not cope.  It’s a facility which the Minister for Health plans to close (“we don’t like small, we don’t like cosy..the state should not be seen to work”).  His pet management consultant (Samuel Barnett) an escaped local lad turned nervy gay Lycraboy, is also visiting his miner Dad, a cantankerous Jeff Rawle,  while a local TV crew prowls around, the puffed-up Trust Chairman Salter (Peter Forbes) grandstands with statements like Yesterday is the New Tomorrow, and David Moorst does an appallingly, wickedly funny turn as a hostile and gormless work-experience porter.

     But enough of the blokes: the heart and glory of the show is female.  There’s Deborah Findlay’s wearily efficient nurse whose idea of success is a “dry ward” (it’s a very urinary and bowel-haunted piece) and whose demeanour hides much.  But above all there is a  gorgeous collection of wry or wandering old ladies : Patricia England as Mavis the ex dancer, Julia Foster a vital driver of the plot, ex librarian, Jacqueline Clarke the Batley Nightingale – all eight are gems in drooping cottons, the deathless Bennett  lines well divided among them. They sing, they sort of dance, they reflect on life and death and sex and men.  Sue Wallace’s Hazel lays siege to poor Ambrose the cultured schoolteacher as barriers of class and taste melt in the universal doom of decrepitude.  And of irritatingly continuing existence: “it isn’t Death who has jaws, it’s Life”. 

     It’s resolution is not one to spoil, except to say that Mr Bennett has perhaps by chance hit two topical news hot-potatoes – barely a week old -even while deliberately tackling more obvious fave targets like NHS cuts and the Thatcher legacy. But the strength of the evening is that there are wider,  older, inescapable  themes: ageing, pathos, tenderness, moral equivalence, peristaltic progress and progress chasing, in and out of the bowel…and the indomitable spirit that dances and sings in the last gutter, because why the hell wouldn’t you?

Box office.  Bridgetheatre.co.uk  to 29 Sept

Rating. Four. 4 Meece Rating

     

      

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A MONSTER CALLS Old Vic SE1

A TREE, A TEENAGER, A FAMILY TRAGEDY 

 

 

This is billed  for ten years old or more, and its protagonist is a boy of thirteen. But  warned: this  Old Vic young adult summer special is no cosy Lorax. It starts with a nightmare and ends with a deathbed.  In between come plunging, flashing, fiery, black night terrors and a voice at the dark midnight window calling the boy Conor by name. His mother has cancer,  clearly terminal though nobody is admitting it or letting him prepare. To aggravate his plight, his Dad is an oaf who has run off to America with someone called Stefanie and  had a new baby. By day Conor is  relentlessly bullied at school,  at home his Granny is a bossyboots he  dreads living with.

 

For thirty years or more a series of little books by “Althea” specialised in titles like “I have Cancer”, “I use a Wheelchair”, My Two Families”, “Visiting the Dentist”, etc. Useful for families facing a crisis, well respected, but giving rise to the unkind observation that any middle-class child seeing the A-word on a cover knew that some bloody awful thing was about to happen.  Patrick Ness’  novel is a subtler production, having won both the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals, and I cannot fault this ensemble adaptation under Sally Cookson, who so brilliantly evoked Jane Eyre in scaffolding at Bristol and the NT, This time she has Michael Vale design a set  of ropes dangling from high above ,  skilfully manipulated by the ensemble into a great yew tree of which the Monster is the ruling, terrifying, remorselessly storytelling spirit.  He specialises in subverting apparent fairytale morals into the direction of ambiguity and ethical  complication, preparing Conor for there being no happy ending.

 

Matthew Tennyson, who I have  been approving of no end ever since Flare Path, carries with intensity and honesty the emotional role of Conor,   Stuart Goodwin is a burly, wrestlerish Monster, Marianne Oldham the mother and Selina Cadell  wonderfully solid as the problematic posh  Grandma. All step in and out of the ensemble , and there’s a nice Cookson touch in the domestic scenes .   Conor dresses for school and does   the housework for his weakened Mum, and the ensemble in chairs at the side chuck his socks and blazer on the floor and hand him kettles or plates with a blank noncommittal  stare. It expresses his lonely tension and predicament : even the house is not connecting with him any more. Except  for the big old yew and its  bullying spirit…

 

 

So, excellently done. And the final message is strong and subtle and should make any family  think twice about inflicting  obtuse optimism on children, and failing to let them admit their darker thoughts .  Yet as a play there is something  too laden about it. The school is exaggeratedly feral, ineffectual teachers with no ability or will  to tackle extreme bullying or help Conor.   The father on his brief visits is cartoonishly useless too, with references to his quack  crystal-healer partner in America.   Wit or defiance could have lightened the script and doesn’t,  though Tennyson brings  strong teenage reality to the boy.  It may do service to children  in tragic circumstances and their friends, so good luck to it.   It means very well.    But it’s a heavy evening.

 

 

box office 0844 871 7628 to 25 august.  Principal Sponsor Royal Bank of Canada

Rating three   3 Meece Rating

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POLSTEAD Eastern Angles, touring

MARIA MARTEN STRIDES AGAIN:  A WOMAN’S STORY

 

 

    Founding this touring company 36 years ago,  Ivan Cutting swore a great oath that one local story they wouldn’t do was Maria Marten, murdered in the Red Barn by William Corder, and  famous not least for the spooky circumstance of her body being found buried there a year later after her stepmother was guided in dreams.    The 1827 sensation spawned several Victorian plays and adaptations and a silent film,  generally adjusting reality to make her more of an innocent,   and her killer more of a toff.     But this is a good moment for female indignation, so up she comes again in Beth Flintoff’s spirited new play. It is  directed by Hal Chambers who brought this company that terrific Prudencia Hart and the elaborately bonkers Norse saga Ragnarok, and is superbly staged by Verity Quinn.      

 

      Maria (Elizabeth Crarer)  takes centre stage from the first electric moment when,  a ragged, battered and rotting ghost, she strides defiantly forward to reminisce about her killing by pistol, strangling and spade. She observes that in the moment of death she at last realized that she was not mad or criminal as Corder persuaded her:   guilt was all his, not hers.     Around her from the shadows come five other women,  friends from her childhood  who tenderly lave and dress her, singing in harsh simple harmony (Luke Potter’s music, folk or bluesy, adds a great deal to the atmosphere and so does very effective lighting and a simple barn frame).  

 

 

      The six-woman cast evoke Georgian village life with glee:  children playing,  farmwork, chickens fed and seeds sown, gnawing breadline anxiety about work,  orphaned ten-year-old Maria keeping house for her father the molecatcher and coming to affectionate terms with a stepmother.  Adolescents, they girls josh about kisses and more, excited by the new two-shilling contraceptive sponge.  Lydia Bakelmun as Sarah embarks cheerfully on serial pregnancies as they discuss “bastardy orders” for their support,   repressed shy Lucy (Lucy Grattan) is more prim and churchy ,though the religious sensibility  of an 1820s rural community is oddly underemphasised.    That, however, is probably because a strength in the play is this sense of female solidarity and peasant confidence that all in all, a baby is an asset to the hardworking community,  even on the wrong side of the blanket.

 

 

    Maria, in a time or particular hardship, submits unenthusiastically to Thomas Corder the tenant farmer’s son in return for farmwork and bread (Lucy Grattan , with a quick gender switch is oddly convincing as the man).  Maria  bears his child, which dies:  the social hierarchy is nicely nuanced when up at the manor Lady Cooke (Bakelmun , again neatly transformed) nods at the relationship and takes up Maria as a protegée.  But of course she is then horrified when the village girl  falls in love with her own brother, a cut above mere farmers (another gender switch as Bethan Nash strides on in smart breeches) .  Milady makes her give him up, his baby lives and he supports them from a distance.  But when predatory Thomas Corder dies, Maria disastrously falls for William Corder, his brother.   

 

 

           And he is the killer , but before that does the adept “gaslighting” hinted at in that opening scene, persuading her into paranoia and conviction that she , not he, kills their baby.  We never see him:  only Maria’s dissolution.  Flintoff, having worked with Lighthouse Women’s Aid and discovered the many parallels over what “coercive control” does to women,  resolved not to give Corder a voice but to take Maria through the now well-attested stages of confusion and self-laceration.   Dramatically it is very effective that we don’t see the villain.  However,  the final twenty minutes of discovery, anger, grief  and divisions among the surviving friends do take away from the dramatic energy of the play, which up to then was so bracing.  The characters are still strong and coherent,  but the anti-coercion message gets hammered home just that bit too hard.  Cut ten minutes to sharpen up that ending and it becomes a very fine and honest play.  But even without that surgery,  it’s well worth catching on its tour.  A few more days in Ipswich (nice tent on university dockside campus).  For the rest –    link below:  

 

https://easternangles.co.uk/event/polstead#tab-0=dates-and-times  TOUR Touring Mouse wide

to 5 August

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THE LEHMAN TRILOGY Lyttelton, SE1

FLUENT, FASCINATING,  FUN. FIVE!

 

  This show has no right to be so much fun.    Over three hours,  two intervals,  three middle-aged blokes in black suits in a revolving glass Es Devlin set of a city office with a projected cyclorama.   No fights, no romance,  no rhetoric, no whizz-bang ENRON fun : they  just tell the 150-year back-story – usually  in that potentially irritating historic present – of one American bank, whose demise and bankruptcy of ten years ago we already know. 

 

     So we settled down in sober responsible mood, to be educated in economic history.  But we got, as well, some of the best laughs and most stimulating reflections of the year. Sam Mendes took a shine to this play by Stefano Massini in Italy, and Ben Power has done an English adaptation for this premiere.    There’s an obvious wit in airing it during the Trump visit – a story of impoverished immigrants making America economically great .   And  Mendes has a subtly brilliant cast :  Simon Russell Beale as the eldest brother  Henry Lehman,  Ben Miles as his brother Emanuel,  and Adam Godley as the lanky, earnest youngest Mayer , nicknamed “potato”,   who came over on a later boat to keep the peace between them.   

       

         Ghosts entering the newly deserted office after the 2008 crash,  the three simply tell the story,  playing themselves, their descendants,  and a host of others in brief, sharp, always clear impersonations.   It starts in 1844 when Chaim and his suitcase arrive from Bavaria and agree with the immigration officer that OK,  he is called Henry.  Russell Beale, bluff, twinkling-eyed and bossy, starts a shop in Alabama selling cheap clothes to planters.  The three prosper mildly until with a tremendous use of the cyclorama, the great cotton fire wipes out the neighbourhood “Everything is lost” says one  “On the other hand”  says another with that magnificent diaspora savviness  “Everything needs to be re-bought!”.  

 

          So they work out a credit system, are paid in raw cotton, sell it on to factories up north and explain to baffled outsiders that they are a new thing – “middlemen”.   Henry’s death meets the full seven-day shivah with the shop closed and the graveside kaddish (there’s a nice bitter irony, as years pass and each family death gets less power to interrupt trade).  A New York office is opened.   There’s the civil war.  The family evolves  as,  hilariously or touchingly, each takes  roles of wives, small children, sons: Russell Beale and Godley  are particularly adept at the skittish hip-thrust and pout and the fractious toddler roar).  

 

          By the second part they have become a bank and Wall Street towers are made of the same document-boxes which built the Alabama store.  The tightrope-walker  in the New York street is ever more of a symbol (obviously, Russell Beale gets to mime him).  Soon a child is taught that if they were bakers “our flour  is no longer cotton, coffee, steel, coal. Our flour is money!”.  Mayer’s son Herbert as a child argues with the aged rabbi (Russell Beale bringing the house down in hysterics)  about the plagues of Egypt “Why didn’t HaShem just kill the Pharaoh?” .  He leaves the family bank for politics. The railways come. The Panama canal must be funded.   Emmanuel’s son Philip is a s wheeler-dealer,  his son Bobby – the last of the family in the business, dying in 1969 – buys art and racehorses. 

 

           A family tendency to nightmares of failure is vividly evoked: the skill of the three actors – though so frequently dropping into new brief roles – maintains a powerful sense of each personality.   The great crash comes; suicides, name by name, a dozen a day listed.    The struggle to survive  as Lehmans is Bobby’s.  You’re on the edge of your seat, both deploring the  “money is only numbers” absurdity of growing capitalism, foreseeing today’s crashes, but suffering for the men at its heart.      It’s an epic of survival and enterprise and latterly decadence into modern consumer credit ,  far from the cotton-overalls shop of  1844   “To buy is to exist.  Break the barrier of need, buy out of instinct!  The new rule is that anyone can buy anything and everything is a bargain” . Moral, intriguing, endlessly  entertaining, a fluent  masterclass from three of our finest actors.  Awed.  

 

nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  10 Oct

rating  five   5 Meece Rating

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MISS LITTLEWOOD Swan, Stratford

STRIDING OUT OF THE FRAME : A KICK-ASS HEROINE OF THEATRE

 

Theatre owes a lot to Joan Littlewood: daughter of East End larkiness , music-hall jangle and tough 1930’s socialism; idealist and bully, stridingly inventive, a populist elitist (“I want only the truly disenfranchised to grace our stage”). Any theatre-maker now who chucks out the scenery, forces a cast to create the script, indicates change of character with a hat , revels in actors using their own accent and veers from earthiness to fantasy and back to make a point – every one of them is nodding to her legacy. She wrote her own story, in every sense; some swashbuckling anecdotes raise an eyebrow – did she really walk to Manchester to beard the BBC man? But her values and unshakeable self-confidence blew a breeze through the polite, Lord-Chamberlained theatre of her beginnings. She was disgusted even at school when the Porter in Macbeth had the same accent as the King, and left RADA scorning to graduate with a “West End Letter” , remarking that all you learnt there was to drink fake sherry while moving downstage to a better sightline. She championed Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and Barbara Windsor too; she transferred her work up West albeit with disgust at it being “pickled” in this way while the BBC “plundered her casts”.

 

 

All this lies before us in the Swan, and it is a joy to have Greg Doran’s RSC hosting a musical about her: itself a debut by the composer Sam Kenyon creating book, music and lyrics, and with a cast full of RSC first-timers including Clare Burt as Joan herself. At least, as the leading Joan: observing, meta-theatrically directing the action while six others portray her in different times or different moods. Particularly apposite is the fact that some of the Joans are black women: when RADA speaks patronizingly of the pupil’s “predicament” – meaning Joan’s illegitimacy and roughness – there is a dry topicality , in this age of concern about diversity in the profession, that the line is addressed to Aretha Ayeh.

 

It is skilfully woven, and Kenyon shows a mastery of styles from silent-movie tinkling to lush waltzes, big belting numbers, Sondheim style jerks and mellow agit-prop folk (naturally we meet Ewan MacColl, formerly Jimmie Miller of the Theatre of Action, and there is a fabulous moment when he walks out and Joan accuses him of just being jealous of young Shelagh Delaney’s new fame) .

 

The second act is tighter and better than the first, with a stunning evocation of the creation of O What A Lovely War, but Joan’s story rolls through always with both theatrical panache and decent human poignancy: her Gerry Raffles, debonair and devoted and unfaithful, is Solomon Israel. Emily Johnstone gives us a storming display as Barbara Windsor: though I was sorry not to have the famous moment when at her audition Joan ordered her to sit on her hands and abandon the vaudeville gestures to make the song tell its own story.

 

 

The period after Raffles’ death and Joan’s retirement when “Nothing much happened” is given us with a clever, sharp shrug of brevity. It was, as she would have wished, the shows that mattered. The art. Not a lot of “bloody acting”. In the end, she stands before us Joan Alone once more. Herself.

 

box office rsc.org.uk 01789 403493
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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ME AND MY GIRL Chichester Festival Theatre

OH WHAT A TREAT… OI! 

     

     The sun has got his hat on,  England’s in the semi-final under a chap with a proper waistcoat, and Noel Gay’s 1937 musical is a great big, lovely, silly, dancing elephant of an all-British vintage musical.  It is delivered with nimble glee under Daniel Evans, with designer Lez Brotherston providing coups-de-set ,  and nicely bonkers choreographic flourishes by Alistair David (some very camp armour, top bathing-beauty towel work, and even hula-hoops ).   The musical director Gareth Valentine leads his sharp arrangements under everyone’s flying feet, his head just visible through a terrifyingly vulnerable triangular orchestra-pit in the stage , where he is imperilled nightly as The Lambeth Walk rages above him.    He even takes the trouble to pop up in full pearly-king outfit for the curtain call.  And while it takes a lot to get a Chichester audience to join in with “Oi!”,  a few actually did…

 

 

    But almost best of all, on the press night – with the star poor Matt Lucas suffering throat problems – we saw one of those storming understudy moments.  Ryan Pidgen took on the central role of Bill Snibson, the geezerish coster-and-cardsharp who finds himself unwilling heir to a Dukedom.  Provided that – in the screwball ‘30s plot – he can satisfy the trustees , Duchess Maria and Sir John  Tremayne ,   that he can fit in to high society and agree to drop his beloved Sally.    And with due respect  to the billed star, Pidgin inhabited and invigorated the part with immense, shining humour and confidence.  He was verbally nimble (there are a lot of music-hall gags  on words like aperitif and Kipling, hurrah. And lines like “This is Lady Brighton” – “Ah, I know your husband, the pier”).   As for the physical challenge, he was all there in character and springing movement, and even had the tigerskin-puppetry moment nailed.  Pidgen also has a glorious lyrical voice displayed in the beautifully staged “leaning on a lamppost” number,  before  it turns into a misty nightmare dream-sequence as  he seeks his vanished Sally.   So that exuberant, hastily rehearsed  triumph was an extra  thrill, a standing ovation, and a good theatre moment.

    

 

       But it is altogether a fine evening, and well worth reviving the old show (Rose & Furber’s book updated of course in 1985 by Stephen Fry).  Caroline Quentin is wonderful as the auntly iron-lady Duchess,  reluctantly enamoured of her Sir John (who sadly has not quite enough to do,  given that he’s Clive Rowe,  but you can’t have everything).   Jennie Dale’s Parchester, entrusted with the mischievous G & S echoes as the family solicitor, tap-dances ferociously round the stage.    Siubhan Harrison as the designing Jacquie executes a terrifying bathtime seduction scene on poor Bill and   Alex Young as Sally, out of place in her print frock, cardigan and specs,  is remarkably touching.   Evans makes sure she is  a carefully downbeat foil to all the glamour:  studiedly awkward at first,  fretting that her pygmalioned lover now “even swears posh”, she erupts  spiritedly into the pearly-king invasion,  but is  poignantly alone with“Once you lose your heart”. 

 

 

      She gets it back all right. ‘Course she does.    Because it’s  a joyful, hopeful fairytale of  a show. Just what we need. 

box office 01243 781312   to 12 May

rating  five  4 Meece Rating

if you think one’s missing, it is because  in shows like this, the fifth always should be the official musicals-mouse for choreographer and musical director… Musicals Mouse width fixed

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