Not all refugees are in Calais or aiming for here. This enthralling piece from Mark Dornford-May’s Isango Ensemble of Cape Town tells another story, an African epic beating and yearning with the voice of a great continent. Musically magnificent, poignant and joyful and vigorous, it is based on Jonny Steinberg’s book, the true story of Asad Abdullahi al-Yusuf, a stateless Somali refugee of a proud tribe – “thirty-five generations!” – cast wandering across the troubled bosom of Africa.



Steinberg met him in the Blikkersdorp township five years ago, hustling, running errands, surviving in a shack with his family. He learned the story and step by step we watch the unfolding of a life. First the modern Asad, Ayanda Tikolo, is seen: nervy, on alert for attacks, nobly sad-faced. Our awareness of that haunts all his younger selves, as they dance and travel past us. There’s the eight-year-old Asad (an irresistible small child performer , Siposethu Juta or Phielo Makitle) who saw his mother shot in the civil war in 1991, escaped to Kenya to a UN refugee camp, learned scraps of English. He finds brief protection from an adult woman cousin (Pauline Malefane) but when she is shot must nurse her, forced to clean her intimately even through her periods “I had no choice” and keep her alive.



Chased on alone to Ethiopia the boy grows up – Zoleka Mpotsha then Luvo Tamba take on the role in this skilled, relaxed, freewheelingly disciplined barefoot ensemble. Asad finds casual work, marries, and travels to the promised land of wealthy South Africa. Where, as an asylum-seeking migrant “stealing our jobs, bringing crime”, he meets hostility and violence from a black community, itself embittered by the souring of the Rainbow Nation promise.


It could be grim: and there are moments almost unbearably moving, especially in the deep silence after the child’s mother is shot, broken by the chirping of crickets and then a high wailing note from the boy, taken up in deep harmony , almost reminiscent of a Byrd lament, by the rest: hairs rise on your neck, as soul of Africa keens for its losses. The music by Mandisi Dyantyis and Pauline Malefane, on six huge marimbas and any number of percussion junk, is complex, sophisticated and hugely operatic. And there is a dignity in Asad, and his sense of tribe and culture, which underpins the whole story. Asked for his name, from childhood he sings his tribe’s tune of identity, and through the tale he finds succour in the diaspora of his kin.



But it is unsentimental and tough-minded about this too: at one key point a relative refuses the child help, being only by-marriage; in South Africa the hostility of a people disillusioned and degraded by generations of apartheid weighs heavy on the struggling Somali small-tradesmen. In a strange moment of pride Asad says he will live in the suburbs; the South Africans mock him, only white people live there; and he protests that he is not black…his lineage is long and noble, that “blackness’ means something different to him. But after losing his first wife and son because she cannot stand the prejudice, he is the one who finally rejects tribalism by marrying a woman of outcast, ‘unclean’ tribe. The theme of clannishness and culture which can be either pride and protection or imprisoning prejudice is subtle and strong and honest. It echoes with many things, from ISIS to UKIP and raises the piece above the mere glory and uplift of music and dance, to a serious moral significance.


The final moments reflect Steinberg’s tale of Asad’s final remarks. He gets his American asylum papers at last, ruefully remembering how as a little child he dreamed that “America is always safe, there are no guns, everyone is rich”, and faces another future as a migrant there. But he won’t read the book. Too many lost loved ones, too many rejections. “The story is not for him” Steinberg writes. It’s not therapy for a man who survived and grew noble without it. It’s for the rest of us to learn from. Grave, exhilarating, honest, unmissable.

box office 020 7922 2922. to 12 Nov
rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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THE RED BARN Lyttelton SE1



About 65 minutes in, the willowy monotone Mona sighingly asks her lover “Don’t you get tired of your character? I think I do”. So civil is the National Theatre audience that not one of us muttered “Yep! Definitely tired of yours”. Disillusion flowered even though the ever-moaning Mona is Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian caryatid who hypnotized us – visually at least – in The Night Manager.



That this new play should be a lemon is a serious disappointment. It’s by David Hare; it’s got Debicki’s physical glamour, Mark Strong’s authority as Donald the antihero, designer Bunny Christie making elegant use of the Lyttelton’s sliding ability to frame and reframe significant moments, deafening storm surround-sound and sinister music by Tom Gibbons, and in charge – with many a bang and flash – is Robert Icke. The much-awarded star director rashly gave an interview last week saying how a lot of other people’s theatre is “boring” , so he often leaves at the interval. Ironic that he promptly socks us an underpowered 110-minute gloomfest with no interval at all.

Pile all this literary, directorial and performing talent together , in a tale taken from Simenon – the Maigret author, moody master of crime fiction – set it in restlessly glamorous 1959 America, and the result should at least be a bit of classy noir. Even if , with the cast heavily miked and mechanically cinematic frames and cuts, at moments it feels more like cinema. We are put in the mood for a thriller with the blacking-out of shiny exit signs and a warning that there is no readmission because of the tension. And it starts promisingly enough in an impressive Connecticut storm, through which struggle the four principals – Debicki, Strong, Hope Davis as the sweetly saintly Ingrid, and Nigel Whitmey as someone called Ray. They have been to a party and left their car in the blizzard, groping towards Ingrid and Donald’s house. But Ray never gets there.



We settle in, hoping for shocks and revelations , only mildly disappointed that despite the wind-machine gale from the wings whenever the door opens, nobody does the Morecambe-and-Wise trick of throwing handfuls of fake snow in. There’s a police Lieutenant deploying an unaccountable Pinteresque menace, and a couple of flashbacks of the culpably smart party they left (I think this is a social message about American values, though not sure what). Otherwise we just get a series of gnomic conversations as the group wait in vain for Ray, hear the bad news, and move on several months to an improbably, ludicrously chemistry-free rapport in a chic New York apartment with dangly perspex chairs.
This affair is between Strong’s Donald, struggling to escape his smalltown sports-jacket life and saintly wife, and the impassive, not to say crushingly boring, Mona , dangerously upstaged by her own zebra-print kaftan. Obviously, no good comes of it but my God! it comes very slowly indeed. Chekhov it ain’t, Raymond Chandler it ain’t, though it seems alternately to be aiming at both. Not the actors’ fault, but t for all the fancy soundscapes too many scenes are just fist-gnawingly boring. Let kinder spirits dig for silk-purse words : melancholy, noir, nuanced, delicate, Beckettesque. But honestly, and with real disappointment, I rate it a sow’s ear.



box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 17 Jan
rating two  (crediting, mousewise, set design and sound..)

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OIL Almeida, N1



What I like about the Almeida is that is that the audience smells as if they’ve been bathing in red wine right up until entering the auditorium. Good stuff, mind. But troubling when the shimmering projections of oilfields, fighter jets and motorways on stage give way to a set lit only by candles.


Ella Hickson’s play is essentially two concerns; Oil and family. It’s the question of why we feel we have the right to be warm when it’s cold outside, combined with the turbulence of a mother/daughter relationship. To mine this, Hickson drills into lives across a 200 year period.



A late 19th Century farm in Devon, appalled and intrigued by an American visitor’s kerosene lamp (“It stinks!”), runs straight through to somewhere at the back-end of this century. A mother and daughter, sat freezing, are appalled and intrigued by a Chinese visitor’s cold-fusion home energy kit. Neat. Along the way we drop into Persia, 70’s Hampstead (let’s give the audience a little bit of what they know) and an unnamed Middle-Eastern war in 2021.


In the finger-burning cold of the candle-lit farm, Anne-Marie Duff’s May is the one seduced by the oily man’s demonstration. We’re “bleeding it, sweating it”. She’s ambitious, pregnant. It’s lit something in her, so she runs away. The gripping drama is off. Duff gives us a painfully powerful performance, but is persistently dragged back to trot through quite bland dialogue about energy policy, OPEC, Libya and China. All interesting, but there’s a better show going on, and it’s on the same stage.



For the first half this drip drip drip of oil is nicely managed. It informs, but doesn’t control. The play gives a mixed picture and isn’t the Green Party political broadcast some of us were expecting. We’re given wittily drawn portraits of destructive government types and idealistic young lovers. Carrie Cracknell’s production lifts the humorously human, but indulges in strange flashing projections of oil fields and fighter jets. Stock imagery doesn’t make a strong message.


But running through all this confusion is Duff’s troubled pragmatist; compromise, responsibility and the most expressive face on the English stage. Duff’s performance is like combustion, sparring beautifully with lesser mortals on all sides.


So far, so good. When we return from the interval, noticeably refuelled on Rioja, we find a lesser play. Yolanda Kettle, as May’s daughter Amy, is given the glibbest scene about the middle east I have ever heard and her performance arrives in primary colours of whining. The pull of their relationship sours in the surroundings of glib China gags, nonsense futurism and tired nods to the cyclical nature of the play creaking to completion.

If you left at the interval, you’d probably have better conversations in the car home. It had a fiery start, but unfortunately ran out of fuel.

Box Office 020 7359 4404  To 26 Nov.

Rating three 3 Meece Rating

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THE DRESSER Duke of York’s, WC2



I was a little wary of this, the last two productions I saw (including the TV one) having left me mildly irritated and almost bored. For all its skill and wit, there is a slight risk today in programming Ronald Harwood’s backstage play about a monstrous, declining actor-manager and his camp devoted dresser, pitting an etiolated touring Shakespeare company against bombs and near-bankruptcy in 1941. We are at a distance both from the war and from the barnstorming theatrical characters of the 30s and 40s, with their doublet-and-declamation school of Shakespeare and their headlong rep schedule. We are less prone to tolerate domineering self-absorbed monsters too (though a few survive, high-functioning psychopaths in executive or editorial chairs).



But under Sean Foley’s direction, and with a particularly fine and sensitive cast, this time the play speaks clearly of wider human truths as well as sparking and stabbling with irresistible wit (Foley admits surprise on re-reading it at how much he laughed). Reece Shearsmith is perfection as Norman the dresser: gallantly camp, swooping, teasing, a lightning mimic and acidly devoting nanny, the Fool to “Sir”’s Lear. He finely balances the character’s neediness, shafts of sourness and eventual despair against his sparkling ability to entertain not only Sir, but us. Norman dominates the opening, as he will the ending, which is as it should be.

As “Sir”, Ken Stott at last shambles in, unfresh from discharging himself from hospital: orotund and threatening, tubby , dishevelled and disintegrating yet booming still, a disintegrating half-demented Churchill. He sobs, despairs , “I have nothing more to give, I want a tranquil senility” yet does not really believe it is time – despite the please of his despairing, weary, stately middle-aged Cordelia: Harriet Thorpe magnificent as “Her Ladyship”. And when some well-tried stimulus reaches through his self-pity (“A full house you say?”) a grin breaks through his ravaged, crudely painted face like the sun itself and for a moment we can join the worshippers. Who are Norman himself, Selina Cadell as the plain, clumping, long-devoted SM Madge, and sycophantic opportunist ingenue Irene (Phoebe Sparrow).


Foley gives every joke its chance, not least the recurrent dead-weight-of-Cordelia theme, nicely appropriate in a year when the RSC allowed its Lear to wheel her on with a cart. The Act 2 opening shades towards Play-That-Goes-Wrong territory as the cast desperately extemporize “Methinks the King is coming?” while Sir sits thunder-browed and unreadable in the wings. Two glorious cameos flare from the war-surplus cast of “cripples, old men and pansies”: Simon Rouse drooping in the Fool’s livery and a furious Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) . Both are enhanced by designer Michael Taylor’s aptly fearful retro costumes ( his set, neatly revolving, turns the theatre inside out before us).

The evening never ceases to entertain, engaging us with knowing theatrical self-parody. But its success finally depends too on respect: on the moments when Norman and Sir lose themselves in blissful mashup quotation of Shakespearian lines, and on acknowledgement of that hardworking idealism about theatre which soldiered on in years of hunger and fear and was propelled, in the end, by something besides mere vanity and habit. The respect is there. Even if, for Norman himself in Shearsmith’s devastating final scene, it wasn’t accorded to him.


box office 0844 871 7627 to 14 jan
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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When Teresa May at the Tory Conference quoted the Sam Cooke lyric “A change is gonna come” , many on the left suffered, not unreasonably, a violent conniption of indignation. A Conservative hijack of a civil rights anthem from the US 1960’s, by a soul genius shot dead not long afterwards!   Yet hey, anyone may respond to a great, wild, yearning song of hope. And by glorious serendipity, the Donmar brings us Kemp Powers’ play, imagining the genesis of that song: a startling, powerful, moving hour and a half directed with heart by our own Kwame Kwei-Armah.

It is the February night when Cassius Clay, only 22, becomes heavyweight champion of the world. He spends it with three friends in a hotel room: the host is Malcolm X, of the black-power “Nation of Islam” , guarded by the devoutly humourless Karim at the door, he is nonetheless shortly to break with it for a less radically racist and segregationist faith and ideology. They’re joined by the football star Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. The four argue, joke, and needle one another. Malcolm, older, watchful and serious, has converted Cassius; they pray together, and the famous name-change to Muhammed Ali is imminent. The other two laugh about the impossibility of giving up Grandma’s pork-chops and white girls, so muh more “obstreperous” and fun than X’s ‘temple sisters’.



Moreover Jim is working towards parlaying his sporting fame into a film career, though as ‘sacrificial negro’ his character gets killed early on, and Sam is in love with the idea of connecting with the soul of his white fans as well as his black brothers. Malcolm X taunts him, citing Bob Dylan – a white kid from Minnesota – expressing more anger and rebellion against injustice than Sam. The men leap, joke and fight, lithe as panthers; the Reverend Minister Malcolm, sometimes visibly irritated, pushes the radical, vital revolutionary line, excoriating the carefree athletes as “monkeys dancing for an organ-grinder.. bourgeois negroes too happy with your scraps”. Sam protests that he liked JFK and that Malcolm’s “chickens come home to roost” comment about the Dallas murder was wrong.



In one fascinating row, the gleamingly black Jim hits back at him with “kinda funny how you light-skinned cats always end up the most militant”. When Sam storms back from a row with a brown-bagged bottle of whisky, the preacher’s sanctimonious “You haven’t considered the offence to brother Cassius, who does not drink now” is met with “You haven’t smelt his breath in the last hour”.

Comic laddishness and earnest idealism, thoughtless energy and political extremism clash and mix at a key moment in America’s struggle towards racial justice. The cast are wonderful: Sope Dirisu as Cassius scampering, dancing, reliving his bout, elastically athletic and merrily bumptious, “OMG why am I so pretty!?”. David Ajala is solid thoughtful Jim, Arinzé Kene a Sam conflicted, angry at insults, creative.  Twice, with startling brilliance, he stops the show with real numbers: once leaping through the audience and flirting the front row into giggles with a soulful fully-backed love song, while his young friends fall about hysterically onstage. Then, when he admits he has been writing something different, he delivers a tremendous a capella rendering of the big song. Francois Battiste – the lone American – is a striking, contained Malcolm X: finally moving as his own political change becomes clear. What could have been a static, one-room piece throbs with life and soul and the complexity of the road to justice. Terrific. Sing!

“I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will ..”


Box Office: 0844 871 7624 to 3 December
rating    4 Meece RatingOh, and another one just for Arinzé Kene , as troubadourTouring Mouse wide
Supported by Barclays MS Amlin Simmons & Simmons, Clive & Sally Sherling

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Having swerved going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year (costs, personal issues, exhaustion , don’t ask) I felt I was owed some hour-long daytime sessions listening to monologues by people I’ve never heard of, on hard chairs in black-draped scruffy studios. Gotta keep that muscle going.  Also, my generation can remember the Almost Free Theatre just off Trafalgar Square, and its lunchtime experimental performances, whether inspired or dire. So with some glee I signed up for 70 minutes above the ARts, to see three short plays by Ken Jaworowski , a staffer on the New York Times . Directed by Alex Dmitriev, the three players are Alistair Brown, Daniel Simpson, and Nadia Shash. And as I have indicated, I expected no great pleasure.


Wrong! The hour was an absolute delight: literate, subtle, humane, insightful and touching, the use of antiphonal monologues building pictures of the real pains and banalities of life, turning-points and absent characters, pain and progress. The first, Pulse, is an exploration of fatherhood: Brown as a nervy, resentful gay man astonished by the reaction of his ex-Marine, fiercely religious father; Simpson powerful and convincing as a father who tries to protect his bullied small son by teaching him boxing moves, with disastrous results; Shash as the daughter-carer of a father trying to let her go.



The second, One to the Head, one to the Heart, shows Simpson and Shash as parents of a seriously disabled child, he a tough guy struggling with shame at his “defective” offspring, she producing a funny and touching twist; and the third, The Truth Tellers, less serious, is a charming miniature rom-com, funny and sharp about the singleton world, with Shash and Brown failing – for a while – to get it on. Oh, and despite Jarworowski’s background, he first and last are British characterizations; the middle one American. A proper lunchtime treat. Non-fattening, too.
Box office 020 7836 8463
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE AUTUMN GARDEN Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

Lilian Hellman – tough, personally unconventional, a liberal ahead of her time – counted this as one of her favourite works. Most of us admire her more for The Children’s Hour, The LIttle Foxes and her fierce 1940’s anti-fascist writings. This one ran only a few months, and is pretty well forgotten: but Antony Biggs of the Jermyn Theatre specializes in forgotten classics, and has opened many doors into past sensibilities for us.




Having said that, the 1951 play has problems. It is set in 1949, the restless postwar time when society was changing and the deep south – it is set, in a boarding-house near New Orleans – was changing slower than New York and Europe. Gregor Donnelly’s design is on the face of it an intimate drawing-room (everything in the Jermyn is intimate: your feet may be on the very carpet on which emotions are unrolling). It has distressed wallpaper, though, in almost camouflage-colouring, a reminder of that war. As is General Griggs – Tom Mannion – glum in a wicker chair, studying a Chinese grammar and planning to divorce his wife and attempt a new life. She, played with vigorous deliberate absurdity by Lucy Akhurst, has somehow escaped from a Tennessee Williams play: a southern belle past her best, flirting absurdly, the kind of pretty girl a man marries suddenly in a war. As the General sadly says ‘All professional soldiers marry Rose. It’s in the army manual”.

In another corner is the pleasingly sour old Mary Ellis (Susan Porrett, sharp as a tack), her overpossessive daughter-in-law Carrie dominating a deeply wet son Frederick; he is engaged, in a lukewarm fashion, to the most mysterious of the group, Sophie: a French waif from Europe, adopted with good intentions by Constance, who runs the boarding-house. Constance is a likeable, layered, gentle performance by Hilary Maclean, a woman who for years has failed to notice the devotion of old Ned, but nurtures a nostalgic affection for her girlhood flame, the truly awful Nick. Who is imminently expected with his wearily fed-up wife Nina.
So there’s a big cast, a complex set of relationships, and a theme of middle aged disillusion poised between tough old age – Mary holding the purse-strings – and youth, represented by wet Fred and Sophie. Ah, Sophie: Madeleine Millar on her first professional job has the most interesting part to play: slight, emitting a rather sour European realism , folding up her face into tight unreadability, world-wearily European, a child of war, she bats off the ultimately disastrous drunken advances of Nick; and finally, in a sharp twist, reveals that she knows perfectly well the vulnerabilities of the affluent Ellises and their Southern fear of “scandal”.



The trouble is that it doesn’t quite get the grip and pace and complex involvement of such a group which Chekhov can. It does in its centre drag a bit, for all Biggs’ delicate direction and Hellman’s acid sharpness and compassion for failures (Mark Aiken’s Ned has little of interest to do until the end brings a profoundly moving speech about a lost life: MacLean too is memorable then. The second half is the best, though the drunken dissolution of Nick only catches fire in his dealings with the remarkable Sophie. Who is of another world: my favourite line is from absurd, atavistic Southern Rose: “A nice girl woulda screamed!”. Too late. The world was on the move, with or without Louisiana.


box office 020 7287 2875 to 29 October
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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