THE CANE                Royal Court, SW1

PSYCHOPATHIC LIBERAL MEETS DINOSAUR PARENTS

   

  Can we, I wonder, ever  learn to deplore past attitudes without being vengeful about it?  Hot on the heels of Mike Bartlett’s heartfelt SNOWFLAKE,  here’s another three-hander , another estranged daughter and another go at the subject of intergenerational affront and cold, angry youthful righteousness.  This, though, is a  more mischievously satirical – and unsettling – imagination by Mark Ravenhill.  We find Anna (Nicola Walker) a composed, professional young woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a single mother visiting her parents after a long gap:   her mother is both depressedly defensive and seething with lifelong frustration (Maggie Steed gives a note-perfect performance,  catching every resentment, fear and disappointment of a generation of women).   

  

      Father, a teacher on the verge of retirement after 45 years at the same school,  is initially upstairs working on a rebuttal of a damning OFSTED.   Parents and daughter have, we learn, become estranged because of her Academy chain,  which hopes to take over the failing school and impose its frozen eyes-front silent righteousness on it.    But, as also becomes clear, they never got on: Anna was an ‘angry child” who once threatened her father with an axe and ripped up the room.  In the eerily bleak, high-ceiled set, the marks are still on the wallpaper, underlining a sense of parental stasis. 

 

 

  But the point is that children from Dad’s school are gathering outside, throwing bricks through the window in protest at the father (Alun Armstrong) who appears, fretting about his report and as weirdly ambiguous about his daughter as his wife is.  It turns out that until the ban thirty years ago,  father was deputy head and therefore responsible for caning naughty boys.   There’s a ledger that proves it,  complete with “parental permission” signatures and carefully recorded number of strokes  (on the hand, by the way, not the backside, no skin broken).    He never liked it, as becomes clear:  Armstrong gives a wonderful picture of the old-style, basically caring Mr Chips trapped in a rigid system, doing his job.       Now, though, having suddenly found out this bit of pretty obvious social history and discovered that the mild teacher they know was once a “child-beater”,   the new generation are hunting him down in their hundreds and carrying on as if he was Josef Mengele.

    

          The core of the conflict and its absurdity is nicely summed up  when the mother says”They’re snowflakes. These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own. They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today.  If something was done differently int he past they bawl and they whine, kick and spit and attack”. 

     To which the pious daughter replies”Young people today are much more aware of issues relating to coercion, personal space, violence”.  She suggests formal apologies to the new generation (which hasn’t personally suffered)  and a safe space for them to discuss feelings. “To indulge themselves further in their introspection and self-pity” replies Mum sharply. 

  

    Sympathy and irritation swing (well, mine did) between the hidebound, slightly bullying but  long-serving older generation and the almost psychopathic liberalism of the bossy modern daughter,  with her pious jargon about “pupil voice” and prating about Best Practice and the inadvisability of Off Site Meetings.  Not to mention a grating tendency to say  “utilize” not “use’, and a millennial assumption that whatever is in the attic must be pornography, because her father being male must want some.  “I wouldn’t judge”.   After an hour I did wonder what Mr Ravenhill and director Vicky Featherstone would do with the remaining 45 minutes , stuck in a bleak set with three bleak people.  But the drama did rise – to the point of improbability  – with more argument, a minor coup-de-theatre by Chloe Langford’s set,  and an increasingly violent and improbable conclusion. 

 

    The last speech also revealed the fact that the liberal-caring-personal-space daughter  probably always was as mad and vindictive as a box of fascist frogs.    On the way out audience members over 50 muttered about how they got leathered at school ,so what?   And a nice young man next to me almost fainted when I told him that in 1965 Mother Rita in Krugersdorp  used to lash out with a ruler without any parental signature.   

box office  royalcourttheatre.com  to 26 Jan

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Arts theatre WC 1

 

ONE MORE TIME, WITH FEELING

 

.   After two other full cast renderings in a fortnight -David Edgar’s socially angry take at the RSC and Jack Thorne’s warm spectacular at the Old Vic – why go to another?  Because it is, each year, unmissable, an 80 minute  revelation of  skill and feeling.  The tale is the most protean and eternally vitalo: you can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele (dear God never again) or Alistair Sim, Muppet or musical, camp or holy. It does the trick, even when you’re half-hoping it won’t. 

 

      But the way Charles Dickens did it is simpler: alone on a stage, just telling the story in those vivid, close-woven sentences. Sometimes a dry aside, sometimes a Fezziwiggian exuberance, a torrent of adjectives; sometimes earnest, amusing as a nightcap or sorrowful as a gravestone.

 

     Simon Callow does just that.  I have seen this virtuoso, solo performance over the years four or five times, and lately the setting, at the Arts, has been well staged, with unsentimental simplicity: a moving gauzey screen, a few projections of old London, some chairs which Callow moves around as he becomes the grim Scrooge “edging along the crooked paths of life” eschewing fellowship. Then the cautiously alarmed or startled Scrooge, the repentantly delighted, redeemed one. He is Fezziwig, the Cratchits, the merrymakers at Fred’s, and all of us.

 

His script is conversational, feels contemporary, only a few smoothings-out of Victorian language needed. It carries you along. The moral of fellowship strikes home, of course, but in this age of irony so does the late line – gently simplified – in which Dickens reminds us that satire and cynicism always wither to inconsequence and are forgotten. The last word on Scrooge is the last word on every redemption: I have quoted  it before:

“Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. And knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him”

 

Has  the performance, and Callow, changed over years? Probably, but not from ego or bravura, no cheap tricks, no knowing modernities:if anything the sincerity has deepened. The matinee audience was silent, agog, on edge, even the teenagers in the gallery.  Many stood up to applaud. So we all damn well should.

artstheatrewestnd.co.uk.  

To 12 jan.  He does get Christmas Day off though. Good. 

Rating five. 5 Meece Rating

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      THE TELL TALE HEART. Dorfman, SE1

A GOTHIC EYEFUL

 

In this troublous nation,  2018 seems to be the Christmas of Aaargh! and Eughhh! and hahahahaaa! , as a gross-out  gigglefest sweeps London theatre.  There’s the McDonagh Veryveryvery at the Bridge,  Burke and Hare hilariously murderous at the Jermyn, Patricia Highsmith brandishing a knife  up West, and now this: Anthony Neilson’s knowingly gothic take on Edgar Allen Poe”s famous first-person narrative.

 

    Remember?  The lodger so fascinated and repelled by a kindly old landlord’s huge never-closing “eye of a vulture” that he kills him , chops him up under the floorboards but at last confesses, in hysterics,  because he still hears the heart beating under the floor. It is, of course, his own heart: thudding guilt, a moral metaphor.

 

So here is the 2018 version:  Tamara Lawrence as a smart young playwright who has just tuned down an award with a stirring speech about how art needs to be about flaws and failure,  not success. There will be a  backstory to explain her attitude tacked on at the end, rather pointlessly.  Meanwhile,  thogh,  stuck on her second play she rents an attic in Brighton to write in,  and is befriended by the gabby, needy, fey young  landlady whose horribly deformed eye…yep, you guessed it!

 

     Lawrence is splendid in the character, very much the boho sophisticate, sexually adventurous and keen on snorts  of cocaine.  She is patronisingly kind to Imogen Doel’s garrulously pally landlady, urging  her to take off her plastic eye mask and be seen,  loved, and accepted  as her full self.  All  very PC.  But when the huge comedy-swollen eye is revealed to her, looking like those  Halloween joke ones on a spring,  the writer shrinks and shrieks.  And as she  becomes ever more cowed and repelled,  gales of laughter cross the audience.

 

Which rather gives a  sense of he piss being taken.  The professional theatre right now spends endless effort on telling audiences and critics never to comment unfavourably on anyone’s features, physicality , size, age, disability or visually unlikely casting.  Yet here it is,  in the heart of the Dorf, overtly demanding unkind merriment over a deformity. So while solemnly warning us of strobe lighting, provocative language, some violent scenes, and moments and themes that some people may find distressing” ,  the NT offers not a word of caution to the facially abnormal. Who  may, what do I know?  be affronted at the idea that one look at their horrid features  might provoke  a sensitive artistic spirit to cut their throats with a pizza wheel.

    

But never mind. Let’s not be more po-faced than the theatre itself:   we get a grand  murder, plenty of gory chop-up nonsense, and there are wonderful special effects nightmare sequences abetted by Francis O”Connor’s lovely attic set.    Lawrence moves brilliantly between horror and comedy, and we all enjoyed being swept by a blood red  spotlight of doom at one point .  There are some arty flashforward interludes when all the house lights come on and a  detective    – David Carlyle –  joins in. As it is all part-dream part-reality,  he is alternately proving menacingly sharp or idiotically obsessed with his musical- theatre ambitions (“If you need a singer in a play call me..you won’t , you people never do!”)   He does very good bad-singing.

 

       By the way, talking of what is demanded of Carlyle,  note that in another plot strand Neilson – like McDonagh and a couple of other bright gross-out  playwrights in recent years –  demonstrates his belief that the physical mechanics of hanging are simply  hilarious.   So watch out if that upsets you.  Overall,  though,  it’s a mildly amusing schlock-horror piece, performed with comic brilliance and – by way of figleaf -a coda of moral seriousness on the subject of remorse. Two hours and a bit, with interval.

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk   to 8 Jan

rating three   

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

ENERGY, ANGER, HOPE

       

  It is 1842:  young Charles Dickens, thirty years old and with five novels under his belt, is ranting.    The Industrial Revolution is revving up nicely,  but tens of thousands of the poorest are left behind and so are their children:   slum brats without hope,  infant drudges in factories and sweatshops where bodies and spirits are broken.  Brandishing a report with fury,  he tells his publisher Forster that his next work will be a polemic.  Forster pleads with him, saying a story could have more force.   As they move through a busy London scene the notion catches fire: a cold-faced man in a tall hat brushes aside an urchin,  a heavy office door slams, a father carries his lame child on his shoulders… the majestic Dickens imagination slides down the slipway and the work is under way.

   

  David Edgar’s adaptation, directed as last year by Rachel Kavanaugh,  gives the old story of ghosts and redemption deft additions and expanded scenes;  while the Old Vic’s very different production by Jack Thorne throws emphasis on  Scrooge’s hardening in youth and painful redemption,   Edgar  directs the light more on social conditions, and the unforgivable shame of those who will not look at them.   Both emphases work beautifully, both are appropriate. 

    

  Joseph Timms is a fiery impulsive Dickens, darting in and out of scenes with the quieter publisher alongside him: indeed the only time Forster really panics, publisher-style, is at the point when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge dead, his bedcurtains and linen sold off by some magnificently disgusting lowlife thieves (top cackling crone-work here from Claire Carrie, otherwise having to play various posher ladies and a severe Christmas Past).   Forster, almost weeping with horror,  says you can’ t end on a corpse, at Christmas!   Dickens twinkles that it’s not over yet..

 

    Aden Gillett is a sharp-nosed Scrooge but also an unusually thoughtful one, showing his change of mind more gradually than most interpreters;  Gerard Carey a suitably worried family man as Cratchit.  One of Edgar’s most impassioned additions is to the family scene, with not only the sickly Tiny Tim but  explicit revelations of what is happening to all the other Cratchit children: a daughter losing her sight as a seamstres, on board-and-lodging only,   another due to follow her, a boy who loves to learn taken from the ragged-school to industrial slavery – as Dickens, suddenly sorrowful, remembers being himself.  Most startlingly of all,  Emma Pallant as Cratchit’s wife turns on him, angry at  his failure to prevent these fates.  It is a slap of a moment, a reminder that marriages can crumble under extreme poverty.  

 

    There is, of course, merriment too: Clive Hayward’s Fezziwig wig is as festively fezzy as it should be, again in an expanded scene pointing up the old employer’s benevolence.  There is some wild dancing,  a fine Victorianesque score from Catherine Jayes and a heartbreakingly lovely carol led by Tiny Tim just after the shocking parental row.   There’s even a sly Donald Trump joke in the party game at Fred’s,  and I enjoyed the bluff Mancunian Ghost of Christmas Present  (Danielle Henry) pinching candied-fruit from the table there.   And comedy is attempted too in the one duff note of the script, where (improbably) the reformed Scrooge pretends to sack Cratchit,  who rants against his meanness and lists old grudges.  Somehow, that doesn’t ring true. 

  

    But what stays in the memory, demanding reflection on our new century,  is that gallant  Cratchit family scene, and the silent, accusing, ravaged faces of the children who are Want and Ignorance.    Dickens,  175 years on, has done it again.

 

. Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk    to 20 Jan

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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SNOWFLAKE Old Fire Station, Oxford

  CHRISTMAS,  BREXIT,   GRIEF, HOPE 

   

A few hours after Theresa May postponed the parliamentary vote and spun us down into another layer of Brexi-hell ,  the little OFS      a  theatre shared with Crisis homeless centre – gave us this premiere by Mike Bartlett.   Which, while not a Brexit play, at a moment in its core nicely defines the attitudinal rift – and the psychological gulfs it revealed.  “A whole landscape of possibility has disappeared”  mourns a young remainer,  while an older Brexiteer protests “we’re already a union, we don’t need to be tethered to another less democratic and more malfunctioning one”. 

  

        That this argument- now mired in technicalities about customs duties –  has aggravated a generational, psychological clash as well as a political one is something drama should have been thinking about for two years, and rarely has.   It is reminiscent, if you’re my age, of how angry we were about Vietnam and how tricky things got with our fathers.   But for today  it has taken Bartlett to demonstrate, at one point in this short play directed by Clare Lizzimore,    how referendum difficulties can explode on one side into harrumphing exasperation at the  cruel arrogant certainties of youth,   and on the other side into scornful excoriation of everything  pre-millennial.  Which does mean  everything, from bootcut jeans and   the X files to  Blair, Savile and Morrissey –  “everything you grew up with –   most of it very offensive,  and now, quite rightly, burnt to the ground” .   

    

         It’s not all about Brexit by a long chalk, though,  and I am reluctant to reveal to you even who is speaking at that point.  Because this neat and moving play, at some points piquantly redolent  of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, has a surprise at the end of the 35-minute first half , and a double reveal in the second.  Which works very well indeed dramatically , so I am not about to spoil it for you.  Others will. Watch out. 

        

    So just the bare bones:   it is set on Christmas Eve.  Elliot Levey plays Andy, a widower whose daughter Maya disappeared two years ago and hasn’t been in touch; but she has been seen locally again.   So he has hit on the eccentric idea of getting a rundown parish hall , decorating it with a tree and  a sweet Christmas scene as in her childhood, hoping that she will meet him there.   The first half , until the last moment,  is a monologue in which,  endearingly but with middle-aged diversions into bewilderment at the modern age,  the father imagines seeing her again.  It is probably too long a monologue,  the play’s one flaw,   though Levey handles it well.  When the door opens it is not his daughter but a gobby, lairy, overfriendly, rather impertinent stranger who starts bubble-wrapping plates from the kitchen,  not respecting his  previous booking rights.  The invasion is a nice portrait of blithe tactless youthful entitlement,  setting the theme.  

  

Which it does, brilliantly:  the chilly resentful purity of youthful idealism, and a  policing of language before feeling,   is set against warm, baffled,  battered and bereaved parental susceptibility.  Bartlett’s dialogue is terrific, often funny,  occasionally heartbreaking.  Let us just say that by the end it is a three-hander,  that Levey holds the balance between absurdity and deep feeling, and  that Racheal Ofori is a rising name to watch with glee.     Ellen Robertson completes the trio with grace and credibility, the reveal is well worth it,  and the simple set by Jeremy Herbert offers a surprise and a lump to the throat.

     

  And the ending?  Well, it’s Christmas.   Not easy, not pat,  but yes, redemptive.   

box office  oldfirestation.org.uk      to 22 Dec.  Worth hurrying to. You’ll not regret it. 

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

              

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DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT Oxford Playhouse

 I WENT TO THE PANTO.  O YES I DID.

   

  The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the  audience’s likely cultural uplift,  it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly,  and a firm grip on local in-jokes.    So we get puns on foccaccia and cannelloni,  and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: Anchovy and Cleopatra,  The Comedy of Herrings,  Salmon of Athens, etc.     We also get borrowings off Oliver and Les Mis , a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute. 

  

 

        As for the Cat,  he is a proper urban moggy,  cool as Stormzy:  Alessandro Babalola   breakdancing, cartwheeling,  rapping and hip-hopping and patronizing the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems.   There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), a election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”).  It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh,  so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.     

 

      But never mind the cultural-topical- political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked.  This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls,  the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon.  The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you,   O No It Isn’t,   Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of “Baby Shark”. Which even I know is a Thing. 

  

      The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last  year;  Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices,  Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic.  No reedy tenors here.  Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it,  Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness,   and Steve Marmion , its writer-director,  keeps it hammering along.  All, in short, is as it should be.  O Yes it Is.

 

www.oxfordplayhouse.com    to 6 Jan

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

A WONDERLAND WINNER

       

  “Posh panto”,  for wincing parents fleeing the rackety showbiz ’n smut of the season, can be a bit chilly –  neither one thing nor the other.   But Christmas shows can power through both snobbery and the inverted kind, and be a complete delight for all. 

   

  I do mean all:   Joanna Carrick’s adaptation, a spirited three-hander,  is astonishingly faithful to Lewis Carroll’s text and, importantly, spirit;  the crankiest Oxford literary historian could find nothing to miss (despite an artful reference to Bake-Off and the fact that Humpty Dumpty, with his finicky use of words and economic illiteracy,  just happens to have a Boris Johnson hairdo).   It is very Carroll, including a marvellously elegant Victorian nursery set and brilliantly designed costumes by Katy Frost, beautifully echoing Tenniel’s illustrations.    Yet   a row of tiny pre-schoolers sat entranced  for two 40-minute halves, one keenly volunteering as Dormouse and submitting to a ventriloquist’s fake-mouth mask.   

    

    Leonie Spilsbury has the right look for Alice and such a smilingly witty gift with the smaller ones that one checks her programme CV and finds that indeed  she is no stranger to Children’s Theatre (in amid Brecht and Ibsen, it’s a varied life).  In her Alice frock she strides and twinkles around,  playing the guitar sometimes,  confronted by  – or collaborating with  – Darren Latham and Lawrence Russell as the series of Carroll creatures.   Father William, Tweedledum and Dee, Rabbit, a gloriously languid French caterpillar,  a stiffly mad Red Queen though not madder than the gorgeous Hatter,  a properly  barmy Duchess, an Aussie lizard and Dormouse,  the good old wallpaper-roll gag,   and a Cheshire cat who invaded the audience and lay across the laps of patrons, purring violently.   And despite Alice’s “this is not panto”,  there is a  behind-you and a perilous flinging of jam tarts.  Everything for the inner child,  and perfect for the outer ones.   

 

www.redrosechain.com  to 26th     A FEW TICKETS LEFT!!

RATING FOUR   4 Meece Rating

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