RAISING MARTHA PARK THEATRE N4

RIBBIT! RIBBIT! FROGS, FOOLS, FABULOUS

Here’s a tonic for theis flat , glum season! Divinely tasteless, bracingly cynical , hootingly funny (jokes from subtle to silly) and directed with pacy intelligence. David Spicer has written what should be a breakthrough play, in a gorgeously black-hearted Ortonesque spirit. Michael Fentiman’s cast could not be better.

 

 

Jeff Rawle is a dim, self-confident whiskery rural Inspector telling us the story of his investigation into an animal rights outrage: the theft of a five-years-dead corpse (don’t worry, nice clean bones). Martha was the unregretted matriarch of a family frog farm, supplying specimens for dissection and experiment: as the show opens we see, digging overhead, the animalrighteous Jago (Joel Fry) and his wonderfully whiny dupe sidekick (Tom Bennett, increasingly funny as the show goes on).

 

 
But for me the greatest treats began with the dishevelled middle-aged son Gerry, who runs the frog farm in between glumly strumming a guitar unable to find a rhyme for “Linda” (who turns out to be, unseen, key to the plot). Gerry has actually given up frogs and secretly diversified into cannabis laced with hallucinogenic cane-toad venom : those creatures exotic stoners like to lick. A side-effect of his habit is the frequent arrival, seen only by him – and us, of course – of 6ft tall frogs with great prop heads and white doctors’ coats, threatening to vivisect Gerry with a lot of learned scientific discussion of whether he can feel pain. And the big treat is that Gerry is played by Stephen Boxer: an RSC veteran, who was stunning as Tyndale in Written on the Heart, as Petruchio, as the Archbishop in The Heresy of Love, as the NT’s Gloucester in Lear…

 

 

As so often, a classic class-act gives a broad , absurd and loopy part real power, subtlety and conviction, with sharp timing to which the others rise with matching glory. Julian Bleach is the apparently saner brother Roger, gradually himself driven manically nuts (one gets a strong sense of who Martha was, and how she is probably better company as a series of bones, flung around and brandished by the various camps) . Roger’s daughter Caro, who is not at all what she at first seems, is Gwyneth Keyworth.

 
They all play the accelerating chaos with farcical skill (the final fight is spectacular) and all are given the sort of lines you scribble down. Some are satirical: Clout the policeman pleased when the attackers are defined as terrorists because “You can get away with murder if you’re defending freedom..you are now a police budgetary priority!”. Some are magnificently silly (there’s a Yorick joke, oh yes). Everything skewered is a pleasure, including a splendid definition of the modern noir TV cop-hero: “All they have to do is drive around looking gloomy and arrest the first person who’s more psychologically damaged than they are”.

 

Me, after a rough day I feel psychologically healed by two hours of this rude black-hearted absurdity. It’s nearly as good as licking a cane toad.

 

box office 0207 870 6876 to 11 Feb
Rating four   4 Meece Rating

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STOAT HALL Seckford, Woodbridge and touring

MOCK TUDOR, RIOTOUS BUT NOT RUFF

 
It’s described by its creator Pat Whymark as “a sort of Tudor/Muppets mash-up with a respectful nod to Blackadder and DIY SOS”. To which I would add edges of panto, a soupçon of Python and a curtsey to Horrible Histories (though it’s far funnier). Whymark and Julian Harries have done many a Christmas lark for Eastern Angles, but this is my favourite since their (less-comic) Dick Turpin’s Last Ride at Bury St Edmunds.

 
It lards on the jokes with such generous recklessness that even if one genre leaves you cold, another will be along in mere seconds to disarm you. There are puns and puppet moments, telly jokes and anachronisms, sly politics, sent-up history, joke props, audience-baiting and plain surrealism. A sudden bluebird, bumblebee or (local reference) the demonic dog Black Shuck appear at random, and ravens on sticks gnaw the thatch.

 
So determinedly, gaily , its cast of five lurch energetically through a spoofolicious tale of sir ROGER de Polfrey, secret and reluctant Plantagenet heir of Richard III, struggling with castle rebuilding works (jokes about incompetent Masons go down very well in this vicinity). He is burdened with two daughters, a discontented wife and a grandmother descended from Chaucer who can only speak in Middle English (Violet Patton-Ryder, pleasingly posh). He is unaware of a secret society with ceremonial stoat headgear lurking in his undercroft, because to add to his troubles  Henry VIII announces a royal visit, through a camp Gerald The Herald who gets lustfully captured by his 6ft , uncouthly bearded basso-profundo chuckling daughter  Hedwig. Meanwhile both the jester-narrator and the sinister house apothecary, a recreational pathologist with many a gruesome prop, are in love with the other daughter, the fair Rosamund..

 
You get the idea. But the strength of Whymark’s production is that it is never allowed to plod. The only breathing spaces are some rather beautiful songs in the Renaissance manner, also the creator’s composition. And some brief comic musical interludes like the mad cook’ kazoo solo or the Apothecary’s “Should you die of anything – from haemhorroids to gout – I”ll lay you on table , and pull your innards out”. I tell you, the kids will love this. As I did.

 
Altogether, a pleasure. And the cast’s comic versatility in changing roles is pure Reduced-Shakespeare, straight-faced and backed by a stage manager (Penny Griffin) who one must presume has six or seven arms. Patrick Neyman, whether as apothecary, monarch, fierce Hedwig or the ghost of Richard III, is a particular treat, and Geri Allen’s transformation from mother to daughter is so baffling that I am sure I once saw the two onstage at the same time. I was driving, but have a weird hankering to see it again on its tour, with a couple of drinks inside me.

 
rating four  4 Meece Rating
http://www.easternangles.co.uk to 21 Jan then to  Peterborough

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THE KITE RUNNER Wyndham’s WC2

AN AFGHAN EPIC TO REMEMBER

 
Khaled Hosseini’s novel is an intimate epic: a flawed, damaged, remorseful man’s journey through thirty years of turbulent history. Amir is the privileged Pashtun son of a peaceful Afghanistan before its wars, USSR and US invasions, and the vicious Taleban years . The story, familiar now, traces his awkward growing-up into exile, immigrant struggles and college in California; from a cowardly childhood moment with a terrible consequence it culminates in his redemptive return thirty years later,. When, tellingly, he is roughly told by a guide (as many of the world’s upper-middles might well be) ‘You always were a tourist here ”.

 
It became a successful film, but Matthew Spangler’s play – far more arresting and vivid – was written before that.. This version under Giles Croft (jointly for Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman) was honed to perfection by a substantial tour, and deserves all the attentive pin-drop silences , sighs and applause it meets in the West End. Atmosphere and honest emotion radiate outwards: there is a kind of urgency about it, a spur to meditations about class, tribalism, migration, fatherhood, and not least the spectrum of glories and horrors within Islam itself. The melodramatic almost fairytale elements of the story are grounded by an earthy credibility, moments of frightening brutality, and the fantastical but factual elements of modern global migration: Afghan flea-markets and ceremonial marriage-services flourishing in San Francisco in the age of MTV.

 
Spangler, of necessity with a vast rambling story, uses the adult Amir to narrate much of the story, dropping back into childhood or adolescent scenes. I was uneasy at first: plays-of-novels can be ruined this way, losing the show-don’t-tell energy of theatre. The treatment did Faulks’ Birdsong no favours. But Spangler uses it more carefully, and Ben Turner as Amir does both with skilful ease, becoming in turn the shy, bookish, culpably timid child self, the modernized US teenager , the young husband at last admitting his guilt, and the fully adult narrator remembering it all. It is a tough job, for Amir is often frankly despicable in his behaviour, right up to a wonderfully self-pitying outburst in the presence of the dignified, dying old Rahim. He holds on to sympathy though, rather thrillingly by his fingernails at times.

 
The first act is all set in the early 70’s childhood, and the friendship Amir betrays with the servant-boy Hassan: in which role the young Romanian West-End debutant Andrei Costin is quite superb. His is an even more tricky part because “goodness writes white”: the devotion and hurt forgiving sweetness of the servant boy must be made credible. In Costin, it is: every gesture both loving and subservient, channelling a forgotten and deeply un-modern kind of retainer’s loyalty. But all the supporting cast are strong: notably Nicholas Karimi who genuinely terrifies in both halves as the bully Assef , Emilio Doorgasingh bluff, macho, harsh and in one remarkable scene heroic as the father Baba; and Ezra Faroque Khan striking in an old-Afghanistan dignity as the servant Ali and later, the guide Farid.

 

 

Barney George’s set design – with William Simpson’s projection – is elegantly simple, trees and rocks and skyscrapers craggily suggested , great fans descending for middle-eastern interiors and the dove-like white innocent kites of childhood a curiously moving sight in themselves. If I could raise one quibble as it comes into London , it is that the lesser slope of Wyndham’s stall seats makes it frustrating when – naturalistic though it is – the director stages some important conversations with both characters seated on the floor. One tall fidgety head in front and you lose them. But story, strength, performance and sincerity deserve all honour.

 

box office 0844 482 5120   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to
rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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ART Old Vic, SE1

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGET THEMSELVES….

 

 

When Yasmina Reza won an Olivier for best comedy, she joked “I thought I had written a tragedy”. She did both: the French actor-novelist-playwright sees far enough into the cracks in human confidence to illuminate both absurdity and pathos. ART made her name internationally, and for Matthew Warchus to revive it at the end of a chippy 2016, just when we need to wince, laugh, and reflect on the perils and underlying disagreements in any friendship. Hang out together long enough in empty breeziness, and the odds are there will be dangerous things unsaid. Even if it isn’t about Brexit.

 

 

The beauty of this piece is that the unsayable things are well and truly said, by all three characters, as deep chasms open. The trigger is when Serge, a prosperous doctor, spends 100,000 euros on an apparently blank white painting. Except he says it isn’t white, it’s subtler than that, an important work by a contemporary artist. He shows it to Marc, an aero engineer as stubbornly wary of modernism and art-that-needs-explaining as our own dear Michael Gove (very topical, lucky Old Vic!). Marc laughs and says it is shit, and seems oddly affronted by Serge’s purchase; this opens an unexpected vein of vulnerability in Serge. The third of the old-pals trio, Yvan, tries to mediate between them . Disastrous. In between ripping one another apart they turn on Yvan, whose life is tricky enough already, between professional failure (“Does any man wake up every morning looking forward to selling expandable document wallets”) and a wedding involving warring stepmothers, an affronted mother and a demanding fiancée.

 
Too much drama is fed by romantic and marital shenanigans: the glory here is that Reza explores the too-little charted territory of commitment and jealousy among adult friends. We gasp when Marc accuses Serge of betraying him with his new art mates – “Never leave your friends unchaperoned!” and cannot but agree with the reported comment of the shrink “Dr Finkelzone” when Yvan tells the affronted pair that he has discussed them in therapy. It’s actually quite profound: “If I’m only who I am because you are who you are, then I’m not who I am”. Fink has a point there.

 

 
In a series of encounters a-deux or a-trois the men’s friendship ruptures and reshapes, partly with absurd art-talk about “the resonance of the monochromatic” and partly with personal comments about their attitudes, partners, and assumptions. Serge thinks he is about Art and modernity, Marc pretends to tradition and commonsense, albeit laced with obedience to his unseen Paula’s homeopathic prescriptions. Yvan has decided that life’s just about ‘Marriage, children, stationery, death. That’s it”. We learn that “Read Seneca” is a brilliantly dangerous thing to say to anyone, quite as bad as “You have no sense of humour”. I may try it.

 

It zings, it ricochets, it sends a shiver, the cast are perfection. Rufus Sewell as Serge has the stillness and the deadly strike of an affronted black mamba; Paul Ritter’s Marc subtly reveals below his bluff man-of-the-world air an edge of controlling megalomania; Tim Key as Yvan, trapped between them both, has real pain and pathos, knowing his chaotic life is a kind of necessary validation to his more successful mates. His cry “I just want to be your FRIEND!” got an audible “aaahh!” from the audience, as serious as a Miller or Tennessee Williams moment.

 

 

So good grief, it’s another five-mouse night for Warchus’ Old Vic. For this, on its 20th anniversary, sets up echoes in all of us. Indeed anyone who has had a long friendship blow up in their face might even , on leaving, feel a touch jealous of its sheer articulacy. Theatre is better than life sometimes; often, the kind of lines Reza gives these furious, vulnerable men are the sort that in real life one only mutters to oneself, walking angrily down the street after a Wrong Text…

 
box office 0844 8717628 to 18 feb http://www.oldvictheatre.com
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
Rating five   5 Meece Rating

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St JOAN Donmar, WC1

THE MAID OF ORLEANS AND HER TORMENTORS

 

For fifteen minutes as the audience troops in Gemma Arterton, in chainmail and breastplate, kneels on a dais in rapt contemplation: mouthing prayers, prostrating herself before the Cross, offering up her sword, sober and serious. It is a silent prelude to a wordy play: and a 14th century meditation before Josie Rourke’s production takes us firmly into modern dress. Robert de Baudricourt yells at his Steward across a revolving glass boardroom table, while overhead the Bloomberg stock market screen reveals a disastrous shortage of eggs, millet and straw. It is a bold stroke to translate the medieval political manoeuvrings and clerical self-exculpations into grey-suited modernity, teasing us with the perennial nature of hypocrisy. George Bernard Shaw – who of course was writing about his own time too – would love it.

 

 

For it is the most political of plays. I spent three years as “L’Anglaise” in a convent school in Lille being blamed by classmates for burning Jeanne d’Arc, but was able to retort that there were a lot of wheeler-dealing French involved and that it was the Catholic Church – our lot, precursors of M. le Curé and his superiors – who handed her over as a heretic. And their precious Dauphin did nothing. At home we had a record dramatizing, verbatim, her trial, and I can still hear those brilliant “pert” retorts delivered with unshakeable faith and self-confidence, on why she dressed as a soldier “pour ma pudeur” and whether she was in a state of grace – “Si j’y suis, Dieu m’y garde! Si j’y suis pas, que Dieu m’’y mette!”. Magnificent. And both in Shaw’s text too.

 

His impassioned Fabian play was written when the torture of suffragettes was fresh in memory and the rise of the defiant “unwomanly woman” gaining traction. Being Shaw, he weaves in more than feminism: nationalism and its dangers, a forecast of “Protest-antism” against the interference of clerics with individual conscience, and a general reflection on the writhing frustrated helplessness of systems,traditions, chop-logic theology and theory and “proper procedure” in the face of fierce innocent simplicity.

 

 
It can be overbearingly wordy when Arterton’s gloriously straightforward, striding Joan is not onstage, radiating both determination and a real simplicity of girlish kindness. One might flag during the arguments within English, French and clerical boardroom meetings (the table is forever revolving) . But Rourke, with some cuts, keeps it moving along and gleefully lets us pick up every echo of modern preoccupations, from “rendition” to fanaticism (Mohammed gets a mention as being as dangerous as Joan) . The excuses for the distasteful necessity of burning a young woman alive are brilliantly done in the second half (“One gets used to it”). Hard not to think of the strategic discussions in three countries about Aleppo. And the moment when the trial judges descend to actual clerical fisticuffs is like the best sort of televised Select Committee.

 
There are roles to relish, aside from Arterton’s triumphant, touching and finally dramatic Joan. Fisayo Akinade as the Dauphin is wonderfully funny: camp, wet, cowardly; Rory Keenan as the (here American) Inquisitor is a chilling ancestor of all today’s Evangelical born-again homophobes. And Richard Cant gives a haunting, haggard fantaticism to de Stogumber, his hysteria decaying in final moments to traumatized brokenness. Memorable, powerful stuff.

 
box office 0844 871 7624 to February 2017
LIVE IN 700 CINEMAS ON 16 feb 2017 – http://www.ntlive.com for screens
Principal Sponsor Barclays.
Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Arts Theatre, WC1

FRESH AS PAINT,  THE OLD STORY

 

 

“Marley was dead…”. Oh how we need Dickens’ story every year. You can do it panto or earnest, screen or stage, Tommy Steele 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, simply 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.

 
And now we are lucky because Simon Callow does it. I first saw this one-man show some years ago and have crept in to see it a few times since. It never fails. This setting, at the Arts, is particularly well staged, with a holly-free, 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 too (a fine one-man evocation of a wild dancing party, Ed Balls watch out); he is the spirits, and the nephew, and the Cratchits, 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:
“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”

 

Box office: 020 7836 8463, to January 7
rating four   4 Meece Rating
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CINDERELLA Palladium, W1

OH YES IT IS, IT REALLY IS…

 
Want to see Julian Clary in a feather headdress and spangles, looping the loop on a flying Vespa over the front stalls.? Course you do! Hungry for pumpkins dancing in shiny green toppers, quick-change unicorns, random pigs and a chorus of Salvation Army lassies led by Paul o’Grady rasping for England?  Yearn for retro variety, tastefully spiced with gags about Brexit, Trump, Simon Callow and Toblerone but only one of each? Naturally.
If you don’t, you are not in the panto zone, and as O’Grady’s ever alarming Lily Savage would put it, “shaddup,  if I wanted your opinion I’d slap it out of ya.”
For this really is the mother-lode of pantomime: heavy on stars but, more importantly, getting every ounce of hard work out of every one of them, mercilessly. Studded with headline acts, it never lets any of them do their shtick and walk away but melds them into plot and cooperation. It’s a treasure chest, a packed stockingful of silly treats.
 
The only shocking thing is that the Palladium hasn’t had a panto for nearly thirty years. Musicals clogged up its Christmases, among them Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat: a fact entertainingly acknowledged by the way Lee Mead’s beguilingly boyish Prince Charming breaks into Any Dream Will Do at the first opportunity, and follows it with another Lloyd Webber standard as soon as possible. Why not? It is, after all, ALW’s theatre now. But that is only one thread picked up, for one of the pleasures of this immensely classy , joyful production is its sly self-referential edge. It opens, once Amanda Holden’s rhyming Fairy Queen has stunned us by flying out over the stalls in a huge crinoline, with a paean to the Palladium itself, and an olde London song and dance about “Argyle street” – complete with organ grinder and neon-candy romping street life : co director and choreographer Andrew Wright ensures acrobatic excess throughout as one might fondly expect .

 

 

But beyond that, there are constant tributes to the theatre’s history and to older variety traditions. Paul Zerdin as Buttons is a very high-end, sharp-scripted and quick-witted vent act with his puppet Sam, and has several showstopping turns; Baron Hardup is Count Arthur Strong in a loud check suit and orange trilby, a figure straight out of the 1930s . There are even Tiller girls, briefly, a big tap number, and a tremendous rendering of the very old variety comic song “If I were not upon this stage..”. In which, remarkably, all the comic principals except O’Grady take part, with neat synchronicity which collapses into slapstick thumps and trouser-dropping; you won’t often see such ensemble work with Clary, Zerdin, Strong, Amanda Holden and Nigel Havers (who is sent up rotten throughout as Lord Chamberlain – as in “I’m the thinking woman’s crumpet” “No, nobody’s that hungry”).

 

As for slapstick, it is unusual to have a standard buffoon sequence – a neat falling-off-a-log trio with Zerdin’s puppet – not being delegated to ugly-sisters or comics, but carried out by Cinderella and Prince Charming, in mid-lovesong. Director Michael Harrison is really working them: O’Grady in the wicked-Baroness role, a Knightsbridge lady from Hell, looks magnificent, rasps and scorns us in the usual LIly Savag style but also does a good deal of interacting with Clary’s Dandini and with Cinderella. Clary is priceless as ever, innuendo kept just the right side of a wavering line (well, mainly) and again hopelessly corpses Havers who proffers food with “Ive got a spiralized courgette” and is told “blame your age for that”.

 

 

And of course it’s wonderful to look at, a crazy neon-and-candy spangled bouffant exaggeration,more costumes than you can count ; the pumpkin coach flies high with white horses pawing over Row F. And Cinderella is a delight: Natasha J. Barnes fresh from standing in as Funny Girl gets an affectionate applause when – glancingly, subtly, unemphatically – it is mentioned. But that’s another thing to relish: nothing is allowed to drag or overstate, even in nearly three hours. Glorious. Can only deny fifth mouse because a few too many gay sex jokes, boys..

box office 0844 811 0052 reallyusefultheatres.co.uk to 15 Jan
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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