ONCE IN A LIFETIME Young Vic, SE1

HURRAH FOR HOLLYWOOD, AND LONG LIVE FOOLS

 
’Tis the season to be silly, and the Young Vic’s revival of a screwball 1930’s Hollywood satire hit the spot triumphantly with this theatre’s warm, responsive audience. It draws on two perennial daydreams: the first being that if you tell the boss he’s wrong his indignation will turn to wonder and he’ll promote you for fearlessness. The other is the even older folk-tale in which Foolish Jack accidentally does the right thing and wins the Princess and the fortune.

 

 

In Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s play it’s foolish George, played with nice naive indignation by John Marquez. He is one-third of a failing vaudeville troupe, with Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and the longsuffering May (Claudie Blakeley). The talkies have just begun so they hit on the idea of running an “elocution and speech culture” course for previously silent film stars. Once in Hollywood they encounter monsters like the overspangled, cawing showbiz-journalist Helen (Lucy Cohu), and Daniel Abelson hysterical with frustration as one of the latest mass “shipment” of playwrights hired by Glogauer and given nothing to do. A crazy workplace where a man is employed full time taking peoples names off their office doors and putting up new ones is led by the studio boss Mr Glogauer: a perfect shuffling, balding, amiably tyrannical plutocratic idiot of a part for Harry Enfield’s stage debut. George, a mooncalf in love with dim wannabe star Susan (Lizzy Connolly) , loses his temper, accidentally is promoted to total charge, and makes the wrong film without lights or plot. Which of course becomes a critical triumph for its originality. The reviews are beautifully written, classic emperor’s-new-clothes fawning on the obscurity and bad acting of George’s creation.

 

It’s a grand Christmas treat,  and there are some glorious moments especially in the second half.  The first takes time to warm up, often seeming like just a series of absurd sketches, though Richard Jones’ direction (and a lovely revolving segmented set by Hyemi Shin) keep it moving well enough. Enfield doesn’t have much to do in the first hour, though he is a treat to see shuffling through thickets of wannabes, complaining “wherever I go they ACT at me” or happily crying “That’s the way we do things out here – no time wasted on thinking!”.
Actually, though, most of that half and a good few moments in the second are stolen, with shameless comic brilliance, by Amanda Lawrence in a tight, worried pinkish hairdo as the receptionist Miss Leighton. She deploys a wonderful ladylike obstructiveness with people attempting appointments, and an anguished, spinsterish Glogauer-worship, following him around with a solid gold coffee mug . Her character could step straight in to most of the corporate workplaces any of us knows. And even a few doctors’ surgeries. Oh yes.

 

box office 020 7922 2922 to 14 Jan
Rating three  3 Meece Rating

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PETER PAN Olivier, SE1

PULLING THE FAIRY STRINGS IN AN URBAN NEVERLAND

 

Wendy is grown up now, earthbound , with her own child to tell about the wonder and danger of Neverland and Pan. She can’t leave the ground again, even with the “fairy string” which in Sally Cookson’s vivid, adventurous production has sent the cast flailing and somersaulting aloft, their riseS and swoops powered by counterweight cast members climbing up and down the bleak metal towers of a modern landscape at the side of the stage (one casualty already in rehearsals, Sophie Thompson). But as the show opens the grownup Wendy is beached because to fly “ You have to be young and innocent and heartless”.

 
Co-produced with the Bristol Old Vi,  Cookson’s production, like her remarkable Jane Eyre, breaks every rule of nostalgia: not spangly dust but “fairy string”, and Neverland a bleak urban bombsite where the lost boys street-dance. Hook captains a vast pirate SKIP, good pun there! Nana (Ekow Quartey) is not a dog but a super-frilled nurse who puts up with pretending to be a dog,which works very well. Though there is a real twenty-years-a-slave frisson when he/she is taken to be “chained up in the yard” by Mr Darling…

 
Yet in this modern, bare-and-uncompromising staging, just as she did in the Bronte tale on scaffolding Cookson drills down to a story’s emotional truth and oddness more sharply than with any amount of tights-and-nighties nostalgia . And by God, if any writer rewards mining for oddities J.M.Barrie does. Blighted in his own childhood by a mother’s grief for the brother who never grew up, preoccupied with the orphaned Davies boys, his yearning for childhood’s innocent heartlessness fascinates and disturbs.

 

 
Wendy is the heart of the tale, because being a girl she nurtures, speaks her mind, and sensibly grows up, even in childhood understanding the parental grief over the flapping curtain and the empty beds (always there is an echo of WW1 losses in good productions of the tale). But for Peter – here Paul Hilton is no child but endearingly adolescent, a defiant teddyboy, gawky in outgrown trousers – there is only that heartless airborne glee. So there was something satisfying in the Olivier in noticing how ,in moments which to us adults were movingly melancholy, a good few of the children laughed. And one moment when we adults all did, albeit ruefully, was when Wendy and Peter come down from a spectactular flying duet and she asks as they land “Peter, what are your true feelings for me?” . The poor lad’s expression is perfect as he mutters disgustedly “Tiger Lily does that!”. Damn women,always wanting commitment…

 

 

It is a thoroughly engaging and often spectacular, production, and the children present were attentive and pleased, a few starting , unprompted, the soft quick handclap to revive Saikat Ahamed’s lumbering, grumpily glossolalic drag-clown Tinkerbell with her light-up tiara . The crocodile is enormous, a thing of wonder made of old sheet metal and pipes- Toby Olié, of course – and odd bits of puppetry elsewhere have the inventive joyfulness which sends children home to play properly in imitation. Madeleine Worrall is a wonderful Wendy, forthrightly womanly, just edging into adult awareness but still capable of wild somersaulting fun aloft.

 

 

But the startling star of the show is Anna Francolini, who took over the Thompson role as Mrs Darling – frilled and feminine in the nursery, but doubling as a savage, obsessed, nightmare-mother, a dominatrix aflame with desperation: Captain Hook. Barrie apparently wanted this doubling, rather than having Mr Darling as Hook, and that fact alone could keep a Freudian busy for weeks. Francolini, a hook-fisted Medea in a tutu and bicorn hat, opens Act 2 as a terrifying she-Captain slouched wigless below decks, grotesque, smoking a fag and waiting to be laced into her corset by Smee. She mutters then howls: “I am brutality, I am battered, I am blood, I will break you Peter…”.
Properly terrifying, yet camp: what’s not to like?

 
box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 4 feb
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BURIED CHILD, Trafalgar Studios SW1A

IN WHICH LUKE JONES TRIES AND FAILS TO DISINTER DEEP TRUTHS

 

As in  all slow-burning plays there moments where you tune out for a second and ask yourself ‘is this a masterpiece or are they just all softly spoken?’ Is this drama reimagined or theatre deluded?

Sam Shepherd’s 1978 pulitzer prize-winning play centres around one unhinged Illinois family who have just about managed to let things settle. Then their grandson appears. Ed ‘Hollywood’ Harris is the patriarch Dodge, the Jim Royale of the midwest. Lolling around on the sofa, Harris quips about booze and complains about his wife with the whisky-warmth and elderly daze you imagined this old American farmer would. He is a solid, thoroughly watchable mess of a man.

Whirling around him, ‘babbling’ (as he puts it), and ploughing through the kind of half-relevant/half nonsense dialogue people have in dreams, are his wife (a vicious Christian played by Amy Madigan) and their two remaining sons. One of whom has one leg (“he’s a pushover”).

As they discuss absolutely nothing it dawned on me that this play had plenty it wanted to say, but no coherent means of doing so. Scott Elliott’s production tries to ramp up the mysticism as it becomes clear there is some bone-shuddering secret they’re all trying to keep from their eager grandson (a weak, single-note performance by film-favourite Jeremy Irvine) and his nosey girlfriend (Charlotte Hope). But the reveal is seen a mile off and when finally produced is laboured and uninteresting.

Having shunned the bar to read my programme like a good boy, I expected a devastating landscape of disenfranchised America. A rootless family in a wilting country. The self destruction inflicted on the ignored. What a freshly relevant evening in the theatre for patrons of 2016.

But the snake oil Sam Shepherd peddles is stodgy incoherence. It masks itself with empty dialogue suggestive of meaning, confusion in the place of actual thoughts and solid characters with inexplicably disturbed ones. If your play makes no sense, the excuse ‘well they’re all bonkers’ will only get you so far.

There are interesting moments around identity – in a slightly nightmarish moment, no one recognises the grandson and that sends him round the same loop as them. I get the broad aim, but it is in no sense original, insightful or entertaining.The only reprise is a charmingly haggard Ed Harris pining after liquor and quiet, and his lunatic evangelical wife snapping with discipline and fawning over the local priest.

 

Hearing some members of the audience chuckle, gasp and eventually rise to their feet in applause, it made me think of the art critics pranked into valuing IKEA framed posters as £2.5m masterpieces.

The hunt for the play which explains Donald Trump continues.

Box Office 0844 871 7627
Until 18th February.

2 meece rating

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THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL and… Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

THE BLEAK AND THE BOUNCY…RICE COOKS UP A CHRISTMAS PUD

 
Emma Rice’s warm, candelit take on Hans Christian Andersen, inventive and full-hearted as ever, raises a certain anxiety: I would love a lot of children to see it, but in the tiny Wanamaker it is hard to keep prices down. Still, up in the gallery you can look down through the chandeliers for twenty quid, and given the soaring cost of noisy pop-culture pantos perhaps some parents will bit the bullet, and decide on a more wistful taste of Christmas theatre.

 

The complete title is “THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL AND OTHER HAPPIER TALES” and with Joel Horwood, Rice has conflated three other tales with the central sadness of the child beggar who lights matches to warm herself and sees visions of Christmas comfort through the flame before dying on the icy pavement. The puppet child (beautifully expressive, with her handler Edie Edmundson) finds that lighting a match brings a Victorian vaudeville host – Olé Shuteye – with a troop of clumsily winsome acrobats and random props to enact the tales. Narration is in rhyming couples, sung or spoken, some of which are rather brilliant: when the crooked tailors, hipster-fashionista-prison-chic posers, demand wealth fro, the Emperor to make his non-existent clothes, they carol:
“Crush your crown jewels into fibre
And bring us a bottle of dolphin saliva”.
And yes, the Emperor is nude . Ish. Shuteye careers through the pit in a full flesh-coloured , rather loose onesie with cheerful stuffed fruit-and-two-veg with ‘real cashmere’ pubes dangling at the crotch. A bawdy touch wholly suitable to a Jacobean theatre…

 
The tale of Thumbelina – bombed out of a war zone, wandering the world alone and being rejected when she tries to join the insect city, is visually problematic at first, owing to her puppet’s diminutive size, but the Toad who captures her as a bride for his son is magnificently oversized and drew some adult gasps from the front row; and in The Princess and the Pea the piling of mattresses reaches a good 10ft and Akiya Henry, having flown down dramatically to woo the prince, blows him out furiously for daring to test her. HIs song resolves beautifully with the question “If you cause it yourself can you still call it pain?” All Stephen Warbeck’s music is gorgeous: guitar, mandolin, oud and bass overhead.

 

But the child is at the heart of it , and when Shuteye refuses to light her final match but snaps nervously “She lived happily ever after”, even the youngest child would know that it couldn’t be so. Too much realism has followed her. At last her immobile puppet is borne off , like a drowned migrant child, in a camouflage-clad soldier’s arms. And Ole himself doffs his vaudeville tails, stands homeless and ragged and is led off by a volunteer to a night shelter. Andersen would approve: his magic always had that sad tinge which children so readily recognize.

 
box office 0207 401 9919 to 22 Jan
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THIS HOUSE Garrick , WC1

DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS…DIVISIONS….

 
The Parliamentary chaos of the 1970’s – hung parliaments, fragile alliances and lost divisions which predated the dawn of Mrs Thatcher – make for a tale hard to believe now . Even with 2016 Labour in chaos again and rebel-ridden Tories in precarious authority. James Graham wrote this astonishingly perceptive, funny, and thoughtful reconstruction of the mid-70s years, focused on the wrangling in the Whips’ offices and it was first seen in 2010 (Coalition years) in the NT’s little Cottesloe, with the front row seated on green Parliamentary benches. Even then, dazzled by young James Graham’s achievement, I wrote that it would last longer than the half-dozen chaotic years it depicted.

 

 
When it moved to the Olivier, and the Speaker’s Procession in full rig came up the central aisle, its meaning suddenly deepened because the pomp reminded us that these furious combatants were actually – gulp! – running a real country, with real people working, striking , living and dying in it. I said this to Nicholas Hytner who mused “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger play than we thought”. So now at last it reaches the West End: brave for a commercial theatre because it needs an enormous cast. Even with the doubling and trebling of numerous roles, there were sixteen players in the Garrick. Jeremy Herrin has them flowing nimbly around an evocative WEstminster stage (Big Ben overhead, a Speaker’s chair reappearing, an iron stair, offices: at one striking point lighting turns it all into the echoing medievalism of Westminster Hall and its angels). Some lucky audience are in the gallery or on benches; sometimes MPs are down by the front row or yelling from boxes.

 

 

It still bites, perhaps even more now that Labour is in disarray, the SNP ascendant, and Conservative rebels rolling up their sleeves to destabilize the old order still further. Graham has fun with the old 1970’s dualism, real, in the pre-Blair years: a Tory Chief Whip despising “Foul-mouthed, brutish, trade unionist thugs” , his Labour opponent jeering about “silver spoons in their mouths and rods up their arses”. It is more noticeable though how artfully he acknowledged the blurring which was already under way: Steffan Rhoddri’s Labour deputy chief whip listening to Wagner on his own, NAthaniel Parker’s engagingly smooth Weatherill on the other side finding Coronation Street entertaining, much to the horror of the peerlessly funny silver-fox ur-Tory Sir Humphrey Atkins ( Malcolm Sinclair). Mean while the new Chingford member (Tebbitt!) is winced at as “an egg and chips man” and ever more Labour members are not battered, noble old miners and steelworkers but thrusting young Blairish lawyers.

 

 

It’s fabulous drama: the rows, the desperate wooing of the “odds and sods” from the nations and regions, the almost incredible Stonehouse affair, the brief Lib-Lab pact with the preening David Steel, the furious row after the Heseltine mace incident when pairing was suspended and Labour had to wheel in desperately sick MPs to vote and cajole its drunks and recidivists, and a new mother had to come in and breastfeed her new baby, horrifying the prim old-boys’ club that Parliament once was. Capricious minorities and mavericks tormented the whips, one Labour member crossed the floor, 17 died; the supposed government lost no fewer than 57 divisions in the last Parliament.

 
Graham worked from facts and memoirs and an imagination of great wit and flexibility, catching the sometimes brutal tone of politics (“I’d better go and twist a few more Liberal arms” – “Don’t try too hard, they’re flimsy”.) But it is moving, too: these are – especially on the left, because Labour was so beleaguered – individuals wanting to do their best for the country. Phil Daniels as Bob with his ducktail hairdo and savage sweating catches the angry sincerity of the old left; Weatherill’s relationahip with his opposite number is, in a final moment of decency, touching. And ever in the background comes the reported rise of the member for Finchley and the dawn of her 1980’s. During which, of course, James Graham was born. Another salute to him for this fantastic exercise in pre-natal nostalgia. The small flaws – odd awkward doublings and some really dodgy Northern Irish accents – can’t knock off the fifth star. Honour to it.

 
box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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AFTER OCTOBER Finborough, SW10

THE 1930’S SPEAK TO US AGAIN…

 
It’s 1937, hard times for the just-managing family. The Monkhams are broke, dreading creditors and bailiffs. The great hope is that the son Clive, bashing at a keyboard and surrounded by crumpled rejects, is about to have a play in the West End, which will make him a fortune and solve everyone’s problems. Gaily his mother Rhoda plans it all: her daughters can quit of dead-end jobs and problematic romances, they can move to a bigger flat and even rescue the daily woman Mrs Batley from her foul son-in-law. Clive himself sees the coming success as his chance to marry Frances the depressed, grieving lodger and sail to Hollywood. She meanwhile is being courted by a dull lonely older man in order to have someone “all to herself”. Widowed mother Rhoda, remembering her glory days as a second-rate 1990s ingenue , just looks forward to paying off bills and debts, sorting out her children’s problems and making anything other than shepherd’s pie and treacle pudding (there’s a real one demolished on stage later).

 

 

Everything hangs on Clive – as he points out, the entire household’s future is built on belief in his genius. Chekhov-like, Rodney Ackland’s whole play is built on a web of hopes and dependences: a family and its outriders dreaming of the great escape. For a 1937 play it is perfect for now, for anecdotes of quick success fuel dreams of celebrity and fortune. Today it might be a freak Girl-on-The-Train success, a startup website, a viral Youtube that saves the family.

 

 
We recognize them all. There’s Adam Buchanan’s boyish, impatient writer Clive, facing his moment of truth with adolescent eagerness and despairs; the sisters, willowy table-dancer Lou (Peta Cornish) with her exotic, fed-up French husband, and Allegra Marland as Joan, sleeping with her testy, boozy boss. Sad Frances in the corner, bohemian delusional Marigold and even Oliver the starving, studiedly offensive but oddly irresistible poet who disturbs Clive’s peace with unsolicited criticism and takes his money (and treacle pudding) as a tribute to his “genius”: we know them all.

 

 

Kingpin of the play, though, is Ackland’s quite marvellous creation of Rhoda, the mother, given vivid life by Sasha Waddell. Determinedly soldiering on, fuelled by the Light Programme, breaking into dated dance routines between outbreaks of worry, she mothers the lot of them, a bustling scuttling beacon of hope and delusion as each daughter returns to the fold and the flat becomes ever more overcrowded. . We watch them through the approach of the crucial first night – and the cruel moments of reviews as they must test the mantra they must all live by .Clive expresses it: “It’s a law of nature that we shan’t look too far forward. Something to look forward to is something for one’s mind to stop at, like a wall in time, between ourselves and death…when the wall is reached it disappears and quickly up goes another wall. Even very old people erect little walls between themselves and death, even if it’s only tomorrow’s dinner”. Glorious, true, perennial.

 

 

These revivals of half-forgotten playwrights are gold dust. You learn about your country and its past, as well as about universal humanity. Such rediscoveries only occasionally happen in the West End or even the NT but on the fringes, perilously funded and fuelled largely by love and fascination (and here, backing by Stage One),  tiny theatres stage forgotten plays with casts of unmodernised lavishness (eleven of them! I haven’t even mentioned Josie Kidd’s touchingly funny Mrs Batley, or Andrew Cazanave Pin as Lou’s fed-up Frenchman).   But these well-made, entertaining, perceptive plays from the pre-John-Osborne era need reviving, just as we rediscover baking, or proper tailoring, or make do and mend.  The heroes of this archaeology are the Jermyn and  even more this theatre: the tiny, determined, ingenious and always classy Finborough.   So thanks for the Ackland. Not least because, with humour, he allows his poor lab-rats a prosaic glimmer of hope in the end. An Ibsen wannabe, or a lot of moderns, would likely have ended on a suicide or a bankruptcy.

 
box office 0844 847 1652 finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 22 Dec
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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NICE FISH Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1

HERE’S THE PLAICE TO BE…

 
Ah ,universal truths! We are all living on thin ice, knocking up inadequate shelters, fishing hopefully down holes into the chilly truth beneath, accepting that the past is over and the future somewhere else. Floating off on a floe, sometimes in lovely harmony singing a song of memory so tthe gun-happy hunters know not to shoot at us. But mainly we’re holding inconsequential conversations propped up with improbable factoids. We grow older, and decide at last just to “scratch a few petroglyphs to puzzle archaeologists in the future, and leave wanton destruction to the young”. Don’t expect coherence from human existence. “The old leave this life like a movie, muttering “I didn’t get it”.

 
If you are now backing away, defensively murmuring ‘Beckettian absurdism, oh for God’s sake it’s nearly Christmas!”, come back immediately. From the moment a tiny puppet fisherman appears under a grey sky on Todd Rosenthal’s set of a vast midWest midwinter icefield somewhere on the Great Lakes, a creased and ragged tale unfolds under skies from grey to gold to starry and is shot through with rich humour : at moments, you think of Morecambe and Wise scripts interfered with by Pete and Dud. Gasps and barks of laughter come when least expected, as Jim Lichtsheidl’s Erik, concentratedly morose, reflects on how a lost watch makes him realize that “nothing is the way I thought it was” . He is having to put up with his piscatorially uncommitted, wayward, gormlessly rambling friend Ron – Mark Rylance . There are incursions from a bureaucratic enforcement officer who thinks he is a saint and finds it difficult to steer when levitating; then from young Flo (Kayli Carter) and her splendidly oracular grandfather. I wanted to keep writing down lines but it is unwise to take your eyes off the cast, as fascinating things happen. Though even when glancing away you get lapidary reflections like the fact that “people being mostly water, a cold climate gives you a certain solidity”.

 
Last time Rylance played this theatre (when it was still The Comedy and soon after the immense JERUSALEM) it was in a bizarre piece called La Bete. I was one of the few who liked it, for the sheer madness and for our hero as Valere the clown “Who else could hold us, hysterical yet horrified, a compulsive deluded entertainer [with] an elfin, wounded, sensitive yet crazy expression I cannot erase from my retinas” Since then he has been a screen sensation, as Thomas Cromwell and as a taciturn Russian Spy acting Tom Hanks’ socks off with a single eyebrow. His last West End show was the glorious Globe transfer of Farinelli And The King , which had me burbling about him again “half-clown half-angel, those comic slanted eyebrows over a face oversensitive, visionary, quivering with the griefs of eternity and the music of the spheres.” Dear oh dear. Something must be done about this hero-worship of mine; but the man doesn’t do much to help me over it.
.

 
For his return here is an event in a fabulously eccentric piece he has “stitched together” using the prose poetry of the American Louis Jenkins and a lot of improvisation. His wife Clare van Kampen directs, changing scenes and moments by the simple expedient of a total blackout (rather unnerving, given that on press night a huge swathe of West End was powerless and other shows cancelled). It is deep, it is melancholy, it is hilarious, it is all human life and doubt and oddity. It is 90 minutes straight, a lot of tickets go for £ 15, they give away a few free each night to people who arrive dressed as fish or ice-fishermen. So if you have a taste for absurdism, or comedy, or the random inconsequentiality of human life, you’ll fall for it . I did.

 
Box Office: 0844 871 7622 to 11 feb
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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