GIN CRAZE Royal and Derngate, Northampton

THE DARK SIDE OF THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT. DON’T TELL JACOB REES-MOGG

          Hats off to James Dacre’s Royal & Derngate for bravely slapping on a brand new musical in the very week Lloyd-Webber and four other London shows got abruptly pinged-off by test ‘ n trace (more like trick-or-treat, frankly: isolation blackmail).   Even better, April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers happen to hit some nicely topical nerves in the time of Bum Flare Man and rabble-riotous, boozy footie-fans and clubbers barely controlled by the police.    The result, directed con brio by Michael Oakley,  is picaresque fun in the tradition of beggar’s operas (echoes of John Gay, and musical nods to Kurt Weill’s  Threepenny Opera songs) .   It’s hits the spirit of the 18c before the Victorians clamped down on behaviour: it’s  joyful and dark , scholarly and fantastical , finally rather serious but often very funny and breathtakingly rude (parental advisory: there are some cheerful genital references, sung and otherwise, with words starting with C and an earthiness regarding trouser-contents).   

            It deals with the mid-1700s,  when Hogarth drew the exuberant horrors of “Gin Lane”.  A trade deal with the Dutch made the spirt “Ginever” suddenly cheap and plentiful. A populace used to ale and mead  – wine and French brandy being for the gentry – started downing the stuff by the pint.  It assuaged the grim social conditions of the London mob and panicked the ruling classes into severe and ineffective licensing laws.    When our heroine Mary (Aruhan Galieva)  is starving, milkless, cradling her new baby after being raped by a genteel cleric and sacked by her employer,  ragged Suki from the gin community offers comfort.   Mary accepts:   “I am a mother, that’s what I am – I can give comfort, comfort’s a dram”.

         She allows Suki (a  Rosalind Ford as a farouche ginger firecracker)  to take the baby off to supposed safety.  Unless you know that there was a profitable market in baby-clothes and plenty of drains to dispose of the young owners, you might believe her.  

     Grim?  Well, there’s bleak-grim, of which theatre offers more than enough, and there’s energy-grim.  This goes for the latter.  Wild music-hall-cum-folk-rock numbers (“it’s the Law, it’s the Law! It’s the law to keep us poor!”) explode as the actor-musicians, instruments in hand,  dance or brawl.  Mary is rescued from brothel rape by Lydia, who gives up her role as a callous madam to strip the victim, reinvent herself as a man called Jack,  and develop  a touchingly domestic loving relationship with Mary.  But a prison beating and unspoken yearning for her lost child makes her leave him, accepting a job from Sarah, the eccentric writer sister of the  Tom-Jones novelist Henry Fielding.   In a flash-forward at the start we have seen Mary as Henry’s new wife. 

        Meanwhile, on the scaffolding above, with  an occasional full royal palace backdrop,  periwigged toffs attempt social control.   De Angelis has artfully ransacked history:  Queen Caroline was indeed affronted by the state of the mob ,  there was a Mary and a Suki,  Fielding did indeed marry his maidservant and become a magistrate,  and his brother did set up the first formal police, the Bow Street Runners. Into which, naturally,  the fake Jack gets recruited…

      See?  Picaresque. And finally tragic for some, even the survivors.  But there are tremendous laughs even before the comedy coffin and the (absolutely historically true) invention of a mechanical wooden cat, the Puss-and-Mew machine which dispensed gin through a paw if you put a coin in its mouth.  It defied the licensing laws because the server was behind a wall, unidentifiable.  The best  laughs are for  the magnificent Debbie Chazen as Moll, a bundle of colourful, ragged amiably drunken  disgracefulness.  Over the matter of Mary’s baby,  the veteran streetwalker is asked if she’s ever had a child. “Dunno” she says cheerfully.  “When you’re rat-arsed you don’t notice…must have…but you put things down and…?”   She also has a dreamy, heart-stoppingly plaintive pissed  line early on about the joy of gin.  “Ever see a pig’s brain?  All coils and coils…ginever runs through the coils, makes it all pure..”.  She is of course a theatre veteran  (“Used to blow the understudies”).

         Chazen doubles as the almost equally tipsy Queen Caroline of Ansbach , with a disgraceful faux-German accent with some startling phrases.  She is a joy. And for all the criminality, even the darkly guilty Suki’s, you’re on their side  against the  pomposity of the men (Alex Mugnaioni and Peter Pearson are six between them in fetching wigs and breeches). 

      As for the music, nimbly arranged by Tamara Saringer, there are rumbustious ensembles and one or two lovely solos, especially from Paksie Vernon as “Jack”.   Others don’t quite hit the musical-theatre showstop button as they need to, but why should they?   They impel the story, , and we’re alongside these girls.  On their side against the double oppression of poverty and sex.  

box office royalandderngate.co.uk    to 31 July.   There’s even an audio-described show on the 28th.    It’s designed to tour, so…long may it…

rating four    

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SOUTH PACIFIC. Chichester

ROARING BACK TO LIFE

 

    Almost the most magnificent part of Daniel Evans’ production is that it’s happening at all:  despite the distanced glimmer of blue paper masks, Chichester affirms that big musical theatre is back with almost insane defiance: cast of 32, 16 part orchestra,  singers who had to be rehearsed in visors, Ann Yee’s big wild ensemble choreography practiced at first in masks.   Cheering and clapping started with the dimming of the lights, and at the end we were on our many feet.  Audiences are glad to be back,performers gleeful, directors and producers nervous (four West End shows are currently suspended by Test ‘n Trace, with only hours of notice).

      So the night was in itself a celebration, but by no means a dumbly flippant one.  Rodgers’  crashing romantic music and the big songs  are better known now than the storyline – Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Hai, , Gonna Wash that man right outa my hair,  Younger than Springtime.  Some quail at putting it on, remembering the racial caricatures  of earlier productions.   US troops are occupying a Polynesian island in the WW2 conflict with Japan:   Hammerstein and Logan’s book has nurse Nellie Forbush, blissfully in love with Emile the French planter, rejecting him in visceral disgust for having two children by a (now dead) “native” woman. “A shock to think of you with a -….it is born in me!”.   And Lt Cable in turn decides that he can’t marry his lover Liat, daughter of the farouche camp-follower Bloody Mary, because he’s a Philadelphia boy.   “Lesser breeds”, see..

   But Evans and Ann Yee recognized – it’s archive fact – that in 1949 in American segregation, Rodgers and Hammerstein were making a powerful statement.   Nellie and the Lt are wrong. Cable, heading on a suicidal mission in his despair, strikes up with the bitterest, least-remembered number “You’ve got to be  Carefully Taught” about the ingraining of fear and hatred towards “people whose eyes are differently made.. skin of another shade”.  Liat, almost silent in the text, is the ballerina Sera Maehara, Japanese-trained and a mesmerizing presence,  dancing and moving with peerless, ancient grace like a daughter of the sun from a culture older than the whoopee knees-up romping of the Americans.    Bloody Mary pleads for her with real maternal agony and none of the familiar twee or light tone about “Happy Talk”.  As for male attitudes to women and the MeToo are, I have never seen a more threateningly macho take than Yee’s choreography of “Nothing like a Dame”.  You’d want chaperones round that lot. The words are full of wittily pathetic longing, but these lads are dangerous.

   O God, now you think it’s all terribly ‘woke’ and preachy (like the ’49 critic, a US NAvy officer,  who wanted rid of Cable’s bitter song about taught racism because it was like ‘a VD lecture’ and not fun).   But it isn’t a sermon, I assure you;  as a night out it is a happy riot. Gina Beck’s Nellie, at first a striding, robustly pretty naive Navy nurse, grows in character, romps and larks gorgeously, and belts out some of the most thrillingly fine low notes anywhere; Julian Ovenden is not only a fine actor but proves to have an immense, exciting operatic voice.  Seabees and Ensigns are a roaring, storming ensemble, set-pieces like Honey Bun stopping the show with our glee; and the colours are set against sobering late reminders of the seriousness of the war and – with Emile’s peaceably doubtful remarks before his heroism – its limitations.

  We know what you’re against, he says, “What are you FOR?” A question for all times.

Box office http://www.cft.org.uk.    

Rating five

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RED SKIES Touring, East Anglia

t

IF RANSOME MET ORWELL

 

  It’s 1939 in Southwold harbour (nicely resonant  for me to see this in Southwold  itself, on its second night).     Arthur Ransome, famed already for his children’s books, is sailing up the coast from Pin Mill to lay up his boat for the war years.  HIs wife Evgenia finds a visitor fallen asleep in the cabin:  it’s Eric Blair, who under his pen-name George Orwell has published four novels (mixed reception) and non-fiction accounts of being down and out, fighting in Spain and observing the poor of Northern England.  He’s been burying his father in the town, and found out who was in the harbour.    Soon he will write Animal Farm and become more famous himself.  

          Orwell wants to meet Ransome, not because of wanting to write ‘as if for children’  nor about fishing (on which they find common ground , with a very English social wariness). It is almost certainly because the older man lived through the Russian revolution in 1917 as a reporter (and maybe a spy, that runs through the whole play) .  Better still,  his wife Evgenia was Trotsky’s trusted secretary.   Orwell, with the pigs of animal farm not yet formed in his mind, is  thinking of the Russian revolution and of the new ally Stalin, and is already full of doubt at the outcome of the state socialism which seemed so natural and necessary to his generation.  In a nice moment Ransome teaches him fly-tying with bits of bread as bait:   our author is canny enough not to quote, but to leave it to us to remember Orwell’s great line – “Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait”. Nice idea that he got the metaphor off old Arthur Ransome…

       The meeting is entirely fictional,  an invention of the author, Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles ; so are two further meetings in the play,  one in the Lake District and one in Orwell’s last illness.  All might have taken place, none did:  fair enough.   Laurie Coldwell, dark and intense, is a perfect Orwell not only in looks but in catching a very credible manner: a nervy intense troubled intelligence, his physical restlessness in contrast to Philip Gill’s relaxed, worldly Ransome .  Orwell sees the cataclysm of war and totalitarianism coming (his Coming up for Air is the book he has with him) but Ransome growls “Keep Adolf quiet and stay out of his way”.   

     What Evgenia thinks we only discover slowly:  at first I was doubtful about Sally Ann Burnett’s portrayal, as she seemed plain silly,  but as the play goes on her layers of experience and understanding of the Bolshevism she lived through, and the question marks hanging over how she and Ransome got out so smoothly. 

     There are moments of real credible connection, though as the years go on – we are long post-war by the second half  –  there are far too many words and not enough real clashes or understandings.  Evgenia becomes ever more central, Burnett gradually evoking the long, half-buried emotional reality and political half-belief of her years working for Leon Trotsky (“It was where I was sent”).    The most dramatic moment comes when Orwell, having once again crashed in on their peaceful elderly lives,  is the one  to tell her of Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico.

     It’s a great idea, much  of it well performed and imagined,  but if ever a play needed cutting, especially in the second half (unwisely, as long as the first or longer)   this is it.   Nor do we really need the appearance of various dream-women (all Bronte Tadman) representing Orwell’s agonized love life in contrast to the uxorious Ransome’s.  Though Tadman’s last incarnation, as Sonia Orwell, is beautifully done: crisply ruthless, socially assured.  

        Other imagined meetings – Frayn’s Copenhagen, Bennett’s spy plays – benefit from brevity: at a tight 90-minutes this would have had twice the power.   It may yet have. It was worth seeing,  though.

box office 01473 211498 (Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm)  

www.easternangles.co.uk    

Touring across the East of England to 31 JULY, final week at Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich

rating 3

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RAYA Hampstead Theatre, NW3

MIDLIFE, MIDNIGHT, MEMORY

  

  Fittingly, Deborah Bruce’s  play is set over the night the clocks change back.  It’s   about Time, its reverses and attritions;  and being about loss and dislocation and domesticity,  it is set in an empty rental house about to be sold.    Some say that this tight, 80-minute three-hander tackles too many things at once – middle aged reawakening of old liaisons, the menopause, grief, haunting, student sexual accusations, therapy, parenthood and the unwisdom of defining yourself round sex. But hey, that is adult life .   Hassles do not arrive neatly separated and convenient for the dramatic unities.  

      For Alex, who has pitched up at a university reunion thrilled to meet her once- casual boyfriend Jason and has brought a bottle back to his old university house, the wearing “assault” of a hard menopause is being aggravated.   By a stale marriage, a husband reportedly too bored with it all even to have an affair, a son accused and  sent home “under investigation”  from university who doesn’t speak much, and a general sense of horror at being in her fifties and suddenly realising the world of “young bodies and lots of sex” is gone forever   Claire Price beautifully deploys a staccato,  nervy, overbright manner just this side of mania.  Jason (Bo Poraj) who appears more sorted, having ridden the 90s wave of software, marketing and branding and acquired  a therapist wife and two daughters.  He’s selling the old uni house now, it’s his wife who handles the letting.  He mentions (top high-achiever clue) also an “Airbnb in Suffolk”. 

         Alex knows unnervingly much about his life from stalking him on Facebook, something he doesn’t bother with;  she is too wound-up to take any heed of his present reality and guarded manner,  even when he mutters that the social media pictures are out of date.    I must admit that I spent the first twenty minutes admiring the chutzpah of a woman playwright willing to demonstrate , mercilessly,  how unnervingly bonkers a menopausal woman can be.   I wanted Jason to run for the hills.  I would.    For she reminisces embarrassingly, flirts, and drags out a narrative in which she alone rescued and shaped his sexual confidence so he ” owes” her.  She hisses the words ” your WIFE” to sound like KNIFE, and demands a night of adulterous passion, having only pretended she has a hotel. Poor Jason shies like a nervous horse. We’ll know a bit more about why at the end, but meanwhile it is Alex who mesmerises us with her sheer needy awfulness.  I mean that in as praise.

     Then a teenage dea-ex-machina invades – an ex tenant having broken into the empty house because, as she gabbles (brilliantly, torrentially) she has fouled up her key arrangements and needed to crash.  Alannah (Shannon Hayes) gets that bang on; when  Jason flees upstairs to leave Alex on a floor bed,  she crashes in again as excitable young adults do,  and decides Alex must be his wife Raya –  who has as landlady-therapist counselled her  kindly on email after her father died.   So here’s another unmanageable female (this is a brave playwright, God bless her) spilling out her feelings to the dumbfounded  Alex under a misapprehension.  She is not disabused, what with it being the middle of the night and Alex being half-loco herself. But she does get warned, with furious inaccuracy, that she should enjoy youth because “once the oestrogen runs out, it’s game-over”. 

     There’s a tremendous conclusion, a proper twist, a fourth character and delicate moment of real compassion.  Roxana Silbert’s direction and some sensitive sound by Nick Powell are faultless.  So by the end two women, one young one older, have made fools of themselves spilling every extreme feeling while a man has done himself harm  by failing to share even a drop of it.  They’ve all been intensely and messily human and all too recognisable. What more can we ask of  theatre? 

 hampsteadtheatre.com    020 7722 9301   to 24  July

rating four

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AFTER LIFE Dorfman, SE1

FORMAL. INTERVIEWS DON’T END JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD

    The afterlife is out of fashion, at least in traditional religious forms – harps and angels, heaven and hell, reincarnation or squads of waiting virgins, all start to seem as embarrassingly dated as Valhalla.  But most unfashionable of all are the ancient Christian notions of Purgatory – where suffering purges you of sin – and the other waiting-room option, Limbo (virtuous pagans and unbaptised babies).

 All the same, the idea is always gripping, and  attempts get made on it: this one by Jack Thorne, based on a Japanese film by  Hirokazu Kore-Eda, begins with a crashing boom of doom and puts the newly dead in a bleak office block lined with filing cabinets (Bunny Guinness’ designs throw a lot of good tricks at us).  They are greeted by a senior manager and questioned in turn by his staffers about their most meaningful and precious memory. 

        One could reflect (I did for a few intrigued minutes) that it is indeed Purgatory to be not only dead but processed by a pinstriped chap with a gleaming tie-pin and his rabble of weary, sometimes bickering aides whose attempts at authority reminded me at times of a group of disaffected McKinsey or Deloitte interns.  Luckily, their first clients tend to feel this too,  June Watson’s magnificent nonagenarian Mrs Killick worried about her cat, Olatunji Ayofe as a stroppy black lad who doesn’t get it at all, and Togo Igawa – a distinguished, senior after a stellar career – unable think of any precious memories at all . But you have to come out with one, and allow the staff to ‘recreate’ that memory with various props   because otherwise you can’t  happily ‘pass on”  to wherever you go next.  And might have to join the staff here, processing the next few lots,  until you work things out.  

       I feared sentimentality at “May your memories make you fly”. But Thorne, who gave us that glorious Christmas Carol at the Young Vic and added depth onstage to JK Rowling’s more plodding fantasy,  is no fool.  The  stresses , inhibitions and character-flaws of the dead candidates – and their griefs, Mrs Killick’s especially – draw you in. And around in the little Dorfman I could actually feel people wondering what their own memory would be (there’s an opportunity to record them, they run before the start).  It’s not a bad exercise. 

        Sometimes the ‘guides’ seem to be a cross between social workers and a frazzled am-dram group with prop problems,  but they too become distinct and interesting.   Philosophically ideas drift through as it progresses, – `’memory can free you or imprison you” .  A good plot line develops (a bit late, after the bit halfway through where you risk drifting away) . And with that, it  becomes clear that sometimes we can redeem each other.   

 Where Jeremy Herrin directs and Bunny Christie designs, you expect something pretty damn theatrical before it ends, and this we get.  No spoilers, but it’s surprisingly beautiful.  And after a year of  shared griefs and doubts and fears and hopes, it’s an honourable human document. If there are more tickets after the distancing rule ends (none now), worth grabbing one.  Anywhere, like I did up in the gods.    All the sightlines are fine..

Box office Nationaltheatre.org.uk.     To 7 August

Rating four  .  

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UNDER MILK WOOD Olivier, SE1

SHEEN SHINES AS THE WELSH WORD-WIZARD

      It might be helpful if critics admitted sometimes arriving bad-tempered, hot, out of tune, dreading the long masked late night train journey home. Even, perhaps,  churlishly admitting that they really hate the laboriously, Covidly, reconfigured Olivier in the round and the prissy – compulsory – rules like the poor usher having to push the lift button for you, even though fomite surface-infection has been discredited for months. 

           So there’s the confession:  sitting in the Circle  for half an hour of  1950s cheesy-listening music before the start,  I was a dreadfully bad subject,  wondering why I’d spent £ 20  (press tix are like hens’ teeth for us marginals in  these socialdistanced days, quite rightly).   But I  worship Michael Sheen , who gets Rylance-ier by the day in his eccentricities, adored  his Hamlet-in-a-psychiatric ward at the Young Vic,  and even, forgave him those cringey Zoomathons with Tennant.  And  I hadn’t read or heard Under Milk Wood , Dylan Thomas’ play-for-voices, for decades.  Actually, not since those  cheesy-listening tracks were the grownups’ hip-hop.   I remember being thrilled aged eight to find out, against parental intention,  that the village of Llareggub whose day the poet relates is a palindrome of “bugger all”.  

          Given that filthy mood,  an extra mouse is awarded because within 15 of its unbroken 105 minutes the show became an unmissable joy. It is framed by Sian Owen’s extra scripts,  set at first in a care home.   Young Owain (Michael Sheen)  has come to visit his old Dad, unresponsive on the edge of dementia.    Frustration, edging on irritation,  arises as it must do so grimly often in such homes,   until the son launches into “To begin at the beginning..” and that torrent of Dylan-magic words evoke the the crow-black, sloe-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea –  and we’re off!

  If you don’t know Under Milk Wood and  its cast of townsfolk,   they are gloriously enhanced-commonplaces:   you and me and the neighbours,  in the days one knew one’s neighbours.  Every auntie and uncle and local disgrace is there,   woven into the headlong half-punning lyricism of Dylan Thomas. So each of the care-home residents and staff flowers from stasis into vigour, personality, wickedness, pathos, goodness, doubling and shifting  characters  and picking up their words as Sheen tells the tale.   It’s elegantly choreographed by director Lyndsey Turner, atmospherically lit by Tim Lutkin.  Old blind Captain Cat (Anthony O”Donnell) breaks your heart,  listening to every footstep in the street outside, dreaming old love and bygone seas.  Poor Mr Pugh reads Lives of the Great Poisoners at table with his menacing wife,  Susan Brown is the even more menacing Mrs Ogmore Prichard and Polly Garter is up to no good in the wood.. 

      It may be “A play for voices”  but there’s joy in seeing them at it. And Sheen ,sounds as if he was making it up as he goes along, which is just as it should be  (if the NT doesn’t bring him back to do A Child’s Christmas in Wales this winter, they’re not concentrating).   The pace is perfect.  And it’s a perfect piece to contemplate after a year when the shrinking worlds of lockdown made every neighbourhood a village and every one of us was connected in fate and behaviour whether we liked it or not.  

         Llaregub’s long day faded and the raring pub became once more a care home, final words were spoken and bows taken, and around the drear-arena came pattering-paws applause, distinct-distanced,  Dylan-dreaming of the Sheen-shade…..see?  a couple of hours of it and you’re talking like Dylan Thomas yourself. 

     I leave you with the words of the Rev. Jenkins  and ask forgiveness for the initial bad temper: it fits our times  and moods:
    “Every evening at sun-down

    I ask a blessing on the town,

     For whether we last the night or no 

     I’m sure is always touch-and-go.

     We are not wholly bad or good

     Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

     And Thou, I know, wilt be the first

     To see our best side, not our worst”

box office nationaltheatre.org.uk    to 24 July

rating five

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BACH AND SONS           Bridge Theatre, SE1

FATHERS AND SONS, PASSION AND PIETY

 

  Last night saw one famous victory as England kicked through to the semis. Indeed the Bridge theatre press-night audience was a bit banjaxed by emerging to the shouts of crowds at the UEFA fanzone by the river.  Not often do you emerge  tearfully from Johann Sebastian Bach’s deathbed and Simon Russell Beale’s beaming curtain call to such inharmonious howling. So well done England, but even more well done – brilliantly done,  gloriously done, back of the net! –  to the writer Nina Raine and all the cast under Nicholas Hytner’s sure direction at the Bridge. 

.   Last time I was there was to see Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge, just before the government panicked again and closed everything.  This time the great SRB reappears as Johann Sebastian Bach, whose immense irascible genius he contains, channells and gives us back to us two centuries on.    We were safely alongside him all the way from the opening moments,  as he irritably plinked out the first notes of Sheep May Safely Graze while poor pregnant Maria, worried about their ailing three-year-old and big untidy sons,  tried to urge him back to bed. 

        This Bach is all quarrelsome warmth and freelance insecurity, family neglectfulness and devotion and perfectionism.  The canon and counterpoint and conversation  he expresses in music reflects in his life: he’s bawdy and holy, sensual and perfectionist, loving and grumpy.  No fault gets past him except his own, and which of us can claim otherwise?    “He’s multi-talentless” he snarls of an oboist who  plays the flute badly.  And “You – bass – you’re too fat to sing!  I know. I’m fat. I don’t have to sing”. 

           He writes every note to the glory of God,  with a sincerity rarely acknowledged by modern playwrights;  he wants to express “Hope filled with pain, laughter with irritation”.    But he also loves women,  and  jigs.  Indeed he briefly dances one during a rumbustious,  domineering family music-lesson. At which moment we love him totally,  but then – joining in this resentment with his infuriated sons – sigh at him,  for refusing to dance with his poor wife and being way too keen on rehearsing with Anna the soprano.  He is any of us, only more so. Our luck is that Russell Beale is  both a musician , an ex-chorister  steeped in Bach from childhood,  and at the same time one of the small cadre of actors who can encapsulate such exhilarating subtleties of character and behaviour.  

     The staging is simple:   bare but domestic, sliding platforms creating sometimes his solitary work, sometimes children’s bunk-beds, sometimes  (with chandeliers) the glittering threat of Frederick the Great’s nasty court.   The play is is cleverly built, set over many years which echo the returning, changing, intermingling qualities of the canons and counterpoint he demonstrates to his children in the early scenes.  These lessons are as funny and  banteringly combative as any domestic sitcom, despite our  underlying awareness of  the many, many infant and newborn deaths,  and the gruelling pregnancies of his two successive wives (twenty between them).  

          As the children grow up and Bach grows old it darkens;  by then we are deeply engaged with them all and noticing the returning deepening themes of life’s counterpoint and discords.   Big laughing Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin) who stole the brandy and was hailed by his father as the greater talent, ends up a broke dependent drunk.   Carl Philipp, a weasel-neat Samuel Blenkin,  is the hard worker who the father doesn’t rate as highly,  but who becomes a bewigged, nervy musician in the court of the dreadful Frederick the Great (Pravessh Rana, who now must be everybody’s go-to for emotionally damaged bullies).  They’re all tremendous, not a note wrong, complete, the relationships confused but clear. The love between the two very different elder brothers is unexpectedly deeply moving.

     As for the women, Pandora Colin as Maria and Ruth Lass as her sister who stays devoted to the family and its patriarch,  they are far more than nurses and handmaids and background-females:  each  is elegantly drawn and distinct in personality,  visibly knowing old Bach better than he knows himself.   Rachel Ofori as the soprano Anna, Bach’s second wife and  thirteen times pregnant,  expresses the terrible pathos of losing infant children one after another,  and the redemptive role of a woman finally  trying to balance the blind old genius and the two sons in his shadow .               

           It is a lovely play:  domestic and intellectual, dryly wise and recklessly passionate.  It harmonizes the bawdy and the holy , the loving and the lyrical.  It lays out before us both a long-vanished world and the timeless conundrum of human relationships.  There is sometimes music, mostly recorded, from  Voces8 and the SDG Ensemble, and it crashes around us in the theatre’s fine acoustic.  But it is the music of its humanity which echoes long afterwards. 

box office bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 11 September

rating  five   

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STAIRCASE Southwark Playhouse SE1

 YESTERDAY’S MEN LOVING MEN

   The mission of Two’s Company is producing  “new plays from the past”, and their talent is for treasure-hunting . Plays written now about past decades are fine, but there is something grittily satisfying about contemporaneous writing:  especially forgotten ones,  outside the famous names worn smooth by repetition . This company’s  WW1 plays taught me more about how it really felt than any documentary; London Wall vividly evoked the emergence of women out of chaperonage into the office jungle, The Cutting of the Cloth and A Day By The Sea – these are all recorded here – had separate and particular value in each setting. . 

This one,  in its day, was important;  historically and emotionally it still is.  1969 saw gay consenting-adult same-sex love legal, but gay men still heavily persecuted legally and socially . Charles Dyer’s  two-hander set in a barber’s shop was picked out by Codron, done at the RSC with  Paul Scofield and on Broadway with a very camped up Burton.  It was subject of an entertaining argument with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors, too,well worth reading in the programme. 

      So here it is again, with Paul Rider as the resigned, more benevolently resentful Harry, and John Sackville as the volatile Charlie, a failed actor to whom Harry gave a trade and a home.  For two hours the pair circle round one another, bantering and bickering and dealing with a triply awkward situation. They are roundedly idiosyncratic and human, not queeny caricatures but ordinary men hobbled by the thousand shames and aggressions of their condition (when Harry, who longs for children of his own, ran a scout troop he kept being asked pointed whether he was married). Charlie actually was once briefly married, and his daughter Cassie is to visit. But he doesn’t want her to work out what Harry is to him.  There’s guilt about his mother in a home,too,  while Harry’s Ma is up in the attic.  It’s a scratchy day:  Harry is turbaned, miserable with his alopecia and wig-dread, and to cap it all Charlie awaits his summons for a mild offence. (“A gag” sitting on a man’s knee in a pub). It turns out not to be a first offence, nor is his theatrical history quite authentic.

       It takes excellent writing to hold together a two-hander on one intimate set (perhaps even more when as director Tricia Thorns says, Covid rules mean distancing, thus even less hugging than the censor cut out, and separate props not to be shared). The writing is indeed fine : I specially like Harry’s rueful musing on how “all sex should be better organized, nicer, cleaner, prettier..not so folding-up and underneath” .    Better, he reflects with middle-aged wisdom, if it just involved a graceful waving of antennae. Ping-pong fast exchanges work well most of the time, and Rider is constantly engaging and irresistibly watchable in his chunky cockney solidity. But the longer first half drags at times, and Sackville’s lively Charlie never quite gives the lines time to land.

       So when Harry does explode – the full Pinter at one point –  it startles and grips, whereas Charlie’s rise into melodrama in the second half is not quite the shock it should be.Too much fuel burnt too early.  

     But goodness,  they’re believable and identifiable, and evocation of those ancient shames and crushing minority lonelinesses reminds us why Pride marches were needed and still are. And when it gets close to a deep-blue-sea ending but swerves elegantly away from it, there’s proper satisfaction. Southwark is always, always worth the trip.

Box office http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.   To 17 July.

Streaming both performances on July 3

Rating three.  

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AMELIE. Criterion, W1

AMELIORATING PARISIAN LIVES ONE PUPPET AT A TIME

      It could hardly be calculated more finely to fulfil every post-lockdown need:   a cast of sixteen nimble actor-musician-singers visibly high on the joy of performing again (Audrey Brisson concludes the evening by thanking our scattered selves for coming, and the front of house and management for “keeping the faith”.)   Add a fabulously romantic Paris metro-and-cafe set to comfort us for lack of travel, and an almost too-sweetly engaging heroine in an optimistic, yet totally barmy, story of eccentric good deeds with a vaguely naughty hinterland. 

        I have to admit I hated the film – apparently France’s most successful ever – because its fearful winsomeness ; Amelie’s desire to emulate Diana after her sad sudden death and be like her a universal “godmother to the unloved” left me callously cold, much in the manner of the current Sussex claim to be saving the world by being performatively, weaponisedly  “compassionate”.  

     Yet the music,  the big choruses and the goodnatured showbiz of elegant ensemble scene-changes in Michael Fentiman’s production somehow make the tale of the sweetnatured waitress (who interferes in everyone’s life while blind to her own needs) genuinely work.   In the deep cool of the Criterion, with unwontedly good legroom and your ice cream (for now) brought to your seat in the interval,  it is possible to relax into this unbelievable nonsense and the world of Madeleine Girling’s nostalgically cunning design. 

       Much is owed to Audrey Brisson too: big-eyed and tiny-framed,  charming despite  the character’s unfashionable frumpy skirt and boots and flick-up bobbed hair,  I fell for her pretty fast, especially when she clambered over the pianos like a child and then elegantly flew ten feet up to her tiny bedsit behind the station clock, with a one-hand grip on the fringed lampshade.  A sort of fairy, which I suppose is the point.  But credit also to the ensemble, and to Chris Jared as the weird photobooth-collector she admires, whose stolid bearded presence is a pleasant counterweight to Amelie’s feyness.  They make us wait about two minutes for the final kiss even when he’s joined her behind the clock, and the young around me were sighing into their masks:  it is, after all, the story of a young working woman living alone and feeling isolated (yet benevolent) and it will touch many frayed Covid-era nerves.   

         And yes, the lollipop moments are a joy.  The first puppet, toddler Amelie being lectured on Zeno’s paradox (this,remember, is based on a French arty-pop film) is good,  but the giant horror-movie walking figs and the hedonistic globetrotting enormous garden gnome are even better.  So is the fantasy,  epically unhealthy but somehow irresistible,  in which Amelie dreams that she is being memorialized like Diana.  The Elton John pastiche alone is worth the night out.  So yes, I succumbed.  Still never watching the film again though.   

Box office :  Criterion-theatre.co.Uk.     to 25 sept

rating. 4.

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Shakespeare’s Globe SE 1

PINK SATIN AND A  FAIRY PINATA FOR A PIMMS-Y NIGHT OUT

        Face it, this play’s a rom-com,  a lark,  a happy pretty way to blame the fickleness of young love on petulant fairies.  It can be treated more solemnly, playing up the harshness of the Athenian court;  or  Helena, thinking herself mocked,  can rise to something near tragedy;   Oberon can be made maliciously, controllingly and humiliatingly  sexist or – in the glorious Bridge production – cheekily flipped to become the victim of the trick himself.  

     But no need for any of that:  perfectly valid to capitalize on the Globe’s natural festival jollity,  festoon the forest with hippie-morris-clown trees of rags in every colour plus neon,  and accompany it with a riotous brass ensemble,  taking care to get them rousing up the audience beforehand with cries of “We’re back!”  and enforced synchro-clapping rhythm exercises.  Joyful it was, indeed,  so that by the time the beginners are wheeled on in a big delivery box (very topical) we’re all up for a couple of hours of hard-sitting fun (no cushions owing to Covid, take your own).

       The costumes from this 2019 production return exuberant (though the young lovers are in monochrome, with weird lopsided semi-ruffs, Demetrius looking as if recently assaulted by a swan).  Mostly it’s all delightfully over the top and down the other side, sartorially speaking:  a pink-satin Duke, Peter Quince in sparkly high boots,  Bottom in shiny leopardprint leggings even before she is transformed into a giant pinata donkey  (Sophie Russell is terrific,  fearlessly authoritative).    The rude-mechanicals are great fun altogether, not least in casting an audience member into their number and forcing him onto a gold exercise-bike.  Puck is multiple, clearly being a team of intern-pucks dashing around in T-shirts.   Titania, her flowery bed a giant wheelie-bin,  is crinolined and feathered;   Oberon in his greenish hair and gold aureole surprisingly stately.  Those two costumes made me realize that what I really want in life is this play done – as a musical – with Dolly Parton and Elton John as the fairy monarchs. 

         But for now,  Sean Holmes’  cheerful romp will do to kick off a season which, if theatres know what they’re doing,  will major on merriment not ‘issues’.   Peter Bourke’s Oberon is the one who sticks in my mind: he catches some real Shakespearian nobility  in his reproof of Puck’s mistake and in his final reconciliation.    I’m all for exuberant youth,  but sometimes an old-stager beautifully spoken and poised, is a treat.  Looking him up , I learn that fifty years ago Bourke was Puck himself at drama school.  He has a memoir about to be published. Which I am searching out now.      

box office  www.shakespearesglobe.com  to  30 October   

    in rep with As You Like it – same company

 There are also some midnight matinees starting at 1159pm… for you party people…

rating four  midsummery mice    

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WALDEN         Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

SPACE IS THE LIMIT AS THE WEST END RETURNS

There was real excitement in a first west end moment since the November lockdown crushed the few brave shoots of returning theatre.  The Sonia Friedman “re emerge”  season kicks off with  not only  a new play- Amy Berryman’s 2020 debut – but  one which is about  the frontiers of science coming up against  the messiness of human desires; the thirst for knowledge and the pull of biology,  and siblinghood,  envy,  hope.   It was ninety minutes of proper stimulus, at times intensely moving, still haunting.

  It is futuristic sci fi, set  fifty to a hundred years hence.  Lydia Wilson’s Cassie  has returned from pushing forward the boundaries of plant biology in a whole year stationed on the moon. There is talk of a plan to colonize other planets because so much of the earth is wrecked by global warming, but  passionate division between such interplanetary hopes and the broadening “Earth Advocates”  rebels who want to fight for the home planet in a Thoreauesque return to nature.  One such is woodsman Bryan,who now lives with Cassie’s sister Stella in a cabin In the  forest (the sisters are children of a famous astronaut, hence the names – Cassie is Cassiopeia!). 

          But Stella, a brilliant NASA scientist, never got up to space herself ,  and now has turned away from it and wants a child and the warmth of Fehenti Balogun’s  likeable, baffled Bryan. Gemma Arterton conveys, with delicate precision moment to moment,  the conflicted richness of her double longings:  Wilson in contrast shows the almost frightening austerity of the sister home from the cold moon and willing to spend the rest of her life on Mars.   A mission  which, it turns out, owes much to Stella and might draw her back.   

          It’s beautifully set  by Rae Smith,  the cosily credible cabin finally vanishing in the bleak trickery of lighting as the final coda reaffirms the strangeness of an unimaginable future,  and the enduring warmth of  human ties and vulnerabilities. I loved it. It made me think.  

http://www.atgtickets.com  to 12 June 

five revived mice

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS      Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS      Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

INSTEAD OF TRAVEL…

    So what do we need, to reopen a tiny Georgian playhouse in a time of continuing uncertainty, masking, distancing, and wondering whether we’ll ever travel freely again?  A bit of Strindberg or some challenging new-writing about  vitriolic divorce as a metaphor for global warming?   Not in the view of CEO Owen Calvert-Lyons, who also directs.  He kicks off the recovery season with a sprightly bit of reimagined Victoriana,  a family show  (ideal for half-term,  parents: there are actual facts in it about time zones).  

      So here are three guys playing thirty parts – reduced-Shakespeare-company or NT-Brent style –   in an impressive variety of hats (toppers, bowler, Sherlock-style deerstalker, cap, fez and a very seductive veil). Their mission: to whizz through Jules Verne’s “adventure farce” in 90-minutes-including interval.   As virtual travel therapy (London-Suez-India-Hongkong-Yokohama-San-Francisco-NewYork)  it whimsically reopens the world.  As Imperial nostalgia it is full of unashamedly unfashionable paeans to Victorian technological pride and national arrogance: though artfully, all across the world they mainly find inappropriate accents from Scottish to Pennsylvania-Welsh.  Oliver Stoney is mainly Phileas Fogg,  Roddy Peters mainly Passepartout,  and the  misguided pursuing detective Naveed Kahn resplendent in a tweed Norfolk jacket in all tropics, as befits a decent Englishman of 1872.

       I mentioned the Reduced-Shakespeare style – everyone playing too many parts and pretending dismay when it’s a problem and they should be meeting themselves –  but  Toby Hulse’s version , seen first in 2010,  is less wild, gentler,  paced for a broad variety of ages,  and decently close to the Verne story.  Any Yardley’s set is terrific:  evocative, flexible,  witty,  permitting everything from the Albany and a suttee to an elephant ride and  train-roof chase (I think that bit needs strobe, but probably wiser not to do that when everyone’s feeling weird anyway). 

    They do not shy away from the culturally dodgy bit where Phileas Fogg decides to rescue an Indian princess from suttee.  Would have been a shame if they had, because the glamorous Aouda is played first by a worryingly floppy dummy and subsequently to great effect  by Kahn, flirting his layers of drapery with a will,  albeit presumably on top of that sturdy jacket.   He is the natural funnyman of the troop:  it is hard to get enough atmosphere going as these distanced shows launch out into the post-pandemic world,  but in that regard he did the heavy-lifting with aplomb.

        I suspect that as it goes on some of it will speed up and audiences get used to laughing aloud again without fear of Shedding The Virus.   But there was enough, ripples from below as I looked down from my lonely box.   And once the kids start being brought along,  released from a hideous year of teacher-on-screen and video games,  they’ll laugh it to life.  It deserves it, because even after the steamboat-trousers-off scene and the romantic denouement Yardley’s set has a big surprise, just to send you off happy.

box office  www.theatreroyal.org   to 5 June

Performed also at Southwold Arts Centre  8-12 June   tel. 01502 722572   

rating 4 family-show mice!

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PANTOLAND Palladium, W1

     O YES IT IS

      I had booked us in the very day Lloyd Webber and QDOS announced that with antiviral door handles, fogging, separating of bubbles and teeth-gritted determination,  Oh  Yes There Would  be a  panto – or as near as dammit – at the Palladium in 2020.  On the far side of Lockdown 2 with the capital teetering on the brink of tier 3 closing  anywhere suspected of entertaining, we reported  to row J, temperatures  taken, paws disinfected.  

         And up went the curtain, and up struck the orchestra, and Beverley Knight in crazy pink feathers belted out a newborn song saying basically hey, here we all are, guys, welcome to Pantoland and the  Palladium after a trying year.  So  everyone roared through masks,  understanding that having bought tickets and turned out we the audience  were a vital part of a little miracle of defiance and star-studded frivolity.  Let cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the blue gags flying here! .

    Impressively blue, indeed, not only host Julian Clary’s enormous fluffy cerulean cape and headgear but his abundant, ever trouser-based ,camp innuendos.   One hopes that for the Royal children’s visit the day before he toned some of them down. A bit, anyway. Though who knows, they may be filthy minded already? Their social stratum is famously robust after a day’s shootin’…

       Clary as always owns the stage, the flamboyant, scornful standup wit at the centre of the key quartet of clowns.  Gary Wilmot in a yellow Dame crinoline sings his London Underground song, Paul Zerdin achieves the classiest of ventriloquist acts, culminating when his puppet duets contemptuously with an admirably game Beverley Knight: she singing I will Always Love You – straight – the monster jeering. And Nigel Havers returns to his beloved role of serial  insultee, in a series of outfits from Dandini to plum pudding. Charlie Stemp dances featly, and Jac Yarrow from Joseph is back on the stage where he broke through.  When  the key four, led by a remarkably spry Clary ,do their beloved split- second twelve days of Christmas routine the house brings the roof  off. Hard to believe it’s only 60 per cent full.

    It’s a pure variety trick. Indeed that is the form of the show, wisely eschewing any one plot (risky these days, Cameron Mac with Les Mis had to have two understudies per part). Rather they bring on star acts, themed loosely: the  breakdance group Diversity are vaguely Robin Hood, and Elaine Paige turns up in the second half as Queen Rat with a curious Webberish mishmash of her old themes, to be insulted in turn. 

     The Covid jokes are all good, Clary observing that a sea of blue paper masks looks like “Invasion of the J Cloths”, and Zerdin’s vent puppet flirting with a front row woman with  “get yer nose out for the lads!”.  The whole thing is artfully designed to seem as if the stars just got together with minimal rehearsal for a lark. While in fact it is – like the Palladium’s own organisation – split-second sharp, in and out to the minute and with all gaffes planned. Not for the very youngest probably, but for the rest of us over-7s and our inner child  a proper, silly, defiant  showbiz shot in the arm. 

   Box office http://www.lwtheatres.co.Uk.   to 3 Jan

Rating is inappropriate for these resurrections. Trust the description only, and here’s a Christmouse!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL – OUTDOORS. Angel Hill Bury st Edmunds

  ANOTHER ….GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE

    Scrooge is testy, cold and solitary as an oyster, shocking as ever in his indifference to the poor who ought to die off and “decrease the surplus population”. 

   His first visiting spirit is arch, cockney, bossy and modern in her language; the second a lad even more cockney, lantern in hand, leading him to the Cratchits. The third is not cockney at all, but stalks through us, some 15ft tall in a grim reaper hood, his voice booming eerie in our headphones.     Around us in the dark little red lights twinkle in  fellow audience”s headphones. Beyond them, the odd late car passes the Cathedral, slowing, puzzled by the still-attentive dozens in fenced groups round the stages. 

    It’s odd, but Christmas Covid-style is odd everywhere, and this is selling well.  For what can you do for your loyal community if you’re a tiny precious Georgian theatre,  too small for social distancing  , and it’s the middle of bleak cold foggy winter in Bury St Edmunds, with pub life closed down and a ban on  carol singing ? 

Why, if you’ve any Dickensian jollity in your spirit you think of something else. 

    You set up an 11 night run of A Christmas Carol, cast of six plus one intrepid stiltwalker, and do two shows a night at an hour each.  You decide to hold it on twin stages in front of the Angel hotel, with an audience standing obediently in bubbles by legally distanced cones, wearing headphones with their woolly hats or hoods pulled over them against  against whatever the weather sends (bring a stretchy hat, they’re big headphones).  

    That’s what Bury St Edmunds. Theatre Royal is doing, so naturally we rushed to the first show at 7 on Friday.  Hanging  around beforehand  with a coffee from the only enterprising seller, we observed a low-key bustle of random Dickensian costumes scuttling by , and hi- vis-jacketed ushers being briefed.  )You can by the way book  a parking slot ten minutes away behind the brewery. They think of everything) .  And so it began, and drew us in to the eloquent warmth of the story , the elegant soundscape in our ears and the demotic adjustments of the adaptor, and the cast were vigorous and the pace smart…and an hour later we took off our headphones, and the applause was loud and real. Well done Bury.

Www.theatre royal.org. To Christmas Eve 

wins a Christmouse!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL Bridge, SE1

A SCROOGE TO REMEMBER

      Beneath festoons of horrid chains, nimble amid strongboxes and trunks and safes, three actors bring the old text to violently emotional life.  Assisted only by pillars of smoke, simple scenic  projections and the inspired, roaring, dry energy of Dickens’ prose, they and the elegance of Nicholas Hytner’s direction create a miniature theatrical  perfection.

       This version is text-heavy, narrated and performed in seamless vigour by the trio. It brings back some of the often forgotten moments: the miners and lighthousemen singing, the shrugging businessmen in the street. It does not shrink from solemnity:  the great Simon Russell Beale after all is our miserly, redeemed hero, and when under the final Spirit he sees himself dead and  despised,  his horror is as breathtaking as any Faustus or Lear.  Patsy Ferran – when being Cratchit – grieves Tiny Tim with real choking dignity, and Eben Figueiredo has as much authority  being magisterially serious as he is rapid in caricature. 

       But it is a playful show too, at ease with new-variety tricks of small group storytelling : when Ferran moves between skinny clerk to be “a portly gentleman” collecting donations, she pauses as the line is spoken by Figueiredo, hastily  stuffing Cratchit’s scarf up her front. When an elderly aunt or cackling crone is required Russell Beale is, as ever, happy to oblige with a cosily  camp tweak of a shawl. They all sing, too, briefly and unaccompanied,  simply; it can jerk an embarrassing tear . And I will not spoil the happy sweater-based finale for you.  

          The stages are amply Scrooged this year.  Fitly enough,  since we’re all so sorry for ourselves that we risk forgetting the really desperate, the hungry, the Cratchits whose jobs are vanishing. And  beyond them, in a striking moment here, come Dickens’ most terrifying creations: the  boy and girl called Want and Ignorance   “Meagre, ragged, scowling..horrible and dread…Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom, unless the writing be erased”. 

    In the heart of a city where killings among young men have peaked this year, it chimed.  The doomed children are puppets here, brief and deftly handled, as is Tiny Tim himself but far, far more frightening. So there you are: a 90 minute  familiar Victoriana for today, catching and passing on both Dickens’ fury and his unquenchable jollity.  Happy Christmas, Bridge!

Www.bridgetheatre.co.uk.   To 16 Jan,  with luck. Rating five.

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FLIGHT Bridge, SE1

Great journeys told in tiny windows

      The daily epics of the refugee crisis haunt us on every bulletin:: small boat crossings, lethal lorry journeys, arrests and detentions. It. Is right for storytellers to  draw us back into the small individual. realities of these lives.The novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers imagined,  from much that we know, two Afghan brothers – children – over two years making their way from Kabul via Turkey, Iran, Italy and CalaIs. There are treks, trains, a Medterranen crossing. They are conned, enslaved on farms, one is raped:: they meet odd kindnesses,an uncle, brutalities. They dream.  

       Here it is told in strange privacy to each of us, led through darkened corrridors below the theatre to tiny booths and headphones ,so that before each of us unrolls a carousel of dollshouse dioramas , with the boys as simple models and the scenes vivid. The sounds and narrator immmerse us. After months of video,  film or animation and. the odd unsatisfactory punt at interaction, this curiosity is movingly real. When the boys see police with their harsh foreign languages and guns  they see them as angry giant seagulls, squawking.When they sleep they and we see birds in glorious flight. Bird metaphors flood through it.

   It grips, provokes both sorrow and rage at the people traffickers driving the desperate.  Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, who worked on Harry Potter, achieve a humbler sort of magic here. Proper theatre it feels like , alone in our tiny lonely booths, looking out at a harsh world, transported with pity and terror.

Box office http://www.bridgetheatre.com   To 16 Jan, with luck.

Rating. Four. 

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POTTED PANTO Garrick, WC2

MINIATURE REVELS

They’re at it again. And in this dour year, crowned with the financially reckless renaissance of West End theatre, Dan and Jeff – Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner – are welcome home to the daytime West End. .  Their  “Potted Potter” assault on the Rowling canon in 80 minutes got thumbs up from the actual New  York Times , their two-handed Potter absurdism pleased the Rowlingites no end, and long years ago a Christmas-jaded Times critic (me) called an earlier incarnation of this 70 minute lark  “Cheap, cheerful, deafening if you’re surrounded by ten-year-olds, but not dumb. “

    It’s actually polished up better in this season of compulsorily half-empty houses and scrupulous virus-bashing.  Nor is there any truth in the  rumour that panto  whooping, shouting and jumping in the seats would be banned in favour of silent hi-fives and the like for our welfare.   There’s a fair bit of audience racket, though it never felt worrying –  given the distanced seats and the fact that the noisiest were plainly family bubbles some distance away.  The shtick is the same – bossy Jeff, irresponsible Dan, lightning change of  costume bits, cracker- jokes and the clever  debunking of same, plus a couple of startling extras, puppets and bits of unexpected set to keep it going.  

     Attempting six panto stories in the time is the idea, while Dan demands A Christmas Carol be included and forces Ebenezer Scrooge onto Abanazar of Aladdin; they bring in ghost-gags, roarings of oh yes it is, a brief but wicked front row involvement , and some very funny new ways of waking Sleeping Beauty. There’s snow, and a songsheet, and just enough Boris-COVID-distancing gags (the pair are a bubble, thank goodness).  

     And I was charmed to see how hilarious even quite small children find the repeated appearance of Dan’s Hooray-Henry interpretation of Prince Charming,  thrilled with himself and bored of princesses. 

To 11 Jan, God willing.

Box Office on 0330 333 4815 or access@nimaxtheatres.com

Rating. Four

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HOWERD’S END Golden Goose Theatre, Camberwell

TITTER YE NOT: IT WAS TOUGH

        An element of pilgrimage here: new-fledged theatre, new play, worth the long masked train to London and then a bus’s wild wanderings south of the river  until I gave up and got a cab (having said that, if you live in Camberwell or thereabouts, the GG  is both convenient and civilised: a grand big pub with a skylight and a mural of the Grand Canal). 

         But I wanted to see Simon Cartwright channelling another dead comic of the mid-20th century,because in Edinburgh a while back he was mesmerisingly convincing and slightly horrible as Bob Monkhouse (https://theatrecat.com/2015/08/16/the-man-called-monkhouse-assembly-hall-edinburgh/).      Here he is  in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander about another legend, Frankie Howerd.   Who fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way.   It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit:  tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.

      But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay  in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp  but abhorred the reality of same-sex love.  And, as in Howerd’s case,  drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims.  He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner,  shrugging him off publicly as “oh, no-one” or at best a factotum.     Their  tale has been told before with David Walliams on screen, and in the tabloids when the extraordinary tale emerged of the aged Heymer, long after the comic’s death and the legalization of gay marriage,  “marrying” their adopted son to regularize inheritance.  

        But in Farrelly’s play,  more interestingly,  the focus is on Dennis himself, played by the author,  at first seen aged and bitter then through his lover’s ghost appearance re-living the stages of their partnership from the moment when as a young sommellier at the Dorchester he was fascinated by the clumsy, odd-looking, uneasy star (then waiting for Gielgud to discuss a Charley’s Aunt role!), and effectively propositioned him.   

          And so their story goes on, from the comic’s glory days to the slump when he entertained troops in sweaty Borneo “They told me Bournemouth!” and the revival when Peter Cook picked him up for the satirical Establishment Club. He was a surprising hit there, apolitical but subversive,  bringing the earthiness of old Variety to the world of clever-angry young men of the Footlights generation.

           The 80-minute show breaks  the fourth wall constantly to appeal to us:   from Dennis first asking us , as a tour party of the couple’s house, to witness his life and how he was treated;   then  from Frankie himself, appearing nicely through a portrait on the wall to create the happy, uneasy rapport of an old-stage stalwart with a lot of Ooh-missus, titter-ye-not,  and cheeky taunts.  Cartwright has the eyebrow-work, the pout,  the hand-flap and the ungainly charm, all  bang to rights.  It makes all the more dramatic the scenes where he is shy,  unpleasant, cold,  screaming at his therapist (Dennis taking the part) or collapsing into drug-fuelled hysteria.  

       The lighting design is particularly fine by the way – Mike Robertson – and credit to Tom Lishman for the spot-on sound cues for invisible lighters and drinks.  It feels classy.  I could have done with a little more illustration of just why being gay before 1967 meant  – as the men say “hiding in plain fright”   – because a young audience may not quite grasp this otherwise.  But as a tribute to the many invisible lovers of famous men,  it is painfully moving.  Farrelly’s exposition of that pain, as Dennis,  wins it the fourth mouse. 

box office  goldengoosetheatre.co.uk   to 31st.

rating  four

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LONE FLYER – Watermill, nr Newbury

THE ROARING TWENTIES:  AMY FLIES AGAIN

   

      There’s gallantry in small theatres managing ‘distancing’ and keeping the arduous rules, and the Watermill scores high: outdoor productions in summer, now Ade Morris’ intriguing history-play as its second indoor show.  Seats are elegantly blocked off with red ribbon as if, somehow, even Covid Year has to be celebrated.

The story of Amy Johnson bears much retelling.   In that heady 1920’s period,  when after the WW1 formation of the Royal Flying Corps government and public opinion went mad for “air-mindedness” .Ramshackle Flying Circuses toured the little aerodromes with wing-walkers and loop-the-loop rides,    and several daring aristocratic ladies took to clouds in fragile little planes. They would nip  down to Biarritz or Cannes for parties in couture flying-suits:    actually some later became more than useful, delivering WW2 Spitfires around the country. 

     But Amy Johnson was not of that class,  but just the second daughter of a fairly prosperous fish merchant in Hull. First of her family to study at University ,  she eschewed the conventional female roles of housewife or teacher,  and worked as a secretary to a solicitor with the aim of taking to law.  When the flying bug bit her and her father sighed and paid for lessons,  she got her hands dirty , qualifying qualified as the first woman to get her aero engineering ticket.   Then at short notice,  chasing a record and urged on by the men who admired her nerve and talent (though she was “never much good at landings”),  she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia,  in 19 gruelling days, and subsequently set other records.   In 1941 she was killed doing a wartime air delivery, parachuting to her death in Herne Bay. 

       Here,  in a simple ingenious set of suitcases, trunks,  and a trolley, she is Hannah Edwards: spry and determined, smilingly bounding about, nicely a bit irritating at first, gradaully drawing our respect. She remembers childhood rebellions ,  her long early affair with the Swiss potato-biz traveller Franz  ( eight year her senior and worryingly uncommitted)  and her tempestuous later marriage to her fellow flyer Jim Mollison.   Benedict Salter plays everyone else:  father, lovers, engineers, politicians and – in a fetching boater – the  best friend Winifred who encouraged her  rackety, roaring-twenties feminist determination.   Salter also picks up a ‘cello to create the little plane’s engine sounds,  smooth or faltering and carrying remarkable, nervy humming tension;  sometimes he plays a few haunting melodic bars.  

     The pair work beautifully together under director Lucy Betts,  Edwards conveying the charm , the uncertain early naivetés and the gritty, sometimes frightened determination of Amy both aloft and below.  What is striking, in these odd times, is how much is added by the very fact that like us in the stalls they are two-meter distancing.  When he flicks his lighter as she draws on the cigarette on the other side of the stage,  eyes locked,  or when the lovers dance it is oddly more erotic than the routine onstage mauling and pouncing of which we are now deprived.  When in her celebrity years he becomes an important personage reaching to shake her hand,  she is in her mechanic’s overalls, wiping hers with an oily rag,  so obviously he backs off.    It is wittily effective. 

         If I have a quibble it is with the play’s structure:  moving around in the timescale is fine, usually well indicated by costume tweaks.  Her childhood moments and relationship with her father are certainly neatly reflected in her later life and loves,  and tensely interspersed with moments in the air on that epic journey to Darwin.  But  there are other voyages told of, and moments about her two great loves and the struggle of global celebrity (“Fame is like battery acid, use it but don’t drink it”, good line).  There are picaresque details like her crash into a British parade ground in India , or a desperate shenanigan with Turkish bureaucracy.  And though it is framed both by that first Australia record and her whole life – including the final wartime crash – sometimes it is not easy to know where you are,  or what resulted from what.   Those who know her history well will be happy with it as a grippingly  impressionistic portrait of a remarkable woman.  Those who don’t might need a fuller programme note.  My first lines above would do.

        But these are quibbles.  It was a great evening, atmospheric and gripping and done with panache.  Another happy Watermill memory.    

box office watermill.org.uk   to 21 November

rating four  

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THE LAST FIVE YEARS Southwark Playhouse SE1

And so to a real press night, an event now as rare as a mystical apparition , a shining sword rising from a dark lake. . The gallant Southwark Playhouse offers a miniature musical, Jason Robert Brown’s 90 minute wonder The Last Five Years.

   A quick note on how southwark now works: to get sufficient bodies in – 50% –   they have spaced the rows and divided seats with tall plastic transparent screens according to bookings: so that if you are a  broad-shouldered loner both arms are a bit pinioned and your masked neighbours safely but disconcertingly seen as if  tropical fish. unnervingly close and muffled .

It is weird. But it is theatre .  The rows look fabulously full despite the immaculate screening (god, they must be wiping perspex for hours).  Sound effects  of New York sirens set the tone and  excitement  for this two-hander relating young love and its ending. It’s ingeniously beautiful: the tale first told forward by he exuberant Jewish Jamie “I’m breaking my mother’s heart…my shiksa goddess!” but backwards by Kathy, starting with a starkly beautiful, angry opening lament “Jamie has come to the end of the line.James says the problem is mine”.  These are two souls ambitious both for love and for success: he a burgeoning writer , she a musical theatre hopeful . They ae careering rockily towards the moment when the pressures of ambition on the workaday compromises of new marriage blow it all apart. 

   It’s a blast, a rollercoaster of jazz and blues and ballad and rock and vaudeville and at one point klezmer;   the most joyously exuberant, emotionally rackety return imaginable for the valiant London fringe. I loved it. Molly Lynch is honey-voiced, expressive, touching and enraging both: Oli Higginson, devastatingly handsome , gives us all the boyish bounce and painful longings of being 23 years old, clever, and greedy for life . THere’s a wonderful Sondheimish reflection once on how women suddenly come on to newly married men; moments of naïveté and sparks of sad self- knowledge as the pair – who only coincide in time at their wedding mid show – weave round one another and in and off  the revolving grand piano, playing it in turn with the musicians overhead enriching the sound. They are vividly real and young in the lively, mobile direction by Jonathan O’Boyle.

The lyrics are sharp, often funny – Kathy’s audition scene elegantly skewers the cattle-market horrors of the biz, and there is poignant humour in Jamie’s vain attempt to get his sulky, professionally disappointed wife to come to his triumphant book launch. “No-one can give you courage, no-one can thicken your skin”… Why should he fail in order to make her comfortable? Ouch!

    It’s a good tale, a young story, a vortex of youthful energy. In our weird Perspex alcoves, forgetting the sweatiness of our masks, we roared and stamped. Happy to be back.  Very.

http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

rating 5

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TALKING HEADS – PLAYING SANDWICHES/ LADY OF LETTERS Bridge, SE1

TWO MORE FROM ALAN BENNETT

             One of the darkest and one of the merriest.   PlAYING SANDWICHES  is an even more than usually sombre one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.    I well remember the shock of it on TV first time round. Then it was David Haig as the amiable park- keeper who gradually let us know why his work papers were not in order, why he had moved around and was not a family godparent – and at last how succumbing to his weakness for small girls put his final scene in a prison cell.

         It was a brave piece (years later I talked with Haig about doing it at a time of knife-edge horror about paedophilia).   And the interest of it centres on the way that in early scenes the man with the broom expresses his disgust at the sluttish, condom-chucking sexual libertarianism , whose detritus he daily helps to clear. Not enough is ever said about the way that our newly enfranchised, judgement-free attitude to sex and its variants leaves “perverts” even lonelier in their dangerous taboo desires than even half a century ago. 

    Performed live,  it should have even more shocking punch , and Lucien Msamati is one of our finest actors (will never forget his Master Harold and the Boys at the NT last autumn – https://theatrecat.com/2019/10/01/master-harold-and-the-boys-lyttelton-se1/).    But somehow it doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe he is too amiable, lacking the edge of prim ness which in the original raised the thoughts above about the the paradox of sexual liberty. He is too likeable, too light in his condemnations. Only in the prison scenes does Msamati remind us he is a great actor, evoking  evoke that Bennettian quiet despair which is in its way as noble as any heroism. 

LADY OF LETTERS  is a wisely placed contrast in this pair, and rapidly produces those marvellous ripples of laughter which remind us why we’re watching g these TV-created shows in a real theatre.  Which buzzes,  despite the distancing,  with the  comradely magic sharing we have so hungered for under Covid.  Imelda Staunton has Irene to a T:   the thwarted, lonely, disapproving busybody writing of letters of complaint to public bodies and shading before our eyes into a poison-pen. 

        Staunton absolutely knows how to work the top Bennett jokes, like the description of a vicar’s unwanted visit and the splendid tale of interaction with Westminster Council cleansing department.  We forget that letter-writing is a bit pre-Internet dated, as is the responsiveness of the Council.    But this treasurable actor  also knows how, with nothing but a rigid face and long long pause, to handle the central shock: the first comeuppance, the one I won’t spoil for newcomers. 

    So it’s bliss. But also particularly blissful because this is the very nearest our Alan ever gets to giving us a happy fairytale ending: a full-on unapologetic redemption.   I’m a sucker for those.  I left very happy.  

     It’s my third Bridge visit in  this strange etiolated season – getting a bit expensive,  so I may not make the other six Bennetts.  My admiration for what Hytner and Starr have done is  boundless. Seats placed in distanced clutches , drinks brought to you (my husband loves it, says it’s like Club Class, and won’t listen when I shout “but it’s financially ruinous! Got to get bums on seats or there’ll be no theatre! “).  Elegant use is made of projection, top performers hired, direction artfully theatrical  not telly, and the atmosphere laid back and safe.

      With the West End dark and real fear for theatre’s survival, trips to the – unsubsidised, gallant –  Bridge are sustaining.

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk    Running in rep.    

rating    Sandwiches 3       Lady of Letters 5    average 4

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TALKING HEADS The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils Bridge SE1

 So what would it be like, to be back?  How does it feel to be in a 900 seat theatre but distanced, over half the chairs vanisshed? And how would it feel to watch a couple of Alan Bennett “Talking Heads”, monologues made specifically for television? Could these narrative shows, minimal in movement and free from dramatic event,  be interestingly transposed to the live stage? How would director Nicholas Hytner work it, after he and the other directors and designers achieved the bravura TV feat of using the EastEnders set and getting the cast to do their own hair ’n make-up, all  in near-lockdown conditions? Was it just an act of hope and defiance? Its first monologue show, after all (see below) was all about Covid-19: Fiennes delivering David Hare’s mixture of memoir and agit-prop. Would this Talking Head series be just a desperate, unsatisfying rehashed potboiler?   

        Look, I am a Hytner loyalist,  but I did wonder.  And I was wrong.  The hour-and-a-quarter flew by, absorbing and thrilling and touching and – here was the surprise – amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic,  as pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter at the two women’s  dry, regretful observations. Often about men. While not actually milking the good lines in any disgraceful way,  both performers definitely made the most of them,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there.

        Monica Dolan opened with one of the two new ones, The Shrine:  an ordinary widow grieving a husband who she gradually realises had a parallel life amid the biker community. With simple, dreamy projections throwing the occasional hint behind her,  she expressed the pathos and the pragmatism of grief: the absurdities and tactlessnesses of officialdom and  the way being looked at by a sheep or flown over by a kite at the fatal roadside can be a kind of consolation.   

          Then, after the briefest of scene-changes, we had the posher and more irritable heroine of Bed Among the Lentils. Lesley Manville was the wife of the most offensively vicar-y Anglican vicar ever.  He, as she wandered about fag in hand,  glass never far from her, shopping bag clinking, rose to become an invisible but horribly comic personality in his own right as she related her way through the boredom, alcoholism, and remarkably erotic depictions of a fling with Ramesh the grocer in Leeds.  When she observed in passing that “if you think squash is a competitive occupation, try flower arranging” we actually howled.  And, mentally, raised a Tio Pepe to her and all her kind.   

     It was wonderful to be back. This one runs to the 22nd,  and then there are more Bennetts, plus other monologues.  Feel the love.  I’ll get to any I can. 

www.bridgetheatre.com     for full programme.       

rating   five

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BEAT THE DEVIL Bridge, SE1

BACK IN THE STALLS!   AND A VERY FIENNES START

   

    After nine months’ exile – my chemotherapy ended slap bang at the start of lockdown –  I felt like the Ancient Mariner, good to be back:

        “O dream of joy! Is this indeed a lighting box I see?  

         Is this a stage, is this a show?   Is this mine own countree?” 

         Across Steve Tompkin’s elegant theatre seats have been weeded out and an audience  scattered into pairs or family groups, with the occasional Billy-no-mates like me in solitary splendour in a single comfortable seat in the emptiness.  Leg-room enough for a giraffe.  Onstage three pale screens cast a ghostly bluish light on our masked half-human faces .  Gallant, risk-taking commercial theatre at least is back, as the sad old NT  and South Bank upriver still lie quiet in a blanket of subsidy. 

          The distancing is not the only limit, of course:   for the Bridge a season of one-person shows, minimally set,  lies ahead. There are Talking Heads revivals plus  Yolanda Mercy, Inua Ellams, Zodwa Nyoni.  And Covid-19 must have its say to start with, so off goes the season with Ralph Fiennes directed by Nicholas Hytner and delivering a monologue by David Hare.  It’s about Hare catching the disease (early on), suffering sixteen days and watching the government’s management with rising fury.   Unkind voices have summed it up as “Old bloke gets bad ‘flu, blames Tories”.  Which is of course unfair: it’s worse than ‘flu.  And, importantly, it was  baffling to everybody,  because it’s new.

      Actually, the most interesting parts of Hare’s beautifully written tale are about that newness, though when he first got it – in mid-March – there had not been as much medical information filtering through as there has been later.  We now know the curiosity that many patients can have dangerously low blood-oxygen levels and seem almost OK ,  not as breathless as you’d expect,    though bad damage is being done to their organs in a “cytokine storm”.     It’s a reason to have an oximeter as well as a thermometer at home, and spot early when the oxygen drops towards and below 90.    ((For an easy digest of the science, here’s mine in the Times: weeks later: 

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/longer-self-isolation-may-do-patients-no-favours-vflmsrhnt

        Hare tells how after catching this “piece of bad news wrapped in protein”  in the noisome stuffiness of an editing suite – West End cupboards these are, heated by the machinery – he went through a fairly common experience of being hit hard in the second week.      At first he was ‘air-hungry” but expecting a restful ‘flu, with old war films on telly (“Noel Coward in white shorts pretending to be a captain”)  and thinking, five days in, that he was fit to cook the family supper.   His fever soared,  his fear and anger grew. At one point he refused to go into hospital because people there caught Covid, though  as his GP pointed out, he already had it.  His tribute to his wife Nicole is touching:  as his temperature fell dangerously from a bad spike she laid on him to warm him. Not, as he dryly observes, a woman prone to observing social-distancing in his supposed isolation.  

       It is funnier, more likeable than some reports have suggested and well worth the fifty masked minutes.  Hare’s politics are no surprise,  and there is real perception in his description of Boris Johnson “struggling with his instincts” as a libertarian locking down the nation he had longed to lead,  as the virus is “clearly retro-fitted to find out his weaknesses”.     He rants about the unpreparedness, the PPE shortages, the failure of early testing, the absurd permission for those Cheltenham Festival days.   It seems to him sometimes that the government is deeper in delirium than he is himself.  Across the Atlantic there is Trump, enraging him still more.   

        It’s all true, and refreshing, and  beautifully made, and one has to be glad that on day 16 Hare  revived .Though he still realized he was unfit for ordinary work quite yet – like running the country, as Boris Johnson did, amid a Cabinet for whom, he observes,  the word mediocrity was too flattering.   He sorrows for the victims who died.  He is uncritically adoring of Merkel and Ardern but does not mention Sweden.  Sometimes he fudges the timescale:  when talking of his tenth day –  March 26th –  he rages against the unrepentance of the government over the high death rate in the second week of May.  As a point that is reasonable, as storytelling it’s a bit of a cheat.

     But it was a barnstorming hour, and Fiennes delivers it perfectly.  Power to the Bridge. 

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk   to 30 Oct

rating    four        

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TWELFTH NIGHT Red Rose Chain

SINGING, SEASIDE,  STRIKING DEFIANCE OF THE NEW SEPARATION

 

Theatrecat remains dark,  as it has been since December when chemotherapy began and then ran seamlessly, in March, into lockdown and the deadening distancing that is killing theatre.   It  hasn’t reviewed online shows.

But what the tiny Ipswich company, Red Rose Chain, has achieved here in the time of social-distancing is so oddly brilliant that it needs a memorial.   If theatre is “two planks and a passion” fuelled by live audience reaction and tight onstage chemistry,  this shows what happens when Covid-19 takes away the planks, the live audience and the cast proximity,  to rely on just the passion , production and determination.  And somehow it’s still theatrical.

           Normally their annual centrepiece is outdoors: Theatre in the Forest at Jimmy’s Farm (and next year an exciting new site).  That being impossible,  the mainly young cast were rehearsed at home, stayed there and with the magic of green-screen technology appear in a 1930s Suffolk seaside world,  gambolling in front of sand and beach huts, uncannily responsive to one another and cool in  ensemble . The big musical numbers, with choreography, are downright eerie to think about, though actually a the time you don’t. 

   This means of course that Viola can double as Sir Toby Belch (an interesting Shakespearian first) and Olivia as Andrew Aguecheek.  Ailis Duff and Fizz Waller do this with panache (love Aguecheek’s little blond ‘tache).  Luke Wilson’s noble Orsino is another treat, and Scott Ellis is a  moustachiod lounge-lizard Malvolio,  more than worth seeing in yellow stockings and long-johns.  

      Inventiveness is the key:    great use is made of Katy Frost’s lovely Hopperish seaside scenes (and sunsets).  The eavesdropping scene is in a fairground with the watchers peering through a jokey portrait-board,  Olivia and Orsino have beach-hut headquarters, and the duel involves plastic spades.   Joanna Carrick’s direction is clear and joyful as ever;  the editing of its 71 minutes by David Newborn must have been a nightmare,  but comes across as dreamy, festive, fast and intelligent. 

         The play is, naturally, much abridged but loses little by that as an experience. I”m particularly fussy about Twelfth Night, and judge it by key moments – the willow-cabin speech, and “I was adored once”, and the dose of bitters that is Malvolio’s swearing revenge.   All passed with honours.  Malvolio’s spitting “PACK of you” particularly.

You’re unlikely to find a more uplifting show in this strange, frustrating summer.  Enjoy. It’s all they ask of you.  Here’s Shakespeare-mouse, impressed…

The Bard Mouse width fixed

         

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AS THE VIRUS SAFETY CURTAIN FALLS…

FROM ME AND FROM THEATRECAT.COM (&HOUSE ARTIST ROGER HARDY)  HERE’S THE CAT AND THE MICE .

    THEY COLLABORATE FOR ONCE TO WISH EVERY THEATRE, ARTIST AND SUPPORT WORKER LUCK, SOLVENCY, HOPE AND A GOOD FUTURE AS WE GET THROUGH THIS!

IMG_1089

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THEATRECAT IS UNDER THE VET…

IMG_0035 2

A MESSAGE FOR THOSE KIND ENOUGH TO DROP INTO THIS SITE…

Theatrecat followers: a bit of news below, in detail for your information or in case any of you are undergoing the parallel thing.  If so, Salut, mes  camarades!

I am suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive – but they think treatable –  B-cell two-hit lymphoma, The treatment – a week inpatient, three home but not allowed theatres or trains for infection risk, then a week in again –  and so on  till about April.

So I address you from a fine unit at the James Paget hospital, tethered to an undramatic bright orange drip.  There’ll be a few cycles, though home in between.

It means obviously that I’m off reviewing until spring, as keeping the lists  organised and editing contributors  is a  one man band. And I may be very tired, and only fit to carry on work that pays the bills…

Sorry. Will be back. Still tweeting, so a ff will indicate date of return, assuming this treatment works.

Meanwhile I commend to you the ones I am missing with regret – the Palladium panto, because I am a Christmas lowbrow at heart..sure it’ll be filthy – .Stratford East’s , , and best of all the Old Vic xmas Carol. There’s the ever interesting Southwark, the new Stoppard, the Almeida’s Malfi, Tom Morton Smith’s  Ravens (damn! Hope it transfers!) , the return of the wonderful Girl from the  North Country to London  and of Albion at the Almeida. Oh,  and don’t miss the Kiln for  Snowflake – saw it in Oxford , review here, and I gather it is sharpened up nicely.

And many more.  It’s a rich time, and I am sorry not to be at the Menier even now, bopping along to The Boy Friend…or on the way to Bristol Old Vic now refurbished in splendour…or northbound..though Helen will do Gipsy, see below later. And I may attempt Red Rose Chain as it’s near home…

Arrivederci, au revoir, but not Adieu, from this page.

I may of energetic use the time to finish a memoir about ten years of  the emotional and intellectual effects of intensive theatre reviewing, in the aftermath of a son’s loss.  It is an opus now two-thirds written but scorned by dismissive literary agents   as too niche a subject.

You and I know that live theatre, grand and fringe alike from pub to Palladium, is not at all niche. That it is actually the heart’s blood of our culture and the world’s.  So I might publish that myself…

Here are some rarely seen speciality mice,   to cheer you up if you miss us…I still dislike star-ratings…but if they help, y’welcome!  Veteran Lady Producer mouse, Dame, Makeup mouse, Auteur-director mouse, and Hamlet…

Libby

Madam Director Mouse resizedDame mouse width fixed

Makeup Mouse resized

Director Mouse resized

Hamlet Mouse width fixed

 

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A Christmas Carol. Old Vic SE1

ITS BACK…THIIS TIME GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS THE PURRING THEATRE CHRISTMASCAT

libby, christmas cat

 

A Christmas Carol – with lots of carols? Whoda thunk it? The idea is almost stupefying in its simplicity, but my goodness it works wonderfully, adding weight and meaning and, yes, proper context to Charles Dickens’ oft told story of personal redemption.

 

This is a production that uses timeless songs like The Coventry Carol, O Holy Night and See, amid the Winter’s Snow to unlock so much of the mystery and meaning of Dickens’ story, each one fitting the action like a snug winter glove. What a jukebox director Matthew Warchus has at his disposal, and in these secular times it’s a pleasant surprise to have the Nativity celebrated in this way.

 

Because what writer Jack Thorne’s version of this beloved 1843 novella reminds us above all is that Dickens’ story is not about one magical night of transformation, but for everyone to remember the Christmas message of goodwill and generosity to the world at large; or as Scrooge himself puts it at the conclusion of his journey, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year”. And that is an unmistakeably Christian instruction.

 

This freshened-up production, returning to the Old Vic after its premiere in 2017, is first rate.

 

Rob Howell’s design creates a cross-shaped stage that threads its way through the stalls. Four doors rise up to admit the ghosts, creating portals that act imaginatively in ways that are inevitably both literal and figurative.

 

On a simple set Scrooge sits alone while a crew of wassailers sing around him; of course he rejects their overtures, but, like the three Christmas ghosts (all played by women), they keep returning, a crescendo of kindness he can’t ultimately resist.

 

Stepping into the lead role, and following Rhys Ifans and Stephen Tompkinson in previous years, is Paterson Joseph, familiar to fans of cult comedy  Peep Show as the idiotically vain Alan Johnson, and here giving one of the performances of his life. His humanity simply erupts onto the stage, especially in those moments when he faces up to his treatment of Rebecca Trehearn’s Belle, the woman he once loved.

 

Thorne’s script is also notable for the way it interrogates the question of what made Scrooge who he is and finds part of the answer in is appalling treatment at the hands of his drunken father. He’s not excused, of course, but understanding of that, and Joseph’s skilled portrayal of a man whose sheer humanity allows for nuggets of goodness, means we are consistently pointed us towards the possibility of redemption.

 

And when it comes it feels simultaneously inevitable and gloriously surprising. The stage becomes a cornucopia of Christmas treats and fruits and the final moments of lamplit carolling, bell ringing and snowfall at the close will make your heart leap. I urge you to go and see this truly fabulous show.

 

Until January 18. Box Office: 0344 871 7628.

Rating five   5 Meece Rating

NB here too Below is the link to my last review of it. Ben and I are of one mind…

 

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THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE        Bridge Theatre, SE1

 MONSTROUS AND MAJESTIC ,  A NARNIA FOR NOW

  

  How to interpret an old favourite?  A Christian fantasy allegory, the world of Narnia,  the first of C.S.Lewis’ immortal children’s books created in wartime Oxford because evacuee children seemed to lack the fierce imagination on which he – orphaned young – had lived.  We nearly all have our own defensive idea about Aslan’s kingdom and its message of martial courage and redemption through a sacrifice by the innocent leader.  

  

So give it to the inventive director Sally Cookson, in this revamped production of her Leeds production;  let Rae Smith loose on design,  use the fantasy of bare-stage and musicians and some nifty trapdoor work,  and trust a hardworking ensemble.  For they must become the set or deck it at lightning speed:  fast-moving as monsters, fur coats, horrors, animals, plants or (very frequently, and wildly) galloping snowdrifts of blowing white silken cloth on which, astonishingly, even at an early preview nobody slipped.

         She sets it firmly in its wartime context, with the evacuee train, bossy matrons, Tommies in gas masks,  and the audience issued with green evac cards to flutter as leaves when spring comes.  It is also firmly in the  context of children in trauma, puzzlement and separation from parents, and with battle and danger in their minds.  

 

The Pevensies on the classic cover are of course pink-faced middle class 1940s White British.  Not so this cast :siblings of a modern London. They are  Femi Akinfolarin, Shalisha James Davis, Keziah Joseph as a sweet valiant Lucie ,  and a very good John Leader as the treacherous, resentful,  suffering, then repentant Edmund.     It is more than a colour-blind or correctly-inclusive trope though.  Think about it: in modern Britain the children most likely to have been separated and terrified by war are Eritrean, Nigerian, Middle Eastern…it felt fitting. 

         And they’re very good.  Programme notes assure us that they were all encouraged to improvise a bit with a writer-in-the-room to help erase any old prep school cries like “Pax!” or “Jolly good!”,  but  in the event they are in no way tiresomely street or sassy.  

         And it is  all rather fabulous.  Great costumes, some subtly referencing the war – the Badgers in khaki, Biggles helmets and snowshoe tails;  Aslan, brilliantly, is both the huge puppet lion and the human dignified figure of Wil Johnson (very theologically correct, actually, an incarnation of deity).   The final battle is tremendous:   gaping skeletal ragged horrors of improbable ghostly height,  the Witch  (Laura Elphinstone frostily, scornfully, viciously  majestic riding on a great icicle).  There’s aerialism.    The spring conjures up green shoots,  and  crowdsurfing gigantic felt petals.   Maugrim the secret-police wolf is horrible in his savage mask,  despite the distraction of Omari Bernard’s enviable sixpack.  Tumnus is a hoot: Stuart Neal born to play a worried faun.  

    

  Everything is both spectacular and – important, this, for children – it also feels like something you could play at home with tablecloths and cardboard.   If you can’t borrow any children to take,  haul your own inner-child along.  You won’t regret it.  Happy Christmas. 

box office bridgetheatre.co.uk

to 2 Feb 

rating four    4 Meece Rating

AND A STAGE-MANAGEMENT MOUSE (if there was an ensemble-mouse I’d put it up, but clearly they’ll have needed  managing!) Stage Management Mouse resized

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN Noel Coward Theatre

BEN DOWELL REVIEWS:

A bright, socially withdrawn teenager called Evan is desperately lonely, taking comfort in the internet and not much else. He has a crush on a girl from his school, but can’t speak to her (and when he did try once, his palm was so sweaty the embarrassment was excruciating). His Mom, who is bringing Evan up alone after her husband walked out on them when the child was just 7, has to work extra shifts as a nurse to make ends meet. But opportunity arises when a boy from his school kills himself…

Yes, the dead teenager, Connor, is actually the brother of Evan’s great crush and, by pure fluke, when he dies happens to be carrying a letter Evan wrote to himself as part of a self-help exercise – only Connor’s parents think it is his suicide note. Dazzled by the attention, Evan tells lie after elaborate lie until he conspires to construct a picture of the two of them being secret friends. Connor’s family take him in, and love blossoms with Zoe.

This is a taut and original work, garlanded with awards following its off- Broadway debut, which scrutinises the problems of basic human narcissism colliding with the fact that social platforms allow everyone to be heroes of their own narratives these days. Evan’s supposed friendship is believed by pupils at Connor’s school as they indulge in a frenzy of grief for someone they didn’t know. It is very on the money and says something urgent about the kind of world we now live in.

It is a compelling enough story but does occasionally beg the question – why the music? They do love a musical, our American friends, and while Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics sometimes get the feet tapping, what keeps our attention fixed is the story. Which says a great deal about the world we now live in. Steven Levenson’s book could just as easily be a straight play, and possibly a more effective one.Still, it works very nicely . Told on a set replete with screen and media feeds, it submerges you in the relentlesness of social media today in a hugely effective way and the performances are strong throughout the ensemble.

As Evan, young actor Sam Tutty delivers a precociously skilled and committed performance, evoking the red eyed hollow look of a young man who spends too much time in his bedroom. He perhaps over does the facial tics at times – especially when his later emergence out of his benighted psychological state is so rapid and, it has to be said, a little neat. But that’s musicals for you, and the gentle wrapping up at the close didn’t quite tally with the ghastliness of what Evan does over the preceding 150 minutes.

I was also taken with Lucy Anderson as Zoe in her first ever West End role. She delivers a beautifully measured performance and she can sing too. I reckon we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

rating four 4 Meece Rating

Booking until May 2

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MARY POPPINS. Prince Edward Theatre. w1

BEN DOWELL AND DAUGHTER POP WITH PLEASURE AT ITS PEP..

It has floated in one the chilly autumn breeze like a much-needed blast of summer sunshine. Yes, this Mary Poppins is as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as one can hope, a riot of good cheer, fun, excellent signing and some quite breathtaking stagecraft.

Most importantly, and I don’t think this is reflected upon often enough, the cast have a blast and it’s infectious. They smile and cheer through two and a half hours of this and it’s hard to resist.

Ironically, though, this production first seen in 2004, is a slightly darker experience than the film we all know. It’s based more heavily on the PL Travers stories and supplements the Richard and Robert Sherman songs from the Julie Andrews Disney film with new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

In some respects, it is an odd hybrid given Poppins author PL Travers’ reservations about the 1964 movie. Here many of the much-loved songs (Chim Chimenee, Feed the Birds, Fly a Kite and of course Supercali) are kept in, as the sunniness we know from many a rainy Saturday or Christmas watch; but this vies with the edginess of Travers’ original vision and one cannot help but wonder that Travers (who died in 1996) would have preferred an even gritter take.

Still, she’d probably be pleased with the opening salvos when we meet the Banks children (played with aplomb on the night I saw it by Nuala Peberdy and Edward Walton) who are terrifically unpleasant, overprivileged little brats, looking down on Bert the chimneysweep and the Bird lady who, fans of 1960s singing legends will be pleased to hear, is played by 86-year-old Petula Clark.

The kids’ mum, Mrs Banks, doesn’t engage in suffragette politics as she does in the film. She begins the action essentially yearning for a better marriage to someone who doesn’t have a broomstick up his backside and doesn’t sneer at her for once being an actress (a detail which enjoys a lot of knowing chuckles on stage).

And theatre’s terror too, not least mid-way through the first half when the children abuse their toys, and Poppins ticks them off rather magnificently and brings them to life, culminating in the rather nightmarish spectacle of a gigantic Mr Punch marionette looming over their playroom.

But this sense of compromise, of a tussle between shade and light, feels, to me, the key to the success of this production, played out in Bob Crowley’s doll’s house design, which fold and unfolds the magic and darkness of the story with consideration and care.

That, and a superb Mary in Zizi Strallen. She vocally on the money, but the success of her performance rests in her capacity to capture good cheer, sternness and otherworldly mystery of the part. She is quite simply dazzling in the role, moving with balletic grace (unsurprising, perhaps since the show is choregraphed by Matthew Bourne) and lighting up the stage whenever she appears.

I also loved Charlie Stemp as Bert, who enjoys the show’s best moment when he tap dances horizontally on the walls of the proscenium and then upside down on its arch. He’s dancing on air. As was I and my 8-year-old daughter.

To 20 June
Rating 5. 5 Meece Rating

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THE SEASON Wolsey, Ipswich & then Northampton

A BIG APPLE ROMANCE WITH CRUNCH

 

     How romantic New York is to the British heart!  From Superman to Friends we seem to know it,  from Elf and 34th Street (not to mention the Pogues)   we hanker for its glamour at Christmas.  So here are the signs, the DONT WALK, a subway map, distant Manhattan lights, and our young hero from dull old England  singing a paean to “A city of stories, where everybody’s sixty storeys high.pizza for breakfast and steam in the air!  .”   At JFK he is met but a considerably less besotted real New Yorker,  a coffee waitress who hard-sells the latest “Chestnut-ccino” to unseen customers on a minimum wage, and finds him really annoying.   Will his enthusiasm melt her, or will she damp him down? 

 

     Traditionally in British criticism it is damning-faint praise to call something “charming” . It  snobbishly implies a lack of depth, a failure to take on The Big Questions.  But you know what? There’s a place for charm,  it needn’t be empty, and some of the biggest questions are the ones which sidle up to you while you’re laughing.   On screen or stage a rom-com can contain much of what you need, and send you out with a spring in your step .    On a rather fraught day  I was step-sprung, charmed  by this miniature musical by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan,  newcomers mentored by Stiles & Drew and  now spotted by the leaders of the Wolsey and the Northampton theatres. 

  

    It is a two-hander, with a three-piece band overhead.   Alex Cardall, fresh out of drama school,  treads the fine line between infuriating and endearing  Dougal, the ingénu arrival with a messy backpack,  thrilled to accept a 36-hour wedding invitation from the NY bigshot father he never knew.  Dad  is marrying a girl half his age, and it is her sister Robyn – the glorious Tori Allen-Martin – who has been told to meet him and make sure he finds his scuzzy Chinatown b & b.  He hugs her crying “Sister!” to which she sharply points out that she is, if anything, his step-aunt-in-law-to-be,  and has no intention of doing the sights with him.   

      She can’t shake him off,  though, and his puppyish enthusiasm produces some softening of her depressed, brittle mood  which, deft back-story makes clear – comes from being fatherless,  raised by a grandmother she now doesn’t see, being poor, and miserably hooking up with wrong ‘uns.     The Christmas NY legend, she says is “All about rich people!..do you know what a Broadway show costs, or dinner in Manhattan?”.    The patter-song when he seizes her phone  to help her judge  Tinder profiles is lovely.  Indeed all the songs – a few melodious, many tightly-built patter – push the story and its psychology on perfectly.   

 

    They are both unmoored,  she  a lonely Cinderella running errands for her sister and the rich old guy she’s caught,   he with a distant mother in Ipswich and a dangerously romantic belief that his father really wants to know him.  The offstage characters – Melissa and Dad Mark –  grow ever more real and less satisfactory and you find that you really care about these twentysomething kids.  If it doesn’t get bought up for a film I’ll eat my Santa hat.

       There’s a splendid transformation scene and splurge of extravagance after Robyn is thrown her demanding sister’s sugardaddy’s credit card for an errand, giving birth to the line “Now that we’ve defrauded / Dad we can afford it!” -(God, I love a silly rhyme!).    There’s a real chill in Robyn’s attempt to curb Dougal’s naivete  and a barnstorming anti-Christmas finale in Chinatown.    “We got dim sum, we got booze/ We got 1960s carpet, and it’s sticking to our shoes!”.  

       Writers and stars are all young, smart, sweet:   it feels like a generation’s cry of defiant merriment:  millennials finding their mistletoe moment.     

box office wolseytheatre.co.uk    to Saturday 16th 

then    19-30 Nov    at royalandderngate.co.uk   Northampton 

rating   four 4 Meece Rating

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HIGH FIDELITY                Turbine Theatre, SW11

VINYLLY,  THEY ALL GROW UP…

     

Theatrecat is always up for a new-fledged theatre,  however hard to find in the drizzle.   This – a bit east of the south end of Chelsea Bridge – is the latest railway brick arch to turn thespian,  trains rumbling atmospherically overhead in the quiet bits and tucked behind some flash new flats which think they’re in Manhattan.   Paul Taylor-Mills is into  musicals, and has MT Fest coming in 2020:  this fling  is a remake of the off-Broadway musical of the Nick Hornby novel,  which itself followed the film with John Cusack.    It’s Tom Kitt’s  music,  Amanda Green’s lyrics, and book by David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote that stonking GOOD PEOPLE play a while back). 

    

  So much for its pedigree.  The tale of Rob, one of those Nick Hornby heroes who badly needs to grow up and sweetly does, but only  at the very end,    was transposed from Holloway to Brooklyn for film and musical,  but has been firmly brought back to London by the savvy Taylor-Mills with Vikki Stone script-doctoring.  So the idea is – according to the flyers – partly to draw in dating couples who will both go awwwwww, for different reasons;    and partly to let us all  “experience hip Camden vibes without the tourists”.   To which end they’ve even bothered to make the front row, where you’re practically hanging out in Rob’s cluttered vinylworld , into sofas and beanbags.  Tom Jackson Greaves directs and choreographs (excellent movement, stompingly vigorous in the tiny space) and David Shields goes mad with old vinyl records dangling and perching like crows.  

 

   Speaking as an old bat who outgrew the Camden vibe in about 1980,  I didn’t expect to fall in love with the show.  And didn’t with its hero (though Oliver Ormson is a fine singer ,devilish handsome and does his best with the annoying character).   There are too many Robs in the world –  or were in 1995, when economics  were less hostile to youth and MeToo was not yet born.   The ensemble, on the other hand,  had me helplessly grinning with affection from the start. 

  

    Carl Au as Dick,  Joshua Dever as the hopeless customers turned Springsteen, and  Robbie Durham as Barry the aspiring songwriter who despises Natalie Imbruglia more than Satan –  all are glorious. So are the rest of the geeky, misfit customers and friends who shamble around and up and down the aisle  in tie-dye, beanie hats, foolish trousers,  Oxfam sweaters and endearing attempts at boho-transatlantic hair.  I became half-nostalgic, half- maternal.    When they variously grow up and accept that “it’s not what you like that counts but who you are”,  a proper feelgood warmth vibrates around the arches.   Shanay Holmes is good as Laura, though it’s a dull part being the ultimate girly-swot.     Robert Tripolino makes the most of the fearful hippie-spiritual Ian.    

     

     And the show itself?  Off-Broadway it was observed that the lyrics are a lot hotter than the music, and this is  still the case.  But it stomps along unmemorably with great goodwill and a three-piece band overhead,  and moments of soul or hare-krishna pastiche are wittily done.  The Springsteen moment is certainly worth seeing, and the fast-rewind staging of Rob’s defiance of Ian is genuinely funny stagecraft.    What you carry away most, though,  are memories of the endearing ensemble , daftly good  lines like Laura’s wistful  “He’s got insurance, self-assurance, marketable skills” , or the moment when each of the young idiots sleeps with the wrong person and the words “used/ confused” echo sadly round the stage.   

 

box office TheTurbineTheatre.co.uk    to  7 Dec

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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LIGHT FALLS             Royal Exchange, Manchester

NORTHERN GUEST REVIEWER HELEN GASKELL TIRES OF THE RELENTLESS GRIT

 

A family of five, scattered across the North of England, are brought together by tragedy.  The play shows a picture of their lives as they find their way home.  Written by Simon Stephens, directed by Sarah Frankcom with music by Jarvis Cocker, it’s something one would really love to love: the brainchild of three Northern legends in the ultimate Northern theatre.  The writing is superb, the direction too, the music thoughtful and brave.

 

But it’s too Northern.  It’s far, far too Northern.  The grit-spreaders have truly been out in force, and it’s excruciating to swallow so very many clichés in one dose.  The lead protagonist Christine (Rebecca Manley) and her youngest daughter Ashe (Katie West) both have matching Maxine Peake haircuts.  There are drugs, drink, a single mother, a debt collector working for a bookie, down-to-earth swingers and an awkward, overweight,  cheating husband in an ill-fitting suit trying to pay for sex.  Rain was a pivotal plot point.  Everyone is startlingly poor and grindingly miserable.  We were only missing a whippet on a bit of string eating a pie, and perhaps Morrissey wailing plaintively in a corner to make the tableau complete.

 

    Stephens writes in the notes that he has spent the past 25 years in London, and that he felt relatively untouched by the financial crash of 2008.  He notes that “the more I travelled outside of London, the more the heft of that collapse seemed legible and the more that economic disparity seemed oddly brutal.”  He and Frankcom (then Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, now Director of LAMDA) then went on a road trip across the North and met with people who “in some way echoed the lives from my life before I was born”.   Which, incidentally, has led to half the North being tarred with their wild and inaccurate brush strokes.  Cocker, too has left the North: he now splits his days between Paris and London.  It is difficult to see plays about poverty written by the privileged, and foolhardy to set decades-old experiences in the modern day.

 

  This review is hard to write, and it may be hard to read.  This is the kind of play which gets made into Radio 4 plays and gritty TV adaptations.  It was described to me as “a powerful allegory to the North”.  It absolutely is art, and there was some exceptional acting – Lloyd Hutchinson’s portrayal of middle-aged wannabe-swinger Bernard was spot on.  But the role he nailed was a stereotype.  Likewise Jamie Samuel, playing flight attendant Andy: he was kind, compassionate and convincing, but being asked to walk in a direction unworthy of his talent.  The writing cannot be faulted in its style and tone, but it clings to outdated stereotypes.

 

    Affluent southerners will love this play: this is how they like to see us.  Poor, grimy, suffering.  It makes them feel especially cosy in their little southern nests.  But the financial crash was not an exclusively Northern affliction: there is poverty everywhere, and affluence everywhere. Stephens might not have noticed the poverty in East London but that is not because it has been razed from the Greater London area altogether: it is because the impoverished people who used to live there have been forced out.

 

   Frankly,  you’d have to work spectacularly hard to find a bunch of people as resolutely downtrodden as those in this play – not just in the North, but practically anywhere in the world.  It needs to replace half its A Taste Of Honey with a hefty dose of Abigail’s Party.  Either that or focus less on the North and more on the universality of struggle.  We in the North are sick of being told we are cheerless and tough. As in the title of this play suggests, light falls.  So show it, please.

 

Rating: Two   2 meece rating

royalexchange.co.uk   to 16 November

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WHEN THE CROWS VISIT Kiln NW6

ARROGANCE, ANGER ,   INDIA’S  SHAME

 

  Hema’s is a house of women now.  The old grandmother is in bed below the tall screen doors ,  feeding  crows who move shadow-shapes behind them.   She is  chivvied  by a cheerful young maid Ragini; Hema herself tolerates her mother-in-law with gritted teeth.   Widowed, respectable and bruised,  the mistress of the house is papering over  the emotional cracks left by a brutal husband,  and living for her son Akshay.  He is supposedly making a success of his job in Mumbai,  designing violent computer games for the global market   We see,   in a brief and scornfully entertaining scene,  that he is an arrogant dilettante,   exasperating his colleagues at a bar table and prone to flashes of spoilt-child anger.    Which flares  at his exit when  a  bar girl offstage flips him the bird.   Bally Gill, every inch the peacock-splendid young alpha male,   is horrifyingly perfect in the role: strong-framed,  towering over the women, all feral beauty and untrammelled arrogance, a distillation of Indian machismo.

    

  But Akshay has come home. In a hurry, blustering  about being mistreated by his employers. And the papers report that a bar girl has been found gang-raped, horribly mutilated, broken-bottled.  “They practically vivisected her “ says the policeman brutally when he arrives to disconcert the family.  But hey, the cop himself is open to bribery,  and to maintaining  the middleclass respectability of the family.  For until one devastating scene the mother herself flies to defend her “sensitive, respectful” son, at least from the law. Dharker is exceptional:  subtly conflicted, plunging in and out of angry denial,   aware  from her years of brutal submission of the imbalance of the sexes but blanking out the awful truth about her son.  In one unforgettable midnight scene she joins him  the flicker of the X-box and picks up a controller  herself, just to see how it would be to have violent power…

    

    The culture looms over them all, a dark wing flickering behind. The old woman is  a fount of religious  folklore, telling tales of Rama and his subservient Sita,  and of a wicked king who bathed in the Ganges until all his sins and crimes burst out through his skin  as black crows and flew away, leaving him pure enough for his bride. 

        Anumpama Chandrasekhar has given us a violently disturbing play, and so it should be.  India bleeds at news of  rapes – too often unpunished , too often including violent mutilation as male anger rises against women who are educated, making their way,  insolently looking  them straight in the eye.  Our antihero finds this insupportable.    Diirector Indhu Rubasingham spares us none of the rage and horror of it  and  – this makes you wince –   of female complicity in the middle and oldest generations.   Hema has suffered, but her attempt not to lose face or  to admit enough of it makes her  more liberated sister scornfully say she should be grateful “to be a widow not a corpse”.

 

  There are intriguing echoes of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and indeed there are moments when it has a real Ibsen strength and rage, not least in its terrible conclusion.  In Ghosts  the widow of a sexually wicked man finds her son infected with the syphilis his father left him. But Osvald is an innocent,  doomed to madness and death, so there is additional shock in being asked to accept that Akshay too is a victim,  inheriting his father’s violence. In  a moment of self knowledge he seems to beg for a cure, and prays with his grandmother for redemption.     But as he wriggles clear of the law his arrogance returns, and in the denouement a horrid black tide of crow feathers drowns all innocence and hope.  .When Aryana Ramkhalawon’s cheeky maid laughs “all men think they are Rama these days”  we know that her modern confidence will do her no favours.   Brrr. 

 

box office   020 7328 1000      kilntheatre.com    to 30 nov 

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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VASSA Almeida, N1

GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL DOES NOT HAVE A GOOD NIGHT OUT

 

What a strange evening this is. Young director Tinuke Craig has taken Maxim Gorky’s 1911 play (there was a revision in 1935 but she has opted for the earlier text) and fashions a strangely free-floating family drama that seems part French farce, part panto, part absurdist horror. It’s certainly discomfiting, but not always in a  good way.

 

At its centre is Vassa herself (Siobhan Redmond), mother to an unruly brew of disaffected, dysfunctional children and  a hard-nosed patriarch who is dying upstairs. The business the two built together is also going to pot and Vassa will do anything (and you will see quite what that means) to protect her interests.   But what was a timely satire of the iniquities of capitalism in its day doesn’t really have much to say when Craig has so squarely decided to move it so out of time, place and a story of a generic family. It could be anywhere, which seems strange for a play aimed squarely at the horrors of late-stage capitalism before Russia’s glorious 1917 revolution.

 

So instead of saying much about our world,   it is just a clanging, unmodulated mix of registers. Mike Bartlett’s text gives its characters few asides about the stupidity of politicians (and also, on one instance, “fucking theatre” itself) to attract those knowing theatre chuckles we know so well.  But mainly this feels redolent of a panto star at the Hackney Empire getting a cheap laugh. The constant comings and goings and door slams (lots of doors in designer Fly Davis’ drab-looking, wood-heavy set) also brings an edge of farce to proceedings . Which feels aimlessly frustrating.

 

I suppose it could be said that tyrannical parents, shepherding the lives of feckless greedy children egged on by avaricious spouses,   can ring true regardless of its time and place. But it’s hard not to think that these themes are more cleverly and stylishly brought out in, say, HBO’s Succession. This just  seems unmodulated, relentless and, in the end, rather depressing. It’s as if Craig isn’t fully in command of her material.

 

And while there are some funny moments, with something grotesquely compelling about Redmond’s portrait of Vassa’s cruelty and curtness, you cannot help wondering what Samantha Bond, who was originally chosen for the part but was forced to back out due to injury, would have made of it.

to  23 Nov

rating  two 2 meece rating

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BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE Hampstead, NW3

RENAISSANCE  RUTTING,   VENUS AND  VANITIES

 

Sandro Botticelli, he makes clear to us at the start, plans to tell his version. He’s Dickie Beau: skinny and swaggeringly queeny in black ripped jeans and cowlick. He has nipped back after 500 years  to explain why history shows this lushest, most erotic of Renaissance painters renouncing art as sinful , siding with the cold virtue of Savonarola the bigot and burner of sodomites, and consigning many of his own paintings and the gorgeous frivolities of luxury and literature to the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497.

 

  Jordan Tannahill’s  play, premiered here after Canada, is gloriously staged under  Blanche Macintyre’s direction.  James Cotterill’s  sets fluidly, with all Hampstead’s technical brilliance, create before us  the libertine life of the studio, the thudding corpses of the  plague beyond and the  flames that reek of human flesh.     But there are smartphones and jeans  as well as religious habits and cloth-of-gold;  the  powerful  Lorenzo de Medici plays squash with his painter protegé and his wife Clarice  has tantrums about her car keys.  That works fine,  because the  themes suit today nicely:  popular hysteria turning on the outsider, and the poor resenting of rich arty elites.  Not to mention the modern case of another religion  – 500 years younger than the  Christianity of Savonarola –  an Islamism whose extremists in the Middle East and Africa  burn and hang homosexuals just as keenly. 

  

 But back to 15c Florence. Tannahill’s  imagining  is that Botticelli  loves his brilliant assistant Leonardo da Vinci , and screws Medici’s wife while painting her as Venus,  which enrages the violent patron into condemning his lover to the flames in vengeance. So  the artist strikes a bargain with Savonarola that he’ll publicly repent the sin of art and the pursuit  pleasure.   Some lines faintly irritate by  seeming to affirm   (as is quite often the case in such plays) to assume that sole ownership of victimhood and  creativity belongs to gay men of heroic promiscuity.   But Beau’s tremendous performance – moving from arrogance to agony – holds you captive. So do Sirine Saba’s  irresistible Clarice/Venus and the rest.   There’s a gripping sense of being trapped in an awful game with changing rules and threats: on one side a vicious Medici with a knife at your groin and dungeon- power, on the other a mob which wants to burn you.  When Botticelli  and his friends realise the literal use of the word faggot –  bundles of kindling – their  silence chars your spirit. 

There are some marvellous lines: when Clarice wonders if the picture will be too “debauched” our hero chirps indignantly  “Clarice I’m Botticelli, debauched is what I do. If your husband wanted you in a nun’s habit he’d have commissioned Fra Filippo!”

 

It briefly  goes a bit Ru Paul before the interval, with a  burlesque Venus and a chorus in gold lame booty-shorts  filling in while – in real panic –  the painter and his assistant work all night in their underpants to paint veiling hair over Clarice’s genitals before her husband sees the canvas.  But then the  violent reality is  intensified   – Adetowama Edun’s Medici is electrically nasty,  and, later his victim  is cradled by a forgiving mother  like a Pieta (the staging uses lovely Renaissance tableau echoes). There is catharsis as he spectacularly defaces his masterpiece before our eyes, a fierce fire,  and a bland credible chill in the deal with Savonarola.

 

     Obviously and explicitly, with the fourth wall kicked down again   we’re informed it has to end  the way ghost Botticelli wants, so “f*** the historians in the audience”.Da Vinci doesn’t turning his back and move on and up. . Rather,  Epicurean and unafraid,  the men erotically share a peanut butter sandwich.  What’s the point of history if you can’t improve it, eh?

www.hampsteadtheatre.com. To 23 Nov

Rating. Four.  4 Meece Rating

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​LUNGS.    Old vic, SE1​​​

​​IT TAKES TWO​​…​

 

Here’s  a sharp eyed little gem about coupledom and the wary, fretful road towards parenthood in an age of easy contraception and illimitable expectations. It is often  snortingly funny (the young, I suspect, laughing at themselves and their mates, my generation rolling our eyes at their ability to overthink the most basic elements of life and anxious conviction that in pleasing themselves they are ‘good people’).  It’s by Duncan Macmillan , whose plays both showcase actors and demand of them unusual extremes of stamina and truthfulness. So Matthew Warchus does well to recruit, for this 90 minute non-stop two-hander, a duo who do well to shake off their slower screen personae from Netflix.​​​

 

For  now Claire Foy and Matt Smith are no longer dutiful HM and surly Duke from The Crown but a young, scruffy, barely fledged modern couple – he a gig musician with a record shop job, she doing a PhD and unwilling to take paid work. Both feel a bit stale in their Ikea and clubbing life, and go through  angsts about the environment and   birthstrikey worries about whether to have a baby which will emit carbon dioxide all its life. ​   ​​​

 

Their conversation moves elegantly across a floor of jagged solar panels.  With particularly clever physicality and tone we see them over many months and then years in an Ikea queue, homes, a car, bed, a park, hospital: it’s always clear, always flowing from one intensity or absurdity to the next.  There is a plot, an ordinary romcom in some ways but always sharply  edged with the particular absurdities of their attitudes, confusions and fraught but necessary connection.  ​​​​

 

Often Foy’s woman is almost unbearably irritating, witteringly thinking aloud, demanding,  agonizedly self- absorbed while Smith often stands there like a bewildered Easter Island Statue . But then we find we are on her side against his unregenerate blokeishness. Then again, we feel for him in his bewilderment , admiring his ability to grow up and wondering how on earth any man and woman ever do get on together in the age of offence and self-analysis.​​​

 

It could be just a nimble dissection of a generation: yet Macmillan trawls wider, as ever, and the last part sees them within a skilful minute or two, becoming everycouple. Everyfamily. And it moves the heart. Which, given how much we have been laughing,  is a clear win. ​​​

 

​Oldvictheatre.com.  To 29 Oct

​Rating. Four   4 Meece Rating

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A MUSEUM IN BAGHDAD Swan, Stratford upon Avon

TWO CURATORS,  ACROSS EIGHTY YEARS

 

  The little Swan , a jewel-box of a theatre, often sees the new plays the RSC does best: immaculate technique and careful clarity elucidating complex and unfamiliar themes.   From nuclear research to prehistoric China , Rome and medieval or Tudor political histories,  intricate stories have leapt into life here.    This, infuriatingly, is not such a moment.

     

 It should be, for the topic of Hannah Khalil’s play is arresting.   It takes two ages in parallel:  in 1926  the archaeologist-explorer and nation- builder  Gertrude Bell is passionately founding a museum after the Great Powers drew their arrogant ruler-straight lines across the Middle East  to create nations and “mandates”  out of Ottoman Mesopotamia.  Then in 2006, after the Iraq wars, with American troops still there, we see the modern attempt under a new curator – Ghalia, again a woman – to  rebuild it after the years it became ‘Saddams gift shop’ inaccessible to the public, and many antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia had fallen to looting and sectarian destruction .

   

  The  subject and intention are good, the questions worth asking.   What are museums for?   Do people need them to buoy up nationhood, community and pride?  Do colonial or interventionary powers have any right to try and tell hungry nations how to feel anyway?   The  performances  are fine – especially Emma Fielding as Bell and her quiet dignified  aide Salim (Zed Josef) , and  Rendah Heywood’s wearily anxious modern curator, a returning Iraqi educated in the West .  All do their best with the repetitiveness and the infuriatingly threadbare drawing of relationships.  Two characters,  Abu Zaman and  Nasiya,  are intended entirely as symbols, timelessly straddling time and space, and sometimes leading incantatory ensemble movements in Arabic and English. These,  according to the script, should “have the effect of simultaneous translation”,  but in fact, unless you are an Arabic speaker,  are as incomprehensible as cuneiform itself.

     

    The atmospherics in those chants and movement,   the centrality of a rather marvellous ancient crown and a final cascade of the sands of time over the whole doomed lot, are elegantly RSC.  And there is nothing wrong with having two periods onstage at once: sometimes, not often enough,  parallels and ironies are well pointed up as the two curators battle with time, local problems and – in Bell’s period – with the brisk tweedy view of the English archaeologist Woolley . He is trying to borrow a statue for the British Museum and presciently barks as Bell struggles to fill the shelves    “I predict it’ll be all back in the BM by teatime, when civil war erupts again and they go back to their tribes”.

  Advance study of the background, the text, the period and the good programme would help,  but for a lay audience it feels,  despite Eric Whyman’s direction,  like a mess.  The first half caused some heads to nod visibly, and  the conversations between the teams, for all the cast’s high competence, felt as repetitive and frustrating as the job itself must have been .

      Some light relief is provided, though rather too often,   by Debbie Korley  as  a honky American soldier with a flak- jacket and extreme Tennessee twang, forever sweeping the floor  (did they?). She adds to the sense of misandry,  perhaps to echo Bell’s exasperation at warmongering males,   with a nasty tale about strangling a fellow-GI’s pet stray dog to because he pinched her bum.

rsc.org.uk    to  23 May

rating three   

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AN INSPECTOR CALLS Touring

INSPECTOR GOOLE,  BACK  BACK ON THE ROAD 

 

Below,  edited, is my original London review of this remarkable production.  This new tour deserves to be marked, though:   regarding the tour cast, Liam Brennan reprises Goole, splendidly, and notably elsewhere is Chloe Orrock as a particularly strong Sheila Birling and Alasdair Buchan an impressive Gerald.  Its strength is undimmed: its social message useful, and now in the age of MeToo the echoes of recent assaults and contempts for young women hit even harder.   And at the end of the first week of the tour,  the extraordinary set behaved exactly as it should at the Oxford Playhouse. Which is a triumph in itself.  You’ll see why when you watch it..

   Go catch… 

OLDER REVIEW EDITED:

     Over 25 years on from its first outing at the National,  Stephen Daldry’s  interpretation of the old JB Priestley standard –  not least due to Ian MacNeil’s design – is one of the most powerful stage metaphors ever.    The smug Birling family are both elevated and nicely cramped – the physical reflecting the mental – in a bright-lit  dolls-house perched above a misty, derelict city and its wandering urchins.   The interrogation and revelations that rock them – and literally bring their house down –  are staged like a ‘40s  air raid, even down to the smoky, climactic moment when members collapse amid wreckage and are swathed in brown blankets by silent citizens..   Yet the house  rises and brightens again in smugness, for a moment.     

 

    There was some astonishment in 1992 that Stephen Daldry, edgy new director,  not only chose Priestley’s morality play but stripped away the fusty Edwardiana which had distanced its capitalist arrogance from our own.  But it blew us away then, and does it again now, its force undimmed.  Daldry, as we know from everything from Billy Elliott to Netflix’s The Crown,  is at his best dealing with dramatic social and moral themes.  And that this production  is back to make a new generation gasp is splendid:  I watched a matinee alongside at least two enormous school parties,  blazers and hijabs all around me,  swaggering or giggling in with squawks about “No interval? Whassat? Miss!”. 

 

  But its hundred minutes saw them quiet, breathingly absorbed and,  more than once,  gasping.  Not bad for a 1912 play about a smug Edwardian family party visited by the artfully titled  “Inspector Goole”,  who gradually makes them all realize that each in turn – father, mother, son, daughter and her fiancé, has been – or may have been – complicit in driving a young woman to a horrible suicide.      Liam Brennan is an unusually emphatic Goole (well, unusually for me as I love the Alistair Sim film, but it works)

 

 Daldry and MacNeil’s sociali-justice metaphor of the rich house  precariously aloft over a changing, struggling city could hardly be more fit for now:  the arrogant, petulant, grasping rich literally besieged  by the reality of wider society and refusing the lessons of justice.   “If we will not learn that lesson” says Goole, to the audience,  “we will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.  Behind him, in the cathartic moment,   Mrs Birling is trying to polish her silverware,  her husband blustering,  only the younger spirits shaken into understanding the responsibility, long denied by old Birling,  for “all having to look after each other like bees in a hive”.  

  

rating five5 Meece Rating

TOURING to 23 May    Newcastle next      

  https://www.aninspectorcalls.com/tour-dates   Touring Mouse wide

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[BLANK] Donmar, WC2

A COOL EYE ON SHATTERED LIVES 

   

    Of all the well known flaws of our criminal justice system,  one of the most glaring is how badly it fits women – though they  are only around 7% of prison inmates.  The great majority are non-violent, for things like fare dodging or TV licence evasion: others are abused or have been forced into drug dealing, and most are on short sentences  that do nothing to stabilise their chaotic lives  but mean losing jobs, sometimes children, disrupting a whole chain of lives.   A recent inquest slammed lack of basic care when a young woman was not given prescribed medication;   last month in Bronzefield another gave birth alone and saw her baby die. 

   

The charity Clean Break , marking here its 40th anniversary,   works with drama to elucidate ,express and publicize these problems, not with sentimental blindness or Bad-Girls glamourisation  but by examining  lived experience. Alice Birch’s play is written as a fat book of 100 scenes or playlets,   to be used in any order and cross-casting by companies of all types.  Director Maria Aberg weaves 30 together, some very brief: the effect, at its best is of the fracture of lives, the impossibilty of making sense when your head is in chaos. Her writing is excellent, naturalistic and usually pacy. A mother hears how her daughter has “met someone” but hasn’t admitted she has children. Later we see her again, terrified of him, kids  outside in the car, begging access to a full refuge. Another is startled as her furious , impossible addict daughter breaks in to rob and scream at her – ”it seemed easier than asking for help” .   Later we learn of her end. Another pleads vainly for her mother to take the grandkids and an awful sequel, unbearable  in its self-justifying despair, is a later monologue.  A street worker tells a sex worker to stay safe but she “doesn’t know what safe feels like” and suddenly, lyrically,  talks of how she longs for the cosy whiteness of snow, 

 

      Only occasionally are we in prison – the set is fragmented, small rooms on two levels, a grim glass box of loneliness in one high corner. Once an angry irrational woman is restrained: at visiting time one has a litany of demands to take away everything that she might kill herself with.  A pregnant girl is told the good news – officialdom is not caricatured as brutal – that she can go to a mother and baby unit for the child’s first 18 months and may be released in time to leave with it. But her existing children can’t easily visit so far away. In a final brief scene we see an older mother whose daughter won’t forgive just because she finally “got her shit together thirty years too late” . Sometimes there are children , in and out of fostering.

 

   The longest section – slightly overlong though its  inconsequential cross-chat is bitterly satirical –  rises eventually to a sharp dramatic conclusion. It is  a dinner party of middleclass women . Couples, a police officer, a lawyer ,  two who were aid volunteers “for ten days”, a headteacher , a selfsatisfied gritty TV journalist. The outsider is a new girlfriend, possibly an ex inmate. At one point dealers bring cocaine and stay for some Ottolenghi and chat.  At last from  the outsider comes the accusation which one was yearning for :  that they are rabid hypocrites all, their chic liberalism a “fucking offence to those of us who try…crying for people rather than listening”. 

    Well, we listened.   It is tremendous ensemble work, physically expressive, verbally articulate, ripping off layers of smug delusion with elegant skill. If forced to single anyone out it would be Jackie Clune as an official figure,  Jemima Rooper, and Thusitha Jayasundera with immense sad authority in various parts.  Oh, and little Taya Tower,  a deadpan tot with alarming command both of her lines and of a baseball bat laying about some chinaware.  

box office 0203 282 3808       donmarwarehouse.com

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

Barclays sponsor partnership

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GROAN UPS Vaudeville, WC2

ANOTHER SPIN OF THE BOTTLE FOR MISCHIEF

 

I admit soft  maternal feelings for Mischief Theatre – Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and their confreres – because I was one of the first to spot the comic precision and élan of their Play that Goes Wrong,  fresh from Lamda on a shoestring and a basement .  I have watched it grow,  tour, transfer, triumph, cross the Atlantic and spin off Peter Pan goes wrong, and the Bank Robbery play.    So I braved the plush red-carpet-and- XR  hell of their west end launch for this :  not a pre-honed fringe lark but  a new play tipped straight onto the Strand with more Ayckbournian ambition.

   

     To my slight dismay, it shows the join. The idea   – very on-trend in a stage year of Adrian Mole, Jamie and the awful Heathers  – is to show us five  schoolfriends at there stages:   6 years old in playschool outfits, subverting an assembly by sending up their parents, then at 14 breaking into their classroom with beer to celebrate end-of-year exams and worry about GCSEs while playing truth or dare and attempting awkward snogs.  Finally we meet them at thirty at a reunion, nipping away from the fray to see the old classroom.  

   

They all play all ages. There’s serious Archie (Shields) ,  Sayer as the geeky slow developer Simon,  and Lewis as a big bear of a lad ,Spencer,   at six on the verge of being put in  ”the Red Group, with the Problems”  and at fourteen fearing being ‘held back”. There’s the posher girl Moon, entitled and bitchy (the glorious Nancy Zamit) , and clever shyer Katie who has a feeling for Spencer. (Charlie Russell).  All are veterans of the Play That Goes Wrong, honed in the bruises and split-second timing of physical theatre and absurdity.

    But both these pre-interval scenes are too long.   Amusing at times, deftly acted but sorely in need of cuts. With all  these previously triumphant creators in the cast, it may be hard for director Kirsty Patrick Ward to tell them so.  Maybe the fear was that a 2 hr 15 play would be too slight, and an extra half hour would add heft. It doesn’t.    All these scenes need is to establish characters – they do, deftly and amusingly – to set up a running joke about a hamster (I now think of it as Schrodinger’s Hamster, both alive and dead )  and  to plant one key plot point for the denouement.   They did not need to spin out the 6-year-old scene so much (though I’d be sad to have missed Zamit’s superb tantrum),  and as for the teenage yearsI seem to have scrawled “Adolescence , bad enough first time round, why re-live it..”.   

  

I suspect  cuts will  happen. Because after the interval  it takes off , vroom! One is a barrister, one a pet shop manager, one a urinal-cake salesman so desperate to impress that he has hired a fake girlfriend.  The  sharp comic abilities of all five are off the leash, the jokes good (a fine hamster cage gag before the first line..) and enriched by the addition of the peerless Bryony Corrigan as the fake girlfriend in lurex, and Dave Hearn as the alumnus-from-hell partyboy nobody actually remembers.  It roars along, with all this group’s honed skill in doors, hamster- substitutions and unexpected subtler laughs. There’s a moment of real pathos,  and another one subverted with genius wickedness (O, Zamit!) as it swizzles into something more poignant“Aren’t they beautiful, the lives we never had?”.  

 

    You forget the longeurs of the first two scenes. And these kids know enough about showbiz to trust that we will forgive them a lot for Hearn’s walrus imitation and the final  dancing lobster.  Trim off some flaband it’ll run and run like a Captain of Athletics.  Though it’ll be too Brit the Americans, and that’s another good mark.   Good tickets in the,  20s and 30s range and so far no silly Premiums.   Fun.  

nimaxtheatres.com   to 1 Dec  

rating three but….  an added  comedy mouse. .

3 Meece RatingComedy Mouse

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ASSASSINS           Watermill, Bagnor Newbury

THE DARK AND THE CRAZY

 

    This is  – for us anyway – the first  production in the Trump era of this savage musical:  a revue reimagining of all the attempts, successful or not,  to kill American presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to  Bush and Reagan.  Its mocking – though sometimes moving – portrait is of human fantaticism, disappointment,  inadequacy,  stupidity,  vanity, gun-obsession (“crook a little finger to change the world”)   and sheer attention-seeking.  Which, I have to murmur in passing, makes it doubly ironic and alarming in an age when the President himself  displays at least three of the above most days on Twitter.  

 

    But the show itself is deathless,  one to cherish.  To some it will always seem harsh and dark for comfort,  the brilliance of the Sondheim rhymes inappropriate for a lethal topic.   But Bill Buckhurst’s production has all the necessary vigour and the human seriousness too:  it helps having a stunningly gifted set of actor-musicians roaming the stage (and the sides, at times),  to give vivid life to Sondheim’s echoes of the great American musics:  bluegrass, honkytonk line dance,  gospel, vaudeville, Bernstein, jazz.   It also fits to have a young woman – Lillie Flynn in a western check shirt and jeans –   as narrator:  standing aside, plaintively asking from the start “Why did you do it, Johnny?”  as Wilkes Booth rants about his bad reviews and hatred of the “n—- loving” Lincoln.   

  

      In its tight, unbroken  100 minutes many performances stand out: flamboyantly  Eddie Elliott as the vain Charles Guiteau, Steve Symonds as the enraged, ranting Samuel  Byck in a Santa suit,  decrying and defining Americana; there is light relief in imagined conversations between Lynette Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore  – Evelyn Hoskins and Sara Poyzer –  who both failed to get Gerald Ford, for no reasonable reason; and pathos in   Jack Quarton  as poor mad Hinkley who thought that Jodie Foster might notice him if he killed Reagan. 

   

    They meet and interact across the decades,  most of all in a tremendous, marvellouslly staged ensemble when the ghosts of past and future gather round the miserable Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas and persuade him that the only way to become immortal, cited and counted in the hall of infamous fame, is to shoot John Kennedy rather than himself .  Their argument, perennial and  insidious , has you holding your breath. Even though you know the outcome. 

     It’s a bravura performance.  And always horribly timely.  Why else do American heads of state travel in armoured limousines even down the Mall, when ours, thank God, still braves a golden coach ?   

box office    watermill.org.uk      to 26 oct

Then to co-producing house, Nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk  ,    30 oct to 16 nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE NIGHT WATCH New Wolsey, Ipswich & touring

PEOPLE OF THE BLITZ 

 

Sarah Waters’ best novel, evoking lives during and after the London Blitz,  was told backward in time.  It is much the same way, indeed, as we meet real people  – see at first the way they are now,  then gradually on acquaintance roll back through their past year and come to understand.  With over a dozen characters, interlinked and significant,  it’s a tricky one to dramatize (easier,perhaps, to film in 2010 for TV).  But Hattie Naylor’s stage version flowers under the sensitive and poetic direction of Alistair Whatley,  and while the seemingly desultory opening scenes may baffle a few strangers to the book,  it grows in clarity and drama to become a  gripping piece of theatre, a testament.  

 

      At its heart is Kay:   gallant and brave,  “more of a gentleman than any man”,  coming of age in an ambulance crew in 1941 among the quiet heroes who saw horrors and returned to cocoa and comradely banter.    Phoebe Pryce is perfect for the role,  tall and boyish,   but in those early post-war scenes is a kind of wandering ghost, going out little,  visibly in private trauma. She is  boarding with the kindly but dotty Christian Scientist Mrs Leonard,   among whose patients is arthritic, emotionally riven Mr Mundy (Malcolm James) and his “nephew” Duncan:    Lewis Mackinnon, visibly the most damaged of all , cowering and awkward, veteran of something we will only learn later.  There’s Fraser,  the conscientious objector who shared his cell, and more, and reappears as a journalist; and the other women, Viv and Julia and Helen and Mickey,  variously involved with Kay.  

 

          Hard to imagine, now, having the city bombed night after night with a heavy toll of death and horror (dreading more mutilated bodies of children,   ambulance crewwoman Mickey blithely sets out in her tin hat hoping for “a slightly injured pink grandmother with a bag of boiled sweets).   Hard too to remember that attempted suicide still meant a prison term, as did ‘procuring an abortion’,   that conscientious objects had their own agonies in a world where their friends were dying,  and that lesbian affairs  – though not illegal  – were best kept hidden.   But as the back-stories unfold in the second half,  the staging serves to make vivid the raids, the rubble,  the quiet moments,  the fear and courage and strangeness of that wartime world. 

 

      Sometimes, as when an air raid makes the prisoners in their tiny lit square shiver in dread , while out in the town a betrayal of love is taking place amid the wreckage,  scenes can interlock at the same time. When Malcolm James’ Munby the warder sings “A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”,  depths of his own eccentricity, loneliness and future open before you.    Kay strides and works and loves and loses against a city in flames.  Nobody is wholly blessed or wholly damned.   It holds you fast.    But you’ll love it even more if you know the book. 

 

New Wolsey, Ipswich until 5 October

   then touring Touring Mouse wideon to 23 Nov.   Edinburgh next, then Coventry, Richmond, Salisbury, Croydon.    Original Theatre production.  

rating four 4 Meece Rating

   

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FOR SERVICES RENDERED              Jermyn St Theatre WC1

THE LOW DISHONEST DECADE…

 

It’s always intimate, the Jermyn,.  We’re in an autumn garden, apples on the ground and fading roses on the wall;  birdsong,  and a tea table set defiantly Edwardian-style by a maid in a cap.  But everything has changed.    By the end of two fraught, frustrated hours spread over days, the roses will be dead  and a chill fallen on both teapot and human hearts.   Somerset Maughan’s 1930s play surfaced last at Chichester, in the heart of the WW1 anniversary years, and reminded me  how much theatre taught me about that war and, not least, its aftermath (this refers btw:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html ).    If 2019 middle-Britain thinks it is in a social and political crisis,  it does well to glance back at those grim inter-war years.  

 

Here we have the Ardsley family,  smug prosperous Leonard and his wife Charlotte, and their three  children; Sydney is war-blinded and bemedalled, dryly unreconciled to Braille and tatting and more clear sighted about the mess of it all than any of them.  Evie is bereaved of her own man but yearns towards Callie,  who once drove a destroyer but now is a failing garagiste.  Lois longs to find a lover but  may  be doomed to being one of that generation of “surplus women”,  unless she succumbs to a loveless profiteering alliance with the concupiscent married Wilfred . And Ethel,  married to what was once a dashing officer whom “The king made a gentleman”  finds him reverted to bering a boorish tenant farmer, and not necessarily faithful.    

      

    Period and design are perfect (costume designer Emily Stuart has somehow sourced some retro long tennis skirts, fairisles,  and truly depressing greenish tweeds for Richard Derrington’s Leonard).   In most cases the period manner – stiffly upper-lipped – is convincingly held, though Sally Cheng’s brittle smile could do with a rest occasionally.   Derrington gives lethally smug precision to Leonard’s self-satisfied platitudes –  goodness. Maugham is savage –  and Diane Fletcher,  in her final resignation to the whole horrible mess,  is particularly fine.

 

  Rachel PIckup’s Eva, sweetly devoted and right on the edge of madness, handles the shock and rage of her final scenes well,    and  I admired Richard Keightley’s Sydney a lot:   for his stillness and, in one horribly revealing moment, for the wince when the appalling wittering neighbour Gwen  swoops on the blind man to kiss him (as I said, Maugham doesn’t hold back. This may be a play full of good female parts,  and an honest reflection on the particular grimness of their post-war lot. But face it,  the old devil doesn’t like us much really. ) 

      All in all, it’s worth its revivals,  and a fascinating reminder of how the aftermath of WW1 was harder to bear in many ways than the aftermath of WW2 when at least there was clarity about the wickedness of the enemy.    But it’s a  bleak number.    A few more days to run: worth catching. 

 

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk   to 5 oct 

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS Lyttelton, SE1

A COLLIDING WORLD

   

  Couldn’t miss this: for two years as a teenager (Dad in the Jo’burg Embassy)   I lived alongside the frightened, arrogant paranoia of  white South Africa under apartheid.  The memory cuts deep.   Athol Fugard has long been a voice chronicling with sorrowful understanding that toxic regime ,   its emotional fallout as well as its injustices.   The title matters:  I remember how universal and crushing was the word “boy”, as  the most dignified senior black man could be called it by even the trashiest white.

 

         This play is personal:  a hundred minutes of real-time in a small eastern-Cape tearoom in 1950,  written in tribute to two real men in  the young Fugard’s childhood:  waiters in the family business,   Sam Semela and Willie Malopo.    One of the ironies of apartheid always was the playful, happy familiarity of many white children with black servants or minders,  in even the most racistly convinced families.  But  the approach of adult dignities could turn that relationship sour and shaming,  as a  “Hally”  became “Master Harold” .    Under director Roy Alexander Weise, the play moves with slow atmospheric pace,  building a world before us both onstage and off.  

 

    We first see the ‘boys’ – Lucian Msamati as Sam  and Hammed Animashaun as Willie,  practising and discussing  a ballroom dancing competition.   Sam is older, dapper and dryly witty in his white coat and bowtie, correcting big gangling Willie’s steps and persuading him that if he wants his girlfriend Hilda to turn up to rehearsals he really must stop knocking her about.  Young Harold  stumps in to the family tearoom, fresh from school, shrilly adolescent verging on insufferable, moaning about his homework :  Anson Boon catches the Afrikaner accent, grating alongside the deep voices of the men, at first sometimes hard to make out but rising as the hour goes on.    Sam picks up books and reads with careful slowness, interested in new words,  approving of a history text about Napoleon’s belief in human equality.  Hally tends to patronize him.   But the joshing has warmth too, as they argue about Darwin, Caesar, Jesus;, the boy even forgetting his white dignity when Sam scores a point. 

 

        They start remembering how as a child he would sneak out to the servants’ quarters and hide under Sam’s bed.  Through phone calls from his mother we discover that the father – crippled, and a drunk –  is being brought home from hospital and that Hally dreads the chamberpots, the caring, the spittle, the drinking;  yet  on the phone to his father he is determinedly affectionate.  The mood rises and falls,  Hally’s anger spilling over sometimes to be vented on the patient Sam,  then abating again as they remember a kite the older man once made him.  In a marvellous evocation of excitement,  the two ‘boys’ explain about the ballroom competition and its grace and dignity.  Don’t couples ever collide? asks the lad and Sam .  “It’s like being in a dream about a world where accidents don’t happen”.  

 

        Hally fires up, suddenly animated about an idea – “the way you want life to be…get the steps right, no collisions…the United Nations is – a dancing school for politicians!”     He scribbles notes – “native culture, the war dance replaced by the waltz”  but Sam kindly ignores that crassness.   The two  men dance, demonstrating moves;  Msamanti ,  always an actor of awesome depth of dignity and emotion (remember his Salieri?) is a miracle of physical wit and grace.   Animashaun is a touching, effortful Willie.  

   It is beautiful. Then it is ugly:  the father’s imminent return makes Hally defensive ,  defiant.  Demanding respect, sneering at the dance,  despising his father.   Not without reason;   but when the properly fatherlike  Sam pulls him up,   suddenly it’s young-master and despised kaffir.  The shock of the k-word  knocks you reeling. And  there’s worse, and as the world of harmony  tilts into filth you can feel the jolt going through the audience.  

        So it should. Are we given a hint of redemption, of hope?  Yes.  Only just. But it’s enough to bring the house to its feet in mere relief. 

      

www. nationaltheatre.org.uk     to  17 dec   

rating  five  . 4 Meece Rating

 …Note that the fifth is a dancemouse,  because the choreographer and movement director Shelley Maxwell does a fine, fine job…. Musicals Mouse width fixed

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THE WATSONS. Menier SE1

15 CHARACTERS OBJECTING TO  AN AUTHOR..

 

The Jane Austen industry never flags, in tribute or in parody.  You can barely throw a bonnet without hitting an  Austentatious improv,  popcorn movie, stripped- down Northanger Abbey staged on scaffolding,  or some updated  BridgetJonesery,  Right now we have two writers finishing incomplete fragments, both accepting that it won’t be quite what Jane woulda done, but hey….  Thus Andrew Davies  sexes up Sanditon for ITV with incest , brothels and Theo James leaping on coaches,  and up from Chichester, adapted a bit,  here’s Laura Wade taking on the earlier  Watsons. 

     

We begin in Jane’s world and words, as  Emma (a charmingly spirited Grace Molony) has been dumped by her rich aunt to live in reduced circumstances with an ailing father and two sisters. All of whom must marry or be destitute (or governesses or teachers, generally in Austen considered almost as bad).

 

     It gets going with deft economy under Samuel West’s direction, as Ben Stones’ panelled set slides and opens to establish  a host of locals, militia, toffs and possible husbands. There’s a beautiful dance-with-dialogue including a ten year old  in tailcoat, very authentic-Austen. But 30 minutes in, as the original author stops, Emma is about to accept the dull Lord – as indeed she would have without Aunt Jane to stop her. And  it goes all meta and Pirandello:  author (played by Louise Ford) dashes in from 21c literary reality  and stops her , because Austen heroines must make love-matches.  It baffles Emma, and provokes horror in her sisters who feel that turning down a “not particularly deformed” Lord with a pineapple hothouse is crazy.  

     From here on it’s a battle of wills between the modern author and the characters, who are appalled at being told they aren’t real and  stage a revolution. There are some fabulous laughs: the horror of Jane Booker’s Lady Osborne at the author’s  plastic chair and immodest jeans, the glee of the child discovering her iPhone,  and his poignant horror at the fate of having to be ten forever.  Wade is at her best sending herself up, and when the entire cast of characters start whingeing like am-dram actors (“I don’t seem to be in it much””My character wouldn’t do that”etc) .  

   It also opens up some lovely ironies about the artificiality of all fictional pattern-making, as author-Laura protests that it was a “Feminist Act” of Austen’s to make her characters marry for love, because in her society marriage was the only route to female independence.  The characters hurl arguments from Hobbes and Rousseau, and express  natural  indignation at having a path laid down at all.  

Pleasing  chaos and insubordination keep it moving, and there’s even a brief Napoleonic war, an erotic speech to scare the pants off even Andrew Davies, and a fine moment of glory for Nanny (Sally Bankes) as  the only working-class character.  

      But O, the temptation of writerly  self-pity and self importance!  One can see why, but the pace slows terribly  as “Laura”loses control and sobs at her lot while the rebel characters gather round, leaderless.  Her exhilarating final moral – that unfinishedness is freedom and  a myriad possibilities – is fine, But I (and the novelist pal at my side) both winced  at her injunction to the little boy “never be ashamed to call yourself an artist”.  No, no,no…just don’t..

       But it  was fun. 

Box office menierchocolatefactory.com.  To 17 Nov

Rating four4 Meece Rating

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BIRTHDAYS PAST, BIRTHDAYS PRESENT            Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

80 NOT OUT,  THE SAGE OF SCARBOROUGH  

  

Not everything would send me via  divers and standing-room trains from Stratford to Scarborough.  But this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, marking his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as a playwright.   And though it  may  (should!) last and travel like his other best ones,  I needed to see it on his home turf: the round SJT, the  Circus-Maximus where for decades he has thrown Middle England into battle with the wild beats of its nature.   On a wet Friday a sudden rainbow met me as I stumbled from the station.  Old Sir-Alan has earned it again with this :  a play very English, very Yorkshire,  streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkle of sparkles of hilarity as once again he shakes his head, not unaffectionately, at the puzzle of men and women. 

 

  He himself directs :  its a four-hander family tale told backwards through time (like Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along).  First meet Mickey, a graceless grump marking 80 with a fine dry wit,  tended by Meg with her tea-tray.  The son Adrian and his latest girlfriend Grace are coming to birthday tea.   Deft as ever, Ayckbourn reveals the family’s shape:  Adrian is the slowcoach, his siblings higher-flying and often abroad;  he had a failed marriage to a divorcee with children, and always in the background was once Uncle Hal, the black sheep.  This constantly funny opener is enlivened by Mickey’s determination to warn the mousy, churchy Grace that his son is famously sexually voracious,   what women of a past age hushedly called a “satyr” (“Once he gets you into bed, you do well to brace yourself!”).     This reputation feels  blinkingly unlikely as the great smiling lunk himself shambles in, all goodwill and hope for the 42-year-old he met at a church social.  What can Mickey mean? Is he really a sexual Superman? We shall learn. 

 

        For as the stagehands elegantly reposition and unfold the furnishings in the arena (Kevin Jenkins’s ingenious design is part of the pleasure)   the next birthday,  15 years earlier,  is his wife’s 60th, when she has become a bottle-blonde in mumsily pink glamour , brawling over the offstage buffet.  While Adrian and his still-married  wife with touching awkwardness  reveal how far from a satyr he is.  Aha: we are beginning to understand that actually, this is a play about the hardness of being a shy good man in a world of baffling women.  Jamie Baughan’s performance is immaculate in its underachieving sweetness, and later he’ll break your heart even more. For it is his lonely thirtieth birthday next,  and another clue to Mickey’s legend;  finally it is his brash elder sister’s 18th,  setting him at 17 on his life’s trail of kindly, modest humiliation.

     

    Baughan holds the play’s real heart,  and Russell Dixon and Jemma Churchill neatly grow younger over five decades as the parents. But the glorious set-pieces come  from the astonishing Naomi Petersen as four of the women in Adrian’s life:  thwartedly churchy Grace,  a disastrously depressed and self-absorbed wife Faith, a shy schoolgirl of long ago. And,  most gloriously of all,  a mouthy prostitute donated, on Adrian’s birthday  by his Uncle Hal .   For reasons not fit to disclose before you hurry up there with a ticket,  a major highspot is her hen impression – chicken-in-a-basque if you like.  

 

  Yet always underneath it beats Ayckbourn’s sorrowful, understanding heart, showing us that comedy is just tragedy on its way to happening.   Happy Birthday, Sir Alan!

box office sjt.uk.com    to 5 October

rating  Five 5 Meece Rating

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KING JOHN Swan, Stratford upon Avon

KING JOHN WAS NOT A GOOD MAN…

 

  Maybe we should stick to AA Milne’s version?

 “King John was not a good man

He had his little ways

  And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days…”

     There’s something about this account of “England’s worst King”,  one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, which causes directors to go “let’s ZHOOSH it up for the Youth!!”.  Newish directors, that is: that old fox Trevor Nunn served it up with traditional fleur-de-lys and trumpets at the Kingston Rose a while ago, and ironically I found myself more engaged:  not even too bothered about the missing bits and disputed authorship.  Its cores –  political weakness, familial rifts and self-interest showed up better.  

 

  But it attracts gimmickists.  Last time it was done here by the RSC  it was like a hen party designed by  Timmy-Mallet, with balloons, harlequin tights and a vital    character dropped.   Now once again the baton  goes to a new director – Eleanor Rhode from Hightide – who appears enamoured of  mid-20c soap and movies,  sartorially and tonally (Max Johns designs, albeit with a huge tapestry backdrop conflating all periods, which is rather fine. ).  It seems to say hey, forget the tragedy-plantagenetty stuff,  it’s just a dysfunctional family comedy!  A royal Dynasty, innit, what’s not to like?  Queen Eleanor is basically Joan Collins…

 

       It could work, and  in the shorter, darker, more medieval part after the interval it begins to, with the actors  at last allowed to stop yelling and clowning (good work from Charlotte Randle as Lady Constance in her grief,  Rosie Sheehy as King John collapsing into hysteria and blaming Hubert,  Tom McCall as Hubert the failed murderer himself,  and Michael Abubakar as a sprightly Bastard).     The first half, though,  is a gruelling 90 minutes which could wear you down a bit .  Though there is quite an entertaining food-fight at the wedding of the Dauphin and Blanche, and the movement and fight directors (two of the latter!)  deserve a lot of  credit.   Especially for the bit when King Philip gets a floury bap stuck on the point of his crown.   And it is quite witty (and technically clever) that in the course of that shenanigan the JUST MARRIED balloons are twisted into JUST DIE.   

   

      But all in all,  the shouty carelessness with the verse (some of the loveliest lines of Shakespeare are in here) and the desperate determination to be fun  made it less than gripping until its last more solemn moments.  But look, I’m not hostile:  it’s 2019,  the RSC has lots of crap telly to compete against,  so I’ve no  objection to Cardinal Pandulph being depicted as a pouting, mincing  Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street,  nor to the homages to Bunuel and the Sopranos.  And yes, on press night anyway lots of people did often laugh.   And young Ethan Phillips was very good indeed as the doomed child Arthur,  indeed displaying a finer sense of language than some of the adults.  

   

    Maybe I’m just an old misery.   It gets one mouse more than the last RSC King John did.  And as it’s never a set book, extreme larkiness doesn’t confuse the poor GCSE kids the way a gimmicky Macbeth would.   But it would be grand if, as the new decade begins, the RSC  had a think about doing the play another way.  

 

Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk   in rep   to  20 march and in cinemas on 29 APril next year

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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TWO LADIES Bridge, SE1

GLOBAL AND GENDER POLITICS IN  PERFECT MINIATURE

  

  A glass conference-centre in the host nation France;  a visiting US President avid for airstrikes after a terrorist outrage , demanding EU backing. The talks are on,  but we are with the two  first-ladies  in lockdown in a side room. Demonstrators have soaked the US President’s glamorous lady with animal blood, shocking against her chic white suit.  Aides bustle about, keen to spin the  change of clothes into something patriotically symbolic.   But mostly it is duel or duet between the two leads: a fine-drawn cool Zoe Wanamaker  and a brilliant slow reveal by an utterly fascinating, masterfully restrained Zrinka Cvitesic.  

        

In a tight 90 minutes  Nancy Harris’ new play  moves from a sharp,  occasionally funny observation of this wifely condition into a meditation on politics both gender and global: under Nicholas Hytner’s tight directorial hand it rises to a chilling edge and neat final twist :   a Tardis of a play, bigger than its size.    Harris fictionalizes the first ladies well within current reality –   Wanamaker’s  Helen 24 years her French husband’s senior and once his teacher, but British-born and a former  liberal journalist and  speechwriter to her spouse  although “little men with pencils” strike out her best lines. She is irritable at exclusion from the real power-game and the coming futility of a “Women’s Forum” dinner.   

 

         The US President’s younger lady  (Cvitescic)  is Sophia:  East European, every inch a former model and soft-porn actress with her own steely dignity.  Brilliantly telling is her calm peasant acceptance when she strips to her petticoat to clean herself up with a bucket and soap before shrugging on a clean frock .  And, early on and startlingly ,  reveals that the perfume in her handbag is actually poison, for final “control” if she is kidnapped.  It was from “friends”. Not the CIA.  She comes of a harsher culture.   This is one of the first of many moments when she rattles the composure of the sophisticated  Helen, whose handbag has never held anything more practical than an argumentative book. Probably by a Guardian columnist. 

            The beauty of the women’s interaction lies in how this contrast widens into  a meditation on the two Europes.   On a personal level neither has a perfect marriage. One’s a trophy  wife,  the other aware of her younger husband’s infidelity but thinking she holds him by the intellect.   But though both feel thwarted by patriarchy, on one side there is smug educated Western liberalism,  and on the other a fierce Balkan practicality,. When Sophia flatly observes that men will always be able to humiliate women because they have the power,  Helen splutters “not any more!”. Cvitesic’s eyes roll up.

      For the US wife is  clear-eyed,  personally toughened by the brutality of rapist wars, knows she is seen as “the wrong sort of European” and an upstart tart.  Yet as it turns out , politically she  burns with a headlong Antigone spirit  more powerful than the appalled Helen can share.   A third grace-note of female exasperation comes when Lorna Brown’s vigorous Sandy, the US aide,   is patronized by Helen and saltily observes that as a single mother with kids to raise she objects to being  “talked down to by rich-ass liberal white women…while I save the asses of people with a lot more money and power who never say thanks” .  Ouch.  Perfect. 

 

Box office: 0843-208 1846.   to 26 October

rating  five 5 Meece Rating  

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A TASTE OF HONEY Lowry, Salford and touring

SIXTY YEARS OR ONE MILE AWAY  –  Greater-Manchester guest critic HELEN GASKELL REVELS IN GRIT AND SKILL 

 

Ah, to watch a classic play in the place it was written.  Working class Salford girl Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey at 19, after being disappointed on  a trip to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme.  She reckoned she could do better: of course she was right, and a classic was born.

Recap, for those not familiar with this  northern classic. It is the late 1950s, and 15 year old Jo (Gemma Dobson)  lives in squalor with her vampy, sex-kitten mother Helen (Jodie Prenger).  After Helen swans off to marry a drunken, violent younger man (Tom Varey) Jo is left to fend for herself.  She falls in love with a black sailor named Jimmie, played with perfection in this instance by Durone Stokes.  After he too leaves her in the lurch, she finally catches a break and falls in with her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) – until everything starts falling apart.

Context is key. It is too easy to forget that when it was written, mixed race relationships were extremely taboo and homosexual relationships illegal.  Much of the play hinges on this, and younger audience members might be forgiven for finding some plot points slightly confusing.  For example, Geoffrey might still face persecution for being gay today, but unlikely to find himself homeless when still able to pay his rent.

The production does not attempt to draw clumsy parallels or score political points.  It is unashamedly a period piece.  But its themes are not irrelevant to our current situation: in fact, the poverty  -well depicted in the set  – of the 50s flat Jo and Helen live in would certainly be recognisable to many not a mile away from the Lowry today.  Jo can, at least, turn on her gas stove, and Geoffrey can afford to buy a packet of then-exotic pasta without resorting to a visit to a food bank.   We are deep in I, Daniel Blake territory.

  The National Theatre does not disappoint: the production is absolutely superb, with some of the cleverest staging imaginable. i=It  benefits from the genius incorporation of a live band scattered across the stage, and light smoke giving a wonderfully dingy feel to the already-dirty set. Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume designer, has done an impeccable job of capturing poverty and squalor;  Paul Anderson’s lighting design is highly commended: he is not afraid to let in the dark.   Finally, the team have worked well together: barely noticeable visual tweaks and stolen moments between scenes say as much as the actors themselves.  A dirty tablecloth is replaced with a clean one; a silent dance is glimpsed between absent Jimmie and besotted Jo; a bare lightbulb gets a shade.  This  baked-in aura of northern grit takes weight off the actors, and Delaney’s  natural wit shines through.  Too often British plays of this era are marred by hammy, OTT acting, but not here.  Nearly every performance is outstanding.  It is frankly marvellous to see a gay man portrayed without camp, a lothario as a romantic, and domestic violence no less terrifying due to its subtlety.  

And the singing – gosh, the singing.  Not a croak or a bum note in evidence – nothing at all to distract from the wonderful use of contemporaneous music, which is seamlessly blended into the production. Itwould be perfection, if it were not for the fact that it is hard to suspend disbelief far enough to see a 28 year old woman play a 16 year old.  Dobson is a superb actress, but there are others who could successfully assist an audience in clambering over that mental hurdle.  Do not let that put you off.

 

 

box office   http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-uk-tour . On tour until 16th November.

Rating: Four   4 Meece Rating

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