THE LIBERTINE Theatre Royal Haymarket, SW1

COMIC DARING, DILDO-JABBING, PHILOSOPHICAL DESPAIR…

 

 

It is not surprising that theatre falls in love with the Restoration : the stage itself springing back to life after Puritan austerities, real actresses, free with their ways, extravagant dress, flying plackets and petticoats, flaunting periwigs, whorehouses, orange-girls rising from the mud and aristocrats declining into it. And – to consolidate the modern parallels – after a few years of Charles II , a cynical disillusion with politics , authority, religion and the Divine Right of Kings. We have had the merry Nell Gwynn at the Globe and the Apollo; now roaring up from the Theatre Royal Bath comes a revival of Stephen Jeffreys’ darker, dirtier account of a real figure: the great rake and jeering poet John Wilmot, earl of Rochester.

 

 
Dominic Cooper, symbolically wigless in his own long hair amid many luxuriant wigs, strides forward over rough benches before a huge projection of a puffed, silken cleavage (one of many strikingly fleshy backdrops of the evening) to sneer “You will not like me..I demand not your affection but your attention”. We are plunged into bawdy (yes, very) literary chat between him, Mark Hadfield’s George Etherege, an innocent wannabe Billy Downs, and the preposterous figure of another earl, Sackville : Richard Teverson in clay-whitened face and cascading ginger wig , comically providing an ordinary sot as a foil to Rochester’s restless, intelligent, philosophically determined libertinism.

 

 
It is for a few minutes as Georgette Heyer fell into unwilling collaboration with Joe Orton and Kenneth Tynan: Before long we have King Charles (Jasper Britton) enthusiastically rogering Big Dolly on a balcony while conversing with Rochester as he lies below being “gobbled” by his faithful favoured tart Jane, while random layabouts lurch and curse around them.

 
But the point of this subtle, tough play, for all its larky comedy, is that Rochester is not really one of them. He is an emerging modern: clever and sensitive and out of place and disillusioned and bored: “Our boredom is so intense we make dangerous things happen”. Dangerous to his cynicism though is a sudden fascination with the unusually tough-minded actress Lizzie Barry (Ophelia Lovibond) . She like him has an instinct for more truthful playing, rejecting the broad stylized dramatics of the day. He needs theatre because unlike his life it makes narrative and emotional sense: “I cannot feel in life, I must have others to do it for me” he cries, and later observes that theatre in shaping stories lies – “life is not a succession of urgent “Now!”s – it is a listless trickle of “Why should I?s”. Commissioned to write a play about the King, he enrols Lizzie, Jane, and others to rehearse a heavily pornographic, dildo-heavy, explicitly sexually scornful piece (a sort of proto- Ubu Roi) . From here by way of a brawl, the philosophical vandalizing of a sundial for not working at night, flight and internal exile, he declines all the way to a final renunciation of it all. And of his own vitality.

 

 

Cooper puts in a commanding, convincingly troubled performance but what shines out from Terry Johnson’s production (ravishingly composed, designed and lit by Tim Shortall and Ben Ormerod) is the strength of the women. Lovibond is a defiant, feminist Lizzie Barry; Alice Bailey Johnson moving, decent and determined as Lady Rohester; Nina Toussaint-White as Jane the prostitute again toughly moving; and as Big Dolly and a magnificently robust stage manager Lizzie Roper gives us yet another aspect of womanhood. What began as a romping period imagining develops real seriousness and sadness.

 

box office 020 7930 8800 to 3 Dec
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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THE WIPERS TIMES Watermill Theatre , W.Berks & touring

 

OH, WHAT A WITTY, AND PITIFUL, WAR

 

There is greatness in joking at the mouth of Hell; especially if those jokes are part of comradeship, a gift to those alongside. A hundred years ago in the ruins of Ypres, a weary, dusty group of the 24th Sherwood Foresters were scavenging for things to shore up the battered trenches, and chanced upon a hand-fed printing machine and some trays of type. A sergeant knew what it was, so a couple of young officers – Captain Fred Roberts and Lt.Jack Pearson – decided to produce a magazine. Not informative, certainly not piously or patriotically inspiring: a jokey satire-sheet, poking fun not just at the Germans but at the General Staff, the absurdities of military life, the war itself. Spoof ads and agony-columns, parodies of Kipling, Belloc, and cushioned war-correspondents: jokes about gas, and mud, and death; the script for a cabaret (“Music by R.Tillery”). Or “Questions a platoon commander should ask himself: Am I as offensive as I might be?”.

 

 
Forgotten for years, there was nonetheless enough surviving material and history for Ian Hislop and Nick Newman to mine and produce what – after a shorter TV drama-doc – has become a quite magnificent stage play. It is another evidence of what I have said before (http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p) that theatre in the last two years, has taught more vividly about the realities of WW1 than any other medium. In a claustrophobically, brilliantly realized trench and office set, eight nimble players scuttle, shift, hunch, joke, and evoke both the awful reality and the redemptive way that young men will use black humour and samizdat flippancy to survive. Both the leaders won the military cross, so there was no hiding from the reality of war; they tussled with authority but – again, a tribute to soldierly spirit – were defended by General Mitford despite the outrage (very entertainingly done) of his prim Lt-Col.

 

 

 

The officers – James Dutton a round-faced optimistic Roberts and George Kemp a dry, saturnine Pearson – are perfect foils for one another, and Dan Tetsell as the Sergeant (and the General) particularly fine: but all eight deftly double or treble, the one woman, Eleanor Brown, sliding from Temperance campaigner to Madame Fifi to Roberts’ wife.
Caroline Leslie directs , and the design, lighting, sound and use of music are of the highest production values, perfectly conceived. But then the whole enterprise has the marks of long, seriously loving, perfectionist conception, having grown over fifteen years. Particularly striking is the way that Hislop and Newman, with 30+ years of Private Eye joke conferences behind them, have been able to study the actual gags in the surviving Wipers Times editions and work imaginatively backwards to imagine the incidents and the banter which gave birth to them.

 

 
Theatrically, odd pop-up moments and music-hall moments give the sketches life, but the writers have the brains not to fall into expressionism or sub-Brecht gimmickry. It’s very straight. It tells the story.  It is profoundly respectful.    It has a more powerful punch than on TV, and is funnier too, with a live audience to gasp and laugh. It does not, especially in brief dark moments after the Somme, gloss over the reality of death and grief , or the dislocated bafflement of return to civilian life after the Armistice. It is, in short, very very good.

 

 

box office 01635 46044 to 29th October
Then touring: Sheffield, Ipswich, Salisbury. Deserves more. http://www.uktw.co.uk
rating Five   5 Meece Rating

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IMOGEN (Cymbeline) Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES DOWN WID DA SHAKESPEARE  KIDZ

 

 

Someone find Mark Rylance and distract him. Take him far from Bankside so he can’t see what they’ve done. Not only are the ruffs not starched in the traditional method…there aren’t even any ruffs.

 

Instead it’s rough. It’s a new look for the Globe. It’s equallY stylised, just a modern palette. Instead of lutes and harpsichords, this Cymbeline is Skepta, Stormzy, Addidas tracksuits and bags upon bags of drugs; grime London. Perhaps a little heightened, but for his first outing on the Globe stage the director (Matthew Dunster) had to be bold.

 

The play (renamed Imogen to reflect the fact she has three times as many lines as the usual title character) is a leaner text on a bigger stage. Instead of decorative walls and the classic balcony, there are giant flappy plastic curtains you’d get in an abattoir or a big B&Q. A translucent curtain wraps the stage, and the great orb is finally lit in gleaming technicolour.

 

The stuffy nonsense over which previous Artistic Directors presided (no lighting, ancient costumes and impenetrable finale jigs) has been blown away. Now it’s sharp modern dress, colour, dynamic movement and actual pieces of scenery. It’s like bringing 3D animation to a playhouse that’s survived on 2D pencil drawings.

 

Imogen is forcibly separated from her lover and he is briefly turned against her. That, along with long lost siblings, a customary sex change and near death by stepmother, is usual fare. But with a leaner text Dunster has the space to wield greater visual elements.

 

The opening scene, detailing Imogen’s separation from her siblings and falling in love with Posthumus is laid out visually. Beautiful movement, a tightly mixed soundtrack and ballet-like precision are brought in, doing away wooden, spoken exposition. The result is outstanding.

 

Also refreshing is the cast, who for the most part, make the meeting of Elizabethan text and 2016 gang London seamless.  Ira Mandela Siobhan as the banished lover Posthumus and Joshua Lacey as the rival Cloten deliver Shakespearean dialogue as if quoting Kanye.

 

Likewise the ferocious Queen is played by Claire Louise-Cordwell not as some sketchy EastEnders nutter but as turbulent real woman, who is surely in Brixton somewhere terrorising someone.

 

Unfortunately the new lead, Imogen (Maddy Hill), still has the whiff of drama school training. She’s head to toe in Adidas but sounds like an anxious middle-class undergraduate. Each poetic couplet chewed for every vowel, rather than spat out as her more-urban colleagues do. It’s a strong performance, but a little out of place.

 

My only other complaint: the Globe is still the Globe. Tenderness and emotional depth are always wasted on this barn. It must be fumes from the wood varnish because every subtle moment, any attempt at quiet romance results in laughs or gasps. It’s a stage built for bawdiness, and that detracts from some hard-won romantic moments.

 

But we’ll never change the Globe in that respect. We haven’t the nerve to burn it down as they did in 1613. But but thankfully something young, a little more Radio 1Xtra and a little less Radio 3, has stepped onto the boards to try and punch it up a little.

A perfect club night for modern Bards.

RATING:  FOUR

Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Until 16th October.
(BY THE WAY – THE NORMAL THEATRECAT IN THIS SPACE LOVES THE ‘BARN” , REVERES MARK RYLANCE’S GLOBE-MAGIC,  CAN EVEN TOLERATE THE ODD RUFF AND IS MOST INSULTED ON ITS BEHALF…!! )

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NO MAN’S LAND Wyndham’s, WC2

AGE, MEMORY, WHISKY AND DEATH… DRINK TO THAT

 
“But you see, its ABOUT being rather bored and baffled. Thats the POINT” said a pleading voice in the interval scuffle. She wasn’t entirely offbeam: Pinter is not everybody’s cup of bitter, clouded tea. But boring it could not be, this revival of one if his best plays from the turbulent 1970’s: a time perhaps of even more than usual dissatisfaction and upheaval for this most angrily morose of playwrights.

 

 

 

 

Not boring, because it is a piece requiring – and getting – two superlative, ageing, unshakeably confident and dryly perceptive actors to make sense of the principals. We have the dapper Hirst in a Hampstead drawing -room framed in flickering heathland leaves, and Spooner, a random, rumpled , camply garrulous old stranger (or is he?) who he has asked in for a drink.  Famously they were Ralph Richardson and Gielgud when it was first played at the NT and Wyndham’s: now, matching them absolutely in quality ( so Benedict Nightingale says and I always believe him) it is Ian mcKellen and Patrick Stewart, theatrical knights of our own century.

 

 

 

They put not a foot wrong, and in the case of McKellen’s long opening  rambles about his poetry, his averred strength (“because I was never loved”) , and how he never stays long with others “they do not wish it”, his feet are vital. Insinuating but vulnerable he sashays, weaves and writhes  his sinuous form around  he room inside those most distressful suitings, one stained old trouser-leg tucked into his sock, as if the trousers perhaps came off earlier in his heathland wanderings. Despite his protestations at being too old even to “peep”at such things.  Stewart is more solid, at first dropping only immaculately timed responses (After some useless personal probing of his host Spooner protests “I have gone too far”, to which Hirst “I expect you to go a great deal farther”. The pair ricochet off one another’s damaged, depressed, very masculine carapaces with remarkable virtuosity. And it’s a joy to watch.

 

 

 

Pinter, however, rarely can resist larding his airy Hampstead neuroses with bullyboys, menaces, leatherjacketed thugs from some feared, incomprehended, but fascinating underclass of his imagination. The servants of Hirst – rough Owen Teale and camply swaggering Damien Molony – .preen, menace and curse their way to no particular effect during the end of Act 1: although the despairing helplessness of McKellen around them is superb, Hirst having crawled off drunk. The play for me dips drearily here, probably provoking that interval remark nearby.

 

 

 

But fear not. The second act, still as odd and deliberately dislocating, is studded with comedy gold: notably the pastiche-bufferdom of the morning after as the two old men appear to know who each other are (or not) reminisce about possibly fictitious old pals and affairs .“I would be taking nothing of yours” avers Stewart amiably, of some old adultery “only that portion of herself all women keep for a rainy day”. Typical, that.. And with the return of the menacing servants they move into a final poignancy of decline -but a decline you can “drink to”, a no-man’s land of hope so long lost that it doesn’t matter. An an astonishing long riff of pleading from McKellen ushers us into the final twilight.

 

 

 

 

And it does in the end mean something profound and not at all dull, about age and memory and approaching death . Goodness knows, Pinter takes an idiosyncratic route to get us there, but there are lines that burn into your head. Pinterite or not, it’s something to see: the quintessence of acting, a poem about life.

 

 

box office 0844 482 5120   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to
rating:   five. 5 Meece Rating

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HOW TO DATE A FEMINIST Arcola, E8

 LIBERATION AND COURTSHIP IN A HEAD-ON CLASH

 
Not long left for Samantha Ellis’ knowing, teasing little comedy of modern manners and delusions, and it’s well worth a look. It was a pleasure to sit among a predominantly young audience – still at the dating stage and pretty hip, this being Hackney – and hear the hoots and shrieks of recognition in laughter. For Ellis has hit upon a pleasing paradox of modern Western life. Which is that there is a strand of feminism – not, luckily, the only one – which runs awkwardly contrary to certain innate instincts of heterosexual mating.

 

 

 

The teasing flick of a flirty fringe, the all-day grooming for a special date,, the delight of being swept off your feet giggling by strong male arms – these things still exist somewhere in female nature. So if like Kate in this play you have a sneaky taste for bad-boy Heathcliffs, it can be hard being wooed by a man like Steve: raised largely in a tent on Greenham Common by a fiercely feminist mother. Especially when he proposes on his knees and has to prefix it with an apology for centuries of patriarchy all the way from ancient Egypt to modern FGM , by way of footbinding. To which Kate , modern enough in trainers but longing for something more fiercely flavoured, can only say “my feet are fine!”

 

 

 

Yet they’re in love, and the progress of their relationship is charted in 90 minutes from the first fancy-dress party (he is Robin Hood, for eco-feminist reasons as Maid Marian had a sword, she is Wonderwoman). It is often very funny, as she remembers her mother telling her to blot her lipstick carefully and jump into a cloudy spray of perfume, and he can’t even bring himself to sort out her Google maps for her because it would be patronizing. He runs a bakery, she can’t cook; he meticulously asks “may I kiss you? Your collarbone? your shoulder” and is disappointed that she is not “up for explicit verbal consent”. She, unforgivably but in one of their worst moments, even mutters that she would lie him “a bit more rapey”. Oh dear. Off he goes.

 

 

 

It all works out fine in the end, by way of not one but two weddings, both equally disastrously disrupted. Matthew Lloyd directs, and Tom Berish (gorgeously innocent-eyed) and Sarah Daykin adeptly change costumes at speed to play the two lovers, plus her refugee Jewish father who thinks it’s all nonsense, and his Greenham Scottish mother; less successfully (because it can get momentarily muddled) he becomes her former lover, and boss, a randy editor, and she stands in for the appalling butch-bitch Carina, his hyper-PC girlfriend who hates fiction, and mystery, and romance and thinks love can flourish only on “shared ideas”.
.But when I say momentarily muddled, I mean just that. It’s fine. But worth saying that Samantha Ellis’ spirited writing, and her sharp perception of the absurdities of the day, deserve fuller casts and bigger spaces.

 
box office    www.arcolatheatre.com 020 7503 1646 to 1 October
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GIRLS Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh

CHILD PRISONERS OF TERROR

 

 

The faces of Nigerian Chibok schoolgirls – kidnapped en masse from school or in smaller village raids – haunt the world. Bright teenage faces compulsorily veiled look out of the bullying videos: destined for prisoner exchange if they’re lucky, for rape, enslavement or suicide bombs if not. Theresa Ikoko’s acclaimed debut, a Talawa / Soho / Hightide production, is ironic programming against the other Hightide play I saw last week: the feminist angst at psychological “colonization” in Elinor Cook’s “Pilgrims” feels uncomfortably first-world next to this.

 

 

 

For Ikoko simply gives us in 90 minutes a classic POW drama, in which the prisoners are schoolgirls. In a simple, arresting set by Rozanna Vize, forest turning to hut in seconds the three girls chat, worry, bicker and even giggle as girls will, talking about families, lessons, anatomies and TV shows, sometimes role-playing everything from “games about weddings” to soap opera to award ceremonies and Pop Idol. That they are intelligent, halfway through a serious education, is subtly but firmly indicated. Schoolgirls anywhere will recognize them. But the girls’ differences resolve as the months pass, via growling blackout noises, separately and starkly as they fall into three archetypal prisoner modes.
Ruhab (Yvette Boakye) takes up with one of the unseen captors, veils herself, convinces herself that prayers to Allah are no different to the Christian ones she learned at home, and becomes pregnant: but still captive within the hut. Tisana (Abiola Ogunbiyi) , the youngest and most naive, is flogged for not praying as instructed, and for a time entertains showbizzy fantasies of her return as a heroic “living martyr”. But Haleema – a skinny, angry, arrogantly heroic Anita-Joy Uwajeh – is determined to escape, at any cost, and tries to pull the others with her : one collaborating, one terrified.

 
There are light moments: talks about sex, Ruhab’s pleasure in losing weight, even in the hints of horrors outside a sudden conviction that the “trail of fire and flesh” the captors leave will lead rescuers to them. But the picture grows darker: talk of other girls being sent away, of their fates, and of scared Tisana being destined, as Ruhab tells her, to the prepared “to marry tall Arab”. Halima protests “she hasn’t even had her periods…”.

 

 

It is to the credit of Ikoko, and her director Elayce Ismail, that the horrors are fleeting, and all the worse for that: the best prisoner stories show us how in a terrible way appalling things become routine. All three performances are focused, distinct, passionate and convincing; the hour and a half in the claustrophobic hut is intense. My only quibble is with the final scene: unrelentingly un-redemptive, a final horror for Tisana. The moment just before that when the girls – escapers and remainer – pray together could be a sharper, more questioning conclusion. So would Tisana’s line “This world is not for girls”.
Two days before I saw it, reports came from Nigeria of more negotiations for whatever girl-children have survived this unpardonable theft of youth.

Touring to Birmingham Rep 20-24 Sept, then Soho Theatre

Rating Four   4 Meece Rating

 

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PILGRIMS Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh

TWO UP A MOUNTAIN, ONE LOOKING UP IN ANGER
From Wales to this easternmost festival Tamara Harvey – newish artistic director of Theatr Clwyd – brings a new play by Elinor Cook. It’s about two young men – celebrated climbers, Everest-conquerors, bonded buddies – and their interaction with a young woman engrossed in a PhD about “folk songs, war, travel, heroes, the romantic era..”. Indeed, by the sound of it a bit of a muddle: one is not especially surprised at the later suggestion that her academic entanglement between the ballad Tam Lin, colonialism and feminist theory is running into the sand.

 

 
They’re very watchable, though: Amanda Wilkin Roche, striding, bubbling, confident, is Rachel. In a punchy opening she is conversing, in imagination, with the men as one (Stefan Donnelly as the exuberant Will) lies apparently dying 18,000 feet up on a mountain with Dan (a quieter Jack Monaghan) at his side. Sometimes one or other of the cast becomes a narrator, delivering stage directions “Two men alone on a mountain. Tall, Caucasian..” “He hands her a gift” or moving us back and forward in time – “Six weeks earlier”. Sometimes this experimentalism works, and keeps you focused; at other moments it distracts, as if the three of them were enacting some sort of moral fable which we should listen to for our own good, rather than lose ourselves in.

 

 

 

This tone, indeed, is the weak spot of an otherwise ingenious play, nicely staged on a flat jagged platform enabling the lithe, spidery chaps to express the edginess of their mountain trade. We discover in the flashbacks that Rachel was first the girlfriend of one, then of the other; that they each in their own way find it impossible to give up the dangerous life though she might have got Dan to try; and that she suffers both a fascination and a revulsion about their heroic ideals. There is a sudden anti-colonialist rant from Rachel – who is black, which I suppose is the point here – about “cruel arrogant wicked people in helmets and medals who dared to impose their way of life..” Later on, when the disaster has happened on The Last Climb, she translates this into feminist relationship outrage worthy of a Rob-and-Helen Archers storyline – “ Sometimes it felt like an invasion. I was losing whole chunks of land to you”. And “Must there always be a girl, must she always be the prize?”.

 

 
Both good points, but neither sharp enough to hurt; nor are the men drawn with much conviction. There are two sorts of passionate mountaineers – the conquerors, who score summits and routes – and the romantics, who find more joy in their beauty. This pair appear to be the first, and therefore don’t quite fit the romantic PhD; but we’re still not sure what goes on in their minds. In other words, it’s all about Rachel, and the poorer for that. But Elinor Cook can certainly write, and I look forward to whatever she does next.
http://www.hightide.org.uk transferring next to Yard Theatre and Theatr Clwyd Cymru

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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