THEATRECAT IS UNDER THE VET…

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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