…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!
…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!
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…
ITS BACK…THIIS TIME GUEST CRITIC BEN DOWELL IS THE PURRING THEATRE CHRISTMASCAT
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.
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
AND A STAGE-MANAGEMENT MOUSE (if there was an ensemble-mouse I’d put it up, but clearly they’ll have needed managing!)
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.
Booking until May 2
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
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
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
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.
royalexchange.co.uk to 16 November
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
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
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
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
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
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..
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”.
TOURING to 23 May – Newcastle next
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
Barclays sponsor partnership
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. .
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
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 on to 23 Nov. Edinburgh next, then Coventry, Richmond, Salisbury, Croydon. Original Theatre production.
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
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 .
…Note that the fifth is a dancemouse, because the choreographer and movement director Shelley Maxwell does a fine, fine job….
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
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
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
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
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.
GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS
This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.
In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up) to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school . His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun, and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.
It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness, to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.
But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame) is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.
As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.
There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.
Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.
So, all in all, smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions. But not in a Big way.
box office 0844 847 1775. to 2 Nov
Guest reviewer Ben Dowell wishes an important story was better told…
The sudden spread of hepatitis and HIV in the Henan province of China in the 1990s, after blood plasma was collected for a global pharmaceutical company, is perhaps not widely known to Western audiences. Or not as widely known as it should be. Untold numbers of people were infected, and the courageous work of doctor Shuping Wang in unravelling the causes of the spread deserve praise. Perhaps not, however in the form of a 2 hr 35-minute play .
It’s certainly cautionary, eye-opening tale. But how the sorry story is going to unfold becomes obvious within the first ten minutes of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s pay. An ambitious company, hungry to exploit the capitalist freedoms suddenly granted the Chinese people, is keen to harvest blood from the peasantry and sell the plasma. The ordinary people, with memories of a famine, are only too keen to oblige. Medical researcher Yin Yin (Celeste Den) ,who is married to an unambitious health ministry official, senses something wrongand gradually uncovers the scandal – while facing the inevitable threats from the authorities.
The story of corruption, greed, corner-cutting and the impact on the poor peasantry unfolds with depressing predictability. Corporate scandal is a subject that can make for energetic and compelling theatre, as anyone who has seen Lucy Pebble’s Enron will testify. But unfortunately, this is very, very, on the nose.
Director Michael Boyd does his best with the material and his stage is a busy and interesting place thanks to Tom Piper’s vibrant design work. A moving walkway is a particularly good device, serving multiple functions – including a motorway, onto which peasants are tempted to throw themselves into the paths of trucks in order to win compensation . And there is some interesting work with flowers – the peasantry’s staple way of earning money before the lure of big business cash brings their world crashing down. But there’s little he can do with the sometimes robotic dialogue , in a play brimful of good intentions but with virtually no artistry or dramatic tension.
Den puts in a game turn as Yin Yin, and Christopher Goh is very affecting as her desperate, torn husband. But overall you cannot help but think that this story would be served better by a feature-length documentary, real life testimony and a clear narrative. This point was underscored on press night when Den welcomed on stage Shuping Wang herself – the doctor who in reality blew the whistle, and who remains under pressure from the Chinese authorities to withdraw her story. Wang seemed uncomfortable with the adulation and attention. But her story, factually told, would have been much more interesting and worthwhile.
hampsteadtheatre.com. To 12 October
THIRTY YEARS LATER AND STILL FURIOUS: HEDDA’S BACK
Last night, while Parliament spiralled into disorderly, resentful confusion and Mr Bercow dramatically put an end to himself after a lot of furious shouting because other people didn’t accept his “re-alli-tee!” I was having a parallel experience at Cordelia Lynn’s new updating of Ibsen’s most troubling heroine. Who, significantly, the original author called by her maiden name Hedda Gabler: perhaps to indicate that the most toxic influence in her life is her father the General, whose huge portrait dominates her married home and whose pistols she fiddles with in preparation for her final suicide. This updating author calls her by her married name: poor affable dull academic George Tesman , who is here given almost too much likeability by Anthony Calf. She, on the other hand remains Ibsen’s sarcastic, prickly figure, an intelligent woman trapped in an 1890s patriarchal society. The other men in her life , according to Ibsen , were the volatile Lovborg, another academic writing a “brilliant” paper despite being drunk, brilliant and doomed , and the patriarchally controlling Judge Brack. As everyone knows, it ends with a gunshot.
Cordelia Lynn, for this version has imagined that it’s thirty years later (but, a bit problematically, actually 115 years later, and therefore right now). Her Hedda didn’t shoot herself in the head when pregnant but lived on, had the baby, called her Thea, didn’t like motherhood and spent decades feeling under-used, degraded by wifehood, intellectually frustrated and bored stiff of George’s enthusiastic research into “Domestic crafts in medieval Brabant”. They’re back from two years at Harvard, starting to unpack (the box with the pistols in first, obviously) Thea is deep in therapy, moved out to live with Aunt Julie, then walked out of a brief marriage , and hasn’t spoken to herparents for five years . But she bursts in, mardy and cross, full of shrill demands (in the interval I looked at Parliament channel online and the echoes were remarkable). She says they must invite Elijah (a version of Ibsen’s Lovborg) with whom she has been collaborating on a handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future”. She also says that Elijah is off the booze, but we all know how long that’s likely to last. What with the moody twangling of a piano dimly seen overhead, a sinister spotlight on old Gabler’s portrait, and the temperament of Hedda herself hanging over the household like a rancid thundercloud.
Lynn keeps close to the shape of the original play, but mercifully expands the tiny role of the maid Bertha to be a cheerful, normal agency cleaner who speaks merrily to the un-mothered Thea about how much she enjoys being a Mum, with all the worry and laughs. That’s touching. So, in a way, are the scenes between Hedda and the daughter she resents; and there are some good, weird sparks between Hedda and Irfan Shamji’s ’s louche Elijah while she prepares a celeriac and expresses her frustration to him.
She, of course, is the main reason to go and see this play: for Hedda 2019 is Haydn Gwynne. And from the moment she descends the stairs – to be no help at all with the unpacking – the woman is mesmerizing: a tall pale streak of vivid resentment, every turn of her head dangerous, every smile faintly deranged even when her wit is sharpest. She shines, demanding our partisanship even in her most bonkers statements about self-destruction being “beautiful, brave, brilliant” or her self-absorbed refusal to join her husband at his aunt’s deathbed. “You know I can’t have anything to do with hospitals or death” she says haughtily, milking away at her thirty-year-old experience of her father’s death.
She’s immensely watchable, and utterly awful, and it takes all Gwynne’s finesse, and the directorial devices of Holly Race Roughan, to make us see deep enough into her pain to sympathize. Well, a bit. . Even though she is living in 2019 , with a pussycat of a husband, no parental responsibilities and a cleaner to look after the house , so any frustration she has is self-inflicted.
But more and more, there’s a sense that what you are seeing is some damn fine acting in a rather ho-hum play. Jonathan Hyde’s Brack is suitably saturnine and finally satanic; Natalie Simpson as the daughterThea is fascinating, and there is a bat-squeak suggestion – – due to their similar colouring and the intensity of their collaboration – that perhaps Elijah, not poor old George, was actually her father. But that may not be intended. What jars most is the sense that the stark despairs of Ibsen’s heroines are not the despairs of our own times, and his social injustices are not ours. Nor is it easy to accept the idea that the most terrible thing n the world is the loss of Lovborg-Elijah’s handwritten sociological treatise about “a short history of history and socio-cultural forces on the future” . It sounds hell.
But Haydn Gwynne in full snarling Hedda mode is something to see. It suited the evening. As I staggered out to watch the news online, I could only reflect that only she could make the resigning John Bercow look mild and resigned.
www.cft.org.uk to 28 September
IN PLAYFUL ANGER, A TALE FOR OUR TIMES
On his deathbed in 2006 the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko asked to be photographed , to make public what had been done to him. The pale grim image stunned us all, including the playwright Lucy Prebble. He also made an uncompromising, dignified statement about his respect for Britain – he had achieved citizenship only a month before- and his certainty that the poisoning with polonium was done at President Putin’s behest. Police work at last pretty much proved this, but governments of both colours explicitly preferred not to risk relations with Russia, and declared a “PII – Public Interest Immunity” . There was no public inquest or attempt to extradite the killers Lugovoi and Kovtun, or to remonstrate with Putin.
But in their teeth, his wife Marina Litvinenko and her lawyers fought for a public inquiry, and ten years later it reported damningly. She worked with the playwright and stands – played with headlong, convincing sincerity by MyAnna Buring – at the centre of this extraordinary evening. At her side, as the story is told backwards from the first anguished arrival in a baffled A & E, is an equally impressive Tom Brooke as the man himself: gangling, earnest, decent, a man of the FSB (formerly known as KGB) who clashed with a corrupt system by detective work revealing it, refused the “wet job” of murdering his boss Boris Berezovsky, and after arrest fled to London as an asylum seeker to spend six years briefing journalists and Russian contacts. He couple believed in British justice , but it failed him after his death. And as his wife says “To turn truth into justice we have to tell the story”.
The way it is told might raise eyebrows. There are addresses to the audience, meta-theatre moments both sinister and clowning. Reece Shearsmith’s arrogant, confident Putin swaggers out from below the double eagle and comments sardonically from the balcony. The two absurdly incompetent murderers – who failed twice – bicker and get lost in the stalls . Between the domestic stories of the LItvinenkos and the doctors and nuclear scientists who decoded his fate we get lively ensemble interruptions. There are a couple of songs., one from Peter Polycarpou’s Bereszovsky about the glory of London as a playground for oligarchs. There’s a weird brief interlude of giant TV puppets of Brezhnev and Yeltsin, a spoofily patronizing Pushkin fairytale history of polonium in shadow-play, and a nightclub interlude with a giant gold phallus. But it is intelligently built and holds attention, and its truth is enhanced because every absurdity is real – based on Luke Harding’s devastating book and on conversations with Mrs Litvinenko. It is satisfying that Prebble, who burst upon us with ENRON’s blend of absurdity, righteous fury, tight research and theatrical clowning, should do it again with even more fury, using theatre to entertain and appal in a play she describes as “a risky, clumsy motherfucker” which might “go down in flames” .
It won’t. The very absurdity of the killers (not unlike the pair who took the Novichok to Salisbury on an absurd pretext about the cathedral, and killed a second victim by throwing away the perfume) underlines the banal horror of Russian state murders . Remember Georgi Markov and the umbrella; have a thought for Bereszovsky’s “open verdict” looking like suicide. There is nothing tasteless about anger being playful, mocking, headshaking: Swift or Voltaire would love it. And the human reality is held constantly before us in the shining loving determination of Buring’s Marina Litvinenko.
Her final address, reminding us of our political cowardice and idly greedy tolerance of crooked Russian money in our capital city will bring theatres to their feet in admiration for her and shame at our shabbiness. It needed telling.
box office oldvictheatre.com to 5 Oct. It deserves to transfer.
principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada
OLD TIMES, OLD SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW
With Parliament in uproar upriver , the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”. Just the night to hurl some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session. It’s a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all.
It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right, brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”. For younger readers who may naively imagine a binary political split on the question, it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming: only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage. Time moved on. Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.
But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury. Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am, stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”. But subtly, beneath it lies a more personal anger whose cause only gradually emerges. Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty, and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.
. There are many laughs. But Robin is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery. The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties unearthed uncomfortably by human reality. Vulnerabilities widen in both, in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day. She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it .
Best not to reveal all, but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory, Toynbee ’n Tebbitt, Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all. Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression. Oh, and the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise quite decent people dreaded encountering it. Regrettable, wrong, cruel, but true.
BOX OFFICE nationaltheatre.org.uk to 25 nov
In cinemas 7 November www.ntlive.com
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SWOONS OVER SWASHBUCKLING AT GRIMEBORN
Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.
Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 31 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
It was a good mix of ages in the Curve audience, so perhaps a public service to remind the rising generation, awash in Brexindignation, that Utterly-Despairing-Of Britain-Especially-Tories is not new. It’s been a tradition ever since 18c cartoonists mocked John Bull. John Osborne”s disgusted play about a washed-up, alcoholic comedian whose son is at war dates from 1957 – Suez & Macmillan – but Sean O’Connor has hauled it forwards to the 1980s – Thatcher and the Falklands. Though to be honest, if you’re going to move it on three decades you might as well go further and drag it right up to Blair and Iraq, and make the vaudevillian into a game show host…
The story of Archie Rice, his downtrodden wife Phoebe , old school Dad Billy, son at war and stepdaughter seeing through him has been hailed as a masterpiece from Tynan to Billington and beyond. It’s last big outing was in Kenneth Branagh’s London season, and I have to admit I found that one flat and dated, and unkindly snarled about the “ long and tedious line of male ranters who confuse their own depression, sexual incontinence and inadequate misogyny as a state-of-the-nation vision.” Partly the problem there was that Branagh is no Ken Dodd: the stage-interludes should convince that this was at least once a comedy pro. In O”Connor’s production Shane Richie (famed from EastEnders, TV hosting and tabloid gossip) is a lot better: in a spangly purple jacket he evokes all the horrid hectic desperation of shiny-floor show hosts. He’s as nasty as Bernard Manning, as knowing as Howerd, as scampering as Forsyth but without the smile.
The director-adaptor has a brilliant eye for newer songs: Rice’s rendering of the Eurovision “I was born with a smile on my face” positively chills the blood, as does his final “Those were the days” . We also get a storming second half opening – against Sun and Mirror headlines about the Falklands War, riots and unemployment – as Richie in a Thatcher costume does Noel Coward’s “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”. A song which Coward, of course, wrote in gaiety to mock the post-war gloomsters of 1952. Here, Osborne’s Archie Rice means every word of it as he snarls “It’s as clear as crystal From Bridlington to Bristol That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care”. That got a laugh, on Proroguement Day. The other notable response from the stalls was gasps at the heavy-duty sexism, misogyny and racism of our hero. “Owwwww!!” cried a young girl next to me.
It’s cleverly done, if sour-tasting. Richie is also good in the offstage scenes, in the claustrophobic family home with old Billy – Pip Donaghy giving it the full Alf Garnett but showing an older decency behind it – and Sara Crowe is an excellent Phoebe, the eternal demonstration that behind every grumpy bastard you’ll find a woman trying to make things nice again. It is a bit one-note – hectic, angry, drunken, hopeless – but that’s Osborne for you.
O’Connor ramps up the hatred of pointless wars and deaths for the Union flag, relishing that Osbornian question “Why do we just lap it all up? Is it just for a hand waving at you from a golden coach?” Richie has genuine depth when he steps forward for that terrifying admission of how dead he is behind the eyes. And I had forgotten the best line of all, which is his explanation of how the great comedians work, as his former hero Eddie did, in a denser version of the commonplace, seeming “to be like the general run of people, but more like them than they are”. So not sorry I went. And it’s a bit of theatre archaeology everyone should know. But I needed a drink afterwards, and I still don’t think it’s that great a play.
Touring to 30 November, Milton Keynes next
dates & box office www.theentertainerplay.co.uk
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS JOPLIN TROUBLINGLY FUN
Scott Joplin was rightly proud of Treemonisha, an opera for which he wrote both libretto and score; it was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime, much to his pain, but its eventual premiere in 1972 led to Joplin being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Musically, Treemonisha is a rare and precious artefact, preserving the sounds and rhythms of slave songs in the cotton fields which Joplin would have known from childhood, something few other composers have ever been in a position to do from known experience – and then bring to an opera stage. It’s a gorgeous score, always easy on the ear and rich with dense umami harmonies throughout, especially in Joplin’s gifted choral writing, with several animated numbers recalling Joplin’s prowess in ragtime. The opera is surprisingly light, given that it depicts life on a plantation eighteen years after the abolition of slavery: a community of freed slaves struggles to shape their new society, besieged by the various temptations of alcoholism, religious fervour, superstition and greed. When the educated young girl Treemonisha is stolen by some “conjurors”, part way between pedlars and witch doctors, the village rise up in fury to avenge her: but Treemonisha herself pleads for mercy for her captors, reminding everyone that to return bad deeds for bad leaves us no better than those who tried to hurt us in the first place. Persuaded to choose the better moral path, the village leave off their vigilante justice, and proclaim Treemonisha leader. The opera closes with a joyous dance celebrating the fact that happiness is restored to all: “The Slow Drag”.
Spectra Ensemble’s production for Grimeborn is as accomplished an account of Treemonisha as you could ever hope to see. The cast is excellent, with wonderful singing across the board. Grace Nyandoro’s cutesy Treemonisha doesn’t have much dramatic depth, though Nyandoro’s soprano is startlingly pretty; Samantha Houston’s tired, bluesy Monisha is much more sophisticated. Caroline Modiba’s Lucy is beautifully drawn, Modiba’s smooth, appealing voice making you wish Lucy had a bigger part. Rodney Earl Clarke takes a brilliant double role as the gruff, sceptical alcoholic Ned and the intoxicatingly enthusiastic Parson Alltalk, an early operatic version of Bishop Michael Curry. Edwin Cotton’s charming Remus bounces around the stage after Treemonisha like a gleeful puppy, his warm tenor thrilling at times, tender at others. Njabulo Madlala feels like true luxury casting for Zodzetrick, the conjuror whose spurious trade in “bags o’ luck” earns him Treemonisha’s displeasure at the outset, Madlala’s well-rounded baritone effortlessly filling the Arcola. The chorus of Aivale Cole, Deborah Aloba, Devon Harrison and Andrew Clarke (also bringing noticeable charisma to the smaller role of Andy) are all stunning. Director Cecilia Stinton has worked hard, with choreographer Ester Rudhart, to foment action and tension on stage, keeping the audience’s attention focused through the numbers: all the characters feel as real as they can, and seem to inhabit a real world, thanks to Raphaé Memon’s elegantly restrained design, using packing crates, a washing line and a rather troubling tree (which opens festooned with manacles and a noose) to suggest the lost world of a plantation, and people, abandoned by the ‘white folks’.
A thoroughly accomplished account, and musically delicious: but it is hard to ignore the fact that Treemonisha is a troublingly naïve piece to view from a post-colonial standpoint today. One exhilaratingly dark moment comes when Treemonisha, finding her captors bound, furiously orders the village to “set them free”: it only takes seconds for the penny to drop, across the stage, that every single one of them knows what it is like not to be free. Their subsequent choice of the moral high ground is noble; their election of Treemonisha, laudable and groundbreaking in its time. But Joplin – perhaps understandably – shies away from driving his point home, and “The Slow Drag” feels like an intellectually flat end, fun though it is musically. Treemonisha has been educated, but her first act as leader is just to get everyone dancing again; this can’t help but feel frustrating. The earlier part of the opera only refers to their situation in the most glancing terms; the noose and the manacles are helpful visual reminders of the full context of the piece, because you don’t hear it very loudly from Joplin. Stinton wisely lets Joplin’s vision be, rather than writing the subtext large: the very fact he didn’t feel he could say more about slavery and its legacy in this opera speaks volumes, and troubles you for days afterwards.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 31 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT THE OPERATIC POTENTIAL OF SIGNDANCE
The double bill of Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s great Modernist Pierrot Lunaire is the first outing for innovative opera company formidAbility, which seeks to bring disabled and non-disabled professional artists together on (and off) the opera stage. Accessibility is at the heart of the project, building features which will make opera intelligible to disabled audiences into the very fabric of every performance, rather than bolting an interpreter onto the stage for a night or two (usual practice in most opera houses). This is a noble aim: and the outcome can benefit any audience, as was clear on their opening night, when formidAbility gave us the privilege of seeing the first ever opera production to include Signdance, a highly aestheticised form of sign language created for the theatre stage, at Grimeborn.
If this all sounds a bit experimental – it is. But, like most really useful scientific breakthroughs, it seems obvious in retrospect. Opera and dance have long been friends, and using a dancer to express a singer’s inner feelings, doppelgänger style, is not a new concept. The flowing physical lyricism of sign language, meanwhile, is a dance-like performance of meaning. formidAbility showed convincingly that Signdance can work brilliantly in opera: dancers Isolte Avila and David Bower added beauty and emotional resonance to Hotspur and Pierrot Lunaire respectively, in minimalist, intense settings directed and designed by Sara Brodie. However, like most early experiments, the formula is far from perfect yet.
Hotspur is a short series of five tiny monodramas depicting the inner monologue of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur” Percy, as he campaigns his way around 14th century Northumberland. Fleur Adcock’s poems are glorious: superb lines like “The field of battle is a ravening flood,” and “A heavy price he paid /For juggling with thrones” are interleaved with the repeating refrain, “There is no safety, there is no shelter,” as Hotspur’s lust for political warfare thrusts Elizabeth into ever greater danger at home. With poetry of this quality, the meaning of each passage extends far beyond the sum of its words, and Isolte Avila’s elegant, expressive Signdancing feels like a natural development of the libretto. Joanne Roughton-Arnold’s clear, forensic and cool soprano is spellbinding, as is her mix of wifely anxiety and queenly composure, confessed with appealing frankness. Whitehead’s score is limpidly clear, distinctive, and feels led by texture: we hear the sounds of nature, battle, and fear. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s certainly an evocative one. So, plenty to capture us on stage: but frustratingly, Whitehead is not immune to the perennial pitfalls of setting English to music, and so with great irony, given the production’s fundamental commitment to accessibility, Hotspur didn’t land as a plot. We needed surtitles, or at least Adcock’s poems printed in the programme, to get to the bottom of what Elizabeth was facing. The twirling dynamism of the signdancing could also be hard for deaf audience members to follow, with spectators on three sides of the open stage.
Pierrot Lunaire is rather more of an acquired taste, perhaps to be acquired by eating a hearty breakfast of nails, or bashing your ears with iced rocks daily. Joanne Roughton-Arnold proved to be a brilliant exponent of the sprechstimme style demanded by Schoenberg of his performer, using her spoken voice rhythmically to reach the myriad range of pitches and tones of this severely challenging piece. Conductor Scott Wilson navigated his way calmly through the seeming chaos, his ensemble slick and responsive at every bar. David Bower’s mischievous, devious and often desperate Pierrot was full of pathos, Bower’s lithe, dynamic performance recalling the rich tradition of Pierrot as a mime. But Giraud’s poems have a demented nastiness at their core which makes them difficult to stage convincingly, even with this much skill to hand: with surtitles provided, we were clearer on meaning, but meaning is often meaningless in this surreal, formless piece. Meanwhile, the flapping cuffs of Bower’s soft, dark Pierrot suit could obscure his signing for deaf spectators, and the decision to send him up onto a platform blocked by a huge pillar from a third of the audience for much of the latter part of the piece was a serious problem.
This experiment has only just started: formidAbility has already unearthed something of great promise for opera’s future. It has also created new problems of stagecraft to solve. But musical and visual quality are already there, along with a remarkable ensemble feel. Exciting.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646(To 1 September)
A formidAbility production in collaboration with Sign Dance Collective, the Rationale Method, Golden Chord Braille Music Transcription Service, Wycombe Arts Centre and 73, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
A STRANGE RESURRECTION, BETWEEN WARS
A red sun was setting beyond the trees as we gathered around a square, isolated house in the golden-hour splendour. Here the land rises above the river Deben, and with medieval man’s arrival artificially rose higher into grassy mounds. In the greatest of these barrows slept, for a thousand years, Raedwald the king: coffined in the long ship dragged up from the water and surrounded by treasure. From this quiet earth in the 1930s rose gold and jewels, a sword and helmet, intricate brooches and pins, platters and drinking-horns. This is Sutton Hoo, which was called “England’s Little Egypt”.
The story of its finding feels as domestic and workaday as the burial was extravagant and splendid. The house belonged to Mrs Edith Pretty, a Colonel’s widow, former suffragist and WW1 nurse with one small son born late in her life. Perhaps because her father had been interested in archeology, perhaps (so legend says) because one night she dreamed of Anglo-Saxon warriors rising from the mounds, in 1938 she recruited Basil Brown : a former farmworker and self-taught archaeologist from Ipswich museum ,. In 1939 the first ship rivet was found. The British museum moved in , and Brown was sidelined. By the end of 1939 the massive treasure was up; Mrs Pretty donated it to the British Museum, the largest ever private gift. As war approached, the trench was backfilled and the army used the site . Mrs Pretty was offered a CBE by Churchill, and refused. She died in 1942.
There is meat here for tremendous drama and personal interaction: the moment of discovery, the class-awkward relationship flowering between the rich lady and the meticulous, spiky Basil Brown, the long grief of widowhood assuaged by the marvel. There’s the sidelining of Brown by the London experts, and overarching it all the simple wonder of a king who slept in his treasure-ship thousand years below the Suffolk grass. To put on a play on the very site – as Stuff of Dreams has done – was always going to be special.
This is not quite a review, because it only had three nights’ run and is over, and also because, to be honest, what Karen Forbes has done feels like a work in progress: albeit one whose progress I would love to follow and see. The construction is odd: some things work very well, like the book-ending of it by Brown bringing flowers to her grave, and a rather marvellous dream sequence where Dawn Brindle as Queen Raedwald wanders in, pinches an apple, remarks that she never quite “got” Christianity, drops her brooch obligingly into the latest seed-tray or rubble which Basil is going to look in next, and vogues off bringing shivers to the spine with a folk ballad affirming, as the light fades, “He shall not dwell in darkness” .
Other aspects are sometimes frustrating. Forbes burdens her cast with overlong monologues, sometimes rhymed; when Kiara Hawker as Edith reads her late husband’s wartime letters it is useful in pinning down the period, the uneasy 30’s. and works well, but when he appears as a ghost in a monologue about the horse he took to war, the play grinds to a halt. Especially as we are by now interested in tantalizing details: as Ivan Wilkinson’s excellent, gruffly Suffolk Basil Brown explains how the soil changes as grains of bone or iron dilute it. We just long for a catharsis, for him to find something as he shakes out fragments in his seed-tray. Indeed the moments of first discoveries are almost prudishly ignored or underplayed: the great sword is simply mentioned in Brown’s presentation at the drinks party.
And so is the difficulty, which still rankles in Suffolk, of the local expert’s job being taken over by haughty Londoners. At one point Edith says how tactlessly she spoke to him, and how she regrets it, but we never see a moment of that, or know why, and remain a touch puzzled.
I wanted it to be better. But it may yet be. Wilkinson is good as Brown, and Hawker catches a mournful, determined, ladylike tone, suggesting depths in Edith it would be good to explore. And anyway it is a marvellous thing to have sat in the sunset on that hill above the river, thinking of Raedwald’s strange resurrection. I hope this is not its only outing as a theatre.
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS DIMNESS RATHER THAN DAWN AT GRIMEBORN
If Aylin Bozok is directing anything at Grimeborn, I always try to go. I’ve been absolutely blown away by her past productions: her powerfully considered, exquisitely poised approach is always rich in symbolism, intensely crafted in detail, and beautifully acted. Grimeborn has seen some wonderful opera from Bozok in recent years: her Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther there remain some of the most hauntingly memorable accounts of those works I’ve seen on any stage. Noah Mosley’s Aurora channels several themes at which Bozok excels: it’s a fairytale full of brutal characters, playing with questions of destiny, fate and love, human greed versus nature, and the timeless opposition of male and female. Taking a monochrome palette for Holly Piggott’s design, characters appear on a plain stage in pale, softly sculptural versions of eighteenth-century dress, with a gloriously billowing many-caped cloak for the King of Loreda that any Georgette Heyer hero would strangle his valet for. Bozok’s visual language is characteristically controlled and resonant: characters who are in sympathy with nature, for example, ‘bleed’ earth on stage, explained in a programme note which carefully delineates her overall vision for the piece.
So Aurora, thanks to Bozok and Piggott, looks gorgeous. It also has a great cast, headed up by Andrew Tipple as the grief-stricken King who, having lost his wife to suicide, is desperate to prevent his deeply depressed daughter going the same way. Tipple gives a mesmerising and sophisticated performance full of natural drama, trembling with unresolved anguish at one moment, prickling with uncontrollable fury at the next, as his ever more forceful attempts to save his daughter only serve to drive her further from him. Tipple’s honeyed, yet accurate bass and subtle, expressive acting are a joy. Katherine Aitken is a delight as the dynamic Wild Woman to whom he turns for help, her body language sparky and semi-animalistic, her soprano full, clear and warm. Isolde Roxby has a harder task with the eponymous heroine Aurora, an unlikeably bitter, selfish princess, but skilfully brings her on an emotionally believable journey, finding an adolescent, selfish inner truth in her defiance against the world (as symbolised by her father). Dominic Bowe’s winsome Prince doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself; Magid El Bushra has much more fun with two smaller parts, a catty, camp suitor for Aurora and a marvellous owl (also the best costume, a pillar of dark cloth with a resplendent headdress of feathers). The chorus are slick and effective when on stage, less convincing off. Jean-Max Lattemann’s vocally piercing, stentorian Mountain Witch was a difficult listen, and an awkward presence in the piece; but that wasn’t Lattemann’s fault.
The trouble is that, despite excellent design and direction, and a committed cast, Aurora is let down by two key things: libretto and score. Elisabetta Campeti’s plot begins with a couple of interesting ideas (nature as a reciprocal power relationship in which we must participate responsibly; the lasting family impact of suicide), but these are unfortunately mixed in with many boring old tropes: feisty princess constrained by angry father, rich elite sneering at nature… Worst of all, it culminates in a princess being chained to a rock, and when liberated (more by accident than design), what should she do but fall in love with a passing prince, who is charmed not by her personality, or her abilities, but by? Her appearance. This was when I completely lost patience with Aurora: we need to go forward, not backward, and perpetrating harmful stereotypes in which women need to be “saved” or defined by their interactions with men is just demented on a modern stage. Campeti chickens out of saying anything profound, which leaves Bozok with a mess to clear up that is hard to disguise. The libretto itself is dire, verging on Pearl Fishers levels of banality (we even get “every cloud has a silver lining” – without irony). Noah Mosley’s schizophrenic score lurches across a myriad of styles, often delivering a musical mood directly at odds with the action on stage, which I found irritating rather than interesting. The occasional moments of jazz could have been used in a fascinating way, but in fact, felt like Mosley had run out of ideas and was throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, or was just irresponsibly making musical mischief – neither helps form a coherent or compelling narrative act. Mosley is just as callous with his good ideas as his bad ones: one brilliant melody, a lilting Middle Eastern aria for the Owl, created temporary magic on stage, only to be summarily destroyed moments later as the score rocketed off in yet another direction. The whole evening felt rather like being stuck inside a musical expression of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, or watching a child juggle with the entire contents of a bedroom. Noah Mosley, conducting, seemed to be getting what he wanted from his orchestra, who played with joyful aplomb, but this score sat stubbornly between us and the opera, rather than carrying us into it.
Bozok’s directorial skill ironically highlights these flaws, her instinct for inner meaning coming up empty-handed against the eventual floundering of the opera as a piece of meaningful drama, though she put as much emotional gloss on the disappointing ending as she dared. I can see why the piece initially tempted her: but ultimately, this superb director can achieve far more with a meatier, better reasoned piece.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (22-25 August only)
A Bury Court Opera production, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS NOT MUCH UNFOLDING AT GRIMEBORN
I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a bit of rarefied Japanese elegance on stage in almost any context: the very mention of Noh theatre always makes my ears prick up. So, when Grimeborn proffered Verity Lane’s double bill of bilingual English/Japanese pieces inspired by Lane’s time in Japan, drawing on ancient Japanese folklore, I knew instantly what I was doing with my Friday night. Or, at least, I thought I did.
This performance proved very difficult to get hold of, in more ways than one. The first part opened with a messy stage strewn with crumpled paper, bowls of various sizes, drums, and two small fishtanks filled with water, with Japanese graffiti scrawled on many objects in neon paint. Onto the stage arrived Coco Sato, our live origamist, accompanied by Kiku Day to provide an atmospheric accompaniment on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute whose breathy, breathless and occasionally shrieking whistle will be familiar to you if you’ve ever curled up with a good (old) samurai film. The ‘Soundscapes’ began in earnest with narration by Tomoko Komura: although loud and clear, her English was so rapid I found it hard to cotton on to most of the poems, which seemed to be aiming at mystical beauty (the nightingale, the owl, and the crane) but generally erred on the side of incomprehensible kitsch. Into this by now slightly scrappy arrangement, with remarkable calmness, danced percussionist Beibei Wang. Wang was the undoubted highlight of the night: her intense, focused musicality was simply extraordinary, part percussion, part theatre, part dance. There seemed to be nothing on stage Wang couldn’t turn into an interesting sound: her fingers flashed and flew as she splashed and paddled water, scrumpled brown paper, and kept on rhythmically drumming on anything and everything she could find. Now, the other elements (origami, flute, spoken poetry) became distractions from Wang’s sinuous, agile brilliance; despite sincerity and commitment on all sides, there were several moments when it all felt dangerously on the edge of being silly. Perhaps less might have achieved more.
As the final Soundscape culminated in a large paper origami crane flapping off the stage, the interval came as a surprise: given that we had seen a crane, had we now seen everything? With no more than a bare cast list to go on, it was difficult to know what more there could be; but ‘The Crane’ proper began in the second half, and here the wheels sadly came off altogether. Some elegant animations by Rowan O’Brien of cranes flying over snowy mountains created lovely visual tone, but the narrative impact of whatever was supposed to be going on was thoroughly deadened by the absence of translation provided (unusual for Grimeborn), the extensive portions in Japanese proving frankly impenetrable, rather than intriguingly mysterious. Again, Beibei Wang was a virtuoso spectacle, the best drumming I have ever seen on any stage, opera or rock, but if you were not already familiar with the folktale of the crane, you really were none the wiser as to its plot, or its lesson. I came away frustrated, rather than mystified.
Grimeborn is an ideal platform for experimental pieces: this was a well-intentioned creative act on the very edge of opera, which showcased some remarkable talent, but ultimately failed to fly. However, innovation is always disorientating: Verity Lane should be commended for trying something new. With a little more refinement, and clearer narrative guiding for an English audience, she might really be onto something.
GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SEES A GOOD SUBJECT NOT QUITE GETTING THERE…
The trafficking of human beings – 7,000 identified in the UK in 2018 – is a disgusting blight on our country. The fledgling playwright Eugene O’Hare is among many earnest contemporary writers (working in theatre, film and stage) seeking to shine a light on the problem.
Two drifters, Beezer (Mark Hadfield) and O’Rourke (Alec Newman), are heavy drinkers who have been lured by the brutal Cypriot gangster Dollar (David Schaal) into his grotty north London digs to hold the fort and do his bidding. Only by the time the action starts, Dollar’s bidding includes looking after a 12-year-old Roma girl who has been smuggled into England.
Beezer and O’Rourke are a vulnerable pair but not without a conscience; they will themselves into accepting assurances that Mara has been recruited to do photography work. Nothing “core” they are told, just a few saucy snaps. She’s nearly 13, they muse. And what’s worse? A life on the streets in Romania or a slightly better existence in the UK? After all, they have a bad life too.
This kind of moral reflecting – and constantly seeking of justification – is a strong and not always welcome feature of this drama, where the characters spend a lot of time earnestly explaining themselves away while poor Mara (Niamh James) sits in the corner, hunched, often scratching at her crotch.
It’s hard not to feel that she is merely a cipher to enable these men to wang on in a vaguely Pinteresque way, and when they do it doesn’t always ring true. The real world of people trafficking, I would suggest, involves sharp business transactions and not much self-reflection. And it is probably not run these days by a figure like Dollar, an East End gangster of yore complete with a suit, camel overcoat and threatening manner that sometimes feel straight out of a 1960s caper, or (worse) EastEnders.
There’s no doubting that this is a play which comes from a good and worthy place and O’Hare’s well-constructed text is very good at evoking the sheer awfulness of the world it embraces. James Perkins’ set also evokes superbly the grotty down-at-heel flat brilliantly. My problem is it all feels a bit on the nose. Cyril Nri’s Turkey, Dollar’s bagman who drives Mara to her “work”, clearly loves his own two daughters who are the same age as Mara. Is he too wrestling with his conscience? Or is his selfish, blinkered hypocrisy just that – one of the many morally failed people in the play . In the end, he’s just a vile git.
Likewise, as a drama, it doesn’t really go anywhere, a point epitomised in the title. This refers to Beezer’s nickname – his ability of always knowing tomorrow’s weather outlook. By the end we’re told it doesn’t matter – the forecast will always be gloomy. So a bleak start leads to a bleak end and there isn’t much we audiences can do except shake our heads sorrowfully.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 14 Sept
A GRIPPING PIECE OF HISTORY
In 1944 the adventurous British director Peggy Webster cast the first black Othello in the USA, where for a white woman even to walk with a black man still attracted spitting hostility. Her Moor was Paul Robeson, already a star for his singing, acting and eloquent civil rights rallies. After a Broadway run the four toured as far south as they dared to mixed audiences, finding hotels often reluctant to accommodate a “negro”. Nicholas Wright’s sharp play imagines that tour, and its aftermath in the uneasy years of the McCarthyite search for Communist sympathizers. For Robeson was not only a black civil rights hero, but passionately pro-Soviet , believing it better than the racist USA.
American Tory Kittles is Robeson, showing a man vividly irresistible in his energy and – at first – his dangerously high self- confidence. Uta Hagen (the playwright worked with her, fifty years later) was Desdemona; her husband Joe Ferrer was Iago. But on tour Uta was sleeping with Robeson, Joe himself straying, and the director uneasily keeping an eye on them. As they progress between hotels the tangle becomes not only sexual but racial, political and professional. Robeson is too stubborn, angry and stiffly himself to be either a good actor or a fair lover. Uta and Joe both have the quality of great actors, both a brilliance and a flaw, as they seek out their own emotional extremes and use them on stage. By the end all three have, despite basic decency, both betrayed and been betrayed.
Under Richard Eyre’s taut direction we get a chain of brief scenes: some funny, some moving, some cracklingly tense (a chess match between the men, black Paul and Puerto-Rican Joe, reveals envies and social insecurities almost too painfully). One night in Seattle Robeson, charged with his own promiscuity, turns blame round and vents violent fury on Uta. Emma Paetz gives a vivid, flaming performance as his lover. As Joe, Ben Cura elegantly changes from an eager young actor irritably outshone by Robeson to reaching the top himself and showing that he’ll play dirty to stay there. Despite the intimacy and speed of the play – a tight 105 minutes – you feel you have seen an epic.
only another few days: cft.org.uk to 24 August
MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…
The play Professor Bernhardi had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence. Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov, a doctor; he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust was rising. The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs – urgently and exhilaratingly – to our own.
The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital. A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion. Her Catholic parents, hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites. He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry. But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all. The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.
Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from above the bare stage, into the combative craziness of the modern world . The row, alas, will be all too recognizable to a 21c medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard). He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain, pressure-cooker populism, political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims. Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind , and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters. Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward. I am not sure why this works, but it does. It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics.
Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism, religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’, Icke hurls in every available extra issue: racism, sexism, colonial guilt, transgender identity, LGBT, Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage. As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into separate identity groups we know where that led. To tattoos on people’s wrists”. Accused of child murder and Nazism Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments) will lead to an X-factor world. Her own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school, not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something? Well – do something well! And put your name on it!”
But they crush her. Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger, and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her. A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input, an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic insists “the anger is about who owns language” . Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism. Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval, they are a truly modern horror.
As a show it is pure essence of Icke, turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it: like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions. But it is gripping, and Juliet Stevenson is a marvel, with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and a terrifying emotional depth. Here’s integrity, arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal. In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving. In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping. Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both concerned with faith and hope.
The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag will only be noticed by Catholics, because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was – as “Extreme Unction”for deathbeds only. Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed. But that’s a quibble. You won’t regret the ticket.
box office 020 7359 4404 to 28 september www.almeida.co.uk
A YOUTHFUL HALLELUJAH
ANother fascinating London premiere for Two’s Company and the Finborough, buried for nearly half a century after one brief 1970 tour . As Philip King’s last play opens, a mother has died leaving a dutiful grieving son aged 19, his long-alienated father and an unseen but strongly evoked old-fashioned Salvationist community. The lad David decides, to general consternation, to stay in the rented house and perhaps take a lodger. The one he accepts, to the horror of his maternal mentor Major Webber , is Bess the barmaid from the Red Lion. The problem this will cause is not quite the obvious one: the quartet work through a counterpoint of innocence and experience, old resentments, father-son rivalry, religious devotion and simple friendship .
David is young Sebastian Calver, and it is always a pleasure to see a professional debut which not only shines in itself but reminds us that belonging to a 21c, loose-limbed-liberal post-Christian generation doesn’t stop a new actor from empathising and utterly containing a character from another age. Calver emerges from the sophistication of London’s E15 Acting School to become with utter commitment a painfully shy, devout Salvationist in bygone smalltown Lancashire. Here’s a boy grieving his mother, living without rebellion in the morally straitened world of the local Citadel and alienated from the briskly caddish father who ran off years before with a Doris. Calver beautifully balances David’s damaged immaturity and intermittent emotional panics with a sweetness – and a struggling stubbornness – which show the man he might become. Especially if, like soft old me, you insist on interpreting the volcanic last scene as possibly redemptive…
It’s a fine performance. So are the others: Patience Tomlinson as Major Webber, ruthlessly pious, a neat foldaway face of certainty beneath her neat bonnet . In one of her departures from the house she deploys pursed lips and a kindly inclination of the head that indicate she will pray for its inmates with quite terrifying vigour. John Sackville, beaky and brisk and sleazily sexy, is the father; and there’s a really lovely, explosively life-affirming performance from Mia Austen as Bess.
In one fine scene David, trapped in his hunched grief and innocently pre-sexual need for friendship, first flinches at her bantering gaiety and then pleads with her to stay and bring some shine into his daily life. That this will be disgraceful to the Salvationists, whose band echoes briefly between scenes, is obvious, but King is not sending them up. Tomlinson’s Major is far from dislikeable, and she worries about the boy and sees right through the awful father. Whose cruelty – towards Bess and even more to his son – becomes manifest in possibly the only diabolical plot in the theatrical canon to involve a tin of Three Nuns tobacco.
Oh, and Calver plays the cornet, as a good Salvationist apprentice should. Badly at first, but in a final scene very satisfyingly. Tricia Thorne’s production, and Alex Marker’s intimate front-room set, build a past world without caricature and with understanding, reminding us that there was a time-lag when the 1960’s were just starting to catch up on postwar primness. It’s the world of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, but far gentler, exploring with accurate, forensic affection the boundaries between sacred and profane love, the “buttercups-and-daisies” innocence of youth and the brutalities of its elders. It draws you in all the way: what more do you want?
boxoffice finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 31 August .
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES BATS FOR BASELESS FABRIC’S SOCIAL MEDIA TAKE ON STRAUSS
“I’m not saying I’m Batman. I’m just saying nobody has ever seen me and Batman in a room together,” reads the slogan on trendy Falke’s ironic t-shirt. Furious at a recent drinking prank played on him by his pal Eisenstein, in which photos of a blind-drunk Falke dressed as Batman went viral on social media, Falke now wants to get his own back – with the aid of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde and Adele, their family nanny, though only Falke knows where it’s all headed. Baseless Fabric Theatre’s contemporary interpretation of Strauss’ operetta brings it to where it has always, to some extent, lived: the world of social media, of rife gossip, giggling humiliation of others , and schadenfreude. Even though Strauss didn’t have an app for it in the 18th century, he perceived our egotism and vulnerability when it comes to what others think of us with an unerring eye in this tightly-drawn, fast paced farce.
It’s rather a treat to be allowed to sit still for Joanna Turner’s lean, entertaining production for Grimeborn: Baseless Fabric are known for their promenade opera, often on high streets (I last chased their excellent mobile Così round the streets of Merton, including in and out of Morrison’s). Marina Hadjilouca designs with simplicity and economy for the Arcola’s petite Studio 2, using a handful of large balloons, some white boxes, sculptural lighting, and not much else beyond a strong sense of contemporary urban chic to place the action squarely in London today. Costumes are brilliantly on point: Falke and Eisenstein are designer-label yuppies, Rosalinde an immaculately dressed but overwrought mother to Eisenstein’s twin boys, and Adele defiantly casual in denim, trainers and braids. With so little visual fuss, yet so much trouble quietly taken, Hadjilouca’s design stands back and lets the piece flow, the ideal backdrop for Joanna Turner’s skilfully choreographed, high-energy direction. Compressing a cast of eleven into four characters comes off remarkably well: Falke absorbs Prince Orlov quite naturally. Eisenstein is facing, not prison, but community service as a punishment for previous drunken behaviour, and in the most delicious comic moment he shuffles grimly across the stage in silence in a COMMUNITY PAYBACK tabard, sourly using a grabber to pick up the shards of golden foil left over from Falke’s fateful party, which he attended in the guise of a footballer, and flirted with his own wife, disguised as a model – all of which is, of course, filmed on iPhones for viral distribution in Falke’s revenge.
The laughs come thick and fast; the score is cleverly conveyed by bassoon, violin and accordion (arranged by bassoonist Leo Geyer); and the singing is glorious. The exceptional Claire Wild is on top form as Rosalinde, her passionate, agile soprano bringing real dramatic verve to the whole, acting with true panache. Wild is well matched by a memorably sassy, smooth and melodious Abigail Kelly as Adele, whose control during musically-annotated laughter is breathtaking. James McOran-Campbell’s honeyed tones make Falke rather lush, which is no bad thing: McOran-Campbell inhabits the world of the piece throughout with joyful intensity, even waltzing a little with the boxes as he rearranges the stage between scenes. David Horton’s lovable lager-lout Eisenstein perfectly hits the grey area between objectionable oaf and endearing Peter Pan, sometimes sweet with winning charm, occasionally vile and unreconstructed, in a clever and appealing performance from this talented young tenor.
Turner may not dig deep into the blacker bits of this operetta, but she mines its surface for fresh, light and coruscating comedy gold: and comes up trumps.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (6-7 August only, run now finished)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF GRIMEBORN’S GLITTERING TREASURE
The Ring Cycle is opera’s biggest box set: a sixteen-hour binge of dwarves, nymphs, dragons, gods, heroes and monsters, all suspended inside one of the greatest philosophical conundrums expressed by the human mind – and set to glorious, extraordinary music. Technically, Das Rheingold is a ‘preparatory evening’: it’s the story of why the whole story began (or in Netflix, “Previously on The Ring Cycle…”). Accordingly, it’s got lots of characters, lots of plot; after all, it’s setting up three more huge music dramas, culminating in the death of the gods, the end of everything and the burning down of the entire world (in order for love and virtue to be restored to a purified universe: well, Wagner never did anything by halves).
It therefore may surprise some people that it’s possible to find a Rheingold which takes only 100 minutes to perform (that’s a whole hour shorter than usual), but this year’s Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre offers just that: Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove’s controversially slimmed version in a brilliantly minimalist, tightly honed production directed by the eagle-eyed Julia Burbach. Dove often cuts and joins on the same chord, allowing the piece to flow seamlessly ahead, and if you know it really well, you’ll know where the joins are, and even notice (shock horror) where Dove has interpolated the odd passage to fill the cracks. But, for the rest of us: this Rheingold is a revelation. The only shortcuts taken are in the score itself, which is played with surprising richness (given the confined space) by the 18-strong Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted with care and precision by Peter Selwyn: meanwhile, the singing is top notch, the acting forensic, the staging ingenious. Bettina John’s design uses cardboard boxes as giant building blocks, decorated with hand-drawn graffiti summoning all the iconography of the Ring, as well as Valhalla itself, which can be built and rebuilt at will while Wotan argues with his giant builders about their fee. John’s creativity is literally brilliant: just watch how Alberich steals the gold from the Rhine by snatching all light from the stage in his mirrored palm (my jaw dropped).
Burbach’s direction makes this Rheingold very much Alberich’s story, played with tantalising humanity by Seth Carico: from the first moment he saunters on stage, picks up cardboard headphones and begins to imagine the world into musical and literal being, Carico’s Alberich is a dreamer disillusioned by rejection and stung into bitter vengefulness, soon scared but also intoxicated by the power of his Ring – I’ve never seen a more fascinating Alberich, quite apart from Carico’s crystal-clear tenor. Kiandra Howarth produces a stunning dual performance as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde and goddess Freia, her creamy soprano glowing with energy; meanwhile, Claire Barnett-Jones and the stunning Marianne Vidal alternate nightly between Fricka and Wellgunde, which is luxury casting whichever way round you get them, with Angharad Lyddon completing the nymph trio as a vivid, passionate Flosshilde. Barnett-Jones’ Fricka exudes emotional intelligence, yet remains vulnerable in her permanent suspicion of Wotan, marvellously depicted by Paul Carey Jones, who gives us a masterful account of a god of many layers, from ruthless corporate master of the universe to a penetrating world soul, troubled and intrigued by the warnings of Erda (the magnificent Harriet Williams). Andrew Tipple’s huggably innocent craftsman Fasolt is a resonant treat, while Dingle Yandell is spot on with the acquisitive callousness of Fafner, Yandell’s rich bass deep enough for a Rhinemaiden to dive in. Philip Sheffield’s dapper, weaselly Loge is memorably acted, voiced with a distinctive metallic edge which rather suits this sharp dealer in spin. Gareth Brynmor John’s ebullient Donner, complete with immaculate trainers, baseball bat and braggadocio attitude, brings weight to the family dynamic throughout, finishing with the most sumptuous of storm-summoning arias… The world may not be on fire yet, but this cast definitely are, many of them making role debuts. [And meanwhile, guess who’s already booked to be Longborough’s Wotan next year? Paul Carey Jones.]
If you’re a Wagner fan, you’re likely to go one of two ways. One I’d characterise as the “Granny’s china” route: “How dare Jonathan Dove make cuts to the genius of Wagner? How dare anyone mess with my best, most precious Rheingold, which must only be brought out in full on special occasions and handled with the very best dramatic care at all times?” The other way, however, I’d call the “gateway drug” route: “This may be shortened, but it’s musically breathtaking, emotionally gripping, and dramatically convincing, and is a better advert for the genius of Wagner to a new audience than I’ve seen for ages: if they see this, it’s good enough to get them wanting more.”
My vote: if there any tickets left at all, swap your immortal apple-growing sister for one immediately. And don’t take a jumper – the Arcola gets hotter than a Nibelheim mineshaft. But it’s so, so worth it.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 10 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
ROCK ’N ROLL N’ ROMEO
Deep under the trees, beyond Jimmy’s meerkat and camel enclosures lies a 1960’s beach: shelter, deckchairs and lounging teens, Mods and Rockers, Montague and Capulet. Shakespeare speaks the famous prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity…” as a puppet in the Punch-and-Judy booth, interrupted by the crocodile before finishing his appeal to our patience for the “two hours’ traffic of the stage” . No need for patience: Red Rose Chain’s outdoor production, under Joanna Carrick, is a blast, a treat, a serious kind of joy.
Of course the rock ’n roll setting suits the play’s youthful vigour, with blasts of wickedly appropriate classics from Jerry Lee or Elvis :what better than “Fools rush in”?. There’s a swaggering rock-star Paris, and Juliet in a swirling polka-dot jiving petticoat. There’s running, climbing, larking comedy: Darren Latham (doubling as Paris and a grumpy behatted Lady Montague) receives my rarely given award for a Not Annoying Mercutio. Not least because Carrick has him deliver that problematic Queen Mab speech as a terrible guitar number, and the most impenetrable banter is sauced with laddish brawls. So Mercutio’s death – a boy still valiantly, angrily joking – is a proper shock, as it should be.
Ailis Duff is the nurse, all middle-aged raunchy inappropriateness in gingham pedal-pushers, never missing a laugh; Luke Wilson’s Friar Laurence – again doubling, as dangerous Tybalt – is a streak of raw Jamaican mischief, a mentor-mate who can sort you with a potion. It all fits, and it’s all fun.
And the tragedy? Oh yes, we feel it, as the light fades in the darker second half. Jack Heydon’s daftly innocent Romeo and Emmy Rose’s frolicking Juliet are as beguiling as they must be to make us weep for them, and Carrick knows exactly which scenes to leave absolutely alone, beautifully delivered without interruption. The balcony scenes (from a lifeguard tower) are tense and endearing, and there is clever chopping (smartly lit) between Juliet’s terror learning of the deaths and Romeo’s collapse in the Friar’s cell. Also frighteningly straight is a rendering of old Capulet’s patriarchal bullying of the disobedient Juliet : Soroosh Lavasan, who has spent most of the play affably being Benvolio in a ridiculous motorbike helmet, suddenly hauls out a properly horrible, unnerving power, a father not fully in control of his own darkness.
Indeed they’re a classy cast: worth noting mentioning that although it’s a substantial arena nobody is miked and amped and the discipline, despite some fine front-row larks by the nurse, is impeccable. Never think that community-based theatre is just socially useful and virtuously sweet: that several of the young cast wander amiably about greeting visitors and selling programmes does not dilute Red Rose’s professional standards. Maybe it feeds them: Carrick hauled up every single member and helper of every ability to join the curtain call, and raised a cheer for her fight-choreographers Darren and Alex. They weren’t there to take a bow: both are inmates in HMP Warren Hill where she runs a drama programme.
It could be too, I suppose, that the group’s social swoop and sense of life’s absurd variety feeds its fearlessness over contrasts in tone. For just as the growing darkness and impending grief are properly weighing on us, and the Friar’s vital letter to Romeo has gone amiss, the fatal error is celebrated. With a dancing letterbox and a GPO-uniformed chorus line doing adapted words to “Please Mr Postman”
. I am telling you, it works. On both levels.
box office 01473 603388 redrosechain.com to 25 August.
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES MAD FOR AMERICAN MONODRAMA
A pairing of two American music dramas promised plenty of angsty feminist fun for a Friday night at Grimeborn; and I admit, in less accomplished hands, the angst might have overwhelmed the fun. But thanks to a tour de force solo performance from talented soprano Sarah Minns, directed with exceptional care and detail by Ralph Bridle, we were treated to a spellbinding trip inside two extraordinary brains: one real, the other imaginary, both fantasists par excellence. Miss Havisham and Emily Dickinson are icons of deserted womanhood who compel our curiosity alongside compassion, victims of their own time and of themselves. Yet, despite their outer frailty, each is marked by tenacious stubbornness, a determination to bring the world to heel by sheer force of imagination: each makes a sustained creative protest against their reality. Composer Dominick Argento (who died this February) took more than one attempt to realise Miss Havisham’s story as an opera, finally deciding on a monodrama as absorbing as it is unnerving. To soften us up for Argento’s final attack, Aaron Copland’s setting of a dozen Emily Dickinson poems, each dedicated to a different composer friend, is a powerful, elegant exploration of the poet’s extraordinary, tidal emotions, swaying ever further away from sanity. David Eaton’s lustrous piano accompaniment delivers each score with warm, resonant flourish.
Designer Amy Watts sets the stage with a large dining table, surrounded by chairs shrouded in dust sheets, one clearly hiding an inanimate seated figure. A washing line is pegged with letters which will turn out to be from the deceitful Compeyson. Minns enters in a black 1950s dress with a crisp floral apron (perhaps a nod to Dickinson’s legendary gift for baking?) and purrs into the Copland, discovering a Dickinson who is playful, paranoid, divinely inspired and desperate by turns; a glorious human conundrum revealing herself with disarming frankness and fragility through music. Copland’s lieder-like approach endows each poem with its own private world of melody, while Dickinson’s skill with assonance and inner rhyme proves a gift for song: these poems are not so much expressed as emblazoned in Copland’s forensically poised score, and Minns’ gorgeous soprano presses every button in an intense, lyrical performance gently leavened with conspiratorial charm. Director Ralph Bridle adds a toy toucan, which allows Dickinson a friend, pet and confidant, and Minns merrily invites us, toucan and all, on a wild adventure into Emily’s bewildered mind. It is Emily who carries in the wedding cake, adorned with dead flowers and sporting a theatrically-stabbed-in knife, which is vital for the second, darker piece, where we find Miss Aurelia Havisham reliving and re-enacting her fateful jilting. To roll from one piece to another in minutes tests both acting and singing, and the Arcola’s smaller space allows no room to hide, but Minns simply relishes this: her confidence and focus carry all before her, keeping the audience in the palm of her hand as she traces Miss Havisham from her memories as an excited ingénue in cream silk to a haggard, trembling alcoholic, warped by bitter disappointment, alienated, feral, haunting herself rather than living. John Olon-Scrymgeour’s libretto brims with pathos: “It is now, now, always the eternal NOW,” Miss Havisham cries, falling on her knees in anguish before the stopped clock, crushing Compeyson’s last letter of rejection to a ball. By the end, shaking with emotion, smeared with lipstick and blood, Minns can purr, sneer or howl – we are equally mesmerised.
This is what Grimeborn is all about, for me: vibrantly powerful, high quality opera at near-terrifying close quarters, tough but intriguing, with a few surprises tucked in for good measure. Guts, brains and, above all, beauty.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (1-3 August only, run now finished)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
In the background a lecture in the old Home Service style, decorous and passionless, finishes relating the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition: of the ship Endurance crushed in the ice, 28 men’s open-boat voyage to Elephant Island, and the leader’s extraordinary onward trip in the James Caird to get help for the stranded men. It acknowledges the brilliance of the ship’s carpenter, Harry McNish, who strengthened the Caird with pieces of the other boats, and observes that nobody knows whether he is still alive.
He is. On a wharf in New Zealand a dishevelled old man wakes from sleeping in an abandoned lifeboat, raises a bottle of whisky and confronts his ghosts. Derelict, delusional, defiant but near to death, he addresses Shackleton, himself already a ghost, and other shipmates. Bright-eyed under beetling brows, an angry moulting eagle, Malcolm Rennie delivers an intense, unsparing eighty minute evocation of memory and mockery, survival in grim Antarctic beauty, pride , trauma and not least, fury.
He has never forgiven Shackleton for shooting his cat, Mrs Chippy (“I’d have looked after him on the booaaats!”) as well as the 69 dogs and pups . (Of course he would know, as do all students of the heroic age of Polar exploration, that this had to be done: the animals could not have made the boat journey, and were best given a merciful death. The irony is that it had been the company of the dogs which helped, alongside Shackleton’s firm leadership, to prevent mutiny and madness in that dark cold Antarctic winter. But to McNish, a hard man with a soft heart, it seems now to be only part of Shackleton’s arrogance. And the cat could, in his view, have come with them: a character, Mrs Chippy, who teased the sled dogs by walking on their kennels…).
Mc Nish has other beefs with his leader, whose upper-class voice he sometimes briefly, satirically channels. He was denied the Polar medal for his defiance, and also – it seems to him – for having been right about a manoeuvre of the boats on the floes. A brilliant workman, he had other ideas for escape when the great ship cracked and crumpled before their eyes. Nor did he approve of Shackleton’s failure to hold religious services. But he was under command, and of another class. His memory ranges back to his own early life: one of eleven, a bedful of brothers in a Glasgow slum, twice widowed in his twenties in that age of childbed mortality. Whether near tears, laughing, arguing or visionary, the defiant old man grows before us and evokes the bitter beauty of ice and the grinding darkness of the long months of night. “Is that what death is like,Sir Ernest?”.
Gail Louw’s play, and Rennie’s tremendous, unforgettable performance, were directed by Tony Milner of the New Vic before his death, This production – which tours single nights through autumn and winter, is in his memory. If you catch it, you won’t forget it.
Box office 0207 387 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to August 17
tour dates uk & Ireland : shackletons-carpenter.weebly.com
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI WATCHES VERDI’S MASTERPIECE WILT LIKE A CRUSHED CAMELLIA
Violetta is a reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, using only three characters: the doomed courtesan Violetta, her idealistic yet immature lover Alfredo, and – surprise! Alfredo’s mother. Yes, Germont père is exchanged by Opera Allegra for Germont mère; an eyecatching decision with a potential cascade of interesting effects on the all-important gender dynamics of this piece at Grimeborn. I set off to the Arcola full of excitement. What new things would I see? I was a little confused when I saw the librettist was still Piave – so, we weren’t getting any new words. Well, what would they do, then, to bring out those fresh and fascinating nuances from the inclusion of Alfredo’s mother?
The answer was: nothing. The part was unchanged (“Giorgio” simply became “Giorgia”), sadly miscast, and kept on stage pointlessly for most of the action. Our gruff, proud Provençal gent who learns humanity the hard way was transmuted into a weak, querulous irritating-mother-in-law figure with no influence over proceedings, and no presence to match her fellow principals. In La traviata, the clashing pressures of public versus private life should pound our protagonists towards misery and emotional enlightenment, via lust, gambling and consumption, but as this chamber version only shows three characters, we completely miss the glittering whirl of the convivial, cruel world which exploits and abandons Violetta. We are left with a rather flat story of an unwise love affair, paused briefly by the interference of a small-minded mother. If you know this opera well, you’ll enjoy Ben Leonard’s clean, springy tenor as Alfredo, but you will be amazed how poorly the opera functions as a dramatic piece when cut so savagely. If the opera is new to you, you get barely a sniff of the real thing, and if you find it long, boring and confusing, I’d sympathise: please don’t judge Verdi on this, as it’s not his fault. Worst of all, the much-vaunted ‘contemporary twist’ of the production never lands – the work simply hasn’t gone in to back it up.
Ashley Pearson’s revival direction feels remarkably outdated: characters sing in lumpen stillness, often without making eye contact with one another when confessing deep emotion, with only faint glimmers of natural expression occasionally breaking through their patchy acting, because his singers are left stranded by Pearson’s lack of ideas. Compounding the problem, Martin Berry’s staging is heavy-handed Merchant Ivory, with elaborate Alphonse Mucha-esque costumes, and no distinction made between gracious apartment, country hideaway or death scene garret. The narrative, already maimed, thus has no way left to express itself on stage. Opera Allegra only get away with it at all thanks to Verdi’s superb writing, which does all the hard work for them whenever they let it. Still, it is astonishing to find La traviata – the world’s most-performed opera – not functioning dramatically, or moving us emotionally. Uneven casting adds a brutal congé; Leonard’s pleasingly agile Alfredo doesn’t pair well with Loretta Hopkins’ vocally unwieldy Violetta, while Alison Thorman is completely, and unfairly, out of her depth on all fronts. As she approached “Di Provenza il mar,” I crossed my fingers – meanwhile, my toes curled.
I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to watch Violetta’s interview with Germont without crying; but, with such poor direction, it definitely is.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (29-31 July only, run now finished)
Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
COWBOYS WITHOUT INDIANS
I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein crowd-pleaser, the bit that sticks, and stimulates, is that troublesome “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.
Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife, and in the scuffle is killed. And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral, the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork. So off go the happy couple in a jalopy, and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”.
\ Everyone white, that is. For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast. He was indeed drunk and threatening, but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey – she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover to hang himself, in the weirdly compelling “Jud is daid” scene. Fankly, given America’s racial history and recent events the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse felt a bit, well, edgy.
Edgy and interesting; just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans). Sams casts Amara Okereke – dark-skinned – as Laurey, and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait. Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not? The result is that for all the merriment, the production has uneasy overtones. These come to a head in the extraordinary sexual ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography) as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys, and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence. Until the real Jed, anxious and spruced-up for courtship, wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.
All this adds astringency, and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong. Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it, the political-racial unease helps. Not least because the early scenes felt oddly conventionally, almost disappointingly so. We have enjoyed the musical-theatre lollipops: the Surrey with a Fringe On Top and the lively nonsense of Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish pedlar. But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.
Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is a perfect Laurey: the finest voice of the year, soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness. If the overall effect is more of a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better. Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.
box office cft.org.uk to 7 Sept