FORTY YEARS ON Chichester Festival Theatre

1918..1968..AND NOW.. ALAN BENNETT’S ENGLAND

 
In his 1994 diaries Alan Bennett described the funeral of a Dunkirk veteran in a village church. “crammed with the men who won the war. Young officers then, now in their sixties, good, solid, old-fashioned faces, never wavering, never doubting and singing their hearts out – “For all the Saints” “Immortal, Invisible”. It’s like Forty Years on – all that one loves and hates”.

 

 

This 1968 revue-style play, a tapestry of national memory and mockery, affectionate nostalgia and determined revolution , encapsulates exactly that conflict in the British heart. To revive it in a Brexit year, as we grasp more urgently the dangers of harking-back by the wrong people, is a canny if risky move by the theatre’s new leader Daniel Evans, who directs it himself with all the big-stage brio and playfulness he showed in Sheffield.

 
Risky, because it is hard to gauge how far the new generation will get its references to another era: schoolmasters uninhibited by childcare-correctness, Confirmation Classes, and legends like T.E.Lawrence and Sapper. On the other hand the WW1 centenary has re-sensitized us to both wars, so at least some history will resonate. For me, fifty years on the echoes were still all there. For newcomers , know that we become the parents and alumni watching, behind a huge posse of grey-uniformed boys, a frequently disrupted end of term play at imagined Sussex public-school, “Albion House”,: a metaphor for England itself. The retiring headmaster remembers starting on Armistice Day 1918, teaching boys who twenty years later fought in the second war. His successor-to-be the progressive Franklin has devised a series of scenes in which a posh 1940’s couple see out the second war with their old nanny in the basement of Claridge’s, remembering and lamenting their childhood Edwardian England which vanished in 1914, and their adult one which in 1945 was replaced by “a sergeant’s world, of the lay-by and the civic improvement scheme”.

 

 

So Franklin, Miss Nisbitt, Tempest and Matron and the boys zigzag through riotous sketches guyings of Wildean Edwardiana, Bloomsbury, John-Buchanesque “snobbery-with-violence”, and legendary 20c figures like Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell (strikingly depicted as a 10ft pantomime giantess by two puffing boys in a long frock). Between these, using diaries and poems, songs of the period and a tap-break and revealing political memoirs, the wars themselves are more soberly, movingly taken, still within the play’s odd beguiling structure. Bennett’s balance is artful: for every loopy tap-break, you get a Last Post from the gallery; for every mockery, a tribute. As the headmaster protests to Franklin “Memories are not shackles, they are garlands!”.

 
Except that, on the press night, that beloved line didn’t quite make it, for Richard Wilson, taking on at eighty the Headmaster’s very funny interventions and indignations, was not a hundred percent off-the-book, and made slightly more use than expected of his headmasterly stationery. Yet because he is representing just that stiff romantic old England a-dodder – it didn’t particularly matter. My own worry had been that I couldn’t able to shake off the ghost of Gielgud ’s gloriously querulous voice on the classic stage and radio version; but Wilson’s is a strong flavour himself, and I forgot it almost instantly. The odd fluff and fumble almost added to the charm.

 
And he is supported by not only a beautifully choreographed and flowingly vivid ensemble of boys, but by Alan Cox’s excellent Franklin and an utterly magnificent Jenny Galloway as Matron (ahh.. reminiscing about how fat legs didn’t put off men in her ATS wartime heyday). Lucy Briers is an nicely querulous Miss Nisbett and Danny Lee Wynter the master Tempest, particularly memorable as the pearl-draped, Wildean Aunt Cedelia in a bath-chair. Give that man more drag parts!

 

 

Lez Brotherston’s design excels itself too, with a full organ loft above and stone rolls of honour becoming screens with fragments of film or dates clarifying, as the play flits capriciously about, which year it is. So, even if it mystifies the young, it’s good to have it back after fifty years to watch it yearning back another fifty. The final For Sale notice on Albion House – five years before the 1973 vote – has a mischievous topicality, too:
“For Sale. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary”.
All that one loves and hates. God bless Alan Bennett.

 

box office 01243 781312
box.office@cft.org.uk    to 20 May

rating  Four   (the boys deserve no less)

4 Meece Rating

 

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OBSESSION Barbican, EC2

VAN HOVE, VISCONTI, AND OUR JUDE

 

London is  getting used to Ivo van Hove of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. But his tremendous A View from The Bridge (in a bleak arena)  and his striking NT Hedda (in a bleak white room) were written as plays: whereas one of his great tastes  as a director is adapting film screenplays. Not of the bubblegum family-fun variety, perish the thought: he best likes Visconti. Though the plays are made without re- watching or copying the original’s look and interpretation: rather his idea is to go right back to the screenplay and suck out the essence of it. If tonight is anything to go by, he is actually better with the comparative discipline enforced by stage plays.

 
But play or movie, the van Hove trademark fascination is with pressure. Put humans under increasing emotional stress and watch them wince, resist, dent and finally blow up: Eddie Carbone with a knife, Hedda with a gun. Here it’s Gino with a lorry,   plus a rubbish-hurling rage from his illicit lover Hanna. The various crises are accompanied by  exceedingly loud – and I fear rather clunkingly  obvious – music: Traviata for forbidden love, hard-rock for a brawl, French chanson for Hannah  throwing dustbins around, Woody Guthrie for Gino running away. Plus a lot of random sinister  angel choirs and some ominous silences. Especially early on, when distant cats miaow and Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) goes out and shoots them seven times. With all this racket, it is as well that the cast are heavily miked.

 
This tale, a  timeless one , requires the drifter Gino, an impoverished ex-soldier,  to be as the press release promises  “powerful and graceful as a puma”. So that’s a case for casting Jude Law, and puma-like indeed  he is.   Add a bored young wife in a rough roadhouse, a choleric older husband who takes Gino in to mend his lorry, and we are set for  passion and murder , remorse and disillusion and  classic betrayal and the whole stage suddenly turning into a lot of crashing waves of doom. Projections remind us of its film origins more than once: not least the remarkably sensual giant close-ups  of the skin-on-skin moments.

 
True to form, van Hove attempts no period or Italian  setting, but in the great bleak stage gives us a  block bar counter, a treadmill insert for Gino to keep trying to run away on, and a bath for Hannah to strip off into, and for the men to shave at in a combative manner. Oh, and  hanging overhead, ready to emit sparks, deafening engine noises and a cataclysmic oil leak , there’s a whole lorry engine which travels up and down on wires. Looming over them. The lorry is in the plot, but one darkly suspects that its suspension overhead has something symbolic to do with Sophoclean nemesis.
 
Halina Reijn is good as the tempestuous, changeably cautious love object, and van Aschat as Joseph convincingly patronises his wife and  belts out the Di Provenza bass aria from La Traviata shortly before getting lorry-murdered.   An  unusually helpful corpse, he then has to mop up the oil-leak mess while the guilty pair scrub one anothers’ beautiful backs. I think that’s symbolic too.

 
But to be honest, for all the aesthetics, the sustained Van-Hovery is as tiresome as it is inventive. So the 105-minute evening stands or falls on Jude Law alone. Fortunately, he is magnificent, and somehow snatches from the overweening directorial pretensions a genuinely felt performance of young Gino’s passion, poverty, damaged emotional confusion, baffled remorse and mournful yearning for the simplicities of the road. From his first seductive swaggering entrance, playing the mouth organ rather badly, to the obsessive need and rage and tragic grandeur of his fate Law moves through the slow, portentous interpretation like an actual human being, restrained and strong and heartfelt. Two of the mice are for him alone.

 

 

Box Office : http://www.barbican.org.uk to 20 may
then touring Vienna, Amsterdam, Luxembourg
NT Live in cinemas Thurs 11 May

rating  three 3 Meece Rating

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THE PHILANTHROPIST Trafalgar Studios SW1

A WINDOW ON AN IVORY TOWER…  

 
Full disclosure: I bought a ticket for an early preview, because press night was my husband’s birthday but I couldn’t resist checking out Christopher Hampton’s 1971 play. Not least because it is set in just the sort of donnish room that ‘60s university tutors used to inhabit, blissfully undisturbed by the outer world unless my peers were actually throwing bricks or chanting “Ho ho ho chi Minh” outside. Also Simon Callow directs, and his taste is always interesting.

 
So I won’t offer a star-rating, as there were six previews left and Mr Callow says it was work in progress. But it was fascinating: I hope younger audiences realize, amid the laughs, how accurately Hampton’s text catches the curious sterile élite manner of that academic cadre. Horribly funny still is their comic indifference to a larger world: barely acknowledging the murder of the entire Cabinet (creepy to have the Westminster terrorist attack just as it opened). Better still is the way he skewers the tricky epigrammatic showing-off of the dreadful star-writer Braham (Matt Berry). HE is the classic intolerable 1960s intellectual, going on about art being just like masturbation while admiring girls in long floaty frocks drape themselves at his feet. Hampton also catches the insouciant new sexual freedom brought on by the Pill: poor Philip the philologist, a man so agreeable he can’t teach Eng.Lit for fear of being critical, is the central character. Turning Moliere’s Le Misanthrope upside down, he is a man who can’t be abrasive: he’s a philologist because he just loves words, all of them! . He is in love with Celia (Charlotte Richie) but gets challenged to a bunk-up by the more voracious Araminta. The run-up to their unsatisfactory night occupies the first half; the aftermath the second.

 
It is in the second half that the play really begins to bite, though Callow’s cast keep it tripping along (especially Simon Bird, who is rather wonderful as the innocent Philip, indicating subtly how much of his almost inhuman niceness is fuelled by fear). Lily Cole as the vamptress Araminta, with a torrent of hair and endless white hypnotic thighs, is oddly touching: her anger when Philip admits he isn’t, er, actually attracted to her rings eerily true. “Needing to be needed” is a mark of the most voracious of our sex, or certainly was in the treacherous 1960s. Actually, the retro sexual politics depicted in this play is dynamite, when you think of it: Celia is also interesting, desiring a real man like awful Braham to overwhelm her and uninspired by decency and faithful affection. This is a ‘sixties woman, not yet happy in the new age which, thank God, was just beginning to dawn.

 

So as a period piece, it rang true; and Bird’s and Cole’s performances in particular left me convinced and rather sorrowful. It’s worth bringing back. And kids: if any of your tutors and peers behave like this, just remind them that they are being really, really old-fashioned. Neo-Victorian, almost.

 

 

box office http://www.atgtickets.com to 22 July

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WHISPER HOUSE The Other Palace SW1

GHOSTS OF WAR AND SHIPWRECK

 
“When all the world’s at war, it’s better to be dead”. Pallid pessimistic ghosts roam around a lonely Maine lighthouse in WW2, with heaving sepia seas behind (Mark Holthusen’s projections are ace, atmospheric, and so is Andrew W Riley’s circular pit of a set). The two disaffected phantoms roam around  singing , between the two halves of the band, and serve as narrators, when not looming over the other dramatis personae like singing Dementors, or luring  the young hero Christopher onto the causeway to drown.
 

He is a doughty child (a fine debut on press night for Stanley Jarvis, sharing the role with Fisher Costello-Rose) . He has lost his airman father, his Mum is in an asylum after trying to drown herself, so he is sent to live in the lighthouse with his curmudgeonly club-footed Aunt Lily who “isn’t used to children ” . She has a dark sad secret sin in her past which the ghosts understand daily resent, and puts cod liver oil in the boy’s  porridge. The ghosts have it in for him too,  and howl in his little ears in his bed as the seagulls shriek and the waves roar, Gothically moaning in mid-market rock “If this doesn’t terrify you, it should”.
 

 

So here’s a rock-opera cross between Turn of The Screw and Silas Marner, with – as it turns out – a dash of The Go-Between. For little Christopher is a patriot, determined to do his duty and tell inconvenient truths to the simple hearted sheriff . Which is awkward, since Lily”s longtime assistant and friend is a tall, kindly Mr Yasuhiro, who before long she is ordered to give up as a potential spy an enemy alien. The friendship between the pair – gentle giant Nicholas Goh beautifully restrained, and Dianne Pilkington, gruff and enduring – is the psychologically solid anchor of the story, though needs more work in the script.
The plot thickens,  quite satisfyingly, before a dramatic U- boat bombing, fight, ghost-drowning in smoke, and a resolution happy enough to make is safe enough to bring any child old enough to see Goodnight Mr Tom.  Actually, for an early taste of rock musicals, it’d be ideal.  Tickets go down to £ 15.

 

 

That it is here at all is encouraging.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, well on a roll after the smashing School Of Rock – which he opens in workshop form – has taken over the former St James as a crucible for experimenting with new musicals, pocket shows which might grow, and unreviewed experiments. This one is more finished, and up for review, though interestingly its advertised 2 hrs 10 came in at under two hours: one suspects late cuts in Adam Lenson’s production. That makes for a briskly enjoyable evening, though the music is not particularly memorable, and themes recur in both tune and lyrics more than often enough.  The composer is Duncan Sheik, who hit awards with Sspring Awakening, the book and other lyrics by Kyle Jarrow , inspired by true wartime events and sharpened by Trumpian 21c xenophobia. There’s a ghoststory-within-a-ghoststory too, because our moaning phantoms were drowned in a yacht cursed by its owner “Solomon Snell, Ring the Bell, Too much trust is the road to Hell”. He got buried alive. Eeek.

 

Actually, It’s not a bad yarn, and top marks for not being a movie-echo. Needs more varied numbers, though, to develop the characters of Lily, Yasuhiro and the sheriff. Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are fabulous as the ghosts though, every bit as petulant, resentful, threatening and glamorous as one could ask.

 

box office 0844 264 2121 to 27 May
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE PLAGUE Arcola, E8

A JOURNEY THROUGH A PLAGUE YEAR

 

With the horror of Syria fresh on us, and Africa’s travails with Ebola still haunting, this sombre, unforgettable treatment of Albert Camus’ LA PESTE feels urgently present. Neil Bartlett has pared down the novel’s characters to five – the central Dr Rieux played with remarkable balanced strength by Sara Powell, and alongside her Joe Alessi, Burt Caesar, Billy Postlethwaite and Martin Turner as Cottard, Grand, Rambert and Tarrou : I note that for those who know the book, but you don’t need to in order to feel the force of this 85-minute play.

 
Bartlett – who also directs – stages it with just five chairs and two tables, but within that simplicity all the vigour and surprise we associate with Complicité, where he began. We seem to be the audience in a sports hall (the kind of place, in modern disasters, so often turned into emergency mortuaries), and the characters, led by Dr Rieux, urgently tell the story. “Understanding what happened” is their theme. Recording, remembering, accepting its terrifying truth, recording their city’s journey through death and horror, from the time when like any modern conurbation it was “frenetic and vacant”, hardworking and businesslike and neglectful of fellow-men’s reality.

 

So first there were the dead rats, merely a nuisance, but soon too many to ignore: corpses underfoot. Then the infection, the bubonic swellings, the gaping agony, the medical arrangements holding good for a while but people “properly unsettled”. Then it grew to quarantine proportions with people outraged, wanting exceptions, a reporter (Postlethwaite, swaggering at first) demanding to be allowed to leave because it isn’t his city anyway. As the horror mounts, the uncoffined dead thrown desperately into pits, he changes, and resolves to stay.

 
The doctor, and the others, flash back into the work they did, struggles with both practicality and despair; the people begin to find even love “useless, unfit for purpose” in this terrible captivity. A sequence when, invisible, a child dies before them is agonizing. But plagues end: the aftermath is strikingly a mixture of rejoicing and blame and the one hopeful conclusion:
“There is more to admire about one’s fellow-citizens than to despise or despair of. Of course it wasn’t a victory. It is what it is: an account of some things that had to be done, and which I am sure will have to be done again…Joy is always under threat”.
The plague bacillus – whether literal, or as Camus may have equally been indicating in that postwar year , political – is only ever dormant. It will be back. But somehow, from this harsh haunting show you emerge into the bustle of East London encouraged.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 8 May    RATING four 4 Meece Rating

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SEA FRET Old Red Lion, Islington

A CANUTE FOR THE AGE OF ANYWHERES

 
This substantial début play by Tallulah Brown hits an intriguing syncope with David Goodhart’s much-discussed definition of the UK tribes. Not left and right, not even just Brexit and Remain: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. The first are confident, mobile, probably graduates: their identity is rooted in their own achievements and portable abilities . The Somewheres, in contrast, draw their psychological strength and happiness from belonging to a community, a place, sometimes a trade (“I am a Durham miner. I am Yorkshire / Suffolk / East End” etc). Deracination or an overwhelming influx is a problem to them more than to Anywheres, who just float away and choose a home that suits. We all have elements of each, but there is a real clash.

 
In this play, two girls on an East Coast shore are childhood friends. Now (in a rather overlong first half) they are school-leavers having all-night beach raves, necking absinthe and sniggering about sex in the manner of girls thee years younger: their territory a half-submerged WW2 pillbox on the shingle, on which they have scrawled memories of childhood and teens. Ruby’s mother is long gone, her piratical father Jim complicit in her drug-dealing. Exams and the outer world mean nothing to her, as her passion is for home , the beach and fun in the moment. Whereas Lucy is an embryonic Anywhere, off to “uni”. Her middle-class mother Pam (here’s an invisible commuter Dad) is exasperatedly helping Jim in his protest against the Environment Agency’s decision to let that bit of beach go, and his clifftop house with it.

 

 

A summers-end rave ends in a boy overdosing, eating pebbles and ending in a coma (this has happened: I too live along that coast). At the same time Jim’s protest fails. The second act shows the girls’ social estrangement and Ruby’s obsessive – and guilty – use of her earnings to organize truckloads of spoil and rubble, Canute-like, for a private battle with erosion. That has happened too, at one famous point along our Suffolk coast.

 
“Loving where you live with every bone in your body has got to count for something” cries Ruby, aggressively furious at the public meeting. There is some lovely writing here, romantic about the bleak North Sea and its phosphorescent or stormy moods. Jim – who may owe a bit to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem – punctuates scenes with Shallow Brown, Lowlands Away and other sea songs in a properly thrilling folk voice (Philippe Spall is immensely watchable, and nicely subtle in his later un-Rooster capitulation to reality). He is terrific, but the necessary engine of the play is the troubled, determined Ruby (Lucy Carless).

 

 
It is a professional debut, and taken a bit too fast and garbled at first in the naturalistic teenage chatter. The author would also have done her a favour by making her less obnoxious in her sexual bragging, contempt for her friend’s ambition and shrugging at the overdosed boy. But Carless certainly scores a startling theatrical first when she hurls a tampon from under her PVC kilt to go skinny-dipping, and there is real, solid tragic feeling in the second act as she labours with her barricade and her conscience.

 

 

As Lucy Georgia Kerry is a good contrast, torn between maturity and a desire to be as sexily cool as Ruby; Karen Brooks is Pam, every fed-up commuter wife, having a credible salty exasperated friendship with Jim. Who knows really, that you can’t ever stop the sea and that great sections of our coast will vanish without it being anyone’s fault (he haltingly brings up an old Devon case, Hallsands, caused by a shipyard development but geologically completely different). It is Ruby, the passionate damaged child, who can accept neither erosion nor adulthood. That’s what you leave remembering.

 

box office oldredliontheatre.co.uk to 22 April
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART Eastern Angles Tour

A WILD TALE FROM HELL’S BORDERS   – on the roadTouring Mouse wide

 

 

This enterprising regional touring company generally focuses on the East, whether John Clare or Arthur Ransome, Viking legends or wartime GI bases. This time it heads improbably to Scotland: to wintry nights . wild fiddlers, echoing skin drums and snowy devilry. Fair enough: like Artistic Director Ivan Cutting I grew up with the border ballads – Tam Lin, the Twa Corbies, shipwrecks and lost foundlings and journeys to satanic underworlds to quarrel with the De’il himself. And folk music is the medium for it: shivers and mysteries wrapped in the convivial warmth of twinkling fiddle-bows and strong singers.

 

Thus David Greig’s strange play, born in the National Theatre of Scotland and met more often at festivals, was right up my street from the first moment when Hannah Howie sang Scott’s ”My love is like a red red rose”, the lights fell , and the others- Elspeth Turner, Simon Donaldson, and Robin Hemmings – joined in the darker harmony of the Twa Corbies dispassionately observing a slain knight …

“Mony a one for him makes mane
But nane sall ken where he is gane
O’er his white banes, when they are bare
The wind sall blaw for evermair”.

 

 

Shiver! But like all tall tales and fireside stories, it has merriment. The story, told mainly in couplet narration shared around the cast with instruments and songs between, is both joke and perceptive psychology, bound up in the legends and intersecting with them in a half-dreamed half-drunk ordeal. Prudencia (Howie) is a prim student of folklore specializing in “the topography of Hell in the border ballads” and irritated at an academic conference where a professor explains Negative Reading, hipster Colin (Hemmings) talks rubbish about Lady Gaga and Facebook updates being as valid as Scottish identity, and Siolaigh (“a posh way to say Sheila”) darkly opines that in a masculine world of borders the river Tweed is a vagina.

 
But trapped in a snowstorm, Colin and Prudencia take refuge in a noisy pub lockdown with some really alarming Corbies in bird costumes, and being shy in company she hides the the pub lavatory (we’ve all been there) and heads out alone, meets under a sodium streetlamp a singing dead woman and puppet babies, and is taken to her bed and breakfast. Which is, of course, a gate to Hell because what else do you expect on a midwinter’s eve, when the devil lures rash souls who venture abroad?.

 

The second act, in the b & b eternity, shows Prudencia the essential aridity of some of her scholarship and – one way or another – the essential nature of human contact and love. Donaldson is oddly compelling as the depressed geeky devil who suddenly becomes , the pub-and-house staging rather brilliantly enabling this, an immense goat-skull-headed flying demon following her escape.

 
It’s done with brio and humour and real shivers, a production Scotland would be proud of and Eastern Angles should be. And as I picked it up on one of his multifarious travelling venues, it possibly also marks the only time the Methodist And United Reformed Hungate Church in Bungay has hosted a vigorous likeness of Hell, albeit in the form of a Kelso b & b. It’s on the road again, far and wide in the East, and touring-mouse offers a thumbs-up.

 
tour: https://easternangles.co.uk/event/prudencia-hart#tab-0=dates-and-times

Rating four  4 Meece Rating

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