Monthly Archives: October 2013

HMP MACBETH Intermission, St Saviour’s SW3

In a church tucked decorously behind Harrods, three voodoo-punk bitch-witches in ragged prison sweatsuits shriek and cackle in an ecstasy of malice;  cell doors bang in vicious sympathy,  and a sensual, tousled Lady Macbeth calls on spirits to unsex her,  interrupted by shouts from the next cell “I’m trying to sleep, you flipping psychopath!”.  Two languages meld seamlessly:  when her illicit prison-officer lover  Macbeth quails at the thought of bumping off the Governor,  averring that he dares do all that may become a man, he who dares do more is none,   his inmate mistress slaps him robustly round the head with “You pussy!”.    As for her scornful “We fail?” –   a line which echoes down four centuries of Lady Macbeths –  he meets that with a dive back into modernity and the prison setting,   muttering resentfully “Well, there’s a possibility –  given that you didn’t get away with your last crime”.

Thus we’re allowed to laugh from time to time.   For this is another of Intermission’s rousing, but not irreverent,  Shakespeare adaptations.,  written by the extraordinary Darren Raymond and directed by Fabian Spencer.  Both men, many years ago as real prison inmates,  had the luck to encounter Bruce Wall’s London Shakespeare Workout and fall in love with the power of it.   Now Raymond is artistic director of Intermission Youth Theatre,  creating productions with young people deemed – or already – at risk of running off the tracks.   It was founded by actors-cum-missioners (Into-Mission, geddit?)  the Rev Rob Gillion and his wife Janine (she, with an air of Teresa May bout her,  beautifully  plays the assasinated prison governor Ms Duncan).   Without government support,  this incogruous outfit probably does more for disaffected youth than many conventional ones.  It has sent kids on to RADA, the Brit school, university,  teaching and TV.
Leading a number of fine performances,  Kwame Reed as Officer Macbeth makes a thoughtful journey from dutiful ambitious officer promoted after quelling a riot caused by Deputy Governor Cawdor,  to panicking psychopath.   The Three Bitches are tremendous,  and Esther Odejimi (astonishingly, it’s her first ever performance)  is memorable:  a sexy, furious, utterly confident Lady Macbeth right through to her final dissolution, crying “Hell is murky”, to cries of “slut” from behind the cell walls.
A lot of credit goes to Raymond himself, whose years of workshopping and “sampling” Shakespere texts enable the young cast to take confident ownership, shifting from modern vernacular with ease and conviction.  Important soliloquies like “She should have died hereafter” are intact,  high emotion often leading with beautiful logic straight from prison jargon to the old pentameter.  As for the plot, it hangs artfully between dystopian fantasy (a women’s prison as a self-contained kingdom), gritty realism and the original.   I wondered how he would handle the murder of the Macduffs  and the curse of Dunsinane, but he does it elegantly, and even gets round the Birnam Wood problem.

box office       Thur-Sat till    23 Nov

rating :  four        4 Meece Rating


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The long life and great good fortune of John Clare – a note


This is a shout-out for a touring production I admire.   I welcome it in with the latest Roger Hardy logo,  the Touring Mouse. See below…
Here’s why.  When Tony Ramsay’s play for Eastern Angles first opened – I saw it in a hall in Beccles –  I reviewed it for the Times (still available, paywall but    Now that its tour is  approaching the Pleasance,  I commend it again.
It is an original, oblique telling of the story of the peasant-poet John Clare:  his harsh agricultural life, and the extreme mental illness which led him to spend his final 27 years in asylums,   belie the beauty of his work.
Edward Bond’s furious play “The Fool” used Clare as an exemplar of working-class persecution by a toff establishment,  but Ramsay’s thoughtful research throws a different light on his times and his condition,  and the respect in which he was held in his troubled lifetime.  It becomes a powerful meditation on creativity and deprssion.
My original review obviously is Times property,  but I can quote the conclusion of its four-star view:
      “It is a finer play than its  regional small-space tour might suggest; in concept, language and performance it honours poetry and pain alike.   When Richard Sandells finally speaks the lines  “I am, yet what I am none cares or knows…”  you catch your breath.”
Tour: Peterborough on 2 Nov,  01473 211498;
from 5-9 Nov at Pleasance, London N7  0207 6091800  – tour continues to 16 nov.

Touring Mouse wide

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Dancing  minstrels, catchy tunes, black men becoming mincing Alabama ladies or bow-legged sheriffs; a bluesy vaudeville band , chairs used as prison bars or execution gurneys.   Maybe some atrocities do simply tip over into a zone of absurdity where the obvious proddings of satire are not enough , so only musical-comedy will serve.  Provided, of course, that you have a Sondheim to chronicle Presidential assassinations,  or John Kander and Fred Ebb to mock Nazism in Cabaret  or murderers in Chicago.

That odd thought is inescapable when you consider this Kander/Ebb treatment of 1930’s Alabama racism and nine innocent victims.  Nine black boys, riding the rails to find work, got into a scuffle with white youths at Scottsboro; two white girls (to dodge a prostitution charge)  accused them of rape.   With an all-white jury they had no chance; the sentence was death, even for two thirteen-year-olds.  It was averted when the Supreme Court, after left-wing campaigns in the North, demanded a retrial with a proper defense lawyer.  One of the girls admitted they had lied.  For six years though, each fresh appeal met the same verdict from  resentful Alabama whites:  “Every time they say guilty,  the Commies and the Jews get you boys another trial”.   Four were released after six years,  and conscripted into a vaudeville act in Harlem;   other awkward compromises were made  in the political tug-of-war between North and South, but nine lads’ lives were ruined.  It was only this spring, in the age of Obama, that the Alabama Governor signed an Act  formally exonerating them.

Grim, true, shameful.  How to respond, except with joyfully defiant black energy?  This British premiere, under its American director Susan Stroman,  mixes local talent with Broadway performers like Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon and the magnificently comedic young James T Lane. It delivers that energy with a breathtaking punch and swing:  shock and pathos, irony and sincerity swirl and mingle restlessly.  The only white performer is Julian Glover,  patriarchal  judge and Governor;  other whites – jailers, women ,  the New York defence lawyer Leibowitz –  are created by the black ensemble in ironic reverse minstrelsy.   The terror of the electric chair (the youngest wrote of living in earshot on Death Row) makes a violent strobing tap number.   Domingo as the prosecutor has a hymn of hate against the “Jew money” funding the defence.   Individuals emerge, notably the defiant Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe) who refused parole because he wouldn’t plead guilty.

Equally moving is the quiet presence of Dawn Hope as “The Lady”,  drifting and shadowing in the corner of scenes.  A subtle moment at the end shows us who she is and what she did after reading of the Scottsboro case. She’s Rosa Parks: who in 1955  – and in the closing moments of this show –  historically refused to give up her seat in the “white section” of a bus. It was a turning-point for the conscience of America.

box office / 020 7922 2922    to 21 December
Supported by :  Bruno Wang     /    American Airlines

Rating:  five5 Meece Rating

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HOME – Arcola, E 8


“At times”  says old Jack stoutly, flourishing his silver-topped cane “One’s glad simply to live on an island. Without the sea all around, civilization would never be the same. The ideals of life – liberty, freedom, democracy – well, if we’d been living on the Continent, for example…!”   Harry civilly agrees.  “Yes, no, absolutely”.  They have bluff memories of army and RAF,  nostalgia for imagined wartime values.  They are  ageing men,  sitting out in the chilly sunshine: the Arcola’s underground studio nicely trellised, and scattered with post-gale autumn leaves.

When David Storey’s play premiered,  it was 1970  and the men were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson at the Royal Court.   Now, with that generation almost gone,  SEArEd and the Arcola revive it to honour the author’s 80th birthday.  Director Amelia Sears, like many of us,  finds it for the first time and recognizes its modern-classic beauty: like PInter with more heart, Beckett with more realism.  Jack Shepherd is Harry,  a dishevelled moulting eagle whose gentlemanly amiability masks an abyss of pain and dislocation.   Paul Copley is the Brylcreemed, bonhomous Jack, all card-tricks and evasions.   As the increasingly disconcerting, tense 105 minutes wear on they are joined solo and severally by others with an equal obliquity of small-talk.  A shrewish, sharpnosed Marjorie is Tessa Peake-Jones,  her giggling vulgarian friend Kathleen Linda Broughton.

The talk ranges around: anecdotes about  relatives, truisms of business and current affairs, what’s for dinner , the weather, mutual half-acquaintances : they could be anybody you meet and make foregettable small-talk with or (in the women’s case) smile wincingly as they utter sudden coarsenesses.  The play is interpreted as a commentary on a declining, stiff, post-imperial Britain but that now feels dated, a historic commentary.   It is the picture of a more timeless dislocation that hurts:  we learn gradually that they are all inmates in a large mental asylum:  one of those which, had Storey but known it,  would shortly be closed down and the inmates scattered into “care in the community”,  erratic drug regimes and, often, prison.  It is hard not to reflect on that  as the pathos and revelation build and glimpses of their back-stories emerge – suicidality, violence, collapse, “following little girls”.    Only one,  the monosyllabic Alfred (Joseph Arkley) fits the popular image of a madman,  appearing intermittently with an abrupt helpless violence which jerks the action onto another level.

Mostly, though, it is a fugue of small-talk revealing big themes:  clichés woven into an immensity of human helplessness, pathos, despair. The laughs are real, but ever more sad (Peake-Jones’ veiled malevolence provokes several).  Despite one heartbreaking handclasp it expresses the near-impossibility of mutual help,  as each of us,  forever alone, gabbles to distract ourselves from the yawning abyss of private reality.   Storey’s brilliance has not faded away.  The only glimmer of hope is that this particular kind of Englishness is on the wane…

box office  020 7503 1646      to 23 Nov

rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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Coming up this week – reviews on

Storm winds and logistics permitting…  each should turn up late night:

Monday 28th –  David Storey’s HOME at Arcola – anniversary production

Tues  29th  –   The Scottsboro boys,  Young Vic : Kander/Ebb musical about historic injustice

Weds  30th  The Potsdam Quartet   at Jermyn St   Politics, history &  hindsight…

Thurs 31st   HMP Macbeth – ex-offenders’ storming prison take on it

Friday 1 Nov    Mrs Lowry and Son  –  the artist’s tricky home life reimagined     Trafalgar  2

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RAVING – Hampstead Theatre NW3


Goodness, this is funny!  Uncontrollably so in the first scenes,  before the tightly coiled spring of middle-class angst is released into anarchy and minor injuries.    I suspect that after the first-night hysterics,  director Ed Hall will be instructing his cast to leave more space for the laughs lest some of Simon Paisley Day’s lines are lost.  Especially the snarled ones.

We are in a Welsh weekend cottage, booked by the briskly well-organized Ross and Rosy (Robert Webb a self-satisfied PR,  Sarah Hadland of Miranda fame as his bossy pocket-dynamo of a wife).   They are late because of an au-pair issue which will explode later.  Their leftish friends Keith and Briony are there first,  Barnaby Kay hapless, bearded and frustrated,  Tamzin Outhwaite delivering a bravura monologue of stressed-out social paranoia.   They left their son with Granny:  Briony is still suckling him (another unexploded bomb in the plot), struggling with her breast pump and “not ready” to resume sex.  The child, we learn, is three!  She seethes with resentment at her hostess’ brisk batch-baking competence, and has forgotten her antidepressants.

As if this wasn’t enough, the hosts have invited a couple even less to Briony’s taste,  the cheerfully posh Charles and Serena:  he an ex-army dimbo  (Nicholas Rowe)  whose shotgun – yet another clue to the coming mayhem  –    drives Briony into hysterical disapproval.  Not that Serena is inconsiderate:  Issy van Randwyck, blithely authoritative,  sees her horror and barks “Chas! Shooter! Car!” as if to a disobedient pointer.   Van Randwyck indeed, a bright-eyed breezy touslehead,   is one of the constant joys of the play,  capturing exactly the  competent and sexually cheerful upper-class matronliness which made Britain both great,  and potentially very annoying.  Cunningly, Paisley Day reveals that she is no airhead but a GP.  “A hobby, reallah!”.   Into the cottage erupt in turn a religiously devout Welsh farmer and Serena’s wild-child niece Tabby (Bel Powley, last seen in Jumpy, is making a nice corner in mouthy Jafaican teens with a subtle edge of pathos).

They interact,  discussing among other things childrearing (“like dogs, stick to a training programme”  says Charles, who has “four or five”  while Briony agonizes over her one.)   I did wonder, between giggles of  recognition,  whether it would move beyond sketch-comedy brilliance into a denser play.   It does, though not in the Ayckbournian way I expected:  more Joe Orton, indeed,  in its robust rejection of pathos.  Narrate the bare bones of Tabby’s situation, or the farmer’s, and you could find depths of pain.  Paisley Day, wisely I think, doesn’t do any such thing.

He lets  suspicion, booze,  breast-milk, a druggy rave in the next field and two startlingly inappropriate sexual events culminate only in an armed hostage scene of edgy absurdity.  If you insist on finding a moral in it,  it is that even an enraged gun-wielding God-bothering Welsh farmer can be out-loonied  any day by six middle-class London weekenders.   As one observes,  “We don’t need you.  We can destroy ourselves”.

BOX OFFICE  020 7722 9301   to  23 November
Rating:  four4 Meece Rating

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FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – Shaftesbury Theatre WC2


God, I hate star ratings!  Even when, as here, rebelliously expressed as mice.  For nearly three hours the fourth one hovered uncertainly, annoyingly,   over Tim Rice’s bravely enormous new show and Stuart Brayson’s music,  as it veered between grand moments and some pretty standard “song-that-goes-like-this” numbers.  Can’t pretend that a classic was born,  but neither is it dismissable.  Big money and big courage sometimes pay off.

Rice’s admirable aim was to forget the 1953 movie with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the surf ,  and exhume the even bleaker bones of James Jones’ angry novel about the bored brutalities of the US military garrison on Hawaii  just  before the 1941 raid on Pearl Harbour.  He pulls no punches,  restoring Jones’ account – too shocking for Hollywood – of soldiers “rolling the queers” in the gay club to raise money for their own brothel-crawling.    Its title is bitterly drawn from Kipling’s poem about disillusioned NCOs:  “done with hope and honour, lost to love and truth” .

There are two love affairs:  Sgt Warden (Darius Campbell, aka Danesh) falls for Karen, the commander’s wife while the damaged, cynical  Prewitt  (Robert Lonsdale) finds a deep connection with a local whore,  after being mercilessly beasted for refusing  to box for the honour of G company.   His friendship with the irrepressible tragic Latino Angelo (Ryan Sampson, engaging in the extreme) is the third emotional sinew of the story.

But the energy of it comes from the military:  a  tsunami of testosterone, a male ensemble drilled (it is rumoured) by a real sergeant-major until not a twitch of camp can remain in their manner.   Javier de Frutos shapes them into a masterpiece of dramatic choreography which  I have rarely seen equalled.  The stage is full of hurtling hunks:  pushups and star jumps, hula-moves and brawls, larking or lovemaking, the khaki whirlwind dominate the action.  Whether in stand-by-your-beds or beat-up-a-brothel routines they are breathtaking.  So are the girls they whirl and hurl around a restrainedly evocative  set by Soutra Gilmour.  Bruno Poet does the lights, and Brayson’s music gets rich orchestrations under David White. Nothing has been spared.

But it’s a musical,  and must justify itself by songs.  Some are fine (the fourth star-mouse finally landed during the finale, with “slaughter from the sky, fire in the sea” and a hymn to The Boys of ’41).  Campbell’s grainy, savagely virile voice is well used in “More than America” and less well in love duets (though Rebecca Thornhill’s gorgeously sexy Karen more than makes up for that).  Prewitt has one magnificent anthem “Fight the Fight”, and does it full justice; the two men doing the “Ain’t where I wanna be blues” are perfect.     But Tim Rice’s fatal fondness for over-jangly rhymes too often weakens the lyrics:   some are plain banal.  “She’s untouchable, a princess, and a whore / But I just see a beauty at my door” Please!

On the other hand the tarts‘ song “You got the money, we got the ass”  is splendid.  I went home singing it. Got some odd looks on the train.

box office  0207 492 1532    to 26 April
Rating :  four   4 Meece Rating

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The Djinns of Eidgah – Royal Court

Dim behind a soft mosquito-net, a father tells his children a tale of Djinns:    creatures of scorching smokeless fire, pure passion without reason who battle with magicians in wars which are only illusion.  The tale resolves in gentleness as the soft eyes of great Hamza’s daughter look down as stars,  and ends “May the queen of sleep bless you with pleasant and beautiful dreams. Shabba-khair”.  The Urdu goodnight is shattered:   through the misty veiling stride helmeted soldiers, ripping aside peace and taking us six years on.  We are in a football changing-room where  Bilal,  the star Kashmiri teenage striker,  is preparing in his broken old boots  for a trial which might take him to the Brazil, to freedom and doctors for his sister Ashrafi.  For at thirteen she has regressedto the terrified ten-year-old she was when her father fell dead in her lap, shot at a wedding-party.

Bilal holds aloof – for now – from the parades and demonstrations against the Indian occupation.  He tolerates curfews and body-searches in the heightened emotion as Eid approaches and the latest shot child awaits burial by an angry community.  Between patriotism and family duty,  he is torn between betrayals.

Kashmir is the world’s most intensively occupied nation – or would-be nation – and like a rifle-shot from its deadly heart comes a play of sweltering intensity by Abhishek Majumdar from Bangalore.   It crackles with pain and mystery,    a subcontinent’s echo of Aeschylean tragedy:  with extraordinary emotional power it tangles its human dilemmas with Muslim spirituality and mountain legend.  In Tom Scutt’s stark design we are  inside a great loom,   an unfinished rich carpet below, the  bare threads above and at either end becoming becoming prison bars or a half-seen afterworld.   Danny Ashok and Aysha Kala are the orphan siblings,  radiantly youthful (Richard Twyman directs Kala’s moments of traumatic recall with great power).   But equally central is old Dr Baig,   a psychiatrist struggling with an overborne hospital and the memory of his own son’s progress from stone-throwing dissent to Mujahideen training and a horrible death.  Vincent Ebrahim is magnificent,  the eternal figure of the good man struggling for reconciliation in a volatile, angry world.  He resists the aggressive Jihad spiritualities  but in final moments,  between life and afterlife,   affirms a universal humanity.  And Ashrafi finds a strange final eloquence to comfort her tortured brother.  “Death is the dream at the end of life”.

Prose and poetry weave as intricately as the carpet.  Between intense and ghostly moments we are suddenly with boys talking football and politics,  or with two squabbling Indian soldiers trapped in a guard-post.  Their fears, nerves,  and reluctant tales of atrocities committed in trauma are horribly reminiscent both of our own Northern Ireland years  and of Iraq.   For all its nightmare Djinns and spiritual strangeness,  it becomes a play for  any conflict.

0207 565 5000    to 9 November    Sponsored: Genesis Foundation/ British Council

Rating    Four   4 Meece Rating

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Austentatious! – Leicester Square

The hour contained a haunted Viking burial ground, a dubious Spaniard called Senor Knobflap,  several titled ladies in sprigged muslin and an 18c eczema epidemic.  Not that any of that will turn up again,  not if this improvisation troupe is honest about its spontaneity.
It is not quite fair to judge improv shows on one night only,  though I did fall in love forever with the brilliance of Showstoppers, the musical-theatre makers,   on the basis of one nocturnal Edinburgh romp.  This younger sextet  (plus discreet ‘cellist) came with a warm reputation from fringegoers and the Latitude festival, and  performs three times a month in London,  so I was curious.  Their premise is that most of Jane Austen’s 700-odd novels are lost, so the audience offers titles which they, in flawless period costume,  promptly perform.  My niece and I were rather hoping that they would pick ours out of the hat – “Mansfield Shark” in which  Fanny defeats Jaws.     But it was “Wit and Profanity” which became their title,  and even with a butler called Shitt  it took them a while to hook onto the profanity bit.
There is real talent there,  but even with a happy rowdy audience on this particular night the group seemed,  to use a shepherding term,  less well-hefted than they should be.  Seamless improv depends not only on picking up clues fast,  but on a willingness to get laughs from fellow-players who get painted into an impossible corner, and letting them struggle while ripples of laughter build.   Here it felt – despite some promising openings – as if some cast  members were leaping in too early, too anxiously, or  abruptly distracting us with unnecessary mugging.
When the more measured and watchful cast members – notably Andrew Murray and Rachel Parris – were let alone we got some good , even Austenian,  moments of pleasingly awkward courtship.   And Joseph Morpurgo made the well-worn joke of a comedy Spanish accent surprisingly fresh:  the lad has a certain edge of mania which may take him far.   “You must forgive me”  he snarls at one point:  “It is a Spanish custom to bluster into the bedroom of your landlady” .   As for the hospital he unaccountably plans to build,  with confident grandiosity he claims it as an important innovation.    “Up till 1813 in England,  everyone has died. Of everything”.  Nice.   I suspect that on other evenings, the third and fourth mice will romp home.    for dates at Leicester Square and the Wheatsheaf pub,  Rathbone Place
Rating:  two         2 meece rating

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Richard II – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford


David Tennant’s Richard is a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with the epicene arrogance of a Russell Brand and a scornful eloquence to match. Defeated, he lurches into self-pitying abasement only to erupt again into royal entitlement. Deposed, he roams the stage in bare feet and white nightie comparing his betrayal to Christ’s. Tennant is almost unbearably watchable, his handling of the verse breathtaking in its ease. His cousin and nemesis Bolingbroke is NIgel Lindsay: stocky and stubbled, chain-mailed gut hanging over his belt, righteous in banished fury and implacable in rebellion. He sighs with visible impatience at the deposed King’s drama-queen antics with the crown. This beginning of Shakespeare’s History cycle falls more easily than most into the headshaking dualism of 1066 And All That: Richard is Wrong but Wromantic, Bolingbroke Right but Repulsive.
Which is not to say that there is anything unsubtle about Gregory Doran’s production – marked by his trademark courteous clarity of line – or much wrong with Tennant’s interpretation of the doomed Richard. At times near the end I felt that his elfin edge of humour sold short the journey of self-discovery which Shakespeare gives the King: even near death his vanity conquers all, and Doran also chooses to make his relationship with young Aumerle rather more emotionally credible than his marriage. But that is a matter of interpretation, and fair enough. And for all Tennant’s shining star quality the real sinews of the production, its glory and its fifth star, reside elsewhere.
For it is a marvellous evening and, with its simple use of shadowy, mirrory projections of grey arches, thorny wilderness and heraldic tapestries, ideal for Doran’s intention to film, stream and distribute it to schools. From the opening scene around the coffin of the King’s murdered uncle where the widow (Jane Lapotaire) delivers her fusillade of desperate grief, through the aborted duel with Richard aloft on his dais undermining the chivalrous code of his barons, each character and nuance emerges with unemphatic firmness. Michael Pennington’s masterly John of Gaunt, the last wise romantic of the dynasty, laments the “landlording” of England; his brother York struggles with the statesmanlike problems of a necessary but shockingly illegal regime change, turning from the impossible Richard to the all-too-possible Bolingbroke with beautifully nuanced exasperation.
Indeed it must be noted that, for all the marvels of Tennant, Lapotaire, and the rest, the old-pro solid gold performance of the night belongs to Oliver Ford Davies as York. As the principled old patriot in an impossible position, or the enraged father in the blackly comic scenes with his lovelorn traitor son and his furious wife (Marty Cruikshank, a ferociously fine cameo), he takes the palm. It is Ford Davies who most draws sighs, small laughs and sympathies from the audience; he who provides the ballast halfway between the wonderfully dislikeable Bolingbroke and the fools’-gold spendthrift mirage of a King who confuses his crown with a halo.
Yet like Shakespeare, who intemperately gave nearly all the poetry to the irresponsible monarch, Doran leaves us with ambiguity. An unexpected great creak of stage machinery, a prison pathos, a sudden compassion for deluded Rutland, and the weather changes, subtly. When Bolingbroke embarks on his gruff pilgrimage of repentance, the choir and trumpeters high overhead soar and yearn at the end of Paul Englishby’s score and we get a final white-gowned dazzle from the ghost Richard overhead.

0844 800 1110 to 16 nov (then to Barbican in Dec) 0844 800 1110   to 16 nov   (then to Barbican in Dec)
Rating: five           5 Meece Rating

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Oedipussy – Rose, Kingston

I had remembered the unicycle and  Queen Merope’s mad wig,  Petra Massey’s disco-sphinx and the innocently manic Spaniard Aitor Basauri leading us in an operatic chorus while disguised as three ragged singing lepers.  I vaguely remembered the morris-dancing,  the struggles of the cast to get between the Grecian pillars in too-wide hats, and the arresting, surprisingly poignant moments of Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’ blinding,  blood-red ribbons falling from high overhead.
Other things had faded, though, since I saw this Spymonkey show under Emma Rice’s direction begin its intermittent tour in Northampton last year.  I had forgotten how fine the music is:  Toby Park’s saxophone solos,  Hollywood-epic blasts and anthemic, ludicrously heartfelt numbers in Bond, Bowie, Bassey and  X-factor style.  I had blanked out the disembowelling of Tiresias in pasa-doble rhythm,  the way the furious German Stefan Kreiss kicks holes in the scenery,   and that Massey ends up, for important dramatic  reasons, doing the curtain-call with dummy arms.
My companion, never having seen this quartet before,  simply spent two hours in helpless, shocked, liberated laughter, leaving the critical brooding to me.  I love Spymonkey  for the brilliance and precision of their clowning  and the ripple of pure intelligence beneath the anarchic surface.   Not everyone gets it,  and this retelling of the Oedipus story  (with surprising accuracy beneath the spoofing) opens with the four of them reading the Joyce McMillan review of their last show: “a band of middle aged actors making a two-hour show out of a one line joke”.  The bespectacled Park gravely says it is “the greatest gift a critic can bestow, a kick up the arse” and pledges that they will become grownup classical interpreters.   “We will not romp”.   Whereon down come his trousers,  and we’re  into loincloths, laurel wreaths, and a James Bond operning number –  “Whadda man! Whadda myth! Whadda King!”.
McMillan sighed that their performance was like a student jape.  But no student japes are this perfect, and in any art extreme high quality can overcome distaste for a genre.  You can think you hate jazz but appreciate Charlie Parker,  be impatient of opera but moved by Gheorgiu.  The comparison is not absurd: these four have studied and practised physical comedy for years, and here collaborate with Emma Rice and Carl Grose.  Even the moments when each steps out of character to grumble are finely tuned.    Basauri says he wants to do standup,  Park wails “I could have done something with my life! My sister’s a consultant psychiatrist! My grandfather designed the Morrison Shelter!” and the nimbly lunatic Petra Massey persistently interrupts the story to overshare about  her “obliterated womb”.  Kreiss, the oldest at 51, claims to be on painkillers and when Massey offers massage after a dramatic lift shouts “Just lose some weight!”.
No.  None of them must leave. Ever.  Their appearances are quite rare, quite wonderful, and not to be missed.

08444 821 556  to 19th October
Rating: four     4 Meece Rating

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The Love Girl & The Innocent – Southwark Playhouse SE1


They painted Stalin’s words on the hut walls. “Instead of the onerous burden it was under Capitalism, work has become a thing of glory and valour”.   Ragged, half-starved men and women trudged past that in labour camps.  This play’s author is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not imagining but remembering: he spent eight years in the gulags from 1945.  It hasn’t been seen in London for thirty years (though a more serious-minded BBC  televised it in 1965).
The author was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities”, and as new prisoners come off the lorry in Mathew Dunster’s stark, vivid production they  each recite their subsection of that same Article 58: even “failing to report an overheard conversation”.   Among them are more conventional criminals: a black-marketeer sold penicillin and gramophone needles, an  army sniper (Emily Dobbs, a superb tough performance)  shot her unfaithful husband.   But most are Article 58:  political prisoners.
With fifty characters,  a working foundry and building site it is daunting to stage:   with 16 actors Dunster nimbly uses Solzhenitsyn’s stage directions as brief narrative.  Anna Fleischle’s design uses the battered urban skeleton of Southwark’s new home well: pallets and planks scraping on the concrete, old tyres seeming to burn from within, an unforgettable lineup of naked prisoners, faces to the wall, in dim red light, beneath the wire.
The play’s authenticity is at once a strength and a  weakness. Its strength is in delineating  the top-down pressure to be corrupt:  both victims and guards (mostly prisoners themselves) are fixed on their own survival.  The commandant himself is under threat if he doesn’t increase production,  the clerk struggles with bureaucratic lies,  the foundrymen cheat, the girls do whatever it takes.
Cian Barry is Nemov, the newly convicted army officer who asks “In all the years we were in the war, defending Russia, was it as bad as this?”  They laugh at him for a mug, a greenhorn.  Worse!  they say.  As ‘work supervisor’  Nemov talks helplessly of decency and conscience while more experienced prisoners loot the newcomers’ baggage.   Demoted, he has a brief respite as a powerless “dirty faced worker” with no temptation to tyrannize,   but almost hysterically finds  love with Lubya.  Her bitter, much-used quality (conveyed with ruthless sweetness by Rebecca Oldfield)  is hard to accept.  She was a Kulak exile sold into marriage at fourteen, knows her value to men and submits pragmatically to the camp doctor (a smooth Ben Onwukwe) .  Rob Tofield is the tubby venal cook,   Ben Lee the sharp prisoner who usurps Nemov’s job.
But the gulag itself  is the central character, and the detailed complex portrayal of its life impedes impetus and character development.   Hence you get a historically fascinating evening rather than a great play.  Jagged Fence deserves credit for bringing it to Southwark and Solzhenitsyn was a hero. But a bit more impertinence in adapting it would make it stronger.

0207 407 0234   to 2 Nov
Rating : three

Rating : three    3 Meece Rating

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The Events – Young Vic SE1 (a note)

I reviewed this in Edinburgh, for the Times, which (via paywall) can still be read on  I gave it four stars.

So I won’t re-review it here,  but it’s worth signalling, on this press night at the Young Vic,  that David Greig’s play is an intense two-hander with a community chorus directed by Ramin Gray, that it is remarkable, and worth seeing.  Set in a church hall in the aftermath of a mass shooting,  it has a thoughtful, mournful topicality, subtle and nuanced and humane.

Neve McIntosh is a hip lesbian vicar struggling with her feelings and philosophy of life after half her choir are murdered.  Rudi Dharmalingham is sometimes the boy with the gun  “I need to make my mark. The only means I have are art or violence. And I was never any good at drawing”.  Sometimes other characters, who without vocal or physical change emerge as if in McIntosh’s own thoughts. A  humane, never glib exploration of our deepest modern fears.  Bleak, riveting, worth seeing.

020 7922 2922   to 2 Nov

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The Act – Ovalhouse SE11

“I fully understand” says Kenneth Robinson MP, “that this subject is distasteful, even repulsive to some people”. He is introducing the Commons debate on the Wolfenden Report, the decriminalizing of male homosexual acts in private. As Matthew Baldwin – calm, smartly pinstriped, measured – delivers fragments of the speech, you feel across half a century the fraught Parliamentary silence. It is, he says, a misconception that these men are “effete, depraved and exhibitionist…the majority are useful citizens, unnoticed and unsuspected”. Some of his listeners in that Chamber will have recognized Robinson’s definition of their own “Involuntary deviation..[which] leads so often to loneliness, unhappiness and frustration”.
This age of laissez-faire and equal marriage, with its troubling counter-current of fundamentalist repression, seems to fuel a dramatic need to look back at that period when sexual rebellion boiled and seethed, cracking the skin of postwar respectability. We await two treatments of the Profumo Scandal – Keeler the play, Stephen Ward the musical. The Universal Machine musical dealt movingly with Alan Turing, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride painfully expresses both the misery and of the criminalized years and the “hypersexual” fallout now gradually fading.
This sensitive, truthful 70-minute solo created by Baldwin and Thomas Hescott (who directs) weaves together Robinson’s speech and the story of a young civil servant whose nervous search for love and intimacy leads him to the flamboyant underworld of the ‘Dilly and to picking up a boy in the Leicester Square Gents. Baldwin gives poignant dignity to the lonely civil servant, from childhood memories of love to the indignity of a courtroom. Sometimes he becomes “Edna” the waspish Jules-and-Sandy type in the club talking Polari to the shrieking Gladyses and Mabels.
Then he is the lover again, pleading with a shrugging, venal, beloved boy; then we are back in the Commons chamber as Robinson questions the right of the State to interfere in the acts of private individuals, and reveals that the Lord Chief Justice finds 90 per cent of blackmail cases involve homosexuality. Public opinion? “It is the duty of governments to lead, and to do what they know to be right”.  A faint modern echo of David Cameron’s nervous courage over gay marriage.
Baldwin’s performance is strong, charming and honest, the play cunningly constructed. The 70-minute span begins and ends with him as a modern man, texting about a dinner party he and his civil partner (“we’re thinking of upgrading to marriage”) are having for the even smarter Seb and Ian, all Ottolenghi brunches and opera and mentoring. It is from that moment that we whirl back to the 1960’s, the Parliamentary plea for the “distasteful” deviation, and the cosy, dangerous, necessary underworld of Gladyses and Ednas. For which, it is teasingly made clear, some still atavistically hanker.

020 7582 7689       to 26 October

Rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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