Monthly Archives: November 2013

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS – Chickenshed, N14

THE BIGGEST WILDEST HAPPIEST SHOW

Never have there been so many Cratchits:  28 of them, all singing their heads off  “Who needs the limelight? Who owns the moonlight? We’ve got the life and soul – Life for the living, soul for the giving!”.    The stage is crowded: a vast composed picture, every cast member from seven to sixty a pixel in it,  a voice.

Among them several are energetically signing,  as they have throughout the riotous play.  I think I now know the BSL signs for “Ho Ho Ho” , “Here’s your P45”,  and “Resistance is futile”.    The sign-language moves melt effortlessly into the mass choreography.  The cast numbers 800,  on any one night 168.   At the curtain call I had never seen so many people on one stage, ever.   It overwhelms.

For this is Chickenshed, the famous theatre group (and teaching campus for BTec performance diplomas) which excludes nobody willing to join and perform.  Physical and mental disabilities or illness are no bar;  deeply troubled and excluded children too have their lives changed,  many staying for years.  Among the adults performing are those who teach the courses.  Music, lighting and sets are of professional standard and often grander than most commercial children’s theatre:  the entrance of the Snow Queen and the frozen victims trapped above is spectacular).

All of which might make you expect to approve,  to admire,  to donate to a good cause.  But for this 40th anniversary performance, a reprise of one of their classic devised stories, the first thing to do is just applaud.  It is seriously good fun:  witty, artful, thoughtful and performed with headlong glee.  The story is a mischievous seasonal mashup: a family of children who on Christmas Eve find that Santa has delivered the wrong sack, and that it falls to them to deliver presents to the Ugly Sisters, Scrooge, and the Snow Queen.  So they ‘imagine‘ their sofa into a sleigh, recruit a couple of  divinely silly reindeer (Billy Ashworth and Robin Shillinglaw) and head off to Pantoland, 1842 London, and the frightening Snow Queen’s domain.
There are some fine jokes in Pantoland, as the Ugly Sisters dispatch casts all over the country.  A minute girl plays the big bad wolf with a terrifying roar,  a  disillusioned Buttons sneers “Hello Buttons – not ‘zackly Shakespeare, is it?”  and a depressed Aladdin in specs reveals that he has been replaced by David Hassellhoff, or possibly Jedward.  Inevitably the Sisters end up dragged to Dickens’ London and Scrooge to the Snow Kingdom,  where in one of the most dramatic emotional moments he saves a small child  (Serena Ehanire) from going over to the dark side.

There are solos, and some powerful leads (Michael Offei a particularly funny ugly sister)  but it’s all about the ensemble:   the three rotas of sleigh kids, snowpeople, panto stars and Londoners who take turn throughout the many matinees and evenings,  crowding and dancing and singing and ultimately forming a picture far bigger than any one of them. Or us.

box office  0208 292 9222    chickenshed.org.uk    to  11 Jan

rating:   Who’s competing?  Not Chickenshed people.  So here’s  one big happy Christmouse for them

Damemouse

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HORRIBLE HISTORIES : Barmy Britain Part 2 – Garrick, WC1

BLOOD, FILTH,  MURDER AND CHILDISH GLEE

A fearful roar, as of surf on rocks,  heralds the arrival and settling of school parties:  three hundred 6-11 year olds surging and bouncing while ushers look on with maternal pleasure or wincing horror,  depending on gender.  But they’re game for theatre, even if it risks being a bit educational:  it is rare for the mere rising of the safety-curtain to meet deafening cheers.  This softened me up, and I needed it:  Terry Deary’s “Horrible Histories” books are hugely popular but always put me off.   I admit that children love gory fights, beheadings, filth, bums, laughing at authority figures and any kind of noisy cartoonish disgracefulness.   I did, once.  But why, I grumped, encourage it?    So I avoided the books.  And the shows, written by Deary with Neal Foster (who also directs).

But when something’s big and beloved, it behoves the solemn critic to turn up, dodge the flying ice-creams and risk the eardrums.  And possibly to join in the audience chorus of the Black Death Song,  swellings and smelliness culminating in   “Time to ring your funeral bell / Then along comes Mr Death, and takes you off to hell”).    Not to mention a startling Burke and Hare number to the tune of Postman Pat.

For this is a lively hour,  with Lauryn Redding and Anthony Spargo hurtling between characters from Richard the Lionheart to Queen Victoria with a series of (rather classy) quick-change costumes and a magic folding prop-box as castle, prison or tumbril.   There is the inevitable delight in beheading, bum-wiping  (Henry VIII”s Groom of the Stool),  and any war which turned out to be pointless: some good jokes about William Wallace and the Bruce.   There is an attempt at curing an audience member of the Plague by rubbing a chicken’s bum on her neck and  “purifying the air” with loud noises.

That detail of superstitious plague-cures was why in the end, I gave in and admitted that as school or holiday trips go, it’s not bad.  For Deary may jump on disgusting facts and embarrassing errors of judgment like Richard  I’s crusades,  but they are real facts and sometimes enlightening:  these children now know the scale of plague deaths, the progress of Boudicca, why the Stone of Scone matters, how Tudor executioners got paid, and that the heroic legend of Dick Turpin and Black Bess is hogwash.  They know that history is a big, brash riveting story.  It’s not just Second Period After Break on Wednesdays, as it was for my bored generation;   or “How would you feel if you were a Roman Soldier’s wife?”  as it sometimes is now.  It’s a story.

Box office: 0844 412 4662   to 5 Jan

Rating :  three    3 Meece Rating

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ONCE A CATHOLIC – Tricycle, NW6

KICKING THE HABITS IN A KILBURN CONVENT

Mother Basil is dissecting a rabbit’s reproductive system for the O-level set,  but as she reaches “vagina”  the Angelus rings and everyone must recite “The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary..”etc.    As work resumes,  an innocent enquiry about sperm sends Mother Basil into palpitations  and Mary Mooney to Reverend Mother Thomas Aquinas for a bollocking.

Full disclosure:   I was a convent girl, a decade later than this play’s 1950 setting,  and could have joined in that Angelus without hesitation.  But my nuns were of a subtler and kinder disposition than the maniacal blackbeetles in Mary O’Malley’s  1970’s hit play.  It is a savagely funny portrait of the Catholicism of the Irish diaspora,  cultishly clinging to the regulatory aspects of the Faith at the expense of spiritual and charitable ones.  It struck me as a curious parallel with how today’s Islamic burqa-fundamentalists console their exile  in these chilly climes.

The play deals with three 15-year-olds, all inevitably called Mary, and their attempts to understand sexuality in the teeth of their demented mentors:  three nuns, Father Mullarkey, and an ancient music-master obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan.  Two have boyfriends and know a bit, not least from the dirty bits of Leviticus.  One is dating Derek, played by Calum Callaghan as a perpetually hair-combing Teddyboy with a bow-legged me-and-my-testicles swagger; another finds a dreadful posh-Catholic Cuthbert and goes all the way  (ah, more personal memories:  a chap called Malachy once informed me that extramarital sex is “all right between Catholics, because we can confess it”).

Director Kathy Burke opts to play it hard for laughs.   Don’t look here for the tragedies of Catholicism or the agonies of children.  Cecilia Noble could have delivered Mother Peter’s homilies about Purity  in a cooler, more sinister way, but here all religious adults are played as one-note cholerics. And it is indeed hog-snortingly funny,  from Mother Peter brandishing the compulsory stout Lady of Fatima Knicker, to the Purity lecture and  Mary Mooney’s Irish Dancing.  It’s not  topically vicious: Father Mullarkey (Sean Campion, delightful)  is not a bad man, just an eejit, embarrassedly kind when Mary Mooney (Molly Logan)  wants to confess a Mortal Sin.   She was coerced into giving a lad what she thinks he called a Twentieth Century Fox…Oh, she means a J. Arthur Rank.  Tactless of the priest to offer her a sausage, but she does get absolution.

She wants it.  Indeed the most serious character, and the only subtle performance, is Logan  as the lumpen, lank-haired devout child of a family too poor to pay for her to go on the Fatima pilgrimage:  a sweet open soul unrecognized by the purblind nuns amid her slyer classmates.  Her wounded sincerity edges this romp of a show closest to angry satire.  But it’s a period piece,   and probably best played as a lark.    There are darker plays to be written about Catholicism and sexuality,  but in the cheerful ‘70s,  when we shudderingly shrugged off the 1950s gloom, this one was needed.

box office  020 7328 1000    to 18 Jan

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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LIZZIE SIDDAL Arcola, E8

ART AND LOVE AMONG THE PRE-RAPHAELITES 

1850,  and in William Holman Hunt’s studio a new model poses:  head gently inclined and body in corsetless flowing robes,  the distressed-maiden look beloved of pre-Raphaelite painters.  In bursts a tousled Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tom Bateman):  smitten, he  invites her to  drop her millinery day-job to be Beatrice for his Dante picture.  But no sooner has he booked her than the elfin figure of John Everett Millais (James Northcote, an elegant weasel)  poaches her in turn to pose in a bath as Ophelia once the bonnet-trimming season is over. “I am the best painter in England. This will be my masterpiece.  I will make you immortal”.

And so he does, though in January, which gives her pneumonia.  But it is Gabriel whose muse and lover she remains.  Meanwhile the testy Holman Hunt (Simon Darwen) disastrously attempts a romantic rescue of a cheerfully pragmatic whore (Jayne Wisener), because “reclaiming a woman would be a heroic act”.  That ends as badly as you’d hope, and indeed from time to time there is a touch of Monty Python in his depiction of the artists.  Why not?  comedy is a quick way to expose absurdity, and its comic counterpoint is one of the pleasures of Jeremy Green’s vigorous, entertaining and ultimately haunting play. It’s good: appropriate to have its first outing in this former paint factory, but I’d put money on it going further.

The balance is beautifully kept under Lotte Wakeham’s sharp direction, and the picture darkens towards the end. For the central story, given all its dignity,  is tribute to the South London seamstress who could read, loved poetry, and longed to paint and express her faltering visions of transcendence.  She had some talent, spotted by John Ruskin (a peerlessly creepy yet sincere portrayal by Daniel Crossley).    Emma West is perfect: she has a remarkable resemblance to the redhead of the pictures and a still ethereality in her small, pale, unusual face.  Which makes it all the more beguiling when Siddal reveals a sharp wit, and tragic in her final desperate decline.

For while it was healthy artistically for the Pre-Raphaelites to challenge  Victorian stiffness,  it was still mid-century.  Defying convention in real life brought collateral damage.  Siddall lived with Rosseti and expected marriage;   he demurred as she became weary, weakened by her Ophelia immersion. Prescribed laudanum she became addicted;  he married her out of pity, she being at 29 “used goods”.  Two unhappy years and a stillbirth saw her dead from an overdose.  In grief and guilt Rossetti  buried all his poems in her grave.

Oh, and seven years later he had them dug up and published.  This ghoulish fact dramatically book-ends the play, graveyard lanterns opening it and a wicked final scene showing the artist persuaded by his chirpy agent to retrieve the manuscript and have it disinfected for two guineas.   Nobody will blame him,  because “talent vindicates all behaviour”. The eternal cry of the artist…
box office  0207 503 1646 to 21 Dec http://www.arcolatheatre.com

RATING:  four      4 Meece Rating

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STICK MAN Leicester Square Theatre, WC1

STICK  MAN     Leicester Square Theatre,  WC2

“I wanna watch a movie”  grumped a small voice behind me.  Firm came the reply “We’re not going to watch a movie.  This is a theatre. It’s exciting. It’s your first time”.   Nursery teachers, grannies, mums and the occasional daddy dragooned their charges onto booster cushions in a sussurration of anxious excitement.   It is two years since I was charmed by Scamp Theatre’s rendering of Julia Donaldson’s book,  and it’s fresh in from a long tour for Christmas. So I dropped into an early matinee off Leicester Square –  unaccustomedly louche for the church-hall playgroup set, but thrilling as a first West End experience.

Of all the early-childhood (3+)  theatre around, Sally Cookson’s production  remains one of the most satisfying and layered. Deceptive simplicity, repetitive rhymes and Playschool larks relate a thrilling story.  The current performers  are Richard Kiess, Alex Tosh and Cassie Vallance (who does a virtuoso dog, swan, and river).  Benji Bower’s music keeps small hearts beating and Kiess, satisfyingly twiggy in his tan jeans,  carries the small model of Stick Man ,faithful to the Axel Scheffler illustration .  It keeps being hijacked, and he winces convincingly when it  is bitten, thrown, soaked,  or used as a bat.   The story is that he leaves his ladylove and children in the Family Tree and goes for a run, but a dog gets him, then a girl throws him in the river, a swan builds a nest with him, and he nearly ends up on the fire at Christmas until,  by rescuing Santa with a well-judged prod,  he earns a sleighride home.

You feel utter identification growing around you as he endlessly protests “I”m not a bat! I’m not a Pooh-stick! I’m Stick-Man, that’s me!”  Small children understand. They are endlessly scooped up, carried, taken to places they resent and called by wrong nicknames.  Stick-man expresses that healthy indignation.  And he’s lost, and they know about that too – “Stick man is lonely, stick man is lost,  stick man is frozen and covered in frost”.   His children are missing him, and worried Daddy won’t be home for Christmas.   So involvement rises,  the little movie-buff behind me joining in the cries of “Wake up!” when our hero falls asleep in the grate, in imminent danger of conflagration.  Like all the best children’s theatre, it will send them home to make their own shows under the table and behind the sofa.  All they need is a stick.

Box Office: 08448 733433 | http://www.leicestersquaretheatre.com
wed-sat 1030 am,  plus Sat-sun 2 pm.

Rating :  Four very young mice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE NEXT ROOM – THE VIBRATOR PLAY – St James’ Theatre, SW1

GASPS,  SHRIEKS,  ELECTRICITY AND SADNESS

Coincidentally (and after a week when loveless porn and sex education were splattered all over the news)  the Twitterati gasped at Darla and Jon of Topeka,  who are still keeping up abstinence a year after their  wedding,  to be “double holy”.  They say that when Bedroom Thoughts occur,  she spritzes cold waterand he “eats a whole raw potato to take him out of the mood”.

That Ruskin-like sexual taboo took us nicely into Sarah Ruhl’s remarkable play, born on Broadway and first seen here at the Theatre Royal Bath.  It is set in the home of an 1880’s American doctor,  beautifully built on two levels with swags, ruffles, piano, curly wallpaper downstairs and stern panelling in the consulting-room above.   Dr Givings‘ speciality is female hysteria:  weepiness caused by “pressure in the womb” and treated by causing “paroxysm”.   Until lately he  – or his nurse assistant Annie, who has a touching emotional subplot –  brought it on manually;  thanks to Mr Edison he  now has a vibrating appliance.   Paroxysm is, of course,  orgasm.   Ruhl , fascinated by this quirk of medical history,  with director Laurence Boswell  and some very brave actors achieves both a great many laughs of the Harry-met-Sally variety,  and some sad and profound insights into human unhappiness.

At first we are drawn into mere absurdity,  as the doctor (Jason Hughes, stiffly earnest) treats a patient (Flora Montgomery)  who has become so depressed she sees ghosts in the curtains.   She has never experienced such abandonment (“If I felt such things  in the presence of my husband I would be so embarrassed I would leave the room”).   In medical surroundings however her shrieks contrast with the prim detachment of the doctor.  At least until he turns the machine up and the lights fuse.

Meanwhile downstairs his wife,  a chirpy, bright young woman played with enchanting eccentricity by Natalie Casey,   is sorrowing because she has no milk to feed her baby.   She hires a wet-nurse, herself grieving for a dead infant.   The theme is being divided from your biological nature –  whether feeding your child or experiencing a climax with your lover.   And while I suspect some men will just laugh,  I found that evocation of womanly dislocations very moving. Not least in Madeline Appiah’s fine performance as the dignified “darkie” wet-nurse,  trying neither to love the baby or to hate it for not being her dead son.

A male hysteric – an artist played with gorgeous yellow-book silliness by Edward Bennett – tips the second act into rudery (he gets the machine, too) and offers the doctor’s wife romantic visions. Some all-girls electrical experimentation also leads to a revealing conversation with the wet-nurse,  who – being free of all this white-madam refinement – knows perfectly well what orgasms are for.  Conclusions arrive, albeit a bit slowly.

Ruhl’s writing is beautiful and adventurous: I love her reflections on the electrical age ending the old “solemnity” of candle-flames.  Equally often it is snortingly funny.  Take the doctor’s outrage after his wife has been fraternizing with the artist:  “How do you know about biscotti!?”    Ugh, Italian ways!   Biscotti can lead to all manner of smut. A chap must keep tight hold of his raw potato.

 

box office  0844 264 2140  to  4 Jan.  Producers: Peter Huntley and Just for Laughs Theatricals, in association with Theatre Royal Bath

rating:  four     4 Meece Rating

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ERIC AND LITTLE ERN – Vaudeville, WC2

BRINGING BACK THE SUNSHINE 

“Are you going to read your newspaper or annoy me?”  asks Ern, trying to concentrate on his bedtime reading.   “I can do both!”  replies Eric confidently, a 6ft,  bald, black-spectacled eternal six-year-old:  charming , enraging and unforgettable.   Behind me a woman’s voice gasps in mirth “Just like my husband!” .  Moments later,  Eric wanders to the window and hears a police siren,  and suddenly most of the audience are laughing before he can say  “He’s not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed”.   This ninety-minute evening often feels less like a show than a ritual of remembrance, gentle mourning and solidarity.

There have been other Morecambe and Wise tribute acts,  recently a tremendous performance by Bob Golding as Eric alone.  For me that threatened  to overshadow this  affectionate re-creation by  Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel.    But their focus is  the relationship between the pair over 43 years, first in variety  then  in TV shows  – at their peak written by Eddie Braben –   of an innocent brilliance whose closest modern equivalent is probably Miranda (and even that is less innocent.)

The first act, though studded with jokes from the Braben years and a daft old vaudeville klaxon gag or two, is dramatized, and works about 70 per cent of the time.   Ernie is in a hospital bed, nearing his own last heart attack in 1999 when the shade of Eric,  dead fourteen years, turns up at his bedside messing about in a white coat  (much serious tutting over the clipboard, culminating in turning it the right way up).  He gradually rouses Ernie to remember routines.    Stephens captures the restless funny-bones of the taller man  and Ashpitel the wounded self-image of Ernie: both convince after a while.  Poignant moments deflate just in time (“I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost you, Ern” says Eric. Then thoughtfully “Bought a hamster, probably”.    The gags endure, diamond-bright.  Some are sublime and perennial,  like Morecambe’s wounded “I was playing the right notes. Not necessarily in the right order”.    Some clean-yet-mucky ones will never die.   “Paintings?  My auntie’s got a Whistler” –  “Now, there’s a novelty!”.      Others are doubly funny for being out of date.  “Marjorie Proops”  “Really?”  “Every day in the Mirror”.

Ah, memories!   Bill Cotton , Lew Grade, Winifred Atwell,  Bob Martin’s dog powders, Russ Conway, Des O’Connor (“short for Desperate”).  For anybody over fifty these are magical incantations,  words of power and comfort.   For the young, the second act is  at least a demonstration, BBC-Sunday-night-style, of  their virtuoso crosstalk before the red plush curtain.  Why not?   Writing and personae like these are too precious to die with their original performers.  Tributes are  OK  if done with love.  And that fizzes from the audience like Tizer.

box office  0844 412 4663  to 12 Jan  (mainly matinées after mid- Dec)
Supported by : Stage One

Rating:  three      3 Meece Rating(and a vaudeville mouse as a makeweight)  Comedy Mouse

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