Monthly Archives: November 2013



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  and a depressed Aladdin in specs reveals that he has been replaced by David Hassellhoff, or possibly Jedward.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    to  11 Jan

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



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HORRIBLE HISTORIES : Barmy Britain Part 2 – Garrick, WC1


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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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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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

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 |
wed-sat 1030 am,  plus Sat-sun 2 pm.

Rating :  Four very young mice    4 Meece Rating

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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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“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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Here’s dark brilliance, a glimpse of the void.   The set itself is noir,  a tangled ever-changing revolving nightmare of city, fairground, mansion and and treescape.  The very costumes are monochrome: against a hundred shades of grey  there flickers a shine of 1940‘s platinum-blonde or a bride-white  negligée.    Tim Goodchild’s design, with remarkable lighting and projection by Tim Lutkin and Peter Wilms,  perfectly frame an unexpected and  heart-hammeringly tense evening.

Unexpected, because Hitchcock’s  famous 1951 film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel went only halfway to hell.  Here Craig Warner has gone all the way, back to the book.   It begins like the film with two men meeting on a train – thoughtful quiet Guy and pushy, manic, overfriendly Charles Bruno.  The latter posits a fantasy in which they could baffle detection by doing one another’s murders.  He assumes that Guy would like to be rid of his unfaithful separated wife,  while he wants his father dead.   Guy thinks it is a bad taste joke.  It isn’t.  His wife is strangled at a fairground and Bruno nags him to fulfil his side.

Hollywood, anxious for virtue to triumph,  departed from Highsmith at this point.  But theatre seems tougher:  the whole of Act 2 is unfamiliar, and I will not rob you of one single gasp by spoiling it.    So let us talk instead of quality: something which Robert Allan Ackerman gets from his starry cast in plenty.

Laurence Fox is the architect Guy, at first so quiet one worries for his audibility in the train scene: but that  geeky pianissimo makes all the more dramatic his  flowering, or descent,  into panic and beyond.  I have never seen Fox operate at quite this level, and it pins you to your seat.    Still more alarming is Jack Huston’s Bruno: not the chill smiling psychopath of Hitchcock’s version but a manically unbalanced walking Oedipus-complex,  fixated (shades of Highsmith’s other antihero, Ripley)  on getting close to Guy himelf.  Huston disintegrates before our eyes.  The strangling scene  is mild compared to his recounting of it,   and when his parricidal fantasy unreels, high on a vertiginous staircase,  the tangled projections overhead seem to be a map of his very brain.

In the rising hysteria the women strike contrasting notes: Myanna Buring flame-haired and vampy as the victim wife, Miranda Raison cool, pure, and innocent until too late.  But wildest of all is Imogen Stubbs as Bruno’s mother: a glamorously fading, plaintive smother-mother played with an intensity worthy of a Tennessee Williams creation.  When the horrid truth overwhelms her in turn, the stage itself shivers.

It’s a classy bit of work,  not least because actual violence occurs only once before the end.  Poker, axe, flamethrower and gun seem to threaten,  but as Guy says  hell is all inside the skin.  A man can be hollowed out by evil: and that’s when  a mere thriller becomes an epic.

box office  0844 482 5130     to  22 feb
Rating:  four 4 Meece Rating

PS:  With the superb clarity of youth, my occasional companion Jennifer-Jane Benjamin has taken to delivering reviews with one-word-per-star.   Midsummer Night’s Dream was “Shouty, Mirthful, Gay”.    Strangers on a Train is “Bonkers, Incestuous, Clever, Creepy”.   Heaven knows what’ll happen when she hits five stars..

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TORY BOYZ – Ambassadors’ Theatre, WC1


Next to the Mousetrap and opposite the Ivy,  in the grubby splendours of this pocket playhouse the National Youth Theatre’s rep company is  packing its last few matinee-only houses.  So it should: it was a smart move to revive (with the author’s skilful updates)  James Graham’s 2008 play about the Conservative Party and gay rights.

Or,  given that the said party has just endorsed same-sex marriage,   the more difficult matter of gay acceptance in its own ranks.   Graham, of course, lately wrote the NT hit THIS HOUSE about the 1970’s hung parliament,  and this earlier work shows how he got to that remarkakble level while still under thirty.   Hes grasp of the ambiguities, glories and absurdities of Parliamentary government has been refining over years.

Our hero  Sam – subtly and touchingly played by Simon Lennon – is a young working-class northerner, a Tory research assistant with a passion for improving the world and particularly schools,  which are his minister’s brief .  Scenes where he explains civil government to lairy schoolchildren are terrific: you can almost smell the sweat and swagger of them as they role-play and bicker.   “Sir, is the Chancellor really allowed to tell the Prime Minister to fuck off?”.    But just as the kids have an ineradicable habit of using “gay” as a synonym for “rubbish”,  so it is clear to Sam that as his arrogant chief of staff says, Europe and homosexuality are the party traditionalists’ two biggest emotional problems.  If you want to freak one out, “offer him a copy of Attitude in one hand and a croissant in the other”.

Ambitious, idealistic,  and shakily unable to get it on with a cheerful young suitor who keeps trying to date him,  Sam becomes haunted, with a series of fifty-year flashbacks ,  by the young Ted Heath,  beautifully evoked in all his forceful grumpy  reticence by Niall McNamee.  In a lovely touch, he does up the buckle of his raincoat with care before stepping out with his only female friend. Better safe than sorry.   The  historical imagined moments  are neatly and clearly staged,  and as Sam struggles towards clarity and self-acceptance through an obviously  vain attempt to find out whether Prime Minister Heath was actually gay or not,    the plot thickens nicely.  And there are two very touching moments:  Sam’s final encounter with the mouthy schoolboy Ray (Aaron Gordon) and a supernatural, but satisfying, colloquy with poor old Heath.  The play will last; and some at least of its young cast will go a long way.

box office 084 4811 2334    to 29 Nov

Rating    Four    4 Meece Rating

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EAT PRAY LAUGH – Dame Edna Everage farewell tour – Palladium, W1


My gladdie lies before me on the train seat as I write, wilting gently.   I doubt I shall throw it away,  for the opening night of Barry Humphries’ farewell UK tour is poignant.  My brother Mike and I have seen every one of Dame Edna’s West End appearances since 1969  (her bizarre Albert Hall concerto four years ago and the panto debut at Wimbledon were interludes in a 15-year gap between full shows).  When it all began we were young,  and the Edna character was just an opinionated Moonee Ponds housewife in upswept glasses,  but  some things endure.  On that night 44 years ago, knees less creaky than now obeyed the command to “Stand and tremble!” the gladioli the muscular Edna hurled at us.  Tonight we did it again.

As years rolled by Humphries has elevated her to megastar status, with wilder gowns and sparklier glasses.   The legendary targeting of the audience became ever more terrifying:  last time we were in Row E,  and cowered as rows behind and ahead of us were mercilessly questioned. This time – inspired by a self-absorbed bestseller – Edna arrives on a jewelled elephant and claims to have been in a celebrity ashram, with the Dalai Lama and Sharon Osbourne booked in under false names  and “little Stephen Fry. Booked in as Stephen Fry”.  There’s the traditional verbal strafing of the front rows: “You’ve come dressed for the occasion.  Not this occasion, obviously.  Cleaning the car. Or assisting a family pet to give birth”.    This culminates in the claim that she is licenced to conduct Punjabi weddings and the singling out of an earringed youth and elderly lady, strangers, as bride and groom.   Reports from previews say Edna targets gay men to improve the joke: on press night,  nimble as ever,  on discovering that the victim had a wife at home in Kent she rang her to break the news of the remarriage and broadcast her baffled bedtime replies over the loudspeakers.

Cruel?  Not really.  The immense, self-aware persona rises above that,  mocking her very mockery:  she is the archetype of every waspish female relative who has punctured our self-esteem since childhood.  But this time we can laugh.  And  as a seasoned Ednologist I have to say that there is a softness now, a dilution of the basilisk glare,  which is not entirely due to the light of nostalgia.

I write of Edna,  and the second half is hers.  But Humphries’ first half is just as skilled.   Sir Les Patterson, no longer “cultural attaché” but wannabe TV chef,  amiably repulsive as ever, makes ‘fusion barbie’  rissoles, spitting,  vanishing noisily into the dunnee and telling an apparently pointless, maundering senile anecdote culminating in the rudest joke of the year.  Briefly  replaced by his (newly invented and near-the-knuckle) gay clerical brother, he undergoes a coup de theatre to become Sandy Stone, the mournful old suburban ghost reflecting on a lost child long ago.   Some jib at this deliberate lowering of the energy and acknowledgement of grief, but in character comedy it always feels like the ultimate act of theatrical courage and bravura:  saying “I have the skill to make you cry. It’s just my choice, tonight, to make you laugh”.

I like that.  After the final climactic waving of massed gladdies Edna becomes a mere projection and Barry Humphries walks on as himself,  79 years old,  to say goodbye.  We stay on our feet in something close to awe.  And in sadness,  nimbly  punctured by a sardonic  “Promise to come to my next farewell tour”.   One can only hope.

box office   0844 412 4655     to 5 Jan
Rating:   Inappropriate.  Too historic.  So here’s a cross-dressed Ednamouse instead. Damemouse

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THAT FACE – Landor, SW9

After three red-carpet nights up West there’s bracing refreshment in a pub theatre, especially offering the first London revival of a play which in 2007 amazed the theatre world.  The first of the “middle-class dramas” promised by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court saw Polly Stenham, then 19,  winning  a clutch of awards and an Olivier nomination with a dark, passionate 90-minute portrait of an affluent family in freefall.  Having missed it then,  I was eager to find out what the fuss was about (one critic called her a new Tennessee Williams).  Curiosity was the greater because her most recent play No Quarter (also about a messed-up rich family) struck me as  pretentious, vapid and fey.

This one is brilliant.  In No Quarter there was a tiresome sense that druggy, posh decadent bohemians are somehow more interesting than other people –   an attitude you can only get away with (and then, not for long)  if you’re Noel Coward.   In this earlier play, though, the teenage Stenham confronted head-on, with real fury as well as absurd humour,  the damage and horror of addiction.   Sixteen-year-old Mia (Stephany Hyam) is initially seen as a sadistic boarding-school brat helping  her ghastly friend Izzy (Georgina Leonidas, a sexy spitfire nightmare)  to torture a younger girl.  But by the end we weep for what her terrible parents have made her: Hyam, in a terrific professional debut, finely balances shrillness with childlike vulnerability.

Eighteen-year-old Henry (Rory Fleck-Byrne)   has been trying to cure his mother of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse since he was thirteen,  and is locked into a dreadful co-dependency,  unable to escape the dual roles of baby boy and adored boy- acolyte,  sleeping on the end of her bed in case she chokes herself in the night, joining in her crazed dressing-up games.  “If you left she’d either top herself or get better” says Mia; but the poor good boy is trapped.  Their father is in Hong Kong with a new wife and baby,  only flying home when the school rings up to expel Mia for feeding her mother’s drugs to a child who ends up in a coma.

As we agonize over “underclass” families and the children of addict mothers and absent fathers, Stenham’s pitiless message is that equally terrible childhoods may lie hidden,  cushioned by money and Docklands flats.  Tara Robinson directs with headlong, violent verve: the scenes unroll around a bed which can be  in a dormitory,  either apartment or – with sad chill – can represent the distance between father and daughter in a smart restaurant:  a flat white emptiness.   Caroline Wildi as Martha the manipulative, unrepentant addict mother  is a gaunt and glaring, beguilingly horrible figure:  a performance which, staring-eyed in that intimate space,  will be hard to forget.  A gripping play, with a  proper beating heart.  I now see what the  2007 fuss was about.

Box Office: 020 7737 7276 |    to  1 Dec

Rating:  four4 Meece Rating

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MOJO – Harold PInter Theatre, SW1


Three distinct audiences will head for this play.   It brought an Olivier to Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court in 1995, and some will come in mere homage to the playwright whose eloquence and mythic echoes gave the world Jerusalem, 14 years later,  and to his director Ian Rickson.   Then there will be (already are!)  hordes of teenage girls drawn by the casting of Rupert Grint,  Potter’s  Ron Weasley.   And finally it may lure a new generation of young men, drawn in by the £ 10 day-tickets after hearing that it is very Tarantino.  Black comedy, gangsters,  a sleazy club,  a corpse chopped in half in two dustbins,  a shooting,  and sharply dressed young men forever calling one another cunts.   Add to that an ecstatic programme essay on early rock ‘n roll, and the playwright’s claim that he wanted dialogue “as rhythmic and compulsive as Shakin’ All Over ,or Hound Dog” . Sweary rock ‘n roll! Cool.

It is set in 1958 in Ezra’s club on Dean Street, perfectly realized by Ultz and given  meaningful extra gloom by references (classic Butterworth, and effective)  to a fine July day outside.  It starts in the upstairs room where six guys, in various combinations,  fret over the poaching of their star Silver Johnny by a rival,  and break the news of  the owner’s murder to his weird son,  Baby.  The second act is downstairs,  as they endure a terrified siege alongside the corpse-bins..

The idealized image of a  grimly macho ‘50s Soho clearly gave the 26-year-old Butterworth a heavy dose of pre-natal nostalgia.  There are no women – the only mention of them being scatological remarks about how they lose control of their bodily functions when Silver Johnny is onstage.    Daniel Mays provides the humour and some humanity,  in a wilder reprise of his terrific TV role as Ronnie Biggs and his recent Donmar part as a dodgy lawyer. His cheeky-fixer facade crumbles into hapless panic and little amphetamine spurts of viciousness.    Grint  as Sweets  the drug provider  is an endearing fool;  Ben Whishaw is frankly   superb as the damaged, cold-eyed Baby.    The second act, which he dominates, is by far the best.

But to be honest,  this supposed modern-classic almost lost me before that.  Call the characters classical archetypes,  interpret it as an epic clash of two kingdoms with Baby as Hamlet,  or an “austere, savage, hilarious ritual” of male tribes (that’s what Butterworth says in the programme)  and you can admire it.  Everyone did when it was fresh and shocking in 1995.    But two decades of TV and film obsession with similar macho gangs,  monotonous cuntified  abuse and self-pitying male self-forgiveness  have blunted that sharpness.  It’s finely acted, set, and directed  (though it could lose ten minutes in the first half)  and  I am almost ashamed to say it left me cold.  But it did, it really did.

box office  0844 871 7622  to 25 Jan

Rating:  three     3 Meece Rating

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JEEVES & WOOSTER IN Perfect Nonsense – Duke of York’s, WC2

BERTIE STORMS THE STAGE – and gets the cheese! 

When Bertie Wooster, with a start,  realizes that the curtain has gone up and turns from his easy-chair to apologize (“I thought we said 7.30 for eight?”),  there is flash of overwhite teeth, a sleek Brylcreem parting and a vacuous “Haw-haw-haw” from Stephen Mangan.  Which together made me think  “Blimey!  Duke of York’s Theatre, and there IS the Duke of York! Prince Andrew, to the life!”.

Which I am sure is not deliberate.  But it added another tiny layer of pleasure.  And this adorable production is about layering joy on joy,  joke on joke in a delectable millefeuille of absurdity.   The Goodale Brothers script keeps P.G.Wodehouse’ language at its heart in a way TV dramatizations don’t manage. It does this by making Bertie the narrator: to have him only in dialogue is never enough to keep us gruntled,  because the joke in the novels is that the dim tongue-tied Bertie is, in narrative, a matchless verbal acrobat.

The idea is that he is back from the eventful weekend at Totleigh Towers in The Code of the Woosters   – the one with the cow-creamer, Spode, Madeleine Bassett,  Gussie Fink-Nottle and Aunt Dahlia’s blackmail .  Someone at the Drones told him he should be on stage, so there he is, alone with retro footlights and visible fly-ropes.  He cannot, of course , manage without Jeeves: so in shimmers Matthew Macfadyen,  razor-sharp creases to his trousers.  He wheels on a series of chimneypieces, walls, a car, a gratuitous ceiling at one point,  and in the second act a home-made revolve off which Bertie tumbles in panic.  “It’s called scenery, sir. Quite widely used in the theatre”.     Game as ever, though distracted by wanting to play with the props,   Bertie struggles on, warning us “There are boring bits in every play. This is one” as he tries to get dressed unassisted behind a screen.

Jeeves takes on other parts – blundering newt-maniac Gussie in pebble glasses and Fairisle tank-top,   stridingly bossy Stiffy Byng,  Sir Watkyn, and a soppily romantic Madeleine in half a curtain and a lampshade, the quintessence of feminine threat as she utters, to a shuddering Bertie,   “A sigh that seemed to come straight from the camiknickers”.   Aunt Dahlia’s ancient butler Seppings (Mark Hadfield)  is everyone else – the aunt, a worryingly camp ginger manservant,  a policeman , the sound-effects and the eight-foot tall fascist buffoon Spode.  The Hitler moustache is easy enough,  but the  diminutive Seppings’  has to achieve Spodeian height with  increasingly desperate theatrical devices , which brought actual cheers.

The joy of Sean Foley’s direction is the way that Wodehousian absurdities (plus a few extra to tidy up the ending)  are complemented, not overbalanced, by Alice Power’s set and innumerable vaudeville devices and jokes about doubled characters trying to meet one another.  It’s top-grade physical meta-theatre,  yet still Wodehouse.   I could go on –  about the rubber duck, the side-whisker disaster and bowtie triumph, the dog attack, the knotted sheets, the surprise bicycle.  But just go.   Tickets start at twenty quid.  It’ll sell quick, so  Bertie would say, screw your courage to the sticking-plaster and besiege  the box office.

box office  0844 871 3051   to 8 March

rating:  five    5 Meece Rating

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TWELVE ANGRY MEN       –   Garrick, WC2

Storming out of 1950‘s America with a fresh, stunning ensemble,   Reginald Rose’s jury-room play hits modern London with the bitter topicality of a knife-blow.  Written for TV in 1954  it came to the stage, then the famous Lumet film in 1957.  But although its characters are a faithful cross-section of ‘50s white American manhood,  it speaks with  vigour to any age about anger, prejudice,  the power of reason,  empathy and honour.

The outline plot (lovingly parodied since in everything from Hancock to Rugrats) is familiar:  a jury split eleven to one ,  a dissenter turning them round to a Not Guilty verdict.  The charge is murder: a slum boy of sixteen  (clearly, though not explicitly, of an ethnic minority)  stabbing his violent father.   The judge’s voiceover tells us that the sentence is death if guilty.  Bias, lazy conclusions, circumstantial evidence and  jurors’ shrugging faith in weak witnesses get gradually dismantled.  Attitudes are stripped bare in the pressure-cooker of a sweltering room in thunder season.   Individuals,  known only by numbers, erupt from enervated silence to voice their real thoughts: notably Miles Richardson’s No.10, with a roaring, violent outbreak which is pure BNP: “These people – born to lie, born to kill, you know what they’re like, breed like animals -!”

Psychologically the play between the men is thrilling enough,  and written with marvellous tightness, even  humour. but Rose is canny enough to create detective-style cruxes around evidence: the knife, the passing train,  the witnesses’ errors.    It could risk stasis, despite the outbreaks of near-violence as it heats up,  but Christopher Haydon directs with rapid fluidity,  assisted by an understated but artful revolving table (Michael Pavelka’s design)  as if we were ourselves pacing round to see things from a new angle.

And his cast are beyond praise.  Martin Shaw is the dissenter,  almost an angel (the final lighting shot on his pale suit suggests it),  and plays initially with a gentle steely stillness,  letting his tempo rise under perfect control.   The American Jeff Fahey as his most bitter opponent plays superbly against him,  patrician poise disintegrating into private vengefulness.  Robert Vaughn is the wise, calmly thoughtful elder;  Ed Franklin touching and troubled as the only one who knows about  chaotic lives and knifings from his own background.

But all twelve are tremendous:   trapped onstage throughout, each of them – in body-language and expression  – immaculately serving the ebb and flow of anger and argument.   And – this doesn’t often get said – all credit to commercial theatre,  unfairly sneered at for catchpenny values and leg-shows.  Producer Bill Kenwright for the second year running (remember last year’s brilliant Three Days In May?)  has the bottle to put on a straight play involving nothing but middle-aged blokes sitting at a table on a single set discussing principles.  No pretty girls or love interest, just superb drama. Respect!

box office  0844 412 4662   to  1 March

Rating:  four      4 Meece Rating

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TARTUFFE – Birmingham Rep


It kicks off with a lad sliding down the banister of Liz Ascroft’s brilliantly skewed mansion set (twisted like the Valkenborch Babel Tower and faintly inscribed with an elegant Fragonard).   The first speech is a rant from a ferocious grandma,  waving a lapdog in a box and barking for it between lines like:  “If I can say this without giving offence, you’re wrong in everything you say and everything you do”.    This figure, who handily identifies the family members with a shower of insults,   is Janice Connolly:  known and loved in Brum for solo shows as “Mrs Barbara Nice”, here gracing the Rep with her matchless comedy-knees and  solid, benign hilarity.

That opening gale of merriment sets the tone for an evening of pure frivolity. And why not?    Its a recession, its November, its Birmingham, its probably raining.  In reviving Moliere’s angry, twice-banned 17c comedy about Tartuffe, a holy-joe hypocrite invading a bourgeois family, Roxana Silbert’s first production for the Rep’s new theatre plays it for fun.  Which is not consistently easy,  because Chris Campbells new translation eschews the verse form which in French made Moliere’s lengthy philosophical speeches flow more easily.  Some may also deplore the missed opportunity to make topical points about fanaticism rather than revelling in farce.

But its funny, and thats what Moliere wanted:  excoriated for his parody of religious hypocrisy and of those like the householder Orgon who fall for it,    he wrote “the comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see and avoid it”.  Thus,  the broader the better.    The utter preposterousness of Tartuffe,  a con-man trying to seduce Orgon’s  wife Elmire (Sian Brooke),   is invisible to the dupe.   He tries to force his daughter to marry the interloper,  gives him all his money,  and ignores every argument and evidence of his felony until –  in a second-act scene of comic physical perfection –  Elmire forces him to witness her near-rape, and he crawls out from under the table to confront the sagging underpants of his fallen idol.

Tartuffe is Mark Williams, a hippyish sandalled guru (“Laurent, just roughen up my spare hair-shirt”)    but the real delight is Paul Hunter’s Orgon,  idiotic in orange socks and a Craig-Brown hairdo,  the one character who is allowed a certain roundness and genuine pained revelation.  The costumes are modern, down to a ra-ra-skirt and leggings on Ayesha Antoine, who is nimble fun as the scornful interfering maidservant.  But a periwig does appear and disappear, and the towering white perm on Connolly’s head has pleasing 17c echoes:  imagine an albino turkey rashly attempting to mate with a Marie Antoinette up-do.

There are intermittent breaches of the fourth wall,  to the crowing delight of the front rows, and  happy local jokes in the crevices of Moliere:   HS2,  local parking, government policy,  and the cast’s horror that a visiting bailiff is from Wolverhampton.   It ends on a high. What more do you want?

0121 236 4455   or   www.    to 16 Nov.

Rating :  three      3 Meece Rating

plus a first sneak preview outing for Panto Mouse…because it nearly is one…     Damemouse

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KEELER – Charing Cross Theatre, WC2


“I have never committed a moral offence”  says Stephen Ward indignantly.   Sleek, patriarchal, patronizing, with a curious sexually ambivalent prurience,  Paul Nicholas convinces as a man satisfied with himself.   Never mind that he takes up pretty teenage simpletons, introduces them to his randy middle-aged friends, demands details of their sex lives “Bra first or panties?”, asks them for espionage pillow-talk and procures illegal abortions.

But Gill Adams’  play is called KEELER,  and  the important thing is that it is based on Christine Keeler’s own account and  approved by her:   a woman now aged and reclusive,  whose public identity has been defined by what happened to her half a century ago,  between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.  A strikingly beautiful Soho club dancer,  she was taken up by the society portraitist and osteopath Ward, and introduced both to dangerous lowlifes in the Rachman set,  and powerful wealthy men at Lord Astor’s Cliveden.

She slept with both the War Minister John Profumo and the Soviet attaché (and probable spy) Ivanov.  At the height of the Cold War and the global shudder of the Cuban missile crisis,  the scandal brought down the Macmillan government;  Ward killed himself before his conviction for pimping: a trial seen by many (including Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose much bigger version is about to open) as an Establishment revenge.  But it had, of course, the side effect of branding Keeler (and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies) as ‘prostitutes’.   In modern terms they were just ambitious models not averse to rich boyfriends:  Stringfellow girls,  football  WAGs if lucky,  at worst resorting to kiss-and-tell.  But in 1963  their public disgrace was extreme.

So Keeler has a right to be remembered in her terms,  and with Charlie Camms’ designs , ‘60s projections and music,   the play evokes smart flats, aristocratic swimming-parties and seedy clubs with tit-tasselled dancers playing coy and blowing kisses (ah, innocent pre-twerking days!).

It’s a missed opportunity though: a flat play with poor dialogue.  Sarah Armstrong’s Keeler has a pleasing vulnerability and nervous cheekiness: you wince for her,  though less for the tougher, larkier Mandy (Stacy Leeson).  The sequences with Profumo (Michael Good)  and Astor (Andrew Harrison)  are nicely dislikeable, emphasising the casually bossy entitlement of the age;    one of the strongest scenes has Keeler wanting to report her rape at the hands of one of the Notting Hill heavies of Ward’s slumming life,  and him shrugging it off “No bruises”.

Perhaps because Nicholas is also the director,  or due to the looming Lloyd-Webber musical,  Ward himself dominates more and more as the play goes on.  The corruption and unhappiness of Keeler fade in favour of a prolonged verbatim scene of his trial.  A queasy echo, come to think of it,  of the way the girls were treated as disposable and forgettable in 1963.

box office 08444 930650  to 14 Dec

rating  :  three  3 Meece Rating

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NUT – National Theatre Shed, SE1


What would you like to have written in your funeral eulogy?   Aimee, scruffy and pallid in urban battle-fatigues,  busy painting her toenails green, says.   “Brilliant.  Thass it. Brilliant. One word, no lists , no instructions. I was – It was –  I will be remembered as  –  brilliant!”.  Her friend Elayne, a young black woman,  remarks  “Thass not no eulogy, that’s a piss take”.
For all the mouthy eloquence, though, it is Elayne who is in trouble, and too receptive to the idea of hastening the day of her own funeral eulogy.  Nadine Marshall has a  clever, angrily troubled beauty,  well contrasted with the coarser Aimee (Sophie Stanton).   We do not know what sort of mental trouble Elayne is in, any more than we know why the set (by Lisa Marie Hall) consists of random crooked girders and bent pipes swaying overhead,  as if we had stumbled into an unfinished section of Crossrail.

Nor,  in the seventy-minute span of Debbie Tucker Green’s self-directed play,    do we really learn much more.   The first section, sparkily written and often amusing,  has the two women arguing about funerals, interrupted by an assertive young man grumbling that the doorbell doesn’t work  and a strange, faintly singing boy child who is half-noticed, half ignored in a way which makes you wonder whether he is supposed to be dead, or a memory.  It is that sort of play.   The next section is a two-hander, splendidly venomous and beautifully observed, in which a divorced couple rip chunks off one another over who has the best relationship with an invisible 11-year-old. Sharlene Whyte and Gershwyn Eustache Jr do it magnificently.

In the final section Whyte turns  out to be the younger sister of the troubled Elayne.  She too complains about there being no batteries in the doorbell,  so we must assume that the battery deficit is symbolic of Elayne’s voluntary isolation.  Another symbol is cigarette smoking,  with some weird semi-sadistic play in the first and third sections,  and numerous burns on Elayne’s arms.    Oh, and the mystery singing child is back  (Tobi Adetunji on press night, rather good and distinctly spooky).   Is he dead?  No idea.

The temporary Shed theatre has proved its worth this summer,  its informal warmth perfectly framing some bracingly unusual and striking work.   This one is as well performed as any,  credible in dialogue  and watchable in a depressing sort of way as a study in female unhappiness and unease.   But it is the least engaging Shed night so far,  smelling too strongly of neo-Beckettian theatre-anorakkery and mired in unsatisfying,  unnecessary, unresolved mystification.

box office 020 7452 3244  to 5 dec       Shed partner: Neptune
rating:  two         2 meece rating

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THE NATIONAL THEATRE 50th BIRTHDAY GALA – a view from the stalls by Irving Wardle

Meece with mask tiny compressedIrving Wardle – now in his 85th year – was a theatre critic from 1958 to 1995: for 26 of those 37 years he was the Times Chief Theatre Critic.  He  was Tynan’s deputy,  Pinter’s friend,  a playwright himself, and is still writing about theatre.  He saw the birth of the National Theatre in 1963 and was an honoured guest at Saturday’s immense gala night.  This new and  unfledged website,  home to one of his Times successors (though I am one whose tenure sadly lasted only three and a half years, not 26) is honoured to host Irving Wardle’s  exclusive impressions of Saturday night….A return to the critic’s chair from one of the art’s doyens.



“Who’s there?”: were the first words spoken on the NT stage in its opening
production of Hamlet in 1963.  The 50th birthday show opened with the same scene and the same words.  Who’s there?
Well, the Queen wasn’t, and nor were Peter O’Toole (the first Hamlet) or Peter Hall.  Otherwise, looking round the house, it seemed that everyone else had turned up, from Joan Plowright, still carrying the torch for Laurence Olivier to the massed crowd of backstage staff who overwhelmed the actotrs at the final lineup amid a glittering cloudburst of golden leaves.
In between it was pretty much bliss all the way.  Nicholas Hytner and his team had followed Peter Hall’s advice when he said that what such occasions need is “the obvious, very well done.”  From the NT’s 800 past productions we got through an astonishing 38 items in two and a quarter hours.  No interval, no commentary; just the dramatic work switching between staged and film archive extracts.  A tight structure that somehow allowed everything to breathe.  Even the instantaneous design – single Corinthian column for Judi Dench’s Cleopatra, or an elaborate cabinet of priceless china (for No Man’s Land) seemed visually sumptuous rather than austere.  While the stage events, no mattter how brief, came over as if they had all the time in the world.

There were two kinds of pleasure: authentic presentation of past events and seeing them recreated by other actors.  For instance there was Alex Jennings back as Professor Higgins, turning “The Rain in Spain” into a bullfight fought with gramophone horns.  Also James Corden reprising his Timms in The History Boys  –   with Alan Bennett himself making the French brothel lesson more riotous than it had been when Richard Griffiths  was taking the class.  Judi Dench returned twice to her past repertory with Cleopatra’s last speech in praise of Antony, and with Desiree Arnfeldt’s “Send in the Clowns”. Both made  time stand still and brought the house down.  As did Helen Mirren, re-enacting the murder of Ezra from Mouring Becomes Electra.

Writing about these scenes has the effect of turning them into a catalogue, which is directly opposite to the effect they had in performance :  each had time to develop its own life.

In the authenticity stakes, the undoubted killer was a clip from Maggie Smith’s Myra in the 1864 Hay Fever, engaged in arrogantly teasing dalliance with Anthony Nicholls before collapsing as a boneless deadweight into his arms  To comic genius on that level,  one responds with as much awe as laughter.

For the record there were some new performances that made you long to see them in full-scale revivals.  Top of that list for me was Ralph Fiennes as the rogue South African newspaper proprietor in Pravda, obsequiously fawning on the management before launching his reign on terror on the newsroom.  But the biggest show-stoppers were all from muscals:    Jerry Springer,  My Fair Lady, and Clive Rowe leading a marvellously drilled gangster congregation in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”  But, then, as Trevor Nunn rightly pointed out, “the NT is very well served by doing the whole spectrum.”
Not a bad motto for the next 50 years.

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MRS LOWRY & SON – Trafalgar 2 SW1


“Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!”  sings old Mrs Lowry,  playing an imaginary piano with a self satisfied smirk.  “…a sunbeam, to shine for him every day.Jesus wants me to be loving, And kind to all I see!”

I fear Jesus will have a long wait before any such lovingkindness reaches her son,  the artist L.S. Lowry.   In Martyn Hesford’s play, based on sad fact,  Elizabeth Lowry tyrannizes, manipulates and belittles her  lonely son her weapon being  a supposedly bedridden state (she leaps back from the window nimbly enough when she hears the door bang of an evening).   Disappointed in her marriage and dreams of doilyed gentility,  she despises the dutiful weary man who feeds her, rubs her feet,  and labours as a rent-collector to pay his father’s debts.

Worse, she despises his painting,  the loving work he does by night to record the scenes of scuttling crowds at the Salford mill gates,  lone wanderers like him, the trams and chimneys of his daily life.  “I paint what I see.  I’m a simple man , who paints. Every stroke of colour is made up of me”.   He wants her approval, her love, her cheerfulness (“I haven’t felt cheerful since 1868” she says, this being 1934).   Sly, helpless against her own maliciousness, she offers only enough crumbs of love to keep him enslaved. When the Manchester art critic calls his pictures “an insult to the people of Lancashire” she joyfully concurs; when a London gallery takes an interest she rips up the letter.

This ninety-minute play,  originally a Radio 4 commission, might be hard going, and takes a while to rise to its fierce emotional climax.  Its theme of blinkered gentility at odds with innovative art sits, at times, uneasily in the conventionality of the play itself.   Yet we are held by two remarkable performances .  Elizabeth is the marvellous June Watson,  hinting at just enough real pain to stop us physically hurling ourselves onto the tiny stage to shake her like a dog with a rat .  Laurie Lowry is Michael Begley,  with a merciless 1930’s hairstyle (unflattering to any man’s ears)  and a pallid subtle sweetness.  Abbey Wright directs, with Richard Kent’s subtle lighting and projection on the plain bedroom set suggesting the mournful beauty Lowry showed us.   As the London critic said, “all is conveyed by the expression of feeling”.  Her basilisk glare and  his sad, kindly, lopsided yearning convey it all afresh.

0871 789 1004  to 23 nov
rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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