…theatrecat.com will be back in the New Year with Wolf Hall and wartime and the new Wanamaker, and Beckett and Cleopatra and maybe even the odd panto. Thank you all, very much, for following this rogue website and giving head-space to a theatre moggy thrown out in the rain without a newspaper to shelter under.
And remember – at least 40 of the plays reviewed here are still running into January, and many are well worth seeing
Monthly Archives: December 2013
…theatrecat.com will be back in the New Year with Wolf Hall and wartime and the new Wanamaker, and Beckett and Cleopatra and maybe even the odd panto. Thank you all, very much, for following this rogue website and giving head-space to a theatre moggy thrown out in the rain without a newspaper to shelter under.
This is not a theatre-news website, but it wishes to extend sympathy to the audience and cast of The Curious Affair of the Dog in the Night-Time, and to Nica Burns and her staff at Nimax Theatres, after tonight’s structural collapse.
And admiration to those who reportedly evacuated without panic, and to the front-of-house team who assisted them. There will be some doomsaying about our old Victorian and Edwardian theatres, but this rare and shocking event will not, I hope, diminish the affection and enjoyment we get from them. And will do for many years to come.
SLEAZE AND SCANDAL IN THE SIXTIES
There is a painfully beautiful song in the second Act of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s new musical about the 1963 Profumo affair, a potential classic. “Hopeless when it comes to you” is sung by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson, the war minister’s loyal wife, when he has admitted the affair with Christine Keeler and his lie to Parliament. It feels inevitable that she should have the best number, because in this fascinating but squalid tale Hobson is the only untainted character.
Everyone else, from the Home Secretary to the press pack and the police, is either lecherous, naive, mendacious, prurient, malicious or vengefully corrupt. The teenage girls at the heart of it, Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, are merely naive good-time teens; Yevgeny Ivanov, the fleeting lover who added a Cold-war frisson to the scandal, is just an honest-to-god Russian spy with a taste for champagne.
But the rest are a terrible shower. And Stephen Ward, the high-society osteopath and portrait painter who liked introducing teenage beauties to middle-aged married men and hearing reports of the sex, is frankly a sleazebag. Not a villain, not a pimp , but dislikeable. Which is a problem tougher than most musical-theatre creators ever take on: Lord Lloyd-Webber deserved his emotional press night bow among his cast for having a go. If you believe, as I do, that there is nothing the form should not attempt, you must salute him.
His driving force is the belief – substantiated often , most cogently in a new book by Geoffrey Robertson QC – that Ward was stitched up by the establishment. Not only because the affair toppled the Minister for War and the Macmillan government, but because the exposure of his louche lifestyle – cabaret girls, shag-happy aristocrats, Krays and Rachman and drug dealers – forced Britain to look itself in the eye and admit that a certain looseness had taken hold, right at the top. Middle Britain became one vast, horrified twitching curtain. I am just old enough to remember it.
The problem faced by Christopher Hampton’s book (extra lyrics by Don Black) is acknowledging the miscarriage of justice without making Ward an improbable innocent. He is the narrator – emerging piquantly from a Blackpool waxwork chamber-of-horrors between Hitler and Genghis Khan – with a lyric about how he only tried “to be kind”. Alexander Hanson is a beautiful singer and a winning presence, but the character can never be likeable. We see him befriending the vulnerable Keeler without sex – a proxy seducer, a Pandarus promoting her affairs with others. We get lovely‘60s pastiche numbers and interesting musical subtlety (all the orchestrations are Lloyd-Webber’s own); in a character-development I would like to see more, of we see Keeler becoming coarser, more dissonant and cynical (Charlotte Spencer carries that well). There is a good duet with the minxier Mandy (the real one, still glamorous at pensionable age, was in the front rows last night).
Tellingly we see Ward the only clothed one in a funny rum-ti-tum orgy scene, and glimpse his fantasy of himself as a back-channel diplomatic fixer. As the net closes, and with sinister aggressive crashing chords the awful press and worse police make a corrupt case against him, he sits like a reverse image of the Phantom, at the receiving end of the angry music instead of singing it. That works.
Over a year ago the composer told me he was working on this, and I asked how he would handle Ward’s despairing suicide after the hostile summing-up. In the event he does it with a roaringly defiant man still clutching his final fantasy, of himself as a human sacrifice. That works. I can’t predict immortality for this show, but am not sorry to have been there.
box office 0844 847 2379 to March
NEVERLAND HAS ITS FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS RAISED
You can tick off reasons why this is just what the RSC should do. A fresh commission from a rising playwright, Ella Hickson; an intellectually and morally ambitious reinterpretation of a classic; a family show for the season with flying and sword-fights, superb sets full of surprises by Colin Richmond, and an internationally respected director , Jonathan Munby.
But you can’t win them all. And for all its merits this long, sprawling show doesn’t quite jell. Hickson reframes J.M.Barrie’s tale around Wendy and her mother, gets rid of Nana the dog and offers themes of family grief and feminism. Fair enough: Barrie’s elder brother died leaving an inconsolable mother, and it is not hard to trace the idea of the Lost Boys and the consoling myth of a Neverland of boy-fun which nonetheless yearns for a mother. Also, the Suffragette movement was hot in 1904, so it is playful to challenge the domestic entrapment of Wendy and raise Mrs Darling’s political consciousness in a coda.
It starts in the nursery with a romping family game . The boys are not small children but early adolescents, John (Jolyon Coy) a public-school prefect type and relegating Wendy to being a rescued damsel: “You must be very very sad, very very impressed and very very grateful”. It is not Peter Pan who arrives first, but the consumptive deathbed of brother Tom. The doctor is Arthur Kyeyune, who strikingly doubles later as the silent crocodile in a top-hat and trailing coat reminiscent of a voodoo Baron Samedi. The ticking of his clock is the ticking of time and mortality for us all.
Peter arrives, they all fly on a spectacular circling mobile, and Tinkerbell is a thumping, sarcastic, ginger-haired Waynetta Slob of a fairy with a vast pink tutu and a stroppy EastEnders attitude. There is a refreshing slanginess to Hickson’s dialogue, with plenty of “Bog off!” and “Do one!”. Tiger Lily (a she-macho Michelle Asante) inculcatesWendy with Girl Power. But for all the delight of the underground den and the pirate ship, the whooping boyish larkiness gets tedious, overdone perhaps to contrast with sensible liberated girlhood. And Peter (Sam Swann) is too hyperactive and coldly inhuman for sympathy. It all sits uncomfortably alongside the mournful preoccupation of Wendy (Fiona Button) with finding her lost brother. One minute she’s resisting Captain Hook’s creepy attempts to woo her with a balldress and tiara, the next showing solidarity with Tiger Lily, then back to Barrie whimsy when she finds out (on a flying bed with Peter, hmmm) that dead brothers become stars twinkling with maternal tears, and can’t get to Neverland till their families stop grieving.
Interesting themes, not balanced or woven satisfyingly together. Not a bad family outing, though: Tinkerbell is a rude delight, and I do appreciate a thoroughly camp Captain Hook (Guy Henry) suffering from existential doubts and failing to notice that Pirate Smee is in love with him and hopefully collecting colour swatches for their cottage together. Very modern.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 2 March
PLEBS AND POLITICS, SAVAGE AND STARK
The plebs are angry, scrawling demands for grain on the bare back wall, modern in hoodies and jeans. They reckon the senators get all the good stuff. Smooth-talking Menenius (Mark Gatiss) elegantly expounds the metaphor of the belly which seems to steal the food but actually supports the limbs and brain. Unimpressed, the Roman mob insist on two of their own as Tribunes, a fledgling democracy.
But there’s a war on with the Volscii, and Caius Martius Coriolanus has come home a bloodstained hero, to be acclaimed Consul. Tom Hiddleston takes centre stage: lean , hawkish, leathered, arrogant: accustomed to urge his troops by taunting them, he promptly demonstrates that soldierly command does not necessarily make a peacetme leader. He insults the “beastly plebeians…crows that peck the eagles..rotten breath of fetid marsh” (many a minister must envy this refreshing frankness) . The people’s tribunes (Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey, beautifully smug) banish him.
Retorting “I banish YOU!” he heads to Antium to offer his services or his bared throat to his former enemy Aufidius (Hadley Fraser). Who, in a remarkable homoerotic moment diluted by “Know thou first, I love the maid I married” lavishly embraces and recruits him to sack Rome. Fellow Volscii (who conveniently all talk Yorkshire) look on stunned: for there are merciful moments in Josie Rourke’s thrilling, headlong, tragedy-driven production where she allows us a gust of laughter.
After Phyllida Lloyd’s fine all-woman Julius Caesar, the Donmar once again offers raw, political Shakespeare proving that an intimate space can contain epic savagery and the fate of empires. The staging is simple, fast-moving, the main props chairs, but has dramatically clever moments. Hiddleston in the first act stands beneath a shower of water wincing as his many wounds are struck, an evocation of the reality of pain often missing in gung-ho warrior depictions. Great moments too for Mark Gatiss’ Menenius, watching helpless as his friend and protegé ruins himself, murmuring “He is grown from man to dragon”.
But the tremendous thing about this play, not performed as often as other Shakespeariana, is the powerful role of Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia: ferocious, devoted, proud of every scar but warning “submit you to the people’s voices!”. Deborah Findlay beautifully plays it, allowing absurdities in her martial enthusiasm but stripping her heart bare in desperation at the final cathartic scene when, with his wife and son, she must beg him not to destroy the city.
The hero, famously enigmatic with barely any soliloquy, sometimes seems just a ruthless hard-bodied column of offended pride and nihilism, snarling “Wife, mother, child, I know not”. Only at last does he move towards a suicidal redemption. Hiddleston carries this strange stark part with a frozen damaged dignity, thawing only with his mother : he and Findlay create thrilling moments of mutuality, the invisible bond crackling between them.
Another triumph, then. But I must murmur that ever since Sam Mendes hung Kevin Spacey’s Richard III up by the ankles at the Old Vic, we are getting tired of up-endings: this season alone chaps dangled head-down in Mojo, Let The Right One In, and now this. Don’t want to go back to the monotony of the classic “RSC Armpit Death” sword thrust, but it is time to suspend suspensions.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 8 feb.
Production sponsors: Radisson Blu Edwardian / C and S Sherling. Ongoing partner: Barclays.
Production will be on 300 screens nationwide on 30 January http://www.ntlive.com
LONELINESS, LONGING, A LINEN CUPBOARD: A HEARTSHAKING REVIVAL
1848 in rural Russia: early morning in the great house, maids opening up. High in the great linen-cupboard a man sleeps, yet a footman brings him his trousers. It’s a neat metaphor Ivan Turgenev offers us for the status of Kuzovkin (Iain Glen) on the 1848 estate. He is chivvied by bustling servants, relegated to a corner with his (as yet inexplicably) anxious friend Ivanov, but is no servant. He was the impoverished, patronized “fool” to the late owner, and seven years on still hangs around. Waiting, as they all are, for the return of the estate’s young heiress (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and her important St Petersburg husband.
Domestic fuss makes for comedy; but this gripping, rarely seen revival (new to the West End, though played in Chichester in 2006 and on Broadway) is tragicomic: profound and angry. The first act sees young Olga’s cheerful recognition of old Kuzovskin and her prim husband’s inspection of accounts, but in the midst of it arrives the neighbour Tropatchov (Richard McCabe), a stout snobbish fop in a gold waistcoat, with black curly hair like an asymmetric Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He is insistent, insolent, overconfident to the point of psychopathy, prone to breaking into pretentious French. He trails an impoverished insulted companion (as essential to a Tsarist grandee, it seems, as a parasol to his lady). The young host has no control: they get Kuzovskin drunk, goad him to explain the tedious intricacies of the court case which made him homeless, and with increasing nastiness force him to sing for his supper, throw drink over him and humiliate him.
For a time I could not see where this was going: the end of Act I is the Bullingdon dinner from hell. But in the last line the “fool” blows complacency to smithereens with a revelation I didn’t read the play before, as there is joy in coming afresh to a classic: I won’t spoil it. But in the second act the household try to resolve it with varying degrees of panic, hypocrisy and tenderness. Which takes us into a wrenching , beautifully told scene of sadness, longing and love. Lucy Briggs-Owen, who so often has lit up RSC evenings of late, rises from her vivid girlish playfulness to heights of truthful emotion. Glen, whose bendy-legged humiliation is still fresh in our memory, becomes a sort of Lear: when he says ‘My heart is broken, that’s all. It wasn’t much of a heart” I shook in my seat.
Director Lucy Bailey has a marvellous cast. McCabe – last seen as Harold Wilson – is an astonishing Tropachov, and it is an astonishing part: ludicrous, buffoonish, yet so horrifying in its dangerous spite that you catch your breath in terror for the victims of his teasing threats. The genius of Turgenev – and of Mike Poulton’s flawlessly convincing adaptation – is that this preening horror comes after we have witnessed the profound pain of the central pair.
By contrast, the role of Pavel the young husband (Alexander Vlahos) is difficult in the opposite way: a well-meaning prig, victim of the stifling fin-de-siecle convention the play kicks against. But towering over them all is Iain Glen as Kuzovkin; a coward afraid of “the world outside – poverty, unkindness, the insolence of life” but clinging to the core of love, and knowing his own folly and weakness so well that he achieves a dignity not far from holiness. A very Russian figure. It is the glory of great theatre, to carry us into other times, other hearts, and make us love them.
box office 0844 8717628 to 22 Feb
JOYFUL DISASTERS FROM COMEDY MASTERS
The director is grandiose as only a student thesp can be; his assistant (“Co-director” he snaps) surly. The actors playing Pan and Wendy are an item, envied by the lovesick crocodile – who only got cast because his uncle’s outboard-motor powers the revolve. Not always at the right moment. The ASM has split 7-up on the sound- board, which keeps interpolating disastrous audition tapes and backstage discussions, and Tinkerbell’s tutu-lights are having to be run off the mains, on a long cable. Ouch.
Welcome back to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, accident-prone, incompetent and fictional. Mischief Theatre, their creators, are the opposite: precisely disciplined and courageous comedy masters. The only quality they share with their avatars is ambition. I cheered for their last sellout production The Play That Goes Wrong, which showed a spoof murder-mystery dissolving into chaos and recrimination, and ran at a tight 70 minutes. So I wondered anxiously whether they could sustain his two-act, two-hour show with the same central (and elderly) joke about am-dram hitting the rocks. Even with the wily Adam Meggido joining as director.
Shouldn’t have worried. Despite one cancelled preview when a key performer broke her foot (Sophie Whittaker stands in, excellently) they triumph again. Jonathan Sayer and Henries Shields and Lewis are the authors again, but stick close to J.M.Barrie’s feyly magical text, causing an extra layer of incongruity. And it helps that they are all young – a few years out of LAMDA – and playing the part of a student club. So they can’t fall back on the clichés of this genre: fruity old thesps, ageing diva, weary director. The joke is that the Cornley lot are trying really, really hard, without experience: they freeze in horror, repeat lines in vain, panic.
The slapstick is masterly, including tricks performed by the sets (by Martin Thomas), and there’s sharply timed lighting, smoke and sound. The movement is heroic: Nell Mooney is credited as choreographer, and may they forgive her for those terrifying thuds and pratfalls: this must be the physically bravest cast in Britain. The first act in particular is full of shocks – I involuntarily clapped my hand over my mouth more than once – and creates disasters so weepingly funny that people snorted. Critics rarely laugh out loud – what with the notebook – but I heard a mad cackle from myself at the extended joke of Nana The Dog (Lewis) getting jammed in his dog-flap for a whole scene. I cannot reveal the disaster of the children’s bunks, or the scissors gag, or why the Cornleys’ stage manager becomes Peter Pan.
I had assumed they wouldn’t attempt flying: wrong again. I will observe only that there is Olivier-standard skill in placing a hip-harness in such a way that cast members find themselves delivering key lines upside down, and even more skill in the real stage crew – led by Thomas Platt – controlling the wires in such a lethally uncontrolled way. Gorgeous.
box office http://www.pleasance.co.uk 020 7609 1800 to 5 Jan
TWERKING INFLATABLE ELEPHANTS! THAT’S MORE LIKE IT!
For all my pleading I was unable to borrow a child for this 4+ production (school hours, bah humbug!) . But I sat next to one who was, his mother admitted, only just three. So the first appearance of the life-size, inflatable-bodied sky-blue ghost elephant produced a nervous murmur and a retreat to the maternal bosom.
To be fair, it appears first by night when the heroine (Audrey Brisson, tiny and indomitable) is tucked up in bed with the lights out. It would unsettle anyone to find the bedclothes suddenly inflating, pushed away by a luminous ballooning interloper who rejoins his solid head (creeping in with two puppetteers in view) and galumphs around chuckling basso-profundo. But by the time she accepts a sucky kiss from the trunk and a cuddle of his crepey, bouncy tummy, the school parties round the stage were firmly on the Elephantom’s side, reaching out to touch his airy backside. And even my smaller companion was staring, uncertain but excited. It is no bad thing to be a bit scared in a theatre and get over it.
I hadn’t known Ross Collins’ book, but in Ben Power’s adaptation the story of the troublesome visitor is told without words, clearly and wittily in physical moves and mutters. A humdrum day with parents, breakfast, school and TV is established, Laura Cubitt and Tim Lewis semi-stylized as the busy unseeing parents, Avye Leventis hilarious as a teacher scuttling about with box-files and a hairdo full of pencils and spare specs. The silent-movie jerkiness of the adults makes the elephant’s bulging, floating absurdity all the more natural.
At first he just pinches food, plays tricks and commandeers the remote control whenever she is alone; but next night he gets above himself and invites friends. Whereon, with whoops and cheers, we see how much havoc a gang of disco-dancing baby elephantoms can wreak in a living room. They twerk the front rows and lead a conga line: my tiny neighbour was humming along enchantedly by now (there’s a live band overhead, alongside a frieze of lighted houses which provide the final unexpected joke).
At last Grandma, who being more mature can see the creature, takes the girl to consult a ghost-removal company. David Emmings (and assorted body parts of others) do vaudeville trick-hands puppetry behind a desk, and there is an exhilarating battle through a warehouse of animated boxes to find a way to de-elephant the home. All this, as I say, is evoked without dialogue but with perfect clarity: direction is split between master-puppetteers Toby Olie and Finn Caldwell , with input from Marianne Elliott and design by Samuel Wyer.
The puppetry is superb, as you’d expect, and full of heart. Older children will love a beautiful short essay in the programme on how to make objects come alive. Younger ones – well, they’ll talk for weeks about big blue flying naughty elephants. So will I.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 11 Jan Shed partner: Neptune
STABBING, SHAGGING, SNIGGERING, BUT EVER SO STYLISH
What is this neon box rising from the floor, with Matt Smith inside it? Can it be the Tardis? Nope: a sunbed, and the former Dr Who has a cold unfamiliar stare in his deep-set ferret eyes and nothing on except for bulging white YSL knickers. He enumerates shower products as he shrugs on his immaculate suit. Around us in the auditorium the chorus croons “He is clean. A killing machine, he is so clean”.
It’s definitely a coup for Rupert Goold’s Almeida, co-producers Headlong and Act 4 Entertainment: a world premiere of Duncan Sheik’s musical from Bret Easton Ellis’ cultish novel about a 1980’s Wall Street trader. Suffering from an existential inner void (the author was 26, go figure) the hero Bateman wants to vanish into a crack in the urinal wall but alleviates it instead by murdering people, especially young women, chopping them up, chewing bits of them and pleasuring himself with the remains. The programme reminds us that the book was called “Numbingly boring, deeply and extremely disgusting” by one critic while another cooed “A careful, important novel”. Some deem it feminist, others a wallow of misogyny and homophobia. So the musical could be either a darkly clever (if dated) satire on 80’s materialism, or just a chance to show bloodstained female thighs while integrating cheesy soft-rock tracks nostalgic to people old enough to afford tickets.
It’s a bit of both. And since it stars Matt Smith as the anti-hero Bateman, it has pretty well sold out anyway. Rupert Goold directs in his most extreme flash-Harry mood, with Es Devlin’s designs and the Almeida’s best machinery. There’s pop-up furniture and taxi seats (at one point a pop-up Tom Cruise in aviators rises from the floor). Elegant double revolves bear disco ensemble choreography (by Lynne Page) freezing to jerkiness with Bateman stabbing and shagging in their midst. Brilliant projections evoke the chaos of the hero’s mind and memory, something which Matt Smith – encouraged to narrate and perform with a dead-eyed deadpan demeanour – has little chance to do for himself.
Obscene? Objectionable? Not really: less than the book itself, so jokey is the style. There is plenty of nervous sniggering in the stalls. I was least happy about the necrophiliac moment with the stabbed girl in the disco scene, and the later line “She annoyed me, so I crucified her with a nail-gun”. Whereas a friend who went on Wednesday says that she drew the line at the bit where Bateman sodomizes a giant stuffed pink rabbit with his girlfriend underneath it.
Some of the numbers are genuinely funny, especially the chorus of hair-flicking Carrie-Bradshaw socialites. Trouble is, it’s all style and very little substance. We have been shaking our heads over the Gordon Gekkos of the Wall Street boom for two decades, and fascination with serial killers is taste not all of us have acquired. The only recognizably human character, beautifully played by Cassandra Compton, is the secretary Jean. And most of the music, though beautifully rendered, is monotonous and unengaging.
box office 0207 359 4404 to 1 feb Sponsor: Mr Porter.com Partner: Aspen
A JEWEL FROM THE NORTH, AN ECHO FROM THE PAST
Forget Acorn Antiques, fun though that was. Victoria Wood’s stage musical, written a couple of years ago for the Manchester Festival, has the trademark wit and observation running alongside the other strain of her genius: the ability to show everyday uncomplaining pain, and salute bleak lives as they grope towards late-flowering redemption. Brilliant, simple, beautiful.
Pure Wood, it belies the theory that musicals only emerge from infinite rewrites and much squabbling and switching lyricists. It deals with the real moment in 1929 when a choir of Manchester schoolchildren, many the poorest, recorded Purcell’s “Nymphs and Shepherds” with the Halle Orchestra. Listen, watch, have a weep: it’s on http://tinyurl.com/o4dv4au.
Some were reunited forty years on at Granada TV, and Wood’s four fictional characters begin there, hearing the music again after years. Frank and Dorothy live in a carapace of prosperous 1960’s Mancunian smugness (“Die-stamping doesn’t just happen, you know”) and patronize Tubby and Enid ,who have never met although once they harmonized: girls and boys were separated in the ‘20s). Tubby is a bravely joking, selfconscious middle-aged bachelor with a bit of a gut, who looked after his mother till her death. Only in the flashbacks to 1929 do we glimpse the bitter woman he has been jollying along: abandoned by a feckless band-singer husband, she banned his father’s record and tried to keep him from the children’s choir.
The flashback of his audition, wonderfully sung by one of the rotating young cast, provides a shivery Billy-Elliot moment of recognition: a child of poverty with high art in his bones. We see Enid as repressed and awkward, drab victim of a carelessly controlling boss-lover. “Where is that bright eyed child? When was I reconciled / To seeing the day today in shades of beige and grey?”. In another unforgettable barnstorming solo (rhyming sex-tricks with Scalextrix) Anna Francolini rises from wistfulness into a number with wicked echoes of Chicago. Stops the show.
There are nice retro touches: a Golden Egg cafe and the stellar number when the posher couple “journey in to the Berni Inn” . A revolving table surrounded by gateau-wielding waiters heralds a patronizing chorus of “You’ll have the learn the blarney and fancy words like garni”. But the simple round staging makes it all the more credible when we flash back, and fifty grey-shabby children are having their Lancashire vowels ironed out by the choirmistress because “You don’t wear hobnailed boots to a party”. Sometimes the children’s choir simply sit watching as the adult Tubby and Enid cautiously move towards one another or sorrow alone: there’s a real frisson when adult Tubby duets with his brave child self.
Every role, though, has its glories. The bible-bashing wooden-legged choir supervisor, ten years back from the WW1 trenches, is a lovely creation from the moment when he first snaps “Excuses! The primrose path to hell! When they came for Jesus in Gethsemane he didn’t make excuses, hopped up on the cross and took his punishment!” Yet his one-line redemption too is unutterably moving.
I loved its Festival version, but it shines even brighter in Sarah Frankcom’s intimate production. I hope it will tour, and move south. Good news that BBC2 is televising it next year, though changing the title to “Tubby and Enid”. Which is a decision so muttonheaded that one must sorrowfully assume it came from a TV executive. For this is no mere middle-aged rom-com, but a meditation on life’s attrition, the long slow sad loss of childhood’s glee, and the role of memory and courage in reclaiming it.
box office 0161 8339833 to 18 Jan
LIGHT AS A FEATHER, FUNNY AS A QUACK
There’s a lovely moment of finesse when Ben Miller, as a defecting New Lab MP in the dying days of the Brown government, is trying to impress on a Tory grandee his fitness for Cabinet. This involves him and his wife (Nancy Carroll) pretending that he is not a fraudulent expenses-milker and home-flipper. At one point the grandee gets a cake splattered on his suit, and Miller bends to blow the icing-sugar off him in desperate little puffs. The “It’s a Nigella recipe” is a sneakier icing-sugar joke, but the puffing is real class.
For all its news-quizzy political jokes this is at heart a Cooneyesque farce, rompingly directed by Terry Johnson: well-engineered, all exits and entrances credible but unexpected. It has no pretensions to depth or insight: this is the comedy of comeuppance, embarrassment and impossible excuses. Sharp but not bitter, joyfully mocking, light as a feather and funny as a quack.
Devilish good luck, of course, that MPs‘ salary increase hit the news this week. For Dan Patterson and Colin Swash went to the 2009 expenses scandal for their first stage play, incorporating its beautifully ludicrous domestic details of claims for “second” homes: a glitter lav seat, moat-cleaning, horse manure , hanging baskets and the infamous duck house itself (which makes a splendid entrance). But anger feels less appropriate than hilarity: this was an unprecedented mass trouser-dropping by the powerful, and you might as well laugh. One pleasure of this play is that it gives precisely the correct weight, no more, to a scandal caused by decades of dishonesty over MPs pay and the Fees Office consequently encouraging them to fill their boots with expenses.
The purely theatrical pleasures are even greater. Miller is perfect as the swaggering MP struggling in a net of panic, Simon Shepherd smoothly patrician as the grandee who despite assaults by cake, milk, manure and an enraged illegal Russian housekeeper (Debbie Chazen) continues his check-up on the new member in the second act by visiting his “London home”. Which is in fact occupied by the goth-leftie student son, (James Musgrave) whose email of course is email@example.com. He has sold the furniture and let his foxy girlfriend run an illegal business. Worse still, she’s from Burnley, which makes the MP’s wife gag and flinch. Indeed Nancy Carroll is a major delight, haughty and groomed and eager to take her interior decorating flair into the Sam-Cam orbit, yet able to let this ladylike demeanour disintegrate into comedic panic.
You could criticize it as shouty and frenetic (you’ll have no problem hearing from the cheap seats) but small sharp asides do soften that, and good lines keep on coming. Enumerating his claims Miller once cries “The pouffe and the trouser-press – what’s that, a novel by Somerset Maugham?” Good Huhne gag, too. Anyway, it’s farce: without spoilers I reassure you that there are corsets, a wardrobe, lost trousers, glue, a transparent wall and a perfectly logical giant panda suit. If you don’t laugh, I’ll have none of you.
Box Office: 0844 482 9675 to 29 March
BRAND MEETS BEDELLA – BUT IT’S FLAWLESS THAT’S FLAWLESS!
New lamps for old! It’s the motto of the best pantomimes : keep the shape of the old lamp – vaudeville routines, spectacle, low comedy and sweet song, comedy knickers – but fire up the old lamp with something as new as hip-hop and LEDs. Cherish the old solid-brass professionals but rub celebrity agents until they conjure up star names. Thus your improbable lamp will shine.
It surely does in this rip-roaring Aladdin, written by Eric Potts and directed by Ian Talbot. Above the title Jo Brand is Genie of the Ring, in possibly the most ornately blingtastic outfit she has ever worn. Her trademark sarcasm is written in, but the standup career is evident in that she’s happiest when the fourth wall is down and she can berate the audience and tell jokes. The kids loved the one about the French cat.
But alongside her towers Matthew Kelly, a Dame of long experience and many costumes (a giant Pot Noodle, a Scotch airer covered in drying pants as a hooped skirt). And as Abanazar there’s David Bedella, so memorable as Jerry Springer’s Satan, with his marvellous grainy bass and wo-hoa-hoa laugh of evil. But then add groovy Britains-got-talent celebrs: Shaheen Jhafargholi – who sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial – is a bluesy rather beautiful Lamp Genie. And even better, deserving the wildest cheers of all, the, joyfully acrobatic street-dance group Flawless.
Backflips, handstands, head-twirling hip-hop genius, at one point in pitch dark with suits of lights. It’s breathtaking and street-smart, but sewn cheerfully into the old patchwork. Their first appearance indeed is as the Peking Police Force under the leadership of Matthew Rixon as a wholly traditional comic policeman (it could be 1935), and one of the best jokes is Brand being told “you only like hip-hop because it’s only two letters away from chip shop”.
You see what I mean? Modern panto melds together the shock of the new with Victorian staples – daft puns, physical jokes (in the laundry the copper goes brilliantly through the mangle,and shrinks). It has prancing nippers from the Doris Holford School of Dance and a traditionally pretty and melodious pair of leads, Oliver Thornton and Claire-Marie Hall, and dutifully picks up the annual top jokes (last year it was gangnam, this year twerking and the Gravity movie). It dares to flash, briefly, a bare bum, but an entr’acte cross-talk act and a canting song come straight from music-hall. It greatly relishes insults (“I’m pushing forty!” “Dragging it, more like” ).
And it’s beautiful. Wimbledon always goes nuts on costumes, but in backdrops too Old Peking is a sepia-gold dream of parasols and pagodas, the Palace a blue-and-silver elegance, the cave green-and-grey with a living gesticulating carpet. The finale melts all the colours together round a willowpattern plate. For all the larks and jokes, the children will have been taking in that aesthetic, too.
box office 0844 8717 646 to 12 jan
CLERK ON THE RUN FINDS NOTHING WORTH BUYING. NOT SURE I DO EITHER.
An absconding bank-clerk in search of raw primal experience settles on the thrill of a sports stadium. “Feel the life, the roar of the crowd!.. All one, all screaming from all galleries, roaring, yelling… released from the slavery of wages and society!” He’s looking out at us, moustache a-bristle, as he says this. But I cannot report that the Lyttelton audience was roaring. Concentratedly respectful of Georg Kaiser’s 1912 German Expressionist classic (in a new version by Dennis Kelly); trusting it to mean something, occasionally risking a laugh. Not roaring.
Not bored, though, and enjoying Melly Still’s fast-moving direction and Soutra Gilmour’s inventive sets. A whole room rises overhead askew, a giant sheet becomes a blizzard where our hero wrestles a skeleton hand and shouts at a skull-faced imaginary woman. Later we get rudeish Weimar cabaret turns and a Salvationist revival meeting to keep us going. Without such diversions, though, this stylized study of disillusion, the emptiness of money and the tedium of city life could be pretty hideous. It spoke importantly to Kaiser’s period and society, and will fascinate students of that time, but to be honest its message boils down to “Is this all there is?‘ and “money can’t buy happiness”. Neither statement feels either new or, in this style, especially engaging.
Melly Still certainly enjoys the stylization. In that classic of deflation, Cold Comfort Farm, the intellectual Mybug enthuses about a new wave film where “they wear glass clothes and move in time to a metronome” . I confess that this flitted through my head in the opening sequence as a bank counter revolves ever faster like the clock, and scuttling jerky customers and staff speed up, pausing for a cartoonish exchange between a customer and manager in fat-suits (heavy literalists, these Germans). Behind the grille is the expressionless Clerk himself, Adam Godley, with a cruel centre parting and the kind of ‘tache-and-glasses combo usually found fixed together in joke shops. A fur-clad Italian bourgeoise brushes against his hand and provokes a moment of madness. He grabs the cash, rushes out to find her, then onward in terror at what he has done attempts a brief interlude with his family before walking out, causing Grandma to drop dead and his wife to reject her daughters (seems even an idiot male is better than none).
Crying “I want to experience something!” and writhing like a hybrid of Basil Fawlty and Woody Allen, he seeks fulfilment in a graveyard, stadium and nightclub (Pierette has a wooden leg so he never gets his own over). Godley is a bit of a hero, having returned to the rush-and-clamber of this production after an operation on his arm, still bandaged. It ends with revivalist preaching and an electro-crucifixion tableau which annoyed the scholarly German lady next to me, for reasons I failed to grasp completely on the way out. I had a train to catch.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 to 11 Jan
DRIFTING SEETHING POETRY AND HORROR: A VAMPIRE AT THE COURT
Unless you have spent recent years hiding (perhaps wisely) from teenage girls, you know that they have had their white little teeth firmly fixed in assorted novels about the emotional problems of vampires. Some theorists suggest that it feeds a need for forbidden calf-love now that liberal society beams tolerantly on inter-class, inter-racial and same-sex passion. Maybe. But few vampire romances reach the intensity and art of a 2008 Swedish film, and the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist on which it was based.
This stage interpretation of it by Jack Thorne, from the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep, is directed by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett who gave us the powerful, balletic Black Watch. Here too movement is used surreally to set the mood or express the more extreme moments of shock; there is an extraordinary soundtrack by Ólafur Arnalds, veering from plangent gentleness to shrieking horror. The magic and terror of the snowy Northern forest towers in silver-birch trunks; the urban starkness of the young hero’s tenement life in a steel climbing-frame or fire-escape. Otherwise, only a bank of changing-room lockers and odd furniture roll by, and a huge ancient wooden chest rises in which – well, I won’t spoil horrible surprises. Take it minute by minute, on its own terms.
Because for all the gory moments it is a love story. Oskar (an impressive debut from Martin Quinn) is a lumpen, bullied boy with a drunken mother. He encounters the pallid and haltingly spoken girl next door, Eli. Her ‘father’ – protector or older lover, we do not quite know, and very nasty that is too – kills hikers in the woods, suspending them like pigs to drain their blood for her so she need not go looking for throats (though she does, terrifyingly). Eli is played with extraordinary power by Rebecca Benson: speaking with the halting questioning strangeness of autism, moving with catlike agility, perching, pouncing, shivering.
Each of them needs something. The boy is trapped by (very nasty and explicit) bullying and by his estranged parents’ uselessness. The “girl” is trapped by her awful destiny and her cold desperate hunger. She does not want to be a vampire. “I am not that. I live on blood but I am not…that. I choose not to be that!”. The play’s power and worth is in using this superstitious, borderline ridiculous metaphor to express and intensify real emotion: huge yearnings, seething hysterias, teenage sorrow at the world’s cruelty and inadequacy. At its best it conveys a drifting poetic sense of nightmare.
I could have done with fewer vicious bullying scenes done with overmuch relish, and the conclusion left me oddly unconvinced. Which is a strange thing to say after a vampire-horror show: but it proves how moved, and convinced, I was earlier.
box office http://www.royalcourttheatre.com 0207 565 5000 to 21 Dec.
CHILDREN STORM THE STAGE IN AN EMIL FOR EVERYONE
Is there no limit to the depravity of the National Theatre? Forging 20-Reichsmark banknotes, a discredited currency, to flood an auditorium with them! Disrespecting bankers! Encouraging grubby children to defy adults, and underage girls to ride bicycles recklessly around the stage with bespectacled urchins balanced on their handlebars! Not to mention disturbing the serenity of the stalls with harum-scarum chases. Whatever happened to those fey little folksy posh-pantos in the old Cottesloe?
Good riddance, I say. This enormously cast adaptation (by Carl Miller) of Erich Kastner’s tale of a smalltown boy’s adventure in 1929 Berlin zings with child-energy. Sixty kids a night chase after the wicked bowler-hatted villain from the train carriage, who stole the money Emil’s widowed Mum was sending to Grandma. Emil enlists Berlin children: his girl cousin Pony, street kids, Hilde the newspaper-seller, Tuesday the posh little boy in a sailor-suit, and others from every corner of a fragile, vibrant urban society at the heart of inter-war Europe.
It reunites director Bijan Sheibani with movement director Aline David, and as in their marvellous The Kitchen it mixes naturalistic and semi-stylized movement, whirling free and thrilling across the big stage. Bunny Christie designs, and brief interiors slide on and retreat, but mainly the city’s people whirl and scuttle, bearing lamp-posts and kiosks to express the baffling streets. Night comes with glimpses of a cabaret chanteuse and a man in suspenders; maps and buildings shine black-and-white on a slanting screen around a great vortex eye which becomes – with ladders, Oliver-magic machinery and gurgling echoes – a chase through the sewers. Echoes of Weimar poverty and prefigurings of Nazi authoritarianism hover in the air, understated but atmospheric: they’ve invented 1930’s film-noir theatre for kids.
The children, whether in respectable shorts-and-braces or rags, are natural and gleeful. In the night-time vigil round a brazier they are briefly poignant, too, as Emil (Ethan Hammer on opening night) speaks of his love and anxiety for his hardworking mother, and from the less cared-for children comes a bat-squeak of sadness. Of his confreres the most hilarious is Toots (Georgie Farmer on press night), a skinny, specky, hyperactive artful-dodger astonished that Emile is still worried about his ‘crime‘ back home, drawing a moustache on Duke Augustus‘ statue. Others fall into character with ease, clarity, good jokes and rousing defiance (“Grownups beat us, threaten us, bribe us – treat us like beasts!”).
And Stuart McQuarrie is the villain of every child’s dream: a black-suited “bigshot” scoffing dumplings, monocle gleaming, evilly moustached, with flick-knife and bowler hat. He even tempts Emil to the dark side: “It’s rare that I find someone who impresses me as much as I do myself…it can be lonely in the Financial Sector”. We boo him at the curtain call, and he beams back. Oh, for heaven’s sake, grab a kid as an excuse to go. Two happy hours await you and your inner (and outer) child.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 18 March
ROYALTY AND ROGUES, WAR AND WOOING: JUDE LAW JOINS THE GREATS
The moment of conversion came in the starlight, when Jude Law’s Henry wanders hooded and disguised among his weary soldiers, and sits for a while listening silently with firelight playing on his face. The die is cast: they are outnumbered five to one, he has proudly dismissed the French envoy’s offer. If these drowsy men die it will be his doing. That flickering firelit doubt (ah, that Grandage carefulness with lighting – Neil Austin designs it) speaks volumes about the loneliness of leadership.
I speak of conversion, because despite the heady poetry this has never been for me a favourite among Shakespeare’s histories. The narrative Chorus can make it too much like a masque with battle scenes, the final Franglais wooing scene of the French princess seems anticlimactic, and the offstage death of Falstaff and the vanishing of MIstress Quickly make you miss the warm humanity of the earlier plays.
Which is why you need a Hytner or a Grandage to make it zing. It happened ten years ago at the National and praise heaven, it has happened again. Costume in Mchael Grandage’s production is medieval, Christopher Oram’s set a simple wooden curve. But the Chorus is a young modern street-kid in a Union Jack T-shirt (Ashley Zhangazha). His intensity gives a surprised, excited vigour to the narrative; in the interval we find him lounging on the stage, reading, apparently engrossed in that earlier England’s story. It draws you in.
That freshness is equally striking in Jude Law’s virile, sensitively balanced Henry. To make sense of this young King you have to believe that he is not just a combative monarch keen to see off the French, but the roistering old Prince Hal: the lad who loved life and low company – his people, after all . He is slightly bored (Law does this beautifully) by the Archbishops banging on about Salic Law and the need for war. Why would the old Hal want to wake“the sleeping sword of war” and creating “a thousand widows”? He needs convincing.
So in the war scenes he conveys not Olivieresque dramatic heroism but a kind of taut, almost trembling determination to do the thing decently and bravely, since it must be done. The St Crispin’s Day speech, delivered in a morning mist, is rousing but leavened by a laddish jokeyness as he makes them laugh with daft voices evoking of old men’s future bragging. His appalled dignity hearing of ten thousand French dead – “a royal fellowship of death” – feels as real as his sudden kneeling thanks for the astonishing victory. As for that odd wooing scene with the Princess (Jessie Buckley) its gruff laddish charm owes much to the sense of a man relaxing after intense strain.
Lesser joys to note: Ben Lloyd-Hughes full of nervous bravado as the Dauphin praising his horse, James Laurenson an authoritative Exeter, and two beautiful evocations by Noma Dumezweni : as Mistress Quickly describing Falstaff’s death with damped, awkwardly flippant emotion, and as Alice the bilingual maid, keeping her thoughts to herself alongside the young Princess. And since Shakespearian royalty must have rogues alongside, Ron Cook is a disgracefully funny Pistol. But it’s Jude Law’s face in the firelight which will stay with me.
box office 020 7492 1548 to 15 Feb
and Jennifer-Jane Benjamin came with me, and offers again her terse twentysomething one-word-per-star review:
Bold, Valiant, Elegant, Intense, French
HIGH KICKS AND HIGH JINKS: VOLTAIRE WITH VERVE
Voltaire’s story – subtitled Optimisme – gave the world Dr Pangloss and his disabling conviction that “all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds” because whatever happens has a reason. His innocent pupil Candide holds the faith through decades of lost love, exile, war, slavery, floggings, volcanoes, pirates, corrupt Cardinals, swindlers and shipwrecks. Rambling across a war-torn Europe and its colonies this reverses the Tom-Jonesy picaresque which our own 18c novelists enjoyed. Their heroes come up smiling, Voltaire’s stumbles earnestly from disaster to catastrophe while his companions keep resurrecting and turning up in new guises explaining “Well, it’s a long story…”.
This gorgeously funny, touching, vigorous production by Matthew White of the Bernstein musical should have an afterlife. If, that is, anyone can work out how to transfer it from the Menier’s audience-teasing staging in the round. The ensemble weave around and among us, slapping occasional hats or crowns on the front row, singing from fine distressed wooden balconies overhead. Adam Cooper choreographs, and when dealing with his former Singing in the Rain oppo Scarlett Strallen gives full rein to her agility. As Candide’s stabbed, raped, traded, enslaved and corupted lover, Strallen demonstrates that she is not just a sunshiny-singy-dancey musical theatre lead but a physical comedienne. In “Glitter and be gay” , the fallen woman hurls herself around lamenting her shame while pillaging the very chandelier for diamonds. Gorgeous.
The musical’s history is something of a dog’s breakfast, though with classy ingredients: worth buying the programme to read how Lilian Hellman wanted it to reflect McCarthysim and America’s blindness. She enlisted young Leonard Bernstein: it flopped, but via several mutations found success with a new book by Hugh Wheeler. Lyrics are by Hellman, Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself and John Latouche – too many cooks, but a tasty broth.
Not least because however daft Candide is, you are drawn to sympathy because Fra Fee from Dungannon is a real find: innocent elfin face but a voice so deep, honeyed and flawless that your heart melts. James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and assorted others) gives a smart, knowing performance, and Jackie Clune hurls herself with limping gusto into the role of an woman who hair-raisingly claims her buttock was eaten by starving Russians.
For Voltaire’s world, like ours , is a troubled one. White cleverly keeps the narration – split between characters as they weave around the weathered balconies – as blandly terrible as a news bulletin: thousands dead in natural disasters, coldly described atrocities. Yet during these enumerations of horror the cast enacts them with romps, red ribbons, and childlike drop-down-deads (one general expired in the lap of the Mail on Sunday critic) . Strallen’s chandelier is suspended on a hangman’s noose, and the Inquisition dances delightedly round a pyre with “What a day, what a day, for an Auto-da-Fe!” Interesting that Hellman, Bernstein and the rest started cooking this up ten years before Joan Littlewood’s O What a Lovely War.
I loved it. Bernstein’s score is lovely, the comedy fun, the energy high and the conclusion touching. Pangloss is banished to preach shiny determinism to the sheep, while the rest sing “We’re neither pure nor wise nor good. We’ll do our best, we’ll chop our wood and make our garden grow….”
box office 0207 378 1713 to 22 Feb
apology: in an earlier version of this post Adam Cooper appeared as Adam Cork. Which is disgraceful. Adam Cooper is a genius dancer and choreographer and my hero. Adam Cork, of course, composed the marvellous sound design for Grandage’s season, including Henry V . A review of which will be up soon. Which is why he was on my mind. Sorry both.
BEARS! THOUSANDS OF THEM! (well, two paws from the wings)
“You know what they say – if you upset bears theyll kill everyone you love!” cries the demented flop-fringed architect. “Thats not a thing!” scornfully retorts the paranoid female mental patient, locked in the ship’s bilge as it sinks. Its a good line. So is “Bears! thousands of them!” when uttered in panic aboard a sinking ship in mid-Atlantic previously untroubled by ursine invaders.
But in this shouty 75-minute melodrama you have to truffle for the good bits, like a bear yourself. It was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe, and is created with such youthful gusto by twins Michael Patrick and Paul Clarkson , with Gemma Hurley, that you can’t hate it. But it would help to be drunk, or getting that way , and young enough to shriek happily at the broadest of joke situations. There is a discount for Christmas parties, so that will happen.
The idea, nicely set up by jitterbugging cast members in sailor suits at the entrance, is that a doomed voyage sets out with the necessary central-casting passengers – a rich villainous couple on an insurance scam, a troubled architect with a tragic past, a ten year old prodigy, a paranoid woman on psychiatrists orders, a mad one eyed captain and an evil electrician (“John deVille Crapwirer”) and his love-starved bride. The Titanic movie music swells and fades throughout, though in a raucous musical mashup near the end we also get Phantom, Les Mis and Sondheim references. Mattias Penman as The Architect hurls his hilarious quiff around to good effect, and Rachel Parris is particularly funny as the love interest.
Its problem for the post Fringe audience, though, is being too one-note and shouty, never giving a joke a moment to breathe and grow. Holly Hobbie (Carrie Marx) plays the ten-year-old detective with panache but the gag gets plain irritating. Still, there are moments of slapstick courtship and Poseidon-Venture staggering to enjoy. Even if , an hour in, you do rather end up on the side of the bears…
box office 0207 287 2875 to 15 Dec