Monthly Archives: December 2013

HAPPY CHRISTMAS and a showy New Year!

libby, christmas cat…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

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The Apollo Theatre: a tribute

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.

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STEPHEN WARD – Aldwych, WC1

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

Rating:  four  4 Meece Rating

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WENDY & PETER PAN Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

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

rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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CORIOLANUS – Donmar, WC2

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.

rating:  four    4 Meece Rating
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

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FORTUNE’S FOOL – Old Vic, SE1

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

rating:  five   5 Meece Rating

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PETER PAN GOES WRONG – Pleasance theatre, Islington N1

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

rating:  five  5 Meece Rating

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