Monthly Archives: January 2014

STROKE OF LUCK Park Theatre , N4

TIM PIGOTT-SMITH SHOWS HOW IT’S DONE

Few better fates can befall a new playwright than to have Tim Pigott-Smith cast – perfectly – at the heart of your premiere.  One of the finest modern Lears and a sharp-minded director,  when he takes on a role he brings undiluted intelligence and detail.  In Larry Belling’s début play he is Lester Riley,  a Long Island TV and radio repairman, widowed and recovering from a stroke.  We meet him – convincingly lopsided, even his left eye seeming to droop – in a wheelchair at his wife’s memorial service, confusing his adult children with a debonair grin beneath his battered baseball cap.  From then on, even when immobile in a hospital bed  his air of canny determined mischief drives the play.  He is convincingly in physical decline: only in moments of surreal conversation with his wife’s ghost do we see the nimble, resourceful man he was.

The resourcefulness is still there, because Lester is aware that he and his wife neglected their family:  he for work, she for “retarded”  children like their own Franklin.  Who is now institutionalized and  never visited by his three siblings, themselves on bad terms with one other and with life.  Monroe (Andrew Langtree)  is a smooth  dishonest accountant, Ike (Fergal McElherron ) a scruff fresh out of jail, and Cory (Kirstie Malpass) neurotically OCD about germs and constantly  washing.   We learn a bit more about each – sometimes rather too pat  – but Lester has a ploy to bring them together.  He lets it drop ‘accidentally’ that he made a fortune working and investing with the local Mafia, and announces that he is marrying his Japanese nurse Lily  (Julia Sandiford),  27 years younger and a widow with a child.  And leaving her everything.

There is enjoyable comedy to be extracted from this situation and Belling nails quite a bit of it,  not least in the larky relationship of Pigott-Smith and the nurse.   The children’s affront provides some good moments,  the best being when Ike visits one of the local godfathers to arrange his father’s extinction.   And though I cannot say that the final reveal is much of a surprise,  Kate Golledge’s direction offers decent obfuscation.  And just when  you are flinching a bit at the aw-gee-I-love ya finale – what TV sitcom writers call an “American Moment”  –  our hero hits us with a top pun about cremation.

Jez Bond’s brave, smart new theatre has a record of introducing interesting plays set in America:   Melanie Marnich’s haunting These Shining Lives, and a starry production of Daytona with Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer.  Belling is the newest-fledged playwright so far, having worked in publicity, music biz and radio commercials.  You could murmur that he brings from this a certain over-easy facility,  an overemphatic underlining.   All the same,  it’s a good yarn with an honest heart, even if the latter spends a bit too much time on its sleeve.  And Pigott-Smith is a treat.

box office   020 7870 6876         http://www.parktheatre.co.uk     to 2 March

rating: three     3 Meece Rating

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HAPPY DAYS Young Vic SE1

BURIED BUT BRILLIANT:  JULIET STEVENSON BRAVES  BECKETT

“One does not appear to be asking a great deal”  says Winnie of her husband Willie, who is mostly invisible behind a rock, grunting monosyllables.  Indeed she is not demanding.  Buried to the waist beneath a great ragged rock under hot  sun,  she has only arms,voice, and a black shopping-bag with toothbrush, mirror, a crushed blue hat, and a gun just in case.   “Can’t complain…another happy day”.

Samuel Beckett’s nightmare vision was encapsulated in his remark about “the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody…sinking into the ground alive..no shade, nothing…all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life. And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman”.

We saw Beckett’s proclivity for trapping females and testing their resilience in the Royal Court’s trilogy last week,  where Lisa Dwan gave an extraordinary rendering of his shattered, jerky poetic prose.   Now an even more remarkable feat is Juliet Stevenson’s two-hour ordeal as the buried Winnie,  at first able to move her arms but later reduced to a tiny head hyperventilating as more gravel slides from overhead but able to dominate the vast auditorium,  an uncomplaining she-Lear surfing the waves of Beckettian despair with  laughter, screams and dry asides. Even the prone, crawling Willie (David Beames) emerges from his rock, but can  do nothing for her.

The legend has it that the playwright, newly married, was urged to write something happy for once.  Maybe this was the nearest he could get: a surreal vision (which Tynan thought an overstretched metaphor)  of a woman trapped, a man unresponsive and  the sands of time stifling both.   The first half  does have moments of humour exploited to the full by Stevenson – whose gift for emotional intensity has meant that her twinkling comic ability is too rarely demanded by producers. She is touching and straightforward in Winnie’s cheerful patting of her hair and appreciation of the day, her stoicism (“What I find so wonderful  is that never a day passes without some addition to one’s knowledge…”) , fragments of Catholic prayer and occasional spurts of frustration :  a cry of “Was I lovable once, Willy?”.   But there are sparks of comic marital naturalism which could come straight out of  the sitcom George and Mildred,  though pious Beckettians will not like me saying so.  And there’s a feminist frisson in the notion of wifehood as a state trapped by what lies below the waist (biology is destiny!) .  For in every gesture Stevenson’s Winnie is a  most profoundly, maternally, conciliatingly feminine creature.

So Natalie Abrahami’s  production is not as depressing as it might be, despite the terrifying second act and the fearful rumbling crashes devised by Tom Gibbons (is it an earthquake, a bomb, an avalanche, a King Kong roar?).  It is a nightmare diluted with absurdity, a fever’s inexpressible dread.  Beckett is brilliantly served by the Young Vic:  whether he entirely deserves it must be argued out between those who love him and those who never will.

box office  www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922   to 8 March

Rating:   four    4 Meece Rating

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WHAT THE WOMEN DID Southwark Playhouse, SE1

SMALL LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR:   FORGOTTEN VOICES HEARD AND HONOURED

Get seated ten minutes early.    In Alex Marker’s humbly clever set, a bricky terraced house,  the cast sing casually round a piano and the long, long trail of the century winds backward:   Pack up your Troubles, a soldiers’ jokey “If you were the only Boche in the trench..” and the  sinister jollity of  “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go..”.  So before any theatre has even taken place,  tears spring for the dead boys of long ago.  Director Tricia Thorne has craftily primed us.

This triple bill from Two’s Company – first played in 2004 – is of plays from 1917 and 1918 about women in the Great War.   So it breathes contemporary raw feeling,  not the retrospective anger of Oh What a Lovely War or James Dacre’s  recent marvellous revival of the 1981The Accrington Pals.    The first,  by Gwen John – not the artist –  shows a war widow (Victoria Gee,  whose strong narrow face and spare frame make her immediately convincing in period).  She has remarried a shy local (Matthew Cottle) after the erroneous report of her husband’s death. He,  a powerful Simon Darwen,  reappears crippled and angry.  With two small children, beautifully played supping milk at the tea-table and eyeing their unfamiliar father, the couple negotiate emotion and embarrassment.  In a wonderfully truthful  line about remarrying rapidly in the shock of widowhood the wife  explains  “Thinking o’thee, I were softened towards th’whole world”.

The second play by Maude Deuchar shows a gaggle of “canary girls” – munitions workers whose skin turned yellow with TNT poison.   On a lunch-break they josh about the fact “husbands are rationed”:   they will become that inter-war generation dismissed as “superfluous women”.   Some laugh at the frivolous idea of putting signed notes in the shells,  as a macabre “present” to Fritz.   At which point I thought it was just an interesting slice-of-life piece about the banality and boredom and compromise and loneliness of their lot.   I misjudged it.

For the terrifying second scene takes place on the same doorstep in near-darkness, as the girls giggle and flirt with soldiers seen only as shadows and glowing cigarettes.  Unease grows: we work out before they do what strange thing is going on,  but the fear does not lessen,  and there is a real flesh-tingling moment of shock. Significantly, this play was not performed until the war was over. It is ahead of its time in sentiment.
And so to the third, by J.M.Barrie.  His typically playful-sentimental notion is of an unmarried Scottish charwoman who feels left out amid her Cockney gossips.  They all have sons in uniform and scoff at women with none – “It’s not their war”. So ‘Mrs’ Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) invents a son, taking a real name from  news of the Black Watch regiment, and fakes his letters.

I admit to a certain hostility at the start – Barrie does caricature middle-aged women  woefully,  as competitive and shallow.  But the awkward arrival of Darwen as the ‘son’ , an orphan on leave who is initially furious at the deception,  heralds a completely delightful and artfully credible two-hander.  What Barrie clearly does know is how mothers secretly rather enjoy being barracked and teased by great strapping sons.  Wooldridge gives the old lady a wonderful mischievousness, Darwen blossoms from sullenness to affection.  And against my will, and across a century, the tears rose again.
box office 020 7407 0234  to 15 Feb

Rating: four4 Meece Rating

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Red Velvet – a note! Tricycle, NW6

Just a note to say that I reviewed this when it first aired at the Tricycle in 2012,  and was pleased to be one of those who voted its awards at the Critics’ Circle.  My review  (Times property still, so paywall I fear)  can be read in full on

http://tinyurl.com/nbfj6dl

But I can say here that it is a gripping treatment of the story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who briefly  played Othello in the West End in 1833,  – the year of the final Abolition of Slavery Act in the UK.
And that Adrian Lester does it perfectly: finding a way to express the over-emphatic (pre-electric lighting) stage manner of the age,  and giving Aldridge a great dignity and humour, in the face of terrible panicky racialism and that weird sexual dread which accompanied it (there’s a white Desdemona who – gasp! – he has to manhandle.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is great. And there is a terrible moment at the end, when the actor – successful across Europe – is preparing for a role by slowly, carefully,  whitening his handsome face to be more acceptable.
Tremendously topical, given this week’s concerns about the poor ethnic mix in modern British stage and TV.

box office  020 7328 1000

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A WORLD ELSEWHERE – Theatre 503 SW11

AN ERA RECREATED:  THE REAL 1968 IN AN UNREAL WORLD

The opening,  in  a student room correct down to the battered stack of albums, took me aback.    Friends, I was there in 1968:    in Oxford rooms heavy with illegal smoke,  where skinny lads planned groundbreakingly tedious college  productions of Coriolanus and lounged around listening to Bob Dylan protesting  half a world away.  There was often, as here,   an ill-matched roommate:  a “Northern Chemist” stumping off to the lab muttering “Never knew such a place for encouraging bullshit”.

 
My God, how it all comes back!   Even the crucial plot detail that offstage,  the lounging one’s friend Nick risks suspension for nicking books from Blackwell’s on the half-baked Marxexcuse that “Property is Theft”.   The only difference is that in 1968  nobody would say aloud like Nick’s posh sister Pippa (Sophia Sivan) “You’re living in the most amazing old buildings and studying the literature of the greatest language there is. You don’t do a stroke of work and all your cooking and washing is done for you. It doesn’t cost you a penny because the taxpayer is footing the bill. It’s a scandal really.”

 
Yet Alan Franks’ new play is not a satire  but a rueful, layered attempt to pick  its way through the innocent hypocrisies and shifting values of the time.  It’s more Rattigan than Osborne,  mindful of how human relationships drive or impede  progress.   It may seem a tiny world,  but  its faithfulness asks awkwardly universal questions about gilded intellectual elites and the harsher world elsewhere.   The 1968 setting is pivotal,  because into the sweet simplicities of the English undergraduates’ lives (they’re blackmailing a senior tutor for plagiarism to save the book-thief’s bacon)  strides a Rhodes Scholar from Minnesota.  I remember them too, the Clinton generation:   older than us,  avoiding the draft,  their politics forced into sharper focus by the deaths of Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the ascent of Nixon and the fate of  contemporaries in Vietnam.

 
Sally Knyvette directs a cast whose very physicality is evocative: Steffan Donnelly as a wispy boy-child Toby is dreamily planning to emulate a 1953 Brecht production of Gunther Grass which incorporated real strikers  (he finds the Cowley pickets unenthusiastic).   Chris the Chemist is Dan Van Garrett,  more heavyset and bearded: a decent old-school leftie who scornfully points out that the Dylan numbers drifting through the scenes are nicked from folksongs his uncles sing in pubs.   And  Elliott the American is Michael Swatton:  broad-shouldered,   a man among pretty children.  He knows economics and politics,   and recites Bobby Kennedy’s magnificent Kansas speech on the fallacy of mere GDP  (worth a look today –   http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4110).   He mesmerizes Pippa,  who despite a benign nature dislikes “causes”.  Though Mummy does do hospital visiting, in Godalming.

 
Franks weaves themes of  integrity,  emulation, plagiarism,  imitation both straight and crooked:  wistful respect for ancient texts meets an uneasy need for progress. I would love to see it grow to a fuller length.   As for Mayhew the Middle English tutor, Crispian Cartwright is so horribly convincing in the role that for a moment I wondered if Knyvette had done a Brecht-and-the-strikers,  captured and incorporated the real thing…

box office  0207 978 7040 to 15 Feb

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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KING LEAR Olivier, SE1

A LEAR TO REMEMBER: SIMON RUSSELL BEALE        The Bard Mouse width fixed

We are in a crumbling modern gerontocracy:  a conference chamber lined with soldiers, Lear white-bearded and gratingly impatient in dictator militaria,   bemedalled grandees. The daughters line up by microphones for the formal delegation of power and statement of adoration.    It is an old man’s world:   Stephen Boxer’s prim, credulous anxious Gloucester too will prove dangerously  ready to believe that a son is plotting against him with  “We have seen the best of our times”.

As  treacheries and tortures unravel,   director Sam Mendes’ vision is all too recognizable in a world where dictators  poison, stab and feed rivals to dogs while women in designer frocks can play as corruptly as men.   Kate Fleetwood’s  Goneril is a tight, dark knot of frustration,  Anna Maxwell Martin gives us Regan as a minxily sadistic Knightsbridge nymphomaniac.  Their final betrayal takes place beneath a massive Stalinist statue of Lear;   we glimpse the ragged wretches of his underclass, and the final battle is of bombs and Kalashnikovs.

So it follows the contemporary National Theatre Shakespeare trope, like  Hytner’s military Othello, police-state Macbeth and metropolitan Timon.  But like The Winter’s Tale,  this play depends heavily on making the tyrant’s initial craziness credible: every actor must find his way through that astonishing opening scene, that intemperate rage at Cordelia’s honesty.    Some directors take the easy route of implying an incestuous back-story  (the language often suggests it) .  Here  it is not explicit, and we have only  Goneril snapping “never afflict yourself to know the cause”.   Lear’s own nature must explain the disaster, and does.

For  Simon Russell Beale gives us a tense old autocrat,  his need for reassurance stoked by sensing his brain failing.  His voice vibrates with tension, released  in paroxysms of fury.  Stanley Townsend’s shocked Kent  offers the only clue to what Lear once was,  and when he disguises himself as a rudely ranting Irish tramp,  displays equal understanding of what the King is becoming: infantilized, reckless,needing to be amused by rude songs with hsi disruptive soldiery ( roaring “oggi oggi oggi” and hurling a whole dead stag on the table: we need to see why Goneril resents them).

The King must travel from rage to madness before he finds his final angry wisdoms.   Not every Lear, however, manages to catch what Russell Beale does: moments of charm and sweetness when he is briefly convincing himself that Regan,  at least, will be good to him.  Dictators often have – or once had – charm: and the glory of this actor is his ability to switch from Stalin to Santa-Claus within a line. Those few smiling moments are precious, and core to his remarkable interpretation of the character.

The charm sneaks through also in his dealings with the Fool,   the other truth-teller to power:   played with subtle comic desperation by Adrian Scarborough in a check suit with a feathered trilby,  as if he had stepped in from Osborne’s The Entertainer.  And Mendes’ one wholly unexpected shock is his death, which I will not spoil but which makes perfect, rare, horrible dramatic sense.

It all does, and that’s the quality of this thrilling production:  like all the best ones it brings out  ideas and secrets from the text which shock you even after knowing the play for decades. Tom Brooke’s  elfin,  intially casual Edgar is  particularly striking:  a Poor Tom naked, scarred,  the bare forked animal of Lear’s vision.   Richard Clothier’s  Albany too brings a rare distressed dignity to the part.

Not everything is perfect:  Antony Ward’s design is nicely sparse with a cyclorama of threatening cloud and a bright hayfield for Cordelia’s return,  but some quirk persuades Mendes to tolerate a ridiculous hydraulic mini-cliff, with visible mechanism,  raising Lear improbably from the believable moor to shout  “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” ten feet up as if he was in a musical.  Sam Troughton’s Edmund, too is oddly directed: often delivering his threats from an inexplicable spotlight like a Bond villain.

But these are quibbles, cited only because of the miraculous fact that nothing can mar the impact of this great Lear.  Or stop you choking in emotional shock at his final slow, quiet  “Never, never, never, never, never” and sharp demand that all of us  “Look there!”  at Cordelia’s body,   and contemplate the murdered innocence of truth.

Box office  020 7452 3000  to 28 May

Rating: five   5 Meece Rating     

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BLURRED LINES NT SHED SE1

FEMINISM?  NOW THIS IS MORE LIKE IT!

Eight women,  on a great flight of pale stairs which light and flash, introduce themselves politely.  “Single Mum, White”  “Brittle First Wife”  “Broken Down Alcoholic”   “Prostitute, black” “Northern blonde, bubbly” “Middle Class Mum, forty but fuckable”  “Admiral’s wife, jolly”.  “Older Mum, character face”…

The house is  joyful, as if suddenly released from the airless stuffiness of a hundred TV casting clichés.   There are few better sounds in a theatre than gurgles of delighted recognition,  and anyone with an understandable fear of any show promising “a blistering journey through contemporary gender politics”  should be assured that in this  impressionistic 70-minute piece there are many moments of pure glee.  Not least when one of the cast opportunistically leaps down to the front and says that if there’s anyone important in, she looking for work: an MTV girl maybe,  or “the black best friend who gets murdered in the opening moments of all American thrillers” . She offers to produce at will a General African Accent, put on weight or relax her hair.  Whatever!

There are also several deeply touching passages:  distilled tiny playlets whcih feel real despite the neon stairs, with laments and narratives woven by Nick Payne into something close to antiphonal poetry.   He (the only man involved)  co-created it with director Carrie Cracknell and improvisations with the players: eight brave, clever, funny women bringing their own indignations  and hilarities to the process.

It was inspired by Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion with its damning statistics on employment, domestic violence and the unstoppable online tide of pornographic objectification of the female body.  The title refers to the strutting popinjay Robin Thicke and his loathsome video where naked women –  in tiny flesh-coloured thongs so their genitalia look like Barbie dolls’ – twine around him (and a dog and a bike) as he barks  “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”.   The cast were refused permission to sing it,  but do sing fragments of the Crystals‘ “He hit me but it felt like a kiss” and Tammy Wynette’s preposterous “Don‘ liberate me, jus‘ love me”.  High culture gets a swipe too, as a fragile blonde starts sobbingly to sing the Willow Song from Othello.    The playlets use the cast’s diverse ages and appearance – some dropping into male roles – to express attitudes to relationships, prostitution, and work.  Wrenhing is a teenager date-raped after sessions with a boyfriend grew increasingly into “something that he did rather than something they did together”.  And there’s a  darkly funny workplace interview with Bryony Hannah as a female boss patronizing Claire Skinner as a new mother.

In  a surprise coda the show seems finished and three become interviewer, male director and star of a play doing a “Platform”.   A spread-thighed,  artily tousled “Martin” preens and interrupts while his tiny blonde star burbles nervously of the “trust” and “safety” she felt doing a violent bedroom scene in lingerie and bare bum.  A staged question from the floor is met with such accurate patronage that some yelped with glee.  Another little jewel in the fine red Shed.

Box office  020 7452 3000      to 22 feb

Rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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