Monthly Archives: January 2014

STROKE OF LUCK Park Theatre , N4


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     to 2 March

rating: three     3 Meece Rating


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“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 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 / 020 7922 2922   to 8 March

Rating:   four    4 Meece Rating

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WHAT THE WOMEN DID Southwark Playhouse, SE1


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

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


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 –   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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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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The world is changing.  “Women are standing for President, men are exfoliating” Don,  an amiable klutz who used to teach but fell back on a quiet life as an ineffective college dean,  lets his bored wife Gwen (Emma Fielding) make lists of tasks for him to forget.  But into their world erupts old roommate, the glitzily single academic feminist, Cathy (Emilia Fox).  Her mother has had a heart attack, and the terror of losing the only person who adores her sparks a longing for a family of her own.  Possibly with  Don, who was her boyfriend before Gwen stole him.

The mutual lifestyle envy of the two women  – with interpositions from a scornful student babysitter, Avery (Shannon Tarbet)  and Cathy’s blissfully unreconstructed mother (an artfully understated Polly Adams)  lets Gina Gionfriddo meditate on the pitfalls of feminist theory.  It is Adams and Tarbet, the old and the young, who get most of the fun as their sharp lines undermine the angsty fretfulness of the fortysomethings.

The long first half is too talky-talky (or was at the last preview), suffering from  theory overload.  Indeed much of it is Cathy conducting a cultural studies seminar with Gwen and Avery as pupils.  It livens up whenever Avery delivers barbs of scorn or Alice potters past with1950’s wisdom about What Men Want.  But it is worth hanging on for the second half when the inevitable fling between Don and Cathy sparks some proper action.

Its questions about female destiny are all, of course,  unanswerable.   The moral, if any,  is that despite technical liberation women can’t win at everything,  because nobody does.  Stay-home mothers can long for brighter lights,   while high-flyers in their forties howl, like Cathy,  “I want a flawed tired marriage…I am ready to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence!”    As for Avery’s liberated generation (Shannon Tarbet is a jewel)  they may give their all only to be dumped for a submissive Mormon virgin. Harsh.

There are credibility problems.   One is the decision to dress Emilia Fox as Academe-Barbie in eyewateringly tight shiny leggings and four-inch heels;  another is that the literary and media success which Gwen envies and Don is dazzled by is – well,  a load of cobblers. Her seminars are pretentious feature-page fillers, droning about the influence of porn on Abu Ghraib and how the internet caused 9/11: she makes Camille Paglia look like Aristotle.   And when she urges Don to reignite his academic career, her suggestion is catchpenny parasitism: copy a chap who ran a book-group discussing Moby Dick with army veterans. Gawd!

It is hard to believe that Gionfriddo  does not know how vapid an academic her character is,  being herself a mistress of the far more demanding art of  building a good play (she wrote Becky Shaw).  But she probably didn’t mean me to end up siding with unambitious Don,  “ “jerking off to a computer while the family watch Toy Story”.  Poor devil, deserved his fling.  Even with a voracious cultural-studies maven in spray-on trousers.

Box Office: 020 7722 9301  to 22 Feb

rating  :  three   3 Meece Rating

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A howl of Arctic wind subdues the settling audience, facing one another from benches across a snowy floor. Screens informs us that all the words, photographs and videos were “spoken, heard, written or taken” between 1993 and 2014 by the playwright Dan O’Brien or his subject, the war photographer Paul Watson.  Watson won a Pulitzer for the significant photo at the heart of this docudrama:  an explicit and horrifying shot of an downed Black Hawk crewman’s body being filthily desecrated in Mogadishu.  O’Brien’s play about his developing friendship with the photographer, on email and then in person, won awards in the US.

Through its ninety minutes,  Damien Molony plays the youngish writer and William Gaminara the older, life-battered photographer.  Each also speaks the parts of others – interpreters, guides, victims, Inuits when they go to the frozen Canadian North together.  Sometimes they speak one another’s words, more as gimmick than enlightenment.  That is particularly problematic because Gaminara’s Watson is tremendous: so rounded and nuanced and natural that it is hard not to believe he is the real thing.   Molony, on the other hand – and one must credit the writer’s modesty – must struggle with  a pretty annoying character:   self-pityingly pretentious about his writing and his inability to get on with his family, which sounds no worse than most.  It is only when he takes on other parts,  notably near the end as the briskly patriotic brother of the dead airman,  that he can draw sympathy.

At its core is the moment when Watson was took the terrible picture in Mogadishu and the voice of the dead man, Sgt. William David Cleveland,  seemed to speak:  “If you do this I will own you forever”.  Watson struggles with racking honesty to justify the apparent prurience of war photography and to understand war itself.  He also expresses complex guilt,  fearing that it was such pictures which caused Clinton to pull out of Somalia, keep clear of Rwanda, and maybe thus encourage Al-Qaeda towards 9/11.

The character O’Brien, on the other hand,  falls into the depressive’s trap of seizing the emotional and physical agonies of war victims and making them his own,  while simultaneously nursing guilt at that feeling and wanting to make the man who really saw the flayings and dead babies his hero-friend.  This in turn, tempts Watson to make him his “confessor”.  Such uneasy male ambiguities gave me trouble committing entirely to the piece until near the end,  after their interlude in the Canadian Arctic. The best moment is when the photographer is calmly told what’s what by the  dead man’s clipped,  decent brother. He learns that the terrible picture performed more service than dishonour.

James Dacre of the Royal & Derngate directs,  moving the pair (and two chairs) deftly along the transverse stage,  exploiting their claustrophobic closeness and the screens which show harrowing war photos, Arctic vistas or once- wittily – a picture of O’Brien’s own theatre of action:  Princeton library.

box office   020 7229 0706   to 8 Feb
Royal and Derngate Northampton, 01604 624811   27 Feb-8 March

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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CIPHERS Bush Theatre, W12


If you are, like me,  addicted to  Spooks on television and to the deeper-rooted psychologies of John le Carré,  Dawn King’s new play feeds the same hunger for ambiguity, dangerous secrets and ethical conflict. Nations need intelligence, intelligence requires spies and secrets,  but secrets rot people from the inside.

So you have the ingredients for drama, and for intensity.   In Blanche McIntyre’s deft and well-honed production from Out of Joint and Exeter Northcott (reaching the end of a good tour) the set is made of sliding screens , the scenes are short and often momentarily baffling,  the time-scale leaps backwards and forwards offering skilful clues. And each of the four cast is – without obvious disguise – playing two different people.

Grainne Keenan is Justine – a quiet, efficient redundant marketing assistant who, thanks to her fluent Russian and Japanese, gets a job with MI5.  She doubles as Justine’s sister Kerry, who we meet in flash-forward scenes distraught at Justine’s mysterious death.   Shereen Martin,  dark and assured as a feared headmistress,  is both Justine’s MI5  boss and the rich wife of her artist lover.  Ronny Jhutti doubles as the boyfriend and, superbly, as a furious young Pakistani youth worker who Justine is made to recruit as an informer.  And Bruce Alexander is a lecherous yet fatherly Russian spook and, briefly,  the heroine’s grieving but patriotic old Dad.

Complicated?  Bear with me, and be assured that  it is a tribute to Blanche McIntyre’s direction that you don’t get lost, and that every time the screens slide you are agog to know what – and who –  happens next.  So as a two-hour entertainment you can’t fault it;  and as it went on I found myself happily reflecting that it combined the interest of a TV drama with an extra theatrical layer of meaning conferred by the doubling of characters: so that rather than just considering the corrupting effect of intelligence agencies you think of wider things: uncompromising youthful innocence and crafty age, subtle bullying both emotional and professional,  layers of betrayal.

The problem with a cliffhanger-mystery, though, is that you have to resolve it. Unless you’re some really annoying intellectual ambiguist too arrogant to tell stories properly.   The author here acknowledges that we need to know: why DID Justine die?  Was it really suicide?  Once you work for MI5, is anything in your life real?  Echoes here of the real life “spy in the bag” case.

And so she does resolve it.  And although there is one chilling, horribly credible resolution,  it is followed by an odd coda in which the writer seems to be suggesting yet another layer of deceit, but without making it clear enough to satisfy.  And that sort of knocks the shine off it.  But whether here or in Salisbury, the skill and entertainment of it all is well worth the ticket, and Dawn King (whose Foxfinder won the Papatango prize) is certainly one to watch.

box office 0208 743 5050           to 8 feb  then tour ends Salisbury Playhouse to 16 Feb    Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE DUCHESS OF MALFI – Wanamaker Playhouse , Shakespeare’s Globe


It is a tiny jewel-box, this new indoor playhouse: a reproduction of the Jacobean theatres which succeded the wooden O of the Globe.  Clean pale wood benches lie beneath a ceiling of gilded stars, and the only light is from a hundred wax candles:   tremblng in sconces,  carried by actors, or rising and falling on seven great candelabras from the ceiling.  It is a beautiful thing, but until this first production we could not know whether it will really serve the plays.

Banish doubt: it’s a triumph.  Dominic Dromgoole has wisely chosen to open the Wanamaker with a play whose vision of normality overwhelmed by nightmare is  perfectly expressed by its candlelit intimacy.   The poetic morbidity of John Webster reanimates after four centuries his obsessions:  flesh as frail as curdled milk, stranglings , obscene desires, spider-web intrigue,  “Life a mist of error; death a storm of terror”.   Yet at the heart of the play is the most playful, wholesome and loving of heroines. More even than a Desdemona or Cordelia,  the Duchess shines steady against the blackness: a rounded, sensual, happy and fulfilled woman who even imprisonment only brings  to “melancholy fortified with disdain”,  who asserts her noble birth but dies saying “Give my little boy some syrup for his cold”.

Gemma Arterton brings a queenly beauty to the role, and on this night steps up into the first rank of classical actors.   In the lovely domestic scenes with her secret husband Antonio (Alex Waldmann)  she sings and teases, shrugging cheerfully that the “tempest” of her brother’s fury at the marriage will abate.  In captivity, tormented with visions of the beloved dead,  she can rage and grieve without compromising the still dignity which stands gravely by when bayed by madmen.   No grotesqueness can dim her quiet burning candle.

That grotesqueness, meanwhile,  is served with equal vigour by David Dawson as Duke Ferdinand, keeping his incestuous weirdness just this side of camp.  Writhingly petulant, shivering with inexpressible desire he is the perfect contrast to  his sister’s cheerful sensuality.  A fine physical contrast too with his pawn,  Sean Gilder’s Bosola, playing it as every inch the pragmatic ex-army bruiser moving from a brisk “Whose throat must I cut?” to horrified entanglement in the Duke’s filthy games.  And alongside the Duchess is Sarah MacRae’s Cariola:  of coarser clay than her mistress but warmly human and, in her own moment of death, inexpressibly touching.  All this, remember, is  achieved by candlelight:  rising and falling, snuffed out and re-lit,  the practical magic of a past age rediscovered.  With Claire van Kampen’s music on early instruments, it takes your breath away.

After the  savage climax of the Duchess’ death,  every director faces the problem of the longish final act. A more temperate playwright would head for a faster ending, but Webster revels in detailed dissolution, conspiracy, seduction, a ludicrous poisoned Bible and a jarring comic interlude with mad Ferdinand’s overconfident doctor.  For all the Gothic horror of the Duke’s werewolf grave-ripping,  progress towards the final heaping of corpses always risks absurdity.  Dromgoole does not resort to cuts or underplaying but ramps it up,  goes for broke, and allows the absurdities to produce a relieved shake of laughter in the tiny, crammed, beautiful room.

box office:  (0) 20 7401 9919
to 16 Feb

rating:   five     5 Meece Rating

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It’s a weird hour, this,  even for late Samuel Beckett.  Three short solos,  performed by Lisa Dwan in an impressive feat of memory and mood,  meditate on the life, decay and trapped unhappiness of the female condition.   Walter Asmus’ production is staged in tenebrous gloom (wonderful chiaroscuro lighting by James Farncombe) and the plays are separated by minutes of sinister rumbling, and darkness so deep that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.   So it’s an experience: that disintegrated, unnerving Beckett thing which works once you relinquish intellectual curiosity and let words and rhythms  lap around you like a troubling dream.

The first piece,  Not I, is the best known: first performed here forty years ago by Billie Whitelaw. Eight feet above the stage the speaker is a disembodied mouth: bright-lit as a single point in deep blackness,  a static twinkling star with lips and teeth delivering – at the speed of thought – a tumbling monologue.  Sometimes it is a comical gabble,  an Irish sparkle of busyness and explanation; sometimes a shout of pain, as if life and sense were dissolving under  the torture that is life.

The second, Footfalls,  sees the darkness broken by a vision of Dwan in white tatters, pallid as a candle,  patrolling and pacing near a mother’s deathbed and answered at intervals by the sepulchral ancient voice of the dying one.  It resolves into a sort of fragment of a lost novel, hinting at half-forgotten things, senseless but focused by the hypnotic dualism of Dwan’s marvellous voice.   The third piece is Rockaby:  again a woman, maybe the bereaved daughter, prematurely old in beaded black on a rocking chair which moves on its own, her face falling in and out of the light.  She speaks a poetic, repetitive, beautifully soporific monotone of  decline, “At the end of the day,  quiet at the window, famished eyes..” etc..  Until the rocking stops with “fuck life,  stop her eyes, rock her off…”

All brilliantly done.  And yet at this point my ancestral Irishness – which recognized the authentic sparkle and mischief behind the pain in the first piece  – suddenly detected that other and more acccursed Hibernian tone:  maudlin and mawkish.  Up rose in memory all those poems about moribund mothers gripping trapped sons and daughters in permanent sorrowful helplessness.  I thought of all those songs which drone out of RTE’s obscurer corners with lines like  “O Lord let the winter go quickly, that the flowers may bloom where she lies”.  Or, in a wicked parody from disrespectful modern Ireland,   “I am digging up me mother from her lonely Leitrim grave…”.    And the mood of acceptance broke, and I felt that Sam B was on the edge conning me. Or himself.
But it has been an hour too consummately well done to regret or forget.

Sponsors: Coutts / American Airlines.
This week sold out at the Court (some day tickets)
But it transfers to   Duchess, WC2, 3-15 Feb   0844 482 9672
then touring Cambridge, Birmingham, Lowry
Rating:  four    4 Meece Rating

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DINOSAUR ZOO Phoenix, WC1, now touring


There is a good reason why frazzled British parents cherish Australian nannies: and every cheerful, firm, gung-ho, reliable quality we dream of is exemplified in Lindsey Chaplin.  Striding onstage through a forest of weird inflatable Aussie trees in her zookeeper kit,  with a bright “G’day!” she demands that the audience of restless small children and parents greet her back. “I like to start happy because by the end of this show some of you will be crying. True”.

She has been hosting this tremdendous puppet hour since 2011 and boy, does this sheila know how to handle us.  Everything’s a joke, but everything’s serious too:  not only the (considerable) battery of facts about wildlife 65 million years ago,  but the management of an unpredictable unfledged audience.  “Come on up  –  you –  yeah, nice to be part of the London slow-walking festival…Don’t come up unless you’re asked, OK? And parents, if you own a rogue child…”

There were several rogue children among the ones she did summon up to stroke baby Dryosaursi on puppeteers laps,  hypnotize a Leaellynasaurus,  assist in gruesome dentistry and throw disgusting looking bundles of guts to an apparently escaped – and monstrously enormous – Titanosaur with wobbling wattles and gigantic razor teeth.  Every child was fielded with amiable brilliance, whether rogue or helpful: some of them only three years old.  One  tiny girl flatly refused to put her head in the Titanosaurs vast mouth and insisted her brother come up instead.  No problem.    Not that the rest of us were left out of the action:  at one point giganic primitive dragonfly Meganeuras erupted suddenly around the audience, flapping on  long wobbly poles, and we leapt and shrieked in delighted alarm.

I had not quite known what to expect of Erth’s show,  except that the famous company’s puppeteering would be classy, subtle in movement and painstaking in accuracy,   and that its creatures – deduced from fossil science  – are proudly Australian and therefore even bigger and fiercer than the familar Jurassic-Park lot.      But it wears its educational credits with pleasant lightness,  eschews Disneyish sentimentality,  and is paced cunningly from the first cuddly lap-dinos to the fiercer ones and the immense and unexpected Bronto-neck which concludes the show.   The Titanosaur is fabulous.  If you stay on, you can go on stage to meet ‘n greet it.

I caught the show at the end of its London mornings at the Phoenix, where it delightfully shared the Irish-bar stage set built for shows of ONCE in the evening (hell, theses are Aussie dinosaurs, they’re comfortable a pub).  But the reason to alert you now is that it is off on the road again, from Southend to Scunthorpe and beyond.
And any dino-lover over three should not miss it.

Cue a celebratory touring-mouse – Touring Mouse wide

Rating   Four  4 Meece Rating
Touring UK:   29 Jan – 24 April  Details:

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ONLY OUR OWN – Arts Theatre, WC2

Full personal disclosure: having a longstanding connection with Ireland  I am not a natural empath for the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy displaced after eight centuries of colonial rule.   Hated the Somerville and Ross chronicles of “The Irish RM” , with that toff sense of entitlement and casually comic portrait of villagers as sly Papist drunkards.  So this play about an Anglo-Irish family “struggling for identity” found me  hampered by a sense that despite the 800-year occupation,   seventy years after Irish  independence the dispossessed descendants should bite the bullet and fit in.

That some of them don’t is the theme of this play by Swedish-born  Ann Henning Jocelyn, now married to an Irish peer in Connemara and catching the echoes of Protestant resentment with a keen foreign ear. Her director – Lars Harald Garthe – is Norwegian,  and the theme of a claustrophobic family trapped within social change echoes both Ibsen and Strindberg.   It lacks, though , the eloquent intensity which makes us feel for Julie, Hedda or Nora:  the first half in particular is so lugubrious that you just want to shake the lot of them.  No Irish sparkle here.

It is set between 1989 and today: Meg and Andrew (Maef Alexander and Cornelius Garrett) run a salmon fishery in Connemara, with the grim matriarch Lady Eliza  uttering cut-glass snobberies at the head of the table.  She wants to tell the sullen teenage granddaughter Titania (Alex Gilbert) about  1922, when as a child she saw the rebels burn down her family seat, shoot her brother and give them fifteen minutes to grab their treasures and leave their ancestral lands.   In a well-crafted monologue she writes a letter, but only later does it find its mark.

For Titania is  resents the isolation of her childhood (no school till 11, then Cheltenham) and mocks her parents‘ toxic snobberies: chillingly, they let a local craftsman stand outside in the rain waiting for his fee, claiming “Their Church won’t allow them to enter our houses”.  The grandmother’s funeral in their moribund Protestant church is “family only”  to prevent Catholic villagers coming.  Weirdly, though, in all their explanations of how the locals are “different”not one of them ever mentions what is going on through the 1990’s in the North: bombings, ceasefires, Orange parades.  Anyhow,   Titania rebels, has two children by a local farmer,  and dumps them on the parents to go to London, call herself Tania and hook an investment banker.   Whereon the parents find a new role,  start a playgroup, make friends in the village and send little Aoife and Cahal to the nun-run village school.  The forbidding shade of Lady Eliza and her 70-year-old grudge fades: but  Tania comes back, and reverts to genetic type by being vile and snobbish in a different way.

Henning Jocelyn is rather too keen to hammer home a moral about reconciliation and tidy up the end, though, and  there’s always an alarm bell when a character starts quoting her therapist and going on about her “fledgling soul” as Titania does:    “ I don’t exist…I”m just an empty shell without a place in the world”.   Hmmm.

box office 0207 836 8463  to 1 Feb

Rating    three  3 Meece Rating

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With a caper and a thump and a hippety-hop, a flapping of laundry and a riverbank romp,  the Royal Opera House has dipped a first (elegantly pointed) toe in the commercial waters of the West End.  On and off over ten years, this sweet production by Will Tuckett  has been in the Linbury Studio, beloved by the children of the cognoscenti ballet-savvy.   It has a dreamy score by Martin Ward  based on the composer George Butterworth – a friend of Vaughan Williams.  The narration based on Kenneth Grahame’s book  is by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

Classy stuff:  and now  the diminutive but dignified Duchess fits it like a glove.  Sir Tony Robinson, taking time off from arguing with Michael Gove about Blackadder,  is an avuncular narrator,  sharing a ramshackle attic set (old wardrobes, a rocking-horse, packing-cases) with the wild creatures the book brings to life:  Mole’s first appearance is from a rolled up carpet,  blinking in specs and a miner’s lamp;  Ratty wears his rowing-boat as a bustle  and springy rabbits, ducks and butterflies join the summery dance.  A particular delight is the  first pas-de-deux between Clemmie Sveaas as a bumbling, gradually enlivening Mole and Will Kemp’s spry Ratty  (not for nothing was he Matthew Bourne’s chief Swan).

The animal characters never speak, though three times, gloriously, they sing Grahame’s verses;  the story is carried by Robinson.  At first I felt Motion’s text a bit  over-lush (indeed, the final coda about friendship and memory proves him to be, if possible, an even more soppy Edwardian moralist than Grahame himself).  But  Cris Penfold’s Toad – a green-haired bounder as hyper as a five-year-old on a sugar rush – cuts through the schmaltz  and  by the time the paternal Badger (Christopher Akrill) anxiously puts a rabbit’s ears over its eyes to prevent it seeing Toad’s crash,  I was hooked.   There are slow dreamy passages which are – in the best possible sense – soporific: children need that concentrated gentleness as much as panto larks. Well, by this time of year we all do.
It is also Badger who brings out Motion’s best poetry, evoking his devotion to dark quiet tunnels and “rage against the rush and gaudiness of things”.  But it is Grahame’s own carol, sung by fieldmice with lanterns coming down the aisle in snowfall,  which brought the first sentimental tear to the eye.

Tuckett’s choreography is terrific, gleefully mashing up ballet, tap, mime and the odd dash of capoeira.  Stoats, weasels and an enormous Judge (with paper spills for a wig) are designed by master-puppeteer Toby Olié.  The interval is enlivened by a chase through the auditorium and foyer with Toad in his car and policemen with helmets and whistles.  And then Ewan Wardrop (formerly otter and weasel) becomes a dragged-up gaoler’s daughter in print dress and loud boots, and goes admirably nuts in a frock-swap with the equally frenzied Toad.
My inner six-year-old loved that.

Box office:    020 7304 4000 (no booking fee)
 0844 482 9672 (booking fee)     To   1 Feb

Rating:  four 4 Meece Rating   and a spare balletomouse for luck     Musicals Mouse width fixed


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“Intrigue feeds upon itself”  says Thomas Cromwell,  in the second part of this magnificent and terrifying chronicle.  We find Anne Boleyn restless,  fiercely frivolous, sensing the net closing around her,  and Henry turning his eyes on Leah Brotherhead’s  Jane Seymour:  a pale, small, carefully chaste creature whose high sweet enunciation has just enough weirdness in it to make her seem a kind of sybil.  More women to the fore now:  closet gossip from sour Lady Rochford , wanton Lady Worcester and the camp young lutanist  (Joey Batey)  who once played for Wolsey and now haunts the rustling chambers of the |Queen. And more street rumours – comic, dangerous, revealing –  from Piero Niel Mee as Cromwell’s rascally French servant.

Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More are ghosts now:  ironic, strolling across the stage in Cromwell’s troubled memory.   The Earls of Suffolk and Norfolk are more crudely bombastic than ever,  the Boleyn tribe on the defensive, and Cromwell himself  depended on by the  King.  He is  forced into ever twistier manoeuvres to serve that royal terror: indeed  there were moments during his interrogation of Boleyn’s supposed lovers when our hero seemed  – uneasily, shockingly – to be corrupting like a slow-burning Macbeth.

But then subtle regret, pain and old resentments cross Ben Miles’ expressive  face beneath the sober puritan cap, and you ache again for a man too thoughtful, practical and sceptical for a vainglorious court and whimsical dictator.   Terrible for any man of conscience to have say flatly to a shocked son:   “Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of your enemy, his destruction must be swift. It must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought…his dog answering your whistle!”.

Despite brief moments when the telescoping of dense narrative threatened to be a touch Blackadderish,  it was impossible not to be borne along.  One caveat:  for non-readers of the novels this seond play might not stand alone with clarity as the first does.  Best to arrive clear about the history and narrative of the first part.   Tremendous storytelling, though, on any terms: and a vivid evocation of a monarch threatened on all sides: from a Catholic Europe outraged by the exile of Queen Katherine, from arrogant noble families at home jockeying for position.  Meanwhile theologians like Cranmer (Giles Taylor) tell him that power descends to the King from God, while pragmatists like Cromwell quietly know that it only rises from the uncertain docility of a hungry populace.

Thus an oversimplified patch of history becomes  fresh, and the RSC demonstrates its high worth and staunch values.  I am not the only one who left this double day,   after six hours and two plays,  saying that if  Hilary Mantel had yet written the third  – and Poulton and Herrin presented it –   we would willingly have stayed till dawn.

box office 0844 800 1110

rating:   four .4 Meece Rating
Except that if you see both plays,  somehow it adds up to a triumphant
five   5 Meece Rating


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WOLF HALL – Swan, Stratford upon Avon


“Between Christmas Day and Epiphany God permits the dead to walk”.  So says Henry VIII, sleepless in the dawn, summoning his watchful  fixer Cromwell  to steer him through a political and religious quagmire.  So, fittingly in this Epiphany week,  the long-dead Tudor court too must walk again.   Hilary Mantel’s two intensively researched, hugely praised novels reimagined the English Reformation around the figure of the lawyer and adviser Thomas Cromwell; now they are brought to the stage in an adaptation by Mike Poulton, under Jeremy Herrin’s direction.

They will have  two audiences: those who loved the books,  and those who stalled at Mantel’s stylistic density, gave up,   and hope to be sent back to them.  I am one such,  and can speak only for those coming to it fresh,  armed only with bare bones of history.     And I was enraptured,  from the first moments of bantering impatience between Paul Jesson’s flamboyant Cardinal Wolsey and Ben Miles as his devoted Cromwell.  Danger fizzes in the air, evoking a world where an incautious word meant death;  Cromwell reads Luther and Tyndale but must hide the books when Thomas More’s men come searching  (memories arise of the marvellous Written On The Heart , here two years ago).  This play takes us from the decline of Wolsey’s influence and the danger to his follower, through the intricacies of the King’s divorce and defiance of the Pope,  to Boleyn’s first  – but female – child, her  miscarriage and Henry’s convenient doubts of her chastity.  It ends with the defiance of Thomas More,  previously caricatured as a  fanatic but  finally an honest stubborn martyr. Which  underlines  the subtle dramatic strength of this narrative: there are no out-and-out villains.

Snobs and fools,   cynical hedonists, an impatient King,  but no villains.   Ben Miles is superb as Mantel’s rehabilitated vision of Cromwell:  no scheming self-seeker but a modern politician stranded in an age of absolute monarchy and superstition,  a self-made man of formidable intelligence, beaten child, adventurer across Europe.  Poulton’s text is vigorous without anachronism and never archaic;  fragments of Cromwell’s back-story which the novel’s readers may  regret are filled in with casual skill in conversational asides.  Herrin’s stagings, with never a sense of rush, makes pictures speak thousand words:  the death of Cromwell’s wife, the downfall of Wolsey, brief simpering appearances of Jane Seymour prefiguring the King’s later marital disasters.  Court dances are metaphors for shifting influence; religious moments are balanced between angry politics and thoughtful lines like Cromwell’s shrugging protestation that the Bible makes no mention of “Monks. Or nuns – or purgatory, or fasting – or relics or priests..I’ve never found where it says pope..”

Altogether, it crackles with political, emotional and psychological force. Lydia Leonard’s Boleyn is flirtatious and ferocious, shriller as her danger increases; Lucy Briers’ Katherine chillingly intense, Nathaniel Parker’s Henry bluff, arrogant, persuadable;   John Ramm sullenly righeous as More.   Mantel’s notes in the playscript are detailed and fascinating, but what is created before us onstage is something fresh:  theatre’s miracle of collaboration.

And I would hate you to think there are no jokes.  There’s an Ipswich joke, a dead rat joke,  a chamberpot, and many dry lines.  My favourite is Cromwell’s exasperated private desire to say to the half-separated King “Oh, sort it out, Harry, you’re the scandal of the parish!”
I write this after the first play.   Later I will report on the sequel.   So far, I am thrilled.
box office 0844 800 1110

rating:   four    4 Meece Rating

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The candles on our tables gutter in their glass shades,  hands tighten round drinks, spurts of relieved laughter meet dry jokes, stillness respects  moments of poignant humanity.  Moody monochrome views of a battered 1957  London never distract from the man onstage.  It’s good to be transported, and have a world built for you in words.

Douglas Post’s play suits the current theatrical zeitgeist,  which seems to be in love with the lowlife glamour of sixty years ago.   We have had Butterworth’s rock ‘n roll gangsters in the Mojo revival,  Keeler  and Stephen Ward chronicling the Profumo scandal,  King Lear reimagined as a Kray brother down in Bath.   Now,  in the St James’  cosy downstairs cabaret space, comes this gorgeous little thriller.   It is  performed alone by  the remarkable Simon Slater (how did this subtle actor get buried in Mamma Mia for four years? Even if he was also busy composing scores like the Olivier-nominated Constellations music?).  Patrick Sandford , who first put this on at the Nuffield, directs.

The hero Derek is an emotional casualty of those unsettled postwar years: an ex-police photographer who spent the Blitz recording terrible mutilations,  veiled the horrors with drink, blew his promotion, and ended up in peacetime photographing victims of more personal violence, and drinking even more.  This is economically and unselfpityingly related, with just enough raw edges of emotion to prevent machismo or prurience.  Jobless and broke in a bedsit,  he receives a commission to follow and covertly photograph a young black woman, one of the Windrush immigrant generation crowding Notting Hill.  From a mere meal-ticket she becomes his muse: when she is killed he plunges with naive indignation into a fetid nightclub underworld to find her persecutors.

In any virtuoso solo show – from  Fiona Shaw to Dame Edna –   there is double pleasure.  You can be happily lost in the narrative itself,  but on another level  admire –  as if in an Olympic arena –  the lone performer’s emotional, physical and vocal stamina.  Slater  not only deploys a likeable,  damaged Graham-Greeneish charm as the narrator,  but  evokes the others:   he plays the saxophone with jazzy defiance as the American bandleader Bryant,  swallows razor-blades as a Russian conjurer,   and delivers a rattling Irish song-and-gag routine as McKinley the comic.   In between, faultlessly,  he is Derek:  wrestling not only with a whodunnit but with his own lonely, bruised longing for beauty.

There are lovely grace-notes: references to Sputnik, the Coronation, the buzzing social and cultural changes.  Once the jazzman, bitterly sneers “You wanna know about the future?”  and plays a few raucous bars of Rock Around the Clock before spitting ‘My thing is dying!”.

As for the resolution,   it is as realistically squalid as any Mickey Spillane fan could wish;  yet then it twists, extraordinarily and almost redemptively. A good yarn, superbly told.

box office 0844 264 2140   to  25 Jan      Sponsor:  Nourish

Rating:  four  4 Meece Rating


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CANTERVILLE MEETS VAUDEVILLE  –   on the road   Touring Mouse wide
   Here’s a bit of fun to report, the last rich dregs of Christmas before theatrecat puts on a straight face and heads to Stratford.   Last year Common Ground – the tiny community theatre company led by Julian Harries and director-composer Pat Whymark – gave us a blissful spoof murder mystery with silly wigs and Round-the-Horneish surrealism.  This time they seize on Oscar Wilde’s short story The Canterville Ghost,  in which an overconfident American diplomatic family rent a stately home and defy the resident ghost with a scornful “We come from a modern country!”

In the original,  ironic comedy is mingled with romantic pathos.  The ghost struggles to keep up the traditional  bloodstain on the hall floor against the power of Pinkerton’s Patent Stain Remover, and is affronted when his rattling chains are met with a tranquilly helpful offer of Tammany’s Lubricant.  But ultimately it is the innocent young daughter, Virginia, who by weeping for his ancient sins achieves him forgiveness and rest in the garden of death.  As a child I adored the story: so given the irrepressible larkiness of this team,  it was gratifying to hear the cast of six begin, solemnly straight  and melodious, by harmonizing Wilde’s “When a golden girl can win / Prayer from out the lips of sin…”


Following this salute to the poignant stuff, however, they revert to their Kenneth-Horne-meets-panto mode, and when the young heroine eventually does shed a tear  it is of another kind (blame the most unlikely performance of the Angel of Death you’ll see all winter)    So, no Victorian mawkishness but rather an equally Victorian vaudeville treatment.  There’s a puppet lapdog,  a speaking portrait, a lot of witty props, a depressed posh raven  and two barmily inventive  unWildean interludes in which the Ghost  reminisces about a cruise ship he went on or relates a complicated miniature epic involving the wicked showman Jeremiah Squanderbeef using a severed head as a coconut-shy until the headless highwayman Mad Jack McFlapjack  reclaims it.

Its gusto and humour carry the day,   even in a damp church-hall matinee where I caught the penultimate tour date.  As the Ghost, Harries roams around in a magnificent Tudor outfit enunciating like Donald Sinden,  and embroiders on Wilde’s jokes about the ghost’s ability to manifest in any form (“Henry Sawyer the poisoned Lawyer – Robert Rummer the Strangled Plumber”  etc). The Americans are played note-perfect by Stefan Atkinson as Hiram,  sweet-faced Lorna Garside as Virginia and an irresistibly over-the-top Alice Mottram as the wife prone to invented mid-West slang.    Whymark’s songs offer pleasingly groansome lyrics like “He makes our lives unbearable, lucky we ain’t scare-able” . There are low jokes to get the younger audience members snorting,  and cleverer ones like the Ghost’s worry about impersonating Satan because “he’s touchy about copyright”.   Wilde would like that.

Tour concludes at Wolsey Studio, Ipswich   9-11 Jan
box office 07928 765153

Rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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