Monthly Archives: January 2014

RAPTURE, BLISTER, BURN Hampstead, NW3

WOMEN ARE REVOLTING!  BUT AGAINST WHAT???

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   http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com

rating  :  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN Gate Theatre, W11

 THE PITY,  PHOTOGRAPHS,  AND FASCINATION OF WAR

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   http://www.gatetheatre.co.uk   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

SPOOKS,  SECRETS , SEDUCTIONS

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

HORROR , BEAUTY, CANDLELIGHT

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   http://www.shakespeares-globe.com
to 16 Feb

rating:   five     5 Meece Rating

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NOT I, FOOTFALLS, ROCKABY Royal Court, SW1

A  VIRTUOSO  BECKETT  TRIO

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

AUSSIE DINOS RULE

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:   http://www.dinosaurzoolive.com

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ONLY OUR OWN – Arts Theatre, WC2

ECHOES OF ANGLO-IRISH ANGST:   CRITIC STRUGGLES TO SYMPATHIZE
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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