Monthly Archives: January 2014

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS – DUCHESS, WC2

A TOE-TAPPING TOAD AND SLINKY STOATING

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:   http://www.roh.org.uk    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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BRING UP THE BODIES SWAN, STRATFORD

AND SO IT GOES ON…

“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     http://www.rsc.org.uk

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

THOMAS CROMWELL WALKS AGAIN.   A NON-READER IS ENTRANCED.

“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     http://www.rsc.org.uk

rating:   four    4 Meece Rating

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BLOODSHOT – St JAMES’ THEATRE, SW1

LOWLIFE ,  HIGH DRAMA AND DRINK 

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  http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk   to  25 Jan      Sponsor:  Nourish

Rating:  four  4 Meece Rating

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THE CANTERVILLE GHOST Felixstowe/ Ipswich

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     http://www.commongroundtc.co.uk

Rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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