Monthly Archives: February 2014

VERSAILLES Donmar WC2

1919: A GENERATION CAST ADRIFT BY WAR

After the Armistice, in spring 1919 the Treaty of Versailles drew lines on the map and enforced reparations.  Its decisions cast long shadows even today,  and its peace lasted only twenty years,.  Peter Gill’s ambitious, chewy,  eloquent play is built around that conference. But with fascinating obliquity it observes it in the first and third acts from an affluent drawing-room in Kent,  and between them from a civil service anteroom in Paris.  It often feels more like a wordy novel – perhaps by E.M.Forster – yet its very seriousness finally captures the heart.  Gill shows us people adrift in a newly incomprehensible world:  stunned by grief or confused by change, needing to  understand that as the hero Leonard says despairingly  “The war  was greater than our capacity to deal with the results.”

The Kentish drawing-room is home to Edith  (Francesca Annis) her daughter Mabel (Tamla Kari)  and son Leonard (Gwilym Lee) , a young civil servant off to help at Versailles.  They have houseguests:  soldier Hugh,  home on leave and loosely affianced to Mabel, and Constance (Helen Bradbury)  who works in a leftish bookshop and knew Leonard at University.  He is an authority on the Saar Valley coalmines,  which belong to Germany but which Versailles may cede to France.  His anxiety about impoverishing Germany too greatly is met with contempt by Mrs Chater (a sharp performance by Barbara Flynn) a neighbour who is mourning both her soldier son and the new world of Jews and foreigners and class fluidity (“My niece is married to an Irishman, but that’s as far as it goes”.)

Another neighbour contemptuous of  Leonard’s qualms is Geoffrey,  a wonderfully sinister creation whose two sides are conveyed perfectly by Adrian Lukis. There’s the kindly prosperous village neighbour  “I’m an old country Tory – will it work, and what’s best for me?”  he says joshingly,  but as the evening goes on his self-satisfied pragmatism reveals a heart of granite:  democracy is a figleaf,  all we need is  “a robust market and a wise élite”.    Tellingly, he likes the opera because its emotion and idealism are “confined by art and open to interpretation” –  ouch!  He is organizing a war memorial but cares little that the tormented Hugh can’t even look at the drawings;  he has a mistress in London but an eye for Constance.

Gill cannot resist sly moments of prediction:  Geoffrey observes that  “the greengrocer class” has no class loyalties and hence makes harsh decisions (work that  out!).   Simon Williams, perfect as the senior diplomat at Versailles, harrumphs about the new need for  “clever middle class boys, neurotic though they may be”   who read novels, don’t hunt, and make preposterous suggestions like nationalizing coal –  “As if that would ever happen!”.  But the play’s heart is Leonard, struggling with  the moral ambiguity of all parties in war  and the danger of crippling Germany  (he was right:  Hitler owed much to its years of panic and poverty).  He deplores “the hurried nation-making, partitioning up Africa as if we owned it” , looks towards the East and fears a future “Mohammedan Cromwell” will exploit the resentments of arrogant border-making.    His emotional life is torment too:  the dead Chater son was his friend and lover, who in a less successful device appears as a recurrent ghost, arguing and reproaching.

Ideas are sometimes piled too high, but when Gill (who also directs) remembers that this is theatre he scores moments of shaking emotion:  The Chaters, for instance, are each ambushed out of their civilized chattiness into sudden sobs for their dead son.  As in life, it’s moments kindness that do it:  Mrs Chater breaks suddenly at the gift of a piece of cake, and in the last act her husband (a brief but powerful Christopher Godwin) defies the general disapproval of Leonard’s resigning to work in the East End.  The old man walks up and shakes his hand saying “You are a pilgrim!”,  and weeps.

In that moment,  the pity and the puzzle of war come very close.

Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 5 April        Supported by: Barclays  / American Airlines

rating:  four     4 Meece Rating
A series of talks accompanies VERSAILLES to mark the centenary of WW1: details and booking:  donmarwarehouse.com

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THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE Wanamaker, SE1

FIGHTS, FLIGHTS, PANTALOONS AND PRENTICES:  BUT THE GROCER’S WIFE IS THE STAR.

Imagine three hours on a bench watching a cross between Spamalot and The Real Inspector Hound,  performed in flickering candlelight by a talented but overwrought gang of mummers who can’t agree which bits to cut.  You’re nearly there, but not quite.    After launching itself with the tenebrous, brilliantly morbid Duchess of Malfi  the Globe’s pretty candlelit playhouse stays reverently in-period,  but veers  to the opposite extreme.  Francis Beaumont’s 1607 romp shows a parody of a typical  romantic comedy-drama  of the day  – “The London Merchant” being hijacked by a couple in the audience.  They are an  affluent grocer and his wife (Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn)  who object to the plot where a humble ‘prentice seeks to marry his master’s daughter. She  is destined for a chap called Sir Humphrey:  deathlessly portrayed by Dickon Tyrrell in a Barbie-pink slashed ‘n puffed pantaloon suit and what looks like Grayson Perry’s wig.

So they crash up out of the pit and insist on the star role going to their gormless apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). Incredibly, Noel Coward once played the part.  Anyway, they demand that Rafe celebrate ordinary people as  a heroic  “grocer errant – a knight of the Burning Pestle” and that the arty poseurs on the stage give him the best scenes.    It is as if Alan Sugar climbed on stage during Romeo and Juliet demanding a bigger part for the apothecary.

There are some fine moments, high and wild and marvellously ridiculous,  and real comedy gold every time  the fabulous Pauline McLynn chats loudly, rustles her bag of nuts or leaps onto the low stage to demand that her protegé kill a giant or sort out one of the hapless real actors‘ plots.   Her rounded and wonderful portrait of overconfident prosperous matronliness steals the show.

It is salutary to be reminded that there’s  nothing new about  “breaking down the fourth wall”  and having characters crash around in the auditorium.  Nor about theatrical in-jokes,  deliberate overacting,  offended stars dropping furiously out of character,  spoofy love scenes and gleeful parodies of overused 17c plots (knights errant,   an irrational test of love, faked deaths , a vengeful ghost,  and a rotund loon with a ginger beard (Paul Rider in another full-blown nutty performance) who can’t stop  singing.

Some fights, flights and  lines stick in the mind (“Is not all the world Mile End, mother?”) and anyone who rhymes “I”ll never clasp her” with “Jasper” can only be a pal.     But for an archaeological froth-fest, it’s too long.   Director Adele Thomas  does give us three brief musical entr’actes as well as the  interval  in which to uncurl our aching bodies,  and we need them,  while we did not in the  Duchess of Malfi.  Physical restlessness in theatres relates strongly to lack of absorption.

But the cast are heroes all, especially Needham who has already torn a ligament and wears a leg- brace but still dives into the pit with a knightly hobbyhorse round his waist.  Now my brain has stopped spinning, I’m quite glad I know what our ancestors got up to.

box office 0844 871 7628  to to 30 March

rating  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE FULL MONTY Noel Coward Theatre, WC2

MORE THAN A MOVIE:  SOMETHING SPECIAL FROM SHEFFIELD

The opening is dramatic: a  small gap in the rusty corrugated curtain reveals showers of sparks, a glimpse of steelworks magnificence. It closes, to the soundbite  “The lady’s not for turning”, and the whole frame reopens to reveal the gloomy  magnificence of industrial dereliction,  as Gaz and Dave and the child Nathan make their way into the old mill to nick a girder.   And to create more instant drama by getting their old friend the giant crane (“Margaret the Blue Bitch”)  working, with spectacular unreliability. And we’re hooked too.

That single mill set, fabulously realized by Robert Jones,  looms over every scene – jobcentre, Conservative club, working men’s club, street – as if to affirm the overarching trauma of steel towns in the ‘80s, when the works wound down and stranded men who thought their skilled jobs were for life.     Sometimes, poignantly,  you glimpse the lights of Sheffield beyond and below the far door.

There are always qualms about the West End adapting hit films: wavering confidence drives producers towards  easy ‘bankers’, and in the process can weaken or coarsen them (I can’t be alone in having shuddered at the crass Billy Elliott curtain-call with policemen and miners in tutus).   Here, though, the reverse is true.  Simon Beaufoy rewrites his screenplay for the stage with careful delicacy, and Daniel Evans’ production (down from Sheffield Lyceum)  creates something even  funnier, truer and sadder than the film: as sharp and shining as the city’s steel itself.

Kenny Doughty is a terrific lead as Gaz, amiable jack-the-lad driven by a desperation to keep contact with his son (a splendid,  shared, child role culminating in a bracing bit of ten-year-old sweariness).  Roger Morlidge as fat Dave is intensely touching,  and Craig Gazey ideal as the suicidal, closeted Lomper (he’s champion at  eccentric realism: he was Most Promising Newcomer as Graeme the window-cleaner in Coronation Street).  But all of them are finely, sharply real:  notably Sidney Cole a great mover as Horse, and Simon Rouse a senatorially exasperated Gerald.  Among the smaller but significant women’s roles, Rachel Lumberg is a joy as Dave’s frustrated wife Jean.

The marvel of Beaufoy’s script and Evans’ pacing is the extraordinary surefootedness with which it moves – often within half a line – from dry or hilarious comedy to wrenching pathos.   As a tale of jobless  men putting on a strip show (“All that twizzling-about bollocks” grumps Dave),  it has superb set-pieces and jokes.  Yet without flippancy it embraces the grief of bewildered manhood,  body-shame,  loneliness alleviated by ill-assorted comradeship, and male terror of impotence either sexual, financial or parental.  That it ends in a one-night triumph for “The Bums Of Steel” makes it a fairytale of sorts, but one rooted deep in the reality of survival and wholly recognizable Yorkshire cussedness (I married one..).

And ironically, as the vests fly out across the hooting, clapping stalls, thongs are waved aloft for the full Monty and assorted buttocks gleam under the lights,  I had a sense of having seen something with a spirit unusually and beautifully decent.

box office 0844 482 5141  to 14 June

rating:  five  5 Meece Rating

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THE A to Z of Mrs P Southwark Playhouse, SE1

WALKING THE STREETS, A FAR FROM LOST SOUL

Phyllis Pearsall became one of London’s great urban legends, through her own barnstorming memories and a fictionalized biography.  A young wife, a painter,  walks out on her husband in Venice in 1936, arrives in London,  gets lost once too often,  and resolves to create an indexed street-map of every borough. She walks 3000  miles of 23,000 streets and produces the A to Z street atlas we all love.    Here, in a love song to the teeming city,  she is  “Drawing the line, every road, every sign, The streets flow like wine, for this is our time!”.

It’s a grand romance. We have all in youth walked city streets, broke and adventurous, with a kind of love.   Over the years there have been weary reiterations of duller truths:  it wasn’t quite the first indexed atlas  (Bartholomew’s existed),  walking every street was unnecessary, what with Council maps and plans available,  and her father was a street-map maker (albeit a failing businessman) so it wasn’t quite a maverick idea.   Oh, and the actual drawing was done by an unsung draughtsman, Mr Fountain.

He does, in fact, appear here, endearingly played by Sidney Livingstone.  For this curious new musical by Diane Samuels and /Gwyneth Herbert draws from both the romantic legend of the lone steps and the factual conflicts of Phyllis’ life:  her bombastic Hungarian father Sandor who registered the company,  her runaway mother who died in an insane asylum, the plane crash from which Phyllis survived seriously injured, and her final determination to leave the company in Trust for its employees.

If that sounds a weak and confusing storyline for a musical,   so it proves.  It is wonderfully set beneath a multitude of dangling books, postcards, suitcases, street-signs, old telephones and newspapers;  Issy Suttie with her likeable clown looks is a beguiling lead, and  Sam Buntrock’s direction gives the ensemble a bustling, jostling city vigour to keep things rolling. But Samuels’ book falters: the narrative begins brightly with Phyllis’ arrival and a lovely song about London, but then  leaps crazily to and fro with flashbacks to her childhood, her parents’ first meeting well before that, and the end of their stormy marriage. You need to have looked up her life story or you could be lost, unsure what time-frame you’re in from minute to minute.

It is frustrating because Gwyneth Herbert’s lyrics are often excellent, almost Sondheimish, using tongue-twisting alphabetical lists of roads, streets, lanes and avenues and occasionally  a bitter gem like “A child needs a family like a pussy needs a well”.   The live music is pleasant enough, again Sondheimish though without his  hypnotic dash.  There are some good funny moments in the second half as she struggles to sell into shops, and one fine dramatic confrontation with her appalling father.  He is Michael Matus, a strong singer but wholly unable – who would be? – to make the choleric, noisy and overbearing Sandor even remotely likeable.   But there’s a grand bravura performance, often in lingerie,  by Frances Ruffelle as the troubled runaway mother.

box office 020 7407 0234  to   29 March             Sponsor: Sandfords

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating/

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JANE EYRE – in two parts – Bristol Old Vic

PASSIONATE,  INTENSE AND WILD:  JANE EYRE REBORN  

“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me!”.    As if in answer to Jane’s cry of defiance Sally Cookson’s  spare, thrilling, physically expressive production frees Charlotte Bronte from the fusty old netting of Mills-and-Boonery which marks even the best screen adaptations.   Madeleine Worrall has a tough striding attractiveness, not misty glamour:   the skeletal ladders and frames where the cast run and climb and gallop free the emotion of the story from period chintziness.  Empty windowframes high aloft, or held up by the cast to fling open or close in on Jane are a powerful economical metaphor: her inward thoughts are sometimes spoken by a protean ensemble.  Pure theatre, passionate not pretentious, sweeps aside cobwebs and uncovers the hot smouldering core of the story.

There are two parts (see both!),  a brave decision rooted in determination to convey the early part, the orphan at Mrs Reed’s mercy and the hollow pieties of Lowood school  (imaginative chanting use is made of the Penny Catechism, enjoining the child at bedtime to “thoughts of death”. I remember that, brrr.).    It gives proper weight to incidentals like the trammelled kindness of the maid Bessie,  and above all it respects the plight of poor mad Bertha Rochester.   Brilliantly, she is played by that tremendous mezzo Melanie Marshall,  wandering around singing at key moments all through.  She has a recurring, haunting folksong of orphanhood, a tremendous Kyrie,  and a moody “Mad about the Boy” speaking for both Bertha and Jane.   Sly, that: indeed there always was more than a touch of cad-about-the-boy in Rochester’s masterful insolence.   And Bertha’s unforgettable rendering of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” at the fiery climax is overwhelming in its pity and savagery.

The doubling and trebling of parts by the ensemble weaves new meanings and ambiguities into the well-worn tale:  dialogue is sparse and finely judged with an extraordinary amount being conveyed by movement  and by Benji Bowers’  haunting score, from folk to cabaret to echoes of Elgar and Britten .  But when Bronte’s words are spoken they find fresh power:  the scene in the second part when Rochester (Felix Hayes)  declares himself to a sceptical Jane is as stroppy and defiant as it should be.   There is some humour – not least Craig Edwards’ occasional metamorphoses into Pilot the dog,  Laura Elphinstone’s careering dangerously around on the set’s walkways as Adela,  and Rochester’s petulant “I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative tonight”.

But mostly it is intense storytelling, movement blurringly fast or dreamlike in slowness.  It calls up  the older, darker folktale awareness which always underlies the Brontes‘ work:  a touch of Bluebeard, of faery,  a pre-Christian passion and danger.  The quality which makes Jane so pleasingly resistant to the missionary earnestness of St John Rivers and his immortal “You were framed for labour, not for love, I claim you for the Lord’s service”.   Altogether, this extraordinary interpretation arouses feelings long forgotten:  the impact of first reading the book,  a childlike resentment of injustice and inchoate sense of romance, the terror of madness and nightmare and the secret conviction that the individual must and will endure.   It is a wonderful production.  Reader, I’d marry it.

box office  0117 987 7877   to  29 March

Rating:  five  5 Meece Rating

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TRANSLATIONS Crucible, Sheffield

OLD IRELAND: PLAYFUL, POWERFUL, INTENSE AND TRAGIC

A hot summer at harvest’s end,  1836.  Outside a stone barn in County Donegal   old Jimmy-Jack is chortling naughtily over the Iliad.   “Isn’t she the tight one! The flashing-eyed Athene…if you had a woman like that about the house it’s not stripping a turf bog you’d be about!”.   Lame-legged Manus,  waiting for his Dad Hugh to sober up and take over the Ballybeg hedge-school,  helps with the hard words, clutching the precious Aeschylus and Virgil volumes he bought with the money from a hand-raised lamb.  The cheerful dunce Doalty struggles with times tables, and  young women weary and blistered from the fields vie with one another to construe and dig out word-roots.

They’re all, we understand, talking and learning in the Irish language,  any change to English indicated with skilful brilliance by Brian Friel’s phraseology.   For  times are changing,  and under British rule the new National Schools must teach in English.  And the redcoats  – needing interpreters – are out mapping the land and giving familiar landmarks new names.  Friel’s modern classic is based on a reality which now seems startling: village teachers did teach the Classics,  and the colonial masters did – as they always do – fear and mistrust local language.

The story unfolds – at first playful and humorous, later darkening – as  a young soldier (James Northcote) falls for the pretty Maire with disastrous results.  It leads us  on an emotional and phlosophical journey into an unfamiliar world, yet one touching great epic themes:  the politics of language and of power,  misapprehension and mistranslation,  the need for fantasy and legend and the danger of confining something ancient and organic in a tight new linguistic and cultural straitjacket (ask any aboriginal Australian).

James Grieve’s production has sly delights: the barn dance where the soldier can’t follow the ancient skipping pattern of the villagers,  the distant fiddles and chirping birds,  the great battered barn itself (Lucy Osborne’s design).   His cast is full of treasures too:  Niall Buggy as the old teacher and John Conroy as JImmy-Jack, scruffy under his straw hat, chuckling over Mediterranean texts which feel closer than the strictnesses of the cold Victorian island next door.    Beth Cooke is a touchingly  tough rustic Maire, longing for a wider world,  Ciaran O”Brien a gallant hopeful Manus.   And as his more sophisticated brother Owen,  Cian Barry shows the conflicts of a man who collaborates with the soldiers and the new era until their power is seen as not just maps and words,  but cold threats to shoot livestock and flatten homes if nobody betrays the rebels on the mountain.

In a haunting late moment Bridget, who fears the strange sweet smell of potato blight, confuses it with another ominous smell, foretelling a century of conflict:  the burning canvas tents of the military.   Friel’s tremendous play,  this well served, haunts you long after you get home.

box office  0114 249 6000    to 8 March.
TOURING  to 3 May:  tour details http://www.ett.org.uk

rating:  five 5 Meece Rating

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AFTERPLAY – Crucible, Sheffield

SONYA AND ANDREY:  A BRIEF ENCOUNTER BY FRIEL

Two lonely middle-aged people meet in a cheap Moscow café in 1920:  she frowning over accounts and mortgages,  he in frayed evening clothes toting a walnut violin case.  It is the second night they have coincided,  strangers in town, and with awkward bourgeois politeness they share a table and resume their chat.  He is a violinist at the Opera (“Do you always rehearse in evening dress?” “German conductor! Stickler for formality!”).  She is puzzling over how to keep a distant estate afloat after the death of her male relatives, not that they were ever much use with an account-book.   These are Chekhov characters twenty years on:   Brian Friel, a fine translator of the master,  revives them and imagines their futures.  In fifty minutes he makes it an  exquisite, touching miniature.

We last saw Sonya consoling Uncle Vanya with that marvellous affirmation of justice in an afterlife:  “We shall hear the angels…we shall see how all earthly sufferings are drowned in mercy, and life will grow peaceful, tender…we shall rest”.  As for Andrey, he is the brother in Three Sisters, last recorded as ineffective, mocked as a failure and cuckolded by his wife.  But life goes on,  and there is comfort to be found by confiding in strangers in an empty café.  Even if, at first,  you fib a lot.

Niamh Cusack is Sonya, Sean Gallagher Andrey: their interplay  over cabbage soup and surreptitious nips of vodka from her handbag  is drawn with delicate precision. Roisin McBrinn’s direction is unobtrusive,  Friel’s truthful humorous sadness caught absolutely.  Cusack gives Sonya a spirited , stubborn dignity and flashes of wit;  Gallagher deploys a slightly clownish amiability.  We learn  how three weeks watching over the dying, demented Vanya with Dr Astrov at her side was the most “serene and fulfilled” moment of Sonya’s life,  how the estate’s agriculture faded and the bank (lunatically) wants it forested over.  Andrey speaks admiringly of his two surviving sisters,  still at forty waiting for life to begin. He reveals Masha’s end and his own wife’s defection.  He is a champion fibber, and only gradually admits his self-aggrandizing legends.   Sonya,  on the other hand,  tells only one central lie but is herself trapped in a fictional narrative of her connection with Astrov, “A man of vision, close to saintliness and not always sober.”   Both of these gentle disappointed people face an “endless tundra of aloneness”.   Sonya embraces it in the name of virtuous fortitude,   Andrey has a healthy if incompetent impetus to escape it,  and behind his fictions eventually reveals a simple, loving nobility of life.

It is very beautiful,  often painfully funny: a tiny jewel adorning the Crucible’s fine Friel season, definitely one to catch.  Possibly before going out in the Sheffield drizzle to sit in a café  hoping for a mournful new friendship.  I’m off out.

box office 0114 249 6000   to 1 March

rating:  four    4 Meece Rating

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