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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A TASTE OF HONEY Lyttelton, SE1

A BLAST OF FRESH AIR FROM THE FIFTIES 

“Cinema is as bad as the theatre these days”  says  Jo’s mother Helen disdainfully. “All mauling and muttering”.   Written in 1958 by the teenage  Shelagh Delaney,  it’s one of many great lines in this gritty, exuberant shout of a play.   The story is told  of how the 18-year-old author saw  Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme  (piquantly, it’s on next week at the Finborough, first outing in 50 years).   Exasperated by its limp-wristed Riviera setting,  Delaney wrote this,  set in the backstreets of Salford and concerning  a teenager deserted by her slattern of a mother in a slum room, pregnant by a black sailor and cared for by a gay art student.    Joan Littlewood –  equally piquantly, her centenary is this year – relished its vigour and put it on.   The homosexual implication meant that it only narrowly avoided a ban from the Lord Chamberlain (censorship was to limp on for ten years more).

The famous film is better known than the play now, and Bijan Sheibani’s lively new production demonstrates what a pity that is.  Films telescope dialogue, simplify and glamourize:  what we get here is leaping, vivid, complicated,  full-blooded life.  It centres on the dancing optimism of youth which rejects pathos and the clichés of romance,  and the brilliant ambiguity of a neglectful mother who cannot be entirely monstrous.  It is  funny, affectionate and shocking , and for a play which dived headfirst into dangerous waters – teenage pregnancy, inter-racial sex, homosexuality –  it is utterly free from that poker-faced tone of modern issue-plays.    Indeed it makes the Angry Young Men of Delaney’s own time seem dogmatic, whiney and misogynist.   With the clear eyes of youth she takes people as she finds them,  warts and all.   The detail is a delight: in the brief courtship of Jo and sailor Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa)  the toy car in his pocket is a grace-note few playwrights would  add. Her characters are too real to represent anything but themselves.  So kitchen-sink all right, but an ancestor of Coronation Street rather than the dour EastEnders.   As the tarty old fox Helen  (Lesley Sharp)  observes “We’re all at the steering wheel of our own destiny, careering like drunk drivers”.

When pain fizzes through it is deeply real,  but the quality of larky realism  is brilliantly enhanced by brief jazzy brass entr’actes when the cast spin and dance in the bricky, sooty street for a few moments:  Jo with her lover Jimmie,  or  later coming back from a fair  pregnant but unbowed with a handful of balloons and her gay pal Geoffrey;  later Geoffrey himself dances with his mop, tidying the squalid room.  Kate O’Flynn is a superb Josephine,  stroppy and combative with an edge of desperate need for the love Helen can’t be bothered to offer her:  her sudden cry “I don’t want to be a mother, I don’t want to be a woman” comes like an electric shock.    Lesley Sharp  (“Look at my face, every line tells a dirty story)  is alternately hilarious,  horrible and needy:  stunning in her unwonted desperate quietness when her drunken new husband kicks off.     Harry Hepple gives a perfect, restrained dignity to Geoffrey.   And the end is as ambiguously open to wishful thinking  as life itself.

Box office  020 7452 3000  to  11 May

rating:   four  4 Meece Rating

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ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN vol 2 Soho Theatre, W1

SINGING ALL THE WAY DOWNHILL

“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
and I ache in the places where I used to play..”

Ah, Leonard Cohen! Nothing like it when you need it.   Which isn’t always.   But Arthur Smith,  his unlikely doppelganger and lifelong fan,  has built a  reflective, funny, wise hour out of that necessary mood.  “Part One”, a few years ago,  majored on Cohen’s attitude to excess and addiction, something Arthur himself knows a good deal about.  This one is focused more on  “Depression, decline, diminishment, darkness and death”.   And by the strange alchemy of music and art,  the moment our battered host pronounces these words, everyone feels better.  Happier.  Cheerfully committed to “that little touch of madness that makes stability perfect”,  the acceptance of human chaos from which wisdom springs.

It is partly a tribute show – and Smith has the musicality and the growl and the soul to perform the great songs like Tower of Song and Take This Waltz –  partly an account of his own fandom , of Cohen’s despair  (a lovely grumpy rendering of Alleluia)   and subsequent revival of fortunes.  There’s a brief exchange of letters too  (Cohen concludes “Stay alive Arthur, and I’ll find you”).  But it veers off in other directions:  he annexes Christopher Reid’s marvellous poem about elephants throwing bones around in a strange ritual of grief,  and Philip Larkin’s dead hedgehog;  he speaks of his mother Hazel , her growing dementia and her unconquerable heart (clearly, in temperament, this splendid woman is the opposite of Cohen, except for the drinking).

He amuses himself reading out (with assistance from his backing-group girls)  some terrible poems by Leonard Nimoy, to contrast with the gloomy majesty of Cohen’s lyrics.  A couple of times he decides to behave like other standup comedians, attempting “enthusiasm” and giving up in disgust,  then trying the pointless ranting style, and shrugging that off too.

Because he can.  Because Arthur Smith,  never willingly enrolled in the vile monkey-vain ranks of comedy celebriteees, never buys into any legend, including his own.  It’s a uniquely consoling voice,  expressing the wreckage we must all cling to.   If Cohen’s songs are,  “a manual for living with defeat”,  this show sprung from them is a way to learn to love it.
box office 020 7478 0100   to 2 March

Rating:  four  4 Meece Rating

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NOT A PLAY BUT AN ARTWORK…

Quite a few people have asked about the theatre cat logo for theatrecat.  Even more are curious about the mice.

They are all created by Roger Hardy.  Who is really a painter and creator of strange sculptures made of things he finds.

His website is http://www.rogerhardy.co.uk

And it seems impossible to stop him inventing new mice.

Here is the Dead Rat (not needed so far) for truly awful productions:

Dead Ratand here are his Shakespearian mice, which I am saving up…

The Bard Mouse width fixedHamlet Mouse width fixed

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HMS PINAFORE – Hackney Empire & touring

O  RAPTURE UNFORESEEN.   A G & S REFUSENIK RECANTS

Right.  Shoot your cuffs, hammer that piano,  rum-ti-tum and off we go:

When I was young I must confess
I’d run a mile from seeing any G & S:
The rumti-tumty racket and the style so ham
Seemed to bring out every horror of the worst am-dram.
(Chorus:  It was all about the horrors of her first am-dram)

Tom Lehrer said of the Savoy operas  “Full of words and music, signifying nothing”,  and I associated Gilbert and Sullivan with over-decorated, safe fat-bottomed smugness.  I forgot  (or didn’t notice, in banal productions)  that in their Victorian day they were pretty satirical.   A particularly painful Mikado (“Mikado About Nothing”,  snarled my companion, leaving at the interval)  and a desperate “singalong” at Snape put the lid on it.

So despite the rhymes that riddle and the tunes that dance,
And the keenness of the critics (and their cousins and their aunts)
I kept away and shuddered saying “Not for me!
No, not even if the tickets in the stalls came free!”

But then I saw the Regan de Wynter all-male Iolanthe:  rollickingly silly,  beautifully sung and casually framed as if a group of teenage boys had crept into an attic, found an old score and extemporized props and costumes from junk.  Adding this extra layer of absurdity somehow neutralized the weak plots and psychological improbability, to reveal the real merriment and neo-music-hall quality of the best bits.

So here I am again, happy as Larry, cheering for their even more imaginatively reframed HMS Pinafore:  Sasha Regan discards stagey galleon romance and sets it below decks in a WW2 warship,  with men amusing themselves in the naval tradition of a “Sod’s Opera”.  The set is their metal-framed bunks: as the pianist in the pit strums the overture they lounge, bored, reading letters from home.  Then one man takes out a tin whistle and gives the opening bars of  “We sail the ocean blue…”  and they’re off.   Athletic, laddish,  leaping and singing.  As the Captain (Neil Moors) joins them they all manage a fast chorus while he leads an equally fast PE lesson, singing through press-ups and somersaults, fake medals flapping.

Aidan Crowley stuffs a hunchback pillow in his vest as evil Dick Deadye. The stout ship’s cook becomes Little Buttercup (Alex Weatherhill),  deploying a fierce falsetto.   Josephine arrives (more of a true counter-tenor, I’d say, and immense on the high notes).  But she – and the “female relatives” chorus accompanying Sir Joseph Porter  – are not in elaborate drag.   To indicate laydeez attire they just customize cork lifejackets, trailing straps, canvas headbands, socks hauled to stocking height.   So you never forget that this is a lark, a release from manliness:  that in itself is oddly touching.  Especially as sounds of the sea beyond the hull are often just audible behind the romantic farrago,  the gaily-tripping-lightly-skipping parody of womanhood and the exaggerated machismo of manhood.

But mainly it’s funny, a distillation of high spirits:  the nocturne “carefully on tiptoe stealing”  is lit with  mischievously dramatic effect by hand-held torches.  And the bureaucratic monster Sir Joseph Porter KCB  (David McKechnie)  makes the most of bowler-hat, pompous pipesucking and excellent comedy legs. So in conclusion –

I went tripping through the foyer very cheerfull-ee
Saying:  “Book your ticket quickly for this Queens’ navee!”

box office  0208 985 2424   to 23 Feb

tour to 5 May   http://www.hmspinaforetour.com     Touring Mouse wide

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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RED VELVET: REPRISE Tricycle Theatre NW6

IN WHICH A GOOD PLAY MOVES TOWARDS SOMETHING GREATER

Sometimes, memories need to be revisited.   It was in autumn 2012 that I reviewed Lolita Chakrabarti’s play starring her husband Adrian Lester  (my Times review, paywalled, is on http://tinyurl.com/nbfj6dl).   I liked it, as everyone else did;   was please to be one of those who voted both Chakrabarti and Lester their awards at the Critics’ Circle.   I called it “sharp and entertaining”, and was delighted by the tribute to a largely forgotten theatre hero:  Ira Aldridge,  a black American actor who in the 1830’s,  even before slavery was anned ,replaced the ailing Edmund Kean as  Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.  For two nights the “negro” strangled the milk-white Desdemona onstage before shocked, racist Victorian opinion stopped him.

I loved Lester’s performance – who wouldn’t? –  and enjoyed the secondary theme – amusingly illustrated –  of how acting was moving from Kean’s declamatory,  stylized style towards more naturalistic and passionate performances.  Thinking back,  I remembered those things, and also moment when an embarrassed cast suddenly realize that the manager has bravely cast a replacement who is – gasp! – black.    I appreciated, too, the slyly feminist device of book-ending of the play with a scene in Poland as a young woman reporter,  herself underrated and patronized,  inveigles herself in to interview the aged actor  whose successes across Europe never quite wiped out the memory of humiliation in London.    I remembered the final scene when we see with a jolt that even this victory has required him, nightly,  to “white-up” grotesquely with panstick to play King Lear,  and the apposite rage of his final  “I’ll not weep!” and threat of “the terrors of the earth”.

But I sneaked back to see it again this week,  wondering how it feels on the far side of Adrian Lester’s stunning and thoroughly modern Othello at the National Theatre.    And I found that as sometimes happens  the play has grown bigger: stronger, more remarkable, finding deeper feeling in the deep red velvet folds of bygone theatricalia.    There is now a more shocking magic in Aldridge’s deep, dark dignity and bitter banked-down rage; more charm and mischief of his lighter moments and the edgy intelligence of his discussions with his co-star,   as Desdemona moves towards his physical style and embraces a freer transatlantic school  of acting. There’s real  brilliance as the two meld stylized  1830s mannerisms with real emotion in the terrifying handkerchief scene which closes  the first half.  And there’s fascination – for us theatre anoraks – in comparing it with Lester’s interaction last year with his modern Desdemona, Olivia Vinall…

I had also quite forgotten the power and misery of Aldridge’s row with the manager , LaPorte, and the author’s generosity in letting LaPorte express the frustration of those who, faced with a moral choice,   want to keep their job rather than be Spartacus.  Indhu Rubasingham’s production is heading for New York. I hope it comes back.  Meanwhile, friends, look out for returns and note that as I write there are three matinees not quite sold out yet…

http://www.tricycle.co.uk   to 15 March
rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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1984 Almeida, N1

A TERRIFYING, TRIUMPHANT HEADLONG   TAKE ON ORWELL

I think George Orwell would be sourly pleased at the way Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan of Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse  have treated his great cry of despair.  They riff on it, and in its very structure ironize Newspeak and Doublethink until, pinned to the seat, we too enter the dark terror of Thoughtcrime.   There are even spookily calm scenes fore and aft in which a reading group of 2084 analyzes the book and believes that everything is fine since The Party fell in 2050.  Unless that too is a thought-control illusion.  Orwell would appreciate that.

Unlike the film or Nick Lane’s strong, but more conventional,  adaptation a few years ago,  Icke and Macmillan create a jerky dislocated structure .  From the start Mark Arends’ gaunt Winston Smith is losing his mind with the stress of being forbidden to believe his own senses.  Familiar elements are there –  telescreens, Julia  (Hara Yannas, perfectly the rebel below the waist and pragmatist above) ,  Charrington’s junk shop room and snow-globe, Oranges and Lemons, children denouncing parents, Victory Gin, the apparent Goldstein conspiracy and Winston’s day job deleting ‘unpersons’.   The Two Minutes’ Hate is staged with terrifying vigour, and  there is a deeply affecting moment as Winston watches the maternal singing woman in the street and nurses the hope that salvation lies in the universal humanity of the proles.

So it’s all there:  but as in a dream lines and scenes recur, projections confuse time and place, and crashes, flashes and blackouts force us to into Winston’s understanding  that love and privacy are a chimera:   “We are the dead”.   Chloe Lamford’s design is surreally alarming in itself: the arrest and torture  at the Ministry of Love sees the familiar stage grow huge, white,empty of all but power and pain.  Even there the most frightening element is Tim Dutton’s O’Brien.  Senatorial, civilized, confident, likeable, he is  the ultimate headmasterly or clerical figurehead whose revealed allegiance is both shocking and credible.  This is the eternal Inquisitor:  “We do not tolerate rebellion, even in a brain awaiting a bullet.  We make it perfect before we blow it out”.

Wisely,  there is no updating (though the programme is stuffed with right-on contemporary soundbites)  but plenty does resonate: as the readers say, every age finds itself in this book.  The Snowden surveillance controversy is prefigured in the complacent, tubby loyalist Parsons saying he’s glad of the telescreens because   “There are people out there who hate us and want to destroy our way of life.   And if we’re being watched, so are they!”  And terrorism of all ages echoes in O’Brien’s early demand that  Winston Smith be prepared, in the Cause,  to  “commit murder, betray, kill, throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face…”

A stunning, terrifying hundred minutes.  And a relief to step out into the street,  with evening papers blowing untidily around and glimmering smartphone screens full of raucous contention,  disrespect and unpunished satire. Thirty years on from 1984, we’re not there.    Yet.

Almeida box office 0207 359 4404      to  23 March     Almeida partner: Aspen
rating:  five5 Meece Rating

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DONKEYS’ YEARS Rose, Kingston

GAUDEAMUS IGITUR!  A FAVE FRAYN FARCE RETURNS

Those who love a good farce – lost trousers, sock-suspenders,  nifty door-work, ridiculous fights and punctured dignity –  sometimes feel a bit sheepish, guiltily lowbrow. The answer is Michael Frayn:  philosopher, scholar,  intellectually dazzling yet by a great mercy of fate able to bring his gifts, and a certain devastating insider knowledge,   to pure mischief.  In Noises Off  he skewered the world of theatre;  here it is the rareified golden stone world of  an Cambridge college.  Thus the wildest moments of trouserless chaos can be dignified with lines like “I can’t just hand out Mature Studentships, on Sunday, in my pyjamas!”.   And drunken slurrings can include superbly cod-philosophical pronouncements like “We ought to be free of that kind of freedom”.  Discuss, on one side of the paper only.

Nicely realized by Polly Sullivan’s elegant inside-outside design,  this college is hosting a reunion of undergraduates from 25 years earlier.   Director Lisa Spirling plays ‘70s pop hits beforehand to remind us that it is a 1976 play, and justify a flare in the trousers and – critically – a confusedly excitable attitude to women.  There is just one: Jemma Redgrave as  the Master’s wife, hostess of the weekend and former party girl back when there were ten male students to every girl.  She deploys a lovely middle-aged yearning keenness, hoping her old flame Roddy will be among the returning men.

He isn’t.  Instead there is a  pompous junior minister (Jamie Glover),  a sour civil servant (Jason Durr),  John Hodgkinson in a clerical collar  whinnying “I’m a late vocation. I baptise babies, I church women”,  Simon Coates as a buttery-blond gossip writer  and Nicholas Rowe a willowy doctor.  After some uneasy middle-aged joviality  they disperse to dinner (cleverly staged in sound-effects  from the foyer as they ramble through the audience pretending to hail old friends).  They reassemble, flown with insolence and wine,  in a room they suppose to be that of the missing Roddy.  Whose analyst has banned him from attending;  so the room is occupied by Snell.

Shell is the unexpected star:  a shy, runty Welsh intestine expert with a ginger beard and a low-key mental crisis:“Am I going to spend the rest of my life between the duodenum and the ileum?”  he asks plaintively,   and realizes that he wasted his student years.  “I never wore a fancy waistcoat! I never wrote blasphemous poem!…I wasn’t old enough to be young!” .  That cry is the heart of Frayn’s play, and the evidence that it does, in the other sense, have a real heart.  Dammit, a lot of us feel like that sometimes, as youth recedes and shrinks away from our mundane middle-age.

As the plot intensifies, so does Snell’s crazed determination to live at last :   Ian Hughes, given this wonderful role,  takes it and runs with it.  Up over the top and down the other side, with all his RSC timing and an irresistible edge of mania. It’s cathartic.  And so, obviously, is the humiliation of the education minister.  Some things never date.

box office 08444 821 556 to  22 Feb     Supported by: Russell-Cooke

Rating:   four  4 Meece Rating

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O WHAT A LOVELY WAR Theatre Royal Stratford East

A THEATRE LEGEND RECREATED:  AND RIPE FOR RE-EVALUATION

Sometime in the first hour,   while far from unhappy,  I realized that there are two things to keep in mind about Terry Johnson’s reprise of Joan Littlewood’s most famous production.  One is that here in her theatre it is as much an act of reverence for Littlewood’s own centenary as for the Great War.   The other is that it tells us as much about 1963 as about 1914-1918.

Its origins are well-known:  at a time when World War II was fresh in memory and the Holocaust made it hard to criticize that fight,  the radio producer Charles Chilton, whose father died at Arras the year he was born, made a documentary using half-forgotten soldiers’ songs interspersed with the history of the “pushes” and desperate strategies which left ten million dead and far more maimed.   Littlewood, who hated officer-class  accounts like RC Sheriff’s Journey’s End,  adopted the material to tell the story,  agitprop style, of working-class heroes sent to slaughter by posh callous generals, notably Haig.   That class-war influence rolls on down the decades,  in everything from Blackadder to the Michael Gove hissy-fit decrying it.

Littlewood framed it satirically as a Pierrot show, a beach entertainment with the cast doing sketches and songs, some with shocking flippancy, while guns and bombs thundered and newslines detailed the dreadful statistics of trench warfare,  tens of thousands sacrificed for a few yards’ advance.  Johnson reproduces it faithfully, with a slick and often superb cast of twelve as soldiers, citizens, nurses,  officers, or war profiteers.  Michael Simkins is notably good (he does a mean grizzled-officer these days,  and sharp lightning changes of character).  Caroline Quentin is tremendous as the music-hall singer urging men to the front (“On Friday night I’m willing / if you’ll only take the shilling / to make a man of any man of you!”),  and leads the audience in Sister Susie sewing shirts for soldiers;  she is stirring too as a Hyde Park peace campaigner in 1915.

And despite a rather annoying giant screen bobbing up and down too often,  all the cast flow nimbly through the scenes from early triumphalism to repeated disasters.   They stir some unforced emotion:  the Christmas Truce is beautifully handled, and whenever there are rare snatches of diaries (“we hear the wounded crying from the woods..” ) or when the soldiers’ weary or cheeky songs rise, the sense of  connection with a lost generation is overwhelming.

And that’s the problem, really.   Our hunger now is for subtler understanding of the disaster:  the strategic errors need, and are getting,  a less simplistic perspective.   What we need to remember is not one stroppy 1960’s death-of-deference point of view but simple facts and feelings.  From The Wipers Times and War Horse,  to contemporary diaries and poems and small significant discoveries like Southwark’s What the Women Did,  we need to turn to the basic history, to work out our own beliefs and feel our own pity or rage.  Not Littlewood’s, not even Chilton’s.  It is worth seeing if only to come to that understanding.

box office  020 8534 0310    http://www.stratfordeast.com    to  15 March

Rating: four     4 Meece Rating

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Barbican, EC2

A DREAM OF PLANKS AND PUPPETS,  AND  AN UPTURNED ASS

“Gentles, perhaps you wonder at this show.  But wonder on…”  says Peter Quince, lanky and earnest in a fairisle sweater.  We might well boggle at this production,  created at the Bristol Old Vic by Tom Morris in collaboration again with the Handspring puppeteers.  Last spring it packed the house there, introducing a shape-shifting Puck as a collection of excitable hand-tools, a balletic ensemble of planks manoeuvred by the whole cast to represent  forest, sea, starbursts and love itself, and Oberon and Titania holding great pale carved masks above their heads.   As for the fairies, they became things of weird and terrifying otherness:   broken dolls, a nightmare puppet,  a skeletal giant moth.

I liked it,  with reservations.  Mostly concerned with the first scene, in which the four young people manipulated small puppets of themselves,  distractingly and pointlessly.  After that,  as they became more human and vigorous and the inanimate objects more alive,  I admitted feeling “a direct line to the folkloric, pagan, animist roots of rural Shakespeare”.    Forgive the critical retrospection.  But it is a  treat to see a production as innovative as this growing, shedding the weaker bits , and becoming one of the 21st century’s first real landmark interpretations.

The changes serve  pace and coherence: the opening, without puppetry,  frees the lovers to be themselves.  Alex Felton is an eager public-school blond Lysander (as the show goes on he becomes weepingly funny). The contrast of Akiya Henry’s Hermia and  Naomi Cranston as a skinny disappointed Helena is lovely, and their brawl in the wood fabulously  pure teenage rage.   Ms Henry gets a personal round of applause for her ferocity.   David Ricardo Pierce is a  commanding Oberon/Theseus, and his queen – Saskia Portway – an androgynous striding figure,  vibrant with female anger and mesmeric in that all-too topical speech about the dangerous dislocation of weather,  the “drowned fields”  caused by faery discord.

It is a play which should always make us a little uneasy, unsettled as well as captivated, so Morris’ use of puppetry, not naturalistic but nightmarish and fey, is useful.  Shapes change, objects move, nothing is steady until the towering wood-gods step gently forward at the end, in harmony again over the stolen child.   But it is also the most rousing of comedies and this too he fully exploits.  The Rude Mechanicals even attack the Barbican’s bland atmosphere by invading the auditorium before the start.  I could not work out whether Saikat Ahamed, clambering over the seats and talking gibberish,  was a confused exchange-student or a cast member, and tried to be polite in French.  He is Snug the Joiner, and in this cheerfully free-form interpretation gets portrayed as not speaking much English.   Fair enough, in a modern nation of immigrant manual labourers.  Bottom, of course is Greek: Miltos Yerolemou,  sublime both in his dignified overacting and in the courageous translation into  an upside-down, back-to-front, bare-bum upwards mutant donkey-legged bicycle…Oh, all right, you had to be there.   If you want a different,  beguiling unique Dream,   you should be.

box office 0845 120 7500  to  15 Feb

Rating:  four      4 Meece Rating

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ETERNAL LOVE English Touring Theatre

SEX,  STRIFE, AND  HOT THEOLOGY: ABELARD AND HELOISE RISE AGAIN 

“Theology in Paris these days”  says tubby, jocose King Louis VI of France,  “is more interesting than wrestling matches or dancing bears”.   It’s 1115 AD, and  Peter Abelard’s Aristotelian rationalism and rock-star following is enraging fundamentalist  Bible-bashers like Bernard of Clairvaux.  Down south they’re burning heretics, and Abelard’s love affair with his 17-year-old pupil adds a dash of scandal and still more risk.  No dancing bear could possibly compete.

It may seem rareified to offer a slanging-match about Platonic Essentialism and the Trinity to a modern audience, even laced with sex,  persecution and castration.  But few playwrights are more vigorously engaging than Howard Brenton when he gets his teeth into moments in history when ideas drove change.    Only lately he gave us modern Chinese politics in The Arrest of Ai Weiwei,  risky Reformation zeal in  Anne Boleyn, and Charles II versus Parliament in 55 Days.    And it is a good move by English Touring Theatre – in its 21st year –  to revive this 2006 Globe production under John Dove’s direction.  Not least because across the world today we have our own fundamentalists:   Christian, Muslim, atheist.

The story of Abelard and Heloise –  love, scandal , separation and old age as an Abbot and Abbess exchanging letters about love and God  – is vividly played out.  It’s a  spare set with an early-music band overhead, a curtained door and bare birch-trees whose silver branches leap and divide like springing thought itself.   Brenton has no fear of the occasional almost Pythonesque moment as  theologians, chancers and grandees bicker over the Trinity,  with some wonderful exchanges.   Abelard refers to a “stupid Bishop” and  the King asks menacingly “Could there be such a thing?”.  Abelard, deadpan, replies “There are many wonders in this world”.  Gotcha!

Alongside theology and politics runs the personal – as it must, since the core of Abelard’s new thinking was that human love and the body are not ungodly.  Bernard thinks them so,  and leads starveling, self-flagellating monks driven into visionary frenzy by mouldy ergot bread.  David Sturzaker makes a commanding passionate Abelard,   Jo Herbert his thoughtful, intellectual and physically joyful lover. Rejecting the chains of marriage, defying her possessive uncle (Edward Peel), she seems a 21st century feminist trapped in the 12th.  Motherhood does not tame her:   “We are not a family, we are warriors in a war of ideas”.    But the most compellingly odd performance is Sam Crane as the monk Bernard,  his voice vibrating with staccato celibate tension,  averring that “There is nothing to teach or learn, all has been Revealed!” .  His only pleasure is in priestly patriarchal authority, forever calling people “Little one” .

In bright moments and dark,  the play balances comedy, sincerity and brutality (the horrid castrators purr “We’re farmers, come to do farmer’s work..”) .  And after the final catharsis and the ultimate excellent joke,  its Globe origins are honoured in a dancing curtain call.  As if,  indoors on a chilly Cambridge evening,  we were in a summer night in the great wooden O,  happy groundlings enjoying its generosity and glee.   I am glad I caught it on the wing.   It flies on.   Tour dates below

English touring theatre:  www.ett.org.uk      On tour till 12 April      Touring Mouse wide

rating    Four   4 Meece Rating

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AMATEUR GIRL Nottingham Playhouse & touring

PORN:   THE NASTIEST COTTAGE INDUSTRY  

Julie is alone,  reminiscing with a cup of tea,  calling her cat.  She’s a geriatric nursing auxiliary,  gentle and cheerful, fond of a laugh and a night out. She strayed from a dull marriage to a series of boyfriends but the latest, Garry,  has a camera.  He likes taking pictures of her in provocative shiny fetish-wear.  It’s under her dressing gown.   He says she could be a model,  pretends she won a prize, takes her for a London photoshoot. They get her waxed and make her snog another girl. Bit of a shock, but it’s just fun, yeah?

He moves on to video.  And live sex filming, and rape simulations.  She is that increasingly hot commodity, an “amateur girl”.   The modern porn industry doesn’t just want professional models, glamorously untouchable.  Carnal  – and violent – fantasies feed on the girl-next-door.    In Amanda Whittington’s 70-minute monologue Lucy Speed plays Julie to perfection:  with wide TV experience she conveys with naturalistic intimacy Julie’s ordinariness, larkiness,  wild party moments and spurts of quiet shame. Garry,  and the boss who remonstrates and eventually sacks her,  are voices offstage.    We have to like her, appreciate the artless sweetness of her reminiscences about her patients,  and mourn her decline to final humiliation and a sex chatline in the small hours  (amateur-girls have, to the Garries, a limited shelf life).

It is heartening that theatre, with its uncensored freedom to challenge and shock, is taking on the ubiquity of porn in a digital age when ten-year-olds in the playground swop on smartphones various vivid, twisted and inventive images which their parents’ generation can barely imagine.  The NT studio has workshopped a startling piece on the subject,  Christopher Green’s “Prurience”,   and porn’s influence crops up in the Shed’s Blurred lines and  Hampstead’s Rapture Blister Burn.   One of the strongest moments in this play is when,  confronted by her Matron’s reproof,  Julie cries “What’s your husband doing when you’re at work? What does your son watch?”.

Whittington does not conclude with having Julie maimed or murdered  (a male writer, I suspect, almost certainly would) .  She’s just used, saddened, humiliated, lonely and looking for friendship from the only man who seems to like her for herself.   I regret only two things:  one is that Whittingron (and director Kate Chapman)  shy away from making us understand that by the stage Julie has reached in this ghastly cottage industry she would most likely have met seriously perverted abuse and probably be on painkillers.  The other is the suggestion of her having been molested by a past  stepfather.  It feels too like a cliché.  Un-abused,  normally happy girls have been drawn into this web by boredom, bad boyfriends and the reckless party vibe.  The play would be stronger for admitting it.

Box Office: 0115 941 9419    to  8 Feb then touring      Touring Mouse wide  (www.fifthword.co.uk for schedule)

rating :  three    3 Meece Rating

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THE MISTRESS CONTRACT Royal court SW1

NEUROTIC OLD LOONS OR GENDER PIONEERS?
         There’s a central metaphor:  staring through the glass walls of her elegant West California apartment a woman says “It’s a desert masquerading as a garden”.   So, frankly, is the life she has designed.  Abi Morgan’s 90-minute two-hander  is based on a book by an American couple , now 88 and 93 years old,  who thirty years ago (both divorced and in a fractious relationship)  signed a selfconscious contract:  he should provide her with a home and income, in return for “mistress services..all sexual acts as requested with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers”. They would tape their conversations so as to throw light on gender politics in a changing world.
    So here’s Saskia Reeves, with no-nonsense lank greying hair, specs, a mannish jacket but flirty high boots,  as “She” ,  immersed in Friday ‘n French 1970‘s women’s-group polemic.  He (Danny Webb)  is a forever on planes:  affluent, arrogant, priapic, cocksure.  The first ten minutes consist of her moaning about his taste for blow-jobs and spitting out lines like “I have nowhere to put my feminism”.  She demands the contract, which she thinks is liberating.   He sorts out the apartment and hires a boy to clean the pool. She gives him lifts from the airport, repetitive sexual services and endless lectures.
    But face it:  this is all more about  narcissistic intellectual privilege than anything of wider import. He is rich enough to keep her like some bygone playboy or French President;   most couples accept that both must contribute,  and have to work out their sexual agreement and suppress their irritations. So for a while,  this pair evoked nothing more than the old Irish saying “Thank the Lord,  they won’t spoil two houses”.   She in particular is prone to absurdities so cruelly funny that one suspects the playwright of having a laugh:  she condemns prostitution while effectively having formalized it,  and brings home a ridiculous  article by her favourite feminist maven opining that heterosexuality is unnatural and the primal physical relationship is lesbianism because girls bond with their mothers. (What about little boys eh? Oedipus schmoedipus!…).  She also reveals in passing that her “sanity was questioned” in  a custody hearing, and is miffed when her daughter’s fiancé fails to ask about her life  because in some societies “mothers are goddesses”.
 Pace  Carol Hanisch, the personal is not always the political: not when the person involved is so neurotic.  She says about the tapes that she is “everywoman” but she isn’t: and  the real interest of the play is in the individuality over thirty years of these two old West Coast loons.   For they soften: her damaged shrillness abates,  and his needy sexual keenness and five-times-a-night bragging morphs into  domesticity – significantly (check that metaphor!) watering the garden.  He installs an irrigation system, while she bristles that it’s her home not his, but fails to water the yucca.   But when she has had a mastectomy and her sexual bravado falters,  the old man’s arm goes round her  and tenderness prevails.  Because anyone but the dreariest sex-warrior knows that bonding for comfort, laughter and familiarity is a more durable human need than ceaseless unproductive mating.
box office   0207 565 5000     to 22 march.     Partner:  Coutts.
Rating:  three3 Meece Rating

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MY JUDY GARLAND LIFE Nottingham Playhouse

THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD TO THE WISDOM OF FANDOM

“Sometimes”  says the author-heroine of this extraordinary piece,   “things can be richer if they don’t add up”.   Take that on board  and it helps.  It also helps to know that this is Amanda Whittington’s imaginative adaptation of a memoir by the novelist  Susie Boyt.  Who – full disclosure – is a friend I love. However, so strange is this  enterprise that I can in honesty lay that aside.  If I had hated the show, I would pretend  the computer crashed tonight.  I didn’t.

Like the book, it  chronicles Boyt’s  lifelong obsession with Judy Garland,  and how it fed her own ability to deal with life.  Not a simple life: as one of Lucien Freud’s many children her father was a starry, though beloved , public figure living for his art (“7.3 miles away” says a child’s proud accuracy).   Her mother ran an antique clothes shop, and the young Susie was a sensitive creature, weeping at lonely-looking groceries in a trolley, forever told to ‘toughen up”.  She worked at her ballet and dreamed of the musical stage, but a teacher said  “You’ll have to shift a heck of a lot of weight before THAT’s   a possibility”.  At Oxford, a close friend died suddenly,  torpedoing the already unhappy student.

Through all this  her consolation was Judy Garland. At first just the voice,  soaring with joyful simplicity through the wildest lyrical joys and griefs.  Later,  as she learned about the exploitation, addiction and decline behind the glitter,  Judy was another kind of inspiration, especially in grief.   “Courage is the moral arm of glamour..when you’re here, all the longing is cut on the bias, and sparkles!”  The adult Susie sought out her idol’s history, memorabilia and children:  there is a marvellously funny staging of her real attempt to interview Liza Minnelli without succumbing to the enemy of all journalism, a slavish desire to be her friend (or failing that, the guard and carrier of her spare eyelashes.)

Through the show, directed with panache and plenty of spectacle by Kath Rogers,  Boyt is played with a sweet straightforwardness by Faye Elvin,  at first an eager and lumpen teen, gradually growing to sparklier maturity.  Judy (and Liza) sing, dance, argue, and fling temperamentally around in an uncanny performance by Sally Ann Triplett.  A three-piece band becomes a chorus of Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow;  or at one point, touchingly, the ‘60s  London cabbies whose shelter the sleepless Judy invaded in her restless drugged nocturnal misery.

Gradually,  Boyt’s themes  unfold.   Like a shaft of wisdom about girlhood, in an early conversation between the macaroon-eating teenager who shyly dreams of showbiz and the one who was forced into it and  fed amphetamines to keep her slim.   “When you spend your teenage years on diets, your desires become contorted”.   The core message, though – an unusual one, and therefore worth hearing  – is that fandom is a good thing, not a delusion:  “hero-worship is an emotional Olympics”,  energizing, inspiring, making you examine your own desires and qualities.   Boyt’s sensitive caution about not giving herself away or being a nuisance is countered by the Judy who called stagefright “a lovely tension!”  and lived on the edge.   In imaginary conversations the fan sometimes longs to emulate,  but equally often to console:  “I wasnt there for your greatest triumphs or your greatest despairs, but you were there for mine”.

It is an oddity:  a tripod precariously balancing selfconscious memoir, tribute show and philosophical lecture.  But there is a warmth, an eccentricity, and a sorrow at the eternal paradox of how a star who feels herself to be a void can fill the emptiness in her listeners, offering comfort she never finds.   And a final explosion of showmanship asks us, with all humility,  to consider allowing the strings of our own hearts to go zing.  So yes, mine did.

Box Office: 0115 941 9419      to 15 Feb

rating:   four     4 Meece Rating

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG – on tour

MISCHIEF GOES ON THE ROAD      Touring Mouse wide

Sometimes it pays to be a brave gang of friends, fresh out of LAMDA,  putting on your own show rather than waiting for auditions.   Early last year I spent 70 happy minutes snorting with laughter at Mischief Theatre’s tightly-worked, physically adept spoof of a student drama group from “Cornley Polytechnic”,  ruining a Mousetrappy old whodunnit   (original Times review for £paywallers: http://tinyurl.com/nz3p5zg).    Also in that cramped little audience was producer Kenny Wax, who waited for them afterwards and offered investment provided they could extend it to two acts and extend their remarkable fall-down scenery fit provincial touring theatres.   After a blast through the Edinburgh fringe and a splendid Peter Pan (see this site) they have done so.

So I sneaked in to an early gig at the Oxford Playhouse (not press, own ticket),  not least for the pleasure of seeing people pretending to be bad actors on a stage where forty years ago as a student I really was one.   The Haversham Manor library set, now by Nigel Hook, has grown to two storeys, enabling even more interesting collapses as the fictional SM (Lotti Maddox) struggles to keep it together, doors jam and actors make desperate exits through grandfather clock . Which, itself, gets its own superb moment in Act 2.

The best of the original jokes are there,  including the one about the portrait and the mounting desperation of wrong props.  The second storey enables a sequence with  Robert Grove which looked so physically risky that people gasped through the giggles, and the high-perched visible prompt and sound box makes the most of Rob Falconer’s role as the surly techie.

And I still enjoy the central metaphor, embedded in the script by Henries Shields and Lewis: the impossibility of getting life right, the terror of embarrassment, the peril of getting stuck on detail at the expense of the bigger picture (the plot)  and the rage of those who bite off more than they can chew and won’t admit it.  Shields’ nervy, panicking director/Detective is splendid, as is Dave Hearn’s Cecil:  his body language alternately plankish and desperately windmilling.  The catfight between Sandra Wilkinson’s posing ingenue and Maddox’ frustrated stage manager is even more pleasingly violent than before.

I am glad to have watched it grow.  I suspect it will get still sharper on its long tour, and hope the bruised cast find comfortable digs to rest in.  To taste reaction:  I can confirm that Oxford roared with delight and often clapped the scenery or the running jokes,  and that the 19-year-old who came with me was enchanted.  I did meet an eminent philosopher in the interval who, rather baffled,  didn’t get the point at all.  But as the Cornley Players would ruefully confirm from under a heap of collapsed doors and walls,   you can’t win them all.

Mischieftheatre.co.uk     touring UK to 15 June: schedule :  http://tinyurl.com/o8fcpdb

Rating:  four    4 Meece Rating

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