Monthly Archives: March 2014

MISS NIGHTINGALE – New Wolsey, Ipswich and TOURING



It is endearing that this musical’s tour should coincide with the first same-sex marriages: it is built round a gay love affair in the dark pre-Wolfenden days, the wartime years when homosexual men were prosecuted and called “The enemy within”, potential blackmail victims and spies. The creation of Matthew Bugg, directed by Peter Rowe of the New Wolsey, it is set in 1942 and follows the tangled lives of George – a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer – and his friend Maggie, a Lancashire nurse and singer trying to break in to London clubs.


George (Harry Waller) wants to recreate the pre-war Berlin cabaret scene he loved; Maggie (Jill Cardo) has a gift for comedy and character songs: Bugg pastiches these rather brilliantly as she changes costume from Dietrich to Rosie the Riveter, a drag Noel Coward or airman. Or, in a particularly “naughty” number a headscarfed wife sneaking off with the butcher because “You’ve gotta get your sausage where you can!”. They are backed by Sir Frank, an affluent invalided war-hero, to perform at his club; he and George fall in love and are threatened by blackmail. Panicked, Sir Frank proposes to Maggie. In that complex, conflicted part Tomm Coles is particularly fine.

I went in a spirit of curiosity: three years ago at the King’s Head I hailed Bugg’s 90-minute musical as a blend of “The Kander/Ebb Cabaret and new burlesque, with a dash of Design for Living, touches of Rattigan angst and echoes of many a nightclubby, Blitzy, wartime-blackout romance of gin, gents and garter belts.” I concluded, in that patronizing criticky way to which we sometimes succumb, “This show could grow”. Now, after bouncing off the small Leicester Square theatre last year it turns up recast, full-length and re-plotted as a touring co-production from Mr Bugg Presents and the New Wolsey (with backing and a nice programme note from the Naional Fairground Archive).


The cast are all actor-musicians, picking up saxophone, trumpet and clarinet with admirable insouciance and breath control even in the middle of a dance; Bugg’s pastiche songs are wonderful, and some of the dramatic numbers effective – notably the sad secret cruising of the gay men in the blackout, and the trios and duets of lovers at cross-purposes. It has grown well – though the first act could do with a trim: there are rather too many musical numbers before the plot begins to darken satisfactorily.


And there is real force in the fact, too easily forgotten, that while fighting Nazi persecution, Britain was still oppressing gay men. George’s position as a Jewish refugee, hearing of atrocities in Berlin and reading of suicides of men arrested in England, is particularly bitter. And from me it wins its fourth mouse by a whisker for sheer energy, great lyrics and good heart.
01473 295 900   to 5 April   then touring to 3 may –   Touring Mouse wide

rating: four 4 Meece Rating


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THERESE RAQUIN – Finborough, SW10



The Finborough has done it again: produced the most remarkable new musical of the year, shudderingly emotional, harsh and passionate, fit to make your hair stand on end. Pulsing recitative, dissonant screams, lyrical yearnings and bitter wit mark a tale set in sombre chiaroscuro, a nightmare made visible. Nona Shepphard, who writes and directs with Craig Adams’ Kurt-Weillish score, describes her newest work as “A radical adaptation”, and so it is.


But for all its headlong, fractured form it is also truer to the original than a more ploddingly traditional version. Emile Zola’s 1867 novel is one of the most terrifying tales of conscience and comeuppance in world literature: I remember how the 1980 BBC dramatization scared the bejasus out of us in our first married flat (it seems to have been considered too alarmingly morbid to repeat.) The story is uncomplicated: a domineering mother marries her orphan niece off to her own sickly, selfish son Camille, keeping her pent up, bored and silent, in a cramped shop in the Pont-Neuf. Therese falls in love with Camille’s old schoolfriend Laurent, and they contrive to drown Camille on a boating trip. Persuaded to marry – pretending reluctance – they hallucinate that their marriage-bed is occupied by the corpse, and are driven to madness, hatred and suicide.


The tale’s power is in the explosive passion of Therese’s escape from the clawing claustrophobia of her life, to the worse imprisonment of remorse. It breathes he dank clamminess of the dark Seine beyond, Zola’s pitiless view of humans as struggling animals and his obsession with cadavers, humans as bags of bones, blood and tortured nerves. Its deeper horror comes with the fearful detail of the domineering old mother succumbing to paralysis, hearing the truth of Camille’s death and sitting helpless with her murderous eyes fixed on the guilty couple’s endgame.


All this power is gathered up by Sheppard’s vigorous lyrics, concentrated and flung at us in two breathless hours. The language is terrific, whether mockingly witty, flickering with passion or steaming with disgust as Therese recoils from her cousin-husband “smelling as stale as an invalid child”. A chorus of “river-women” murmur Therese’s inner thoughts as she stays silent and impassive until her first crazed scream of desire. The mother’s Thursday-night dominoes sessions with dullard friends become a jerking zombie Totentanz of pinched, shrunken faces. Laura Cordery’s design of beams and shelves evokes the claustrophobic world of the shop; Laurent’s search of the morgue is staged with the terrible power of simplicity.
Pity and terror! And if I am slow to mention the cast it is only because they are, rightly, so integral to the overall piece. Julie Atherton is Therese, equally expressive in silent passivity and crazed passion; Jeremy Legat the prating Camille who gains power only as an inescapable corpse, and Ben Lewis a magnificent, alpha-male Laurent. But above all Tara Hugo as Mme Raquin is unforgettable: a pair of dangerous eyes in a gaunt pale face beneath vain elderly curls, a patter of complacency and scream of harsh song. An exposed nerve.


box office 844 847 1652   or to 19 April

Rating: five    5 Meece Rating

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PYGMALION – Theatre Royal, Bath & TOURING



Rarely have I seen George Bernard Shaw’s tumbling torrent of ideas and indignations delivered with such joyful, entertaining panache, or been happier to forget its artificially-sweetened version, My Fair Lady. David Grindley’s production is a firecracker. Even the wordier passages about class and culture spin exhilaratingly along, and it is good to be reminded that one of the funniest scenes in theatre is the tea-party moment, where Eliza’s painfully posh accent utters sentences of Cockney vigour (“It’s my belief they done the old woman in” ). The Lerner & Loewe musical makes too little of that: in the original it’s a riot.


Much of the credit must go to Alistair McGowan as Professor Higgins. I had not known what a fine stage actor he was, such is the ubiquity of his TV comedy and impressionism. His Henry Higgins is tremendous: funny, but also catching and making real all the vanity, breezy professional self-confidence and alpha-male callousness of Shaw’s creation. He rattles, explodes, commands, insults Eliza’s “depressing and disgusting sounds…kerbstone English that will keep her forever in the gutter!” He says appalling things, but his reckless unselfawareness makes even that oddly endearing: when the newly elegant, angry Eliza finally turns on him he expostulates “I created – this – out of the squashed cabbage-leaves of Covent Garden!”. He is the ultimate unforgiveable. But when his mother upbraids him and he sprawls and hunches like a schoolboy, you forgive.


The other brilliant surprise is Rula Lenska, not seen often enough onstage. She is no mean comedienne (have a look at and here makes the most of her capacity for sharp timing and queenly, statuesque stillness. But she also radiates a lovely exasperated matriarchal warmth: for Mrs Higgins is the first character apart from the housekeeper (Charlotte Page) to see that Eliza is a human being and that giving her the appearance of a counterfeit “lady” will cause her painful alienation. And as Eliza herself, Rachel Barry is endearing, but equally importantly manages the technical accent-switches required: from Cockney “neeeoooooow I’m a good girl I am”, to terrible zombie over-carefulness at tea, and finally to natural RP. That’s never an easy gig, and she handles it well.
The class politics are fascinating too; prescient for 1914, Shaw has little patience with his upper-class characters, the Eynsford-Hills, and worries away amusingly at the character of Alfred (Jamie Foreman) who prefers to stay among “the undeserving poor”, prefers a fiver to a tenner because “£10 makes a man prudent”. HIs horror of being elevated, “intimidated, bought up!” into the boring anxieties of middle-class morality is a direct ancestor of our TV series SHAMELESS.
So for two and a half hours you think, you laugh, you feel, you admire. Shaw can be a struggle for modern audiences, but this is a corker.

RATING:  four   4 Meece Rating
box office 01225 448844 to 29 March
touring to 21 June  Touring Mouse wide

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THIS MAY HURT A BIT – Octagon, Bolton and touring

 (note: theatrecat saw this a fortnight ago in the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, where it premiered, but respects tonight’s embargo)

You might do well, before watching this, to read up both sides of the NHS argument. Stella Feehily’s play for Out of Joint and the Octagon, directed by her husband Max Stafford-Clark, was born of their experience during his treatment for stroke, and of political indignation: it owes its central statistics and argument to Jacky Davis’ polemic NHS SOS. On its way from Bury (where I saw it) to Bolton it had a performance at Westminster hosted by Lord Kinnock, who in early workshops played Aneurin Bevan. Bevan’s score-settling 1948 speech begins it, and he pops up throughout, in modern scenes. So it’s a show about indignation, not ambiguity: a cryof fear that we will copy the US insurance model and betray the Spirit of ’45. The most inspiring line comes from the 1647 Leveller MP Thomas Rainsborough: “The poorest he that is in england, hath a life to live as the greatest he”.

Having said that, it is a refreshing and often informative couple of hours, with some good theatre moments (the Grim Reaper gets the best laugh). There are some lines designed more to infuriate the Coalition than to enlighten anyone, though: the present PM, weirdly, is portrayed as an grey-haired senatorial posho (Brian Protheroe) and is tended by a cynical civil servant and an Australian PR thug. Their dialogue is like a very poor imitation of The Thick Of It.
But there are livelier illustrations: the first half introduces Nicholas, a retired teacher with prostate issues (Protheroe again), struggling with a suave consultant and chaotic computer booking. Sketchy, surreal, choral and polemic moments finally solidify into Nicholas’ family gathering with his snobbish sister and her American consultant husband. They argue about the NHS with his 90-year-old mother who remembers the Spirit of ’45. She is the treasurable Stephanie Cole, whose drop-dead comic timing and fierce stage presence pretty well steal the show.
Of course – being central-casting elderly – she has a fall, a confused episode, and the second act is set in hospital. Here Cole has competition from Natalie Klamar’s fabulous performance as an busy East European geriatric nurse, ricocheting willingly between laying out an offstage corpse, feeding cornflakes to a groping vicar with a stroke, dealing with the family and fielding a demented Caribbean lady shouting “Sexy bitch! (one of Frances Ashman’s four roles).

Their story is interrupted by statistical lectures and surrealism: Bevan argues with Churchill, and Jane Whymark as “The NHS” sits up on a trolley and reminisces on her dating history (“Clem was the best…then rather indifferent liaisons, Winston, Anthony, Harold, Alec, little Harold..Margaret cut me to the bone… Tony was the most tremendous disappointment, fell in love with city boys..”. The present one “Says I must heal myself, so why won’t he let me alone? What a shit!”
It is right that a theatrical vehicle should tackle current issues, but there are incurable steering troubles here because the vehicle is loaded unevenly. It is fixedly cynical about politicians’ motives, and equally fixedly sentimental about nurses, paramedics, comely young female consultants and lovable Geordie porters (Hywel Morgan, who also plays Nye Bevan). When an opposing point of view is briefly expressed it is given to the selfish, Americanized daughter. And Klamar’s rushed nurse is so heroic that there is no reflection of the complex human problems of the service, or of cases like Stafford. Even in my own extended family we have seen night nursing so lazily uncaring that a sick old man struggled , choking, and another wandered lost until a passing visitor helped him. The nurses sat chattering over teacups at the desk. Nor is there any mention of revolving-door bureaucrats or irrationally demanding patients. Still, everyone will find swipes to applaud: mine were PFI and outsourced cleaning.


box office   01204 520661  to 5 April or

tourdates to  21 June including St James, London:      Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three  3 Meece Rating

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I CAN’T SING – Palladium, W1



Only gossip-writers should review the audience, but seeing this was the gala premiere of Harry Hill’s X-factor musical , and that most of the national critics wussily sneaked into previews to write it up nice and early, I may as well supplement the critical consensus. So know that on this real opening night Simon Cowell himself preeened through a curtain call next to Nigel Harman who plays him, that the audience was chock-full of showbizzy figures being spoofed onstage, from Sinitta to Louis Walsh; and that my companion had the interval pleasure of seeing half of the boy-band Union J confusedly blundering into the Ladies’.


And so to the show. Its eccentric brio owes more than a little to Jerry Springer The Opera, and demonstrates also, alas, how much better that other TV-talent musical -Viva Forever – would have been if with some proper work and wit in it. It is built round auditions and backstage manoeuvres on The X Factor, so if you know nothing of ITV’s monolithic, hideously successful, exploitative and terminally naff rhinestone-in-the-crown, don’t bother. Equally, if the football-related backstory of Cheryl Cole and the lovelife and health regimes of Cowell himself are beyond your range of interests, do some homework. But if you are a fan or the parent of one, or one of the viewers neatly guyed in a chorus sung on flying sofas (“It’s all a con, I don’t really watch it , there’s nothing else on..”) then Sean Foley’s production is the spectacular, larking, hoofing, happily silly springtime panto for you. Especially if you love the knowingly parastic mockery of TV which is Harry Hill’s trademark.

I love Hill, and my notebook is peppered with “HH” symbols to identify jokes which reminded me of him. Like the aria about the importance of loving yourself if you’re in showbiz, or the hopeful trio with T shirts of their name SOUL STAR who stand in the wrong order and read ARS OUL ST. Or the compere Liam O’Dearie (plainly Dermot O’Leary) who sings that how he never feels secure unless he is hugging someone he doesn’t know. Ouch. Another lovely Harry-Hillism is having the wind which blows away vital entry forms played by an ensemble member flapping his rags and snarling “three years at RADA!”.


There are some proper musical-theatre treats. Cynthia Erivo, last seen taking the roof off the Menier in The Color Purple, is the heroine Chenice, who thinks she can’t sing but brilliantly can: she has an ideal X-factor harrowing backstory which Hill treats with cheerful callousness. Grandad’s iron lung has to be unplugged to watch telly in their caravan, and he gets electrocuted by an incompetent plumber who is himself a contestant (“I’m going to change the world with my ukelele, and I’m doing it for my little brother!”). There’s a cynical puppet dog snarling “I know it’s not exactly War Horse but I’m doing my best”, a Dickensian undertaker, a hunchback rapper with breakdancing monks, leprechauns, Brunnhildes, and Harman a superbly horrible Cowell.


That’s it, really. There is potential savagery in a few lyrics, like Cowell’s “I will search the land for every buffoon / mentally ill people who murder a tune..”. The Cole character (a glorious Victoria Elliott) is mercilessly made a clumsy exhibitionist colluding in the cynical manipulation of innocents, and the conclusion is a song made entirely of clichés “Dream of a journey, journey to the dream..”. But hell, Cowell himself is the show’s backer, for Syco. And like Have I Got News or American comedy “roastings” it is all basically self-congratulatory – a sort of triumphalist “if you’re ghastly and you know it, clap your hands!” But God help me, I enjoyed it a lot.
box office 0844 412 4655
Rating: four. Oh dear.  4 Meece Rating

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FATAL ATTRACTION – Theatre Royal, Haymarket W1


It is 27 years since James Dearden saw his film script explode into public consciousness, deify Michael Douglas as a hapless adulterer and Glenn Close as first holder of the now classic epithet “bunny-boiler”. He admits that from draft to draft the role of villain slid gradually towards Close, making Douglas the victim, and indeed the end got re-shot to blow her away. He fancied levelling things up now with this play, directed by Trevor Nunn.


So here as Dan is Mark Bazeley, fresh from Nunn’s last matrimonial doomfest Scenes from a Marriage. Kristin Davis is the smiley wife Beth who wants to move to the countryside, and the peerlessly foxy Natascha McElhone swirls a great blonde mane and killer red ciré heels as Alex, the psychotically needy urban-chic woman he picks up in a bar . And later wishes to God he could put down again.


It is updated to the new century in more ways than the obvious – and very helpful – fact that Alex can now persecute Dan not only by landline and turning up in his office and home but with mobile calls, texts, email and messaging. Bunny-boilers of today are well-armed indeed. The real update, though, is an attempted feminist consciousness, making more of the familiar complaints that selfish men take what they want, won’t commit, lie, never ring, abdicate responsibility and think abortion is easy. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.


Bazeley is great casting as Dan, lithe and narrow-headed as a particularly handsome stoat, and McElhone mostly manages the difficult task of jerking Alex – at one point in less than four minutes – from charm to violence, back to charm, then via self-harm to more aggression and finally pathos. Sometimes the script defeats her, as it would any actor. It is in less obvious moments that she flares into reality: her sudden glare of rage at being left asleep, and an electric shock of fury when Dan shouts “You poor, sad, twisted, lonely -” and she explodes on the word “lonely”. Her Madam Butterfly obsession is ramped up, the music swelling repeatedly. For Dearden, rather obviously, wants us to ask ourselves whether she is victim or vampire, nutter or Nemesis, bunny-boiler or Butterfly. And the endgame is different, more in tune with the feminist-Butterfly theme: some tellyish NYPD clichés get defused by a final tableau artfully designed to flatter our cultural sensibilities.


In style it owes much to film: Dan becomes a retrospective narrator, scenes are short. The setting is elegant: Robert Jones’ design of blue neon bars , projections and cool decor creates a restless Manhattan feeling, expertly enhanced by Nunn’s use of a wandering urban ensemble of barflies, straight and gay couples, stragglers, workers, passers-by who make the guilty Dan pause mid-sentence. There is a properly funny, Ayckbournish scene when Alex turns up pretending to be a buyer for the apartment and Kristin Davis deploys those happy-smiley-wholesome-trusting expressions we fondly remember as prologues to every romantic disaster when she was Charlotte in Sex and the City.


The rabbit gets it – of course it does, with decently brief and inexplicit horror and not before the entire audience (O, Britain! Britain!) has gone aaaaaah! at its sweet lop-ears. Rabbit and her understudy are interviewed in the programme, boasting of “nibbling on Sir Trevor’s denim”, which one hopes is not a euphemism.

box office 020 7930 8800 to 21 June


rating: three  3 Meece Rating

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With a fine dramatic flourish the Old Vic is again a theatre-in-the-round, as it was six years ago for the Norman Conquests. The refit (they kept the kit in storage) works astonishingly well, perhaps best for seats in the northern arc, and suits the breathless, concentrated living-room intimacy of Jon Robin Baitz‘ clever play. It’s set (great palm-trees) in an affluent Republican home in Palm Springs, California. And there’s too grand a twist, too melodramatic a reveal, for spoilers to be forgivable.


But I can mention that in a brief flash-forward coda, Martha Plimpton as the daughter Brooke (a performance of marvellous intensity, alternately pitful and loathsome) stands at a lectern reading at some literary festival. Describing her father’s deathbed she makes ironic observations about his dementia and the “ochre and umber” sunset outside. Ah yes: we’ve all read these overwritten, hypersensitive ich-bin-zo memoirs. And that final moment underlines the important theme running all through Baitz’ depiction of a combative family Christmas Eve. Sharp and witty himself, he understands the temptations of authorly self-regard and the creeping novelization of memory. When her family plead with her not to publish a memoir, Brooke utters lines like “You’re asking me to shut down something that makes me possible…the only obligation I have is to myself”.


We meet them all first in tennis kit: Peter Egan and Sinéad Cusack as well-groomed parents in shining whites, the lounging son Trip (Daniel Lapaine) laughing about the ironic mock-trial TV show he produces. Brooke, in scruffy T-shirt and leggings, is full of East Coast political correctness and horrified at her mother’s breezy recommendation of the “Chinky” food they do at the Country Club. It is all beautifully drawn, Lindsay Posner’s cast immaculate: loose-limbed Trip keeping the peace, Egan affably senatorial as a former Hollywood gunslinger who became a George Bush Snr ambassador, and above all Sinéad Cusak superlatively watchful, poised, suggesting depths of difficult self-control beneath a facade brittle and often hilarious as a wife who learned “order, precision and discipline” from Nancy Reagan. No fool she, but a Vassar girl who used to write for Hollywood: though “once it became all about drugs and lefties whining, I was out”.


They are joined by the alcoholic aunt Silda – Clare Higgins in assorted knock-off garish prints – who unlike her sister has not smoothed over her roots. “You’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew. This Pucci is more real than your Barbara Bush shtick”. Brooke is the catalyst for chaos: veteran of one literary novel, a nervous breakdown, and divorce from what her brother calls “a sad wet Brit, like Lord Byron’s faggy cousin”. The author’s note calls her “an artist in despair, a dangerous creature”, but wisely lets Trip burst that bubble with “Depression doesn’t make you special, it makes you banal”. The disputed memoir concerns her elder brother who joined an anti-war hippie cult, was complicit in a murderous firebombing and drowned himself. In Brooke’s world view her parents are right-wing sociopaths who destroyed him. But hey, maybe even Republicans love their children, and truth is elusive and writers can be dishonest too. As Trip says in a marvellous, Salingeresque inter-sibling scene, “You turn Henry into a saint of the ‘70s, all patchouli and innocent questioning. But…”


That’s the setup. It’s too good a thriller, too subtle and shifting in its sympathies, to tell you more.


box office 0844 871 7628 to 24 may Sponsor: Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Rating Four4 Meece Rating

Rating Four
4 Meece Rating

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THE DEAD DOGS Print Room, W2


The young man lies on the settle thinking about his dog.  It’s run off. His mother, stiffly repetitive between pauses, tells him he’s a grown man and should go and look for it.  He doesn’t.  She also wishes he’d go to the shop for some coffee because his sister and husband are coming.  He doesn’t do that either.  So she goes.  There’s white empty sky over the fjord.  and a lot of silence and no dog.  It’s a Beckettian silence.   Waiting for Doggo….

Perish the thought: there  is no place for such frivolous inward mutterings.   Jon Fosse is a very celebrated contemporary Norwegian writer, performed worldwide and  tipped for a Nobel Prize.  This is a British premiere in the enterprising little Print Room,  rendered by May-Brit Akerholt, a distinguished Ibsen scholar and Fosse translator.   The cast are good: Valerie Gogan as the mother trapped in unexpressed anxiety,  and Danny Horn glaring,  surly, depressed and mainly silent as the failure-to-launch son whose only interest is his dog,  even if he won’t go out and look for it.    A boyhood friend drops in and tries to get him to come to the city to work,  or at least go fishing;  the Sister (Jennie Gruner) is the only other character to be allowed to behave remotely naturally.

Simon Usher’s direction allows the 90-minute piece all the painfully pregnant pauses required, and the cast do a remarkable job remembering and rendering the broken, rarely finished,  awkwardly repetitive sentences of  what is dubbed an  “abstract theatre-poem” or “existential suspense story”.   The lines often feel more like subtitles than speech. And maybe if it had stayed as gnomically obscure as Beckett’s Endgame it would work better.  Because curiously, the problem lies in its having an actual plot:  the brother-in-law finds the dog dead, the neighbour having shot it for bothering his children.  Next morning the taciturn son has taken up a station at the window staring at the grave for hours,  and we learn that the neighbour was murdered in his bed.   No prizes for guessing whodunnit.

The difficulty is that while Jennie Gruner as the sister remains naturalistic,  and Valerie Gogan gallantly gives the jerky script a miasma of maternal dread,  the oddly rendered text creates a sense of slightly absurd unreality, and psychologically it becomes plain irritating.  Here’s a family with a clearly disturbed son,  so patently in mental trouble  that he lies for hours staring at the wall and has got rid of the guitar which was his main talent.  His beloved dog, the one emotional outlet, is lying dead in a plastic bag offstage.  But when he  goes out to look at it, not one of them follows him.  Not even the anxious mother.  They just stand around speaking half-sentences like broken robots.  It doesn’t wash, either as realism or poetry.   Nor does the fact that the seemingly normal brother-in-law talks in exactly the same jerky unfinished way as everyone else.   Fosse builds atmosphere, but at the expense of credibility.  He has said that Britain has “a fear of what is different”.   But there are some kinds of bafflement which make you care. Not this.

box office   to 12 April

rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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TWO INTO ONE – Menier, SE1


“Why is a civil servant from the Home Office posing as a Dr Christmas from Norwich auditioning an actor from Kingston?”.  Why is a hotel corridor alive with panicking establishment figures in towels? And can that ginger wig really be explained as part of a Tory revue skit on Neil Kinnock?    We are in the Westminster Hotel and the world of Whitehall farce, of which the author Ray Cooney is graduate and heir.  This one dates from 1984, which is both its interest and its weaknesss.

Plays with timeless emotional content, however period-fixed,  are safer revivals than farce,  where character is a cartoonish plot-driving device.  You might wonder whether this revival does more than memorialize an interesting point in the evolution of the British Sex Farce: the year when embarrassing bedroom misunderstandings suddenly dared to include male-on-male liaisons as well as the trad pajamas-meet-negligeé variety.

It is set during the Thatcher government,  the hero a Home Office minister about to present an anti-porn bill:  but the political setting is only a device to make the potential disgrace credible. After Yes Minister and The Thick Of it we tend to expect sharper lines about ministerial hypocrisy,  and door-slam bedroom farce itself has been growing mould ever since Frayn spoofed it back-to-front in Noises Off.   But if this is as much archaeology as entertainment, it is classily executed.

Ray Cooney himself directs,  and plays the doddering hotel waiter with a taste for Kung Fu moves  and tips. Michael Praed has a senatorial enough air as the Home Office minister (tiresomely called Willey)  attempting adultery with the PM’s secretary and ending up overdosed on benzedrine and hectic lies. Josefina Gabrielle makes a nicely lustful Knightsbridge-matron as his wife Pamela with needs of her own.  But the heart of the play is Nick Wilton as Pigden: the shy, tubby civil servant charged with booking the guilty pair a hotel room.   Wilton plays it shudderingly but  gallantly terrified, making increasingly crazy attempts to smooth things over and fend off Pamela.   A fine physical clown, he combines absurdity with  brief  but precious moments  of real poignant desperation.

But I did have irritable moments,  even while appreciating the deft engineering of an eight-door farce and the sideways-sliding set by Julie Godfrey. Cooney  knows his stuff, follows the First Farce Law Of Non-Consummation, and sparkily introduces a new character halfway through the second act to drive a fresh set of complications.   But the best  TV sitcom has become smarter and sharper in the last three decades, so   and jokes like ‘When it comes to porn, everyone wants to take up a position”   or “Send up sandwiches and champagne” “Vintage?” “No, fresh ones”  ring tiresome on modern ears.   I suspect from the cackling around me that it works best after a couple of drinks,  so this is one of those situations where sobersides critics are not reliable guides to a jolly mid-priced night out.

But I did appreciate some excellent trapped-in-a-trolley work from Kelly Adams  as the panicked girlfriend.  And Pigden’s loyalto to his minister is a shining  example to all Sir Humphreys: perhaps they’ll have a post-Budget stress Whitehall staff outing.

box office 020 7378 1713  to 26 April
Rating:  three    3 Meece Rating
But my first newly invented set-design mouse is awarded to Julie Godfrey…  Set Design Mouse resized

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It is Angela Lansbury’s hour and ovation, back on the West End stage at 88 after forty years away.  We’d be on our feet out of mere sentiment even if she was just OK:  as it happens she gives a performance of shimmering, seemingly effortless balance, brilliance and comic timing.    Her Madame Arcati won her a Tony on Broadway in 2009 and has clearly not lost impetus.  Probably gained a bit, since you need a proper British heart to understand that a tricky exorcism is best approached by swinging a string of garlic round your head and chirping  “Let’s put our shoulders into it this time, and give it a real rouser!” .

Her strength is that of the finest comic actors who – like all this cast –  understand that you must believe in the utter rationality of your chararacter, as the centre of her own universe and unaware of any absurdity.  The village medium Arcati is too often played as a dotty old bat, obsessed with psychical nonsense, by people with no real idea of what being one would feel like. Lansbury, far from dotty, nonetheless puts herself firmly inside the character:  every offended glare, nod, caper and professional exultation 100% credible and all the funnier for it.   To see her sand-dancing round the room in velvet droopwear covered in cabbalistic gold scrolls and sneakily pausing to adjust her henna hairdo is, on its own well worth the ticket price.

As for Noel Coward’s play, written in 1941 when our heroine was already at drama school,  it wears every bit as well as she does.  Like Private Lives and Design for Living it is brittle on the surface, molten beneath with dangerous emotional truths.  It may seem tiresome to find gay-conflict themes in Coward but it is hard to avoid:   there’s too often a man torn between a passionate, squabbling, morally doomed but irresistible affair and the deep, deep, boring peace of a conventional,  permitted, but sexually dull marriage.  Too open a code to ignore.  Even the secondary characters, the  visiting Bradmans, in a fleeting scene  illustrate the dulling tendency of sensible wives to shut up their husbands and hustle them briskly off.   Here, Charles Edwards’ Condomine,  alternately  fascinated and panicked by the accidental ghostly materialization of his foxy first wife Elvira,   allows glimpses of why married Ruth (Janie Dee).  He needed a Mum.   Dee herself ,  quelling her own innate foxiness,  demonstrates her fitness for the role by even folding a tablecloth with a certain menacing precision.  And when her fury at his flirting with Elvira’s ghost turns into solicitude, she’s Matron all the way.

Elvira is Jemima Rooper,  swishing around in white ghostly eveningwear and a smooth sharp pale bob,  and inhabiting the character’s amoral guttersnipe mischief without any of the irritating little-me cooing which can mar the role.  Costume has nicely distinguished the two women: Janie Dee’s natural foxiness is quelled by an unforgiving Princess Elizabeth perm, her bosom trussed up forbiddingly  in mauve crossover evening dress sans cleavage (even reappearing whitely as a ghost she’s not filmy and drapey like Elvira but in a buttoned-up Burberry and royal headscarf).  Patsy Ferran, getting a dream of a professional debut,  gives the part of Edith the clumsy maid all the mojo it requires;  and Michael Blakemore’s direction – with Coward’s  scene directions projected and the Master’s portrait shone at the end,   gives an old-fashioned air of hommage to the production in the best possible way.

But a last word about Charles Edwards:  always subtler, funnier, more human than you expect,  whether as Andrew Aguecheek, Edward VII or a Tory Chief Whip .  His Condomine is all he should be: smooth but easily put-upon, posturing, petulant, worriedly uncertain of his own feelings (terrified he might really have called up Elvira out of his ‘subconscious’),  easily panicked. A man adrift, a worm fit for the turning.   As he escapes the set’s final satisfying collapse, one wishes him well, poor sap…

box office     0844 482 5130  to  7 June

rating:  five  4 Meece Rating  BUT  the fifth is the first theatrecat award of Costume Design Mouse, to Bill Butler  and Martin Pakledinaz. – Costume design mouse resized

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THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F Richmond Theatre & Touring


The lad in the Army Recruiting Office listens enthusiastically to the Para behind the desk speaking of comradeship and adventure.  But as he shifts his chair  the startled recruit blurts “You’ve got no legs!”.  “At least” says the soldier “you passed your observation test” .   God help us: in this searingly memorable evocation of military attrition it isn’t the wrecked young bodies or the drugged night-terrors which bring on tears; not even the anxious lovers and mothers.   It’s the military deadpan,  the ancient dry courage which will quip  in the face of disaster and only then turn inward to contemplate the future in bleak and lonely privacy.

The play brilliantly captures both that deadpan black humour and the soft desperate  inward reality of the seriously injured.  It had to, because most of its cast are real veterans telling real stories: they were recruited at the Headley Court rehabilitation centre  by the producer Alice Driver as a therapeutic recovery project . Still struggling with pain and powerful medication,  they began by telling their stories to writer Owen Sheers and director Stephen Rayne.   A BBC documentary followed the process towards  last year’s gala performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with a thirty-strong cast  –  soldiers male and female,  plus a few professional performers and dancers.  So overwhelming was the impact that the Royal British Legion is supporting a nationwide tour with a trimmed-down cast of fifteen.

Quite apart from its documentary and personal reality it has become a striking and effective piece of theatre.  Simple but shattering use of shadow-play, chorus, soliloquy and movement meld scraps of memory and progress into a powerful whole.  In one sequence a balletic rehab-gym sequence explodes and collapses into a remembered image of civilian carnage,  then as the broken bodies move they become night-victims, suffering “high-def hallucinations” and afraid to sleep.   Shafts of rough soldierly humour cut through sentimentality:  one beautiful song sequence as the soldiers read loving, hopeful “blueys” ends with one getting a “Dear John” letter and the others – for the safety of the platoon – mocking and sending him up, forcing  it not to matter.

Nothing is overstated or milked,  Jason Carr’s  songs are low-key and beautiful in their truthfulness:   a chanted list of medications, from oromorph to antidepressants,  chills the blood, and Sheers’  skill picks up and makes poetry of documentary reminiscence.   We believe in  the heat and sand,  the unseen Taleban “like fighting ghosts”,  the frightened villagers,  the misery of trying not to shoot back at children.  A straightforward military lecture illustrates how IED injuries happen,  eyelets from your very boots ripping through your groin:  within modern military kit  still lies the same soft human flesh which wars have always shredded.

To speak of stars feels crass but “Charlie F” (also military slang for a complex disaster or “clusterf–k”)  is the nickname of the protagonist, played by Royal Marine  Cassidy Little:  a natural star who lost half a leg to an IED in Helmand and woke in Selly Oak hospital convinced he was a captive being tortured.   Maurillia Simpson from Trinidad sings with a lovely gospel voice and remembers how as a child she saw the Queen’s visit and vowed to be one of her soldiers. Stewart Hill terrifyingly, flatly,   relates the brain damage which torpedoed his career as an officer.  A wife remembers at the hospital seeing women in burqas, and hating them but then hearing them praying for her husband by name.

But they all shine, in wheelchairs and on crutches, criticizing one another’s stumps or confessing with raw sad courage the emotional and sexual chaos of recovery.   For it is about recovery:  in the final speech Charlie F salutes the oldest regiment in the world,  the regiment of the injured.  Their daily victories of body and mind are being fought all around us, if we would just look.

rating:  five   5 Meece Rating
box office 0844 871 7651  to 22 March        TOURING  to 7 June‎   Touring Mouse wide


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Satan (Adam Long  in plastic horns) came up to earth in human form in 1964 because he was “excited with what was going on in musical theatre”, notably West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof.   His human mother remembers him always singing and dancing, though he did get bullied about his tail.  Now fifty,  he is hanging around in the office of his equally camp manager, Schifrin  (Mark Caven), breaking into the odd soft-shoe (well, cloven-hoof) shuffle and pestering him about a one-night Sondheim songbook gig at the Palladium.  Only Sondheim won’t give permission.

That’s the conceit of this hour-long amusement: together they
plead down the phone, bicker, reconcile,  and make a ridiculous lifetime-achievement video,  including  Satan’s X-Factor-style sob story about a blighted childhood and how badly God treated him.   They sing the Public Domain Medley, all they’re allowed (like Daisy Daisy) but Satan keeps trying to break into Send in the Clowns  on the grounds that the Jermyn is licensed for cabaret and incidental music.  A panicking Schifrin points out that  if he’s in costume it counts as theatre, which is a different licence.    Satan says they’re his own horns not a costume,  but Schifrin cites a Performing Rights Society ruling that  in a landmark case Nosferatu the Vampire’s teeth were deemed costume…

Well, I relate that gag so that you get the idea.  Adam Long – one of the founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and  lately reator of one of its best spinoffs, the Complete Dickens,  has put together this parodic tribute to the yearnings, splendours and hissy-fits of musical theatre pros:  toe-tapping neurosis, pleasure, absurdity and dodgy rhymes.  Schifrin mourns his sole client’s unreasonable ambition – “I coulda got him loads of regional work” –  and finally drops his affable optimism to snarl “You’re fifty years old with horns and hooves – no, you can’t play Tony in West Side Story!”.

The show is, as they sing, not “Something too rational / on the main stage of the National”.     Yet there is a moment of real feeling – as the old Reduced Shakespeare used to drop in –  when thwarted Satan grieves for the Sondheim numbers he must never sing.  “He’s special. You know he is.  It’s like leaves in the sunsine…like he knows something about you – you wanna cling to it because it’s perfect, but it keeps changing…music like water, music like light”.

I like that. And there’s a happy ending, sort of.  Well, a compromise.   That’s showbiz.  It runs as a separate show after AWAY FROM HOME (see above) which  makes not a bad evening. Silly,  but not stupid.

box office 020 7287 2875  to 29 march
Rating: three  3 Meece Rating

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AWAY FROM HOME Jermyn St Theatre SW1 and touring


As gay shame and secrecy gradually fade from British life,  one of the last frontiers is professional football.  We know from tragedies like Justin Fashanu’s and from the mixed reception to the courage of Hitzlsperger that there are still minds to be won. Theatre does well to weigh in:  Rob Ward and Martin Jameson’s solo play (Jameson directs, Ward performs)   actually predated THE PASS on the same topic at the Royal Court,  having run in Manchester.  Yet they were told by marketeers that it was only fit for a “niche, difficult-to-access audience”.   Since young men in incalculable numbers  – here and abroad – adore Premiership  players and take a cue from their public face,  it seems to me not niche at all but something more like urgent.

So Ward,  all fit, crop-haired macho ferocity, tells his story as  gay Kyle: an ardent fan , out to his family and straight friends but also, unbeknownst to any of them,  working as an escort – a rent boy –  for a shadowy unseen pimp called Vince.   His grumpy, pragmatic defiance about this is nicely drawn: maybe if his Dad was less hostile (“You can’t be happy, being what you are”) he would  have accepted the proffered job in the family business.   But he’s doing fine, repelled at times but resigned to it, taking eighty quid for an hour.   But a real relationship threatens to develop:   the client who wants him exclusively is a Premiership star from the hated rival team.   There is a scabrously funny moment in their first encounter when Kyle is asked to have sex with him wearing the enemy shirt.  “I’ve got to f— the fellow whose goal robs my team of two points??”

But the two passions are reconciled for a time,  as Kyle falls in love and becomes a secret “mistress”, kept in a flat with a big telly and a posh coffee machine,  The secrecy remains corrosive:  “socialite” blondes are hired to massage a hetero image for the unseen footballer.    Kyle’s friends find out that he’s a “WAG”  but stick with him: a splendid exchange has him admitting the escort work.   “I .. I don’t fix shops for me uncle”.  It meets the resigned reply :  “I suppose I should be surprised. But you always were shit at woodwork.”

There is rudeness,  laddish machismo and tenderness:  Jameson,  who writes for Holby City and knows how to push the buttons,  offers alternative endings to the affair, one happy and one less so.  But the curious parallel that sticks in my mind is with the story of Dickens and his mistress Ellen Tiernan in The Invisible Woman.   When they were in a train crash, the celebrity author would not be seen tending her or admit they were travelling together.   Here it’s a car crash, and exactly the same thing happens. Unacknowledged love:  timeless and terrible.

Box office 0207 287 2875 to 28 March

Touring to June:    Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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EMILY Ruskin College and Touring

Emily Wilding Davison died 101 years ago at the Derby, under the thundering hooves of the King’s horse.  Nobody knows for sure whether she intended martyrdom: she has a return ticket and may simply have meant to disrupt the race in a typically  risky stunt.  Fearless inventiveness had  for years marked her increasing frustration with the Liberal government’s refusal to enfranchise women.

It is her death which makes her famous and which ends this 70-minute solo show, but that is not its main focus.   Written by Ros Connelly of Cambridge Devised Theatre, directed by  Kath Burlinson and performed with engaging energy by Elizabeth Crarer,  rather it traces the development and desperation of the militant condition itself.  Davison was an educated university woman,  determined and energetic,   who worked her way to a first class degree after her father died and left the family poorer.  We see her as a lover of Walt Whitman’s poems,  a dreamer of independence, a sea-bathing romp of a girl.

Crarer gives her a fearless tomboyish physicality and a clear-eyed  rather head-prefectish persona:  after a brief sour desperate prison moment we meet her in flashback as she sees  Mrs Pankhurst in Hyde Park,  reads newspapers and the famous Almroth Wright tract  about “A world rendered unwholesome by feminism” where “individual man showers upon individual woman…every good thing which, suffrage or no suffrage, she never could have procured for herself.”

She was, in short, radicalized.  And thus became a victim of that age’s scandal:  repeated arrest and hideous force-feeding which knocks out teeth and makes the subject retch in pain.  Light and sound on the bare stage elegantly meet Crarer’s violent fall to the ground each time she is jailed.  First for obstruction, then breaking windows, arson and at finally for accosting a Baptist MInister she mistook for David Lloyd George (she did apologize).    We see her in prison,  angry and intense,  praying  and muttering “righteousness is not shame”  and “rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God!”.  Between prison sentences she strides around  addressing her invisible confreres or (more tenderly) her mother,  chucking bricks through windows with satisfying crashes,  and rather splendidly hiding in a heating duct and a cupboard inside the Palace of Westminster in the hope of accosting  Prime Minister Asquith.  Piquantly, she managed to stay hidden till after midnight on Census night so she could declare Parliament as her place of residence.

But what is most striking is that all this does gradually turn Emily a little mad.  Her very murmur “I am not mad!” and her pacing of her cell with a bitter cry of “We cannot stop now!”  indicates how long disillusion and official cruelty  breeds nihilistic despair.    We cannot quite know how true this was: but dramatically it convinces.

I saw it at Ruskin College Oxford,   home of labour history serving adults from hard backgrounds with a thirst for learning: a place so inspiring that Gandhi made a point of visiting it.  It fitted well.  The tour of 18 theatres is a whistle-stop affair, but worth catching.

touring to 9th april:  details,    Touring Mouse wide

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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URINETOWN St James’ Theatre, SW1


Are they taking the piss?  This extraordinary 2001 American musical by Mark Hollman  and Greg Kotis ran three years  on Broadway after a fringe debut,  landing three Tonys despite the studiedly unpromising title,  downbeat ending and a plot which, baldly described, sounds as jejune as a rag-week demo.

But by God, it works!   It took a while to convince me, but halfway through the first half of Jamie Lloyd’s storming, crowding, rackety production I  forgave a certain incomprehensibity in the chorus lyrics (it was the last preview, it’ll settle) and rolled along with the oddball smash hit of the season.  Even stood up for the gore-spattere curtain-call:   filthily clad revolutionaries, bad cops, revolutionaries and a corrupt politician in a bloodstained bra.

Soutra Gilmour’s atmospheric set has two levels,  around a revolving urinal block and giant sewerpipes:  Blade Runnerish with  retro-future detail.   It represents a city so blighted by drought that private lavatories are banned: the suffering populace queues to pay at squalid public ones,  controlled by brutal cops  under a giant corporation run by Cladwell (Simon Paisley Day in a villainous moustache).  The penalty for peeinng in the street is exile to “Urinetown” . Which, it becomes clear, is  a euphemism for execution.  “Urinetown’s a tool / To enforce my iron rule…” sings Cladwell happily.  He is paying off a greedy senator  –  topical utility-jokes about how the money is supposed to solve the eco-problem,  but is really spent on fun in Rio .  The satire, which is heavy,  targets the corporate and tyrannical desire to exploit and police basic human needs –  food and love, so why not bladder and bowels?    Bog attendant Bobby (Richard Fleeshman) starts a revolution by letting the poor in (“Free the Pee-ple”) but falls in  love with Cladwell’s naive daughter Hope (Rosanna Hyland).  They flee to the sewers , she is made hostage and tied up but not too tightly to prevent her reprising a mock-schlock “Follow your heart” number.  O she’s untied she rocks a great gospel-blues “I see a River”. Jenna Russell is a stunner as Penelope Pennywise, a ginger virago  undergoing a Nancy-style remorse

Lloyd, who lately froze our blood with his McAvoy Macbeth,  makes much of the brutalities, riot-shields banged to Hollmann’s rorty score;  enough to make us uneasy at times if it wasn’t distanced by a knowing meta-theatre device in which the chief policeman , an unusually sinister-looking Jonathan Slinger,  discusses and mocks  the progress of the show with Li’l Sal (a terrific Karis Jak).   There are great numbers like Cladwell’s “Don’t be the bunny, don’t be the stew!” with a chorus of rabbit-headed victims on the revolve and a barmy glove-puppet,   and we cheered as the revolutionaries were led in gospel chorus conducted by a fiercely ludicrous Bobby.

That sums up the strength and weakness of the piece: a laddish desire to make its points while sliding – as lads will – embarrassedly away from emotion: everything’s a parody.  It made me nostalgic for the way another transgressive musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, had the courage to offer moments of poignancy.   But never mind: this one is spot-on for the Hunger-Games-And-Zombie generation:   its studied cynicism very student-friendly.  But my inner student joined in,  seduced  by its exuberant absurdity.   And aficionados of musical parody may spot hommages to Les Mis, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Sondheim and a hint of Phantom in the sewers.

And never have I seen such a lemming rush for the lavatories in the interval…

box office 0844 264 2140  to 3 May

rating:  four  4 Meece Rating

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GOOD PEOPLE Hampstead Theatre, NW3


In tough South Boston they approvingly say someone is “Good People”.  It carries a sense not only of individual value but neighbourhood repute: decent family, not hoodlums.   Another expression (used once of the uppity Kennedys) is “lace-curtain Irish”.   Upward mobility can happen, with effort and luck,  but  as in any country not least here,   it does need both.  Not for nothing is our heroine’s only recreation the bingo table, twice staged:   small chances change a life.  Missing school,  a disabled baby,  an uninsured toothache turning bad so you miss work and get sacked and behind with the rent –  and the next stop is the pavement.  Whereas given a good brain, a father who gets you out of trouble and a community homework club, and you might make it to college, upward marriage and middle-class prosperity.

Mike (Lloyd Owen) got out and is now a smart fertility doctor.  Margie, his high-school girlfriend,  didn’t.  As we first meet her, against Hildegard Bechtler’s startlingly realistic back-lot set,  she is a tiny middle-aged firecracker mouthily resisting the sack from the Dollar Store checkout , deploying a mixture of rage, humour and desperation which summons us irrevocably to her side.  For it’s Imelda Staunton,  in one of her finest performances.

Among her friends – an irresistible June Watson as Dottie the landlady with a sideline in appalling craft novelty rabbits,  and Lorraine Ashbourne with a fine slaggy grumpiness –  Margie is a pillar of sensible decency.  When her hope for a job takes her to the doctor’s smart office and then his living-room,   she is combatively, humorously and at last furiously out of place.   “I wouldn’t fit in here…I’m not fancy enough”.     In a week when a British government adviser urged poor kids to learn ease in middle-class environments, it strikes home.  And so in reverse (and in Hampstead!)   does Mike’s discomfort at her view that he has gone lace-curtain and forgotten his roots.  He has certainly edited them:  once Margie discomfitingly reminisces with his  curious graduate wife,   it turns out that selective memory has made his family life tougher and himself holier.

The author, a Pulitzer winner,  says his fellow-American playwrights don’t “tackle class the way Brits do”.  But I can’t think of any recent British work treating it with as much honesty, energy, humour and perceptiveness as David Lindsay-Abaire,  himself a scholarship boy from a “Southie” childhood.  Directed by Jonathan Kent,  this is neither bleeding-heart patronizing nor mired in despair.  The awkwardness, defiance, and shifting power play between Margie, Mike, and his wife  – Angel Coulby, tousled and friendly in palazzo pants – makes the play’s two hours zing, eliciting from us “Ouch!-es”  “Aaahs” and rueful “Oh yes…” moments.

Passages in the second act  are reminiscent of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in their mischievous use of social shock – about race, sex, poverty and lies.  As Margie torments Mike (Lloyd Owen)  sometimes deservedly, sometimes not,  he writhes and withers and finally turns nasty.

There are some fine jokes:  about the middle-class word “comfortable”,  the cheeseboard (“Creamy-dippy, body odour, or mouldy basement?”)And as the temperature rises,  an elegantly crafted series of twists and revelations.  It deserves a transfer, and Imelda Staunton another Olivier.

Box office 020 7722 9301  to 5 April

rating:  five   5 Meece Rating

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES Royal & Derngate, Northampton


With an elegance which bodes well for James Dacre’s captaincy of  this lovely theatre,  its filmhouse programmed  The Invisible Woman  just as Dacre opened this masterly version  of a novel Dickens wrote during his affair with the woman on whom he may have based its Lucie Manette.  Nice co-ordination, and a chance to reflect on the personal confusions which prevent Dickens from ever giving any of his young women the ripe strong character he bestows on men, and on ladies too old to trouble his desires.

But thrilling to the book at ten years old,  I knew that the real female role was Madame Defarge:  knitting under the guillotine, drunk on death, snarling  “Old debts must be paid”.  With glancing but unmistakeable significance,  Mairead McKinley plays her Irish.  I also knew that my hero was not the stiff idealistic Charles Darnay but his double: ramshackle, boozy self-hating Sydney Carton.  Not just because of his final act,  but because for all the romance and danger the story stands or falls with this  “disappointed drudge…dissolute, cold, reckless”.  Here, played by the magnetic Oliver Dimsdale against Joshua Silver’s buttoned-up Darnay ,  Carton not only stands but strides.

The two men are convincingly near-doubles:  clear handsome features, black brows, one ruffled and one smooth.  Indeed despite much doubling all the casting is sharp: Christopher Hunter disdainfully OTT as the old Marquis, Sean Murray wonderfully seedy as Barsad,  Ignatius Anthony an unusually rounded Defarge, and Michael Mears unexpectedly moving as Mr Lorry the anxious, benign banker.   Dacre’s direction is vigorous,   integrated with a lovely score by Rachel Portman: the community cast make a  flaming, murderous Paris mob and Mike Britton’s set frames the action in leprous ancient walls, as if ghosts from the “best of times, worst of times” were haunting them,remembering.   Once the calm backcloth of London’s rural edges parts suddenly to show the Paris gallows. And the first and last sight of the guillotine is memorable.

So, wonderful theatre: and worth saying how much we owe to Mike Poulton’s skill as adaptor.   Once again (as with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, not to mention Morte d’Arthur)  he refines dense fiction into clear drama; he knows which lines and moments must be preserved intact, while firmly nudging others into cleaner dramatic shape.  So he omits the flashback dissolution of old Manette,  but makes space for sudden quietnesses:  Lorry  remembering childhood,  a dreamlike wedding song,  and Carton telling Lucie “I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul”.   Time passes smooth and neatly, without undue exposition but always with clarity.

And by pointing up the politics, the fantaticism, the ambiguous loyalties and the benign blackmail of Barsad, he made me notice for the first time that in this novel at least Dickens is a direct ancestor of John le Carré.  Darnay’s London trial as a spy, tense beneath the clerk Carton’s dry ironic gaze,  is contrasted with the ranting brutality of the Paris tribunal.  Which evokes, even better than the novel,  the way that fanatical revolutions blend street savagery with jargon-heavy legalistic bureaucracy.    “It is forbidden to weep for an enemy of the people” snarls Madame Defarge.  There are countries where it still is.

box office  01604 624811 to 15  March

rating;  five5 Meece Rating

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NEVER TRY THIS AT HOME Birmingham Rep & touring



  Oh, the wicked 1970’s!    Sexist, racist, rapist:  gropey DJs in the Beeb,  paedophile apologists in the NCCL,  bad hair and worse flares.  Retrospective headshaking is everywhere, so with oblique mischief  Carl Grose and Told By An Idiot target another  ‘70s phenomenon:  TISWAS and Swap Shop. Mercifully too late for me and too early for my children,  this was the time when the new wave of exhausted two-job parents slept in on Saturday morning while children’s TV found a fresh style: anarchic,  larky, improvised, exuberant, messy, calculatedly irresponsible.    An essay in the programme speaks of countercultural social currents; Grose and director Paul Hunter just remember the custard pies, japes and grown-up pseudo-toddlers (“Now it’s time to RUN ABOUT! yaaay”)

    We are supposed to be a modern studio audience at a show called “Looking Back  – together” : like Radio 4’s The Reunion,  only with Niall Ashdown  as a sweatily pompous host instead of  Sue MacGregor.   He interviews former presenters and producer of a fictional show called SHUSHI,   famous for its “Kick a Vicar”  and “Look Out It’s The Pie-R-A”  gags.   We learn that it was taken off air after a disastrous edition in which the token female presenter snapped, stripped, rubbed baked beans on her body and promised onscreen suicide “Right after we’ve heard – Phil Collins!”.

       The interviews are interspersed with re-enactments of bygone rows inside the cast  and  “archive video” of SHUSHI  performed live by Stephen Harper, Dudley Rees, Ged Simmons and that most peerless of clowns, Petra Massey of Spymonkey.    In the flashbacks she is the show’s token totty,  introduced with a leering “something for the Dads”,  landed with duff segments like Make Your Own Dog,  and fed unspeakable things blindfold.   Harper  protests,  “If it was illegal in the 70s for a man repeatedly to hit a woman with a rubber mallet against her will, half the men in England would be in prison”.   Good gag.

          Okorie Chukwu plays an obsessed ex-child-fan, persistently humiliated,  until he and his barmy pole-dancing mother (also Massey, always up for an upside-down slither)  attempt an armed kidnap of Harper to demand that he be let to sing.   And there’s a nice Noel Edmonds parody (“Exchangeathon”),  as the team deride their rival Saturday show.  Edmonds is Massey again,  sitting at a desk in a fine black beard wittering “It’s going nuts in here!” while desultory phone calls trickle in. 

       So a lot of laughs:  sharp digs at 70‘s male stars keen to drive a status-y “Sunflower Yellow Testarossa”,   and lovely physical gags like the ultimate chaotic  pie-fight being repeated in slo-mo.  But it needs a better climax,  since the disastrous edition is the first thing we see.  It isn’t as fine-tuned as most of Hunter’s work (or indeed Spymonkey’s).     Nor do we need the Korean Butler gag.  But maybe that’s a fiendishly cunning internal joke: not unlike TISWAS  this gang can’t resist a diversionary lark.   And nobody with a heart and eyes can resist Petra Massey.

box office  0121 236 4455   to 15 March  
then TOURING  Sheffield, Edinburgh, Soho   –  to 26 April     Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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BRASSED OFF Theatre Royal, York – now touring


Billy Elliott, The Full Monty, now Brassed Off –   thirty years on from the loss of pits and steelworks,  we seem to need a national rite of mourning and expiation, acknowledgement of  the social violence which dismantled old  industrial Britain and its communities. All three shows, now onstage, began as films:  but rituals, after all, are best performed live.

Mark Herman’s tale (adapted for the stage by Paul Allen)  tells of a colliery set to close,  its mining families living in anxiety and uneasy dispute (for there is £ 20,000  a head compensation offered, and some will vote for it).  Grimley’s pride is its brass band, and in that too there are some who want to finish and others – especiallly bandleader Danny (John McArdle)  who demand that it play on , just as in real life, Grimethorpe did.  In a hundred years, says Danny, it survived “seven strikes, two disasters, two world wars and a bloody great Depression”. It must endure.

Perched on a set of towering pithead machinery  young Shane – eight years old when it all happened – tells the story and sometimes descends to act his eight-year-old self,   the son of Phil and grandson of Danny. Luke Adamson is a pleasing Shane at both ages; his mother Sandra (Rebecca Clay) expresses the weariness of the women.   Indeed the wives help to make the story real:  campaigning for the men’s jobs yet impatient with their band pastime   (“..but at least you know what they’re up to when they’ve got their ands full of tuba”).

The heart of it is Phil:  Andrew Dunn  is  always a dryly beguiling actor, espcially brilliant (as in his superb Dinnerladies character)  as an essentially comic figure moving through a tragic situation.   He is part of that big, shining, defiantly manly band onstage:  great credit to the splendid players of the real  York Brass, under Nicholas Eastwood.  But his trombone keeps breaking, and he wrecks his marriage when he spends money he doesn’t have to buy a new one out of loyalty.
The script is not always as strong as the plot line itself:  Clara Darcy’s  Gloria arrives with her flugelhorn to join the band  (very good she is too) and is revealed as a Coal Board statistician;  her romance with the conflicted Andy nicely demonstrates the class gulf that yawns when one kid gets educated and the other stays down the pit (“Why couldn’t you have come back as a hairdresser?” asks Andy sadly.)    There are some wonderful set pieces, not least the band’s increasingly drunk march through a competition and its  heartbreaking distant “Danny Boy” as the bandmaster lies ill and the pit is closing.   And it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the final coup de théatre in Land of Hope and Glory.  It’s  one to catch, a proper taste of a vanished England.

But I can’t not mention one inexplicable directorial decision by the otherwise surefooted Damien Cruden,   which dents its shine.    A play about the power of live music and harmonious collaboration does not need to mark its (perfectly smooth) scene changes with blasts of canned pop.  It’s not a film: that surely is the point?    Bad enough to have Pulp’s patronizing “Common People”,  but why mark a romantic moment with a few bars of Moon River,   pipe in a semi-audible outbreak of “The Lost Chord” during the ballot scene, and (aaagh!)  even after the perfectly apt brass-band mourning of “Jerusalem” during Phil’s attempted suicide,  some half-remembered pop tune?

One duff decision can’t mar the ritual – and bracingly polemic – splendour of the evening, or the impact of the live band.  There’s a long tour (details below) and it deserves to be seen. But I hope someone bravely pulls the plug on the canned link-music, and lets the brass mouths thunder out their message unhindered.

TOURING  :   Nottingham TR this week, 4-8 March (0115 989 5555)
tour continues nationwide to 10 May – details

rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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