Monthly Archives: March 2014

MISS NIGHTINGALE – New Wolsey, Ipswich and TOURING

NIGHTCLUBS AND NIGHTINGALES –  BLACKMAIL IN THE BLITZ

 

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 –   http://www.missnightingale.co.uk   Touring Mouse wide

rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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THERESE RAQUIN – Finborough, SW10

PITY AND TERROR: A PUB PREMIERE OF RARE QUALITY

 

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 http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 19 April

Rating: five    5 Meece Rating

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PYGMALION – Theatre Royal, Bath & TOURING

NO SQUASHED CABBAGE LEAVES:  A FAIR TRIUMPH

 

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 http://tinyurl.com/owhhfyz) 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 http://www.pygmalionuktour.co.uk/  Touring Mouse wide

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THIS MAY HURT A BIT – Octagon, Bolton and touring

POLEMIC, COMIC, FURIOUS     
 (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 http://www.octagonbolton.co.uk

tourdates to  21 June including St James, London:   http://www.outofjoint.co.uk      Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three  3 Meece Rating

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I CAN’T SING – Palladium, W1

HOWL, HOWL, HOWL! IT’S COWELL MOST FOUL…

 

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 http://www.icantsingthemusical.com
Rating: four. Oh dear.  4 Meece Rating

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FATAL ATTRACTION – Theatre Royal, Haymarket W1

McELHONE –   BUTTERFLY OR  BUNNY-BOILER? 

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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OTHER DESERT CITIES – Old Vic, SE1

PALM TREES ,POLITICS, LITERATURE , LOYALTIES..

 

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

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Rating Four
4 Meece Rating

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