Monthly Archives: March 2014

THE DEAD DOGS Print Room, W2

FJORDS, FATALITY, FRAGMENTATION

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 http://www.the-print-room.org   to 12 April

rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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TWO INTO ONE – Menier, SE1

SPIRIT OF ’84 IN  A BUDGET-DAY FARCE

“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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BLITHE SPIRIT – Gielgud, SW1

ANGELA LANSBURY BACK ON THE BOARDS, IN VERY GOOD COMPANY

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

A TERRIBLE BEAUTY: INSPIRING, INTIMIDATING, INVALUABLE

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  http://www.charlie-f.com/‎   Touring Mouse wide

 

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SATAN SINGS MOSTLY SONDHEIM Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

DEVILISHLY SILLY,  BUT NOT STUPID

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
http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
Rating: three  3 Meece Rating

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AWAY FROM HOME Jermyn St Theatre SW1 and touring

PREJUDICE AND THE PREMIERSHIP:   A GAY FOOTBALL STORY

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:   awayfromhometheplay.com    Touring Mouse wide

Rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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EMILY Ruskin College and Touring

THE MAKING OF A MILITANT SUFFRAGETTE
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, http://www.theproductionexchange.com    Touring Mouse wide

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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