Monthly Archives: April 2014

GROUNDED – Gate, W11

A MOTHER  AND A MODERN MILE-HIGH NIGHTMARE

 

Crop-haired, upright, an Aryan Alpha-female, she stands proud in flying-suit and straps. She’s a USAF fighter pilot, in love with her F16: “It’s the speed, it’s the G-force pressing you back as you near the sky, it’s the ride, my Tiger…it’s the respect, its the danger. The Blue..”. And – no punches pulled – “I have missiles, I have Sidewinders..I rain them down on the minarets and concrete below me, the structures that break up the sand. I break them back down, return them to desert”.

Phew. Christopher Haydon’s production of George Brant’s monologue, with Lucy Ellinson as the Pilot, was a shock hit at the Gate and the Traverse last year, and I was curious to know whether it was as remarkable as reported. It is. More, if anything: Ellinson (who is British) now inhabits the role with frightening completeness, dominating the room from within a gauzy cube. Her androgynous athletic restlessness breathes exultation. She tells, amusedly, how she met her man Eric, the only guy in the bar back home with the nerve to come on to her . Others run “ I take the guy spot and they don’t know where they belong”. So she’s got her “little woman at home I’m fighting for”.

 

She’s funny, she’s frightening, she’s big cocksure America. There is brilliance in the way Ellinson enlists you on her side even as she talks of crumbling Iranian minarets. Maybe it’s the way that when she finds she’s pregnant, she resolves that her girl “Will not be a hair-tosser, a cheerleader, a needy sack of shit”, but will understand the high blue glory. She adores her fragile baby but itches for her work. “I was born for this..but I was born for that, too..” The eternal cry of the working mother.

 

To her horror she is redeployed in the despised “Chairforce”, controlling remote drones miles high over a new war. Stuck in a trailer in Nevada while her man works in Vegas, staring into a screen at grey images from her drone camera, the boredom is broken by occasionally pulling a trigger on ambushes to protect US convoys from ambush. “Military age males…doing something to the road… headset pronounces the males guilty”. Her knuckles whiten as they did in battle, yet she is in no danger. Her perception is dislocated by that paradox: energized and corrupted, she becomes godlike in pride or horrified as heaps of dying humans return to grey “as their thermal readings cool”. Home life becomes the problem. The Odyssey, she says with a return of her old dryness, would be a different book of Odysseus came back every day to his family.

 

The mental journey eases and sharpens in turn, her marriage shakes. Brant’s script is cunning in theatrical legerdemain: rather than just gasping with easy horror at the cruel strangeness of remote warfare – though God knows the inhumanity is always before us – we find ourselves watching its psychological effect on one flier, one woman, one mother. The general horror and the private stress come together at last, climactically. Unforgettably.

 

box office 020 7229 0706 to 30 May

Rating: five    5 Meece Rating

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THE BELIEVERS – Tricycle, NW6

A FABULOUS LITTLE FRIGHTENER…

What’s going on? you quaver, as four characters move and weave at impossible angles around a bare scaffolding of wall and door shapes. Are they gripped by some fiendish science or magic? or just by their own tormented psyches, as they utter broken sentences trying to remember something dreadful? You jump out of your skin as neon shapes of rooms and windows overhead reveal a screaming face, and thumping heartbeat sounds of dreadful import shake the little theatre. Is it sci-fi? are these people blown into the Fourth Dimension through a cosmic wormhole? Or has Bryony Lavery taken to surrealist neo-Beckettian theatre of disorientation?

 

The bewilderment clears and it seems that were are in a genre lately scorned by Kathleen Turner as “kid-jeop”: in which emotion is ratcheted up by putting a child in peril. We flash back, via an admission that drink and spliffs were involved. There was a terrible gale and flooding (this is, after all, co-produced with Theatre Royal Plymouth). Marianne and Joff (Eileen Walsh and Christopher Colquhoun) were invited, with their unseen nine-year-old Grace, to eat and sleep over with less afflicted neighbours they haven’t met before, Maud and Ollie (Penny Layden and Richard Mylan).
These are the Believers: hippyish, prone to long rambling graces, candles, herbs, new-agey stuff about Forces and sexual freedom. The dinner-table discomfort of the new – non-believing – arrivals is beautifully done and naturalistic (bar the odd weird convulsion and worrying neon room-shapes overhead). As they grow drunker and more stoned the talk turns to the ‘challenging’ behaviour of Grace and her parents’ despair, compared to the daughter of the house, Joyous. Offstage, Grace kills a chicken, and the believers offer a “warm herbal bath” with candles and prayers to “heal” her of evil. It’s as if Ayckbourn rewrote The Turn of the Screw.
Suddenly the blackouts and perspectives grow crazier: figures seem to stand at impossible angles; once we are looking down from above (how? mirrors?) on the two visitors. Blackness, candlelit faces, more convulsions. Sexual threat. Foreboding noises. Is it Satan, is it devil-children, is it the Thing in the “sky with a lot of claws”? Will we ever face a windy night again without shuddering?
You may notice that my graphic mouse-rating for this fabulous little frightener consists of director, designer, lighting and sound-mouse. Which is not to belittle four terrific actors, or Lavery’s writing, but to acknowledge the major contribution from director-choreographer Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly. Working with Jon Bausor’s giddily incredible designs, artfully lit by Andy Purves and the most alarming soundscape in London by Carolyn Downing he creates a spectacle: a 75-minute ride to beat any ghost-train. You could get all portentous and say it has messages about modern parenting, drugs, or the flakier brands of religiosity. But I’m not sure what those messages are. Too frightened to think. Lovely.
box office 0207 328 1000 to 24 May (extended already!) http://www.tricycle.co.uk

Rating: four     Male director mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedSoundscape Mouse resizedStage Management Mouse resized

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AN INTERVENTION – Watford Palace Theatre

MIKE BARTLETT’S OTHER NEW PLAY…

 

It’s played by a man – John Hollingworth – and a woman, Rachael Stirling. But it is not a love story, not that kind of love anyway. Indeed Mike Bartlett made a point of not naming the characters in this tight 80-minute two-hander, calling them A and B, and specifying that they can be of either gender, age and ethnicity. The point is that they’re friends.

 

And though these actors are of similar age, race and class, the interest of the piece as done here (Watford working once again with Paines Plough) lies partly in a certain rarity. For it is weirdly unusual to find playwrights anatomizing s sexless male-female friendships onstage. In an age of socially acceptable gender-blind mixing, there should be more of that.

 

The title invokes two kinds of intervention. In an opening scene Stirling – a teacher by profession, leaping around in a sort of dungaree playsuit and rarely without a glass in her hand, is more than a little drunk. She berates Hollingworth for not having come on an anti-war march. He, cautiously and moderately, supports armed Middle East intervention. Probably, right now, that means Syria, but it could be any of them. She thinks it is evil, fascist, murderous, and accuses him of growing a Hitler mosutache. He puts up with a lot from her: we learn that they have been friends for three years. She says “best friends”. Tellingly, he says “Only small children have best friends!”

The rapport between them is claimed strong, though it is clear that it is on the verge of crumbling: I could have done with seeing them have a bit more joy in one another at the start. Its erosion is being caused by two things: one is her drinking, which he sees is getting out of control; the other is her dislike of his new girlfriend. She may be right: the offstage Hannah sounds like a new age drip, and in some of his few guarded self-revelations, the man admits that he is retreating into domesticity out of certain insecurities, fuelled in part by the distant, harrowing war news.

On the other hand, he’s quite right that his platonic friend is heading downhill. She makes all the standard alcoholic excuses, even when she quits her job; she becomes an aggressive, uncontrolled bore (what the Germans delightfully call an “ich-bin-so”, claiming “I’m passionate, I’m Mediterranean!”). And she blurts out tactless condemnations of the invisible Hannah (“Bride of Satan! a nightmare! A class A horrrible person!”) and hilariously claims that she Facebooked all his friends who all agree she’s awful, “including your mother”. So he withdraws. And has a baby, and a home life, for a while.

 

But the moment for the other kind of intervention comes; and with nice irony Bartlett makes sure that his final chance to rescue his friend from drunken suicidal despair is triggered only by his own disaster. There’s a remarkable, rather nasty bit of staging involved, but it’s an effective metaphor. And I must say that Stirling’s performance all the way through is – well, sterling. She leaps, circles, yells, drains glasses, brags, berates, plays the harmonica with terrible despair. She’s both funny and awful, and anyone who has ever dealt with an alcoholic in denial will shiver in recognition.
Box Office 01923 225671 http://www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk to 3 May

RATING:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE SILVER TASSIE – Lyttelton, SE1

WORLD WAR I:  THE PITY, THE POETRY

 

A tin whistle, a distant seagull, a ship hooting beyond grimy tenement windows. Indoors Sylvester and Simon bicker and cringe as a tight-lipped virago berates them about hellfire (“Ah, I don’t like the name of the Supreme Being tossed into conversation”). Upstairs a rowdy domestic fight over burnt dinner erupts. Here’s Dublin comedy: small ordinary fun and troubles. They’re waiting for young Harry and Barney to get back from the football with the silver cup, catch their trooopship and avoid court-martial. Ted upstairs also needs to stop smashing his wife’s treasured china with a hatchet and get his kit. The revellers burst in: the siren sounds for embarkation. World War I is about to crash into these lives, for though the 1916 Rising tends to obscure it , Irishmen fought too.

 

Of all this year’s memorials Howard Davies’ production of this strange, powerful, crazily truthful Sean O’Casey play will stand proud. It was written after O’Casey’s magnificent trilogy about the Irish rebellion (Shadow of a Gunman,Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars) and has the same casually lyrical eloquence contrasted with domestic backchat (the latter mostly in the capable hands of Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy as Sylvester and Simon). It was originally turned down by Yeats at the Abbey Theatre, probably because of the utter strangeness of the second act, a surreal treatment of the trenches.

 

Davies makes it work. Vicki Mortimer’s staging is spectacular: just as the old mother says “Thank God they’re away safely” blinding and deafening explosions rip the stage into a ruined church, crucifix slumped, audience shocked and shuddering. A great ranting psalm of death and commination shakes the air as singly and chorally – with sudden jolts of realism – men in dim smoke sing, pray and chant their bafflement, horror and flippancy (decades before Oh What a Lovely War, this montage, and less dated now). It disconcerts, and in doing so expresses the rending power of war better than any realism . Finally the great field-gun is dragged round to point at us, and another roar shakes the room.

 

O’Casey spent time as a sick civilian in a ward of men from that war, and puts Sylvester and Simon beside the blinded Ted and the paralyzed Harry. Again normality clashes against extremes. One minute Simon is cavilling at taking a bath, the next Harry – whose sweetheart is straying with the man who saved his life – cries from his wheelchair “O God of mercies, give a poor devil a chance!”. Finally at the football club Christmas, “a place waving with joy an’ dancing” , the maimed face a new world. The language makes the air vibrate: blind Ted with his darkness that “stretches from the throne of God to the heart of hell”, Harry (a tremendous performance by Ronan Raftery) savagely filling the cup which now means nothing, choosing wine red as the poppies or white as the dead. “Our best is all behind us. What’s in front we’ll face like men” says Ted. Susie – Judith Roddy, vivid and memorable as the hellfire preacher who thaws to gentleness, has the last word. The maimed have a new world to live in and the rest will leave them behind and “Take their part in the dance”. The final dance, against the ruins, is an unforgettable coup de theatre.

 

Sometimes, on behalf of subsidy-cut provincial theatres and indeed commercial producers staring nervously at spreadsheets, one might feel enviously indignant that the National can deploy huge casts (28, including musicians) and fabulous pyrotechnic staging. But when you see this much intelligence, sincerity and judgement applied to such a choice of play, you thank your lucky stars that we have such an institution at all.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 3 July

rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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PRIVACY – Donmar, WC2

IT KNOWS WHERE YOU LIVE.  IT TELLS A LOT OF PEOPLE.

 

An artful cloud of insecurity surrounds James Graham’s new, mainly verbatim, play about the reckless modern surrender of privacy to technology. As we each take our seats, a sign flashes “Audience Member 022…” with a sci-fi bleep. We are asked to keep our phones on, silent, and share a demonstration of how Google tailors its replies: we search “pizza” and it knows where we are and can identify our seat. It also knows your search history: everyone inputs the words “Is it wrong to..?” and compares answers. Mine were innocent – “…to cheat / feel jealous / kill animals”. My neighbour, the Sunday Telegraph critic, was startled to find “..to have these fantasies” at the top of his wrongs. Others were even stranger.

 

Joshua McGuire plays “The Writer”, in therapy with Josh Cohen (Paul Chahidi, who plays a slew of other parts). He complains intially of a sense of disconnection and isolation which he half treasures and half resents, and is badgered to get online and research the play, by Michelle Terry playing a bossy director (the real director is Josie Rourke). Gunnar Cauthery, Jonathan Coy and Nina Sosanya nimbly play all the other people he interviewed.

 

His discoveries about the capacity of new technology to track, collect, store and pass on information are entertainingly shared with a mixture of demonstrations and at one point a sort of vaudeville-meets-1984 informatic assault on an audience member (ticket buyers are checked for willingness online). It is not only the trails of Facebookers and Tweeters which amaze, but the way Clubcard companies know whether a woman is pregnant before she does. Clues like a change of hand-cream, apparently. Political figures drift in and out, notably Cauthery as William Hague booming “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, and the News of the World man who snarls “privacy is for paedos” at Leveson.

 

Much fun is had with the vulnerability of unregulated “metadata” of contacts and movements – who with, where, when, how long? We take selfies and have them flashed up with pictures of the global servers they bounce through. An audience member is outed by ATG tickets for having been to Jeeves & Wooster, buying a G & T, and belonging to a postcode which makes him “40-60, a voice of authority who finds it hard to turn off work”. By the interval I thought the cheek, smartness, and humour deserved a West End transfer hit. And certainly it is a fine urgent topic for theatre to explore.

 

But despite occasional returns to the lifelong and emotional implications for the online generation, the play loses traction as it plunges into the wider surveillance issues about the NSA and GCHQ harvesting our data. Dealing with the Snowden security leak it tangles itself in imperfectly digested indignation. The actors become, verbatim, Guardian journalists and their impeccably righteous editor, and little of any other point of view is represented. It is like having a warm bath in leftish indignation with Shami Chakrabati to scrub your back: even as a leftish type myself it made me uneasy. Graham does, in the end, return to the Writer’s private emotion, but almost too late. Still, there’s one really good, gaspworthy surprise.   Which won the fourth mouse, which before that was trembling uncertainly.   My lips are sealed.

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 31 May.
Sponsor: Barclays . Supported by Marcia Whitaker

rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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EVERY LAST TRICK – Royal, Northampton

TOP QUALITY NONSENSE
Light as a feather, puffy and sweet as a puffed meringue, this is where complete nonsense meets consummate skill. Not surprising: it is an adaptation of an 1892 Feydeau farce, therefore nonsense; the skill is unsurprising given that half the cast – Aitor Basauri and Toby Park – are usually seen as half of the matchless clowning troupe Skymonkey, and that the director is Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot.

 

With a pedigree like that, you don’t turn up expecting Ibsen. Though Tamsin Ogleby’s adaptation does manage, bizarrely, to refer to him as author of a fictional am-dram play called The Fire Exit. She also adapts Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, insouciantly awarding it to the heroine (Sophie Russell) as an unexpected feminist rant at her husband. It’s all barmy panto-farcical nonsense: and unless you are in a particularly foul and unforgiving mood, is very engaging. Take your inner teenager, or a gang of outer ones. Have a roaring night out. Tickets go right down to a tenner. You know you want to…

 

The skeleton of Feydeau’s story is that Juan (Basauri) is a conjurer whose wife (Russell) thinks he is unfaithful, because her last husband was. Actually, of course, he is. His tactic is to hypnotize her so she remains asleep while he visits his mistress. Sheis accidentally woken and wooed by an old flame just back from Borneo in a safari-suit (Park) . I think that the sound-effect of his faithful elephant in the garden is a post-Feydeau innovation, one of many. More typical is a drunken butler (Adrien Gygax, also physically superb) who steals the booze and gets wrongly accused.

 

It isn’t the most intricate of farces, and at times one could almost do without the Feydeau tale and wish that the more surreal Spymonkey spirit ruled all (as it does in their own COOPED ) or that there was a story of more purport (as in their OEDIPUSSY, at this same theatre a while back). But the joy, which is considerable, is in Park’s spoofy 1920‘s numbers, Lucy Bradridge’s hilarious design features (what is this trapdoor? Oh, look, a dancing grasshopper) and the utter brilliance of the physical jokes: entry through a chair or down a curtain, the French-window gag, the candle gag, the insane fights (Spymonkey have always been masters of indignity and princes of the pratfall) , and a visual joke involving a rabbit which I shall never, ever forget.
Oh, and there’s Basauri’s divinely silly demonstration of sawing a man in half , conducted in his marvellous cod Spanish accent. Which is, in fact, pretty much his real accent, seeing that he’s Spanish.

Box Office 01604 624811 http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk. to 10 May

4 Meece RatingRating: four

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RELATIVE VALUES – Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

THE BUTLER, THE FETE, AND THE HOLLYWOOD HORROR
I saw this Coward revival last summer in Bath (Times review, £, http://tinyurl.com/qyxqbw2 ) with its gorgeous Palladian country-house drawing-room by Stephen Brimson Lewis matching the Theatre Royal’s own sumptuousness. I remembered the clever casting of Caroline Quentin, solidly honest, as the matter-of-fact lady’s maid Moxie who discovers to her horror that the young earl’s Hollywood fiancée is her own long-lost (and unregretted) sister who ran away.
I applauded the brilliance, both in comic timing and feeling, of Patricia Hodge as the dowager Lady Marshwood fussing over the village fete but aware in 1951 that she belongs to a bygone Downtown world, “something that’s over and done with…So many of one’s friends have to work, and they’re so bad at it!”. England is slowly struggling out of the aspic of prewar social certainties , its nobs trying to work out the difference between above-stairs and below. In one argument they decide that one could, for instance, take one’s golf instructor to the opera, but noe one’s butler – even though both might be born in identical social circumstances.

 

Trevor Nunn wisely intersperses the scenes with bits of newsreel, both real and cod, reminding us of the recent war and rationing, the Festival of Britain, and Prime Minister Churchill’s unconvincing speech about the end of social distinctions.
Quentin is still brilliant, better if possible than at Bath; so is Hodge. And this matters, because the emotional core of the play is the longstanding devotion, even friendship, of mistress and maid, compared to the hollow flibbertigibbet romance of the silly young Earl and the self-absorbed Hollywood girl with her movie-star ex and misery-memoir fibs about her humble childhood. The scenes where Moxie has to pretend to be a “secretary” so as not to lose face and liten to the actress Miranda showing off, are as funny as anything in Coward. Stepping into the cast as Miranda is another treat: Leigh Zimmerman, so funny and touching in A Chorus Line, here playing the part of the Awful Actress with elegant glee.

 

And for aficionados of dear Noel, it is fascinating to see a late – if lesser – play in which (las in Volcano) the old chap has grown bored of his passionate young lovers from Private Lives and Design for Living, and just wants to celebrate long, calm partnerships which make less fuss. It is also fun to notice his chippy, insecure references to other dramatists . They’re given to the butler Crestwell, like “If you will forgive a Shavian archaism…” or “Yes, a coincidence in the best tradition of British comedy. Imagine what Mr Somerset Maugham would make of it!”.

 

Ah yes, Crestwell. He is Rory Bremner, and to be honest, still not brilliant. Nothing you can put your finger on, and to be fair a butler always is to some extent an impressionist – playing a part, perhaps a little jerkily, in front of the toffs. But there’s a dryness here, a lack of reality. Only once does he seem real, when Moxie is berating him. But it’s fun, a cheerful evening and a last laugh from a Coward no longer brittle, but wistfully acknowledging how the anchor of daily, familiar affections is a consolation in a crumbling world.

 

0844 871 7615. atgtickets.com/london to 21st June

rating : four   4 Meece Rating

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