Monthly Archives: April 2014

GROUNDED – Gate, W11



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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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!)

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

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AN INTERVENTION – Watford Palace Theatre



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 to 3 May

RATING:  three   3 Meece Rating

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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



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 “ 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

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 to 10 May

4 Meece RatingRating: four

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RELATIVE VALUES – Harold Pinter Theatre SW1

I saw this Coward revival last summer in Bath (Times review, £, ) 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. to 21st June

rating : four   4 Meece Rating

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NINE DAIES WONDER Snape, now touring

In a brief opening, Shakespeare quarrels with his favourite clown Will Kemp: creator of Faltaff, Feste and the rest. He resents the ad-libbing. “Let those that play clowns speak no more than is set down for them!”. Will walks out (which possibly explains why Falstaff doesn’t turn up again in Henry V, and is reported as dying demented, babbling of green fields.)
The real Will, as a publicity stunt, announces that he will dance from London to Norwich. So he did, in 1600, and wrote an account of his encounters with assorted wenches, landlords, cutpurses and competitive marathon-dancers, all of whom he naturally out-jigged.


This riotous, tuneful little show celebrates that journey in counterpoint to the more solemn quatercentenary celebrations. The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, directed by Clare Salaman, has put together a vaudeville narrative of jokes, dances and music – much of it from a contemporary Virginal Book – with songs both bawdy and melancholy.


One minute Kemp is having a furious dance-off with a local, clapping on an donkey’s head or doing one of those virtuoso clomping-clogging-leaping solo jigs which turn the dancer into a percussion instrument. The next there might be a heartbreakingly solemn rendering of “The silver swan” or a love-duet. There are bawdy songs and sweet ones, crude jokes and subtle. And all the while Salaman and her ensemble are insouciantly picking up or changing instruments: a pear-shaped banjo thing, a skinny violin with a keyboard stuck on (the HardangerFiddle, I think), a hurdy-gurdy with its friendly wind-up buzzing busyness, tabor, drum, fife, dulcian, nyckelharpa, violone, cornett…

Kemp is Steven Player, a remarkable dancer but also an actor blessed with a proper comic’s features: wry but benign, heavy-browed, with a quick impatient self-mocking cleverness. He puts on a stunning show from start to finish, a marathon of virtuoso hoofing. Jeremy Avis sings the solos with a light happy versatile tenor but is – like several other musicians – startlingly willing to join dances, or indeed fights, when required. It roars along: I saw it in Snape, where it was born in the Britten studio under the wing of Aldeburgh Music, and the audience appreciated the familiar place-names as Kemp danced through Ingatestone, Braintree, Sudbury, Bury St Edmunds. On this occasion Simon Paisley Day joined in with extra jokes and moments and a curious modern rhyming coda. But even without him (he’s still in Urinetown!) it makes a fascinating show. And reminds us how much of our comic taste, and how many dance types from tap to street, are echoes of past centuries.
The Strange and Ancient ones head off now for one-night gigs till November, and it’s worth trying to catch them. You won’t find anything else quite like it. And at Snape they gave cheap tickets to anyone turning up in a Morris-dancing outfit. Might not happen everywhere – but you never know.. performances to 7 Nov
Next up, Nottingham Lakeside Arts Centre on 24th!

RATING   FOUR    4 Meece Rating



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HANDBAGGED – Vaudeville, WC2

She’s back, the Iron Lady, with a war-cry of “No!” and a warmly patronizing memory of “The men!…I can pin them wrigging with my gaze and release them with a smile”. Baffled but courteous, the Queen creeps up behind her to offer a chair for their weekly meeting. And we’re off: piquantly, the most insightful political comedy to hit the West End for years is not born of the Westminster village or the boys-club standup nexus. It’s written by Moira Buffini, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and played by women outnumbering men two-to-one.


Not that it’s a feminist plea – its twin heroines would never stand for that. Rather – drawing on speeches, memoirs, news reports, Christmas broadcasts and (not least) Buffini’s mischievous imagination – it is a playful and unexpectedly humane treatment of eleven years which Prime Minister Thatcher shared with H.M. the Queen.
Playful because there are two of each: one younger, 1980s version, another as they are or would be today. They argue with one another and with their other selves, as in a four-way melée of differing perceptions as they recall like Zimbabwe, the Falklands, bombings, riots, and the Special Relationship. Joining them, henpecked, are jobbing actors hired to conjure up the other characters from Denis and Philip to Kaunda, Enoch,Kinnock, Reagan, HoweHeseltine. The playfulness lies in the idea that they have met in a theatre (to the Queen’s faint chagrin, though “one saw War Horse”) and that the footmen-actors – Jeff Rawle as the older, Neet Mohan as the younger – occasionally jib at parts they are given or break out with their own opinions. So two generations can identify, and the odd in-joke flourish (“What was a Closed Shop?” asks the youth, and Rawle snarls “The reason actors used to earn proper money!”. Naturally, any male rebellion is futile against the basilisk stare of Thatcher and the amused authority of the monarch. The Queen, by the way, insists on an interval despite the PM’s protest “there’s work to do!”.


Likenesses go far beyond wigs and suits: Fenella Woolgar in particular has caught a particular eyebrow-move which took me right back to 1980 with a shiver, and Marion Bailey as the older Queen goes beyond caricature into a degree of identity previously only caught by Helen Mirren. In which context it is worth mentioning The Audience because its weakest scene was the Thatcher one. This more than makes up the deficit.
In my last doomed week as Times Chief Theatre critic this show proved great solace at the Tricycle. My review (£ concluded “Pure theatre, doing something only theatre can.”. Glad to return the favour: six months on, the well-deserved transfer has that very quote outside.


One of the pleasures of seeing it again is noticing how subtly it accepts the two women not as Spitting Image caricatures but as living, struggling humans. “Journalists and policemen are always so BIG” muses the Queen “One finds them enormous”. And I had forgotten the moment when the Chequers Christmas gathering (with Murdochs and Archers) watches the defiant 1981 Christmas message with horror as HM recklessly uses the word “comradeship”…


It’s political, and historical, yet universal in its vision of two people finding one another baffling but occasionally sharing empathy (as when they reflect on the risk of assassination). Lightly, truthfully, it shows how a great public role can only partly define you; how the years go by, and within each of us is a scornful younger self and a thoughtful future one. Don’t miss it. It’s a treat.
box office 0845 505 8500 to 28 June

rating:   even better, so 5  5 Meece Rating


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HENRY IV part 2 – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

AND SO IT GOES ON… (review of part I just below)    The Bard Mouse width fixed



Such is the traditional, ungimmicky nature of Greg Doran’s productions that it is quite a shock when “Rumour”, the abstract character who introduces the second part of the Henry-Hal-Falstaff saga, comes on in a pop art red-mouth T-shirt in front of a flashing projection of social media gabble. It wakes us up, though, and is only a fleeting moment before the centuries roll us back into the tale. Having seen Part I, we know how much is rumour and how much truth: that Hotspur is dead, the first battle won but the rebels still angry, and that a slight souring has crossed the relationship between Prince Hal and Antony Sher’s Falstaff (who has by now scored a feather in his awful hat and a cheeky, adorable tiny page).


This play gives more space for the tavern characters to grow, and to find their own melancholy. Paola Dionisotti as Quickly is a victim of Falstaff’s debts and lies, still fiery but less certain; the fat knight himself is more often obstreperous than amusing, Bardolph remains glumly, beautifully resigned and Pistol (Antony Byrne) is plain barking mad, with a hairstyle that can only be described as deshabillé Jedward.


But what Greg Doran finds in this second part is a sense of inexorable change: old Henry is dying, Hal’s return to the tavern set is sourer, more bent on teasing Falstaff than enjoying him. Doll Tearsheet (Nia Gwynne) has an unhappy anger about her. There are moments of great fun, not least Pistol’s crazy chandelier-swinging and trouserwork, but decline and death haunt them all. Falstaff’s “Do not bid me remember mine end” to Doll is amplified later in a peculiarly touching rendering of his scene with the old men Shallow and Silence, set before a hay-cart which reminds you of the simple, suffering rural England across which battle has raged. The limping, shuffling peasant soldiers they recruit are treated with more pathos than humour (congratulations to Leigh Quinn as Wart, bent double: that’s a memorable RSC debut and I hope the physio looks after her).


So the serious Matter of England presses hard, beyond the foreground concerns of warlike nobles and tavern revellers. And so does the gradual, inexorable advance of death on all: when the old men giggle about “Jane Nightwork” a former tart of fifty years ago, the shocked realization in the line “She’s old..she cannot help but be old..” hits home with rare force. “We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow..”
This has never been my favourite of the two parts, and if I were forced to ask which one to book, the first would win. But if you can do both, to see the story out is a great thing, the cross-currents richly rewarding. Jasper Britton makes Henry’s approach to death deeply moving and involving , and Alex Hassell’s self-reinvention as a responsible prince is well taken. Because in a characteristically young-male adolescent switch, the thoughtless irresponsibility of his past becomes an equally thoughtless, posed frigidity as he delivers that most famous snub in literature: “I know thee not, old man”.


0844 800 1110 to 6 September

Part 3 in participating cinemas 18 June (see below for Pt 1)

rating: four    4 Meece Rating


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HENRY IV PART 1 – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

BOOZE AND BATTLE, GRACE AND HUMANITY          The Bard Mouse width fixed


The tale of troubled Henry, threatened by rebellion, haunted by guilt at Richard’s murder and exasperated by the follies of his son Hal, is one of the great Shakespearean chronicles. Wild Hal, warlike Hotspur and the irresistibly disgraceful Falstaff shine vivid down the centuries. The play is rich in magnificent, eloquent insults: bed-presser, bull’s pizzle, stockfish! Mad-headed ape, whoreson greasy tallow patch, vile standing-tuck! Between those and the tremendous battle scenes it has an honourable record of being the route by which a crafty parent introduces a restless boy to the History plays: a comedy, a ripping yarn.


Greg Doran directs as ever with a lovely clarity and humour, never flagging but not hurrying either. Just over three hours with the interval, this production gives even the smallest character space and time to breathe and expand. There is of course Antony Sher’s Falstaff : who when he claps on a leather hat above his capacious overcoat, has the air of a large ambulating mushroom sprouting curly grey fungus of beard and hair. Falstaff’s baseness is not dodged or lightened as it sometimes has been. Sher, in a slow rich slur, gives full value to the fat knight’s Just-William talent for fantasy and excuse, and we laugh with him as he fences with the less adept young Prince.


But when he boasts of his earnings from frightened citizens with his press-gang protection racket, filling his military company with the dregs of prison and gutter who can’t pay, Doran gives us something startling. Behind Falstaff and his handcart picnic files a dim-lit parade of shuffling and staggering figures. He shrugs that they will fill graves as well as any, shrugs at other deaths with no intention of dying himself, a sociable sociopath – “I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter had – give me life!”. His sermon about the uselessness of honour – which can be done with quiet intelligent horror as Roger Allam did at the Globe – is chucked out by this old bastard as just another canting fantasy. Insouciant selfishness goes too far: when Hal finds, mid-battle, that it’s a bottle in his friend’s holster, not a pistol, the lad’s visible frustration suddenly feels like one of the subtle, important, corners of the play : it foreshadows the rejection he will inflict on the old man in Part II.


But there are many such corners and hints in Alex Hassell’s closely built performance as Hal: his head hung in shame at his father’s rebukes, his impatience with idleness – “The land is burning!”‘ and his sudden, boyish plea for peace or single-combat after he has seen the state of Falstaff’s half-dead soldiery. Trevor White’s Hotspur, on the other hand, turns no corners and never changes: he is played white-blond, pale-eyed, a hypermanic Roundhead to Hal’s sensual cavalier. He leaps and punches the air and yells “Yesss!” and in a terrifyingly arranged fight (arranger Terry King surpasses himself) at one stage is belabouring Hal with both swords at once, crazy-manic and fearless. This is not a likeable Hotspur, not least when he hurls around his imploring wife. Some will mourn his lack of heroic seriousness, but it is credible: he’s very young.


Doran’s pace and shaping of the play is superb. Great humour shades to seriousness. Hotspur’s baiting of the Druidically solemn self-satisfied Glendower (Joshua Richard, very New Age ) quietens as Nia Gwynne sings in Welsh to a gentle harp. Hotspur scorns and insults the singing, not knowing it will be his dirge. The roll-on tavern scenes are fun, with Paola Dionisotti giving a sharp Dot-Cottonish Quickly, Joshua Richards a pricelessly laconic Bardolph and Elliott Barnes-Worrell haring around beautifully in waiterly panic as Francis. But even as Sher in his slow-spoken querulous pomp weaves Falstaff’s web of fantastic excuses, we cut to King Henry: almost weeping with frustration and remorse, gasping out his longing to atone the murder, the words “Holy Land” snatching his very breath.


Clouds scud overhead or hang as smoke over the open fields of England (a tangle of bare branches against blue, glimpsed behind the battered barnlike back wall). The final battles are action-movie stuff, Douglas the crazed Scotsman flailing some sort of murderous Celtic shillelagh, flashes and smoke and crashing across the vast room. Jerks of compassion as Hal kneels by his dead rival and thinks to mourn Falstaff are diffused as the fat one rolls upright and desecrates Hotspur’s corpse (oh yes, this is no jolly Falstaff, not after a while). The whole thing is masterly: with intense, scholarly, humane concern and care Doran teases out spirit and character , finds nuggets of meaning and sorrow. This, and Part II (review follows) will be live in cinemas and streamed into schools. Such permanence is well-earned.
0844 800 1110 to 6 September
Part I in participating cinemas 14 May

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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Now here’s politics! The mistress of the runaway Tory MP is a revolutionary preacher, previously known as Mad Agnes. She berates her lover with “Accident of birth sent you to the wrong side of the House; influence of family kept you there – supporting the Party that retards, the Party that preserves for the rich, palters with the poor!”. Having converted him to the cause of progressive radical moralities, when the poor sap buys her an evening dress she scorns it with “Would you have me hang this on my bones? Rustle of silk, glare of arms and throat, they belong to a very different order of things from that we have set up!” . Good grief: it is still only 1895, and already we have a prototype 1970’s feminist bra-burner.


Arthur Wing Pinero is best known now for The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and his The Magistrate was lately at the National. This one, set in Venice amid expatriate English, hasn’t been revived since 1895 with Mrs Patrick Campbell shocking the bourgeoisie. But it is a fascinating, dramatic, verbose take on the hypocrisies and emerging radicalism of the age – a nice companion-piece, indeed, to Ibsen’s GHOSTS just up the road, another moral cornerstone of the changing century. So credit to Primavera for reviving it in this tiny theatre, tidying away a few minor characters and delivering – with a cast of nine – Abbey Wright’s spirited production. There’s a suitably leprous palazzo backdrop by Cherry Truluck and an intelligent, lead from Rhiannon Sommers as Agnes: open-faced , striding, and confident that womanish emotions can’t weaken her until they suddenly do. As she cries “To be a woman is to be mad”.


She is counterpointed by a fine Julia Goulding as Gertrude, the virtuous Yorkshire widow grieving a lost child, who befriends her despite an initial moral shock at the free-love views and bitter conviction that marriage is a “choked-up, seething pit”. Max Hutchinson plays Agnes’ Hugh-Grantish wimp of a lover Lucas, and Christopher Ravenscroft (in gorgeous spats) delivers a very subtle performance as the world-weary silver-haired rake of a Duke, sent by the family to reclaim the runaway MP but finding himself drawn to the vitality of the “dowdy demagogue, a shabby shapeless rebel”. He alone realizes what the evening frock is doing to her. “In your dowdy days you had ambitions..they were of a queer gunpowder-and-faggot sort, but they were ambitions”.


The story played out by these layered characters is as if George Bernard Shaw had fallen under the influence of Charlotte Bronte, and the second act rises to a terrific confrontation. Agnes is leaving Lucas, but his wife and brother are horrified to find that without her, he still won’t come home. Shockingly the wife pleads with the mistress to go back and be set up in a quiet suburban lovenest so she can remain his ‘a la mode’ public wife.
It’s rich with ironic contradictions, uncanny modern parallels and one of the cruellest portrayals anywhere of a particular kind of vain male politician. The sort who has “Ambition without confidence” and feeds on applause, praise, and female admiration. Ouch!
box office 0207 287 2875 to 3 may

rating:  four 4 Meece Rating

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This play is vintage Alan Ayckbourn: elegant, polished dramatic machinery serving a darkly comic and rueful human heart. Perfectly suited to a renewed age of acquisitive moral relativism, it actually dates from a 1987 commission by Sir Peter Hall. He invited Ayckbourn to take a break from Scarborough in-the-round and write for the National. The playwright, never in a proscenium, chose the Olivier’s vast thrust stage and split it into many rooms. Now in Adam Penford’s lovely revival, Tim Hatley’s set is a vast brick dolls-house two floors deep, before a glimpsed arc of other houses. This suits the action perfectly, since it happens in three different family houses (sometimes at the same time in different rooms) and part of the joke is that they are identical affluent suburban-estate clones. Differences (like Anita’s bedroom dungeon) are only implied behind the identical doors.

The plot has a bluff new-broom Jack (Nigel Lindsay in terrific and heartbreakingly credible form) come to take over a faltering furniture business from his aged father-in-law. After a pleasingly hilarious opening – a classic farce moment with an inappropriate surprise party, as Ayckbourn tries to fool us into expecting pure comedy – Jack makes a rousing speech about rebuilding ‘trust’ and honest dealing down to the last office paperclip.


They all concur. But the whole tribe has been on the take for years, enmeshed in fraud with five dodgy Italian brothers all sleeping with Jack’s sister-in-law Anita, which leaves her husband Cliff untroubled as long as he has his Porsche and boat. Brother-in-law Des is saving up to run away from his praying-mantis of a wife, who has a terror of food, and become an incompetent chef in Minorca. Jack’s daughter Sam is shoplifting: getting her off the rap leads to the first crack in his integrity, followed by all the other cracks all the way to a startling extreme in which one character (no spoilers) meets a fate piquantly similar , if you swop a trough for a bath, to what happens to Lear’s Fool on this very stage on other nights. Excellent symmetry.


Darkening hilarity and angry irony drive the tale, with twists too good to betray. So let me just list a few joys: Niky Wardley as Anita , a suburban Goneril in fetish corsetry; Neal Barry’s Des amid clouds of evil-smelling smoke in his kitchen, Amy Marston’s Harriet with her loudly snoring pet dog and hysterical revulsion at food, and not least Matthew Cottle, sinister and pasty, as the private investigator moving from gloomy righteousnessto thrilling villainy (Cottle saying the words “corporal punishment” is worth the ticket price).


And let us not forget Gerard Monaco as all five Italian brothers in wigs of varying horror, who is sportingly credited in the programme as various anagrams of himself (Gordon A.Cream, Don Groamacer, etc). And credit to NT debutante Alice Sykes as Sam, the youngest and most betrayed, alone in a grim final spotlight as the family downstairs completes its transformation from Cheadle-Hume respectability to Cosa Nostra. Excellent.
Being away last week and late on the draw for press night, I bought my own tickets (it happens!!) and regret not a penny of it. There’s an endorsement for you..

Box office 020 7452 3000 to 27 Aug
rating: four.   4 Meece Rating
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PEDDLING – Hightide Festival, Halesworth



This has to be the most explosively determined statement ever that “I am not just the one in those damn Harry Potter films!”. Harry Melling, who from the age of 11 had the unrewarding role of the fat Muggle bully Dudley Dursley, has actually done some very creditable theatre roles: not only at the NT and Chichester (as the Fool) but as a really excellent Christopher Isherwood in Southwark’s I Am A Camera.


But this time, though his Muggle history is flagged up in publicity, he gives us an extraordinary 50-minute solo, a debut piece written by himself, which transfers to Brits Off Broadway in a couple of weeks time. He is alone, under Steven Atkinson’s careful direction, and chiefly imprisoned inside a striking gauze box with a tree and some lightbulbs (the set is Lily Arnold’s, because Hightide does not skimp on striking visuals). And the character he creates, which gradually gains focus in a compassionate and remarkable way, is a pedlar boy.


In a dystopian future vision, which may give Broadway a curious impression of our penal system, a young offender on a “Boris” scheme has been driven in a van with others to sell his tray of lavatory-paper, dusters etc from door to door. He is lost, and semi-articulate, but from his stream of consciousness come memories of how he came to be there. He was a care leaver, and finds himself in anger knocking on the door of his former ‘Mrs Independent Reviewing Officer” . He begins to cross London from Hampstead to the far south – in fine vivid tumbling prose – carrying a firework, looking for his birth mother and his lost childhood.


At first I was unsure about it, but Melling’s vision is strong, the storytelling develops, and his language is always lively: you are drawn into the poor 19-year-old lost boy’s delusions and fantasies and dreams and memories (childhood, church, Lord of the Dance..”). There are moments of savage humour and of pathos. It is a remarkable writing debut and a storming performance, and I shall never, ever, mention Dudley Dursley in the context of Melling again.     to 19th


RATING   4 4 Meece Rating


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THE GIRL’S GUIDE TO SAVING THE WORLD – Hightide Festival, Halesworth

Maybe this play about “friendship, feminism and what it means to be successful” would be less annoying if the characters – Bella, Jane, and Jane’s boyfriend Toby – were not clearly signalled as being in their thirties. As it is, their self-indulgent kidult carryings-on rapidly alienate. Grow up, you stupid drunken whingers! And for a “feminist” tract, it has to be an own goal to make the man the least infuriating. Poor old Toby may be a disillusioned English teacher who wants to be a househusband (“me and all the other Dads in a pavement cafe with a low-alcohol beer..taking the kids trips to Tate Modern with a sketchpad”). But at least he cooks supper, decorates, takes the cat to the vet and doesn’t blame everything on the opposite sex. And he wants a baby, and to love it, while Jane just moans “Kind of horrible – my vagina will never be the same…imagine me pinned to the sofa by a red slithery otter thing”.


It is a crying shame that Elinor Cook’s play, at this fabulous new-writing festival, should misfire. Because the staging (Amelia Sears directs) is ingenious and elegant, especially in a neon railway-line moment, and the performances – notably Jade Williams as Jane – are very good indeed, sucking every rare, available bit of reality from their parts. And Cook does write good one-liners. When Bella – who is doing a feminist blog with Jane – is being wooed by the editor of the hated Grazia magazine, Jane cries “she will force you into a scented room, yank out every one of your pubic hairs and give you a cupcake!”.


When she is in this Caitlin-Morannish vein Cook is fun. But too fast it turns into moaning hatred – Bella claiming that she let a boyfriend screw her without a condom because an “Embedded, societal” force enjoins us to worship The Penis. My companion cruelly said the whole thing had clearly been put through a computer programme called GuardianTranslate. Men are either sinister creatures at bus stops, useless drones, or silly fantasies. The women want to be as flaunty as they like, shed inhibition, abort pregnancies they conceived deliberately, get stinking drunk at clubs and fantasise about barmen. Irrelevant feminist as I am, let me confirm that both a nearby 29-year-old and a 21-year-old were just as irritated.


There is good stuff here, but it needs trimming by a third, refocusing and humanizing. The most telling moment is when, returning to their querulous feminist blog, they finally give a nod to the rest of the world and speak of “India, Somalia..! the more you scratch the surface of this stuff..” Yes. Right. Keep on scratching, girls, and not just your own itches. to 19th

RATING:   two   2 meece rating


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INCOGNITO – Hightide Festival Halesworth

O happy conversion! It is awkward and gloomy for a critic to admire and acknowledge a play’s clever originality, yet privately feel nothing. Nick Payne’s much-praised Constellations had had this effect on me: neither the cosmology and beekeeping nor the love story hit home. I liked his Blurred Lines very much though, and admired the more conventional The Same Deep Water As Me at the Donmar, so I settled to this premiere with hope. Even though the set – shining vague scaffolding – was ominously reminiscent of the white balloon ceiling of Constellations.


The hope is fulfilled. This is shiningly brilliant, a meditation on neuroscience, memory, deception, heredity and identity: alive with compassion and wonder, streaked with intelligent humour. It interweaves three stories. There is the 1955 obsession of the pathologist Thomas Stolz Harvey who annexes and dissects the brain of the dead Albert Einstein to try and find his genius. There is the story, powerfully affecting, of an early victim of brain surgery, Henry, left with only the shortest-term memory, speaking and understanding in terrible unresolvable circles. And there is a troubled modern-day neuropsychologist, divorced and borderline alcoholic, who falls in love with another woman.


Four actors – Alison O’Donnell, Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell and Sargon Yelda – play 21 parts over six decades without prop or costume changes, moving between them in seconds with astonishing fludity (superb direction from Joe Murphy.) Payne uses his gift for sharp natural dialogue to drive plot and character forward within the same fragmented, episodic flea-jump style which Constellations exploited, challenging all traditions of chronology and form.


If that sounds tough going, astonishingly it is not. You have to concentrate, for the story’s circles are concentric and overlapping, Venn diagrams of ideas and ironies. Again and again Payne circles and returns, breaking and re-forming shapes like the flocks of starlings his Henry character speaks of, sparking ideas and patterns and inspirations like fleeting flashes of electricity across brain-cells. Harvey’s desperation to find the secrets of thought in the dead mush of tissue becomes ever more hopeless; Martha’s daily encounters with amnesiacs – even her envy of them – is counterpointed by her own unwillingness to admit her past memories and encumbrances to her new lover. When the scientist, on the run, enthuses about the brain it is ironically to an audience of self-stupefied young Kansas stoners. Once, a sudden seemingly unconnected violent moment links back to the theme.


. All the cast are remarkable, and not only in the speed of change between characters in which two people in conversation barely change posture to leap across decades and personalities. Sargon Yelda’s rendering of Henry’s terrible amnesiac fugue is heartbreaking, its conclusion unexplained but intensely moving. Martha’s cry “We are a blip within a blip in an abyss” is denied by her final moment. It’s a marvellous experience: I felt my own brain expanding and unmooring, chasing hares and moonbeams and mysteries. As Einstein said, knowledge is limited but imagination encircles the world.


touring to Newcastle, Oxford North Wall, and Bush London in coming weeks

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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This is the toughest of tragedies: it may be a domestic affair, set among poor Italian immigrants under the Brooklyn Bridge in the ‘40’s, but Arthur Miller’s great play sounds every classical note. Love, honour, death. Eddie Carbone the longshoreman stands with Oedipus and Othello, Lear and Lancelot. His end is violent, sordid and useless yet as the lawyer-narrator Alfieri says, “Something perversely pure calls to me from his memory, and I mourn him”.


There is perverse purity too in this production from Amsterdam director Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld . We sit around a dark featureless box, which rises – not far, for it lowers overhead like the bridge itself – to show a square white floor with one dark door (shuttered only at one terrible late moment when there’s no way out). Here, without period distractions or props, in two hours family normality becomes a madness of passion and stark revenge.


Alfieri the lawyer (Michael Gould) initially roams the aisles outside the square, as he becomes involved he enters the square to become part of the terrible climax. At first I found this bare staging alienating, remembering the detailed domestic significances in Sarah Frankcom’s fine Manchester production. But van Hove’s forceful simplicity pares it down, as if we observed men and women like mere ants in a glass box: trapped, building, warring. And despite some stylized scenes, it is far from coldly forensic.

Its peril rises, as Alfieri says, from “Love – sometimes it’s too much, and it goes where it mustn’t”. Eddie, the powerful, rangy, shaven-headed patriarch (Mark Strong) has raised his dead sister’s child Catherine (Phoebe Fox), who is now seventeen. Miller’s watchful wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) is keen that she should go to work, spread her wings; Uncle Eddie is fondly overprotective. The artful way Miller eases us from cheerful domestic argument to unease is superbly tracked in every gesture and tone of these three: when Beatrice’s illegal-immigrant cousins arrive, the fuse is lit. Emun Elliott is the dark, broodingly lonely Marco, supporting three faraway children in Sicilian poverty for “if I stay there, they will never grow up”. But his brother Rodolpho is fair, loves to sing and dreams of a motorbike. Catherine falls for him. Eddie resents it, never acknowledging the darkness of his own love, and in the few risible moments Miller allows us, he convinces himself that Rodolpho is gay because he cooks and helps with dressmaking, and therefore is courting the girl just to get citizenship.


The only one way to be rid of him is the ultimate betrayal to the authorities , unthinkable in a tight immigrant community. But Eddie’s passion burns out his goodness, so the dark and bloody wave approaches and breaks: literally, in a shockingly staged climax.

Miller built the play round a story from a lawyer who worked with those 1940’s Italian-American longshoremen; late in life – seeing it in a revival – he admitted to finding elements of his own psychological hinterland there. It has that kind of dark half-realized dangerous power, and here the very starkness of direction makes it universal. You shiver at Eddie – “His eyes were like tunnels…a passion had moved into his body like a stranger” . But you can weep too when as Catherine, needing to turn away from her affection for him to a healthier passion, explodes in grief. Phoebe Fox shockingly, brilliantly, discards the ingénue for the wildcat.


So, a brilliant production, and startlingly one for today. Not only because dangerous loves are always with us (and indeed in the news) but because all around the Young Vic with its warm, intense local audiences the streets of South and East London teem with such families. They too live on the edge and may shelter illegal arrivals, come from poorer lands to work and send money home. There are no doubt tragedies under our bridges too.


box office / 020 7922 2922 to 7 June

rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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Billed as “a future history”, Mike Bartlett’s new play begins with a chanted Lux Aeterna for the Queen’s funeral. Director Rupert Goold makes the most of it, with the whole cast bearing candles in the gloom beneath Tom Scutt’s dado arc of faint, jumbled historic monarchal portraits. Later the ensemble is briefly hooded and in Guy Fawkes masks. Palace – and Parliament, and Abbey – are unfussily indicated by a pink-carpeted dais. There are stars and garters. Goold knows how to make an impact.


At the play’s heart is Tim Pigott Smith, brilliantly capturing the ageing Charles not as impressionist but as essence. The heir’s hand gestures and occasional buzzing consonants are there, but more importantly he catches not only the habitual angst but Charles’ rarer, but authentic, edge of ironic mischief. Just as well that this great actor is cast, since Bartlett seems to see the part as a cross between Richard II and Lear, with a dash of Edward VII. To ramp up the Shakespearian history-play feel he writes most conversations, especially between royals and politicians, in iambic pentameter. If you are no poet this is a big risk. It can chime quite horribly (“he stands his ground as stand his ground he must”). Once or twice it works – as when the anguished King says “Without my voice and spirit, I am dust”. But too often it caused me to scrawl STUPID in capitals on my notebook.


This Charles, in his first meeting with a (leftish) Prime Minister, is confronted with a new press and privacy act, which he considers hampers the ancient right of free speech. He refuses to sign the Royal Assent. The PM (a Cleggish Adam James) insists. The smarmy Tory opposition leader (Nicholas Rowe) at first encourages Charles then reneges, realizing that the precedent of royal interference is dangerous. The King remembers that technically he can dissolve Parliament and force an election, and does. In the ensuing mayhem of dissent, riots and military deployment his next heir (Oliver Chris as a spookily lookalike William) is persuaded by a machiavellian Kate (Lydia Wilson) to wade in. Meanwhile Harry – a funny, touching, dishevelled, conflicted evocation by Richard Goulding – falls in love with a stroppy art student in Doc Martens whose past “sexts” come to haunt them.

Promising stuff, and Pigott-Smith carries superbly the frustration of a man of strong ideals pitchforked into a role which makes him a puppet for politicians of dubious morality and sense (very topical in Maria-Miller week). The downside is not only the tortured blank verse – which creates a barrier to belief – or even the wincingly unnecessary appearances of Diana’s ghost, forever sticking her oar in. It is also marred by a certain News-Quizzy cartoonishness. The idea that Harry would be awed at being introduced by his girl to “Sainsbury’s! I bought a Scotch Egg!” is just stupid: the young princes have led far more recognizable lives than their predecessors, William as a student making his own beans on toast.


Also, the burning issue of the press freedom law is almost forgotten in favour of the Royal Assent row. In the second half there are surges of power, mainly because of Pigott-Smith’s strength, and genuine sparks of emotion from the princes. But the most interesting speech (free from ti-tum-ti-tum iambics) is from a nocturnal kebab-man. He tells Harry that since the Queen died people don’t know where they live any more: too many British things are eroding: army, post office, pubs, monarchy…
Now that is interesting. And prescient. Could have done with more of that.


box office 0207 359 4404, to 31 May
partner: Aspen
Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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I FOUND MY HORN – Trafalgar 2, SW1



The horn is the most primitive of instruments: a column of air, blown through a cone. Even in the most sophisticated forms, it never quite loses that primitive, magical quality, a summoning command: Queen Susan’s Narnian hunting-horn, something to follow deep into a forest. But the French Horn is, of course, the most sophisticated (and most fiendishly difficult) of instruments, with its baffling golden curlicues and blaring mouth, its demand for powerful embouchure of the player’s poor mouth, its complex fingering…


Jasper Rees, some years ago, wrote a book about how, during a difficult mid-life crisis, he found his old school instrument in the attic neglected for 30 years, and resolved to re-learn it: and worse, to do a solo of Mozart’s Horn Concerto K447 in front of a paying audience at the British Horn Society. The book had a success, but the biggest stroke of luck Mr Rees had was that it beguiled another man – of his age, type, and family-man condition – who could play the horn. Rather better. And who was not only an actor but a playwright: Jonathan Guy Lewis, author of the much-praised Our Boys. Between them, they made this one-man play: first as an hour-long piece five years ago, now expanded to 90 minutes with some expansion of the story.


It’s a simple enough tale: depressed divorced man wonders what life’s all about, finds horn, remembers pleasures (and a revealed humiliation) from schooldays, and makes the resolution. Lewis is a versatile and engaging actor, and takes us from his glum-divorced-bloke persona, sighing at his half-estranged son’s awful music in the background, into the shy romantic depths of what he once was. He plays all the parts – himself, bluff Dave his mentor from the horn society, his camp old school music-master trilling about “Wolfie”, a number of marvellous enthusiasts and doubters at a “Horn Camp” in the Adirondacks, and at times the voice of the horn itself: a Czech-made Lidl from Brno, reproaching him for neglecting it all these years while even its home country ceased to exist.


It’s a virtuoso turn both dramatically and musically, often funny but more than that. Between them Rees and Lewis have drilled down into universal truths and sadnesses: the midlife fret, the need to reclaim your past from the clutter and dust of passing time, the male need to search for the “wild horn-man” within . Lewis plays, sometimes terribly, gradually better and better until the great, panicked triumph of the finale. And learns, as one mentor tells him, to let go the “post-Wagnerian breast-thumping lyricism” and hunt for the levity, the joy, the hunting-horn vigour of it. And of life itself.


I fell for it, knew I would from the first moment when he looks down at the battered old case in the attic and the horn shines up at him (clever lighting plot) and in his head, somewhere form the corner in the complex Sara Hillier soundscape, are heard the “horns of Elfland faintly blowing” from the land of youth. Tears in my eye, dammit.


And another reflection: when there is work as original, as developed and finely worked and universal and fascinating as this going on in tiny studio theatres, why does the BBC never notice? Why isn’t it on television? It isn’t going to be enough for the new Tony Hall regime to relay the big operas and major plays, grand though that is. They need to get out a bit, and find and adapt things which have grown as this did, not through anxious WIA commissioning-rounds, but organically, with love…

box office 0844 8717632 /
to May
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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ANOTHER COUNTRY – Trafalgar Studio 1, SW1

There will be voices which hail this revival of Julian Mitchell’s magnificent imagining of the 1930‘s schooldays which bred the Cambridge spies – Burgess, Philby, McLean and Blunt – as yet another opportunity to decry public-schools and establishment toffs, and point fingers quivering with largely irrelevant rage at the present Cabinet. Others, more mildly, will note its importance in the fight for gay acceptance and equality (it is an ‘80s play, and became a groundbreaking film with Rupert Everett in the harsh Section 28 years).
And it certainly does chime powerfully – and now rather joyfully – with the era of gay marriage and equality, as well as saying a lot about a particular clenched , stiff-lipped public school ethos of the “low dishonest decade” still traumatized by the 1914/18 war (another centennial reflection there) as it rolled towards another one. But it would be a pity to nod it through either as a single-issue play or a period piece. Jeremy Herrin’s fine production lets its many layers and subtleties of character breathe into vivid, complex life.


This production was conceived at Bath and ran at Chichester’s small Minerva last year: yet in this towering cavernous space it somehow maintains a fly-on-the wall intimacy in Peter McKintosh’s elegantly battered school common-rooms, dormitories and cricket pitch. And the young cast, convincing senior-school prefects and rebels, negotiate its verbal acrobatics and adolescent character confusions beautifully. At Chichester I picked out a brilliant performance by Rob Callender as Bennett, the graceful, languid, mischievous maverick who comes to realize that for him – unlike many of his partners in experimentation – homosexuality is real. Falling in love properly with another boy is not only a joy but a “life sentence” of social exclusion: all the more vivid because he is one of those who sees “Life as a ladder” and looks forward to a lush diplomatic career. Which he won’t get.


Bennett is still brilliant, but this time I took in also a strong, clever, nuanced performance by Will Attenborough as the school Communist Judd, some remarkable subtleties from the various prefects and aspirants to the “22” elite, and the fact that Bill Milner as the poor put-upon fag moves with effortless truth between childlike pathos and comic absurdity. I wondered in the opening scenes whether the play – the schoolboy slang, the chatter about the “House Man” and arcane prefectorial politics might be too baffling for a new generation: 1930’s schoolboys are, after all, as distant as the dinosaurs. But the skill of it is in drawing us so close, claustrophobically, into their world so that audience laughter or applause at the interval feels like an intrusion. Even from seats far up.
The interplay between the boys throws up political echoes from every era: not least in odd grace-notes like the moment Judd the Communist consoles the weeping Junior after a school suicide, offering the comfort of political anger: stay furious at the system and you can bear life’s blows better. Mitchell’s wit bites hard both on left and right; Bennett, with his gift for boyish parody, gets the funniest lines but Julian Wadham is wonderful as the visiting Bloomsburyite, all Swinburne and rosy sensuality. And just as you think you are only in a play of ideas and talk, the final emotional hit of Bennett’s “I”ll haunt the whole lot of them” jerks you into history. Terrific.
box office 0844 8717632 /     to 21 June
rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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The best moment of proper musical-theatre comedy in this slick hard-hearted show comes not from its principals (though they do get a good few) but from a sideshow event from Lizzy Connolly. Stepping forward from the ensemble on her West End debut as “Jolene Oakes”, this splendid gal plays an oil millionairess targeted by Robert Lindsay, the a smooth Riviera con-man posing as a deposed European royal.


Jolene abruptly decides they are engaged and will live in “Oklahoma! Where the chief cause of death is melanoma! Not a tree or a Jew to block the lovely view…oh, dontcha love it when the bobcats howl!”. As Lindsay gapes, appalled, she clicks her fingers, pulls out a six-gun and brings up a grim desert oilrig backcloth and a hellish line-dance of cowboys: she leads them in a wild, thunder-thighed, high- kicking dance fit to shrivel the testicles of the smooth Euro-boulevardier. Lovely.
But, in one of the uncomfortably uneven moments of Jerry Mitchell’s production, the two con-men – Lindsay and his apprentice Rufus Hound – decide to put her off by pretending that Rufus is “Ruprecht”, his inbred idiot brother who will live with them. Hound – a crude enough actor at best, and playing the crudest of the characters – performs the idiot role with a gurning, dribbling, jerking, masturbating repulsiveness (not to mention a lyric about KY Jelly on a rubber glove). It is offensive enough to neutralize any pleasure in the show for anybody remotely acquainted with mental impairment.
Which is a surprise, given that Hound is a politically minded comedian so righteous about NHS changes that he lately blogged “David (Cameron) and Jeremy (Hunt) want your kids to die unless you’re rich… Why can’t they take that big pot of money ear-marked for medicine and just start sharing it out amongst themselves?


Given that sequence, and the prolonged wheelchair-jokes in the second half when he pretends to be a soldier with traumatic paralysis, one does tend to keep an uneasy eyebrow up throughout Hound’s reasonably competent comic performance. Can’t love him. Luckily, however, you absolutely can love Robert Lindsay, who not only swings an elegant leg and preens beautifully as the leading con-man, but handles his faint dawning of conscience with proper rounded humanity. The same goes for Samantha Bond, a comedienne who knows precisely the weight to give both to the rich Muriel Eubank’s absurdities and to her needy wistfulness. To see her playing against John Marquez’ crooked police-chief in the second act is a treat. And Katherine Kingsley, as the kingpin of the twisty plot, deploys all the joyful vigour which made her Helena for Michael Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream a delight. And wow, can she belt out the big numbers..


Otherwise, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who gave us Legally Blonde the Musical and launched the splendid Sheridan Smith to glory) delivers fine comic dance routines: you can see why he wins Tonys. Yet this show, (music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Jeffrey Lane, spun off from a 1988 Michael Caine and Steve Martin film) is haunted by that peculiar Broadway quality of uncertain heart. Legally Blonde was heart all the way; this, and not only because of its double-sting plot, misses too many beats for comfort.


Still, there’s a kind of genius in some of the sillier lyrics: not least Hound singing “I’m alone and cold and lit the light to my exit ramp”. And Lindsay does get to sum up his fellow-conman (and co-star) in the line “What you lack in grace you make up for in vulgarity”. Yess…..
box office to 29 Nov

Rating: 3   3 Meece Rating

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SPRING AWAKENING – Nuffield, Southampton and TOURING


In 1891 Franz Wedekind rattled the cages of German propriety with this – subtitled “A children’s tragedy”. Its themes of 14-year-old masturbation, pornography, parental abuse, sexual fantasy, homosexuality, suicide, and the rape of one child by another make it unsurprising that it never got performed till 1906, and its 1917 appearance in New York lasted one night only. It was never seen uncut in the UK until Peter Hall’s National Theatre in 1974. Now Headlong, with the Nuffield and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, offers a modern cut-down adaptation by Anya Reiss, directed by Ben Kidd: Wedekind’s repressed, strictly controlled and sexually ignorant 1890’s teenagers become our own young, enmeshed in the opposite world of universal online porn and ‘sexting’.


The update works up to a point. The cast convince utterly as teenagers, often in school uniform, and modernizing the details is fine. The hayloft where Melchior rapes Wendla becomes a wobbly bunk-bed, the essay on sex which he sends to the ignorant Moritz becomes a series of emails sharing links to hard porn sites. Moritz’s suicide is now by hanging from a tree – horribly reminiscent of the recent outbreak of ‘copycat’ teen suicides – and he videos it on his laptop. The adolescent nihilism of Wedekind’s text is strikingly accented too by current pop lyrics which punctuate its jagged, bleak performance: and of course the teenage conversations about parents, exams, the non-existence of God, bodies, sex, and adult hypocrisy are perennial.


So is the unformed yearning, fumbling angry philosophizing and reckless need to experiment. When Aoife Duffin’s superb Wendla strays into masochistic confusion, asking Melchior (an impressive, many-layered portrayal by Oliver Johnstone) to hit her, her naive arousal and sidling body language are shudderingly real. And Bradley Hall as Moritz brilliantly evokes the doomed boy’s erotic overload and faltering, stressed-out illogic as he approaches his end.


Odd moments, though, jolt you into remembering that Wedekind lived in another age. The programme notes work hard to persuade us that the pressures (not least of exams) are harsh enough now to compare with the “Gymnasium” educational system of 19c Germany, and that the extreme sexual ignorance of Moritz and Wendla – who believes pregnancy can’t happen without “love” – resonates today when “Michael Gove’s free schools are instructed to teach their pupils that sex only happens between people who are married and in love, and heterosexual people at that’. Which simply is not true: no girl today with a pair of ears, however silent her parents on the subject, could reach 14 years old without hearing repetitive lectures on sperm and ova and knowing perfectly well that you can get pregnant without any declarations of love. And it was obviously necessary to convert the “essay” on sex which had Melchior sent to a reformatory by Wedekind into a more modern accusation: “cyber-bullying” . Which rings not quite true.
But the children’s emotions are right and recognizable, and Reiss’ adaptation rises to Wedekind’s strange ending with great power. When the dead Moritz seems to tell his guilty friend that “All the dead watch the living, and laugh”, it still brings a shiver.

box office 023 8067 1771 to 5 APril

Touring to 31 May see    Touring Mouse wide

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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