Monthly Archives: April 2014

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
Plus a special playwright mouse for Sir Alan.  Playwright Mouse resized

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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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