Monthly Archives: May 2014

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

FRESHER THAN EVER,  AN ANCIENT LOVE UNDER THE SKY

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Eve Best is an irresistible Cleopatra for today: no slinky seductive exoticism but a fresh, joyful, larky sensuality as well-expressed in warlike cloak and breeches as in a nightgown, royal robes or – at one stage – just a sheet as she searches for an Antony who has deserted her bed when – she snorts with irritation – “A Roman thought hath struck him”. A fierily physical performer, Best gives full rein to the Queen’s hysterical jealous rages (never has a messenger been so comprehensively beaten up by a woman) but defuses even her greatest griefs and rages with self-aware jokes right to the edge of death. Even when rudely silencing the rather beautifully melodious singing eunuch (Obioma Ugoala) she mocks her own mood. Touching, too, is the relationship with her handmaids Charmian and Iris: easy, affectionate, joshing. Charmian’s “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself!” evokes a habitual, unrebuked intimacy.

 
Indeed the whole of the Egyptian court, fanned with hanging carpets in the sparsely set, free-moving visual language of the Globe’s great stage, looks considerably more fun than the Roman senate. Here the rest of the triumvirate – an unhappy sober-suited coalition – discuss Pompey’s maritime threat and Mediterranean power politics. For in order for Shakespeare’s play to work well, we must believe that Antony is torn between his destiny as soldier and statesman and a mid-life love affair which made him willing to “give a kingdom for a mirth”. We have to see how a tough man’s man, whose campaigning stamina and hardships were legendary, could be caught by the “serpent of old Nile” and make disastrous military decisions. And how all the same his other nature could draw him back to embrace Roman duty and let Cleopatra down by marrying Caesar’s “holy, cold and still” sister.

 
Some Antonys fail at this, either playing too much the lover, or trying for the kind of preternatural , soaring, godlike nobility described in Cleopatra’s extraordinary late encomium in the Monument scene. Clive Wood does not fail: he creates a chunky, passionate, troubled man whose sweetness is always at war with a habit of ruthlessness. Against him is set Jolyon Coy’s Octavius Caesar: prim, puritanical, the parting of his schoolboy haircut straight, afflicted by no visible affections except for his sister. When Antony returns to Rome, his bright purple jacket contrasts nicely with Caesar’s sober-suited court.

 
So the emotional line of this broad tragedy – pretty well untrimmed at three hours – hangs finely on those three performances, and is studded with other treats. Phil Daniels’ Enobarbus – entrusted with some of the most famous poetic lines – will not be everyone’s favourite but I like the way he speaks them , without pretension, as if he had just made them up. The choreographed dancing exuberance of the Egyptians set against the stamping march of Rome underlines the difference even when both share the stage. When war breaks out in earnest a great tattered map of the Mediterranean countries falls from above and men with banners whirl aloft around one another on ropes.

 

The great golden-winged tragedy unfolds in the monument ,the asp strikes: silence and applause from thatch to groundlings confirm that necessary and ancient sense that we have been through something big, together.

 
box office 020 7401 9919 to 24 August

rating   four 4 Meece Rating

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BAKERSFIELD MIST Duchess, WC2

KATHLEEN TURNER BLOWS INTO TOWN, AN AUTHENTIC HURRICANE

 

Under a tangle of brushwood and a ratty telegraph pole, Maude’s trailer-park home is full of junk from dumpsters and charity shops: naff pictures, fridge magnets, fake fruit, well-used shot-glasses. There’s a case of Bourbon stolen from the bar she was fired from, and a photo of her dead son. With straining jeans, hoarse tones and dishevelled henna mop she is an all-American nobody, beached in a strip of nothingness in the drive-through-quick bit of California. Yet she shines, defiantly authentic, a force of nature, an artwork. She is Kathleen Turner, and with this storming performance is more than welcome back to the West End stage.

 
The play is an 80-minute two-hander with the formidable Turner playing against the equally strong-flavoured Ian McDiarmid as Lionel, patrician – and English-born – art expert and former director of the New York Metropolitan Museum. He has, with disaste, flown down on his Institute’s private jet to rule on the authenticity of a picture she picked up for three bucks. She thinks it’s a Jackson Pollock. He, with lofty discourtesy, makes it clear that he doubts it will be any such thing. Not in a grubby trailer, in the hands of an unemployed middle-aged barmaid. McDiarmid’s body language, effetely distasteful, is hilarious: indeed for a while during their initial sparring I feared that Stephen Sachs‘ play would prove little more than an entertainingly cartoonish revue sketch. When she hauls out the canvas – tantalizingly, we never see the front – he dismisses it after a few blinks, justified with a languid “It’s called connoisseurship”. To which Maude – “It’s called bullshit!”.

 
Whereupon the contest gets personal. Maude is determined, street-smart, and has enrolled her local homicide cop to do some forensics. Lionel is loftily stubborn, but wrongfooted when she knows more than he thinks about his former career, thanks to Google. Beyond the mere financial implications – a real Pollock is worth many millions – each has an emotional agenda, and a perilously hysterical relationship both with the need for truth and with the turbulent nature of Pollock, who worked “always on the edge of catastrophe”. The bourbon comes out. Personal histories are related. Verbal fights become physical. An inappropriate advance is made (“You’re drunk!” “I’d need to be!”). Unexpected mutual appreciation flickers. The need for great art is debated, ramshackle but urgent. There is a final moment which sends a good shiver down your spine.

 
So never for a minute was I bored, or unappreciative of two terrific performances under Polly Teale’s sharp direction. Yet there is an awkward flaw in Sachs‘ play: it remains too hard to believe that any serious assessment of such a work would be left to a mincing white-haired snob’s “blink of cognition”. Not in this age of fine-art forensics (good grief, we’ve all watched Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce peering at paint-flakes on FAKE OR FORTUNE). Bringing these two characters together is dramatically splendid, indeed irresistible, but that improbability nags a bit too much. In a piece so focused on authenticity, that sort of matters. But you won’t regret going to see this pair at work.
box office 0844 579 1973 to 30 August
rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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A BUNCH OF AMATEURS – Watermill, Nr Newbury

REDEMPTION OF A HOLLYWOOD HUNK…
The tiny am-dram theatre is threatened with redevelopment: only celebrity casting can save it. Jefferson Steel – fading star of Ultimate Finality 1, 2, 3, and 4, each worse than the last – is hoodwinked by his LA agent into a UK stage debut, as King Lear. He thinks he is heading for the the RSC but finds the Suffolk mud of another Stratford. Director Dorothy Nettle welcomes the furious dupe, though a less warm reception comes from her deposed leading man, preening Nigel who reckons he’s the new Olivier. Cue an evening of raging, pathos, bathos, and fine old-fashioned farcical fun.

 

For theatre loves to mock itself: from The Critic to Noises Off , cluttered backstage sets, self-parodying tantrums and blissful overacting strike a happy chord in both actors and audiences. Comedy scriptwriters Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (with an idea from John Ross and Jonathan Gershfield) wrote a 2008 film with Burt Reynolds as the American and Derek Jacobi, no less, as Nigel. This, though, is its stage premiere, rewritten entirely: Hislop assures me “We were able to use more Shakespeare, and put back lots of good lines which Burt couldn’t manage”.
They have also, with oddly moving effect, used the Fool’s songs from Lear, set by Paul Herbert, to cover with rueful aptness the scene-changes. For these, in Tom Rogers’ faux home-made amdram set, the cast unfold chintzy perfect little room-sets of the local b & b in front of the central stage-within-a-stage. It supports the general sense of homely fun. Mitchell Mullen is choleric and satisfyingly bad-mannered as the Hollywood star: trapped by his own publicity, trailerless and outraged by having to walk the fifty yards from Mary’s b&b – “English breakfast? Bring me a guava juice, eggwhite frittata, and a skinny decaf latte with soya..” etc). Sarah Moyle is wonderful as the starstruck middle-aged Goneril, all girlish toothy grins and flattery, but constantly confusing him with Willis or Schwarzenegger. Another treat is Damian Myerscough as the local plumber torn between his self-appointed role as Steel’s “entourage” and his anxiety to incorporate a pickled onion in the blinding of Gloucester. Aactually, in a recent Lear in Bath, the eye was tossed into Goneril’s martini just like a cocktail onion, so he’s bang on-trend there.
There is nicely modulated tension between Nigel (Michael Hadley) with his orotundly ghastly Gielgud ac-ting, and Steel’s contemptuous Hollywoodism (“I wanna rewrite! And I don’t do crazy, cut the loonytunes on the heath”). The plot romps along briskly, with the arrival of Steel’s estranged teenage daughter and Lear-ish echoes in their relationship. There’s a standard rom-com misunderstanding and a crisis elegantly reflecting Shakespeare’s storm. Hislop and Newman are human enough to let in real emotions, not to mention sentimentalities about the redemptive power of theatre ( with which I of course concur). But they’re savvy enough to temper both with sharply funny bathos.

 

And just as you think aha! here comes a soft landing with “I am a very foolish fond old man”, there’s a final shock which tumbles, beautifully, into a priceless joke relating to ER. There’s a lot of love gone into this production, under Caroline Leslie’s skilled direction: whether the play will last I can’t quite predict. Except to say that if Kevin Spacey fancies a bit of self-mocking fun in his final summer next year at the Old Vic, I’d really love to see him as Jefferson Steel. Could happen.

 

01635 46044 to 28 June

rating four (it woz Shakespeare that won the fourth..)3 Meece RatingThe Bard Mouse width fixed

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MISS SAIGON – Prince Edward Theatre, W1 : and a guest reviewer

POWERFUL, EMOTIONAL, CHALLENGING – 

GUEST REVIEWER    JOHN PETER  WRITES: 

Do you remember Vietnam?   How, in the sixties and seventies, we
wondered whether the communist North would invade the free-living South?
In Washington, President Kennedy said that, in the end, the people of
Vietnam should decide that themselves.  His bullish successor, Lyndon
Johnson, went for war.  Young Americans sang ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids
have you killed today?’
Boubil and Schoneberg’s heartrending MISS SAIGON is an opera: vast,
brilliant, thrilling and moving.    It is also a drama and a great moral –
political-erotic question.   Who are we? the Vietnamese ask. What do
we want? Who can we believe?  What is The American Dream?  What will
it be like when we wake up?
The brilliant dancing in Laurence Connor’s production may look
like high-precision sexual entertainment, but it is more than that.     I
have never seen so many beautiful girls demonstrating what their
delicate-looking but also athletic bodies can give to hungry men: yes,
but it is also an exhibition of hope. We will always be here, we are yours,
you are ours: this is our world.
Eva Noblezada is Miss Saigon, a sensual but delicate and kind
young woman, a passionate mother and a proud Vietnamese, proud but modest.
Alistair Brammer is Chris, a man who loves in body and heart: a gentleman
and a disciplined soldier.  It is time for him to visit Chekhov and Ibsen,
don’t you think?
It is time to give more respect to what we call the Musical.
Like opera, it is drama in which music joins words, creates
and drives words, to speak to us.

I saw MISS SAIGON 25 years ago.    It was powerful, emotional, challenging, even poetic.   Laurence Connor’s production is the same, but even more so.   I thought then that this musical – opera will stay with
us.   It has.
box office 0844 482 5155

rating:  five   5 Meece Rating

 

 

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FINGS AIN’T WOT THEY USED T’BE – Theatre Royal Stratford East E15

WELL, SWIPE ME DOWN THE OLD KENT ROAD, ME OLD CHINA…

Would you Adam and Eve it: the Joan Littlewood centenary restores to her sacred stage not only Oh What A Lovely War but this celebration of bygone lowlife: tarts, spivs, pimps and gamblers. We’re in a club beneath the Soho pavement – William Dudley’s set is brilliant, you can almost smell the stale beer and sweat. Our characters are living in 1959 but mourning for the good old days when a man could make a dishonest living in peace and pay off the cops.

 
Now poor Fred (a suitably battered Mark Arden), has emerged from jail to find the Palais is a bowling-alley and there are “Teds in drainpipe trousers and poofs in coffee-houses” . He has lost half his club to the barman at poker and fings simply aren’t the same. Even the slumming posh-boy Horace and his spangled deb girlfriend are depressed about it – “There used to be Noel..now it’s the dole” and the bent cop (Gary Kemp) is going straight because he gets tired of never entering a room without someone running out of it it. Usually that is Christopher Ryan as Red Hot the diminutive burglar, who steals every scene he is in. Only the oldest profession soldiers on undaunted, under the pimp Tosher (a Teddy-quiffed Stefan Booth, nicely nasty). Fred’s girlfriend Lil – a lovely solid performance with a real vaudeville voice from Jessie Wallace – has given it up but admits “My old lady’s still on the game. So’s my Nan, some afternoons”. But all the girls doughtily maintain the old whoop-de-doop cartoon standards of frill, paint and corsetry now defunct in the London Road age of sad junkies in bomber-jackets and trainers.

 
Lionel Bart’s musical – from a book by ex-con Frank Norman – was a pet project of Littlewood, seeking working-class liveliness to kick at the old order: “Guys and Dolls, but with its flies undone”. Tweaked by Elliott Davis with extra Bart songs thrown in, it is a lot of fun, at times deliberately shocking. As when Rosie the modest runaway (Sarah Middleton, very sweet) comes fresh from a plaintive number about why sparrers can’t sing to join Tosher’s tarts; sent out to a known bruiser, she comes back covered in blood.

 
There are plenty of funny touches, as you’d expect with Terry Johnson directing: when Herbert the gay designer tries to make the dive look “contemporary” there is not only a Magritte and a Picasso weeping-woman but a set of Keeler chairs: nicely prefiguring the Stephen Ward scandal of three years later as the cast quite casually straddle them. And I cherish Rosie’s exit line “”Going to Stevenage. They say it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished”.

 
That sense of era is well established, though occasionally it feels weird to be in 2014, in the same row as the real Barbara Windsor who played in the original, being nostalgic about 1959 people who themselves nostalgic for 1930. Bart’s songs – as ever – require and get a lot of quite raucous belting, but Davis and Johnson have paced it well, so that only a few numbers have that dated Bartian “I feel a song coming on” sense of stopping the action. All in all, the cheerful treatment of dead-end lives makes you suspect that in 2054 there will be a lovable musical yearning back to the Olympic London of knife gangs, half-million quid flats, Boris, oligarchs, Starbucks ,Farage….

Box Office 020 8534 0310 to 8 June  www.stratfordeast.com

Rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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ALICE – V & A, Bury & Touring

AN EXTRAORDINARY ALICE IN THE DARK HEART OF WAR

 

In a cellar, sheltering from bombs in 1915, a wispily grey, middle-aged Alice Liddell roams through an Edwardian clutter of old chests, dusty books, hampers, toys, warped tennis-rackets and a broken grandmother clock. Somewhere in France, in khaki and Sam Browne, her son Alan is in another dank dark space, a trench; yet he is with her too as an imagination or a phantom, going through the old tales that Lewis Carroll wrote for his mother years before. Alan – and indeed another of her boys – was killed in that war.

 

This hour is one of the strangest commemorations of WW1 so far, and though it is touring conventional theatres in short runs till autumn, it launched itself at the weekend in the dank,bricky subway tunnel under the Victoria and Albert Museum. The two actor-puppeteers – Mandy Travis and Jack Parker – use the junk around them both to recreate portions of the Alice stories and to enhance the pervading sense of wartime unease, loving fear and personal danger. Creator-director Poppy Burton-Morgan of Metta Theatre has taken nearly every word from the original texts, and it is uncanny, sometimes disturbing, how many parallels she has found, and enhanced with a wild and troubling soundscape and song by Filipe Gomes.

 

The Mad Hatter’s illogic is the mental disturbance of a man under fire, hardly holding it together; the Lobster Quadrille becomes the remorseless military drill, “Off with his head!” shrieked by a menacing German Red Queen made of an old lamp. And when Alan finds himself painting the roses red, his hands are suddenly red with blood. Sometimes the dislocated nonsense-conversations are Beckettian, yet all the more troubling because so familiar from our more innocent readings.

 

Puppetry, of course, is always both magical and a little disturbing, as if there could be resistant, defiant lives in the most passive objects around us. Here it is is brilliantly designed by Yvonne Stone: when old Alice pulls out her son’s baby-smock from an old trunk, the half-present Alan with sudden skill makes it into the White Rabbit. A toppling pile of old books with broken reading-glasses on top (antennae!) suddenly comes to life in his hands to become the Caterpillar, wavering and defiant, complte with pipe; when Alice shrinks to surrender her adult identity to a doll and then grows, the doll’s neck is an old telescope, an exact grotesque parallel to the Tenniel drawing. The Cheshire cat, quite brilliantly, is an old fur, a carnival mask and its mouth and grin a snapping evening handbag. As for the Mock Turtle – a gas mask and helmet -its unhappiness, its helpless “would not, could not, would not could not” is almost shattering as Alan abandons hope; Alice’s crooning of “Beautiful soup” is a lullaby to its distress, and his.

 

It is recommended for 8 years and over; I’d pitch it a bit older, with some careful preparation about WW1 as well as a knowledge of Carroll. But it’s a very grown-up piece, and as an adult I am glad I saw it.  And this brief hour will stay with me for a long time, the sadness and strangeness echoing.
TOURING: to 25 Oct:    Touring Mouse wide
TR Bury St Edmunds tonight and tomorrow: theatreroyal.org
further details http://www.mettatheatre.co.uk

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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AN AUGUST BANK HOLIDAY LARK – Playhouse, Oxford, & TOURING

INTIMATE, HUMBLE: THE BEST COMMEMORATION

 

The title comes from Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, evoking the rural England of 1914 as young men queued, as if at a football match, to enlist. A novelty, an adventure, heralding not only their individual deaths but that of an old world – of “farthings and sovereigns/ dark-clothed children at play called after kings and queens /Never such innocence, never before or since…” After the brittle dated cynicism of Oh What a Lovely War Deborah McAndrew’s play for Northern Broadsides and the New Vic feels like a humbler, stronger, more decent commemoration of WW1. Its tour continues but I hope, before 2018 , it finds its way to London.
It is quintessentially North-Western. Actually, I sometimes wonder why they bothered putting up the Angel of the North at all, when they’d already got Barrie Rutter: founder-seraph of Northern Broadsides, equally ironclad and loomingly gritty. I last saw him roaring demonically in Rutherford and Son under Jonathan Miller: here again he stands at the centre of a community, both directing and playing bluff bossy widower Farrar, squire of the fictional Greenmill Spinners Morris . They’re mill-workers on Wakes Week, preparing for the “Rushcart” festival. This is based on (and the choreographer Conrad Nelson trained by) the real Saddleworth Morris who revived a pre-war tradition. They build a towering house of rushes on a cart and dance it through the streets each year in clog-stamping routines. Farrar has two sons keen to enlist, and a daughter Mary (a gentle, golden Emily Butterfield) who loves young Frank Armstrong. Farrar disapproves, not least because the lad’s mother let her hens raid his flower-garden just when he needed good blooms to decorate his dancing-hat.

 

Thus it begins in playful vein, weedy young Tweddle excoriated as a “daft gobbin”, villagers quarrelling and courting and believing “It won’t touch us up here”. The Morris practises, old Farrar berating nimble Alan for “unnecessary embellishment” and mourning the good old days of Victoria’s Jubilee when things were done properly: good to acknowledge that 1914 had its own nostalgias. In a tremendous, heart-shaking, stampingly united joyful Act 1 finale, with the lasses on fiddle and whistle and accordion, they build and decorate and stamp and sing their Rushcart round the stage in wild floral hats. It gets you in the guts. In Oxford, the very ice-cream seller danced featly down the aisle at the interval.
Such communities were military volunteers: young Ted says “Don’t know what this war’s about but there’s ideas in it, big ideas” and welcomes an escape from the tedium and sicknesses of millwork. The young men come home from training on 48 hours leave for Mary’s wedding: in a striking moment they dance at first blithely, then move to morris stick-work, but the staves become rifles and they march away. Back home the women live on, pregnant, anxious, taking on men’s jobs at the mill. Angry that many will find no husbands, one bitter maiden hands the white feather to shame a young father into filling another grave. Ironically, it’s the same feather they all bickered over when the hens trashed Farrar’s garden: bringing him a peace-offering, Mrs Armstrong tartly observes that she’d let her chickens destroy his flower-garden again “if only I could still live in a world where such things mattered!”
The worst bereavement is met with an utter, unemphatic, wrenching stillness from the patriarch, and the curtain call is
sombre. They sing the Rushcart song quietly once more, as the whole cast in plain clothes bear a banner:
1914
We remember them.

 

box office 01865 305 305 http://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/ to Saturday
TOURING Derby, Cheltenham, Kingston, Oldham to 24 June    Touring Mouse wide
http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk in collaboration with New Vic
Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING – Mercury, Colchester

POSTWAR, COLD-WAR,  ANGRY AND RESTLESS

 

Ever since our manufacturing and metal-bashing trades eroded, we have seen a sentimentality about old industrial Britain: the glory days when a lad could leave school and go straight to the factory, work hard, drink in a pub until thrown out by a responsible landlord with the words “We’ve got us licence to think of!” , and court his girl in a Sunday suit. In the age of neets, hoodies and vertical drinking barns it is easy to cast a rosy glow.

 
So here’s a fine corrective: a revival of Alan Sillitoe’s brilliant, brawling 1950‘s novel – adapted here by Amanda Whittington – about a working-class anti-hero smouldering and swaggering in the Raleigh factory in Nottingham. He is sleeping with his workmate’s wife Brenda, and adds her sister Winnie to his conquests when Brenda has to abort their baby; for light relief he takes up with Doreen from the hairnet factory, who tends him when he is beaten up by Winnie’s squaddie husband at the Goose Fair.

 

Arthur’s a liar. a cheat, selfish, and full of immature resentment – “screw the world before it does the same to you” . If he had an unfaithful wife himself he’d “give her two black eyes and send her back to her Mum”. Sillitoe’s gift, chiming with the theatrical age of Angry Young Men, was to place this apparently unlikeable chap squarely as a symbol of a restless, postwar and cold-war society losing direction and faith in the future. The novel was much praised but – I just remember it – the lurid paperback was one which schools and parents snatched away from impressionable young eyes.

 
All this is caught wonderfully well in Tony Casement’s production: fast, spare and vigorous, set by Sara Perks in a cinematic curve of lighted frames which come and go, its mood enhanced Adam P.McCready’s haunting soundscape mixing deep harsh worrying notes with jaunty pop. When Brenda suffers in the scalding bath, downing gin as her friends labour to abort her and she worries that the steam is taking off the wallpaper, “Tulips from Amsterdam” maunders out its brainless rhythms and Arthur prowls, disturbed and helpless, in the foreground. And brilliantly too, even though the evening lasts only two hours including an interval, Casement allows the underlying feeling to grow in long, silent moments of isolated tableau.

 
Patrick Knowles is a tremendous Arthur: cocky and carefree on the surface, but in moments of soliloquy opening up a deep well of insecurity. The bike factory with its “smell of grease and new cut steel, capstan lathes that make your brain ache” is his realm by day; the feel of warm women his delight by night. There is real tenderness in his relationship with Brenda (Gina Isaac), and real, sulky adolescent conscience in his cry of “I never like to do harm. It upsets me underneath”.

 
But much of the living strength of the production comes from the inspired use of a volunteer “community chorus”. Six actors play the twenty speaking parts, but around them swirl and stroll and brawl and bicker many more, every move directed with intense care (Lee Crowley is movement director). They fill the picture, never distracting from the central tale but giving it a filmic, urban reality.
box office 01206 573948 to 24 May

Rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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THE PAJAMA GAME – Shaftesbury theatre WC1

SEW, STRUT, SWIRL AND SHAKE IT !
When this production ran at Chichester, I found myself forced to invent new words to describe Stephen Mear’s marvellously varied choreography as the SleepTite factory workers whirled and stumped around: oompahlumptious, balletriffic, tappamazing. To which I can now add struttrobatic and hoofofabulous. Close up in the small Minerva space the strut and swing and swirl of it felt as if we were all being lifted into the very essence and apogee of bodily joy: all the more because Richard Eyres‘ cast are not uniform West-End-chorus clones but – despite enormous dance skill and energy – a pleasingly realistic mix, a credible pajama-factory workforce of 1954.

 
In the bigger theatre, I was relieved to find, they project this wider and wilder and just as excitingly. They rock it up in “Once a Year Day”, and Alexis Owen-Hobbs returns as Gladys the bimbo secretary, a woman who can both dance like a dream through the spectacular stage geysers of “Steam Heat” and collapse into hilarious drunken chaos in Hernando’s Hideaway. Joanna Riding – give that woman another Olivier, now! – reprises her stridingly vigorous role as Babe, the union’s tough Chair of the Grievance Committee. Her leading man, Sid the Superintendent, is Michael Xavier: melodious, likeable, and particularly finely in tune with Riding as they swoop and josh and squabble, expressing in joyful physicality every mood of their rows and reunions.

 
Unusual for me to major on the dance, though it really is something special. But the show itself, with lyrics and music by Adler and Ross and George Abbott’s good-hearted book, stands the test of sixty years. Portentously announced as “A serious drama about Capital and Labour” in a tongue-in-cheek opener from Hines the time-and-motion man, it is a Benedick and Beatrice duel, or a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and flannellette, if you like. Babe cries defiantly at the height of passion “I will not let you come between me and the Union!”, Sid sings a grieving lost-love duet with his dictaphone but gallantly persists in trying to solve the 7-and-a-half-cent wage demand by bamboozling Gladys for the key to the accounts.

 
And all around them in Tim Hatley’s joyful ’50’s design there moves the swirl of human workers at their sewing-machines and steam-irons, on strike parades , on a works picnic. And there’s the magnificently ill-managed love affair between Gladys and Hines (it’s Peter Polycarpou again until the 31st, who is the funniest man on legs, then Gary Wilmot takes over). Other standout moments are owed to Claire Machin as the stout, nimble, ironic secretary Mabel and, of course, to the unavoidably and eternally humorous subject of pajamas themselves. Stripey, flappy, undignified yet vital to commercial survival. Lines like “Thread is the cornerstone of pajamas!” and “Pajamas are at a crossroads” never fail. Well, you’d need a heart of stone.

 

box office 020 7379 5399 to 13 Sept

Rating Four4 Meece Rating

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THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE – Arts, Cambridge now TOURING

IMBRUGLIA IN A FINE IMBROGLIO
When two old schoolfriends meet after eleven years, naturally they sing the old school song. “Girls of St Gert’s! Pure in your body, healthy in mind..” When two women are at odds over one man, it’s the dirty version you hear by the end. Gerts, Gerts, lift up your skirts!  It is a traditional love triangle that Alan Ayckbourn creates in this 1997 play; but there’s a fourth wheel on his wagon, and very beautifully it rolls along.

 
In heartless Feydeauesque farce it is important not to care much for the poor deluded puppets struggling in the machinery. In comedy drama you ache for them: when Ayckbourn is at his best, with his typical streak of pain, it can be difficult to remember why anybody ever chooses any other medium to lament the human condition.
Laurence Boswell’s shining production feels dateless : these people are ever with us. There’s Barbara the brisk chilly spinster PA and Nikki the eternal fourth-former, a cooing, little-girlish tease trailing her hunky oceanographer fiancé Hamish. Even the sweet, unpredictable oddball Gilbert in the basement flat is real: jauntiness and plumbing jargon on the surface and a boiling ferment of secret self-expression below.

 
Unusually, Ayckbourn wrote it for proscenium theatre, and part of its wit lies in the way it displays three floors of a Fulham house (Giles Cadle’s design here). Barbara’s flat, mimsily manless, is the centre, above and below mere slices. Aloft is the flat Nikki and Hamish have temporarily rented, so only feet and legs indicate the goings-on; below, we glimpse just the ceiling level of Gilbert’s basement, but it becomes a highly significant ceiling.

 
Claire Price is Barbara, with just the right combination of defiant briskness and shattered disappointment: her interplay with Edward Bennett’s Hamish, initially instinctive mutual hatred, gives the play sharp laughs from the start in those establishing scenes which often slow down such a comedy. Simon Gregor’s Gilbert is pitched to perfection, and pulls off the very Ayckbournian moment when, leg-jerkingly, assertively, comically drunk he suddenly catches pathos with the announcement that when his wife died the disco-ball stopped spinning in “a lonely ballroom where once we danced through life together”.

 
All are seasoned stage performers, but the surprising joy is Natalie Imbruglia, Neighbours star turned smash-hit popstrel. It’s her stage debut, but you’d think she had been working live on the boards for decades. Her Nikki is faultless: twining and gushing, teasingly frigid, finally a ball of tense and vengeful violence.
It romps to its conclusion beautifully, by way of a spirited, bum-biting, roller-pinning, headbangingly bruising fight (arranger, Kate Waters , take a bow). And students of the comic form will rather enjoy the fact that it seems to end twice. If Joe Orton had been in charge (at times his ghost nods approvingly) it would have ended with a certain mayhem-transvestite-disaster shock. Ayckbourn bolts on five more minutes because not all audiences like to go home on a note of disgraceful chaos. Two for the price of one.

 

 

TOURING to 21 june: next up, 13- 17 May at New Theatre, Cardiff
details: http://www.uktw.co.uk/Tour/Play/Things-We-Do-For-Love/T0337620179/
Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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FLEABAG Soho Theatre W1

AN HOUR OF SHOCKING BRILLIANCE AND ARTISAN OBSCENITY

 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s extraordinary self-written monologue performance won awards in Edinburgh, the Offies, The Stage and the Critics’ Circle – and an Olivier nomination. To my chagrin I missed its previous run, and have been longing to see what got described as “sucker-punch funny…jaw-droppingly filthy..” etc.

 
Having caught the show, I would urge anyone to do the same. It could hardly come at a better moment. Not just because she is crackingly funny – for she often is – or because the character she creates is idiosyncratic: as one promotion coyly says “some sort of a female living her sort of life”, an erratically high-sexed and cynical Bridget Jones for the new century, a failing middle-class cafe owner with a life in chaos. No: the brilliance of the piece is in making it impossible, even during the most hilarious moments of over-sharing (that bloody handprint ..those anal musings..) not to contemplate the bleak sad reality of a human being adrift, in a culture gradually poisoned by unhappy, addictive sexualization.

 
The narrator is an obsessive porn user (“anal. gang bang. mature. asian. teen. milf. facial. fetish.rough..” etc) – as well as being pretty undiscriminating in her real-life encounters, not bothering even with partners’ names most of the time beyond “Tube-rodent” or “Arsehole man” . The deadening, eroding addictiveness of porn is a modern brow-furrowing issue, and so is the objectification of women as sexual playthings. But such is the anxiety about the effect on boys that we are rarely made to consider female obsessions with porn: women internalizing and adopting the role of objects, determined to enjoy it without affection, indeed using their bodies as shields, fearing intimacy, wanting only to be wanted in that one way.

 
Here we have just that: but the story is being told by a likeable, intelligent, educated, funny creature. She could have a decent life, but her life and relationships have been punctured by herself, in the cause of frantic, endless banging and wanking. Between laughs we learn of a family alienated, a business ruined, a best friend grievously betrayed to her very death. A horror.

 
There is a harrowing reveal in the penultimate moments, and a shaft of hope from an unexpected- male – direction referring us on to another alleyway of oversexualized cultural misery. And yet t’s very funny. It is a revealing, brilliant , sorrowful human comedy. I am glad it won all those awards. Here’s another. Though given what happens to the hamster in the story, it feels unwise to entrust Fleabag with so many helpless mice…
box office 020 7478 0100 to 25 may
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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SKITTERBANG ISLAND – Little Angel, N1

SKITTERBANG ISLAND Little Angel, N1

 

Is three-to-five years old too young for opera? Not really. Small children sing their world all the time, chant their feelings freely. As for puppetry, it’s made for them: who has not given life and story to a teddybear? And as I perched happily at the back of the tiny theatre, the return of this little gem diected by Peter Glanville, found spread before me an attentive, delightedly murmuring new generation, none of them I reckon over seven.

 
The story, sung-through by trained singers with puppetry skills – Lowri James ,Sani Mulliaumaseali’i and Natalie Raybould – is a simple one, but with enough emotional gravity to suit the operatic form. Marie – a recognizable doll, a bit Red-riding-hood in her garb – is sailing with her uncle Edward, happily singing a nursery sea- ballad “If I trust in you, will you trust in me?” . They are shipwrecked (grand lighting effects on the little stage) and separated, calling anxiously to one another. You sense the children’s worry in the audience. But Marie meets a creature, a sort of crazy flop-eared raggedy rabbit thing with wings and hooves, the Skitterbang (Sue Dacre designed him).

 
Marie accepts his hospitality after intial caution – “Is it wrong to trust a monster with a silly smile? Shelter in his cosy home for just a little while?” and teaches him the uncle’s song from a shipwrecked gramophone. But when the uncle finds her, in true colonial style (he has after all an Edwardian moustache) he throws things at the “monster” to chase it away. Marie must persuade him it is a friend…
Well, I knew they’d all be singing the chorus about trust in the end, but dammit, what with the small children cooing and laughing below, your eyes prickle..

 
http://www.skitterbangisland.com
box office 020 7226 1787 Little Angel to 15 June
POLKA theatre 020 8543 4888 15 June – 16 aug

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM – Swan, Stratford

MINXY MURDEROUSNESS AMID THE WAVING CATS..

 

Polly Findlay, who gave us the National Theatre’s tough Antigone and Derren Brown’s Svengali, has great fun with RSC directorial debut: heavy snow, thick fog, pitch darkness, the more evil characters enjoying petulant asides to the audience, and a crane facilitating a memorably unsuccessful attempt at hiding a corpse. Oh, and a startling final treatment of Chinese Lucky Waving Cats. It is a play which demands no less: as Stratford’s “Roaring Girls” season rolls on in the small auditorium down the corridor from the male political solemnities of Henry IV, anything less than a full-throated 100-minute trip over the top and down the other side would be unwise.

 

For it’s no masterpiece. It’s an anonymous 1592 play, bits of it fairly randomly ascribed down the centuries to Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare himself, though there’s only one scene, a ferocious lovers’ tiff, which for me rises to a Shakespearian level of vigorous insult. Elsewhere there is a sense that his contemporaries, between beers, were taking the mick. Ian Bonar’s nervous manservant William has a Hamlettish soliloquy about whether to collaborate in the central murder, and Sharon Small’s flirting, wriggling, slinky finger-snapping killer-wife is awarded an improbable Lady Macbeth moment. Think of it as a prototype Ealing black comedy; it bears the same relationship to Shakespeare as The Comic Strip Presents does to a solemn BBC drama.

 

Not least because this is a thoroughly middle-class tale. It could come straight out of a modern tabloid, and Findlay makes Arden (Ian Redford, splendidly fat-cat) not only a 21c property man but owner of a warehouse packing up terrible gold Chinese waving-cats, presumably as a cheerfully unsubtle symbol of naff pointless globalization. Sharon Small as Alice is equally TOWIE, in Lacroix-style garish outfits and inch-high aquamarine eyeshadow which precedes her into the room.

 

It was based on a real murder in the mid-16c: Thomas Arden was killed by his wife Alice and her lover, who hired a hit-man. Additional interest arises from the fact that Arden is no innocent: in the few poignant moments petitioners beg for the return of land and livelihoods which he has annexed. There is a sub-plot, of which Findlay makes the most, involving rival suitors for Alice’s terrified maid (a physically hilarious though mainly silent Elspeth Brodie in Marigold gloves). The larkiness, however, stems from the glorious (Ealing!) incompetence of the plots: first Alice tries to poison Arden and he dislikes the porridge: Small hurls it around the stage with magnificent petulance. Then they persuade an idiotic painter (Christopher Middleton) to make a lethal poisoned crucifix (very Jacobean, that) protecting himself by stuffing rhubarb up his nose. But nothing comes of that.

 

Mainly, though, the murder is delegated to Black Will and Shakesbag – Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena – who when not accidentally knocking one another out or falling in ditches, can be seen in the gallery overhead fighting hopelessly over the instruction book for a laser-sighted sniper rifle. Top marks to both for not falling off the catwalk into the audience’s laps, either in the pitch dark or the thickest fog I have ever seen on stage. They get Arden in the end, of course, and justice gets them all. Macbeth it ain’t, but smartly done.

Rating: Oh all right. Four . 4 Meece Rating

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WATER BABIES – Curve, Leicester

IT’S TRUE! A FISH DOES NEED A BICYCLE!
We’re in a cavernous Victorian swimming-pool, a dreamworld where the waterfall is made of bath-plug chains. Then we’re in a sea-green underwater of gliding bubbles, carnival fish on elaborate bicycles and a top-hatted vaudeville villain. Our yearned-for angel perches on a diving-board above, and hooded watery creatures suddenly bubble and vanish upwards in a Pepper’s Ghost illusion. As a family musical it’s pretty odd, and not just thanks to Morgan Large’s extraordinary designs.

 

Having had a retro childhood , I grew up with the Rev. Charles Kingsley’s sentimental yet fierce fable about Tom the poor sweep-boy, tossed into an underwater world and morally educated by the beautiful Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and the witchy, vengeful Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. This new musical is at two removes, writers Guy Jones and Ed Curtis (who also directs) and composer Chris Egan having been “inspired” by the film. So I vaguely expected the morality to be ironed out and a romantic ending bolted on.

 

Wrong! Instead – and this may give it ongoing succcess – they key in to the modern, vampire-loving young-adult fiction world: teenage angst at injustice, confused guilt at letting people down, and impossible unfulfilled romance. Tom – leaping down the waterfall to escape a wrongful accusation – is Thomas Milner, with a naive, emotionally truthful boy-band sweetness. Egan’s songs are often lovely and always listenable, Louise Dearman as the overseeing Mrs D. handling some fabulous power ballads and sharp lyrics – saving the boy from court she sing-snarls “I don’t like stories that end with teenage boys locked away – handed a story without hope, a story that ends at the end of a rope”. And as Ellie, the upmarket blonde teen angel perched on her diving-board, Lauren Samuels is vocally and physically gorgeous.

 

Tom meets three sea-creatures (on those mad bicycles) who want to help: Andy Gray is a punning Scottish lobster, Tom Davey a screamingly camp quiffed seahorse and Samuel Holmes a cowardly French swordfish. If you think someone’s channelling the Wizard of Oz, just wait till our heroes go down the terrifying tunnel at the End of Nowhere to confront the Wiz – sorry, the Kraken, who turns out to be a hologram of Richard E.Grant on a rocking chair made of old pipework. In between repeatedly dissolving into a small child, he offers temptations in the best moral tradition, luring the boy with visions of home and love to dump his water-baby friends.

 

Tom must make a Kingsleyesque moral choice here, since he has accidentally, betrayed the dopey dancing water-babies to the evil Electric Eel. The latter gets a great storm of cheers and boos: it’s Tom Lister – how he was wasted all those years on Emmerdale! – storming around in a top-hat and cloak, ever-changing cod accents and startling lightning effects. He electrifies the enslaved water-babies so that they constantly applaud and praise him (a sort of Kim-Jong-Eel, ho ho). Richard E.Kraken is not the answer though: look rather for the modern teen moral “Name your monster, share your fear, make the nightmares disappear” and “Be the man I know you want to be”.

 

Tom does the right thing, but it’s no trite ending. A spectacular one, though. And in its, way this show is as odd, sentimental, moral, tough and otherworldly as old Rev. Kingsley could wish. He was a friend and supporter of Darwin, and I think he’d rather like the evolution. Lobster-bikes and all.

 

box office 0)116 242 3595 to 17 May

rating: four 4 Meece Rating

 

 

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STEVIE – Minerva, Chichester

HOW SWEET THE BIRDS OF AVONDALE…

 

The room where the poet Stevie Smith lived for over half a century lies before us: chintz, potted geranium, sherry-decanter and stained-glass door. This is Avondale Road in Palmers Green, anytime before her death in 1971. “A house of female habitation”, suburban, settled, un-chic.

 

That sense of place is vital, and importantly feeds Christopher Morahan’s production. I used to stay just round the corner in the late ‘60s with a friend of Stevie’s and saw her sometimes, though by then her beloved “Lion Aunt” and lifetime companion had died. Simon Higlett’s design stirred instant memories: impossible not to believe that beyond that half-glimpsed hallway the bathroom has a hissing geyser, the fridge a bulbous door.

 

The clothes are perfect too. There’s the Aunt’s immense comforting floral frock (“Iike a seed-packet” says the poet fondly) and her own shapeless corduroy pinafore dress, so familiar that I swear the 1960‘s Butterick Paper Pattern swam before my eyes from school Needlework. As the decades roll on though the evening, other perfect outfits include a home-dyed dress which appals a mincing literary follower, and memorable glittery tights. These things matter because Whitemore’s play, using much of the droll, dark, truthful poetry and Smith’s only novel, draws power from contrasting a seemingly drab life with the sorrowful, quirkily defiant gift of perception which makes her a heroine of poetry.
Zoe Wanamaker plays Stevie, Lynda Baron her aunt (the curly mass of grey hair truly leonine), and Chris Larkin simply “Man” . He is sometimes narrator, filling in information like the suicide attempt which Stevie prefers to ignore, sometimes the bluff fiancé she could not bear to marry (“He’ll have my heart – if not by gift, his knife will cut it out”). Later the Man is a literary hanger-on, driing her to poetry readings now she is a star. Sometimes he is simply Death:, the “friend at the end of the world” of whom she thought so frequently and welcomingly since at eight she realized that he was a servant she could summon.
It is an immersive experience. Some may find the first half in particular a little slow; maybe it is best if you love Smith’s dry, honest, witty poems and know how it is for your inner drowning to be mistaken for a cheerful wave. Better still if you have a feeling for those female habitations: for obscure suburban secretaries with weak chests from childhood TB but vivid inner lives. Few were songbirds like Stevie, but there were many of them: unsung heroines who lived through wars which took the men and soldiered on with cigarettes and sherry. Smith said “a tired person like me can’t respond to life”, but respond she did, humorous without flippancy and serious without pomposity.
Words invigorated her as they invigorate this tribute play. Mischievous self-awareness makes her real: Wanamaker, who dwells all evening with fierce concentration within this private personality, gives precise and useful weight both to the heroine’s summonses to death and to lines like “Critics get awfully cross when I write cat poems. They seem to think it’s letting the side down”.
Bullseye! The literati came to love her, and she played up when she wanted. But she never joined their club.
box office 01243 781312 to 24 May
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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TITUS ANDRONICUS – Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

OUR FIRST GUEST REVIEWER!   GALLANT  LUKE JONES  BRAVES THE BLOOD, SPIT AND RAIN.

 

Oh how it poured. With the large strips of black, makeshift roofing not covering but neatly channeling the rain onto those below. Tensions were high before the play even begun; one which would be quite a trial for the groundlings. Towers wielding men were flung across the floor into them, clouds of smoke enveloped them, blood, wine and spit flew across them; they were getting their £5 worth and then some.
All this fight and fluid is what partly makes Lucy Bailey’s production, originally staged in 2006, ripe for revival. She delivers a bloody, crowd-drawing and ragingly camp evening. Rather than opting for the severe and grief-stricken, it is all about hamming up the gore, explaining away curious character motivations and plot twists with wry glances and lashings of stage blood.
The great Titus Andronicus has triumphantly returned from war only for his family to be ripped apart – quite literally – by the fierce Got- turned-Empress Tamora and her cruel sons. William Houston is verging on the ridiculous as Titus. It is as if he has been bussed in from the Butlins production; twitching, jerking and over- egging every single line. But he is the only flat note in an otherwise terrific evening. Indira Varma is a twisted delight as the savage turned polite mistress with a thirst for blood. ‘Be ruled by me’ she gigglingly barks at the weasly Bassinius (her husband), played with a quieter, more enjoyable variety of camp by Steffan Donnely. The rogue and psychopathic Aaron (Obi Abili), nails the perfect combination of crowd pleasing joker and dark murderer by which William Houston ruins. Ian Gelder wonderfully holds the more serious voice of the play as Marcus Andronicus and Flora Spencer-Longhurst is nothing more that suitably shrieky as raped Lavinia.

 

The violence is largely playful, although at least 3 fainted (‘Faint-hearted boy, arise’) and many more left as the ravished Lavinia limped onto the stage, her hands and tongue removed. But this particularly horrific moment, plus a rather excruciating rear-end stabbing, are the exceptions. Most of the deaths and the splashes of blood play out like a Tarrantino Panto. The audience practically cheered as body after body thudded to the ground. Before the play began, the lightly rouged wood of the stage – weary from previous performances – brought giggles of excitement from all around. The violence beautifully delivered did nothing but stoke the fun.The spirit of the young Shakespeare, embarking on one of his first plays, is wonderfully brought out in comic tone. Watching a Goth Queen writhing around in Tartan, embracing her lover Aaron atop a wheely metal tower, sweeping up groundlings lost in the smoke, made me think the Globe has really come a long way. Nothing but cries of laughter, wincing and gasping from the youngest audience I have ever seen in that theatre.

rating:  four bloodstained mice    4 Meece Rating

 

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SUNNY AFTERNOON – Hampstead NW3

WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD TIMES GONE? OH, THEY’RE BACK..

 

It is not every week the Hampstead audience gets to leap up and down with 1966 World Cup confetti in its hair, chanting “L-L-L Lola!” at girls in vinyl hotpants. Especially minutes after shedding a tear over “Waterloo Sunset” and the dear old days before its knees creaked. I do not mock: I am of their number. The Kinks Really-got-me-going when I was fourteen. For beat and melody and wit , the roughneck Londoners were second only to the Merseyside Beatles, their songwriter Ray Davies our demigod.

 

He has, of course, endured: the group made albums until ‘93, and Davies has a CBE, a solo career and now the Hampstead Theatre’s first musical. It tells his story with his lyrics, book by Joe Penhall and gung-ho direction by Ed Hall. In the lead it gives John Dalgleish his first big theatre job: which if there’s any justice will make him a serious star.

 

As the restless, creatively intense, troubled young Ray he is mesmerizing: a pale face with hooded down-slanting eyes, a skinny streak of pure feeling. This mournful towering urchin holds the sprawling catwalk stage, whether stamping out a big number or drooped in depressions which erupt into unaccompanied, sorrowfully melodic song. During rehearsals Penhall learned, unexpectedly, how Davies’ sister died when he was thirteen the day she gave him his first guitar. She sang a tune he can’t remember. “Every time I sit down to write a song I hope it’ll be that one”. Could be corny, but Dalgliesh carries it.

The plot, rather too linear, is of how the Kinks were formed, not with cold-eyed corporate calculation but from working-class lads in a back bedroom: Davies, Pete, Mick the stroppy drummer and Ray’s sixteen-year-old brother Dave. George Maguire memorably plays the latter as a flop-haired, hot-eyed wild kid happiest swinging drunk from a hotel chandelier in a pink bra-slip and descending to take a fire-axe to the hotel reception desk.

 

Good entertainment, but we have heard other tales of gifted young men setting the music scene afire and getting in trouble with contracts, percentages, tricky marriages and internal fights. There’s an original moment, though, when they break with the posh Larry Page who is convinced that in the end, classes can’t mix. Brilliantly funny and touching to sing “Thank you for the days” in mournful a capella barbershop. The American tour debacle is amusingly sketched, notably a cartoonish moment when the US promoter fears Davies’ Lithuanian wife is a Commie, and the riposte “No, we’re Socialists” provokes a squeal of “We have children in the audience!”.

 

Some lightly explored strands could be more definite: class, postwar austerity, rock as a new aristocracy. The music is of course terrific, including less-known Davies songs and new numbers. Choreographer Adam Cooper creates a Denmark-Street tap and some authentic 1960’s disco: gymnastic, jerky, sexlessly pre-twerky. The story ends with Davies’ first marriage intact and a Madison Square Gardens triumph, but I would have liked acknowledgement of the hero’s complex afterlife, not least to test more of young Dalgleish’s emotional range. But what he gave us was terrific. We’ll see more of him.

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com

rating Four  4 Meece Rating

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