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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