Monthly Archives: August 2014

PITCAIRN – Minerva, Chichester




It is not often that the Chichester front-row is questioned about its sexual practices by merry brown girls extolling carefree Tahitian sex. “Our favourite thing! Young people go into the hills in a big group for days and do nothing but have sex with each other. It is a good way to make friends. Do you do that?”. A balding man froze in horror at being targeted, but I am proud to say that his white-haired wife called the impertinent bluff and just nodded serenely. Go Chichester!


It was only one of many odd moments in Richard Bean’s latest play, produced by Out of Joint (Max Stafford-Clark directs) with Chichester and the Globe. It imagines the two years after Fletcher Christian’s Bounty mutineers of 1789 cast Captain Bligh adrift, returned to Tahiti to collect (or kidnap) twelve local women and a few men to help with the ship, and found sanctuary and fertile land on the tiny Pitcairn island, one mile by two. When they were found some twenty years later, only one mutineer remained, surrounded by the women and children. To this day on the island a few descendants with English names remain (several of the men lately mired in a notorious paedophile and incest scandal).


Bean, however, focuses on the first couple of years and the desire for what Fletcher Christian calls “a virgin leaf of vellum…”. A fresh start for the Enlightenment era, an equal society without clergy, aristocracy or injustice, everything discussed at the “Yarning Court”. Utopia. Of course it falls to pieces, as in most such fables from sci-fi post-apocalypse tales to Lord of the Flies. Christian concludes, as various ghastly or ludicrous events transpire, that “the natural condition of man is violence, lechery, drunkenness, greed, suspicion and hate”. The Englishmen resort to muskets and manacles, the Tahitians rebel.


There are some good sharp ironies: not least that the islanders are more class-conscious than the Englishmen, Mi Mitti the ‘wife‘ of Christian discarding him when informed that his family has lost its money. The performances are fine: Tom Morley as the angst-ridden Christian and Ash Hunter as the appalling Bible-bashing hypocrite Young in particular. But the women – Anna Leong Brophy, Saffron Hocking, Cassie Layton, Siubhan Harrison, Lois Chimimba and Vanesse Emme – are particularly fine, not least at handling the Pacific-pidgin speech into which they have to fall, and in Chimimba’s case performing two extreme sexy-haka dances without loss of dignity. Which is important, because the most uncomfortable aspect of Bean’s text is the amount of dirty-old-man lines in which lovely brown women with tumbling black hair extol the joys of constant and group sex. I am sure it is meticulously researched, down to the expressions, but…tricky. On the other hand he also imagines a final revolt where the women violently take charge. I admire Bean greatly, and wish this cudgel-feminist denouement didn’t feel quite so much like guilty compensation for the raunchy stuff.


Anyhow, the islanders’ fragile society crumbles into rivalry, rape, religious fanaticism, civil war, Naveed Khan as the low-caste Tahitian wandering around with an axe and assorted scalps, and the worst villain’s death scene so prolonged (women! Can’t even beat people to death properly!) that actual giggles arose as poor Samuel Edward-Cook kept rising with a groan.
It is an interesting, far from dull evening, though it comes nowhere near Timberlake Wertenbaker’s noble Our Country”s Good (the last 18c imagining done by Out of Joint). It is wonderfully well staged with Tim Shortall’s design of bare rocks and Andrzej Goulding’s projections.


box office 01243 781312  to 20 Sept then touring till 22 Nov

Rating three3 Meece Rating


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HAY FEVER Theatre Royal, Bath




Here’s a 1924 creation: swooping and frivolously asymmetric as a drop-waisted flapper-dress, flashily well-crafted as a Deco windowpane. Its first critics complained that it has no plot, and indeed in that regard the 25-year-old Noel Coward was well ahead of his time. All that happens is a dreadful weekend, or 18 hours of it. The Bliss family, a quarrelsome quartet of fascinating but hellishly uninhibited bohemians, have each invited down a guest without warning the others. The matriarch Judith, an actress bored in retirement, has a young admirer Sandy (a nicely pop-eyed James Corrigan); her ill-tempered novelist husband David has absentmindely recruited a young girl to study as a “type”, while the daughter Sorel has asked an FO grandee old enough to be her father, and the son a fortyish socialite vamp who hates Judith.


All the family enjoy creating dramas, with no mercy for the hapless civilians who are in turn ignored, embarrassed, flatteringly half-seduced, manipulated, compromised, and driven to flight. And that’s it. Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning the Blisses stalk, confuse and appal their prey.


It is a play everyone should see in youth, and again when tempted to indulge parental dramatics in age; just as everyone should read and re-read Cold Comfort Farm and be armed against the ruthlessness of those who live in a “featherbed of false emotions” as one victim puts it. For this therapeutic treat, you could do a lot worse than Lindsay Posner’s sharp, gleeful two-hour production.


Felicity Kendal is Judith Bliss: not the Junoesque tragedy-queen she is sometimes played as but a petite, shingled no-no-nanette figure perfectly in period, hurling herself into the insincerely tragic scenes with gusto but always indicating the monstrous woman’s watchful steeliness, alert for the next opportunity of mischief, flirtation or ideally both. Kendal adds some lovely touches: whenever Judith does her famous line about “dreams trodden in the dust” she points at the supposed dust, every limb trembling hammily; but in seconds returns to her beady-eyed search for attention. The famous second-act closer has her draped, sobbing theatrically, halfway up the banisters as she recreates her favourite melodrama “Love’s Whirlwind” . The audience actually gurgle with pleasure.


As for Judith’s cat-and-mouse scene with her daughter’s diplomat boyfriend (a glorious, baffled-senatorial turn by Michael Simkins) it is like watching two perfect gears mesh. And in her pretended renunciation scene with her husband (Simon Shepherd) and the alarmed Myra (Sara Stewart) it is remarkable to watch them simultaneously emote weepingly and shake with suppressed laughter at the panicking victim’s expense. So yes, Bath delivers this precious antique as the joy – and the Awful Warning – that it always should be.


box office to 6 Sept – touring to 27 Sept, Richmond & Brighton

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

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I rather like Denise van Outen. A trouper, a trained musical-theatre talent who had to make it (and she did, triumphing in CHICAGO here and on Broadway) by first becoming a celeb: presenting a couple of vapid TV shows and being named Rear of the Year. That tells us uncomfortably much about star-casting shallowness, but equally proves van Outen’s determination, discipline and taste for the hard graft of the live stage.


And, of course, she has a glorious voice, considerable acting talent and endearing presence. Here, in cheeky TOWIE style, she plays Stef: a lingerie entrepreneuse, gossip-column veteran exploiting trashy fame but, in her thirties, ever more uneasy with its pressures. Hard to think of anyone more fit to perform such a part – and indeed co-write it (with Terry Ronald). The result is rather better than a couple of snarky male reviewers suggested during its recent tour. Maybe it’s a girl thing.


It’s a simple, slight plot: alone in a hotel room (‘Minibottles of Molton Brown, a bed the size of Belgium but walls like Kleenex”) she restlessly shrugs into a tracksuit between media appearances, roaming around beneath a surreal dangling mobile of teenage memories – T shirts, a bike, an old phone, toys and fripperies of the girl she used to be.  She takes calls from  her loyal and broody husband, depressed by the way their sex life has become “polite”, hesitates about having a baby and reminisces ever more intensely about her schoolday lover Sean. He has begun to send her cheeky Facebook pokes, and fancies coming over to pick up where they left off now that she’s a Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year. That Sean is a pig is apparent to us, but not, at first, to her . Golden memories flood in.


The format is a brave one, a one-woman jukebox  musical (only the title song is not an 80s or 90s cover) but holds up surprisingly well. Van Outen has the character’s brittle-coarse Essex girl persona off pat, and adds an awkward gentleness which, for all her confidential asides through the fourth wall, builds an illusion that Stef is, indeed, alone and at a crisis point. She conjures up her teenage years with references to Aramis, Funny Feet, Guns ‘n Roses, Ibiza raves, and how her pal Slaggy Sue melted her Rampant Rabbit on the electric heater because Charles and Di had split up and she was “distracted by Nicholas Witchell”. It is not, I must admit, my own nostalgic period, nor are these anthems my songs of choice. But it’s a proper story, and I wanted to know her ultimate response to the booty-call.


The second act develops into sharper drama and deeper pain as she brings herself to remember how that firat love actually ended.  There is real courage and feeling when she scrubs off the defensive makeup and sings of loss and humiliation, pallid and distraught and looking all of Stef’s age.  If this is a showcase, I hope it makes some directors think seriously of making better use of Denise van Outen’s gifts.


box office 020 7907 7092 to 13 Sept

rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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THE DOG – Frinton Summer Theatre




Summer seaside rep is not dead. Frinton Summer Theatre is marking its 75th year, and it’s worth celebrating , even though I caught the last play right at the end of its run (it sold out anyway, including three extra matinees, who needs critics?). There’s comedy, dance and Jacqui Dankworth to come this week, but I have to report that the final play – a premiere by Jon Canter – was a humdinger, a triumphant flourish for the season’s end. Four cracking performances, one of them by a real golden retriever; many fine jokes, and a sweet-hearted undertow of gentle melancholy about age, loss, love and memory.



Richard Wilson, that master of intelligent curmudgeonliness, plays a septuagenarian couples counsellor (“The first couple I saw were Gerald and Marjorie – that dates me”). He is trying to reconcile his final clients: a pretty abominable pair of nouveau-riches . In a series of short scenes – often picked up, niftily, in mid-conversation – we learn that Charlie is the manager of a volatile girl popstar called The Moon, and that his leather-trousered wife Apples (Jasmine Hyde) was his efficient PA but since marrying him does nothing but run a self-aggrandizing charity and make awful jewellery. Both are permanently affronted and intermittently savage.



But before, and between, these scenes in the first act the old man is alone onstage with his dog Grace: a part played with superb insouciance and expressive listening skills by Darcey, a golden retriever and former guide-dog in the most striking stage debut of the year so far. Stage tradition would suggest that Richard Wilson cannot have been entirely keen on sharing the stage with this blonde showstopper, but the rapport is tremendous. Canter’s sharp thoughtful script has him addressing exactly the sort of remarks to her that one does proffer to a familiar pet when alone; between that, and phone calls to his demented old mother’s care home, we learn where he is and has been in a brave and lonely life. And the dog, fully in control of her exits, moves and loyal expressions of attentiveness, does not detract one bit from the humanity of it. Even the occasional inevitable, British-audience-standard signs of “aaah!” cannot distract from Wilson’s magisterial command of our attention.


Canter writes some wonderful lines (not least Charlie’s cross “Do I LOOK deep to you?”) and Apples‘ prim, contemptuous irritability is both funny and exasperating: there is a nice sense of modernity about their shallow preoccupations set against the counsellor’s generational difference.



When it does become touching, near the end, the sour comic edge of which the older actor is a master cuts through schmalz with good moments of bathos. Aftar a splendid exchange after the couple reconcile (“What shall we do now?” “Leave!”) – I did cavil a bit at a final five-minute scene which tied up the story into too pretty a bow. I’d drop that. But I’d watch the play again: if only another theatre can get Wilson backm and cast a dog as stageworthy as Darcey.

rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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REVOLUTION FARM – City Farm, Newham




Far out in DLR-land, in the wilderness of Urban Regeneration that is the new East-of-East End, Newham City Farm has been since 1977 a place where you can, refreshingly, look at cows and carthorses and rabbits and remind yourself that there is more to the messy-feathery-dungy business of life than high-rise banks and bland groomed city parks. As site-specific theatre goes, it couldn’t be a niftier place for director James Martin Charlton to put on an urban-gangland adaptation of Orwell. With a one-off special permission the story is rewritten by James Kenworth, and local children in rather terrifying facepaint and paper snouts (Ian Teague’s designs) join five professionals.


Nicola Alexis and Andreas Angelis are smarmy pigs with fearsome snouts and hoodies, eyes glittering nastily from the dark paint, Kevin Kinson is the towering, faithful, dim carthorse (Orwell’s Boxer renamed Warrior), Katie Arnstein his sceptical horse best friend, and Samuel Caseley is Hero, eventually betrayed. The original father of the revolution, Old Boy, is a more benign puppet pig, who we first meet in the atmospheric darkness of the barn as the animals plot their bid for justice and freedom.


It’s a promenade performance: you folllow the animals round as, with considerable spirit, they enact the story in shed, field and open space, leaping onto a ping-pong table and erecting a fine wooden windmill for the industrial revolution led by the crafty pigs. The script is gangishly modernized, the slogans not four-legs-good-two-legs-bad but “Four legs badass – two legs Wasteman”. It is also more explicitly violent for today’s youthful sensibilities: “Kill the scum! Cut off his head!” “He’s got a gun!”- “But we’ve got the darkness!”.


Dark it is, at times. But it follows, with correct intelligence, exactly the Orwellian line of political decline. A founding pig, idealistically, tries to educate the lower animals: the sharper swine disrupt the education, feed them exciting slogans and flatter them as heroes of the revolution. Gradually the rules change and those who question that are silenced, mocked, eventually accused of sabotage and called the Enemy Within. Power concentrates in the hands of the pig-elite. The dogs become an obedient, enforcing army. Repressive murder ensues, and is whitewashed.


There is a bit of slightly irritating topical-leftie grandstanding when the pigs talk of “tough decisions” and say “We are all in this together” but the final sacrifice and betrayal of the honest worker Warrior is touchingly done. And, while enjoying the performance (it is a brisk 85 minutes) I have to say that the greatest pleasure was seeing those splendid, spiritedly performing Newham children getting an excellent political education about power, politics, and the need to keep asking questions. I hope a lot of children come to see it. to 24 August
rating : three  3 Meece Rating

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GUYS AND DOLLS – Chichester Festival Theatre




There is a sort of generosity, an overflowing vigour, when Chichester’s great three-sided arena does the classic musicals. They can’t be safely confined in a proscenium frame but have to pour out in three directions, sharpening the need for story and character, spilling the cast sometimes among us, bursting into 3D choreography with dazzling movement and gorgeous compositions of colour and piled-up shape. And of all the great musicals, none offers more of everything than Frank Loesser’s exuberant 1950 fairytale of gamblers, showgirls and tambourine-banging missionaries out to convert them.


The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows drew on Damon Runyon’s world: a sunny, larky, almost Wodehousian interpretation of New York lowlife. And here, beneath a great illuminated arc of nostalgic advertising posters – pure Disney, in a good way – Gordon Greenberg’s production sings and soars unfettered. The choreography – acrobatic to the point of insanity – is by Carlos Acosta, no less, supported by Andrew Wright: the gamblers in their suits and ties leapfrog, hurtle, somersault in a melée of precise chaos. “Siddown you’re rocking the boat” is phenomenal, and the crap-shooting dance down the sewers almost equally astonishing. As for the women, Anabel Kutay leads a Havana dance which becomes still wilder as the degenerating brawl incorporates Clare Foster’s disinhibited missionary Sergeant Sarah, and Sophie Thompson’s Miss Adelaide in the Hot Box club is backed by plenty of slyly witty, naffly innocent ensemble hoofing in gingham corsetry or strippable mink stoles.


When the cast are in motion there is always something to amaze: while Peter McKintosh’s overarching design of ads (Oreo! Cadillac! Camel!) is sometimes reflected in the shiny floor until the cast seem to be floating in a circular mirage of light and colour. And they themselves – perfect right down to the men’s two-tone co-respondent shoes and snazzy socks – form patterns rarely less than perfect.


But enough about the look of the thing. Its wit is more the point: the spoken dialogue (of which there is more than many musicals) is sharp and funny, giving scope for subtleties of character. Jamie Parker, chiselled and cool, lets the character of Sky Masterson breathe and genuinely change as he falls in love with Sarah; Peter Polycarpou’s harassed Nathan Detroit has a nice unwilling charm, his confreres (especially Harry Morrison as Nicely Nicely and dour, towering Nic Greenshields as Big Jule) each stand out distinct. Neil McCaul as Abernethy the minister creates in his small moments something genuinely lovable and precious. And Greenberg’s detail never misses a passing joke, not least when he makes momentarily solid the women’s dreams of a ruralized Nathan and domesticated Sky. It takes only seconds, that, but adds to the sum of happiness; so does the real steam from the New York pavement gratings and the momentary appearance (twice) of a wobbly nun on a bicycle with a collecting-bucket.


Hard to pick out stars, but the obvious, irresistible, fabulously broad performance is Sophie Thompson’s as Miss Adelaide. Who could resist that high Bronx twang swooping down to a dismayed baritone, her barmy dancing, or that angular anxiety – both hilarious and heartbreaking – about the ever-vanishing wedding day resolved in a final sisterly duet with Sergeant Sarah? Not me.


box office 01243 781312 to 21 Sept
Sponsors Henry Adams / Reynolds / Seaward
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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DOGFIGHT – Southwark Playhouse, SE1




Strewth! What a wonderful show.  In this trade we are cautious of superlatives, lest omething even better comes along and renders us weaponless. Nor am I a target audience for American fringe-musicals chewing over the emotional wreckage of the Vietnam war, and the green boys who came back (if they were lucky) to find themselves both traumatized and unpopular. No Woottom Bassett welcomes for most of them, poor devils.


But this –  book by Peter Duchan, with plaintive, both folky and rock-wild music and lyrics by Banj Pasek and Justin Paul – is special. Not just because the young men are so roughly, endearingly young and nervously macho, and  move with an energy both joyful and menacing (Matt Ryan directs, Lucie Pankhurst choreographs). Nor is it mere nostalgia, though set in San Francisco in 1967, sliding back as a memory-play to ’63 and the night before embarkation. It has real dramatic energy, never flagging or overstating the obvious, and within the musical form lies a very good play: a romantic, hard-edged and humane love story with universal feeling at its heart.


The “Dogfight” of the title is a nasty squaddie ritual for the last night : a pre-brothel prize for whoever can pick up the ugliest girl and get her to a dance to be judged.  Marine Eddie (a waiflike Jamie Muscato, half-lost boy, half-lout) finds Rose, a chubby shy waitress. His basic shy decency makes him gradually hesitate as she blossoms in innocent delight at her first date, but macho comradeship defeats his doubts. We cringe for her, singing to herself anxiously as she dresses (in a truly awful bow-belted party frock) and hoping her beau will be “nothing short of wonderful”.   By this time, I have to tell you, the entire room is helplessly in love with Laura Jane Mathewson, fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music and in her first job. Gotta be Newcomer of the Year: she’s a jewel.


Goodness, they say, writes white: but Matthewson gives Rose a beautiful guileless sweetness , never bland, wholly credible, girlish, emotionally vulnerable but with a fierce intelligence. She shines, but – no Madam Butterfly – delights us further with some sharp feminist-cum-motherly scolding when she discovers her humiliation, and more when Eddie remorsefully tries to make it up to her. Their rapprochement is enchantingly – and funnily, and melodiously – achieved. Add a lovely swooping voice, clear and warm, and a seemingly unselfconscious womanly physicality and..well! strong men swoon, and women who were once chubby girls in wrong dresses whoop and cheer. Remember that name. Laura Jane Matthewson!


Around these two is gathered a strong cast, notably Nicholas Corre as a geeky virginal fellow-marine with nervous doubts, and Rebecca Trehearn as a minxy tart. Behind them on a towering section of the Golden Gate Bridge an six-piece band sounding twice the size. Ask no more. It’s almost perfect.


box office 020 7407 0234 to 13 Sept

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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WUTHERING HEIGHTS – Theatre in the Forest, Nr Ipswich




The slope beneath the great chestnut trees makes a perfect arena: on tiered seating or below it on chairs, the audience are held breathless by Emily Bronte’s unfolding melodrama, as players with whitened faces, mummer-style, appear from the depths beyond or roam between convincingly aged tombstones.

This is outdoor theatre for the summer, surrounded (on “Jimmy’s Farm”) by strings of lights leading down paths through the gloom, and that rejoicingly summery mud-and-Portaloo festi-vibe we love. The informality is enhanced by the fact that your ticket will probably be taken and your steps guided, by Edgar Linton in his pink top-hat (Laurence Pears) or by one of the Cathys: the dark impassioned Cathy Earnshaw (Kirsty Thorpe) or her scampering spirited Linton daughter (Anna Doolan). And that Heathcliff, saturnine and savage, the white makeup eerie beneath dark curls, peers out from nearby trees in the person of Daniel Abbott.


It is a sharply, neatly adapted version by the director Joanna Carrick, moving spirit of the splendid Red Rose Chain Theatre. It works with a mixture of naturalism, narrative split between the players as if in some ancient ritual, and occasional chanted choral lines which raise the hairs on the back of your neck. I wondered, in the headlong first half – from the Earnshaw childhood to Cathy’s death and Heathcliff’s crazed grief – how she would handle the second part. The novel’s shape is very different from what a classic tragedy asks, its climb towards reconciliation and the rappreochement of Hareton and young Cathy less arresting dramatically than the wildness of the first part.


But Carrick uses the deepening darkness of the evening cleverly, with a constant sense of the haunting Catherine and the haunted Heathcliff set, in black moments, between particularly charming and cleverly adapted Hareton-and-Cathy scenes. Indeed Joel Johnson’s Hareton – childish, then loutish, then earning a wounded dignity – is one of the high points of the show. He’s still training at the Bristol Old Vic: watch out for him. Also worth watching is Rachael McCormick as Nelly: she holds the narrative together with authority and humour. But they’re all good, and the production of a standard you don’t often find outdoors, not on a dank evening up a farm track near the Orwell Bridge. It’s in rep with Red Rose Chain’s COMEDY OF ERRORS, which word of mouth is also recommending. May it stay dry for them…


box office
01473 603388

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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PRODUCT BY MARK RAVENHILL Assembly Hall guestreview




It is amazing how quickly contemporary events become history, and recent history becomes the distant past. Mark Ravenhill’s 45 minutesatire was first seen at the Traverse during the 2005 Fringe, less than a month after the London 7/7 bombings. It uses as its central figures Al Qaeda activists involved in the War on Terror, and even features a cameo from the late Osama bin Laden. As such, it already feels dated by the advent of the latest generation of terrorists such as ISIS.


This new production stars Olivia Poulet, best known for her appearances in The Thick of It. She plays a role originally taken very successfully by the playwright himself, both at the Traverse and in a remixed version at the Bush a couple of years later: a movie producer trying to sell the role of a modern girl named Amy in her latest project, the comically-bad Mohammed and Me, to some big-hitting Hollywood starlet.


Where Ravenhill’s guest was played by a real actress, albeit a silent presence, in this version she is a void located somewhere near the audience. Oddly, this does make a difference to both audience perceptions and the performance, which has slightly less focus. The gender change for the producer almost comes off but that too alters the piece, reducing the irony inevitable when a middle-aged man was telling a young woman how to react and express feelings that she would understand far better than he ever could.


The story remains compelling,though, filled with dark humour. Amy, having lost her lover when the Twin Towers fell, meets a “dusky” fellow on a plane and due to force of circumstance takes the Islamic virgin straight to bed. In heavy-handed Hollywood fashion, we discover that he is a suicide bomber and as love blossoms, Amy is left with a series of decisions which only ever occur in bad movies. The story builds explosively to a blockbuster denouement.   Yet Product is effective both because it shines a light on terrorism and cruelly lampoons Hollywood blockbuster movie for shallowness and unthinking tactlessness. Poulet urges the text along in an entertaining performance but one that cannot quite match that of Ravenhill who conceived the role. But it will still draw audiences and has been extended to the Fringe’s end now to 24 Aug
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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CALAMITY JANE Watermill, Newbury


Yee-ha! Calamity Jane strides in, beefy in buckskins, more beltingly, braggingly alive than any man in the room. Or, indeed, any room. She’s been ridin’ the stagecoach through war-parties of redskins real and fictional, likes to accentuate a point by firing her six-shooter at the ceiling, and presents the more feminine Sue-from-the-saloon with a dress-length of gingham roaring “I wouldn’t know how to act with sump’n like that hangin’ off me”. This dame can make Wild Bill Hickock look prissy, and as for poor Lieut Danny whose wounds she binds up with yearning calf-love, he’s plumb terrified. As is the extravagantly bearded Rattlesnake, stagecoach-driver and bass player (Paul Kissaun) who recoils timidly from her fabulous swagger, like the grizzly-b’ars. Of which she says she just shot two. At once.


What a treat is this stage version of the great Warner Brothers 1953 Fain and Webster musical . A few minutes in, cosied up under a rope chandelier with the regulars in the Golden Garter saloon, you feel a daft grin spreading across your face which never deserts you all evening. I’d forgotten about the Doris Day film, but every number in this feast of feelgood ‘50s Americana is a classic, as the Deadwood Stage rolls again through the Black Hills of Dakota, whipcrackaway! Unbidden, the audience softly sings along with the Black Hills in the dance scene. And Nikolai Foster’s production is a joy: a cast of storming actor-musicians seizing instruments from fiddle to spoons and percussing the scenery, then breaking into brilliantly hokey line-dance movement from Nick Winston. All this within Matthew Wright’s saloon–and-stage set, perfect in its battered intimacy. The show tours onwards next month and is tough enough to take any theatre: but within the little wooden Watermill it is a particular kind of bliss.


And of course Jodie Prenger was born to play Calamity. She’s a belting singer, as we all know from OLIVER (she won ‘I’d do Anything’) but also a smart mover and a dab hand at the spoons. And she radiates a lovable vitality which, in the old cliché, lights up the stage. The plot, diverging somewhat from history but in a good cause, has her braggingly promising to bring a top Chicago act – Adelaid Adams – to the saloon where the guys fight over cigarette-card pictures of the star: the landlord nearly got lynched when he accidentally booked a man (Rob Delaney with a hilarious tap-and-uke routine) instead of a burlesquer. Calam brings a substitute, the ambitious Katie (Phoebe Street) and a romantic tangle ensues, with Prenger dropping her macho act in genuinely moving disappointment and sadness before finding – ta-daaa! – true love in Wild Bill.


Hokum, hokum all the way but a blast of playful energy. The rattling stagecoach ride is created by Rattlesnake and Calamity sitting on the top of the old upright piano and the rest shuddering behind , Phoebe Street has a gorgeous feather-duster ballet to “A Woman’s Touch”, Tom Lister’s is sultry Rhett-Butlerish Hickok, and we learn the best Wild-west insult any sister coulda wished for: “Ya frilled-up man-rustler!”.


box office 01635 46044 to 6 sept then touring nationwide to Dec.
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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ANIMAL FARM – Assembly George Square




Anyone expecting a children’s show from Guy Masterson’s adaptation of Orwell could be in for a shock. This deeply political production, performed by a large ensemble from Keti Dolidze’s Tumanishvili Film Actors Theatre of Tbilisi, Georgia can be quite terrifying. In fact, its impact and mood are closer to what we expect from 1984 rather than Animal Farm.

It takes a little time to tune into the 90-minute play, partly because it is performed in Georgian with English surtitles; but also because the animals (a large menagerie) are only identifiable thanks to the strong physical acting capabilities of cast members. Once they get going, the classifications become pretty clear and the audience is treated to some chillingly effective imagery, courtesy of designer Simon Macahbeli.

The story is familiar but even so, takes on new connotations when delivered by actors from a country that was for so long a Soviet state and home to Josef Stalin. What seems like a hopeful beginning, when the animals are freed from the established tyranny of Farmer Jones and his human henchmen doesn’t last long. The seven commandments laid down to regulate life are soon forgotten as the terrible Napoleon, given a fearsome mien by leading actor George Kipshidze, begins his civil war against the more benign Snowball, Vano Dugladze.

Soon the animals are divided into two factions and the farm has become the USSR under Stalin, complete with plans, empty promises and enslavement, state-sponsored murder not too far behind.
The animals react very differently to Napoleon and his black hench-dogs, but one the most poignant experiences is that of Zurab Getsadze’s stalwart, workhorse Boxer who keeps the faith to the end. Which comes in the knackers’ yard, not the promised hospital ward.

This very special production is an undoubted Edinburgh highlight, thanks to a powerful adaptation and the commitment of its talented cast. It would be good to see it transfer to London in the autumn. to 24th

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HUFF Traverse, Edinburgh

I thought it was a children’s walk-through amusement, something to keep the little bleeders willing to accompany parents to the serious Traverse plays below. Had too many reviews to do anyway. But that heroine of fringe and innovative theatre, Lynn Gardner of the Guardian, said “Go. It takes twenty minutes. Go”.  So I booked a slot, divested myself of shoes and bag, and crept into a tiny room and sat down on some suitcases to watch revolving musical china pigs on a dresser . And I saw that she was right as usual. One must abnegate adulthood sometimes if one is to maintain balance.
What Shona Rebbe and Andy Manley have created (for Catherine Wheels) is indeed child-friendly: a series of miniature rooms taking you – surreally and obliquely – into the domestic world of the three little pigs: the reckless jerrybuilders who used sticks and straw, and the prudent one with the bricks.  The joy is in its weirdness: you are encouraged to handle and touch things, and you open the kitchen drawers to find bricks, find a fridge worryingly full of Italian ham, and a washing machine spewing straw. It has an unpretentious Dali-cum-fairytale appeal.


A disembodied kindly voice leads you on, telling you which wall is the door out (my favourite instruction is “pull on the underpants”. The bathroom is upside down, lav on the ceiling: sometimes you are in a cupboard, once a garage, always with offbeam, slightly threatening suggestions of the prowling wolf only countered by determined porcine domesticities.
It is quite lovely. Thank you Lynn. Unaccompanied children should be 8 at least (CCTV watches out for panic). But with siblings or parents , six year olds have loved it. As for lone adults…well, I played with everything and had a little dance once or twice. Bliss.
box office 0131 228 1434 to 24 aug
rating four

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CASTING THE RUNES – Space on the Mile, Edinburgh

I found this maverick pair, “Box Tale Soup”   out in the boondocks last fringe: Antonia Christophers and noel Byrne, creating a wonderful Northanger Abbey out of cardboard suitcases, paper props and puppetry. I wrote ‘wonderful’ and I hope it helped. Anyway, they are still touring that delicate, gentle Austen – one of the best and truest treatments, bar none, in any dramatic medium – but this year up on the Mile they fill their little space with something different. There are fewer puppets – though one sudden and very scaring one – and a creepier, more oblique piece of storytelling. They still have their trademark costumes and solemnity: charming ties, facings and belts made of bookprint, indicating a literary rather than wholly naturalistic mood. All props are paper, deliberately simple, indicating that this is literature made visible.


The playlet’s story is typical of its author M. R. James: a sceptical exposer of occultism , played by Byrne, tangles with something dark and powerful and a beautiful girl who warns him of its threat (Christophers plays several characters with the minimum of fuss and open changes).  The style is elegant. Ritualistic, even: they create an odd magic of attentiveness in the audience with deliberate, quiet moves, a solemnity: occasionally they briefly leave character to sing (the fine score is by Dan Melrose) a couple of those frightening lines from the Ancient Mariner about the man who “turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend /doth close behind him tread”.


This simplicity builds to something really odd and alarming: James’ “Who is this who is coming” genuinely arouses the terror of myth. Often it is more like reading, alone, than watching a show. And seeing them handle costumes and props reinforces what M.R.James wanted: “Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently until it holds the stage.”  to 23 Aug

rating:  three  3 Meece Rating

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THE QUANT Hill St Solo, Edinburgh




Jamie Griffiths is not a quantitative analyst in the City. He’s an actor and playwright. Not a “quant”, a risk-taking star of the city betting and hedging and ducking and diving and making billions and then losing some and panicking and covering his tracks. But his hard, chiselled smartness and edgy delivery ring so true that at times in this remarkable monologue you drift into thinking the performer is telling a true story.

And in essence, true it is. As a maths graduate, enraged by the bank bailouts, Griffiths became obsessed with how it all worked, read widely, hung out in forums for quants and traders and got even more enraged. Fascinated, too, by the bizarre, risky casino culture of young, wet-behind-the-ears adventurers encouraged to bet not only their own institution’s money, but imaginary money it doesn’t have. So he begins his presentation as if we are trainees being told how it works; as it goes on, the story shades into autobiography and a final reveal about the Quant’s own biggest, baddest bet. It becomes ever more gripping, ever more brilliantly appalling.

It is full of fierce little wisdoms, which might be spoken by a real practitoner. “We do not grow anything, we do not manufacture anything. We manufacture risk”. He explains the levels and types of risk. Execution risk, in which the other guy might be faster, so it is vital to be near the server hub (“ever 93 miles away you lose a millisecond”). There’s Excel risk, in which you model a computer programme but it doesn’t deliver. There’s counterparty risk, in which you win but the other guy can’t pay up. And there is people risk, in which human beings simply don’t behave logically (“Why didn’t Greece default?” etc). We learn about derivatives, leverage, arbitrage, and above all the giddy triumphalism of the successful trader who is dealing in sums so vast, and earning sums so vast, that he feels omnipotent. “Staring into the face of God and realizing you are looking in a mirror”.

Watching him, listening to this impassioned impersonation, I found it easier than usual to answer the humble layperson’s question, “why don’t these people just take the first couple of bonuses and bail out, buy a farm or something pleasant, get a proper life?”. They can’t: it is addictive behaviour. And, as becomes clear as his narrative unfurls, even the maddest of this behaviour is not likely to be controlled, curbed, or even condemned by the big profitable institutions in charge. Until it goes seriously wrong and they need a scapegoat. Riveting. to 24 August

rating  four 4 Meece Rating

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JUVENALIA – Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

Terrible times we live in. A decadent civilization, a crumbling empire, hypocrites in power, toadies fawning on the rich, women strangers to chastity and hard work, who live obsessed with celebrity gossip , hairdos and “crushes on ham actors”. There’s nobody much believing in the old religion, cheats and scroungers declare fake dependants, ghastly foreigners show off, and there’s urban racket everywhere “How much sleep , I ask you, can one get in lodgings here?” cries our host, to a roar of laughter from a hungover Fringe audience. Even the canapés these days are ghastly – “half an egg stuffed with a prawn, faugh!”.
The times he excoriates are two millennia past, the decadent noisy city is Rome; the satirist snarling at it is Juvenal. It is 38 years since Simon Callow first strode onto an Edinburgh stage, scowling, in the character of the Roman satirist Juvenal: now with a mop of curly white hair and an easier route to summoning up the eternal grumpy-old-man, he probably suits it even better . This revival of Richard Quick’s adaptation of the writings (translated, with wonderful vigour, by Peter Green) certainly roars along. He’s an equal-opportunities insulter, is Juvenal, and while women get a pretty rough deal so do the gay collectors of pretty boys – “Soon” he snarls “male brides will yearn for a mention in the Daily Gazette”. His explicit remarks about their sufferings from piles and the boredom of slaves tasked to serve their needs remain quite shocking enough to answer my vague wondering about why we never did any Juvenal for A level at the dear old convent…
His lines, though, have fed into the language – “who will guard the guards?” ‘Bread and circuses” “A healthy mind in a healthy body”. And the skill of Callow’s presentation, and the structuring of this bravura character recitation (directed here by Simon Stokes) is that it lightens and sweetens towards the end. Just as you think you’ve had enough grumping, Callow pauses and looks, reflectively, into an imaginary mirror to mourn that “all old men look the aged baboon, trembling lips…impotent dodderers, senscent in mind…”. And that those who live long will live through grief: bury sons, wives, sisters. So live well, friends: it ends with a gentle, wearily lyrical evocation of that healthy mind and body, needing just simple food with friends, sun on your back..and “a valiant heart.” to 24 August

rating:   four  (well, three plus a virtuoso performermouse)  3 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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Good to know (and I mean this seriously) that Edinburgh comedy is not cowed by squeamish PC seriousness. If you can’t laugh at everything, you probably can’t laugh at anything for long. So here is Victor Frankenstein, driven by rivalry with his old schoolfriend, competing for the coveted academic chair of P.A.E.D.O. (Physics of Artificial Expertise in Developing Organisms). He must invigorate a Creature, sending Igor (an Avenue Q puppet obsessed with musical theatre) to fetch body parts. But Igor is careless with the liver, so the otherwise perfect, mop-haired creature can’t take his drink, sings a lot of Rolf Harris tunes to his own slurring words, and after one tot of whisky becomes – well, the floppy blond wig sort of gives it away.


Hey, why not? We have lived in an atmosphere of hushed horror for too long. Laugh at the wicked: it’s better than cringing. Not that this particular strand goes far, for they’ve a tale to tell. In a flurry of songs, dopy jokes and clever ones, by way of a wickedly parodied University Alcohol Awareness seminar and a full Chippendale silver-thong routine, Mary Shelley’s tale of Dr Frankenstein and his creation Frankie is traduced in fifty hugely enjoyable minutes.
This is Last Chance Saloon again – Sam Dunham, Jack Faires and Jack Gogarty. I saw their Dracula two years ago with delight and I am frankly (ha ha, see what I did there?) a fan. Their shows are intensely silly but also intensely disciplined: they understand audience atmosphere and pick it up, but are masterly with their vaudeville and slapstick skills. No sound-effect misses by as much as a millisecond, no joke outlives its mayfly impact. These things matter, especially here this month where , up and down the roaring, laughing, chaotic Fringe lanes, there is so much sloppier comedy. Welcome back, lads. to 24 August

rating:  4  4 Meece Rating



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WINGMAN – Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh




Last year I purred over Richard Marsh’s “Dirty Great Love Story”,
a blissfully clever, likeable, honest miniature rom-com, observing of its tone “You are in safe hands when the inner monologue of a stag-night has the nerve to rhyme “penis” with a plaintive “We’re grown up men now, some of us have cleaners!”.


I hoped Marsh would find other outlets for the style he had so beautifully evolved: an acted, two-handed narrative in what I can best describe as Relaxed Rap. Or Mellow Middleclass Mashup. Which is to say that he has no fear of rhyme, alliteration, assonance or scansion, and is indeed adept at them all; but neither is he aspiring to some poetry-slam intensity or heroic consistency: he’s happy to drop in utter naturalism of dialogue, and jokey blokey gags which could fall as easily from the classier sort of comic.


This time his director is Justin Audibert, his fellow-player Jerome Wright. The theme is fatherhood, the tale a sour-sweet account of a young man – about thirty – losing his mother to cancer and reconciling with an estranged father. Characters spring to vivid, eccentric life: his mother’s last days of determined individuality “suffering as herself, an awesome autumn”, his own tricky love-life (“what kind of man breaks the heart of a hospice nurse?”) and the invasion of his long-estranged father into the funeral. The absurdity of that funeral itself leads to sour dour jokes – “an old person’s dead, so let’s eat food for a children’s party..”


The father offers to be his “wingman”, helping him pull girlfriends, one of whom seems to be pregnant. which is awkward. The narrator bitterly resents this: the interplay between Marsh and Wright – playing the ultimate annoying Dad – is funny and painful at once. The tale, and its back-story wind on cleverly, dark and light together. Finally there is a good twist, and then another, and a happy ending which leaves you with a grin. to 24 Aug
Rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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Sometimes you have to check out the Fringe regulars, especially when tagged with “sizzling” by the Scottish Express and “well worth getting out of bed for” by the Indy.  So I bought a ticket for this hardy annual – and the show was indeed packed, sold out in a venue on the large side of medium.
But it’s pretty terrible. Sloppy, self-indulgent, witless sub-sixth-form larking by five players old enough to know better. We live, after all, in the post-Reduced-Shakespeare age. This stuff can be smarter, by a factor of about fifty times. Here, the loose  plot has a girl shipwrecked on an island populated by Shakespeare characters who switch randomly around, mainly as an excuse to chuck out prithees and sirrahs and extract bad jokes from overfamiliar lines from the Dictionary Of Hackneyed Quotations. When Prince Hal strolls on with a union jack towel saying “once more unto the beach dear friends”, and the audience obediently guffaws, you know where you are. You’re in middle-aged 1950s philistinism, a world scared of poetry and feeling, demanding nothing more than validation of its fear of the archaic, the heroic, the complex. Smirk at a Yorick skull! Put Shakespeare in his place!



There are three middling good jokes – Hamlet taking a selfie, “hashtag thatisthequestion”, and a four-wall-breaking moment when a Romeo looks at the ceiling with “But soft, what light from yonder lighting rig breaks?”, followed by “things can only get meta”. And it’s a nice idea that ever since Plomley you can always find a copy of the Complete Works on a desert island.  The rap at the end has at least been worked on, and updated to put Richard III in the car-park. But sizzling? Worth getting up for? What were they thinking?
Rating…oh dear.   Dead Rat

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Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play is pretty much perfect: a twist on the traditional drawing-room, single-set comedy of sex, love, friendship and death. Directing, Robert Hastie does it full justice. In two unbroken hours here is a constantly involving, slyly funny and heartbreaking production.
That is the first thing to say, and should precede the standard description of it as a famous play about gay men and an important landmark in writing about the AIDS crisis of the 1990’s. Not that it is a rant against social prejudice: indeed you would hardly know that there was any. A flippant toast “To gross indecency!” carries no implied legal terrors as it would have done before Wolfenden; and when Eric the Brummie barman casually says, pretty unbothered, that his comprehensive wasn’t like the film Another Country – “if you were a poof they threw you in the canal and pissed on you”. Gay rights are not Elyot’s message, unless incidentally through the lovability of the characters. For all their campery, these are just six people in a tangle of friendship and love: only one explicitly fears AIDS, and the two deaths occurring between scenes might almost as well be cancer.
That’s its strength: but of course a “gay” play has advantages over farces and tragedies set in the ‘straight” world. You can complicate your sexual relationships faster than Feydeau if anyone can sleep with anyone (and anyone probably will have had a night, or part thereof, with the unseen Reg). Gay men are also, forgive the stereotype, often gifted at satiric, savage and explicit verbal humour, which rapidly ramps up the comedy. It also helps defuse and pivot the moments of high emotion, and there are many: for sudden male tears and embraces are more natural. Then add to that – especially twenty years away from gay marriage and the domestic normalization of today – the ability to play with some un-British closeness across class barriers: the barman with four CSEs and the public-school toff, the copywriter with the smart flat and the lorry-driver (“though I think he’s really a florist”). It all helps.

But it is not a play of stereotypes and special pleading. It drills into universals: the uses and limits of sex, the blind alley and brief relief of hookups, the yearning for intimacy, the ache of jealousy, Spender’s “grave evening demand for love” . At its heart is a superb performance by Jonathan Broadbent as Guy: tubby, fussy, decent, maternal, frustrated, everybody’s confidant and nobody’s first choice. He is achingly funny and heartbreakingly noble. Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfield are the glamour-boys whose conquistador pride crumbles into grief and longing; Lewis Reeves the barman, wisest of them all. Outside that circle – though nobody escapes Reg – Richard Cant is funny and sad as Bernie, sinuously lovesick for his nonchalant brutal bus-driver Benny (Matt Bardock, cocksure in every sense).


So, not a “gay play”, cultish and exclusive. Shock, betrayal, the comfort of touch echo in us all. And plenty of conventional spouses might ruefully echo Benny’s observation that sometimes you never realize what a bore your partner is until you’re both out with other people. Brilliant.


Box Office 0844 871 7624 to Supported: Barclays /Simmons & Simmons
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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KINGMAKER Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

Here is a cheerful, dishevelled Alan Cox as Max Newman, London Mayor turned Tory MP. He’s a seemingly bumbling, teddybearish, pratfalling, polysyllabic Beano favourite, disguising his laser-sharp political brain by uttering lines like “Crikey-what-a-tower-of-preposterous-piffle”, with a lovable authenticity which as his sworn enemy Eleanor Hopkirk MP snarls, “takes enormous technique”. Guess who..


In this tale, the PM is resigning, and Max wants the leadership. But he wants to be elected, not to be the Tories’ Gordon Brown: there is only one rival left in the race, the green youngster Dan Regan. The two of them are summoned secretly to a basement office by Eleanor (Joanna Bending) , who is Chief Whip. She suspects Max of getting some of his followers to vote for Dan (Laurence Dobiesz), in order to make him seem a credible rival. That would obviously give Max more lustre when he inevitably wins. But the Whip has a plan to topple him, act kingmaker to Dan and probably control him in office. Her motive tangles politics and personal anims: she thinks Max a bully, a game-player with no ideals, and wants to blackmail him over provoking a suicide long ago.
The play sees the verbal duel between the two, with Dan as the third point of the triangle. But in trying to keep us gripped by this squalid insiderish Westminster-bubble scene for an hour the writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky have bitten off a lot, and given its excellent director Hannah Eidinow a tricky task. I enjoyed Khan and Salinsky’s last political romp much more: indeed being set in the closing weeks of a Con-Lib government it would feel more topical right now than this one’s peering into a Borisoid future. Writing about that earlier play, COALITION, I called it a “ near- credible story, its sharp lines underpinned by a real apprehension of what practical power entails”. This one doesn’t get that far.


It has its moments, especially when Cox demonstrates the humble line he will take on Newsnight to defuse the old scandal. And the whip has one speech offering a devastatingly accurate analysis of the Max technique for fighting off difficult subjects: bumbling bafflement, quick pivot, attempt at flattery, anger, then a head-down-rugby-scrum attack and finally the little-boy-lost look.
That’s good. But it’s not quite enough. to 24 August

Rating:  three   3 Meece Rating

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THE CURING ROOM – Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh



“It’s not just seven naked men eating each other” must be the most startling aplogia yet for a play; but the author David Ian Lee and the director Joao de Sousa have a point. This shattering story bases its ninety graphic, violent minutes on a brief anecdote of cannibalistic wartime horror once mentioned by George Steiner. It does make a serious attempt to imagine extremes of stress, and wonder how human beings – half animal half angel – would reconcile themselves to such behaviour over 39 days of horror. And as the characters are military, it has particular interest in the dissolution of discipline, structure and status. Whether this is a valid exercise each viewer must judge. I’m not sure.
The men are Soviet soldiers in 1944, thrown naked into a monastery cellar after the Waffen SS capture them and set their dogs to eat others alive. Their death-prison is the old meat-curing room. The senior officer, Comrade Captain Viktor Nikolov (they’re all very formal to start with, albeit naked) is young and green, but injured, bleeding, struggling to keep authority. He refuses to sanction drawing lots for cannibalism, but dies first.  Some of the men are older, veterans of the October Revolution and the terrible starvation sieges of Leningrad.  One youngster, Yuri, is halfwitted and another, Georgi, a farm boy. At first they quarrel, starve, thirst and resort to licking the dew off the stones in turn and drinking their own semen. Once, movingly, they sing the Internationale. At first, none of them will break the taboo by eating the dead officer.



But then the brutal Drossov is killed in a violent scuffle: even then the men circle warily, reluctant to take the first bite. Until they do. It becomes routine. Thomas Holloway is a touching childlike Yuri, protected from ever looking “in the corner” by the sweet protective Georgi (Matt Houston). Whose task, made easier by the adoption of makeshift tools like sharpened femurs, is butchery. We are not spared watching it: there’s a stripped torso, several heads, and much dim-lit truffling for tripes pulled out from below or behind the naked corpses (who lie more horridly still than any actors i have yet seen die). Two people in the audience were helped out. One was retching.


There are some remarkable interactions: violent and explicit or quietly moving: Matt Houston’s decline is particularly touching. Yuri’s confusion flowers into full- blown religious mystical speech, not entirely convingingly but a good coup de theatre, which the play needs by that time. And when around day 26 two older men talk about their families and old friendship at home in Kursk, they evoke an unbearable intimate sadness. Even while starkers, daubed in blood, intermitently gnawing human offal and having just drawn lots for the next murder by using – agh – knucklebones. Not sure whose.



So where does this get us? Is it redemptive, as the author hopes? or sadism, war- porn for an age when theatres find it hard to shock?   It is certainly overlong – one should not be counting heads to see how many more deaths till we get out. I was going to say it needs the fat trimming off the script, but under the circumstances let us grope for another metaphor, possibly drawn from something comelier. Like gardening.
All in all, the actors give a brave tour de force and the play does ask questions about human duality: meaty body and lofty spirit. One thing I’d deny is what a PR puff calls it – “darkly funny”. Not so. Or at least only once: when the university- educated officer is available to be eaten, Drossov observes “When theres nohing left to count, an economist should be repurposed”. Don’t tell Peston. to 24 August

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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CHAPLIN – Pleasance Forth, Edinburgh




My Granny met young Charlie Chaplin once: he was at her father’s Theatre Royal Nottingham with Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds.  That was before America, before the years of silent movie fame. And long before he scandalized conservative America with his courageous Hitler parody in The Great Dictator, and a speech on human brotherhood incautiously opening with the word “comrades!”.  The actor protested that it was a small c he meant, and that being passionately anti-Nazi did not make him a Commie. But postwar America, paranoid in the J Edgar Hoover years, exiled him and his young wife Oona for the last 25 years of his life.

You will tramp across a lot of cobbles this Fringe before you see a finer performance – especially a static one – than James Bryce as the aged Chaplin remembering his long life of poverty, work, fame, love and exile.  The Finnish director Sven Sid – and writers Christoffer Mellgren and Johan Storgård – draw from the Chaplin autobiography, and Bryce frames and narrates his memories from a bath-chair. Here is a man near death, haunted by memory and ghosts both benign and hostile.  It is a remarksble performance, not least in the moments when the focus is off the old man and he watches – affectionate or pained – his life unreeling as Christopher Page plays his acrobatic urchin self.

It was a life started in grinding poverty on the edge of the workhouse, with a mother who succumbed to dementia: John Scougall plays the devoted, more level-headed brother Sidney who introduced him to the theatre. He came home; butold and young, the conflicted Chaplin stays driven by his mantra “Work, work, work, theres no better medicine!” as his track takes him to Mack Sennett’s Hollywood farce factory and beyond.


The director uses odd clips of real Chaplin film, but sparingly: the play rests on black-browed earnest young Page and the centreing, powerful Easter-Island statue profile of the old man, tended in intermittent moments of distress by his beloved young wife Oona in their Swiss exile.   There is always a risk that a straight bio-play will feel formulaic: but the manic flawed determination and historic political conflict of the man carries it forward. The insecurity of being “depressed, disheartened, loved by everyone yet by no-one” may be a cliché: but, as the US press close in viciously on his love affairs and allegations of ‘un-American’ thinking, the tension here grows rather than ebbing.   Sarah McCardie and Michelle Edwards play the various women strongly; Ross Dunsmore is both Karno and the rat-faced Hoover. And as the closing moment reminds us, on the sparely used screen, that it was 1970 before Hollywood restored Chaplin to the hall of fame, we see for a moment the face of the real man on that day.


And yes, the tears prick.  No saint, but a grafter and a trouper, a man the century should remember. To 24 aug

RATING  FOUR  4 Meece Rating

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UNFAITHFUL Traverse, Edinburgh


Middle-aged man in a hotel bar, having a drink after work; miniskirted girl hits on him, shameless, provocative – “do you want to fuck me?”  Next thing we know, his frumpish wife is furious, so seeks revenge by donning a red dress and heels and hiring a gigolo in the same hotel.
Ho hum, you think,  here we go again. Dark drama of middle-class passion and potential bunny-boiling. But actually, Owen Mc Cafferty’s  80 minute four-hander, directed by Rachel O’Riordan, is far subtler than that. And despite a few slowdown moments near the end, it is an interesting take. Significantly that first scene is heralded by a screaming discordant siren sound effect, the final moment with a smooth love song. For by devious means,  via nude moments and startlingly explicit verbal sex descriptions, it winds to a satisfying conclusion about the glumly transactional nature of raw sex and the rather deeper, trickier need for intimacy which lies beneath any bonking.



For both couples are in trouble. Tom is a working man, a decent plumber, played with beautiful finedrawn dryness by Benny Young. He is having a crisis about being 57 and wondering ‘is this it? In a worn-down marriage he hardly talks to his wife. She (Cara Kelly, solid and formidable ) is becoming bitter, stroppy, critical, nursing that mid-life sense of waste. She is almost hungering for a solid, resent-able betrayal and a revenge.
Whether she gets either is something we only slowly find out, by way of an interlude with the younger pair (Gary McCann’s set, apparently stark, proves more complex than it seemed at first, nicely reflecting the fact that McCafferty’s tale does the same).  Owen Whitelaw is vibrant, spring-heeled, cocky and ultimately vulnerable as the gigolo, Ameira Darwish touching as the girl: very young in her breakable brittleness, a good but desperate liar.  So despite some slowing, I warmed to it. And as the older couple thaw, there is one particular very good laugh to be had – as our relief at the lightening tone matches theirs. It’s about a certain squarehead Doyle, and is a pleasingly Scottish football moment, for all that the author is an Abbey Dublin man…
box office 0131 228 1434 To 24 Aug.

rating:  three    3 Meece Rating

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Every afternoon at ten past five, a kilted 24-year-old woman in blue-and-white facepaint emerges from the leprous tenement of the Underbelly on a bicycle with a horse’s head on the front. She moves a short way along the Cowgate followed by a bemused crowd, and in a handy loading bay wobbles round in circles on her horse-bicycle declaiming William Wallace’s rousing speech to the rebel army, as delivered by Mel Gibson in that absurd film Braveheart. “Will ye fight?” she cries, to which the crowd obediently shout “No. We will run and we will live” and then moments later change their mind and cheer her. WIth rather more courtesy, as a rule, than when this intrepid she-Gibson did the same to a rowdily Unionist Rangers crowd outside Ibrox Park.


It is the culmination of an endearing hour in which performance artist Rachael Clerke attempts to define her identity as a “mongrel” now living in Bristol but proud of ancestry, childhood and Scottishness. And for all its flippancy and personal comic amusements, the hour probably says most of what is true about the dilemma which Alex Salmond and David Cameron have together wished on Scotland. Few, I suspect, will vote either way on coldly pragmatic economic lines. It is all tied up – as she points out – with tumbling cliffs, wide vistas, red haired heroes, football teams, songs, grudges, pessimists, victims, and inventors of the bicycle, the mackintosh, Dolly the Sheep and Tunnocks’ Teacakes. It’s visceral, emotional.


Clerke’s story – chosen by IdeasTap to showcase here – is a teasing personal take on it all, delivered with shyly cheeky likeable anecdote. Requiring National heroes, she tries out three. The first, with black irony, is Donald Trump – American, plutocratic and absurd, son of a Gaelic-speaking mother and governmentally named a “global Scot” for his planned investment on the East Coast. Which was to be a vast golf course, ruining the old sand-dunes of Clerke’s childhood where her family scattered a grandfather’s ashes. Enraged, she stole and framed a lump of turf.


She then, before our eyes, dresses up as Trump in a crazy wig and golf outfit, and shows a video of herself impersonating him. But he won’t do: so next a cushion is shoved up the shirt and pads into the cheeks to make her Alex Salmond, in which persona she roams around the Parliament, gives imaginary answers on Desert Island Discs and enacts a wild dance to The Proclaimers “Five Hundred Miles”.


Then she turns herself into Mel Gibson, in that film where as she points out “the clothes are a hundred years too late and the face paint a hundred years early”. If there is a conclusion, it is that between that imaginary past and Salmond’s imaginary future there is little to choose. “Identity is only an idea, and deeply personal”. And as an artist she likes creative vagueness. So there you are. Either this sort of bafflement in thousands of hearts has nothing to do with the vote September 18th, or else it will be the most important factor in it. Who knows?, to 24 August
rating: three McMice   3 Meece Rating


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FORGOTTEN VOICES Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh

THE COMMEMORATION Posted, 0100, 5/08/2014



“Terrible old uniforms, no proper webbing, even. Off to Destination Unknown” says the private soldier, remembering how he threw a postcard out of the train window in the hope it would reach his wife. “War was young, and so were we” says a sergeant, heady from the welcome at the liberation of Antwerp. An officer reminisces about making bombs out of jam tins to throw into enemy trenches: he enjoyed getting the stuff together because, as a public-school chap “I had never been shopping”. But the war that should have been over by Christmas never was. The memories darken: gas, foam in the lungs, drownings in foxholes, the longing for a good clean Blighty wound. And the ultimate horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, nightmare retreats, rats, mud, the strangely sweet smell of a thousand corpses all around.

Actors, low-key at lecterns, speak the words of the long dead to a silent packed hall, weaving the memories of 1914-18 into the awareness of our century. It is profoundly moving. It must be admitted that the national dimming of lights for the WW1 centenary was not apparent in much of Fringe Edinburgh, as the rock and racket of comedy, kebabs and queues carried on unabated through the evening. But walking through that to the Pleasance it was good to find the hour and day marked by a special performance of this understated 90-minute play by Malcolm McKay. Using the Imperial War Museum’s verbatim memories of the Great War, he brings them together as if in conversation between an officer, a private, a sergeant, a woman munitions worker with a husband at war. And, in the last twenty minutes, a joining American serviceman.

Here is the daily reality of war: soldiering satisfactions and grumbles, matter-of-fact horrors, the yellow skin of women in munitions factories, the purging of lice from shirt-seams over a candle flame, the trauma of an officer supervising a firing squad at dawn and losing faith in the public-school credo of being born to lead. Here too are memories of the beauty of the 1914 Christmas Truce: soldiers’ accounts of friendly fraternizing and football crossly, hopelessly denied by the officer. It feels true and terrible and rightly humble, the cast (including Julian Sands and Robert Vaughan) mere mouthpieces.


It is the woman, Kitty (Wendy Nottingham), who has the last word. Her husband was recruited, like so many other adventurous young men in those heady early days, his shoulder tapped at a Vesta Tilley concert where men took the King’s shilling on the music-hall stage. He didn’t come back.

It ended at midnight. Lights dim, lecterns gone, twelve chimes. And then the pipes of the Royal Scots Association Band: O Flower of Scotland. Then one by one the pipers left the light and marched into darkness. As thousands did a century ago, forever.
(Forgotten Voices is at the Grand – Pleasance Courtyard to 25 August daily at 1.30pm, excluding Tuesdays. Further guest artists appearing in the show after Julian Sands and Robert Vaughn, are Peter Bowles (6 – 13 August), Christopher Timothy (14 – 18 August), Robert Powell (14 and 15 August), James Fleet (20 – 25 August) and Celia Imrie (20 – 22 August).

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Kevin Spacey thrilled us all right as the lawyer Clarence Darrow (at the Old
Vic, reviewed here). One of his great triumphs was saving two young men – Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – from the gallows after they murdered a 12 year old for kicks . The story convulsed the world ninety years ago this month: for some unfathomable reason media always act astonished at crimes committed by affluent, preppy young people (they were law students) . You’d think that personality disorders, selfishness, bored sadism and mutual egging-on to outrage were exclusive to the poor. But L & L have been studied and written about ever since, and this musical treatment by Stephen Dolginoff (joint production with Greenwich Theatre) has met fascinated approval here and off- Broadway.
It feels more operatic than musical-theatre, eschewing big distinctive numbers for a piano upstage (Tom Turner turning in an epic non-stop performance) and atmospheric, intense, threatening music. Which, interestingly, emerges seamlessly from being a sort of film-noir background to accompanying recitative moments and suddenly swooping arias from the two young men. The storytelling is good – and not over-sensational, though the moment when Loeb, alone, lures the unseen boy Bobby into his roadster is truly horrible. Leopold, the seemingly weaker teenage personality of the two, narrates in retrospect from the day of his fifth parole hearing 34 years later, with a longdrawnout mournful melodic line (repeated often) “I went along with him”.


That, in fact, is the emotional core and interest of the piece. Thrill-killing itself – and Loeb’s famous obsession with “Neetchey” and becoming a Nietszchean genius superman – is the most popular source of intellectual dissection of the case, and is covered here. But the real interest is (as in Sondheim’s PASSION ) is the awful, cannibal power of obsessive sexual love. For Leopold the lonely geek, wonderfully realized in a fine debut by Danny Colligan, is homosexually adoring of the preening, psychopathic Loeb – a nicely nasty smooth performance by Jo Parsons. Leopold signs a ‘contract’ to be his idol’s efficient accomplice in all crimes – arson,burglary, vandalism, finally the murder – in return for embraces and friendship. The fawning, shirt-stripping, begging ‘thrill me’ moments are oddly powerful, not least when after one victory (Loeb ground down into bored, unwilling sexual contact) sees them lying together with Leopold’s narrative line ‘it was later that night – about five minutes later”. Poor old Leopold clearly never got much bang for his buck. The only moment when this nasty, humiliating dependence tips over into undignified audience snorts of hilarity is early on, when they are enjoying a warehouse fire they have started , and the acolyte is worried fire engines might come and catch them. Loeb draws him close and purrs “You’re the lookout – tell me if you see anything..BIG and RED coming”. Ouch.


But as it darkens and the effect of this blind adoration and folie-a-deux becomes more complex, any laughter fades in appalled contemplation. As well it might. to 24 August

rating four   4 Meece Rating


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SMALLWAR Traverse, Edinburgh



“Our enemies are not the Germans, nor the Russians or the French. The common enemy of us all is the beast within”. As Syria, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine burn and the lights dim tonight to mark the World War I centenary, those words of Valentin Bulgakov are spoken by a nurse, beside a trolley where a maimed soldier lies dying. In a still-brutal world that cannot help but be powerful. In some ways that enforces caution: weeping for lost boys can be too easy.

But this is a treatment out of the ordinary from the Belgian theatremaker Valentijn Dhaenens. Last year the Soho theatre ran his BIGMOUTH – now also running at the Traverse. My review (paywall, said among other things “brace yourself for an unnerving, technically risky and thought-provoking hour…..[as] this elfin figure demonstrates with brilliant obliquity the art of oratory from Socrates and Pericles to George W. Bush”. In this premiere – again using words drawn from reality – he uses the writings of combatants, dissidents and nurses in wars from Attila the Hun to modern Afghanistan. And echoes the other play, with “There’s always going to be bigmouths who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life…in churches and schools, in newspapers and congresses”.

But the core of this disturbing, ghostly piece is that unnamed half-man on a hospital trolley. The nurse is Dhaenens himself in WW1 nurse’s uniform. Troublingly androgynous, but not out of place in a woman who – in the words of one of the real nurses – needs to renounce womanly empathy in order to cope with the terrible job day after day: the screaming, dying, gaping mutilations. She/he comments, relates the nursing day, reflects. Into a screen behind the passive dying patient rises not one but several of him, multiple images of Dhaenens. They walk, discuss, and speak on a telephone – lovingly or angrily – to loved ones at home, or call on the God who loves his “murderous little children”. One, bare-arsed in hospital gown, becomes an insistent priest telling the dying man to recite in French “God, I give you my life, willingly, for the fatherland”. Another begs a lullaby and “Wake me up mother, and tell me this isn’t real”.

Deep voiceover from the patient himself merely has him longing to live, to feel his legs and arms once more, to wriggle his toes, find the ring his sweetheart gave him, now maybe discarded on an amputated hand. By the end there are four figures, melting, growing , shrinking, mourning – some of the real letters are shattering – but one in the voice of the philosopher Ernst Jünger acknowledging the “ecstatic, fulfilling, horrible, obscene” pleasure of killing.

Once or twice, despite Dhaenens’ hypnotic presentation and the number of times I wrote “vids – brilliant” in the margin about Jeroen Wuyts’ design, a certain unease shimmered: the pity of war, the broken young bodies, will always move an audience. Sometimes there is more power in the more restrained stage evocations – like An August Bank Holiday Lark, or The Two Worlds of Charlie F. I worried once or twice – notably when Dhaenens sang Are You Lonely Tonight – that this was an artist saying “Look at me, making a Theatre Piece”. But in the end its power stilled such doubts. As the nurse says “Life is clean, death is clean..the gap in between, that’s another kettle of fish”. That harsh focus on the private dreams and sorrows of the dying underlines the terrible pointlessness, the dulce-et-decorum lie.

box office 0131 228 1434 To 24 Aug.

rating:  four   4 Meece Rating

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CUCKOOED. Traverse, Edinburgh


Mark Thomas is the most intelligent of the modern leftist standups: impassioned, a practical activist emotionally driven but capable of rich mockery of himself, his confreres and the absurdity and illogic which threatens all human endeavours, even (or especially) the most sincere. In this riveting, headlong narrative about the Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) there are plenty of laughs at the expense of its fellowship, founded by Quakers, run by “atheist Guardian readers” and comprising “crusties, hippies, people who sing with nuns…”. Describing a protest at an Arms fair where he hijacked a party of credulous buyers and later chained his neck to the axle of a BAE Systems bus, he muses on those who cycle, march, and light candles for Peace – “This is our Ascot! Dress code, camouflage gear worn ironically”.

It’s a blokeish, beguiling way to take us in to the hard reality of the cause: hampering, mocking and exposing the illegal, criminal brutalities of a shady world of torture and genocidal cooperation despite its respectable top-dressing. He has scored plenty of closedowns and a few arrests. But it is a personal, conflicted tale he has to tell here, as well as a political cry of protest at the ubiquity of unpunished official and corporate spying on individuals: pretty damn topical after the Lawrence family revelations.

Though Thomas narrates in standup style, it is a genuinely theatrical hour: he pulls video screens from a filing cabinet to recreate interviews with colleagues, shows a clip of the bamboozling of an Indonesian general in a fake media training session, does the voices, flips around the stage with urgent manic energy. And emotion: for the story he is telling here is not just me-and-my-funny-clever activism, but a heartfelt, sorrowful account of how his close friend and fellow CAAT member Martin (whose identity he ruefully disguises) was spying, over years, for a company in the pay of BAE. Who, incidentally, were later forced to apologize to CAAT. In a sharp aside Thomas explains why the little pressure group was targeted by such a big multinational – it followed the acquittal of women who broke into a hangar to disable some fighter jets bound for bad doings in Indonesia. They were deemed to have committed a smaller crime to prevent a greater one, he says, and in one of his priceless asides, muses on how bitter it was for BAE not only to lose “but to have a 13m fighter jet which is not hammer-proof”.

The traitor Martin – working class, geezerish, jokey, solid-seeming – comes to life in the telling, and so does Thomas’ own furious disbelief, followed by stunned belief and years – culminating this spring – of trying to meet him and resolve the conundrum of a shattered trust. It is at times very moving: not least when he finds Martin depressed, living shabbily in a two up two down ‘so they weren’t paying him much”. Outrage,sadness, humour, and an underlying solid decency: whatever your politics and pragmatisms, an unmissable hour.

To 24 Aug. rating: four

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