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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