Monthly Archives: September 2014

SINGLE SPIES – Rose, Kingston




These two short plays are vintage, premier-cru Alan Bennett: funny, melancholic, sparking with ideas about Britishness, personality, class, the fingers of the past that claw at the present, and the yearning, seductive, necessary hypocrisies of national sentiment. Sarah Esdaile’s direction gives them the intelligent respect they need, and the shimmering ambiguities: the latter beautifully supported by a Francis O’Connor’s thoughtful design: both plays, with economical moves of furniture, take place against a vast collage of photographs. Anyone meeting them for the first time will get all that they should.

The first, An Englishman Abroad, was inspired by the real experience of the actress Coral Browne, playing Gertrude with the RSC in Moscow in a period of détente in 1958. Seven years after his defection, the “Cambridge spy” Guy Burgess invaded the dressing-rooms and asked her to “bring a tape measure” so he could order a suit from his British tailor. Their conversation reveals the aching loneliness and pointlessness of the exiled traitor’s life, and the actress’ response – half fascinated, half disgusted. Browne (Helen Schlesinger, crisply irritable) claims that “actresses are excused newspapers, as delicate boys were once excused games” but once exasperated after a long afternoon reproves him in basic terms: “You pissed in our soup and we drank it”.

Alexander Hanson ,after lately playing that other ambiguous smoothie Stephen Ward, is perfect casting: his floppy quiff and Jermyn Street campness covering disillusioned depression. He is even tearful, to Browne’s cynical dismay, when the scene changes and Orthodox church chanting fills the gloomy Moscow air (moody lighting turns the photographs into sepia ghosts). The London cameos with Alex Blake as the complaisant tailor, and Steven Blake as the shop assistant who refuses to make him new pyjamas are dry, funny, slyly sad. And as far away Burgess hums “O God our help in ages past”, echoing the old school chapel and old certainties, one is reminded of Bennett’s line in one of his diaries, about such hymns at funerals: “All one loves and hates..”

The second play – A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION – is slightly longer and heavier going, but a richly rewarding meditation on art, reality, and value. It covers an imagined moment in the life of another traitor, Antony Blunt, when he was given immunity – and anonymity until his 1980’s outing – but remained in charge of the Queen’s pictures. The scene everyone remembers is the one where the Queen has an oblique conversation with him, supposedly about a possible Titian forgery; but this riveting interlude is framed in his routine questioning sessions with an investigator, trying to identify the “fifth man” and beyond, Blunt being the fourth.

The policeman Chubb (Alex Blake, a nicely chippy performance) duels with Blunt: MIchael Pennington is elegantly patrician, engaging, clever, but projecting growing unease and fear of exposure. When Chubb, who claims to be learning art history, brutally says “Giotto had no grasp of perspective, and neither did you in the ‘30s”, Pennington’s irritable frightened wince is perfect.

Schlesinger becomes the Queen, never an easy gig because it is too easy to caricature and too hard to find the monarch’s inwardness, especially in this play where she exists really as a disrupter of Blunt’s peace. But again there are a couple of lovely cameos, notably Thomas Coombes as a footman. “Raphael? No, school-of. I know, I dust it”. And again, that Bennettian melancholy: a sense of waste, of idealism turned to shiftiness, of conflicted loyalty and wondering how far a bygone principle was worth it.


Box office 020 8174 0090 to 11 Oct

RATING four   3 Meece Ratingthe fourth a bow for the designer Set Design Mouse resized

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The heyday, the heyday. Everyone’s Gran loves to chew over the heyday with anyone they can pin in a chair. But what if the man who came through the door, who took tea, biscuits and chat, was a gangster? And the heyday was a criminal 60s East End?Philip Ridley’s play is a burning drama. A match is struck in Torchie Sparks’ elderly memory and the vicious, twisted fallout rips through her already flame-ravished flat. She loves it. Her new-wave gangster granddaughter (Rio), however, can’t handle it.



Sheila Reid (with a wrinkly face like an OS map) plays Torchie’s wide and rosy-eyed nostalgia beautifully. Ridley’s style, where reminisces are exorcised in the present like troubling dreams, struggles at first. It is emotionally confusing and asks too much too early. But the director, Russell Bolam, draws these out nicely as the play progresses and we become more involved. Good gags, neat anecdotes and juicy character finally being to trickle through. These moments breeze past you at first. But then, as when sat with any rambling pensioner, you feel yourself getting more and more involved. This is largely due to Michael Feast’s ugly yet brilliant performance as Mr.Flood. He was the Mr.Big of 60s Bethnal Green who now, like old Torchie, is living on old memories; dancing with ghosts no longer there. Wearing suits he shouldn’t be, pulling influence he doesn’t have. His Michael Cain vowels rumble, and his face works the most criminal grimaces imaginable.



An unsettling backstory begins to unfold. But it clunks around, getting mixed with the uninteresting and glib members of Rio’s girl-gang; a man-hating, knife-wielding, evangelical rebellion to Mr.Floods memory of besuited heavies and protection rackets. It fumbles around this conflict but manages to build to a real emotional kick as his links with the family become apparent. Rio’s scenes with Mr.Flood chill the room. Florence Hall’s performance is intelligent and sharp. She doesn’t slip into a rage as easily as her gang mates, opting instead for quiet anger. The dialogue she is given is a rough mixture, but she excavates through it well. This is a dark but funny look at a twisted heyday surely too scarring to forget. A production with textual problems but top performances.


Box Office: 020 7503 1646        TO 16th October

4 Mice   4 Meece Rating

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Well, what a day that was. There is still in October one chance to see, in one day, all three of Rona Munro’s immense trilogy about the first three King Jameses of Scotland in the wild 15th century. I just did. But each play can stand alone, given a minimal introduction, so here before the detail are a few lines on which is which.



All three – directed by Laurie Sansom of the National Theatre of Scotland and designed by Jon Bausor – are staged in the round, the Olivier stage pierced by a great sword which will bleed and flame unexpectedly and never let you forget that the blade is everything in 15c politics. A tremendous ensemble cast of eighteen carries right through, with single stars in the first and third. The programme tells you enough to be getting on with, but Munro’s broadly true but dramatically fictionalised storytelling does the job.



The first – The Key will Keep the Lock – is a gracefully accessible tale of how the first James returns from being held hostage in England, marries his English Joan, replaces the Regent Murdac and tries to establish law, via a bit of murder and betrayal. It’s funny, wild, touching and spectacular.

The second – Day of the Innocents – is trickier, often surreal, as a child King is haunted by nightmare memory; some find it less rewarding. But after the interval the central relationship becomes seat-of-the-pants exciting, and I loved it.



The third – The True Mirror – is modern-dress, knowing, focused largely on the women: the least violent of the trilogy and immensely different in tone. Its resonances tickled Edinburgh audiences maybe more than it will in London, but the wit and vigour is intact. My least favourite.



Box office: 0207 452 3000 All run to 30 Oct

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This one’s a stormer: thrilling, funny, vigorous, beguiling, accessible, a gripping and entertaining blend of the epic and the intimate. James McArdle (it’s his only appearance in the trilogy) appears first as the hostage of the ailing Henry V, a still, watchful, deep-felt exile after eighteen years’ captivity, a lonely poet-prince torn from Scotland at the age of ten. Henry decrees that he must marry one of his English cousins Joan, return home, raise his ransom and stop his countrymen siding with the French. He must accept the rules of medieval royalty: “You have to fuck people you don’t know and execute their relatives!”


Yet despite Munro’s mischievous demotic there is solemnity too, always a sense that these things matter, that beyond the court peasants starve. The opening tolls a great bell, over a ferocious brawl of loutish captured Scots and a chant both martial and melancholy. But just as you begin to wince at the farouche struggles of sweaty, hairy medieval manhood aflame with profanity and roiling testosterone, Munro switches the scene to the Queen-to-be, Joan.




Anxiously housewifely, expecting royal visitors, here is a rushed chatelaine fretting about supplies and the fact that they have no minstrel to greet the visitors -“Nobody here can hold a tune since blind Eric choked on an apple”. Stephanie Hyam is wonderful in the role; so is Sarah Higgins as Meg, a cheerful Scottish lady-in-waiting sent to persuade her that for all the primitivism she’ll love Scotland “Tall skies, rowan trees, fresh silver fish and dancing”. The awkward, compelled courtship of the royal pair is an unexpected delight: never thought I would hear gales of fond laughter across the Olivier at a dynastic wedding-ceremony. Or indeed witness the official wedding night defloration on a four-poster surrounded by louche leather-clad and seriously drunken nobles. Munro indicates that Joan takes a good while to get over this.


James’ struggle pits him against the resident Stuart cousins: the mop-haired heroic patriarch Murdac (Gordon Kennedy, a key figure in all three plays in different roles) , his ferocious sons and their mother Isabella. Their landed arrogance entails casual torture of the common people (a woman daring to complain is shod, horse-nails hammered on her hands and feet). Defying them, McArdle is a superb James, all tense national pride shot through with the private neediness of his lost childhood. His speech about Scotland’s quality and dignity is so stirring that it could have swung the referendum in moments.


This struggle, and his lonely yearning for the love of his frightened little queen creates a real story: epic but personal, suddenly solemn at times, dramatically intense as he stiffens for the final battle which – thrilling, balletic, intense – rages literally around and upon the great bed where Joan lies in labour. The seeds of his coming murder are sown by a violent necessary betrayal, the price of kingship in a savage age: Joan watches the invisible beheadings with eyes open, hoping that the fluttering of her gown in the bitter wind disguises her trembling.



Rating: five 5 Meece Rating

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James I is dead. His small son, defaced by a birthmark, puny and afraid, in surreal nightmare sequences constantly relives the bloodshed and concealment of the days when he was seized and bargained for between his mother , the cool contemptuous regent Livingston (Gordon Kennedy again) ) and Crichton. Sometimes he is literally a puppet, a naked skinny peg-creature thrown in and out of chests while the adult James (Andrew Rothney) stands by watching his own helplessness. His childhood and youthful friend is Will Douglas (Mark Rowley) , battered and beaten son of the thuggish Earl (Peter Forbes). Indeed the first half of this second play feels more heavy-going than before: everyone seems either a weakling or a bully, and the bloodied creatures of James’ nightmares momentarily confusing. I nearly concurred with a general view expressed after its Edinburgh performance that this play was the weakest, as well as the darkest; the one to miss.
Not so. Beneath the great sword, the second half flares into something intense: James grows up, begins defying Livingston’s contempt (“Your lazy wee Majesty – sign here”). It becomes spectacular – not least because they seem by now to have invented both the bagpipes and football, with a leather sphere punted round and out into the stalls in a ferocious, biting, wrestling, snarling football match of Stuarts vs Douglases (top choreography). The unravelling of the friendship between James and the damaged, reckless Will becomes one burning focus: another – for Munro never forgets the women – is the gradual emergence of a steely nature in his tiny yellow-haired foreign wife Mary (Hyam again, unrecognizable, and a remarkable presence both comic and dramatic).



More Douglas-on-Douglas violence ends in Will’s dangerous emergence as something new, No spoilers: but again Munro surprises at the most tense moments with genuine, laugh-out-loud comic moments. I particularly treasured Will’s sullen summing-up of what Scotland offers its nobles with “I’m supposed to be a rich man because I’ve got another hundred wet sheep”

Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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If the first play began with a ragged brawl and taunt, the second with a tenebrous nightmare of childhood, this one starts with a romping ceilidh: modern in dress , with an informal James III chatting up a laundry-maid called Daisy while his cool, sophisticated Danish Queen Margaret sees off ambassadors with diplomatic finesse. When James does ascend the throne – still poised above, between the distant stalls – it is to fling one leg over the arm, pout and demand 60,000 of taxation to fund a pilgrimage to Amiens Cathedral. He is all for cathedrals, madrigals and French wine, and demands a personal choir to follow him everywhere harmonizing about gillyflowers.



The Estates of Parliament are not amused. There is poverty, unrest, invasion threatened. The petulant monarch continues with his wine-tasting, ignores the English threat of invasion and fleet-seizing, and drags his queen off to bed. Frankly, as a leader he makes Shakespeare’s Richard II look like Churchill.


The great sword still looms over the stage, but the abrupt transition to modernity – with damask hangings instead of the battered medieval planking – can be a bit of a problem. Maybe it was necessary to illustrate, in more modern style, the matter of an irresponsible leader. But appreciation is hampered by the fact that until a couple of moments late on, Jamie Sives’ monarch is, frankly, an irritating little git with no hinterland to excuse his uselessness (I cannot for a minute believe this as the child crowned on the battlefield, even when he relates it). His preening contempt for brother, sons, ministers, and wife is pure soap opera: Dynasty with a capital D this time.


However, Munro’s point is that it all hangs on Sofie Grabøl (from The Killing) as Queen Margaret, and she is terrific: authoritative, human and interesting, leading another life among the women, notably Blythe Duff’s fine Annabella, remembered from the second play. There is perhaps a bit too much ultra-modern middle-aged female-empowerment in her keen Nordic affection for accountancy and in the odd sequence when the King provides her with a new Venetian mirror , a novelty in the age we are pretending they live in despite their modern eveningwear. She croons “I like this woman!” more than twice, making a rather heavy self-help-bookish point about being “happy in your own skin”.




To be honest, this one runs about fifteen minutes too long, and patience is fading by the time young Jamie (a very strong Daniel Cahill) defies his Dad’s vapid irresponsible aestheticism . James III executes a curious disco-king moment in Parliament “I gave you glitter! I was the sparkle!” and vamooses; that his son, rather than seeing a therapist, goes all medieval hair-shirt about parricide drags you suddenly, unconvincingly, back into the 15th century..

3 Meece Rating

Not my favourite. But some have hugely enjoyed its jokes (very good ones in the bath scenes) and its deliberate modern references, notably Margaret’s exasperated up-summing of Scotland with “You lot , you’ve got fuck-all except attitude”. So, horses for courses. And overall, the James Plays are a towering achievement, a proud collaboration between two great National Theatres.


Rating for play No.3: three

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FLOWERS OF THE FOREST – Jermyn St Theatre, WC1


Modern historical recreations are valuable in this WW1 centenary year, but there is something thrilling, a frisson of caught reality, in contemporary writing. Especially plays, and especially rendered with as much intelligent respect as Anthony Biggs and his cast give to this 1933 drama . It’s by John van Druten (author of I Am A Camera, and the recently revived London Wall. A seemingly conventional drawing-room piece about a family affected by the 1914/18 upheaval twenty years later, it is a haunting study in memory, love, bitterness and trauma: all the confusions and unhealed scars of the “low dishonest decade”.

Two sisters are at odds. Glacially poised Naomi (Sophie Ward) is in a cool, comradely marriage to an affluent art collector: Mercia (Debra Penny) an embittered stay-at-home daughter combining envy with contempt – “Your life’s all based on standards that mean nothing to me”. But it becomes apparent how both were blighted, their lovers killed in action but not before angry differences. Now the death of their father , a rural Vicar, reignites memory: 1934 frames flashbacks of 1914 and 1916.

But in the play’s 1934 present, Lewis’ secretary Beryl (Victoria Rigby in a finely judged, weary-eyed low-key performance) has diffidently introduced them to her boyfriend Leonard (Max Wilson). He is a fascinating addition to the play’s complexities: burning with intensity and TB. A less inhibited version of Forster’s doomed clerk Leonard Bast, he is a ‘30s autodidact: a bookshop assistant with a passion for art, culture, dreams of travel and a profound 1930’s pacifism. He even challenges his hostess for having been a nurse – “You did wrong! You were helping the war…telling them they were heroes, patching them up to go back..” He has particular scorn for the romantic soldier-poets (school of Rupert Brooke) who wrote about being sleepers awakened to glory, and for clergy, like the late vicar, who spoke of the divine redemption of war.

In fact, we learn in flashback, Naomi’s Richard was one of those poets (later sinking into bitter disillusion) and Mercia’s Tommy was the opposite: a musician who studied in Germany and defied the jingoism of others, including Mercia who snarls that “Shellshock is pure funk” and “If we allow this war to end with one German left alive, one stone standing, I’ll kill myself”. Subtly it becomes clear that these opposite reactions are part of the same trauma: the shock-wave that crumbled into irony the Edwardian certainties about patriotism, class, and women.

It is a talky, discursive period-piece with edges of melodrama – even the supernatural – and none the worse for that. Van Druten is tremendous at depicting female sensibilities, and Ward, Penny, and Rigby are finely pitched: the older pair handling the contrast of their younger selves brilliantly. Gabriel Vick gives Richard’s transformation an angry conviction, and Max Wilson as the excitable Leonard is explosive and – despite a spooky 1930’s twist at the end – ultimately convincing.

So here’s another beautifully improbable Jermyn triumph: who would expect, in this tiny space, a cast of eleven (Biggs must have wondered whether to ditch the butler) and a fine naturalistic set by Victoria Johnstone. She places us firmly and intimately in an affluent 1934 drawing-room, transformed with dim-lit bustle into a family tea-table by an inglenook in a country Vicarage.  Detail, lamplight, candlelight, moonlight, firelight feed in to the pity and understanding both of the period, and of the writing which tried to make sense of it. It deserves full houses.

box office 020 7287 2875 to 18 October
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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