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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Serious? Not always, it’s not. “Everything is funny all the time!” screams one of our heroes. “Epic Lulz! Nothing is to be taken seriously!”. The topic under discussion is a friend’s suicide. A manic one-man band hurls himself through a ball-pond, a fancy-dress dog, cat, penguin and “PaedoBear” hurtle around with dancing figures in orange running-shorts and dive out of flaps in the wall and trapdoors. Authority, privacy and reflective thought are hateful. “The internet doesn’t care! It sets scenes of mass rape to Japanese rock music! We don’t need a hierarchy! Information wants to be free!”

Tim Price’s new play is manically directed by Hamish Pirie, and designed by Chloe Lamford with that ballpond reflected by huge overhead clusters of brightly coloured balls. Which, at moments in the first half, came dangerously near feeling like a metaphor for its content. But it was never going to be easy to find a visual live-theatre language for the anarchic, lawless, mischievous, disguised online world of the “hacktivists” of Anonymous and LulzSec. And Lamford and Pirie have probably got as close as anyone could.



Certainly, as the hour progresses, you become soaked in the world of these young men – they nearly always are revealed to be such when the irate forces of law catch up with them. Jake Davis ,the young Shetlander sentenced in 2011 to two years for conspiracy to commit computer misuse, and played as a version of himself here by Kevin Guthrie ,collaborated with Price after his release.


It is a world of adolescent alienation, back-bedroom loneliness, defiant clowning, gang identity between people across continents who never meet, and naive idealism mingled with plain mischief. The internet hones and rewards their particular kind of intuitive intelligence, and accidentally throws into their hands the ability to publish the most serious of documents and the cruellest of private revelations. They have no brakes: they are part self-righteous Assanges, part Just William. They attack the CIA and Scientology and the “God Hates Fags” nonsense of Westboro Baptist Church, but have no scruple about “regular people’s data”, emails and passwords, breezily saying “They’re X factor applicants, they crave humiliation!”. They’re kids with virtual Kalashnikovs. They rock the adult world.



As the play goes on – and some get found out, we see glimpses of their “irl” or in-real-life identities. In a lovely moment the shy schoolboy Mustafa (Hamza Jeetooa) turns down an invitation to go for a McFlurry because he promised to help some Egyptian dissidents break into a government server; in another the group easily hack and expose a suited ‘security expert’ . Gradually, as their campaigns grow wilder and their nemesis approaches, the play draws you in, expressing – if not very deeply examining – the astonishing cyberworld we have somehow created, where commerce and authority can be made putty in the hands of clever, troubled, disaffected teenagers.


Spirited, comic, the cast of fifteen give it everything,  rattling out codes,   hurling merry obscenities,  playing up to eleven parts apiece (that’s Sargon Yelda with the record). It will make half the audience feel old, and the other half – well, sort of jubilant…

box office 020 7565 5000 to 24 October
Jerwood Royal Court partner: Coutts

Rating: three   3 Meece Rating


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SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER Rose, Kingston /now touring


Two centuries before Oscar Wilde there was another eloquent, satirical, socially subversive, intermittently disreputable Irishman at work: Oliver Goldsmith, fondly called the “inspired idiot”. His most enduring work for the stage is this riotous tale of Marlow and Hastings, two city blades at large in the countryside, conned into thinking that their irascibly rustic host’s house is an inn. And that his daughter – who the parents plan must marry Marlow – is the barmaid. And since Marlow is the kind of Bullingdon-ish lad who is terminally shy with “ladies” but a cheeky seducer of the lower classes, it turns out quite well. Though not without a complicated a subplot of Hastings’ relationship, some jewels, and a final twisted knot of improbable tricks and cross-purposes straight out of comic-opera.

It is a comic classic: and Conrad Nelson of Northern Broadsides gleefully restores it to life for today. Not modernizing it exactly, but letting in some modern gestures, eschewing the standard 18c “La, Sir!” mannerisms and letting his designer Jessica Worrall craftily adjust the costumes – not in style but in fabric – to send modern messages. So Gilly Tompkins as Mrs Hardcastle who longs for the bright lights, and her daft foppish son Tony Lumpkin (Jon Trenchard, very funny) are upholstered in leopard and tiger print, and Hannah Edwards’ witty, charming Kate roars around in raspberry,almost neon, silk bustle, palmtree hair and long bright yellow gloves.

They Hardcastles are broad Yorkshire, the two hapless city lads very RP : their lofty, entitled snobbery quite modern enough to draw giggles of recognition. Social satire, however, rightly comes second to fun. The larkiness of the whole production is its delight, which Goldsmith would approve- people often breaking into song, Lumpkin dancing around with a fife and leaping on tables, some some marvellous interludes of pretended flirting (to please Mum) with Lauryn Redding’s Miss Neville. The comic chemistry between the two is perfect. And Oliver Gomm as the posh young man wincing at the “terrors of a formal courtship, the episode of aunts, mothers, cousins..” overdoes it just enough.



Howard Chadwick is a splendid harrumphing patriarch Hardcastle (quite a shock in Northern Broadsides to find the part not bagged by top harrumpher Barrie Rutter, but he’s got a King Lear to prepare for). And the folkish, joyful music under Rebekah Hughes brings it all together. Grand fun.         Touring    Touring Mouse wide

rating;  four   4 Meece Rating

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THE MAN JESUS Richmond Theatre & touring



Simon Callow’s solo shows have become a landmark: his impassioned Dickens, his Marigold and Chips characters and his Christmas Carol. In Edinburgh I have seen him as Shakespeare and as a troubled transsexual (Tuesdays at Tescos), at the Royal Opera House he was Wagner. This summer – while performing his hour-long turn as the Roman satirist Juvenal – he learned this show.


Some critics cavil at this Victorian energy, the Wolfit-Sinden energetic oration, the striding command.  Me, I rather like it. As in his prolific and fine writing (notably Love is Where It Falls and the Laughton and Welles biographies), Callow has a quality of fearlessness: not arrogance but something which which feels born more of reckless, generous ambition.  It sits unusually in an age which praises dry obliquity, a Cumberbatchy screen-friendly  minimalism.  But it is an honourable idiosyncrasy.
Here he storms in again with a show about Jesus, scripted by Matthew Hurt and directed by Joseph Alford on a stage bare of all but random piled chairs. used to represent interlocutors or to hurl around as moneychangers’ tables.   Not that Callow is being Jesus.  Rather he plays, without changing anything but accent, twelve recurring characters who encounter him in the occupied, brutally ruled 1st century Galilee and Judaea.  Making a fierce initial demand of our suspension of disbelief, he begins – in tweed jacket with leather elbows and grizzled middleaged maleness – as a teenage Yorkshire Mary, stared at for her single pregnancy and shuddering at the rows of rebels crucified alive by the roadside. Then he is Jesus’ half-brother, James, Simon the fisherman, Barabbas the freedom fighter, a ranting Baptist (unquenchable even when beheaded) and others including Judas (gratingly Scottish) Lazarus and – curiously effectively – Joanna, the woman afflicted by years of bleeding who touches his robe and is cured.
She is played Sloaney, affluent, county-posh and wholly credible. Indeed it is the RP  arrogance of Herod and the nervy camp of Pilate which work better than Yorkshire Mary or even the borderline-scouse Peter, though the latter’s panic after the arrest is good.  Indeed the second half (the whole is a neat 110 mins including interval) is more political, and therefore more interesting, than the first.



Does it work? Not entirely. A problem with Hurt’s text is that in its obvious need to quote the more startling and interesting words of Jesus,  it too often fails to filter them properly  through the characters of his multiple narrators. Can’t blame Callow for this: the direction could give him more help in creating a sharp transition from, for example, Judas to Peter. Both being overwrought men – one cynical, one enthusiastic and weak –  it would be clearer if their moments were separated by one of the other characters, like Pilate, Herod or the women. Though even Mary is not rapidly enough established by text in her later appearances, since Callow wisely attempts no gendered mannerisms.
Still, the last moments are striking: Pilate’s view of his prisoner is the one which most strikes home.  Hurt dodges the idea of literal resurrection: many an Anglican Bishop would approve of that. And Callow’s performance won three enthusiastic curtain calls.
Touring   Touring Mouse wide to 4 Nov.  –

RATING:  THREE 3 Meece Rating

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FRED AND MADGE Hope Theatre, Islington


by A.N.Onymous (The Critic Who Knows)



Calling all ordinary, decent folk. Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) here!   I am on a brief return trip to London from the very select part of Purgatory where I have been stationed (pedestal mat, Teasmade, and a tip-top Ewbank ever to hand). They make you fill out forms in which you have to specify how would like “your” Heaven to be when you eventually get there. I told them that, for me, it would be a world in which the office of the Lord Chamberlain has been fully reintroduced. Restore the blue pencil to manly hands that have seen active service, and going to the theatre with the family would no longer be fraught with risk. You and your loved ones wouldn’t always feel just an inch away from involuntary immersion in the crazed extremes of phallus-worship.

Someone at HQ in Purgatory must have been going through my files. They noticed that I had felt obliged, in the 1960s, to despatch several stiff letters of complaint about the works of Joe Orton. “I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion perversion!” is how I confided my disgust at Entertaining Mr Sloane to the Daily Telegraph. When Loot came out, I added that “these plays do nothing but harm our image abroad, presenting us as the slaves of sensation and unnatural practice”.


A person by the name of Libby Purves, who reviews theatre, sprained her ankle last Thursday while attempting to rush to an opening night. I can just picture her – tottering on five inch heels, weighed down by department store bags. If you live that way, what can you expect? The production turns out to be the world premiere of Fred and Madge, a previously unperformed play, written in 1959 by my old sparring partner, Joe Orton.As part of my remission programme, I have been sent back to earth for the penitential purpose of “standing in” for Mrs Purves. One night only. The prospect of cleaning the bathroom facilities after a Roman orgy would plunge me into the dumps less.


Fred and Madge, though, has some surprises in store. Moaning minnies, Fred and Madge (Jake Curran and Jodyanne Richardson) are an “absurdist” attack on the conformity that some us of us see as the cement of civilisation. The couple have a daughter called Janice ,who is a hygiene buff and over-taxes her strength practising for a carpet-beating exam. This character never appears – though, in my view, she should be central. It was the cleaning company I felt for most after the uncalled-for circumstances of Orton’s death in Islington’s Noel Road : just a hop, skip and a jump from the little fringe pub where this premiere has been mounted.


In the bar during the interval and afterwards, glowing praise for the play and Mary Franklin’s production was rife. I overheard one young woman saying that “the increasing suspicion that there is nothing beyond the theatre reminds me of The Truman Show”. I myself was reminded of Private Lives in the scene where the divorced Fred and Madge re-encounter each other in neighbouring hospital beds, having sustained accidents on their way to their second weddings. The audience seemed to be doubled up by Geordie Wright as a very hirsute and leggy Queenie, the character whose nuptials to an Indian occasion the wholesale, elephant-ride fantasy escape to shift to the Palace of the Mogul at Sutpura. And by “the sly Audrey Hepburn charms” (overheard comment) of Loz Keystone, as the chief “insultrix” of the bunch of professional insulters.



I’m afraid that I couldn’t enjoy their performances. The view of hairy legs popping out a frock is not my idea of good night out. Fred and Madge, though, is probably the least sick-making of Orton’s works. After this, it was downhill all the way.

Box office 0207 478 0160 To October 18

Rating; four 4 Meece Rating

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RAGNAROK – Hush House, Bentwaters Air Base


Deep in the bleak Cold War desolation of the old US Air Base in Suffolk stands a shed where once jet engines were tested. Inside, the old Norse gods gather to bicker, swing axes, rip out eyes, bind Fenrir the wolf whose jaws will eat the world. They brag of feuds and love affairs more entangled than Dynasty, and move inexorably towards their Gotterdammerung twilight. Walls rumble away, giants with gnarled heads and fiery eyes lumber out of the tunnel where once the jet-flames roared. Puppet eagles fly overhead.


Eastern Angles, with a commendable desire to express the ancient mentality which sent the funeral ship to Sutton Hoo up the road, have commissioned Charles Way to tell the tale of the bickering gods, with Hal Chambers directing, a gleefully site-specific design by Samuel Wyer, and brilliantly ominous soundscapes from Benjamin Hudson. Audiences are either fascinated – like me – or, in a few cases, baffled (“I don’t do f—ing goblins!” muttered one. But he did like the giants).


For Norse myths have tended to be outranked in general awareness by the Greek variety, and unless you are a keen Wagnerian (or, like a delighted twelve-year-old boy near us, well up on Marvel comics) it is prudent to Wikipedize a swift refresher on what happens in the Eddas to Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, Baldur and the rest of the Asgard set. Remember the difference between Nibelheim and Midgard, why the gods hate the giants though related to them, and why the tree Yggdrasil matters. If you prefer to come to it cold, sit back and accept that hairy Norsemen round winter fires had to make up something to explain their violent weather and volcanoes, and entertain themselves. And us: not least because Oliver Hoare’s vigorous Loki looks more like Russell Brand every minute, and it is gratifying to imagine Brand being held over a volcano with a magic eagle pecking his liver, or being electrocuted by Thor using a moose’s antlers as a lever.


Amid all the roaring uncouthness (Theo Ogundipe a fabulous Thor, Gracy Goldman a foxy provocative Freya) it is fascinating to notice elements echoing Christian or classical myth: significant apples, sexual misconduct, miscegenation, disguises, even an oracle: Sarah Thom in an alarming spidery-raggedy outfit with a rat-skull in her headdress and a lot of booming echo. Antony Gabriel’s Odin is striking, as is Frigga his wife (Fiona Putnam): they’re the only ones allowed a trace of nobility. The rest – apart from the necessarily bland goodie Baldur – roister and fight intemperately, and when the walls of Asgard need mending are stupid enough to hire a disguised enemy who demands the sun and moon as payment (Josh Elwell, particularly adept at suddenly turning into a huge puppet giant).


Well, you get the idea. It rolls along to a spectacular final doom, with flame and shocks and drumming. I can’t entirely admire Way’s text: sometimes it takes off in poetic epic flights or adds adds nice Anglo-Saxon constructions like the mason’s horse – “tail-swinger, grass-muncher, stone-shifter”. But when it descends into slangy modernism the bathos grates without amusing. But the narrative is always clear, even if some side-stories need a cut. And the death of innocent Baldur, with the fire-ship vanishing down the tunnel as the world sinks into “Axe-age, sword-age, wind-age, ice-age” finally brings a creepy sense of eternal themes, immolation and the world’s fall from grace.


And then you’re out into the dark concrete wastes of the old air base, monument to more recent follies. Brrrr.


box office 01473 211498

rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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DOCTOR SCROGGY’S WAR. Shakespeare’s Globe SE1



“We don’t do glum here. Glum just doesn’t work”. Clipped, officerly with an edge of confident eccentricity, cradling his Cambridge Blue oar and musing on blood vessel repair, the speaker in Howard Brenton’s WW1 play is James Garnon as Major Harold Gillies. He was the Army surgeon whose pioneering work in plastic surgery at Sidcup saved, or made bearable, hundreds of young men’s faces blown to horror by the burning, spinning, infected, jagged weaponry of trench warfare.


Taking him at his word, Brenton avoids the centennial pitfalls – prurient wallowing in misery or simplistic hostility towards the officer class. This is neither Birdsong nor Oh What a Lovely War, and frankly a better play than either. Never ‘glum’, although at times the tale of one young volunteer, blown into the hospital of ruined faces, is compassionately poignant, and never dodges the irony that many such young men took their mended faces straight back to the front.


Soldiers are not glum, and will not be made so. Furious, suicidal, bitter at moments, male youth will extraordinarily defy gloom. And Gillies, famed for his practical jokes, does not allow despair. “The medicine of fun” has him prowling the wards by night in a comedy Scottish rig and ginger beard as the mysterious Scroggy, dispersing nips of champagne and vaudeville jokes, and outraging the Matron and senior officers by encouraging bandaged, faceless patients to drag up in frocks and do a cabaret for the visiting Queen Mary.


Which may sound mawkish – consoling fodder for our softer age – but is balanced by the baldness of facts about mutilation, by almost casual scenes of VAD nurses checking through corpses for signs of life, and by the attitude of our hero Jack (Will Featherstone). He is a Thames mudlark who won a Balliol scholarship, a “temporary gentleman” promoted for his intelligence but explicitly despised by toff officers and a purblind Chief of Staff (Paul Rider). Featherstone gives Jack a chippy patriotism and an adolescent stubbornness as he resists Gillies/Scroggy all the way, both in his initial suicidal despair and then in needy, restive determination to go back to war.


Gripping historically and emotionally, and often very funny in laddish soldierly humour and domestic vignettes, the play lightly conceals its subtlety. Brenton knows how to play the Globe: clean simplicity, speed, and a few casual comradely addresses to the groundlings (“You all know what’s going to happen to me” says Jack early on “I’m going to lose my face”). But within the first minutes interesting undercurrents are flowing: the decay of the old class order, the brittleness of fading Edwardiana, the parallel seductive challenge of both warfare and experimental medicine, the naïveté of propaganda.


Nor does Garnon fail to indicate, fleetingly but credibly, the need for emotional release of the doctor himself in his practical jokes like the (ooh, fortuitously topical) comedy kilt-and-beard. And goodness, how the music helps: not least if you recognise the odd snatches of “When a knight won his spurs…” from trumpeter and ‘cello above. Another sad, necessary echo of understanding. We will never entirely empathise with these great-great-grandparents, but theatre gets some distance.


So altogether, ia perfect Globe piece. But I hope that like this author’s Eternal Love and Anne Boleyn, similar leaps towards understanding of past sensibilities, it soon tours to other stages.


Box office 0)20 7401 9919. To 10 oct
Rating: Four. 4 Meece Rating

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BALLYTURK Lyttelton, SE1



Watching Enda Walsh’s surreal new 90-minuter, late star of the Galway festival, one reflection kept intruding: that there is, God save us, a dangerously fine and porous line between Beckettiana and bollocks.  Not that the writing isn’t fine, swooping from small-town comedic observation to bleak philosophical uplands as the trapped characters confront mortality and terror within “the prison of the self”.  Nor is there a single thing wrong with Walsh’s direction, or with the performances: indeed Cillian Murphy’s emotional intensity and Mikel Murfi’s wild LeCoq-trained physical clowning are breathtakingly good as they interact and fantasise in an inexplicable garage-cum-flat with scrawled walls and no door.   Stephen Rea’s arrival halfway through, as a business- suited mystery man presaging death after playing Jenga with a tower of biscuits and crooning into a ceiling mic, is impressive too.


Some comic moments (though I suspect Galway laughed more merrily) are fed by the two men rushing, leaping, doing wild things with balloons, a golf club and gym equipment.  Better received are the passages – powerfully reminiscent of Under Milk Wood – when in role- play they evoke the village they no longer inhabit . Actually, maybe they never did, or possibly they were banished from it to this weird graffitied limbo for being crazy. Murphy, pretending to be the old shopkeeper Joyce Drench while hunched on top of the wardrobe is fine; so is Murfi’s physical evocation of each inhabitant, changing in a second. But that is a matter of applied craft.   More enlightening, oddly, are the ghostly recorded voices from the walls (one is the inimitable Pauline McLynn, hurrah). They offer scraps of barmy but recognizable elderly conversations – (“I always felt my body was following me around”)  as if scripted by a Hibernian Alan Bennett in the process of emerging groggily from a general anaesthetic.


But that word, scripted… Yes, there lies the problem. Not only do the whimsical passages about five legged rabbits make you fear that the dialogue is in danger of vanishing up its own craic, but some more serious long monologues near the end destroy any illusion that we are among real suffering individuals (and they are indeed suffering in their dislocated universe, it’s bleak). Twice or thrice I felt that awful jolting sense ‘he isn’t speaking, he’s reciting”. And for all the atmosphere, the cleverness, the small good shocks which set and events offer – that gap between text and humanity sort of kills it.  Maybe Walsh means it to: maybe it is a rueful paean to self-harming introverted Irishness: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” See:  Yeats said it better, a century ago.


box office 0207 452 3000 to  11 oct

rating: three3 Meece Rating



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Onstage a suave Robert Lindsay preens and pirouettes, a matinée idol sick of self-love, pivot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels running just across the Strand. Down in the audience the real Lindsay, on his night off, cringes in the dark amid the first-night guests. That is the sporting spirit which, for thirty years, stars and creators of musical theatre have had to summon up in the face of Gerard Alessandrini and Phillip George’s spoof ’n satire revue of musical theatre. From broad amiable joshing to startlingly sharp digs of the knife, this incarnation takes care to reflect the London streets around it: more West End than Great White Way, and all the jollier for it.



It feels soon for a re-review – my take on  the Menier’s July show can be found by scrolling down a few inches here – but this transfer is studded with new numbers (not least some astonishing diva-impersonations by the new cast member, Christina Bianco, who joins Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis). It nods to the coming Evita and Cats revivals and the new Miss Saigon, has a wonderful time with Once and even squeezes in a Stephen Ward joke (brief, because the creators prefer to kick shows which are winning, rather than relative flops).

So plenty of remembered treats from July: the child-exploitation sequence with a Warchus-Trunchbull cursing “vermin! vermin with Oliviers!”; the super-stupor Abba, Cameron Mackintosh as producer-seducer humping the grand piano (where Joel Fram presides with brilliant panache). The glorious quick-change costumes are each more absurd than the last, the vocal and lightning wit of the foursome cast intact. But seeing it again draws out its sheer cleverness, verbal and musical. The barbs are finely tuned to each show’s weakness: Miss Saigon is pilloried for noisiness and show-off helicopter, and given a snatch of West Side Story to guy its derivativeness. Sondheim’s oeuvre is a scholarly gabble of antonym and metonym and tonguetwisting internal rhymes as the cast challenge the house to an impossible Sondha-singalong. That’s an almost loving parody: others – like the Book of Moron – are startlingly savage. Though among the barbs about that show’s smugness and crudity I’d have liked a swipe at its racism too…

Almost best though are the moments when sympathy lies with the actors – the CATS revival sequence has a row of disaffected moggies longing to be in A CHORUS LINE but finding “One. Singular. Degradation” instead of Sensation. In the Les Mis section weary veterans shuffle round an invisible revolve (“Ten more years…”) .Valjean struggles to bring down the high notes in Bring Him Home – “Bring it down!” and Eponine glumly texts behind the barricade: wage-slaves of long musical runs, loving steady pay and starting to hate the show. The Lion King, soldiering on, hear their vertebrae crunching under enormous headdresses and sing resignedly “African baloney, but we won a lotta Tony”. An Evita revival meets a demonstration against itself; a Frankie Valli Jerseyboy resorts to helium.

Cleverness and silliness entwine, as they should: physical jokes and puns like “Vietnumb” alternate with parody so clever you only get it seconds too late. It’s party-time, a riot of an evening, a love-hate insider treat for musical-junkies.


box office 0844 412 4663 to 22 nov

rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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TRUE WEST, Tricycle Theatre, NW6


This is a drunk play. It rambles a great tale at you, mildly hooks you, then fluffs the end as it totters off for another tipple. We’re promised a great modern classic from Sam Shepard but the result is uneven, strange but interestingly cinematic. Our view is a widescreen picture of a house in LA. The kitchen is perfectly even, the plants scream 70s from the far wall and the sky is piercing blue. The designer Max Jones has built a creepily smooth Stepford house; the kind you can easily picture yourself having a breakdown in.

The play, however, has no such vision; no coherence. Austin is a successful screenwriter with an all-American face and bright blue shirts. He is house sitting for his mother. His rough-looking brother, with muddy hands and an unwashed t-shirt with many tales to tell, has arrived unannounced. Austin has a screenplay to write, but, uh-oh, Lee has an idea. An idea from the desert, no less. This sets us off nicely. The dialogue is hit and miss, a little self-absorbed, but with enough shine to make it promising. A suitable but not particularly exciting turn comes from Steven Elliot (as a ‘moooovie’ producer with cash to splash) who appears to get Lee’s idea rolling. An outline is written, the brothers clash; it is thoroughly usual but is lifted by good humour and nice outbursts from Alex Ferns as Lee. There is nothing more intriguing than the mentally unstable and Alex starts with this well.

Its biggest crime at this stage is simply self indulgence. It rambles, stagey arguments bubble from nowhere, and this Tricycle audience gasps with horror at snide remarks about producers, and roars at jokes about agents’ fees. This is the best, I thought, that a play about screenwriting could do. Until it twists. It is as if Sam Shepard, or the director Phillip Breen (who draws some nice tense moments in the first half) utterly lose faith in the will-they-won’t-they ‘brothers who work together’ dynamic. It flips into a horrible dream; the lights are cranked up, the performances are strained and the script melts into nonsense about stealing toasters and whether the desert would be a suitable home. All of the tepid momentum about their father, different upbringings and contrasting lifestyles (which we attentively waded through with the promise of a payoff) is cast aside in favour of getting the brothers pissed and trashing the mum’s house. The cinematic style, tense edge and average humour are lost. Eugene O’Hare becomes absolutely cartoonish, Alex Ferns ditches all character in favour of the obscene and the script droops lower and lower until the excruciatingly obvious return of the mother. An interesting premise bottled.

Rating: Two Mice 2 meece rating

Playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 4th October
Box Office: 020 7328 1000

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COMEDY OF ERRORS, Shakespeare’s Globe SE1


Uneven, but with big laughs, confused but not entirely to fault; this production nestled itself almost perfectly between brilliance and rubbish. The text has great, solid laughs, but they are drowned by the poor farce, which only rarely grabs attention. This was a messy show. The stage was littered with the straws it was clutching at. At any one point, half the audience was laughing; the other wincing or blithely inspecting the woodwork. This was a pick-your-own comedy with just as much to keep as throw away. This Comedy of Errors had arrived via farce, stumbled over the language, was picked up by a few plucky performances and then had a bucket of bad comedy staples poured over it. It was knackered, but we laughed.

Two identical brothers are split at birth but 30 years later run the city of Ephesus amok with confusion, mistaken identity and unfortunately identical servants. 4D confusion with too many slamming doors, entrances and exits to handle. The laughs are there; why did they feel the need to add their own?

The good performances hold this production together. Hattie Ladbury gives us her best Carry On edition of Adriana, but the entire show is stolen by Brodie Ross, the servant Dromio, who serves the brother from Syracuse. He commands the audience on multiple occasions, reaping big laughs from mastering the gags available and not playing with rubber props. At points he is in such control that his pauses, glances and delivery let him ride the audience, cueing our roars and conducting our silent concentration. His was a great performance; the funniest I have seen at the Globe. Jamie Wilkes is excellent but his scenes with Simon Harrison (the brother from Ephesus) are ridiculous slapstick. The fighting is dull. The poorly executed highs (e.g. a squid being thrown and then a struggle to ‘accidentally’ have it latch onto his face) had as many eyes rolling as mouths laughing.

The two brothers, Matthew Needham and Simon Harrison, were thoroughly acceptable but with little variance in their expression of ‘huh?’. They were confused, constantly, but a little dull, grabbing fish to slap people to get a handful of laughs when they needed it most. Their range was trills in the voice and looks to camera and nothing more. 70s sitcom at most.

The interest was primarily farce, an added feature, which was average and played as if stodgy routine. The highlight was strong Shakespeare delivered from bold, funny performances; quite the mix. It was exclusively played for laughs so when it finally tried to show its heart, cash in some drama, eke out some substance, we had no time for it, and it no enthusiasm left. Funny, but little else.

– Luke Jones

Rating: Three Mice 3 Meece Rating
Playing until 12th October
Box Office: 020 7401 9919

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TOAST Park Theatre, N4



A shift in a Yorkshire mass-production bread factory in the 1970’s: Richard Bean , at eighteen, was there. In that perceptive, new-fledged moment of adolescence he met, he says “some of humanity’s most desperate, funny and tragic human beings”, and recognized that he was one himself. Twenty years later he wrote this play. It’s a comedy, with moments of disconcerting darkness and threat, but beyond that a lasting tribute to a world – still with us – of resigned, morose, dry-witted industrial workers.


The set (James Turner’s design) is brilliantly grimy, with a sink from hell, artfully begrubbed floor and walls and an ironic sign “Please Help Keep your Canteen Clean”. Keep? Some hope. In this we find the chargehand Blakey (Steve Nicolson, every inch the powerful man enslaved to tedium, his back-story slid artfully in late on but pretty visible in his watchful self-containment). We find chirpy Cecil (SImon Greenall), Peter (Matt Sutton) , Dezzie (Finlay Robertson) the ex-trawlerman, Colin (Will Barton) and the great, ancient , lumbering lifer Wilfred – known as Nellie – a superb evocation by Matthew Kelly of a monosyllabic monolith, an institution, mocked a little but pitied by the others as a warning of how it might be to stay in this grim job forever.


The first half, for all its naturalistic uneventfulness, is constantly gripping: not least with the incursion of the student casual worker (John Wark) who unnervingly combines vulnerability and sadness with menace. At one point, to be honest, I wondered whether the character was a supernatural manifestation: there is a real weirdness in the second half of that first act. And when the ovens jam, and dangerous manoeuvres seem essential to keep these precarious men’s jobs open, the drama of the second act intensifies. And there is both a hint of tragedy and – with Lance the student and the watchful Blakey – a genuinely redemptive moment.


All of which is making it sound a bit heavy. It’s not. Bean’s dough, as ever, rises beautifully (Eleanor Rhode directs with clarity and pace). But it’s definitely wholegrain stuff, chewy, with nourishment.


box office 0207 870 6876 to 21 Sept

RATING  FOUR  4 Meece Rating

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