Monthly Archives: October 2014

FIRST EPISODE Jermyn Street Theatre SW1




There’s a rugby ball and a bottle of Oxford Ale, clothbound law books, pipes, a cricket bat, 1930’s clutter. There are tweeds and cricket sweaters and waistcoats and immaculate whites. And it’s not entirely frivolous to start with design and costumes (Neil Irish and Emily Stuart): for that lovingly detailed attention to a particular period and place reflects the care and significance lavished on this first revival of Terence Rattigan’s first play.



Its milieu is important: an undergraduate shared house in Oxford, a male world where best friends Tony and David (Gavin Fowler and Philip Labey) are theatre-minded, social confident pups, sharing with the sporty Philip and the nerdy, bespectacled, prim Bertie. A butler tends their needs, but Proctors and “Bulldogs” police their social lives, making guests leave at midnight and banning them from lustful visits for “Female companionship” at the King’s Head. In those days (indeed, right up to my own late 1960’s when Burton and Taylor dropped in) OUDS plays had the clout to draw down not only national critics but professional female stars: Peggy Ashcroft came to play Juliet. In this play it is the glamorous Margot, recruited as Cleopatra against the youthful director Tony’s Antony. She is given pitch-perfect actressy charm by Caroline Langrishe until – equally perfectly – she stumbles into the emotional pit and becomes, vividly, the ancestress of Rattigan’s great portraits of middle-aged women shipwrecked by wrong love: Alma Rattenbury, Hester Collyer, Millie Crocker-Harris.



Rattigan was only 22, gave a co-writing credit to Philip Heimann his friend (model, probably for the characters’ casual love lives) and he did not include it in his Collected Plays. Probably thought it juvenilia, not to be remembered. But goodness, it’s Rattigan all the way: a first strike at the great themes of his heyday, and not least evidence of his heartbreaking ability – astonishingly young – to write strong woman characters. But youthful high spirits will win through, and until its rueful darkening in the final act, it’s a fine comedy, with real student rumbustiousness (which director Tom Littler amusingly uses to create some dancing, larking scene-changes).
There’s a wonderful turn by Molly Hanson as a dim but amiably willing flapper passed between the young men with a shrug, and a fearlessly hilarious, showstopping portrait from Adam Buchanan of the prim, naive geek Bertie, with his feeble moustache and round specs.



Bertie, indeed, is a very good joke in himself. For the story has Tony and Margo becoming emotionally entangled, despite the twenty-year age difference, with what she exasperatedly calls “you screaming brawling children” and the sardonic David, with homosocial if not actually carnal jealousy, possessively resents his friend’s involvement. It sails near the wind: the Lord Chamberlain insisted on changes of language, the Public Morality Council found it “unpleasant and immoral” and one critic huffed “I cannot commend the morals of the piece, which shows a number of undergraduates a little too preoccupied with sex”. Thus the joke is that Bertie – in a series of wonderful moments when he talks up virginity and cricketing team-spirit and tries to warn the all-too-knowing Joan about the “danger” she is in if she gets kissed – is in himself an embodiment of the censors, and of all that inter-war panic about young people getting out of control.



But the remarkable thing is that this young Rattigan, despite his obvious debt to Coward comedies, is drilling deep already into the dark. Into emotional male bonding, the alien strength and vulnerability of women, and the profound sadness of impossible love. This terrific, close-up, thoughtful production does him honour.


BOX OFFICE 020 7287 2875 to 22 Nov

rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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THE WITCH OF EDMONTON – Swan, Stratford upon Avon




Devils! Not Hallowe’enily cosy at all. Obscenely beguiling, tenebrous creatures of evil, they lurk inside all human nature and they know it. Mother Sawyer’s derisive familiar “Dog” makes that clear, in one of the central couplets of this rural horror-story set in the reeds and fogs of ancient Middlesex:
“Let not the world witches or devils condemn;
They follow us, and then we follow them!”

This finale to the RSC’s “Roaring Girls” season is the oddest of the lot, and by no means the least. Gregory Doran directs the 1621 collaboration between “William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford&c” (who knows how many spoons in this dark pudding? ) It is a play with two centres, one supernatural and one human melodrama. Mother Sawyer is an impoverished, brutalized old woman regarded locally as a witch (common at the time, not least because of King James I’s obsession with the supernatural). She isn’t one, but in her resentment decides she might as well call up the Devil and serve her persecutors right. It is a marvellous role for an aged woman and Eileen Atkins gives it a brilliant, stroppy, beaky, sardonic presence, with just sufficient pathos to hold sympathy and enough spite to command respect.

The demon she calls up is “Dog” – Jay Simpson near-naked in black body paint, red eyes and a truly horrible tail beneath jagged vertebrae: a starveling rabid cur of a creature who appals and fascinates (worryingly sexy). She sends him to lame horses and ruin the butter of her main foes, but is irritated that he can’t kill the more virtuous.



Because in theology, devils can’t. They work from the inside. So the main tale of the play concerns human misdeeds: seduction, deceit, brutality, hypocrisy, eventually murder. Ian Bonar is the serving-man Frank who has secretly married Winnifride, herself pregnant by her employer. To get a dowry and please his father (Geoffrey Freshwater, all bonhomous bourgeoisie) Frank bigamously marries Susan. His journey from fool to villain is played out with tense, conflicted realism. All the performances are, as you’d expect, fine,: but Faye Castelow as Susan, in her debut RSC season emanates a calm, luminous intelligence, defying the mantra that it is hard to play straightforward goodness. Her scenes with Frank – and her death – are electrifying.



The collision of the two plots, and the local hysteria that “maids who fall” and murderers are being influenced by the Witch, makes it sometimes weirdly and rather excitingly unclear as to what the authors wanted us to believe. This is no CRUCIBLE, because Mother Sawyer does really have a horrid familiar. On the other hand, all her pet Satan can actually do is to upset horses , play tricks and lure poor Cuddy the Morris-man into a bog (nice pondweed on Dafydd Llyr Thomas’ head, I hope he has some good selfies) . Otherwise Dog merely lurks, relishing the natural wickedness of the mortals. Though in a showstopping moment at the end of the longer first act, he takes over the morris-dancers’ fiddle and causes a mass-hysterical diabolic St Vitus’ dance (respect to Paul Englishby’s terrifying score) . What with the skeleton hobbyhorse and the crazed choreography it is definitely one of the must-see sights of this Swan season.



It’s odd, it’s dark, often funny, sometimes touching, and above all it feels like a deep insight into a past moral sensibility: a post-Reformation superstitious unease. The last ten minutes of remorse, forgiveness and wordy justice disengage us, making it retreat into that past again. Unworthily, briefly, you think “Greg Doran could have cut some of that!” . But no. You then reflect that the Royal Shakespeare Company is not just there to give us barnstorming nights out and move us to tears at half the West End prices (both of which it pleasingly often does). It is also there to display, fully and respectfully, our common ancestral past. Demons, moralists and all.


box office 0844 800 1110 to 29 Nov

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

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’TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE Wanamaker, Shakespeare’s Globe SE1




By the end of three hours the gilt-reflecting candlelight of this little jewel-box playhouse is flickering over a birthday party littered with bloodstained corpses. Father, son, bridegroom – plus the offstage corpse whose heart has been waved around on a sword like a kebab. And that’s not counting the one murdered an hour earlier in a terrifying total blackout, his death agonies revealed by dark-lantern. Or the plotter who died a slow, agonizing and eloquent death by her own potion. The robed Cardinal, meanwhile, being Italian Catholic and therefore a convenient satirical villain for post-Reformation England, winds up the play speaking the words of the title and coolly ordering that the matter be hushed up (by sending another victim to be “burnt to ashes”) and confiscating that the dead family’s riches for the Church.



None of these magnificent disasters, however, are the reason John Ford’s dark drama spent a couple of centuries pretty much unperformed. Its real scandal (nicely emphasised this week by Transport for London banning the poster) is sexual. The tragedy is triggered by the incestuous love of Giovanni (Max Bennett, carrying it through convincingly from touchingly young and ardent to deranged) and his sister Annabella (Fiona Button gives her a spirited beauty and startlingly contemporary assertiveness).

That this will lead to disaster is clear from the first tense scene in which Giovanni confesses his desires to the Friar with “It is my fate that leads me on” and then lies to his sister – who is equally inclined – that he “asked counsel of the Holy Church” and got permission. And so, with tumbling naked grace, to bed. While other suitors and side-plotters pursue their ends the knotty text – beautifully handled with clarity and pace under director Michael Longhurst – is studded with fascinating philosophical efforts to justify this incest. Though more endearing is from Morag Siller, a delight as the bawdily robust maid Putana: “If a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody!”.


Indeed an admirable pleasure of this production is in its balancing of violence, darkness and horror with earthy comic absurdity. One of the most striking performances is from James Garnon – lately brilliant in the big Globe as Dr Scroggy – who plays an idiotic lad forced by his rich uncle to try for Annabella’s hand. He delivers it as Tim-nice-but-dim crossed with a less bright Boris Johnson: larky and tactless and hilarious until the extraordinarily touching moment when he falls in love with another girl entirely with a burstingly boyish “Lass, pretty lass, come!”. Yet this lovely bearer of comic relief is doomed too: murdered by mistake. The ultimate engine of his destruction, and of much else, is a slighted hellcat Hippolyta, given a terrifying energy (and some good rude twerking in disguise) by Noma Dumezweni.



The production is particularly fine when you consider how complicated and treble-stranded Ford’s plot is: newcomers, do not read the synopsis, it’ll only scare you. Onstage there is absolute clarity and accessibility not only in the speech, but in Alex Lowde’s skilful use of costume: tweakingly updated and carefully distinctive to character, whether Giovanni’s student-casual tights, Annabella’s anachronistically wispy dresses, or the slyly absurd, ultimately horrifying presence of gold party hats at the disastrous final banquet.



And there is the candlelight. I am a pushover for the Wanamaker’s rising and falling beeswax candelabras, the handheld candles throwing alarming shadows, and the ritual gradual dowsings. When the Friar describes hellfire to a desperate Annabella, around them like her hopes the flames die out one by one at the hands of dark servants. Brrrr.


Box office 020 7401 9919 to 7 Dec

rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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BUT FIRST THIS… Watermill Theatre, Newbury


Radio 4 announcers tend to have a dry, contained sense of humour, honed by years in their lonely hutches listening to that most literate of networks, observing its idiosyncrasies and reading both news bulletins and programme introductions without ever betraying their secret opinions (you had to know the legendary Peter Donaldson for decades before you could detect the undertones of satire in his bland deep-brown announcements. Even then it was uncertain.)

So there is a real buzz in encountering, in this tiny adventurous producing-house, a comedy musical written by Kathy Clugston, one of those announcers. It has music and additional lyrics by Desmond O’Connor, and a spirit of mischievous affection shared utterly by her first-night audience . You knew she was preaching to the choir as soon as the defunct UK Theme, axed by Mark Damazer, began its Rule-Britannia chords before the start and everyone went “aaahhhh!”.

In moments we were into the first number, with John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie (Michael Fenton Stevens catching the Humph with uncanny accuracy and deadly humour) and Jonathan Dryden Taylor, who actually looks more like Peter Hobday but who got the monologuous questioning style bang on. And as the weatherman (Neil Ditt) and newsreader (Helena Blackman) sparred with authentic dawn ill-temper as the romantic juveniles, we learned the engine of the plot: that the Controller (Louise Plowright) was threatening dreadful cuts to the network, reducing the pips and abolishing Woman’s Hour and the Shipping Forecast.

To be honest, the first number and early minutes made me wonder whether it would sink beneath the weight of insider affection (though the wealth of groanworthy punning programme titles from an invisible Alice Arnold was fun from the start “The Classic serial will be – muesli”.). It is really more of a revue for R4 lovers, sending up musical-theatre itself and disguising a slightly too-fey plot with quick changes and daft beards. But Clugston’s strength is in big numbers, and some of them are lyrically brilliant. A trio led by Naughtie sings of a sneaky male addiction to Woman’s Hour; a marvellous interlude in the Pronunciation And Grammar Pedantry department hits many grudges about language (“What’s the use of saying utilize? And impact is not a verb!”) . It should be played on the real Radio 4 daily. Another showstopper is Humphrys’ confessing his secret love for scented candles, petting zoos and Michael Bublé.


There are flashes of real wickedness, not least the downfall of the evil Controller (Plowright storming the role) as she accepts the standard management punishment of being “moved to a higher position in aa different department”. So I was won right round. And in the style of the Shipping Forecast, whose fate provides a running theme , let’s just say:
General situation: Plot fair, occasionally rough. Scilly, gags advancing , becoming strong. Cast good becoming very good. Intermittent puns, poor becoming adorable. Over-Forties: very happy with occasional singalong. Outlook: possibly moving Westward. Good.

box office 01635 46044 to 8 nov

rating: –    3 Meece Rating ….oh all right, musicals mouse says four Musicals Mouse width fixed

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DON Q – Old Fire Station, Oxford: pre-tour




Cervantes’ story gave us a word: quixotic. From politics to artistic enterprises, it defines all extravagantly romantic, chivalrous, visionary but impractical enterprises. A middle-aged man goes off, inspired by too many knightly romances, riding a skinny horse with his despairing squire Sancho Panza alongside. He seeks adventures to place him in the annals of great deeds, and always fails or is gulled. Next month Carlos Acosta will be dancing the tale at the Royal Opera House. Meanwhile here is the quirky foursome of Flintlock Theatre – artists in residence at the Oxford Playhouse – doing their own take on it.

Or, at least, on its spirit. Anna Glynn’s version, designed by Robin Colyer, is set in a library at closing time where four geeky, fawn-cardiganed figures – Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies – bustle ineffectually around, excited by being amid books and stories (the set is a nice stepladder and door) and perform various slightly too long balletic mimes (the first thing to say is that the show would be sharper and more fun at a straight 75 minutes, rather than running with an interval).

The meat of it, and the real interest, comes when they go into character and act out the story of an old man called Norman (Davies, playing it pretty manic throughout). He is confused, causes a scene in the library and is put in a kindly but dull secure home. Assisted by his friend Sam (Kate Colebrook, in an earflap hat and nicely down-to-earth manner) he escapes. Sam has to be his Sancho Panza, as Norman cobbles up a wonderful suit of armour from a tea-tray breastplate, colander helmet and oven-gloves as pauldrons. His steed Rosinante is Sam’s scooter.

Once the quest gets well under way it becomes both funny (quite a bit of interaction with the front rows, watch yourself) and oddly touching, as they conflate a modern pensioner’s dwindling sense of reality with Don Quixote’s desire for exotic and heroic adventure out of old books. The best moment is when he convinces himself he has met two hooded holy friars and must confess: they are teenage hoodies (Barlow and Binefa are splendid vocal shape-shifters), and the glow of their smartphone when they attempt a selfie with the old loon has him greeting the bright light as “a blessing!”. The ultimate encounter is with a burger-shop benefactor and with a damsel in distress: an immigrant care assistant at a bus stop (Binefa again) finally realizing that if they are to help the old boy and take him home, they must join in his fantasy. It feels, at that point, oddly serious. Touring through 2015
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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MEMPHIS – Shaftesbury Theatre, WC2


“Ain’t no daytime on Beale Street, only nighttime!’ Delroy’s joint is jumping, Felicia (a glorious Beverley Knight) belting it out at the microphone. Around them, dancers hurtle and dazzle. In walks Huey (Killian Donnelly), beautifully brash and geeky in a pork-pie hat. The dancing stops, Huey wonders why. “You notice anything different?” enquires Delroy sarcastically. Yep. Everyone else is this Memphis joint in 1951 is black. The only “White folks” who call are police requiring bribes.

And there, neat as you like, is the core and the point of this fabulous musical, fresh from Broadway and done with honour and huge heart by a British cast. Joe diPietro and composer David Bryan have imagined the moment in the early ‘50s when rock and roll was born, or “stolen”, for white kids to share and adapt the wealth of black r & b and gospel. Huey is a composite of several radio DJs who championed the music to the horror of white society: the story follows his passion for R& B – “the music of my soul!” and his star-crossed love for Felicia (in Tennessee “miscegenation” was still illegal). She, played with glorious vigour and pathos by Beverley Knight, is another composite of the early black divas. Huey gets his first radio job by literally breaking in to the studio, becomes a star, gets on TV, and perilously – ultimately disastrously – tangles with a social establishment which even “up North” in New York can’t accept mixing.



But oh, how the staid white folks of the ‘50s needed the new music! Some wonderful comic moments show tidily dressed shoppers and passers-by seduced by the energy, hips suddenly starting to wiggle free beneath tight repressed little suits (“Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday niiiight!”). Even Huey’s grumpy racist-Christian mother Gladys (Clare Machin, fresh from Pajama Game and hilarious as ever) undergoes a conversion, slyly assisted by their new financial prosperity. One visit to the gospel church she once shunned , and she is ready to “Testify!!”



There are individual great numbers, both high-energy and plaintive, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is breathtaking. But the joy of the show – kept moving with neat transitions by director Christopher Ashley – is in its belief that energy and music and youthful goodwill can win in the end, despite time and tears. There is comedy (racism is always absurd, as are radio studios, and Mark Roper’s Mr Simmons the WHBC boss is lovely). There are brief shocking brutalities. There is an immensely moving subplot involving Gator (Tyrone Huntley) whose father’s lynching left him mute from the age of five but who finds his voice at the crisis.



Altogether, the balance and line of the story work perfectly: on Broadway, I hear the end is more downbeat; here despite Huey’s professional downfall here the explosive joy is restored, if only in the music. Fair enough: “Say a prayer that change is a-coming” doesn’t imply that it’ll be quick.
And on a personal note, let me confirm that the stiff-backed sexual horror of “good white Christian folks” at music crossing the race border rings absolutely true. In my year in a South African convent in 1962, the nuns banned Elvis records because he sang and moved in a “black” way. Cliff Richard was allowed because he sang and moved in a “white” manner. True! So I danced out singing the last chorus “Listen to the beat, hear what’s in your soul, let it make you whole! Don’t let anyone steal your rock ’n roll!”. Even nuns.



box office 020 7379 5399
to 28 March

rating : five  5 Meece Rating

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OUR TOWN – Almeida, N1




Only the dead see life clearly.  In the last strange simple minutes of this undramatic drama, half of Thornton Wilder’s citizens become their own speaking tombstones, drifting towards oblivion or eternity but roused for a moment by a new arrival’s travails . “Wasn’t Life awful?” says a voice. – “And wonderful”. chimes another.  I think a third dim voice assents: or it might be one of us, sitting round and among the action in the never-dimmed auditorium, drawn in to the humdrum wonderfulness of daily doings, marriage, work, failure, success and suicide, birthdays, bereavements. Life.

The 1938  play won a Pulitzer and broke convention: a bare floor, a couple of tables, quotidian jobs mimed, New Hampshire small-town life, hills, homes, horsepower and starlight at the start of he 20c expressed only in description by a wry, wandering stage manager; but enacted by a cast who in fragmented scenes under his direction relive routine, a wedding and a loss. David Cromer’s production – in which he is our affable onstage narrator and guide – ran in New York, but here the universality of it is underlined by the British cast with British accents. Some have cavilled at this, because of Wilders’ US idioms and references – the ‘I declare’, the ‘ma’am’s, baseball and the rest. But after a few minutes I found any awkwardness fading into complete acceptance of character and situation.

That is part of the play’s low-key brilliance, because in its slight two-hour two -interval span there are no situations which a more traditional dramatist would be bothered with. Just small – yet immense – quotidian happenings: family breakfasts, kids growing up, middle aged weary parents, awkward courtship, stifled yearnings to get out of the hometown mixed with love of it. For all its dated, anchored detail – in attitudes and mores from a century ago – it evokes Everytown, every street .

Which feels like a magic trick, or perhaps just one of those moments of piercing universal vision, when you startle yourself by seeing in a flash humanity poised in eternity, and  the littleness and immensity of life.  It feels unlikely that something so unshowy can achieve that:  even with one brief scenic coup de theatre five minutes from the end.   But it is remarkable; and so are the core performances. Cromer himself is assured, anchored, dryly funny and unselfconsciously sincere. He draws the same quality from his cast. especially Anna Francolini as Mrs Gibbs and Kate DIckie as Mrs Webb, and David Walmsley and Laura Elsworthy as the young wedded pair. Elsworthy especially  holds the final scene with mesmeric natural intensity.

box office 0207 359 4404 to To 29 november

Rating.  Four.  4 Meece Rating

Supported by Aspen , Barrow Street Theatre and Jean Doumanian

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