Monthly Archives: November 2014

THE GREEN BAY TREE Jermyn St Theatre WC1

BENEATH THE STREET, DARK PASSIONS BATTLE…

 

 

What better place to muse on secretive 1930’s sexual angst than under Jermyn Street, once synonymous with sharp shirts and smart tarts? The Jermyn has dug up some wonderful examples: early or unseen Rattigan, rare Novello, a bizarre Graham Greene: atmospheric tales of transgressive love suit that intimate, close up setting where you actually cross the set beforehand to the TOILET sign. Lovely.

 

 
This time, director Tim Luscombe has skilfully edited a piece by Mordaunt Shairp which ran on Broadway in 1933 with Olivier and Jill Esmond. It’s about a young man in love (with a girl) being clung to by the possessive, wealthy male mentor who adopted him at eleven years old (for a bung of £ 500 to his drunken Welsh dad). Mr Dulcimer (great name!) has formed Julian to be as hedonistic and aesthetically precious as he is. But can he lure the lad back from the arms of the vet Leonora, one of the inter-war generation of determinedly independent women?

 

 
The piece is none the less fascinating for being excoriated as “the most dishonest and morally disreputable play” of the period by the critic Nicholas de Jongh, for stepping away from the gay-angst-persecution genre and making Dulcimer manipulative and predatory. And the fact that the Lord Chamberlain nodded it through unchanged does make you a little uneasy: the legend of posh vicious gays seducing honest, straight working-class lads fuelled the nastiest era of homophobia, and for some still does. Leonora’s taunt to Julian takes your breath away: “I hope I shan’t meet you one day in Piccadilly with a painted face, just because you must have linen sheets!”.

 

 

 

But it’s a strong play about needy possessiveness and the lure of wealth, and it was brave of Shairp simultaneously to risk a homoerotic theme and then annoy its (still persecuted) constituency with a caricature of ruthless camp. In Act I, indeed, I was taken aback by Richard Stirling playing Dulcimer barely one notch down from Jules and Sandy. But what else can you do with a character who mimsily arranges flowers and berates his butler (a nicely deadpan Alister Cameron) with “I don’t think I could trust you with a tulip”. He also has a country retreat and purrs “You’ll find the amber pool preferable to the sweaty transports of the Westminster Baths. I think I shall have amethyst cushions this year..”. Well, you gotta play that camp, and it’s not Cowardy-camp either.

 

 

 

But the play develops, and Christopher Leveaux’s handsome Julian becomes torn between his comfortable billet and his love. Leo cleverly reintroduces him to his real father,who has become a lay-preacher. The Welsh hymns call to something “very old and far off…rugged and sad” within him, competing with the scented Chopin delicacy of his other life. Leveaux, for all the absurdities, gives a real sense of a youth struggling to escape the damage done by soft spoiling (Dulcimer never even sent him to school, preferring to oversee his aesthetic education).

 

 

 
He is petulant as he tries to study as a vet (“reading up a lot of flapdoodle in order to give some filthy little Pekinese an emetic”). But his dissolution – after some terrific confrontations between Dulcimer and Poppy Drayton’s fine, angry Leonora – is genuinely horrible, and played with complete sincerity. And so is the older man’s admission that his mission was “to create a cage for Julian’s soul in which he sings to me as sweetly as in that stuffy Welsh schoolroom all those years ago”. There’s a grand melodramatic conclusion, 1930’s style, and a creepy final scene with more flower-arranging.

 

 

box office 020 7287 2875 to 21 December http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk
rating: three    3 Meece Rating

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AN IDEAL HUSBAND Chichester Festival Theatre

MORALITY, MELODRAMA, AND MANSERVANTS…

 

 

“Suppose I drive down to some newspaper office” says the foxy blackmailerine Mrs Cheveley to the horrified MP Sir Robert Chiltern “And give them this scandal and the proofs of it! Think of their loathsome joy…of the hypocrite with his greasy smile, penning his leading article and arranging the foulness of the public placard!”. Ah, they did scandals with more style in 1894. None of this footling plebgate / paisley pajama / white van nonsense. Years ago as a minister’s secretary, Sir Robert sold a government secret to a foreign Baron, thus founding his personal wealth and career. Now Mrs C with her pussycat smile, has the letter down her heliotrope-silk cleavage…

 

 
Oscar Wilde’s play is often trimmed a lot, to focus on the melodramatically twisty triple-blackmail plot with its dramatico-farcical devices of misunderstanding, overhearings and a mysterious bracelet. Some directors take the red pen to numerous Wildeisms, and trim the rather long, indeed almost Shavian, discursive monologues about moral relativisim, hypocrisy and the uses of wealth, leading to the central message – poignant one given poor Oscar’s own imminent disgrace – that it is not perfect people but imperfect ones who need love and redemption. Here, however, director Rachel Kavanaugh lets it run its full wordy length (nearly three hours) taking in the various comic divertissements and epigrammatic loghorrea of the original.

 

 
So it does, at first, feel a bit like music being defiantly played on “authentic instruments”. The supple, subtle modern cast (led by Robert Bathurst dissolving in credible horror as the MP) sometimes seem to be curating rather than invigorating the text. Jemma Redgrave’s Mrs Cheveley seems positively uncomfortable in the almost Downtonesque stilted social chat of the first scenes. It’s easier, perhaps, for the virtuous wife – Laura Rogers – since Wilde intends her to be an awful prig at first, with her Women’s League do-goodery, grey frocks, and rash belief that her husband has no sin in him.

 

 

But fear not. Relax into it. And just as you’re wondering whether the main delight (no inconsiderable one) will be Simon Higlett’s gorgeous late-Victorian swags and furbelows, a recognizable human reality flowers and becomes properly touching. Even the evil Mrs Cheveley gets the very modern epitaph “She wore far too much rouge and not enough clothes. Always a sign of despair in a woman”. There is real fire and fun in Jamie Glover’s lively Lord Goring: the apparent hedonist, wit and timewaster based on Wilde himself, who works in his orientalesque bachelor rooms to save the day because “Life cannot be lived without much charity”.

 

 
And there’s even more joy to be had from the veterans. A more hurried production would give less acreage to the dowager Lady Markby and her theories of the world, and to Goring’s grandee of an old Dad, Sir Edward Caversham. But Kavanaugh has got Patricia Routledge and Edward Fox in the parts, and you don’t go wasting chances like that. Both are wonderful, a masterclass in aged stage-stealing: Routledge rattles on like a grand fin-de-siecle version of her turn as Victoria Wood’s “Kitty”, and there is timeless artistry in Fox’s pause before asking his flippant son, in heavy despairing tones “Do you always really understand what you say?”.

 

 
Wilde would adore them both. Neither Fox nor Routledge often got offstage on the first night without enduring a round of affectionate applause. But that’s fine. It’s 1894. And nearly Christmas. And Chichester has had its first season in a grand new theatre. Hurrah for everything.
box office 01243 781312 to 13 Dec
sponsor: Rathbone Investment Management and Covers Timber & Builders Merchant
rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE Minerva, Chichester

A MODERN DATE,  AN ANCIENT NEED…

 

 
You could say it starts with a happy ending. Well, of a sort. Certainly the blackout is riven by an exuberant sexual racket, and as the light slowly rises on a tiny NYC apartment the couple disengage from the sofa-bed and cackle with the laughter of relaxation.  Lovers, though, they are not. This is the modern way, the Saturday night of lonely urban singles reaching for a passing intimacy, She is a waitress, he the short-order cook they caught one another’s eye: a date, a movie-and- benefits . Both grownups with a history, ages either side of the big 5-0, nothing serious…

 

 
Or is it? Terrence McNally’s 1987 two-hander is a delicate, feignedly flippant and deadly serious exploration of human fear of – and need for – intimacy. Against convention he gives the role of romantic to Johnny, who within a jokey uproariousness expresses an earnest demand to be allowed to love, admire, worship and commit. Frankie, brittle and bruised and defensive, purports to be toughly pragmatic, reluctant to accept his exuberant sincerity. Which is sometimes gloriously expressed, sometimes with a kind of ferocity – “Wake up, Cinderella, your Prince Charming has come! It could be another thousand years…”. Sometimes, as they spar through the first act, the thought crosses your mind that someone falling in love with you can feel like an act of aggression.

 

 
Which is, of course, an ancient thought: the pressures and persuasions of courtly love run through a thousand years of art. McNally is well aware of this: both are momentarily transported by Bach on the radio and his autodidact Johnny is intermittently prone to quote Shakespeare, with the lovely observation that it’s all very difficult archaic language “and then he puts it all together clear and simple, and it’s nice”.

 

 

 

Success in such a fragile intimate piece depends heavily on the actors: Dervla Kirwan and Neil Stukecould hardly be better. Kirwan gives off the depth of Frankie’s defensive, damaged pain beneath the stiffness and petulance of her rejections; Stuke has an even harder task, because Johnny could be irritating – or, as she says, “too intense, gives me the creeps”. But behind his explosive declarations is something which he himself defines as courageous: a demand, in mid-life and however bitter your hinterland, to grab something or someone good when you see it, and to hell with caution. Which is rather beautiful.

 

box office 01243 781312 to 6 Dec
Rating: four

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PETER PAN GOES WRONG Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford & touring

…AND MISCHIEF THEATRE GETS IT TRIUMPHANTLY RIGHT

 
My latE Dad hated the theatre, for the kindest and most dignified of reasons. He preferred cinema : in live performance he feared that someone would get something wrong and “Show Themselves Up”. But he did like a good joke, and enjoyed silent-movie pratfalls; so I wish I could take him to see Mischief Theatre. Where with masterful precision, cast and crew make everything does go wrong for their fictional avatars; theatrical peril and pomposities alike are pitilessly defined, ambition meets its nemesis, props misbehave and sets collapse, extravagant gestures freeze into helpless stares, and jagged interpersonal relationships poke through the rubble.

 

 

I have had a soft spot for this gang ever since the short version of The Play that Goes Wrong, fresh from a drama students’ lark in a pub. It set me raving in the Times,whereon the producer Kenny Wax nipped round to check, and took it on. It lengthened, grew a bigger and even more technically tricksome set, toured, and has now settled up West in the Duchess, filled houses, covered costs, and extended well into 2015.

 

 
So last year I hurried to see the same writers and cast do Peter Pan Goes Wrong, with the same idea of an inept am-dram company. I gave it a reckless Christmas five, though it wasn’t perfect yet. Now here’s a return tour, with a new cast (the originals being busy in the Duchess) and a new director, Adam Meggido (of Showstoppers). And it’s better, leaner, more inventive. Authors Jonathan Sayer and Henries Shields and Lewis made a wise decision in sticking close to JM Barrie’s original text with its fey sincerity and faery whimsy, rather than attempting a panto. Indeed a good running joke is that the “Director” – Laurence Pears – who plays Hook becomes glaringly enraged whenever the audience, on nicely subtle prompts, shouts BEHIND YOU or O NO IT ISN’T. “It’s a traditional Christmas vignette! It’s not a panto” – “Oh yes it is!” we cry. The cast utter Barrie’s Wendyish lines under hideous duress as harnesses, props , scenery, and (memorably) costumes let everyone down .

 

 

This new cast is very good at doing suppressed panic with edges of miserable resignation; particularly enchanting in deliberate awfulness is Leonie Hill as Wendy, all stage-school overacting and worryingly inappropriate dance moves. Naomi Sheldon plays Mother, the maid and Tinkerbell with a sort of panicky determination, suitable to her fake biography as Annie the promoted ASM; and Cornelius Booth is the heavily bearded co-director and emergency substitute infant Michael.
Sound effects tapes played in error fill the stage with back-bedroom revelations about how much the directors despise the crocodile and only cast him because his uncle is funding it (Matt Cavendish is so nicely woebegone and put-upon that he gets a cheer every time he comes on).

 

 
Mischief’s trademark physical courage and skill are deployed in the botched flying scenes (including one unexpected moment of audience participation),in hairsbreadth-timed musichall head-bashes, and in the unfortunate electrocution of Tinkerbell, whose light-up tutu trails a mains lead. Some of the jokes I remembered, but under Meggido many physical ones are brand new and excellent. So is the chorus of genuine children, who relentlessly sing a jolly song during a dangling medical crisis overhead. They too get their comeuppance: Italia Conti mothers, look away…

 

 

Joy was pretty much unconfined, in one of the most technically challenging and funniest shows of Christmas. There is certainly a challenge to the touring theatres in the fearful culmination, in which the revolve -with a collapsing seesawing pirate ship – becomes unstoppable and reveals dozens of small vignettes of conflict, repair and dissolution, And am glad to report that they list a lot of understudies. Some of that stuff must really hurt. But down in the stalls, we’re very, very happy.

 

 

Guildford till Saturday; then touring!      Touring Mouse wide
http://www.mischieftheatre.co.uk

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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CHIMERA Gate, W11

GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES AGAIN – BAFFLED BY MODERN BIRTHWAYS,  SOLDIERS BRAVELY ON AND WISHES IT HAD WORKED

 

 

Immediately this play had the whiff of a concept. This is a shoebox theatre, and the tiny clearing at the front (stage?) was occupied by only a plain white kitchen. Suli Holum, who performs the piece on her lonesome, appears in the audience (strange) but paints over the blanks with the kind of oomph only an American can muster.
A joint effort from writer/director Deborah Stein and performer/writer Suli Holum, the play is largely dull argument, but with a thrilling story poking in where it could. Broadly it is a story about a woman, who for various scientific reasons I can’t remember, has a son who is not hers. She gave birth but it isn’t her DNA in him. It’s vaguely common. Apparently.

 

 

The story is emotionally gripping and the characters are well drawn. A garishly accented American coffee lady/narrator is nicely cartoonish and pronounces ‘chest’ as ‘cheyesta’. Every syllable is a new invention.
The mother is only just about there; angry and sharp, cold yet a bit weepy. And the son is freakishly good. Suli pulls this shy yank student (think pre-crime Bieber) literally out of nowhere and it is thrilling.

 

 
Unfortunately here ends the praise. The script veers from witty to shitty and loses sight of the actual nub of interest – the story – far too often in favour of lecture. It is also regularly far too cerebral, talking about Darwin and DNA instead of people or experience. It also goes so meta for so many minutes that all we’re left with is jokes about how the taps don’t work because it’s a set. This feels like filling in the gaps for the boring science. As does the trippy pseudo-scientific projections which at first have a point, but end up just facilitating what looked like, and has the intellectual fibre of, the Galaxy song bit from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. You know the bit where Eric Idle comes out of the fridge into the Milky Way. This happens, although with far less substance.

 

 

It is a shame because the central performance was excellent and the lost story had the beginnings of something solidly dramatic. Unfortunately it throws all this to gawp at the great unknown / some facts I first heard on QI circa 2009.
Box Office: 020 7229 0706 to 20 Dec

Rating: two   2 meece rating

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GOD BLESS THE CHILD Royal Court SW1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES LURKS HAPPILY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASSROOM

 

 

There is nothing funnier in the world than kids swearing. This play gets us as close to that as possible without without social services getting involved.
Class 4N are a trial class. They are the fortunate guinea pigs being tested with a new
child-led style of teaching. At the head of the classroom sits Badger Be Good whose bland morality tales will guide the children painlessly into compliant adulthood. “It shouldn’t even have any capitals” remarks one of the children. The walk into the theatre is one of the first thrills. You arrive at a devastatingly realistic looking primary school classroom. The detail is outstanding. Chloe Lamford’s nudges gasps from all who enter and mutters of “shit, look!” from one patron to another.
The play, like setting, is uncanny. The story is disjointed and sinister – a form of something we think we know. Children sing, plot and tell spooky tales of what happened to the kid who ate too many super-green smoothies. Middle class parents of the world look away now.  Amanda Abbington is the prim powerhouse Sali Rayner. She is the creator of this scheme and the kind of ball-clenchingly terrifying person who is both an educator and a star of ITV1. Think Mary Portas but with ‘thinking stools’ and felt tips. She is fierce and delightfully patronising to the children but they bite backfz. “She is called Sali which is a normal name but she puts an ‘i’ at the end to make her interesting”.

 

 

However the Guardianista wares she’s come to peddle are not welcomed by the kids. The kids say they are ‘stressed’ and the headteacher talks of ‘phases’ and ‘logs’. It stinks of an educationalist with a plan.  The kids start by playing along, but eventually rise up. Their teacher Ms.Newsom (nicely frantic by Ony Uhiara) breaks down and leaves. The quasi-corporate headteacher (snappily played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) desperately tries to keep the school afloat whilst the pleasingly no-nonsense northern Mrs Bradley (charmingly brought by Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh) gives the children brief freedom.

 

 

The real joy here is how horrible the child Louis can be. Or “King Louis” as he manipulates his classmates into calling him. Brilliantly played the night I went by Bobby Smalldrige (a new acting dynasty name if I ever heard one), he is calmly and terrifyingly in charge. He cuts through a terrific amount of bullshit and looks barely 6.

 

 

But although Molly Davies’ play is politically fierce, sassily spoken and expertly staged by Vicki Featherstone, it suffers from a lumpy structure. It runs for 1 hour with an extra 45 minutes weighing it down. There are far too many scenes which cloud the gems and its neat politics get lost in setup and explanation.  Faulty but joyously original. Educational policy made punchy drama – no easy feat!
Box Office: 020 7565 5000 to 20 Dec
Supported by the Jerwood Charitable  Foundation
Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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GO SEE King’s Head, N1

TWO LONELY LIARS IN A BIG SAD CITY…    
Here’s a curiosity worth catching: the only full play by Norris Church Mailer, widow of Norman Mailer (who greatly admired it). It was born at the Actors’ Studio and is directed by another veteran American legend, Sondra Lee. The two players are also transatlantic: Peter Tate, who was so impressive in American Justice at the Arts, and Lauren Fox, an award-winning NYC cabaret performer. You could say that it taps right in to a particular New York neurosis and a particular time – 1985, the height of the AIDS epidemic.

 

 

But Mailer is too subtle a writer to leave it pinned down in time and place: literal as it is, tracing an odd-couple relationship over a few weeks, it has eternal echoes of myth. Tate plays a cultural anthropologist in his fifties, balding and scholarly. Making notes for a book he goes to a “sex booth” where behind one-way glass – she can’t see him – the scantily clad Fox preens, poses, and talks dirty to clients while they masturbate. A dollar a minute – the punter must keep pushing the money through or the light goes off (the tiny theatre is imaginatively papered on three sides with luxuriant giant red flowers, half-savage and half-seedy).

 
The girl is truculent, brittle, practised, appearing in her glass box in a variety of wigs and props. In several sessions he gets some kind of a life story out of her, about youth in Texas and seducing the local preacher – all very Tennessee Williams. Eventually he graphically tells of his own homosexual experiences in a tribe of Papua New Guinea cannibal headhunters.

 
But the twist is that in between booth sessions he has managed to be knocked over by her bicycle as she cycles home in sweatpants and good-girl hair. Scraping acquaintance through his scraped knee, he begins to date her. She has no idea it is the man from the booth; he pretends to be an out-of-town businessman (though unable to remember whether he said Indianapolis and Minneapolis). In return he gets a more respectable version of her own life, as a doctor’s daughter and Vogue model.

 
The clever thing is that until the dénouement you are never sure whether this is a classic Shakespearian wooing-in-disguise myth, or very creepy indeed, borderline Hitchcock. Tate, battered and unsmiling, carries the double possibility brilliantly; Lauren Fox moves between her brittle sex-doll persona and the real vulnerable girl cooking gumbo in her little flat and hoping for marriage. Until he gives himself away, and it all explodes into sad, credible angry confusion. And an acknowledgement that it is never just sex that answers the deepest need, but intimacy. Even between liars.
Box office 0207 478 0160
http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Rating: three   3 Meece Rating

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BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS Olivier, SE1

ALL HUMAN LIFE:  A TERRIBLE BEAUTY ON A RUBBISH TIP

 
In the interval of this headlong, crowded kaleidoscope of a play it was hard to know where the second part of David Hare’s script could go. With a 34-strong Asian cast, it is shaped from Katherine Boo’s painstaking three-year documentation of the Indian urban poor in Annawadi: the “undercity” scrabbling a living from the rubbish around Mumbai airport. Hidden behind the vast cosmetic posters for “Luxury Apartments” or “Beautiful Forever”, these are the ones the tourist board prefers we do not see.

 
And that first breathless act, using the vast panorama of the Olivier stage as a corrugated shanty town and bleak police station, felt like every human drama: a neighbourhood catfight, a cynically corrupt police-procedural, a social and environmental comment on global capitalism, a comedy of post-colonial manners, a touching portrait of teenage friendship, and at least two Greek tragedies. One involving fatal envy and self-immolation, another a young man’s a gesture of heroic idealism as powerful as Antigone’s. All this beneath the thundering shadow of jumbo jets, and centred on a patient, careful figure sorting rubbish. Plastic bottles fall like blessings from above , and Abdul (wonderful Shane Zaza), fills sacks, supports his family, only mildly grumbles that bottletops are half-metal half-plastic and need separating.

 
It is more than a documentary, though: India lives on tales, and the narrative is heart-hammeringly strong. My interval qualms were only because for the central Husain family – the ever-magnificent Meera Syal as its matriarch – it seemed to be all over.  They are accused of beating up the stroppy one-legged prostitute Fatima (a fiercely spirited Thusitha Jayasundera) who burns herself to death. The family fail to pay a bribe fast enough, and are variously imprisoned, tortured, and ruined. Life, however, goes on: and the second part is almost stronger, directing us not to schmaltzy “Slumdog Millionaire” feelgoodery but to an ironic conclusion of the case, and more importantly to something which can only be expressed in cliché: a tribute to the human spirit. Without spoilers, let me say that a line near the end about walking to a bus sparked an unexpected tear; and moments later a boy’s leap roused a cheer.

 
But as documentary too it is important, a good omen for the play’s director Rufus Norris, who takes over the NT reins next year. Katherine Boo’s book makes it firmly clear that these are not the abject, the poorest of the streets. In a rising economy, a BRIC nation, and they are the “not-poor”, economically active but intensely fragile in global changes: a Wall Street crash, observes the spry lad Sunil (Hiran Abeysekera) means they start cooking rats again. Vincent Ebrahim’s Karam curses “Don’t drop litter” posters, because without litter they starve. In the good times Syal’s matriarch swanks that although Abdul was born on the pavement outside the Intercontinental Hotel like a naked rat in the gutter, his hard work means they can afford a shelf in their shack and need not squat to cook. One rung above her is Asha , the local Mrs Fixit whose assignations with officials yet another rung above enable her to educate her daughter Manju – who in turn secretly teaches her friend Meena, a despairing unschooled captive of her family’s marriage plans.

 
With hilarious post-Colonial absurdity, what Manju passes on is Mrs Dalloway (“Who are these people? what do they do?”) and Congreve’s The Way of the World. Though she spots that Congreve is all about money, corruption and negotiated sex, just like Annawadi . Meanwhile the police chief can educate his son because of the bonus he gets for a 100% clear-up rate of murders, a statistic easily achieved by writing off a horribly mutilated young victim’s corpse as “Tuberculosis”. You do what you have to do, in Annawadi: as Zehrusina resignedly says “Everything is stolen!”. Or as Asha puts it more grandly “I have learned from First Class People, if you don’t think it’s wrong, it isn’t”. Sharp.

 
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 to March
NB TRAVELEX sponsorship: half the seats £ 15, others £ 25-£35.
NT LIVE in 550 cinemas 12 March 2015: http://www.ntlive.com
Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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ACCOLADE St James Theatre, SW1

THE PRICE OF VICE…

 
The accolade is a knighthood: services to literature for the debonair Will Trenting, already a Nobel for his novels on the seamy side of life. The play is set in his elegant library (a rather shoestring-flimsy set, but that’s the only unclassy thing about this marvellous evening). The writer jokes with his wife Rona that he is not respectable enough; she laughs and retorts “Falstaff was a knight!”. For she broadmindedly tolerates his occasional binges with booze and tarts in a bedsit at the Blue Lion pub in Rotherhithe. Their bookish young schoolboy son doesn’t know; Albert the valet-secretary-chauffeur is at home in both sides of Trenting’s life, and even when Harold and Phyllis from the pub turn up, a wide boy and a cartoonishly tarty barmaid, Rona is cheerfully welcoming. Nothing rocks the family boat. Yet.

 

 

One of the remarkable things about Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play, with two quite superb performances from Alexander Hanson and Abigail Cruttenden, is that you believe in this marriage and menage. In the cunningly crafted early scenes – which director Blanche McIntyre wisely does not speed up – you are drawn by Trenting’s charm: Hanson (so recently both Stephen Ward and Guy Burgess onstage) deploys satanically-browed, peaky assurance and an undertone of beguiling sincerity when he says of his lowlife fictional characters “Are they any worse than couples who nag each other from twin beds every night and are cruel to their children?” He also offers, when forced to admit his Blue Lion life to his censorious publisher Thane, a classic literary-slummer’s apologia: describing a big prostitute Diane sitting topless on his frowsty pub bed drinking Guinness and talking about her mother’s death. He contrasts rowdy, consensual warmly proletarian promiscuity with the deadness of a literary lunch. It is a perennial form of bad-boy romanticism: suddenly reminiscent of Stephen Fry’s sentimentalizing over “incredibly decent” cocaine dealers….

 

 

But as the first act ends the author detonates his bomb. And if we have been lulled into a period-play mood, reflecting smugly on how different things were in 1950 (who’d care if a literary knight was a bit of a party animal? we’ve had Sir Mick Jagger for years) we are jolted into reality. The lovable libertine’s classic plea that his vices are victimless is exploded, on the eve of his investiture. For one of the girls in the last orgy was not what she seemed. Neither (rather shockingly) are Harold and Phyllis. A blackmailer arrives; a wave of police, press and public outrage rolls in.

 

No detailed spoilers, but quite apart from Hanson’s terrific evocation of shock and regret, the performance of Bruce Alexander as the blackmailer is fabulous, a study in menacing, devious humbugging black comedy which simmers tensely before crashing into unexpected passion. And as if all that wasn’t enough to justify this wonderful play’s revival, a final scene between the father and Sam Clemmett – splendid as the son – is at once truthful, moving, heartbreaking and shockingly funny. A real find. Once again, all credit to the Finborough for digging it up.

 

box office 0844 264 2140 to 13 Dec
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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LA SOIREE South Bank SE1

BURLESQUE BLISS (AND BOON…)
There’s a towering, assertive giant gay blue rabbit in skintight Spandex, a stripping trapeze artiste hurling garments at the front row, a sadfaced clown who sings Cohen’s Hallelujah like a depressed angel; there is juggling and jokes and a superbly rude faux-baffled reading of a Mills and Boon sex scene. There are brief acts and sustained ones, a provocative diablo, a worrying contortionist, Ursula Martinez’ legendary hanky turn, hulahooping, quick-change transformations and a bathtub aerialist. And dammit, here’s the blue bunny again: lurking in the back stalls of the gorgeous mirrored Spiegeltent…why? Who knows.
I have loved these evenings ever since the first, in Edinburgh in 2004; call it new variety, or performance-cabaret, or circus burlesque, or whatever takes your fancy: it has been riotously successful, giving a platform to individual acts and forging an identity both pleasingly louche and unthreateningly friendly. That last quality is important, because not everyone is a natural nightclubber. As for the tag “not recommended for children” and the nudity warning, it must be said that its sexiness is not of the dead-eyed Soho variety. It is so joyfully self-mocking that I would very happily take a young teen (actually, it could be a useful corrective to the dreary porn they all see online).

 
And goodness, it’s fun. Partly because under the production of Brett Haylock the two-hour show is immaculately paced. This matters: I have been to similar events (with some of the same artistes) where heavyhanded ringmastering and a tolerance of iffy, slow-moving banter took much of the joy out of it. Here, however, there is no self-satisfied ringmaster but a swift, skilful segue of one act to the next, varying between the mainly funny and the breathtakingly acrobatic. It’s brilliant.

 

 

Aficionados and world travellers should know some names which headline this anniversary London run: Puddles Pity Party, an astonishing voice, is the big glum singing pierrot; Tanya Gagné of the Wau Wau sisters of NYC strips on the trapeze, you might see The English Gents, or David and Fofo from Sweden who spit ping-pong-balls. And from Australia Asher Treleaven is our Mills -and-Boon interpreter. His sad outraged “No – that’s not a Thing!” stays with me still.

 

 

Top night out, essence of joyful skill. I’m going again, on proper paid-for tickets: that’s how good it is.

+44 (0)20 7960 4200 http://www.la-soiree.com To 11 Jan

rating: five   4 Meece Ratingthe fifth being a Merry-Christmouse  libby, christmas cat

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WHITE CHRISTMAS Dominion, W1

ALED AND TOM DO THE SHOW RIGHT HERE…
Aled Jones is wonderful. Honestly. He is. Won’t ever hear a word against him. This contentedly hokey stage revival of Irving Berlin’s 1954 seasonal heartwarmer is his West End debut, but you’d never know it: not only because he sings with a fluid insouciant ease which relaxes you into the classic songs with a sensation not unlike swimming with dolphins. He dances, not half badly though less spectacularly than the amazing Tom Chambers as his mate Phil . And – as Bob the WW2 veteran turned song-and-dance man – he exudes such industrial-strength, powerfully benign likeability that dammit, you can’t take your eyes off him. You feel safe.

 

And it’s a show about feeling safe, possibly the most unthreatening theatre experience on the planet right now.   It’s a rom-com two performers getting together to save their old General’s failing Vermont ski lodge with a pair of (highly respectable) showgirl sisters, a foghorn-voiced diva turned receptionist and a winsome stagestruck tot (Sophia Pettit, managing to play it both abominable and rather touching). The jeopardy is slight – Betty (a gorgeous Rachel Stanley) misunderstands Bob just as their awkward romance is blossoming, but not for long. The General, given genuine presence and personality by Graham Cole, resolves his yearning to get back to the army without undue stress. The slow farmhand in charge of the curtains more or less gets it right, the Vermont locals dance with improbable precision, and the show goes on, as it must.

 
It’s a relaxed enough pace to cause impatience in some – expect no great spectaculars, no emotional catharsis, no political swipes – and its success is mainly as a period piece. But that relaxation gives you an opportunity to reflect on that world of sixty years ago, and what it needed. America in this show is not questioning itself, but cosying down into domesticity, looking inward, putting its faith in sleigh-bells in the snow, acknowledging the war so lately past and wanting to forget it. The parallels in dialogue between war and showbiz are brief but noticeable: the men adore the General who “would have gone through hell for them” and make parallels with the solidarity of performers. It is as if they were saying “right, Eisenhower was what we needed then, but now it’s over to Ethel Merman…”

 
But enough of the social anthropology. In its terms – and they are, by modern musical theatre standards, limited – it works a treat. By the time the snow falls on us all and a prolonged curtain call of red-and-green, velvet-and-tinsel-and-fur-hat chorines has hoofed its last, we are ready for Christmas. Except hell, it’s only the 13th of November. But that, every year, is the lot of the theatre critic…
box office 0845 200 7982 to 3 Jan
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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WILDEFIRE Hampstead Theatre, NW3

A LONG WAY FROM DOCK GREEN…

 
Gail Wilde earned her nickname at Hendon. A firecracker, an enthusiastic gym-bunny aglow with desire to be a good copper in the Met. She turns up early for her first day in a tough South London nick, stalwart and bouncy. She exemplifies the ideas spoken – moments earlier under a lone spotlight – by Sir Robert Peel in an earlier century. The police are civilians, he tells us, keeping order by consent and co-operation with the public; use minimal force only when “persuasion, advice and warning” have failed, offer“service and friendship” to all, regardless of social standing.

 

 

Brings tears to your eyes, it does. But once Peel has left the stage and Roy Williams’ play takes us to the modern badlands, it’s goodbye to shades of Dixon of Dock Green and the start of PC Gail’s decline into canteen culture complicity, fear, cynicism, grief, misjudgement, betrayal, violent delusion and final ruin. Lorraine Stanley achieves all this in a tour-de-force performance in ninety minutes straight, against a strong mobile ensemble under Maria Aberg’s fluid, high-speed, jump-cut direction.

 

 

Ironically, though, the play’s brisk exciting pace militates against its story: we are shown every stage of Gail’s decline from a happy wife and mother enjoying the comradeship of her new job, but her dissolution happens so fast that credibility becomes strained. The play would have been better given room to breathe: her relationship with a job-seeking husband and invisible daughter in particular is handled with peremptory sketchiness. Though perhaps this is intended to reinforce the fact that there is more vivid importance for her in the banter, frustration and urgency of the police world . That is indeed beautifully drawn, especially Fraser James as the weary sergeant passed over for promotion and Ricky Champ as Gail’s decent partner, who both commits something shocking under provocation and then is victim of something worse.

 

 

Williams is frank in the programme notes about his gradual journey from 1980s resentment to a more sympathetic view of the toughness of police work in a city of gangs and a time of riots. Aberg certainly knows how to direct a riot, and her use of vulturous hoodies watching overhead during the officers’ work and domestic travails is brilliantly chilling. But just too much is packed in to those ninety minutes: from the first stream of vomit to several riots, an unofficial grass, a drugs raid, police brutality, a murder, an inter-colleague affair, prescription drug addiction and domestic violence both sides of the thin blue line. It would be a better play if he focused more closely, gave us time to hope that each disaster might resolve before plunging us neck-deep in awful consequences.

 

 

There is also a technical problem caused by Naomi Dawson’s sparse gymnasium-style set: the acoustic is so echoey, and the style so naturalistically shouty, that you miss a lot of Williams’ best lines. Which is a shame because if you read the text a lot of them are very sharp indeed.

 

 

But it’s certainly not boring: and salutary for a theatre-believer to observe that whereas a murder in a TV police-procedural or detective story rarely even puts you off your macaroni cheese, done onstage it stops your breath with horror. I hope this playwright returns to the police theme. More slowly.

 
box office 020 7722 9301 http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 29 Nov
Rating: three3 Meece Rating

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NOT ABOUT HEROES Trafalgar 2, SW1

THE POETRY AND THE PITY

 
On this evening of Armistice day a hundred years on, no more fitting place to be than at this finely drawn revival of Stephen MacDonald’s two-hander about the WW1 soldier-poets. Here are Sassoon and Owen, young men in an unexpected friendship struggling with their own nightmares but also with the need, as a terrible new world dawned, to escape from orotund late-Victorian lyricism and express the grief of war without empty phrases or sentimentality. It was Wilfred Owen who wrote that his book would not be about heroes or “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power”: simply the pity of war, the poetry in the pity. He also wrote that his elegies would not be consolatory to his generation but “may be to the next”.

 
And so they are. More, in a way, than his friend Siegfried Sassoon’s: nothing in the century matches Owen’s immaculate directness in Anthem for Doomed Youth. When he reads it to his friend halfway through the play, a palpable tremor runs through the room, as if the bugles were still calling from sad shires.
But the power of the play – a respectful but inventive imagining of the friendship they forged at Craiglockhart War Hospital for nervous conditions – lies in more than the skilful use of letters, journals and poems, and in more than pathos.

 
The men rise as personalities, their friendship jokey, combative, and evolving with Owen’s growing confidence. Young men laugh sometimes, whatever times they endure, and so may we, surprisingly often. Alasdair Craig is Sassoon: taller, chiselled, with an upper-class brittleness. He was few years older and already a published poet, and a decorated war hero so independent-minded that he risked an public statement of “Wilful Defiance” against the war’s prolongation in 1917 and threw his military cross in the Mersey. So, with political cunning, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than court-martialled.

 
Knocking on his door comes little Owen: stammering, hero-worshipping, sweating with social diffidence, Simon Jenkins is every inch the provincial clerk of the period: smooth centre parting and small moustache, a figure like Forster’s Leonard Bast. The relationship begins with Sassoon as amused mentor and critic, until he recognizes the ardent gift and becomes Owen’s champion, introducing him to figures like Robert Graves (“A man one likes better after he’s left the room”). Woven into their passionate discussions of poetry are moments of war news, of 250,000 lost at Passchendaele. For both will go back, Sassoon with death-wishing anger -“More like being drunk than being brave” – Owen because he is afraid after his first experience, and needs to know whether he can endure side by side with those whose deaths he mourns in verse. He could. He died a hero, a week before the Armistice. Sassoon had to live on nearly fifty years, but published his friend’s poems.

 
Caroline Clegg’s magnificent, understatedly fine production for Feelgood has toured to Craiglockhart, to Catterick, across Britain and to Northern France. It is good that it finds a home so close to the Cenotaph this winter. Don’t miss it.

 
box office 0845 505 8500 to 6 December
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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DE RAPTU MEO at the Inner Temple

NO STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS:  600 YEAR OLD SEX CRIME COMES TO TRIAL

 

 

It is the year 1399. In dim light, great John of Gaunt lies on his funeral bier awaiting burial in St Paul’s. Before him Geoffrey Chaucer and his resentful amanuensis Adam Scriven conduct a quarrel. It resolves into a trial of the old man for a rape which took place nearly twenty years earlier. His patron is dead, and Adam feels that celebrity has protected the poet for too long so this is the time for a reckoning of the old sexual crime. Years before, powerful friends and money meant he got away with it Topical, eh?

 
This is a two-night curiosity, past now, but an interesting experience to share the great Inn’s “Revels” on a night they took the form of a play presented by two veterans of the form: author Garry O’Connor (who wrote the novel Chaucer’s Triumph, about the real historic case) and director Nigel Bryant. The gilded and grand Great Hall stuffed with lawyers , plus a few of us legal ignorami, plays the jury. And once we had pronounced the defendant Not Guilty, it was revealed that on the first performance the night before, he was found Guilty. Which denotes, at least, a remarkable achievement of balance.

 

 

Or possibly a different audience attitude to changing legal rules It seems that in the 14c a man could not be convicted of “Raptus” if the woman got pregnant, because it was rather prettily believed that only her enjoyment could create a child. And it does transpire in O’Connor’s version that Cecilia Chaumpaigne, the supposed victim, was having a voluntary affair with Chaucer, but was just furious that he approached her during a naked bathe at a time she knew she was fertile.  All sorts of issues, human and legal, arise out of the attempt to untangle questions of human behaviour in the least rational of its activities.

 

 

Anyway, we let him off, but the story – told by himself, his wife, Adam, and the girl (briefly joined by the corpse of Lord John reviving from the bier) has an ancient, intricate humanity which fascinates, though it is more like a radio play than a fully-staged drama. Chaucer is Ian Hogg of the RSC, giving it all the depth of likeable fallibility and self-awareness one would expect in the feeling and mischievous author of the Canterbury Tales; Scriven as Stephen Tomlin radiates a skinny furious energy, and Alice Bird’s Cecilia is his strong, sharp, self-willed lover and accuser. Sarah Neville as the scornful Mrs Chaucer is a professional, but the two others (including the roused corpse of the grandee) are lawyers.

 

 

Altogether, a play which could either grow into full theatre, or work on radio. And I like Chaucer’s prescient sideswipe at the future porn industry – “Are they who feed on filth any better than those who commit it?”

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2071 Royal Court, SW1

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SINKS INTO HER SEAT UNDER THE WEIGHT OF SCIENCE

It so happened that, on my way to 2071, I had been listening (repeatedly) to Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene: Wagner’s cataclysmic vision of the end of the world dissolving in purifying fire, flawed humanity and gods with it. So, I was rather in the mood for Armageddon. What I got was more of a science lecture.

2071, by Duncan Macmillan & Chris Rapley, is “a play exploring the future of life on earth and climate change” – or so it claims. I would agree with every word, except the word “play”.  2071 is, in fact, an elegant and succinct overview of the science of climate change, but it is an academic experience, not a dramatic one. Briskly, and with a bewildering battery of statistics throughout, Chris Rapley walks us through the scientific evidence for climate change, the global scientific efforts to track and analyse it, and the human behavioural factors to blame. Effectively, it’s like a guided tour of the coming apocalypse from the relative comfort of your theatre seat, given by an expert whose eminent and pioneering career gives him the gravitas to speak from experience, as well as intellectual prowess in his several fields. Rapley’s grasp of his subject is breathtaking: the concise elegance of his chain of thought, superb. But the overall effect is that of a rather dry, if beautifully reasoned, lecture: and in a warm dark space, at the end of a long day, it is just as soporific as you would expect.

Luke Hall’s wonderful video designs, part informational slides, part atmospheric animations, serve to enhance and clarify Rapley’s words as far as possible. Waves merge beautifully into an image of the globe, which steadily darkens into a view of Antarctica. Grids grow and multiply across the cornered stage to produce three-dimensional laser graphs illustrating the dangerously rising temperature. We also have almost constant soundscapes, designed by Max and Ben Ringham, composed by Paul Clark. But adding visuals and sound effects to a talk does not make it a play. It makes it more like one of those educational videos a tired teacher would show you on a rainy Friday afternoon: worthy, interesting, and wholeheartedly factual.

Prescient observations emerge. “Our infrastructure is not designed to deal with the climate we are provoking. …Science can inform, but it cannot arbitrate: it cannot decide.” Ultimately, Rapley explains, the resolution of climate change is not a scientific question, but a moral one: for governments, for communities, for individuals to choose which parts of the planet they do, or don’t, want to destroy. Here lies the piece’s dramatic problem: it draws together a dazzling array of evidence to provoke the question, but does not actually pose it, nor attempt to answer it. So there’s not so much a dramatic arc, as a dramatic hole.

I applaud and appreciate the intention to bring this science to a wider audience. The Hay Festival has been doing so for years. Still: Wagner’s pyromaniac vision of the end of the world may not be so accurate, but it is far more exciting.

– CHARLOTTE VALORI

Rating: Two Mice 2 meece rating

At the Royal Court Theatre Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, until 15 November: 020 7565 5000

In co-operation with the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg

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JOHN Lyttelton, SE1

IN WHICH GUEST CRITIC AND TOP THEATREKITTEN LUKE JONES IS SADLY UNDERWHELMED

 

 

This – created by Lloyd Newson of DV8 physical company – wasn’t quite the piece of dance theatre that had been sold to me. There was quite a bit of writhing around towards the end, but for the most part it was a lot of shuffling with quite dry verbatim dialogue. John follows the story a man with a hefty claim to having the most depressing life story. We start with domestic abuse, shuffle over to promiscuity, then to drugs, obesity, prison, then over to more promiscuity although this time gay. It is given to us as one man’s tale, although it lands as quite a hodgepodge. We rattle through traumas with little to chew over other than basic facts. Some are just casually slipped in – such as the fact that this lean dancer is meant to be 25 stone? Sure.

 

The dance too feels like a stray addition, which slowly sneaks in across the dankly lit revolving stage. At first it is just a lot of poses, twitches and high-concept walking, but its airtime increases and becomes it itself becomes more confusing. A court scene choreographed to manic shuffling or a conversation given from a tumbling ball of limbs. I get it, but is it just making up for the stale dialogue?
However it does have a sly wit which punctures some of the more worthy or strange moments – such as him spending a good 35 minutes of this 75 minute play in a gay sauna for no apparent reason. ‘Credit card fraud – that’s just using someone else’s credit card’ he lists off in a roll call of his crimes. Lloyd Newson has created such a debauched world, that by the time John is out of prison, off drugs and just hanging around in gay saunas for company it seems totally normal.

 

All this would be terribly unwatchable were it not for the excellent turn (shuffle, slide and wiggle) by Hannes Langolf as John. His quiet regional voice brilliantly captures a confused, lost and quite apathetic character in the midst of all this high art. It is a testament to his performance that his dialogue never lost me, despite his flailing arms’ best efforts. But unfortunately this plays like one of those films an art gallery. You could walk in at any time, sit down and watch a bit. There was little arc, nothing to keep me in my seat. It could very well have been on loop and me just passing.

Box Office: 020 7452 3000 to 13 Jan

rating: Two  2 meece rating

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MADE IN DAGENHAM Adelphi, WC1

UP THE WOMEN, UP THE WORKERS…AND A JIG  FROM HAROLD WILSON

 

 

It was not until the second-act opener that I thought it might fulfil the hope. That hope has been considerable: here’s a story (formerly a film, by the barely credited screenwriter William Ivory) about unfairness defeated, working-class women winning equality in the barely-vanished world of 1968. 200 underpaid seat-cover seamstresses held to ransom – at great risk – 5000 men’s jobs in their tight community, and defied the vast American Ford empire itself. Their victory included making Equal Pay the policy of the TUC for (rather shamingly) the first time ever.

 
A good start. And this musical team has every chance: script by the unconquerable comedy king Richard Bean, lyrics by Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer The Opera fame, Gemma Arterton as Rita the strikers’ leader, design by Bunny Christie (who rather brilliantly interprets the whole thing as a giant Airfix model, perfect metaphor for the factory process); music by David Arnold of Sherlock and Bond fame, and direction by the ever-flamboyant Rupert Goold. Huge West End money, hurled at a heartwarming tale of feminism and workers’ rights. What’s not to like?

 
Yet the first half , dammit, left me alarmingly cold. There’s a cheerful opening hymn “Busy Woman” to the working mother (could sense Jenni Murray beaming in the row behind), with Arterton endearingly honest and unshowy as ever and Adrian der Gregorian (better every year!) as her husband Eddie. Cue some spirited banter among the sewing women, and scornful, elegantly staged contrasts with the farting idle Union leaders, foxy management, and Mark Hadfield as Harold Wilson neatly ensconced in the cleft stick of his premiership, unions at his throat and production down. His opening number does involve one of the funniest dances of the year, which is something,; but the pace of the (long) first half flags. Especially when you remember that other recent strike musical, The Pajama Game: too many songs just aren’t quite up to it, and only one of them – a fine lament for the horror of Labour Party politics by Isla Blair as Connie the convenor – fulfils the proper function of a musical number in propelling the emotional and narrative line forward. Others simply seem to stop it dead.

 
Some of the dialogue is pleasingly Bean-ish (especially the exasperation of the manager’s bored wife Lisa stuck out in Essex : “But I bought you a horse!” “It doesn’t like me!” . But the first time Rita is properly allowed to catch fire is in the confrontation with management over skilled status “Could you do my job? What sort of needle would you use for leatherette?”

 
It sparks at last with that Act 2 opener, when it becomes clear that it is indeed Richard Thomas of Jerry S fame who is writing the lyrics: Steve Furst’s number as Tooley the American Ford boss is a magnificently, arrogantly, eloquently offensive portrait of US contempt for Britain, spectacularly staged (Gooldian!) with tanks, marines and fireworks. I long for a Broadway transfer and the affronted horror of East Coast liberals. There is also – as Tooley turns the screw on the impoverished strikers and laid-off husbands – a very fine and touching ensemble “Storm Clouds” montage which also makes the night worth it.

 
But as it winds on through domestic jeopardy and momentary heartbreak to Rita’s grand TUC conference catharsis, at least two other numbers – not least an utterly pointless one for Sophie Louise Dann’s oddly unconvincing Barbara Castle – slow it down again. Damn. I wanted to throw the stars around for this all- British, liberal-hearted show, but can’t. Not quite. Never mind: others will. There was plenty of laughing on the first night, and an emotional killer punch when they brought on the real, elderly strikers of 1968 to take a bow…

 
Box office 0844 412 4651 to 2015

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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Fitzrovia Radio Hour presents DRACULA – Mercury, Colchester

BRAM AT THE BBC: A FRIVOLOUS FORTIES FRIGHTENER

 

 

Ah, happy memories! As an unfledged BBC techie in the ‘70s, my favourite job was “Spot Effects” in radio drama studios: a technique then still requiring a visit to the huge Spot FX Store to sign for tin thunder-sheets, rattles, and Heath Robinson contraptions with titles like “No.3 Creak” and “Rustic latch”. I tramped in gravel-pits, scrunched up old tape to make “rustling forest floor, autumn”, and if it was a whodunnit might get to stab a cabbage and throw a sack to the floor while a member of the BBC Drama Rep cried “Ooof!”. My finest hour was when a director suddenly called “Libby daaarling, can we HEAR the Alsatian running downstairs?” and I achieved this with fingernails scrabbling claw-like on planks. I always wanted to have a go at “whimpering dog” or “gurgling baby”, but that counted as Professional Acting, and was generally supplied by a jolly lady from the rep called Olwen.

 

 
It is this world which the Fitzrovia Radio Hour company took to their nostalgic bosom, camping it up beautifully in shows recreating 1940’s radio drama (unlike ours it was done live, with the cast themselves often doing the props). Contemplating a piano-organ, a microphone and a tableful of apparently random junk, we are the studio audience as our heroes attempt Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The twist in this case is that the innocent BBC has cast a real Romanian aristocrat for verisimilitude, David Benson as Count Alucard . And he is, of course, a real vampire . You can tell by the cloak, Benson’s joyfully extreme coarse-acting mannerisms, and the fact that unlike the others he doesn’t clutch a script. Around him, reading their roles and bustling with props, are the announcer/van Helsing (Dan Starkey), the matinee idol Harker (a smooth towering Jon Edgley Bond) and the two women: Fiona Sheehan as Meena and other ingenues has a lovely cut-glass delivery which makes the word “Lucy” into “Lewsee”; and a hilarious Joanna Wake is the doddering veteran thespienne in a feathered toque who has worked for the BBC since it was founded. She plays not only Lucy but others including a gloriously overdone “Cockney Paper Boy”. They all do wolves too, when necessary.

 

 
Cal McCrystal directs this most ambitious of Fitzrovia’s productions, now planning to tour, and this sharpens it no end: he specializes in physical comedy and supervised that aspect of Hytner’s One Man Two Guvnors. It shows: visual jokes come thick and fast, nicely driven by the irritable unspoken relationships between the cast (they never speak off-script), and by the melon-stabbing, footstep-crunching, Marigold-glove flapping, orange-sucking, celery-crunching, flowerpot-as-sarcophagus-lid manoeuvres . These are constantly, frantically done in the corner by anyone not speaking. Wake’s struggle with the funeral bell chime is a joy. And there is a comic innocence in the evening dress and crisp 1940’s diction (“Braahm Stoker’s tale of tirror”), and in cloudy visions of Alvar Liddell encountering the vampire beyond the studio glass. The Old BBC-ness of it makes a lovely counterpoint to the absurdity of the whole exercise and the developing disaster. Proper, silly, polished pleasure.

 
box office 01206 573948 http://www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
to 15 Nov

rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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