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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