Monthly Archives: January 2015




Thought I should see how it feels in a bigger theatre, after writing at the Donmar that Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play is “pretty much perfect: a twist on the traditional drawing-room, single-set comedy of sex, love, friendship and death. Directing, Robert Hastie does it full justice. In two unbroken hours here is a constantly involving, slyly funny and heartbreaking production”.

I agree with myself. Its five stars still shine bright, and it is a joy to see it again – with a remarkably warm affectionate house, too, more loud uninhibited laughs and “aaahs” of pity for poor lovelorn Guy than on the press night.


The audience at a matinee was gratifyingly mixed, uncultish. Although it is famously a play about a group of gay men and the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, it doesn’t bother with the familiar ideas on that subject: social prejudice, angsty gay identity, all that. Elyot – though the times were tricky – is not demanding gay rights, but demonstrating through the lovability of the characters that they are just like any other men. Blokey, comradely, puzzled by the conflict between liberated desire and the deeper hunger for intimacy and fidelity. . For all their campery they are just six people in a tangle of affections. Even the weariness of long partnerships is deliciously acknowledged in Benny the bus-driver’s observation that he only notices what a bore his lover is when they’re in company.


There are of course differences. In a gay play – certainly at that period – you can complicate your sexual relationships faster than Feydeau. And the wit is more uninhibited , more locker-room than in almost any straight love-tangle play: satiric, savage and explicit and often painfully funny. But there is always a recognizable current of deep feeling, and the subtlety of it endures and grows.


So to return to my Donmar review, “It is not a play of stereotypes and special pleading. It drills into universals: the uses and limits of sex, the blind alley and brief relief of hookups, the yearning for intimacy, the ache of jealousy, Auden’s “grave evening demand for love” . At its heart is a superb performance by Jonathan Broadbent as Guy: tubby, fussy, decent, maternal, frustrated, everybody’s confidant and nobody’s first choice, achingly funny and heartbreakingly noble. Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfield are the glamour-boys whose conquistador pride crumbles into grief and longing; Lewis Reeves the barman, wisest of them all. Outside that circle – though nobody escapes Reg – Richard Cant is funny and sad as Bernie, sinuously lovesick for his nonchalant brutal bus-driver Benny (Matt Bardock, cocksure in every sense).”


I stand by every word and every starry mouse…
Box Office 0844 871 7624 to Supported: Barclays /Simmons & Simmons
Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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THE RULING CLASS Trafalgar Studios, SW1


Sometimes in the reviewing business there’s an almost irresoluble conflict between detached appreciation and wincing personal indifference: a temptation to stick to reportage and lay the feeling self aside. I am almost there with this first revival of Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, a semi-surreal black comedy. It is an unresolved, furious blend of bouffon farce, adolescent class outrage, glee at the fact that stage censorship ended one year earlier, and ferocious tastelessness – up to and including a couple of lines on the Holocaust. The same writer did set a farce in Auschwitz.

As you’d expect in Jamie Lloyd’s second season of the enterprising, popular and serious Trafalgar Transformed, it’s performed and directed with headlong skill. And designed by Soutra Gilmour: whose surreal delusional interludes (especially the giant dinosaur-rat-Satan thing) gave me actual pleasure. James McAvoy plays Jack, heir to an ancient earldom after his Dad kicks off the gross-out tone by accidentally going too far in his nightly autoerotic ritual with a silken noose. The family compete to be the most cartoonishly aristocratic, a contest won by dim Dinsdale the Tory candidate (you see where this is going). They are horrified because Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is God (a rather old-fashioned trope these days). He talks in tongues, sleeps on an upright crucifix and daubs GOD IS LOVE across the glorious bare McAvoy torso.


The only two credible supporting characters are Kathryn Drysdale as the non-aristocratic wife they marry him to to produce a sane heir; and the genuinely hilarious Anthony O’Donnell as the butler who is secretly a one-man Trotskyist cell. Oh, and Forbes Masson, who never disappoints, is a county lady straight out of Little Britain, a detective, and another lunatic who thinks he is God and whose competition apparently shakes Jack into sanity. So yes, some fun. Though nothing to do with real mental illness, real aristocracy, or real anything at all.


After the interval Jack seems cured, but of course is not: suave aristo arrogance is no guarantee of sanity in this self-consciously impertinent piece, rather the reverse. He reveals that he is now the God of Vengeance, declares it is 1888, and conjures up London fog so – so no prizes for guessing which Jack he is being now. Cue an erotic disembowelling, to happy shrieks from the loyal younger McAvoyites in the stalls (some vg prices, kids, go for it).


McAvoy in this last act does demonstrate that he is becoming a fine stage actor, snapping from smoothness to ferocity in seconds, even cartooning his own Richard III, performing a good cane-twirling stepdance and singing the Eton Boating Song. That gets him certified sane by a posh doctor. Of course it does. So, here you have dated 1969 agitprop, a proto-Pythonesque and sub-Joe-Orton raspberry to the world of Macmillan and Douglas-Home and anyone-for-tennis plays; an aged squib revived for the election season and the Guy Fawkes mask set. OK, I hated it. But McAvoy is brilliant, and will find better plays for his gifts.

BOX OFFICE 0844 871 7632 to 11 April
Rating: two        2 meece rating

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Is there more to human beings than organic goo? Can brain imaging explain why we judge, reason, imagine, generate metaphor and language? That is the “hard problem’ of the title. To the evo-bio-psychology tutor Spike (Damian Molony) it is one to close down rapidly, with equations. To him science knows – or will know soon – every particle of what a person is. To his pupil Hilary, moving on to work at the Krohl Institute of brain science – the question is as open and deep as a particular wound her heart bears from six years before. No grey cells explain her inchoate need, shocking to Spike, to pray each night to something unknown.“Explain sorrow” she challenges, and takes her sorrow into her academic quest into consciousness and feeling. Challenging the arrogant Amal (Parth Thakerar) who says computers play chess undistinguishably from humans she asks “Can you make a computer that minds losing?“



Overhead hangs a tangle of neon, synapses and flashing connections, an abstract brain. Below it on a sparsely set stage, a hundred minutes see six years of conversation and career, encounters and arguments and funny lines (Sir Tom seems to know exactly how ambitious academics jockey for position) . Because the Institute is the toy of a hedge-fund billionaire Krohl, its research parallels neatly with the work of his ‘quants’. Terse phone calls suggest market jitters and crashes, since as Amal says, when predicting market unpredictables you just can’t make a computer as stupid as people are. Spike’s analyses of risk-behaviour through saliva tests at the world poker championships find great favour, though, as a way towards the goal of “Monetizing the hormonal state of your trading desk”. Nice.


But it is not ENRON, nor one of this author’s drier mind-games. The human connections are given precise, delicate weight: youthful brilliance is not necessarily balanced with emotional stability. And it is the weight of feeling at the play’s heart which makes it shine. For this premiere marks three occasions: Tom Stoppard’s first play in a decade and Nicholas Hytner’s last hurrah as NT Artistic director, but also the consolidating evidence that Olivia Vinall as Hilary is a proper, central, serious talent. Not just (though she is) a creature of pale ethereal beauty, but a force fit to hold a play together. She has been Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia: it is a revelation to see her playing a modern young professional woman with a fierce and troubled intelligence, dartingly sharp timing and a visible, unsentimentally profound private sorrow.


Which is resolved, because it is a proper story, taking a path through almost fairytale coincidence (another philosophical-mathematical puzzle). And beyond her luminous performance there are enjoyable ironies: the way that researchers’ own irrational altruisms skew their findings, and the sly demonstration that those who heartily believe that everything is materially explicable and that there is no altruism are the ones who – er – don’t personally seem able to display any. Whereas Hilary, and Jonathan Coy as her immediate boss, search for the invisible with varying degrees of human grace. That I like. Maybe it’s a girl thing.


So a fine hundred minutes. Near the end, at a revelatory dinner-party scene, the diagrammatic neon tangle overhead becomes a firework display. Not inapt for this last rocket of the Hytner NT Age of Gold.



Box Office 020 7452 3000 to April
NT LIVE in cinemas nationwide on 16th April.
Dorfman Partner: Neptune Investment Management

Rating Four  4 Meece Rating

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DARA Lyttelton, SE1



OK, I admit it, I feared “Important and Worthy”. Or, possibly, important-worthy-yet-picturesque. A reasonable, if ungenerous fear, with the author Shaheed Nadeem of Ajoka theatre a Pakistani human-rights campaigner and prisoner of conscience, and his 17c history-play billed as politically relevant to the subcontinent’s history (including the irresponsible Partition of India and Pakistan, still tormenting South Asia) . I should have had more faith. Tanya Ronder was adapting, a Hytner-hunch had chosen it, and many of the cast are the splendid ensemble from BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS , also still running.



The early part of the play, dreamily attractive as it is – latticed screens, flowing veils, Mughal magnificence, turbans, peacock feathers, scimitars – did have me floating free for a while, though Nadia Fall directs with enough clarity – and the programme notes help – to explain the 1659 struggle between the sons of Shah Jahan (a choleric little Vincent Ebrahim) for the imperial throne. .  Spirited flashbacks, signalled in text projections, kept the characters distinct : the ultimately victorious Aurungzeb (Sargon Yelda) who never felt a favourite son, and Dara (Zubin Varla) the mystic and poet he defeats. Not least, in a nice folkloric detail, by bribing Dara’s general to persuade the leader to leave his elephant for a nippier horse, whereon his troops saw the empty howdah and panicked. The sisters, equally at odds, are spiritedly played by Nathalie Armin and Anneika Rose; a younger brother is recruited, then murdered, by Aurungzeb.

But suddenly, this set-up complete, we came to the showtrial of the captured Dara for apostasy from Islam. And wham! The play takes off, reveals its molten core as a demonstration of spiritual idealism and argument against authoritarian religious pedantry, with slamming echoes into our own century. It feels like seeing Tyndale in Written On the Heart, or More in A Man for All Seasons or St Joan: all who held to faith and died for it down the ages and the dramatic canon.



As Dara’s interest in Hindu scriptures is cited against him by the positively Cromwellian prosecutor – Prasanna Puwanarajah – Varla rises in dignity and energy in a riveting half-hour trial scene. “I did not know that being a Muslim meant being ignorant of other cultures…Who cares which door you open to come into the Light …at the centre of every blossom is honey, the rest is ritual. Allow all faiths to flourish!”. Even the detail strikes home hard today – “The Prophet never intended women should hide behind screens and veils’ he scoffs, it was a practical privacy in his busy house, but others copied it. Neither, he scoffs, is the death penalty for apostasy in the Koran, only the Hadiths – which are written by fallible humans.


No surprise that on tour in India and Pakistan it has been shocking, but welcomed, a blast of greathearted spirituality in an age of bigotry: dramatically safe in a distant past but urgent today. After that superbly balanced, long, mounting scene and the inevitable sentence, the shorter last act plays quieter. There is an under-tale of smaller lives (surprising , sad and complex,Chook Sibtain as the imperial eunuch has his moment). There is a brutality, and a solemn smoky haunting of ghosts gathered around Aurungzeb like those which torment Richard III at Bosworth. The final flash- forward to his deathbed is pure Shakespeare: remorse, longing for love, mortality, and acceptance of how fallible  are those whose willpower shapes nations.

Box Office: 020 7452 3000 to 5 March
Rating: four  4 Meece Rating

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TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1


“May the Master of Mercy shelter them in the shadow of his wings”. A Holocaust prayer is on a slip in the programme for this eve of the Auschwitz liberation, and quiet music plays after the curtain-call for those leaving bereft of speech. Jonathan Church’s powerful, intelligent Chichester production grows in status in the big space, and that it should be played with quiet brilliance so close to Whitehall and Westminster is stirringly appropriate.

For Mark Hayhurst’s play deals with five years from 1933-1938: before the war, while official Britain was still trying to hope that Herr Hitler was, well, sort of OK. It relates the fate of Hans Litten, a combative lawyer who in 1931 had called the Nazi party leader as a witness in the trial of some brownshirt thugs, and in cross-examination humiliated him. Hitler, still at his bierhalle-rant stage, was no match for the angry young advocate. A Jew, too: having converted in defiance of his cautious father (born Jewish, but Lutheranizing himself to keep his job) . His mother Irmgard defended his independence. And when he was arrested the night of the Reichstag fire, Irmgard became his champion, her fight the theme of this play.

It could be tragic-heroic, a harrowing reiteration of what we all know about the brutalities of Nazism. It is both, but also a play of ideas and discomforting truths, both warning and beacon. Penelope Wilton is Irmgard, in a performance so controlled, impassioned, ironic, subtle and perfectly pitched that several of us left the theatre muttering “Why is she not a Dame yet?” . We meet her as an elegant Prussian matron, confident of her status, resolved to be “patient and objectionable” with the Gestapo officials to get Hans released from what, weasellingly, is called “protective custody” against the passionate people of the New Germany. “We are looking after him” says Dr Conrad, the official played with wonderful civil suaveness by John Light.



His encounters with Irmgard recur through the play: she in command of facts, once horrifyingly listing her son’s known (leaked) injuries. But she plays the game, makes Heil-Hitler concessions; he seems to offer hope, even respect, till the gloves come off and layers of class resentment and fanatical belief make him suddenly venomous. Light does it superbly, chillingly, demonstrating that the veneer of Western European civilization can be very thin indeed.



The city scenes are on a bare forestage, but artfully convey through the curve of a desk-leg or descent of a chandelier a bourgeois Gerrmanic correctness I recognize from life there. Behind them, concrete and bars give us the cells and concentration-camps where Martin Hutson’s Litten is tormented. And core to the impact of the play is that we see him with fellow-prisoners: the ironic newspaper editor Ossietsky and the wild-man satirist and poet Erich Muhsam. For all their bruises they joke: darkly mock their situation, to bring home the vital truth that such victims were intellectuals, sophisticates, wits: the brightest. And that their tormentors were envious stupid thugs or at best dupes.




The same withering humorous intelligence sparks from Irmgard: she is often, for all her maternal torment, very funny. Nobody can wither like Wilton, for all her kindly grace. There is a scene with Lord Allan – the British envoy on whom her hopes are pinned – where he havers in diplomatic language that Hitler is partly a victim of “mistranslation” and that Anglo-German relations come first. Set against the viciousness behind, that throws a timely parallel with today’s emollient attitudes to Saudi Arabia. Where , remember, a dissident blogger is being imprisoned and tortured while we fly flags at half-mast for the royal autocrats.



The subject could be unwatchably grim, but the play is not, because its intellectual sinewiness and redemptive spirit shine too bright. At last mother and doomed son meet, and quote Rilke about confronting dragons with courage. “That’s beautiful” says Hans. “I wish it were true” mourns the mother. And he replies “It can’t be one and not the other. You taught me that”. So yes, beautiful.

Box office 0845 481 1870 to 14 march

Rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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BAD JEWS St James’ Theatre, SW1




With Holocaust Memorial day imminent, the Paris murders fresh in mind and anti-Semitism rising across Europe, can you really put on a chokingly, shockingly hilarious comedy about a family at loggerheads over Judaism? Set on the evening after a Holocaust survivor’s funeral? Yes. Joshua Harmon’s wise, fearless 100-minute piece is built around lifestyle conflicts most modern Western Jews will ruefully acknowledge. But by its very intimacy it touches universal tensions: family, class, money, sexual envy, feminism, racism, self-righteousness, and pure bad temper. The kind which only simmers between warring relatives who will never in a million years, admit how similar they actually are.

It is set, and pacily directed by Michael Longhurst for the Theatre Royal Bath,, in a tiny New York apartment . Because of the funeral three cousins – college students – have to camp in one room after the funeral of the beloved grandfather. Daphna (Jenna Augen) is passionately observant, more than her parents indeed: they christened her Diana. She plans to move to Israel, join the army and study as a rabbi. Augen is perfect: a vulture of righteousness, she swoops around under a brilliantly unmanageable thatch of curly black hair which in itself enrages her older cousin Liam (christened Shlomo and keen to forget it).


Liam has a shiksa girlfriend, sweet blonde Melody (Gina Bramhill) and missed the funeral because “his iPhone fell off the ski-lift” during their Spring Break in Aspen. This provides another excuse for Daphna to berate him, though when he is out of the room she deploys equal efficiency in cross-examining the hapless girlfriend. Her gift for rapid offence means that within mere minutes she happily concludes that coming from a white family – Irish-Polish-German-Scottish American – Melody from Delaware is complicit in the genocide of Native Americans. Worse, she has a tattoo, enabling Daphna to say ominously that her grandfather had one too “but that was different”. Audience gasps. Poor Melody, a pitch-perfect innocent, is a failed opera student who, deliciously, works in charity admin “introducing underprivileged children to the City’s architectural past’ . She is conned into the worst rendering of “Summertime” ever heard on a stage. Bramhill , whose voice betrays that in real life she sings beautifully, wrecks it to perfection.


Secular, atheist Liam detests Daphna and Ilan Goodman delivers his rage with the ferocity of a velociraptor, his energy a mirror-image of her own, did they but know it. But in a curious, clever interlude the three cousins suddenly remember a family anecdote and fall into helpless shared hysterics, leaving the puzzled Melody looking on. The respite is brief. The issue is who inherits one small, significant object: a token whose story is from the Auschwitz years. Daphna feels entitled, as the only “real” Jew; Liam has it. His younger brother Jonah claims not to mind. That is a quietly important part: Joe Coen has to spend most of the play saying “Whatever” and “I don’t -“ or lurking miserably on the sofabed; but his body language expresses eloquent, important discomfort. He is the vital fourth wheel as this rattling, raging vehicle heads downhill to disaster.



There is ferocious, gasp-inducing language, up to and including lines like “Don’t you Holocaust me!” “Shiksa cunt!” and “barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting superJew”. Yet it is not a cruel or cynical play. We are aware that the hellcat Daphna is privately unhappy, clinging to her racial and religious heritage like a liferaft; that Liam may want to marry out and embrace atheism but did truly, painfully love and pity the grandfather. We bite our lips wondering whether Melody’s sweet nature will survive in this family. And Jonah ? Ah, his final moment is beautiful, and both hurts and redeems.


box office  0844 264 2140
Rating: four   4 Meece Rating


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OPPENHEIMER Swan , Stratford-upon-Avon




This is what the RSC is for. Not mere Bardolatry, but to bring new work illuminated by the craft, humanity and wisdom which comes to those steeped in Shakespeare. We have felt heart-jerking moments in this theatre, when past crises are shaken into present life: Written on the Heart, Wolf Hall, The Orphan of Zhao, A Soldier in Every Son, The Heresy of Love. But rarely has it struck home as hard as in Tom Morton-Smith’s stunning presentation of J.Robert Oppenheimer , leader of the “Manhattan Project” which in 1945 gave birth to the Bomb and death to millions.

Steeped in irony and sincerity, it is a thing of tremendous speeches, dazzling metaphor and heartfelt engagement. It is directed, fast and featly, by Angus Jackson in a bare space beneath great girders: the floor is a vast blackboard on which formulae are scribbled in manic creativity or appear lit suddenly from above; it conjures classrooms, the secret desert lab city of Los Alamos, domestic interiors, and finally the fearful inevitability when formulae became solid, incredible bombs.



Oppenheimer is John Heffernan in the performance of his career: riveting, truthful, complex, sinking deep into himself or flashing sudden charm. Here’s a brilliant physicist forced by circumstance and ambition to becomes a leader in the technical war, a “a skinny intellectual elitist New York Jew with chest problems and sciatica” happily surrounded by communist party friends passionately fundraising against Fascism in 1930’s Spain. Then a man forced to step aside from “doobious associates” , shadowed by the FBI, too vital to sack but never trusted; the reader of Hindu scriptures who finally describes himself with loathing “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Skinny, pale, steely, decent, conflicted, aware of having “left a loaded gun in a playground” for political thugs, real tears touch his face in the final scenes.



They touch ours too. The last sections are stunning, not least when the new-fledged bomb is dispatched, the pilot briefed, and from its casing a small boy rises and – with studied dispassionate care – explains its effects.


Despite the fascination of Heffernan himself, the ensemble is core to the play’s strength. Fellow-scientists explain and scribble and offer glorious metaphors of the power of the split atom – “a cloud of tethered energy…a pack of wolves in a broom-cupboard”. They emerge as distinct characters: Jamie Wilkes the bespectacled keen Serber, heading out for Japan with his pet bomb horribly named Little Boy “to hold his hand, see him off”. He cracks later into realization. OR the Europeans Lomanitz, Bethe and Teller, the latter petulantly outraged at the loss of scientific “beauty and elegance” in the dormitory life and dull graft of getting the first-generation bomb ready before Hitler could get his.


There is genuine, inescapable comedy in the human interactions, not least the sometimes tense, sometimes ludicrous relationships with the military overseers. William Gaminara gives General Groves a dignified pragmatism but Andrew Langtree demonstrates a lovely, crewcut Captain’s indignation at the tieless unpolished scientists who dare to perch on his desk while talking to him. In Oppenheimer’s agonized withdrawal after Nagasaki, though, it is Groves who urges the scientist’s wife to remember the point of uniform: ““It helps to make that distinction between an act of war and an act of….the burden is not his alone and never will be”. The women too – Catherine Steadman as the lively, idealistic, doomed first lover and Thomasin Rand as Oppie’s wife Kitty – are pivotal in the hero’s emotional story . They also – with Laura Cubitt and Sandy Foster – subtly remind us that even within the laboratory fastness of Los Alamos this was civilian 1940’s America: its own life not threatened, the complexities of distant Europe a matter for argument not terror.

A stunning play, tribute and warning about the “ambivalence – pride and horror” of harnessing the atom, bringing a star’s violent energy to the earth’s surface. As Frank Oppenheimer heard his brother mutter it the desert test “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart”.

Superb , serious, humane, riveting, honourable. It must have an afterlife.
box office 0844 800 1110 to 7 March.

RATING  five  5 Meece Rating

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