Monthly Archives: February 2015



It is a truth universally acknowledged that George Bernard Shaw was a bit of a windbag. At no point did the words “Less is more”, or “Show don’t tell” impinge on his exuberant, contrarian torrents of prose, famously difficult for actors to learn and deliver at a speed necessary to get everyone home before dawn. Of his joyfully verbose oeuvre no play beats the sheer size of this five-act marathon, even though sometimes it is played without the prolonged dream-sequence. In which the main protagonist, during a restless night on a bare mountain with brigands, turns into Don Juan in hell and argues with Lucifer about everything, including the life-force which drives men towards enslavement by women and the mystery of unique self-aware consciousness in the human animal (yes indeed: GBS was fretting about The Hard Problem a full century before Tom Stoppard’s adventure in neuroscience, running in the Dorfman next door).

Fortunately, it is also true that the National Theatre has the capability to throw at this huge, sprawling, talky-talk play everything it needs to make a night of it. Not only the peerless and apparently indefatigable Ralph Fiennes as Tanner, the revolutionary anarchist intellectual perma-talker and reluctant guardian of Ann (a sparky, spiky Indira Varna) who is determined to marry him. We also get a nice Desert Island Discs joke to start with, and a glorious design by Christopher Oram, with library, carriage-yard, functioning car, craggy mountain and Spanish bower garden all framed in misty panes, behind which play vague cloudy symbols of whatever it’s all about at any particular moment. They also make a nicely blank scene in Hell for the Don-Juan interlude, though in preview it is rumoured that Satan’s cocktail-shaker table came up through the trapdoor with a bit of a crash. No probs on press night.

Director Simon Godwin also cannily gives us modern dress and a few verbal updates, and accords free, not to say licentious, comic rein to Tim McMullan as the depressed lovesick mountain brigand chief and a hyper-cool Satan in skinny jeans. McMullan is hilarious in both roles, making the most of Shaw’s ferocious playfulness to the point when – as he reminisces in a heavy Spanish accent about being a Jewish waiter at the Savoy and tearfully reads out his poetry – you start to reflect that Monty Python’s Flying Circus was not really doing anything that hadn’t been done in 1905.

Not that we’re supposed to be reflecting on any such thing, but on the multiple philosophical-biological-mystical-socialist points which Shaw is machine-gunning us with via the astonishing Fiennes, with dashes of Nietzsche, streaks of idealism, gobbets of cynicism, grumpy political paradox and some bafflingly upside-down feminism laced with memories of Much Ado as our Beatrice and Benedick finally – after three and a half rattling hours – fall into one another’s arms, cursing.

There you are. Brilliantly done, keeping us entertained against (frankly) considerable odds. Fiennes is a marvel. So is McMullan, and Nicholas le Prevost as Ramsden . I leave you though, in this election season, with a nice line from Lucifer. “Englishmen will never be slaves. They are free to do everything that the Government and Public Opinion allow them to”.

From a somewhat rowdy post-football 2339 train towards Manningtree, good night.

Box Office 020 7452 3000 in rep to 17 May . Pretty sold out BUT –
NT LIVE in cinemas nationwide on 14 May

Rating Four 4 Meece Rating

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KILL ME NOW Park Theatre


For a young actor to play a severely disabled, facially twisted, speech-impaired young man in an electric wheelchair cannot – in this week of Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar – fail to evoke comparisons. Here, close up for a hundred emotionally and physically gruelling minutes, Oliver Gomm delivers the performance of his life. In movement, face, and urgent distorted voice he is – I mean this as high praise – every bit as unsettling as the real thing. Which means that he evokes in us “normal” onlookers, unless we are practised carers, an authentic degree of pity, unease, and awkwardness. Until (again as in real life) we grow to know and like the determined inhabitant of that body. We see him first naked, lifted from his bath slippery and jerking and swearing, an angry teenager newly sexual and despairing at his lot. By the end Joey is the wisest of them all: no angel indeed but shiningly human.

In Canadian Brad Fraser’s tough, unnerving play Gomm is Joey, who is looked after by his widowed father Jake , once a writer, with assistance from his aunt Twyla (Charlotte Harwood), the younger sister Jake raised after their mother died. Greg Wise, back onstage after a long gap, puts heart and anger and warm furious truth into the role: he makes it clear that Jake has come to think himself irreplaceable, too lovingly controlling and immersed: “I have a severely disabled son; I have no self”.

Interaction between the father and son is wrenchingly real, both in affection and anger. Not least as Jake (who is carrying on a relief affair every Tuesday with married Robyn) has to assuage the boy’s desperate erections. An easier relationship is of Joey with a schoolmate Rowdy, a cheeky, sexually adventurous “retarded” victim of foetal alcohol syndrome. He is entertainingly and authentically played by Jack McMullen, at first as an irresponsible nuisance obsessed with online porn, gradually emerging into decency as he becomes useful to the household “smelling of piss and despair”. He has to be useful because – Fraser really piles it on here – Jake himself has a fall and is succumbs to a spinal neurological condition which rapidly reduces him to a state only slightly less crippled than his son. Thus Greg Wise, like Gomm, has to perform a physically intense and agonizing change of shape and movement.

Do I make it sound unremittingly hellish? Not at all. Just over an hour in I did wonder whether the author – and director Braham Murray – were going to run into the sand, but despite a slight sag as more sexual issues are played out, they never do. Partly because Brad Fraser gives Joey sudden fabulous one-liners, which Gomm gloriously shouts, reducing the surrounding audience to uncontrollable laughter. He is every angry teenager and emerging bright young man, an essence concentrated by his entrapment in a jerking body which can’t even masturbate. The irrepressible and kindly Rowdy fixes him up, and strikes up an even more “inappropriate” arrangement with Aunt Twyla. (“Mildly retarded and well hung. Few can resist” he says smugly, causing another explosion of shocked mirth).

It is brilliantly shocking, yet deeply kind: lurching through the worst vicissitudes of unlucky lives towards a tragic but redemptive ending. For retarded or not, Rowdy’s right: you gotta fight, because nobody else will. Though I did reflect that if the play was British, its humanity would be diluted with political ranting against benefit cuts. Oddly, the fact that it isn’t makes you all the more inclined to rant against them yourself. Such people deserve everything.

box office 0207 8706876 to 29 March
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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OKLAHOMA! Royal and Derngate, Northampton and TOURING


It’s back. Again. But worth the buggy-ride: brightly directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and choreographed by Drew McOnie with athleticism, wit and inventiveness: ballet, ragtime and brawling naturalism (no tap this time) makes that element so striking that some of the London dance critics would do well to stir out of town and have a look.
The casting is a delight. The first few sung words are from offstage – Oh what a beautiful morning! – and when he appears against the sunrise gap in Francis O’Connor’s barn set, Ashley Day sure is the purdiest chap ever to wear leather chaps. Sings like a lark, insouciant and relaxed, as Laurey, (Charlotte Wakefield), stumps around in a fierce divided-skirt, her pure high soprano adding innocence to her tomboy mien. And we’re away.

The septuagenarian Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster itself is almost too familiar for comfort. In any revival, the first act must navigate round the perilous fact that every single tune – they come so thick and fast that there is barely time for a few sentences between numbers – is achingly familiar from Radio 2’s more vintage moments, not to mention lift muzak and call-waiting . So the moment Laurie and Curley swing into “People will say we’re in love” your attention threatens to wander, however good they are. A period of aw-shucks good natured Old West hokum is of course necessary, and Belinda Lang’s robust, sharp-edged Aunt Ellen is a joy to watch, efficiently tubbing and mangling an entire household wash in scene one. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie shakes it up nicely too with her I Cain’t say no: here’s a deeply engaging comedienne, who even vouchsafes us a flash of her robust pioneer panties beneath the froth of gingham petticoat.

But the teasing merriment of the first fifty minutes is needed to make the contrast with this show’s – always oddly unexpected – darkening as Curly beards the lonely hired man Jud in his hovel lined with dirty pictures and teases him that he should hang himself to get any sympathy.

I have seen this scene done with ironic lightness, which the lyrics certainly permit (“laid to rest, his hands upon his chest, his fingernails have never been so clean” etc). But Kavanaugh allows its full perplexing nastiness, and Nic Greenshields as Jud Fry is a remarkable presence; immense next to the elfin Ashley Day, stooping, black-bearded and threatening (among his last few parts I see are Big Jule, Big Davy, Big Mac and The Beast. Casting directors look up nervously, sigh with relief and tick the Big Bastard box). But he is more than a hunk: Greenshields anchors the conflict of the plot. His immense baritone is reverberating and dark, his despairing solo of murderous loneliness and desire chills, threat and pathos mingling unnervingly. As for the dream ballet in which Laurey’s unspoken fears of rape are wordlessly enacted, McOnie and Kavanaugh move the mood startlingly from athletic, ingenious cowboy fun with cylindrical straw-bales to an explicit terror of depravity and violated innocence. Charlotte Wakefield throws herself into this with real power.

In fact, for all the hokey, it is tougher than the last West End version. But the wit keeps it rattling irresistibly along with a fringe on top, never slackening pace. Ki-yip-i-yay, Oklahoma, OK! And much as I love the West End, as seat prices there go stratospheric it is good that classic musicals with top production values, big casts and solid live bands (note also Sheffield’s fabulous Anything Goes) are richocheting gaily round the regions to be seen by anyone who can raise as little as £ 16.

BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 to Saturday 28 Feb
then TOURING to 8 August, Wolverhampton next!
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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There were a lot of jokes about strippers’ arseholes. 

Almost entirely for the joy of saying ‘strippers’ arseholes’. Was that funny in 1997? Half the audience seemed to remember why. But, like so much of this play, 2015 eyes were left dry and weary.  Who speaks to people on chat rooms anymore, who finds a Newton’s cradle novel and full of metaphor? Patrick Marber’s play does. It is absorbed, dated and unaware, throwing out some nice threads but only stitching a few together in the final scene. 

Four people, connected by a mix of the most contrived and fun circumstances (car accident and chat room misunderstanding, photo shoot and photo exhibition) end up shagging in almost every combination. Ill-feelings ensue and partners are swapped, worried over and returned with no delay.  A prude would take against this play for the smut, but frankly in this day and age any reasonable citizen would, purely for the unoriginality. At points it was just the exorcising of Marber’s wankmares… Rufus Sewell’s character launching into a debate with a stripper about the morals of strip clubs whilst she writhes around on a bed in front of him, twenties-a-plenties stuffed in her garter. 

And? We’ve done that. Who cares? We’ve landed on the moon, we’re past CDs, we know stripclubs aren’t as interesting as 1997 thought they were. But despite this, and the roll-of-the-dice way each scene threw up a change of heart for one of the characters’ lovelife, it did have laughs. Aside from old men wheezing at “c***s” and “whores”, there were flashes of quips which eased along quite an indulgent plot. 

Nancy Carroll, essentially the most adult (age-wise) of the foursome, offered a more considered character, nicely rounding Anna off as almost believable. This despite Rufus Sewell’s childish gurns, the talented Oliver Chris’ constant exasperations and the bland Rachel Redford’s best efforts. There was no point of connection with these people, they were ludicrous. 

In direction (by David Leveaux) the play was slick, with nicely punctuated scenes. The set assisted this, but did little more; a bare brick, crisply lit grey space with wheely furniture and a strip block of light which teased its way across the stage whenever it could.

  The play worked as a series of conversations, but unoriginal ones barely linked. Glib ponderings on time, writing (oh god, writing) and love were trotted out one by one, but few stuck around for a proper grilling.  The biggest, heartiest, wheeziest laugh of the night, went to someone hurling the insult “you – writer!”. Case closed.  

Box Office: 0844 871 7624 TO 4 APRIL
Supported by The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts and Barclays.
Rating: two 2 meece rating

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FARINELLI AND THE KING Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe


Philip of Spain, grandson of Louise XIV and captive of 18c monarchic rigidity, is lying on his bed , fishing in a goldfish-bowl and announcing that it is all a dream. When his anxious queen Isabella (Melody Grove, moving both in affection and despair) coaxes him, he petulantly addresses the goldfish and throws the water at her candle shouting “Fire!”. Wilful eccentricity: petulant, childish denial. This is not the manically humble derangement of the last stage mad-king, Alan Bennett’s George III. For Philip, as the singer Farinelli later says “His madness was a kind of sorrow”.

To be credible, even lovable while portraying self-destructive depression shading to violence you need a special actor. Clare van Kampen has – for this her first play – the very special Mark Rylance. His strange openness and mournful mischief are familiar as Thomas Cromwell on TV, but onstage he is an even stranger marvel: hardly acting, rather seeming to endure some profound, cost-bearing inner event in each performance and not minding that we watch. He seems half-clown half-angel, those comic slanted eyebrows over a face oversensitive, visionary, quivering with the griefs of eternity and the music of the spheres.

Well, it gets you writing like that. Sorry. This extraordinary, heart-shivering two-hour adventure in the little Jacobean playhouse combines three of the most powerful emotional triggers in theatre: candlelight, Rylance, and Handel arias sung by Iestyn Davies. It is the trues story of King Philip’s depression, and how the only thing which made him almost sane was the voice of the great castrato singer, who in the manner of the day was brutally unmanned at ten years old to retain a “birdlike, unimaginable” high voice (here Davies’ unearthly flutelike counter-tenor).

We hear the same arias Philip would have known, and Van Kampen’s script and John Dove’s direction place them with the care of a master-jeweller setting fine stones. Each ones feels both necessary and astonishing, as it did to Philip himself. Sam Crane plays Farinelli; Davies appears alongside, in identical clothes, to sing. That could be distracting: but in evvect the subtle body language between the two men conveys another emotional message of the play – that great artists sometimes feel in awe of their own talent, afraid that like a magical pet it might desert them. In the final moment, in the singer’s old age, his avatar is not dressed like him, but in the bright brocade of his youth. Leaving, the tenor leaves puts a pitying, loving hand on the reclusive old man’s shoulder.

Beyond the intensely redemptive moments of song, it is a play painfully perceptive about depression : Philip’s initial “I lack for what I need. There is no song here” makes Isabella go to Vienna to recruit the singer. As he becomes more himself, he bossily decamps with wife and Farinelli to a forest to harmonize with the stars, the “ music of the spheres” . And when Farinelli tries to escape this captivity, he turns on his wife with shocking brutality and deploys a combination of threat and sulk and needy paranoia utterly authentic for anyone dealing with a half-cured serious depressive. “I don’t love you” he snarls at Farinelli “I just need you to sing”.

Have I conveyed the fact that it is often funny? Maybe not. But the courtier (Edward Peel ) frustrated by the King’s ineffectiveness, and the singer’s agent (Colin Hurley) have great moments . And van Kampen – like April de Angelis in FANNY HILL at Bristol last week – has a sly knack of keeping it credible yet throwing in moments of modern slang to prevent any sense of wearying 18c pastiche.

box office 020 7902 1400 to 7 march
rating five
5 Meece Rating

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A crane, giant crates. Foggy docklands, two hundred years ago. Foppishly approving Britain’s mercantile culture, Voltaire coos “You are so moderne!” Up pops Caroline Quentin, a Fanny Hill past her best and on her uppers, offering to scratch his itch. The Frenchman flees. She grumbles that customers are getting fussy (“You don’t need teeth to -“). Thus we are launched into April de Angelis’ unexpected version of John Cleland’s 1748 fictional memoir of “A Woman Of Pleasure”, directed with elegant mischievous glee by Michael Oakley.

What does a modern woman and innovative theatre want with this notorious 18c porn? The ultimate male fantasy of a tart besotted with her “amorous adventures”?  In an age of even more vicious commodification of women’s bodies, what can it give us? Absolute f——ing delight, thats what. Here’s a nonpareil of subtle feminism, a humane revisionism of pornified sexual politics. It is so rich in womanly scornfulness that at times I feared for the men at the matinee, surrounded by female hilarity.  Certainly the most raunchy depiction of a rampant phallus is given to a female forearm with a stocking on it, filched from the cowering bare leg of the nearest bloke.

De Angelis’ structure has old Fanny accosted by Spark, a Cleland figure (Mawgan Gyles) , who reckons there’s money in a book. But Fanny can remember little beyond “a blur of bedpans and blokes buttoning up”. So she recruits two younger tarts, the cynical Louisa (Phoebe Thomas ) and the demure little Swallow (a fabulous breakthrough by young Gwyneth Keyworth) . They act out her fantasy story, assisted by the mercilessly bulled Mr Dingle (Nick Barber), who is hanging round the docks after losing his money in shipping. Barber, who plays a series of clients, deserves a prize for willing abasement: the urgent absurdity of male desire has rarely been so pitilessly evoked.

So as Quentin scribbles, directs and plays various Madams, Swallow romanticizes and Louisa wearily cooperates. It is very, very funny at times: the author gleefully expands on Cleland’s terrible euphemisms for body parts – the “Sweet seat of exquisite sensation” having “sparks of desire tossed onto its kindling” as it accepts the “beloved guest, the love-truncheon, the Essential Specific” . There are assorted absurd alliterations of erotic execution (dammit, it’s catching). For as Fanny herself says exapseratedly of her ‘mincing metaphors” , repetition is inevitable. “Words like joys, ardour, ecstasies, flatten like an old mattress”.

Any fear that the play would do the same is unfounded. Hilarious as it is  to see Quentin deploying matter-of-fact matronliness as she ducks and dives round the edges of acceptability and makes the guys wriggle, the play is threaded through with solid sadness, thanks to Rosalind Steele’s onstage fiddle and pipe and the cast’s breaks into broadsheet ballads. And in the second act, after a remarkably choreographed marching-chanting-heaving orgy, the exploitative male ‘author’ reappears to meet the darker eroticism of Quentin going at him with a rope and stick and real anger. And when both her girl-puppets refuse to cooperate in the fantasy of the happy hooker , up come the real unmentionables. Rural starvation driving girls to city streets, pox, infanticide, hangings. And what seemed a retro romp delivers, sharply, the most topical of messages to our own trafficking, twerking, phone-porn century. Women are not toys for sale.

box office 0117 987 7877 to 7 March
rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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A while ago I wrote – see – about how well and honestly fringe and mainstream theatre had evoked the popular first world war experience, without mawkishness or grandeur. Now children’s theatre has a go, and I had a slight qualm about the subject. For Vesta Tilley, male-impersonating star of the music hall, was indeed a powerful recruiter of cannon-fodder in the early gung-ho days of 1914 and 15. You could take the King’s shilling in the very stalls. How honest could they be about what happened to those lads? And about how that artiste might have felt?

It works better than expected. A fragment of Iraq-war bulletin at the start – almost unheard amid the jangling piano tunes – reminds us that modern 8-year-olds (t recommended lower age) hear the news: wars and rumours of war are part of their awareness. Many came to see the poppies at the Tower. They have been made to know. But they also are at home with the idea of a determined child star (Tilley was four when she went on the halls, and drove her own career with fierce intention). And role models are hardly alien to them, twerking away to Rihanna. So this story, unfolding in straightforward language by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Lee Lyford, held for an hour a half-term matinee (some younger than 8). The children were visibly rapt; and only as distressed as any theatregoer must be, when the tale darkens.

Emily Wachter plays the child Tilley, one of twelve, a bossy tomboy diva emulating her father (Tom Espiner) with his raucous songs and “tramp’ persona, and deciding at the age of nine that it would be a better act if she dressed as a boy. Her first response to the war, later on, is interestingly done: “I can’t take the mickey out of young men now!” . So is the ambiguity of her part-idealistic, largely opportunisitc realization that marching around with a Lee-Enfield as a hero will not only please the War Office (short of soldiers) but keep her a star.

The four cast are nimble and versatile. `Mia Soteriu plays Vesta’s older self, sometimes narrating and at the very end telling how the story ended: in retirement, charity work, and a lifelong unease about the part she played. ‘It’s not my fault!” says young Vesta. And a technical coup de theatre at the end had the children gasping. It’s a simple piece, but it does as much in an hour as many longer ones.

box office 0207 645 0560 to 15 March

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating


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