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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HARVEY Birmingham Repertory Theatre


“I’ve wrestled with reality for all of my life” says our hero roundly “and I’m happy to say that I’ve finally won out over it”.
It says a lot about the mood of 1945 that Mary Chase’s play won the Pulitzer. A time weary of wartime realities and needing a laugh, pixillated by the scientific mysteries of Einstein and the philosophical uncertainties of Matter, nervous of know-all psychiatry in the age of the lobotomy… The clues are all there in this featherlight charm of a cheer-up farce. And cheer it does in Lindsay Posner’s Birmingham production, lovingly staged a Peter McKintosh’s double-revolve set. The opulent library turns into a private psychiatric clinic and – most affectionately period-perfect of all – into Charlie’s Bar.

If the classic film passed you by – as it did me – the plot is simple to relate. Elwood P.Dowd, heir to an affluent house, lives with his socialite sister Veta and her discontented daughter Myrtle Mae, who she needs to launch on society. This plan is jeopardized by the embarrassing fact that Elwood goes everywhere with an invisible, 6ft 3 rabbit called Harvey, who he first hallucinated one night after a drinking session. Veta wants him committed to a private asylum; cross-purposes develop (beautifully done, just this side of incredibility) and she gets locked up instead. On her release a chase across the city culminates in the senior psychiatrist himself becoming unhinged, and Veta not far from it.

Given the utter benignity of the rabbit’s familiar, this is unsurprising . Why be sane when you can be a carefree radiator of innocent joy? James Dreyfus catches Elwood’s mixture of affable kindliness and potty conviction, sociably open to his family and random new friends (even matchmaking) while gesturing and chatting to Harvey with perfect ease . He’s a delight. But the central comedy engine of the piece is Veta – certainly when played , with perfect tittupping neurosis and fabulous comedic explosions, by Maureen Lipman. Her account of being manhandled by the beefy male nurse (Youssef Kerkour) has her quivering with outrage from dishevelled wig to ripped stocking. “He sat me in a tub of water.” Lipman says in her refined tones, then comes back with full-strength satisfaction “- BUT I FOUGHT!”. Her drop-dead timing wins even the simplest line. When the pompous judge (Desmond Barrit) says soothingly “This is your daughter and I am your lawyer” her snapped “I know which is which!” brings the house down. Magic.

Yet it isn’t laugh-a-line farce, and its real heart lies not only in Veta’s final conversion (again, Lipman convinces and delights) but in a gentle scene in Charlie’s bar where Ellwood expands with sweet smugness on his barfly lifestyle: enjoying the music, sinking highballs, introducing new people to Harvey. Just chillin’, as we say now. The echo of that yearning is in the last scene, when the once pompous psychiatrist (David Bamber) drunkenly begs Ellwood to ask Harvey for the life he really wants: a woodland in Akron, some cold beers and a last fling with a quiet woman. A weary, 1940 world’s dream.

box office 0121 236 4455 to 21 feb
then TOURING – London in March! Touring Mouse wide

rating: four
4 Meece Rating

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JEFFERSON’S GARDEN Watford Palace Theatre


Christian is a Maryland Quaker, shoemaker son of immigrants who came to the New World for freedom to worship in peaceable ‘quietude’. But the 1770s were a time of indignation, colonial revolt against the distant British Parliament; “No taxation without representation!”. The young man joins the fight, falls in love with a slave, Susannah; betrays his family’s strict principle by joining the killing battles, gives his loyalty to a new father-figure, Thomas Jefferson, and finds himself at last caught in another betrayal. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play, premiered at this enterprising theatre under Bridget Larmour, is both history and intimate saga.

At its heart is the great fault-line in the American story: the fact that the 18th century revolutionary War of Independence, fought in the name of liberty, failed to abolish slavery in the South. The British colonial masters had promised liberty to any slave who fought on their side; that didn’t happen, because they lost. Among the victorious rebels, many idealists expected that the black plantation workers would enjoy the new republican democracy. They didn’t get that either. For all the idealism of Thomas Jefferson, the political need to keep the coalition of states together won; indeed he himself, author of that resounding declaration of self-evident truths and liberties, ran his beloved garden and plantation with slaves. Well-treated slaves, almost family: but not free. It was over a century before abolition. The bitterness and division in American society is felt to this day.

Wertenbaker’s play – sparely set, the cast unfussedly doubling and trebling roles, is not as great a piece as her “Our Country’s Good” (shortly to be revived at the National). The first act, the war, sometimes unrolls too slowly. But the second, where the contradiction and compromise of the political conclusion begins to erode the confidence and happiness of Christian and Susannah, is gripping and real. There are some superb performances: notably David Burnett as Christian himself and William Hope as his real father and as Jefferson himself. Julia St John is superb in dignity as the Quaker matriarch and very funny as Nelly Rose, ageing southern belle in Jefferson’s still-privileged household; Mimi Ndiweni as Susannah has a sharp, fresh anger. All nine cast sometimes form a historic chorus, speaking or singing, explaining or regretting; most movingly at the end they break into fragments of other liberty-songs – French, Greek, Arab, African, right up to today. We perhaps remember the Civil War better, in this country, courtesy of Gone with the Wind. But this is a tale worth telling.

box office 01923 225671 to 21 feb

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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Capitalism, consumerism, the banking system, the transactional heartlessness of modern relationships, the illusory comfort of a deluded Europe. Dreadful. We have all had been screwed senseless by a pitiless demon with black semen who didn’t really love us and left hideous red scars on our bare heaving bosom. His un-defiable curse will lead to penury, prostitution, humiliation, closed borders, universal political collapse and shipwreck. Holding our breath won’t help. Shocking business, life. Might as well stick our heads in a bucket.

The frustrating thing about this mess of a play by Zinnie Harris, directed with artfully frightening nightmare inconsequence by Vicky Featherstone amid random furniture, naked shop dummies, an old bath and some posters, is the way that sometimes it threatens to redeem itself. Mainly by starring the matchless, emotionally open, skilful and altogether beguiling Maxine Peake. She plays Dana, who in the rather promising opening scene has just had a one-night stand with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer) a hunky blond who claims to work for the UN. He assumes she is a tart, on the flimsy grounds that she accosted him in a bar dressed in a wispy dress and took him home. When he tries to pay she is affronted, being really an academic studying emotional mutuality in commercial relationships. She thinks their relationship was tender. He puts her right in one of the better speeches “I am unloveable, the unloved…a demon, a thunderclap, I am a nightmare, an underpass in the dark, an alleyway, a bridge that you don’t cross”.

She won’t take his 45 euros (we’re in Berlin) and moves on through bizarre exchanges with another key symbolic figure – a Librarian (Peter Forbes, rather good) who offers self-help books throughout the ensuing collapse of civilization. Demon’s influence, or possibly just the political and financial collapse of Europe, strands her and her pregnant sister in freezing desperation halfway to Budapest while trying to get to a job interview . The borders are closed and they end up huddled on an unseaworthy sea-crossing to somewhere or other. Though she wakes from this nightmare to a reiterated modern life when the demon (he gets all the top lines) recites the books she’ll need now “How to furnish a flat in a weekend…what to say on a first date, to floss or not to floss” etc. Which is almost funny enough to get you out onto Sloane Square without wanting to torch the place.

Not for an unsatisfactory two hours – that’s fair enough, some plays must fail – but for exploiting in a jejune fable not only a superb and subtle actress but a raft of issues about refugees, poverty, Greece, Europe and banking . These really are crying out for intelligent treatment, but not shagging demons, soggy dialogue and outbreaks of manipulative yowling. The worst thing I have to report is that I – the softest, most weepy of theatregoers and emotional mothers, forever mocked for sentimentality by my fierce male colleagues – sat dry-eyed and irritable while Christine Bottomley as the sister delivered a long speech about a dead, maimed, bleeding boy-baby. That tells you something. It wasn’t real, any of it.

box office 0207 565 5000 to 21 March

rating two 2 meece rating

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There are not many all-woman plays around, nor many about female friendship; nor do many reflect the particular, unique long-term comradeship which begins in the cheerful domestic squalor of university sharers, and stretches over decades of fairly ordinary lives. Having known those things myself, I was thrilled by Amelia Bullmore’s play when it emerged at Hampstead, recognizing – from an age before Facebook – the intensity of same-sex student houses-shares when conversations were, mostly between those whose grimy mattresses were closest. My younger companion, interestingly, recognized it less. In the internet age they can, at least mentally, get out more without spending money…

The play takes us from larky beginnings as three girls share a house, to a downbeat end when only two remain as custodians of a common past. And actually it is highly refreshing (as is also the case in the new Stoppard) to see a diversity of young women presented not as types relative to men, nor as victims or campaigners. Just people, as likely to mess up their lives as men are. It is often funny, sometimes touching, clever in its staging. Tamzin Outhwaite reprises her fabulous Amazonian role as Di – gay, sporty, the noblest and most faithful and straightforward of the three. Jenna Russell is ditzy, sexy, larky maternal Rose, always making soup or love; Samantha Spiro the most ambitious, a feminist sociologist who “dresses like it was the war”, and dreams of working with a Paglia-esque New York academic on the oppressive history of the corset (it apparently “constricted women’s digestive tract so much that their faecal matter resembled that of rabbits”). Their cohabitation is lovingly drawn through arguments, launderette rotas, manic dancing comradeship and a catastrophe which drives them closer together.

In the second half, set more barely, time accelerates over 25 years and a series of meetings bringing news, attrition and conflict. There are some great lines – without spoiling it I can quote one character worrying that marriage is square while another responds “Marrying an Algerian gardener isn’t square, not if you’re a single mother with Japanese twins”. There are major jolts of fortune – one might, in the last ten minutes, argue that there is one too many – and the balance of friendship is tested. Anna Mackmin’s direction is fast and neat, with framed moments carrying the action on without scenic fuss. It deserved its West End transfer.

box office 0844 412 4663 to 23 May

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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BOA Trafalgar 2, SW1


There is no snake. It’s a nickname for “Belinda”, the female half of Clara Brennan’s new two-hander, a 90-minute portrait of an 30-year marriage between a dancer and a war correspondent. On the other hand, who needs snakes? if it is wraparound snakelike, hypnotic fascination and occasional constriction of the chest that you want, there is Dame Harriet Walter. As her stage (and indeed real-life) husband observes in one memorable line, her arm around his shoulders “sometimes felt like a feather boa, and sometimes it felt like a big old snake squeezing the life out of you”.

Harriet Walter does boa-intensity like no other. Her androgyne performances as Brutus and as Bolingbroke at the Donmar showed us that, and here that Aztec severity of demeanour and restless explosive energy comes in female form: she paces round in black palazzo pants and filmy stole as we take our seats, a caged panther on the prowl. Boa is an exponent of the “deep internal wisdom” of the body and creates pieces with titles like Blood And Honey, expressing news-bulletin horrors or the plight of migrant workers. With a snarl of “I don’t have time for people who snarl at liberal guilt” she puts down her patient man – Louis the journalist, played by Guy Paul on his London debut. In a nice echo of the current Stoppard at the NT she challenges him with “all these years and you still think the mind is in the brain!”. Hers is in every sinuous angry sensual limb.

Easy to see why Walter and Paul chose this breathless piece: it’s a gift to a well-attuned pair, as flashbacks through Boa and Louis’ years together show courtship, argument, anxiety, conflict. He is the kind of war correspondent who comes home and wants to “put it in a box”, she a wife who won’t let him, says things like “my therapist says you need a therapist”, and gradually despairs of her own ageing, drinks disastrously heavily, demands a baby when she is least fit to have one, and takes to ceramics (a very funny moment – there are some – as the pair seem to gaze in baffled horror at her latest creation). He, battered and damaged by the horrors he has seen, is no easy number either.

It keeps moving – Hannah Price directs – and the performances are honest and solid enough to make you feel (not always with pleasure) that you have been stuck in a caravan in the rain with Louis and Boa for a week. Possibly it would engage more fiercely at 75 minutes: it’s a very particular marriage, not easy to universalise. Yet that in a way is its strength. And when it becomes clear how this marriage ended, and what the survivor’s duty is, there is cathartic inspiration offered.

And you won’t see two more ferociously focused actors at work, close up, anywhere on the London stage.

box office 0844 871 7632 to 7 March

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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PROGRESS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich


Summer1561. Queen Elizabeth is coming to town: feasts are prepared, the people excited, and Peter Moone the tailor is preparing a play with his fellow workmen from around the docks. The young monarch meanwhile flirts with Robert Dudley, keeps a necessary hauteur with her sycophantic chaplain, and admits “there is a jollity to be found outside London”.

This nimble play by Joanna Carrick (who also directs) launches the fine little theatre built by the Heritage Lottery fund for her Red Rose Chain, a company focused on local, community outreach and social concern. And I admit that given that context, and despite the success of her 2013 Ann Boleyn production at the Tower , I expected little more than a low-budget local diversion, a romp.

I was wrong. Although there is a wild Morris-dance and some larky exchanges, what Carrick delivers is more: an intimate, layered history-play, local and accessible indeed but (like the RSC’s Written on the Heart) engaging with seriousness and sorrow in the emotional cruelties of the Reformation. The cast of six each double – with sophisticated rapid open costume changes – between Ipswich locals and royal entourage, which in certain poignant moments adds a sense both of the gulf between them and their mutual dependence.

Pause for background history (my one criticism is that it could perhaps be made a tiny bit clearer , maybe in a prologue). Move on half a generation from Mantel’s Wolf Hall: Henry VIII’s Reformation was complete by his death in 1547, after a decade in which daily life and devotions changed radically. Protestantism was imposed by law and the sword, but undeniably many people adhered to it emotionally and patriotically. When in 1554 Queen Mary and her Spanish husband restored Catholicism, inquisition and compulsion saw around three hundred burnt alive for refusing to return to Romish ways. Famously Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley – but also dozens of ordinary men and women. Many were in Suffolk, nine burnings here in Ipswich.

So when the new, Protestant Queen Elizabeth made this “Progress” three years later, the memories were raw and hopes of stability fragile. Carrick uses real local figures of the time, including Moone, to express a community still scarred. Some had hid from the inquisitors, some like him lied to save their lives, many saw the burnings. Elsie Bennett’s sad silent Lizzie, the orphan seamstress, has the devastating line “I wish my mother had lied like you”. Bennett doubles, beautifully, as the spirited, playful, determined Queen. And there’s irony and hope in the title’s double meaning: these people, like us in any age, need to move forward. What’s past can’t be undone.

The players’ preparations and desire to celebrate mingle with an undercurrent of unhappiness: community rifts raw from this recent horror. They are interwoven with scenes between Elizabeth and her glorious Dudley (Daniel Abbott) and – in one dark and desperate lamplit scene – with the historic fact that during those Ipswich days Lady Catherine Grey, of the Queen’s entourage, was revealed to have made a treasonous marriage.

And it absolutely works. Moments of a-capella harmony and homely jokes bring the street people’s world to life; individual griefs and angers are pushed down in common purpose. All the cast – Bennett, Abbott, Robert Jackson, Tom McCarron, Lucy Telleck and David Redgrave – handle their double personae with ease (Suffolk accents immaculate, I can affirm). The movement is particularly good (Rachael McCormick choreographs). And while the playlet they finally perform is suitably rude-mechanical, hairs stand up on your neck at the culminating ballad remembering “When two women in Ipswich Town, in the fire did drown…”
As bigotries, beheadings and burnings return to the news, its force redoubles.

Box office to 28 feb
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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Sick of the patriarchy, girls? Take a safari to 1908 and visit the real thing. Witness the elephantine authority of Hugo deMullin, last of a line of beautifully pointless country squires, telling his 36-year-old daughter that “the only possible independence for a woman is that she should depend on her husband. Or nearest male relative”. Thrill to her refusal to come home and his brisk “My dear, that is not a decision that rests with you”. Peering into the tiger-enclosure and tremble at Harriet Thorpe’s Mrs Clouston, a figure who makes Lady Bracknell seem laid-back, excoriating the modern young woman’s taste for “Bye-Cycling” (God bless Edwardian pronunciation gags).

And here is Hester, the younger sister: Maya Wasowicz a slender streak of grey frock, her narrow pale face sorrowful as a lost lurcher, yearning for the curate’s embrace; and here is her elder sister Janet, Charlotte Powell sleek and frisky as a raccoon, returning with a sailor-suited child in tow eight years after escaping through a window and hi-tailing it to London to raise her illegitimate child and run a hat shop, outraging decent society by suing aristocratic debtors.

These splendid revivals do, at times, feel slightly like a trip to the zoo. But St John Hankin’s play about The Woman Problem, which was exercising the Ibsen generation, is well worth restaging for the first time in a century. Joshua Stamp-Simon as director wisely eschews traditional intervals and gallops through a highly entertaining 95 minutes, against one of those elaborate panelled drawing-room sets which the tiny Jermyn, with miraculous cheek, constructs against all odds. There is a great deal of hilarity, not least in a magnificently milked moment when a furious family row has to be suspended for an agonizingly long time while the maid rather slowly lights the lamps.

There’s nice sharp social horror moments as when the innocent child asks his grandfather what the ancestors in the portraits did for a living. And some fine performances, not least from Roberta Taylor as the poor mother, torn between keeping her choleric invalid husband from dropping dead from affront, and her touching affection for the prodigal daughter. But there are also some unexpected points. The lover, it turns out, was seven years younger than Janet in that romantic fling, and she scorned to “trap a schoolboy” into marriage. We learn that he too is trapped, by a domineering father and conventional duty.

It ends, as didactic comedies of the period often do (think Wilde or Shaw) with naturalistic dialogue receding as the heroine delivers a speech-cum- manifesto. Yet interestingly, that is not so much about the independent career she has established but about a different female right: the one denied to poor withering Hester who mustn’t marry the lowly curate because she is a deMullin. That final female right Janet declares is for a woman to be made love to before she fades, and win the pain and joy and fulfilment of motherhood. Not quite the 2015 feminist manifesto, but stirring stuff. And Janet still has the hat-shop, after all: a 1908 single mother with her own business. Result! I am rather falling for St John Hankin.

Box Office: 020 7287 2875
to 28 Feb
rating four
4 Meece Rating

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12 years ago John Darwin paddled out into the North Sea, faking his death for the insurance. He and his wife – who hid him for a while in a secret room – were jailed after a photo showed them both grinning on a Panamanian property website. Mike Yeaman, in his author’s note, blithely says here that “any similarities to persons living or pretending to be dead are entirely coincidental”, and pulls the action from Teesside to Liverpool to generate maximum Scouse domestic energy. What red-blooded farceur could resist the melodramatic incompetence of it?

To his credit, he does not dodge the awkward fact that the real couple, with incredible callousness, let their sons grieve. He gives his Frank and Beryl two adult children who provoke a hell of a showdown when, in a rundown Cuban hotel room in a hurricane, all is revealed as palm-trees, sunbeds, (and indeed a cow and a car ) hurtle past the shaking window. And nobody comes expecting heartbreaking moral messages to this, Liverpool’s newest producing-house: the riotously cheerful, plushly redecorated Royal Court (supper served on stalls tables, tickets down to £ 12 in the first few days of a run). It’s a lark, a night out, and the director is Cal McCrystal the physical-comedy master.

John McArdle dodders and blusters as the undrowned Frank, Pauline Fleming exerts panicked, steely generalship as Beryl, Angela Simms and Michael Ledwich are the kids, and Stephen Fletcher a semi-competent Merseyside policeman (failed dog-handler, got bitten; failed firearms officer, “couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”). A dog’s puppet head-and shoulders cause crotch-level mayhem in the first act whenever the hidden Frank tries to scoot back to his freezing shed, the copper delivers the kayak and the daughter gets wedged in it with maximum awkwardness.

There are a few genuinely precious lines, like Beryl’s denial that she is “reconciled” to the drowning – “No, my husband always hated being looked at by fish. The aquarium at the dentist…”. But the biggest laughs, pure music-hall in their merriment, are for a classic drunk scene between Fletcher and Ledwich and its morning aftermath. This director knows exactly how to get an actor to fall off a sofa, and where to place an underclad policeman’s leg for maximum hilarity. And to prevent us feeling that we’re watching a giant telly sitcom (the cast are amped), two dismembered kebabs get thrown, with some force though apparently by accident, into the stalls. They are met with rapture.

After the interval we are in Cuba, and the very set gets a cheer, as does Ms Fleming in a leopard-print sarong and McArdle in preposterous hotpants. We’re well away, even before the addition of Harry Katsari as a Manuel-style official, several underbed-dives, panicked cross-purposes and that splendid hurricane. I can’t pretend that Yeaman’s plotting is of classic farce intricacy, but the physical work is glorious. And since we have been made aware of theatrical effort during the dog-head interventions and thrashing palm-tree moments, the dancing curtain-call is fleetingly joined by two stagehands apparently in their underwear. And we all cheer again. Hurrah.

box office 0151 709 4321 to 28 Feb
Rating: it would be three but add one comedy-mouse for McCrystal.

3 Meece RatingComedy Mouse

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ARCADIA Theatre Royal, Brighton and touring


It’s a play of dazzling ideas, scientific and philosophical: Tom Stoppard at his most provocative. In 1993 the NT production won an Olivier; for some it is the greatest modern play. It artfully expands the grammar of conventional plays by giving us a country-house schoolroom in 1809 while overlapping its characters and themes with the same room today – the table nicely cluttered with quills and laptops alike. Today, two academics pursue their scholarly hares – was Byron a killer? Who is the mysterious vanished poet Ezra Chater? Was there ever a lunatic hermit occupying the romantic hermitage in the grounds of Sidley House? And moving on to the science, did the young pupil in that schoolroom, Thomasina accidentally uncover in her pencilled jottings and reflections on thermodynamics, the new steam engine and the nature of time some scientific truths about the cooling universe only to be revealed by computer algorithms two centuries later?

And by the way, which is the better approach to the world and to landscape gardening: the rational, tidy 18c Enlightenment look of Chinese bridges and elegant geometric lawns reflecting elegant ideas, or the romantic and Gothic mess of fake ivied ruins and numinous eroticism? Oh yes, it’s a layered play all right, a millefeuille of ideas and questions.  But is it a nourishing confection?

I had the pleasure of being new to it, and deliberately didn’t read it beforehand, as if it was brand new – which for many audiences on this tour, a collaboration with EnglishTouring Theatre, it will be. But t for much of its length, despite Blanche McIntyre’s careful direction and my own fairly reasonable nodding populist acquaintance with modern maths (plus a traditional Eng.Lit degree to keep me comfortable with references to Thomas Love Peacock and the lesser writings of Byron) I was not especially beguiled.

Not, at least, in the longer first part. In the 19c sections Wilf Scolding is sparkily watchable as Septimus the tutor, and Dakota Blue Richards thoughtfully appealing as the young Thomasina (given the complexity of the ideas she must express, it will help when she gets better at projecting in big theatres as the tour goes on; she was not always quite audible). In the modern period – McIntyre blends the scenes and timeframes with great elegance – Robert Cavanah is terrific as the vain media-savvy academic, as are Flora Montgomery as his scornful feminist rival and Ed MacArthur as the mathematical son of the house, who uses the old game-books as exemplary data. He, indeed, delivers the first really good theatrical shock of the piece, over an hour in, casually informing them of something about Byron which the literary academics would never have got round to finding out. And in the final moments, at last real emotion is stirred as the doomed brilliant Thomasina’s fate entwines, and waltzes, with the heedless moderns.

But for too much of its length I found myself wishing that Stoppard had written it all as a novel instead. I’d have enjoyed reading that. Probably will read the play now. But on stage it has an absence of that vital “show-don’t tell” quality which makes theatre exciting. I will be directly at odds with many colleagues over this, but I found a more vivid breath of life in Stoppard’s new “The Hard Problem” the other week than in this beautiful, chilly crystal. Maybe I’m more of a gothic-romantic than a daughter of Enlightenment. Still, there’s room for us all.

BOX OFFICE 0844 871 7650 to 7 Feb Touring to April. Bath next!
Rating three 3 Meece Rating

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I had some misgivings, since I know the 1892 book by George and Weedon Grossmithalmost by heart: born in an age whose Punch-ish humour does not always chime with us (oh, those heavy servant-girl cartoons!) , it stands apart and remains one of the greatest bits of understated comic writing ever. The only stage production I have known to come near its glory was years ago at the Old Vic , when Judi Dench and Michael Williams played the Pooters. Never forgot how – even from the very back stalls – you could see Dench, without seeming to move a muscle, allowing her face to fall from hopeful wifely expectancy to resigned disgruntlement.

But I sought this out because Mary Franklin’s Rough Haired Pointer company did such a beautiful job before on The Young Visiters, so had proved her sense of 1890’s period and inventive small-cast staging – in that case a ramshackle, toybox style with rolling screens and outfits as crazily makeshift as a nursery dressing-up box. And after an awkward start (piano chords kept too long and loud in the first scene, becoming oppressive) this one more than lived up to expectations. The cast – four young men – are set in clothes looking artfully like drawings – as does the set, by Karina Nakaninsky and Christopher Hone – so there is immediately a sense of old illustrations coming to life.

Narration is mainly by Pooter – Jake Curran, who alone remains in one character – and sometimes by others, following the book with occasional refreshing, barmy breakouts. With unfussed, minimal props and hats Geordie Wright is Cummings, and the maid, and the ironmonger, and – memorably – Daisy Mutlar, a potential daughter-in law from hell. George Fouracres is another group, notably and memorably Mrs James of Sutton and the equally horrendous Our Girl Lillie Posh. I did wonder why the single-sex casting, but on the other hand the sad fact is that no female simpers and flounces better than young men do.

Which brings me to the greatest joy. Jordan Mallory-Skinner, also credited with the music and soundscape, spends most of the play as Mrs Carrie Pooter. And the boy is a riot. He has no wig – merely a fetchingly brushed quiff – and a simple long skirt. But his air of injured, hopeful wifehood, his folded, appalled face, his tight-lipped control, is so continuously painfully funny that I could hardly take my eyes off him. The Mansion House scene is a joyful thing indeed. Some performers just have – well, funny bones. No other way to put it. The other three all do excellent work, but the memory that lingers is of Mallory-Skinner momentarily lightening as Pooter makes some gallant gesture, and sinking – Dench-like – back into gritted disappointment. Beautiful. to 14 Feb
rating: four 4 Meece Rating

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ANYTHING GOES New Wimbledon theatre SW19 and touring


What can I say? Daniel Evans’ production is delicious, it’s de-lovely, a de-lirious succession of treats. There is always a fizzing joyful absurdity about Cole Porter’s 1934 shipboard musical – its book largely by P.G. Wodehouse, no less – and Evans and Sheffield Theatres have done it more than justice.

Not one minute passes without something visually or comically fabulous. Often, in even the best musicals, there is a scene or a number where you lose focus for a moment and think “Oh right, we’ll just get through this…”. But this screwball romance of gangways and gangsters, stowaways and star- crossed lovers and high-kicks hits you with one gleeful surprise after another. We may know three-quarters of the numbers too well, but they come up fresh as daisies. Sight gags are plentiful and brilliant (who does not find their life enhanced by watching a panicked gangster shove a Pekinese down his trousers?). As for the spoken wisecracks, a good few of them had the audience actually shrieking (“Iiquor has never touched my lips!””You know a short cut?”).

Actually, even the line “I never knew you were Chinese” just about finished off half my row. As did Erma’s announcement that she had sailors waiting for her in the “fuc’s’le”. Spoken with just enough ambiguity to keep it a family show while causing adults to choke happily on their Maltesers.

But a great deal of the wit is just where it should be: in Alistair David’s choreography and Nigel Lilley’s sharp, startling, diverse musical arrangement. Every number is meticulously acted as well as danced: in one striking moment Hope and Billy’s sentimental duet “De-lovely” is suddenly surrounded by a crazy ballet in 30’s swimwear (the costumes are wonderful), and as the cast surge and sway around them the central pair manage to look – as you would – baffled by it. Even funnier – achingly so – is the ensemble of sailors singing about girls ashore, in a dance so camply precise, so tight-white-trouseredly effete, that it is clear they really needn’t bother to wait for the lasses ashore. As for “Blow , Gabriel blow!” Reno’s revival meeting moves from jazz-dance to clapping, leaping, tapping, Bob-Fosse-style doll-like jerking, finally to very sexy lapdancing and a crashing finale fit to blow the roof off.

If the production itself is the star, that is not to denigrate the players. Debbie Kurup has a gamine elegance and growing vigour as Reno, Matt Rawle dead-on light-comedy timing as Billy, and Hugh Sachs’ portly Moonface blissfully takes the angst out of gangster with that glorious Bluebird song. Tweet-tweet. Indeed one of the pleasures of the show is that all the principals get a hell of a number all to themselves (not least Stephen Matthews doing his gypsy number in sock-suspenders, and Alex Young relishing Buddie Beware).

But enough of this. I”m distracting you from buying a ticket. Let me just add that what Sheffield has done is to unleash on a national provincial tour a really big show: elegantly set, wittier and better than many in the West end (it beats the 2002 Trevor Nunn revival for inventiveness and vigour). And crowds will see this glorious excellence at far below West End prices. I call that a result.

box office 0844 871 7646 to 7 Feb

touring on to 10 October nationwide – Aylesbury next, then Stoke….

rating five 5 Meece Rating

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