Monthly Archives: March 2015

OUR AMERICAN COUSIN Finborough, SW10

A SNORTER? OR  A SMOKED POSSUM?
It was in 1865, on the stage line “You sockdolagizing old mantrap!” that John Wilkes Booth took advantage of a guaranteed laugh to shoot dead President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s theatre, Washington DC.  At moments in the first half of Tom Taylor’s 1858 play (the first revival in London for a century) one did slightly yearn for a pistol-shot. But not too often, and mainly during some of the painful puns, malapropisms and prolonged jokes about sneezing from the silly-ass character Lord Dundreary . Yes, he has Dundreary whiskers: this is the actual character in the actual play which gave those exaggerated sideburns their name. And yes, the overlong jokes were put in by the original actor because his part was too short. Don’t blame playwrights for everything.
Timothy Allsop does his gallant best with this now deeply unpromising comic creation, but is stuck with the sort of jokes which last amused Punch readers well before World War I (Taylor as well as being a West End hit merchant, edited that magazine). And as the dangblastit, hornswoggling, bison-baiting, Grandma’s-slapjacks yee-ha American who horns in on the British toffs and solves their problems, Solomon Mousley is almost enragingly cheeky-charming.
Fine: the Finborough audience likes a bit of living history, and director Lydia Parker clearly made a brave decision not to rescue this hoary lump of Victoriana  by cutting ferociously and playing it double-speed. Rather we learn how it used to be: especially how mutual amusement and suspicion flowed between US and UK in popular culture, before Henry James began laboriously explaining us to one another in the 1880s and, British grandees took to livening up the gene pool by marrying Boston heiresses.

The result finally becomes oddly fascinating in retro charm: a cast of 13 in a stately home deploy a thicket of asides and back-stories, a drunk scene, a couple of songs, a superbly pompous comic butler (Julian Moore-Cook), time-wasting crosstalk and annoying riddles, a missing document, a changed-at-birth story which seems to go away, a problematic will, love at first sight, a scheming mother, a spirited proto-feminist heroine (Kelly Burke) weary of being excluded from the business incompetence of her dim squire Dad. There’s an Irish alcoholic who comes good, and even an adorable milkmaid (Olivia Onyehara).

They all give it admirable wellie, though the one I really fell for is Hannah Britland as the scheming mother’s “delicate” daughter being sold to the tedious old captain: she secretly wants to give up the fashionable invalid role and scoff a plateful of “corned beef and pickles!”. Britland looks uncannily like a young Rebecca Front and has much of that great comedienne’s dry brilliance. Watch this space, she’ll go far. Daniel York is nicely evil as the former charity-boy steward who like a good middle-class schemer has got a mortgage on the estate. And Erika Gundesen, a pale beauty at the piano, plays before, during and after the show original galops and waltzes unearthed from the British Library, with very considerable musical wit.

3 Meece Rating

box office 0844 847 1652 ; Sun-Mon-Tue to 14 April, with matinees.
rating three

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THE JEW OF MALTA Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE BOUQUET! IT WAS POISONED!
We are supposed to be thinking about the history of European antisemitism, tracking back to the 16th century when Christopher Marlowe wrote this play ,and the 15th, where he set it. And it’s all here – the ‘blood libel’, the accusations of physical dirtiness combined with greedy wealth, the spitting contempt and – not least – the undercurrent of awareness (Marlowe was no fool) that the thing which most annoyed Christians was that Jews were so damn clever, and that the fear of them was fuelled in a vicious circle by guilt at the violence meted out to them. We all fear the people we maltreat.

Thus our anti-hero Barabas – after the governor of Malta seizes all his property to pay off invading Turks – vows vengeance and runs rings round the ruling élite. He uses his daughter as bait to make suitors kill each other, then when she gets angry and converts he poisons her entire convent with rice-porridge, thus enabling the deathlessly plonking line “All the nuns are dead. Let’s bury them”. Moving on, he murders one friar and frames the other, and poisons his blackmailing servant, a courtesan and a pimp by disguising himself as a pantalooned “French musician” banging incompetently on a lute and giving them a poisoned (albeit fascinatingly slow-acting) posy of flowers to smell. Oh, and he fakes his death, admits the invading Turks through a sewer, gets made governor but burns all their soldiers to death. Which, accidentally, enables the Christian governor to turn the tables and drop him through his own secret trapdoor.

A clever Jew, see? And, as performed by Jasper Britton under the gamesome direction of Justin Audibert (a riproaring RSC directorial debut), disgracefully likeable in a confiding, Richard-III way. When he brags “”I walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls; sometimes I go about and poison wells…” we get a strong sense Barabas is parodying the prejudice he meets, and probably couldn’t be bothered to do any of it. And anything which could be uncomfortable about this cheerily brutal evening – pitched somewhere between farce and mumming-play – is that Christopher Marlowe is disgusted with the Christians too. They’re stupid, cruel, lecherous and as keen on money as anyone. The two friars are greedy, venal and competitive and deserve their fate. Only Abigail, used as a pawn by her father and converting when she grieves her dead lover, is at all decent (Catrin Stewart gives her great dignity and the only depth of feeling in the play). As she expires with “I died a Christian” the friar can only gropingly regret that she died a virgin too.
Audibert is not afraid of incidental comedy : even the bearers removing a corpse do “stone paper scissors” to decide who takes the messy end, and the poisoned nuns, to a background of yearning plainsong, actually foam at the mouth. Lanre Malaolu’s Ithamore , bought in the slave-market by Barabas’, escapes his early degradation to be caperingly wild and deliciously depraved. And there’s even a line prefiguring a centuries-later satire on human behaviour when Barabas says “I am my own best friend”.

Yessir! Marlowe got there before CHICAGO…
box office http://www.rsc.org 0844 800 1110 to 8 sept
RATING four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE LIONS St James Theatre SW1

THREE MEN IN A (PROBABLY RIGGED) VOTE…

In 2010, three men came to a Zurich hotel to present (to a scandal-ridden FIFA) Britain’s case for hosting the 2018 World Cup. David Cameron the chirpy new PM was backed by two icons from different strata of British society: David Beckham and Prince William. William Gaminara, alone among playwrights (very slow, TV commissioners..!) saw that this was a gift. In 2013 I loved the result in Edinburgh; now it’s back, in from a pre-London tour (I caught it in Ipswich) just as FIFA stumbles through the fallout of its next bad decision, Qatar.

From my recce in Ipswich I can report that it is still a blissful farce: sly, sharp, its impersonations just the right side of caricature. A sycophantic Indian hotelier pops in and out of the bedroom where the men deliberate; offstage Boris is in the hotel bar and becomes involved in a reported trouser incident. Each of the men repeatedly has his leash jerked as he fields phone calls from home: Beckham being told to hang his clothes up and blag a seat at the coming Royal Wedding, William fending off Kate’s fear that if invited Posh might sing, and Cameron at one point offstage in the hotel bathroom fending off Nick Clegg while the Prince and the footballer earnestly discuss haircare.

The beauty of Gaminara’s approach is that none of them is cast as villain or gratuitously mocked in tedious leftie news-quiz style. This is more P.G.Wodehouse than The Thick Of It, as he plays not unaffectionately with the interaction of three very different Englishmen united in a quixotic, patriotic attempt which we know will fail. Cameron (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Beckham (Séan Browne) are not close lookalikes, but rapidly become credible. The PM is jerkily, selfconsciously masterful as he was in his early days in the job, matily trying to get his kids a playdate with Beckham’s (he is caught secretly practising keepy-uppy before the others arrive). Beckham exudes friendly decency and slow-thinking literalness. Tom Davey however is uncannily like Prince William, with beautiful deep rounded royal vowels: his earnest well-bred goodwill leavened with schoolboy practical jokes (the best capped with “it was Dads idea, I promised I’d give it a go” when he pretends to think the meeting is about cricket, and enjoys the polite panic of the others)..

In the first half relationships ebb and flow, sometimes the two Etonians bonding in reminiscence and pedantry, sometimes William and Beckham affronted by the PM’s arrogance. As they return from ‘pre-meetings’ with FIFA grandees each has his weakness revealed, not least a lovable British incompetence at bribery. Ashok the butler does, at times, become a little tedious with his learned verbosity and rather dated Empire-loyalist caricature, but it transpires there’s a reason for that.   The second act becomes nicely farcical, as Cameron imposes the old Tony Blair / Enoch Powell trick of making them all fill their bladders to add urgency to their big presentation. Which, without crudeness, leads up to the classic trouser moments.

So once again I enjoyed it no end. And there’s a joke I didn’t remember from Edinburgh. The daffy intern gushes that Boris Johnson is “cute”. To which the PM replies “Cute is not the word I”d have chosen. Almost, but not quite…”

Yes, think about it. The Ipswich matinee audience got it immediately, the dirty beasts…

box office http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk to 2 May

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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RULES FOR LIVING NT Dorfman, SE1

SITCOM DOESN’T QUITE STAND UP

First the good news. If there is an award for best-choreographed food-fight, it’s just been won (take a bow, fight director Kate Waters).  Stephen Mangan leaps on tables with the agility (and the hairdo) of Erroll Flynn, Miles Jupp looks terrific with gravy on his head, John Rogan delivers from a largely wordless wheelchair role some of the best reaction faces this year. Maggie Service has all the fearless absurdity which marks the rising generation of female stand-ups, and Deborah Findlay is, as ever, heroic in suggesting layers of painful character with little to work on.
But that’s it. Out of ten the cast score 8, the play about 3. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy of a dysfunctional family Christmas never makes the jump into reality, even with Marianne Elliott as director and a kitchen-diner set so huge and smart that it makes David Cameron’s look poky. The theme is built on an idea behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that people set themselves unachievable “rules” which make them unhappy. Offstage until the end is Emma, 14-year-old suffering from fatigue syndrome and what her fussed, unhappy mother Sheena (Claudie Blakley) calls “negative core beliefs”. She is deemed too poorly to come down to the family meal.
Her father Adam – failed cricketer turned junior solicitor – despises psychobabble and won’t go to couples counselling (Sheena is currently unhappy for the footling reason that he didn’t book a hotel for their anniversary). Brother Matthew is a more successful lawyer, who fancies Sheena but has brought a horribly extrovert actress girlfriend (Service on galumphing form). Mother Edith is under stress, attempting to do a perfect Christmas as her husband Francis is wheeled home with a post-operative stroke. Matthew is trying to diet, Sheena to stop drinking, Adam to give up smoking. None succeed.

Mangan and Jupp almost become credible characters, but Holcroft gives the women no subtleties at all to work on; indeed there’s a formulaic, cardboard case-history quality in all the characterisation. This is not helped by the gimmick of a lighted scoreboard overhead, detailing the “rules” for each character. Once or twice this is funny – Matthew always has to sit down in order to lie, and Carrie can’t stop dancing around telling jokes until someone laughs. But it woefully prevents the actors developing any fluid honest realism.

Just as well one doesn’t care much for any of the characters, because before the big row kicks off (over a complex card game, a clunky metaphor) the second act opens with an uneasily sadistic scene, modishly “dark”, as the younger generation confront the speechless wheelchair father and revert to childhood rivalries. If the best laugh for fifteen minutes is a stroke victim shouting “Fuck off” and groping a breast, you’re in trouble.

Indeed the trouble with the whole play is that until the final food fight it’s not as funny as it needs to be. You can see the jokes coming a mile away, and the one about a clumsy showoff visitor breaking an ornament and being tearfully told “It was my father’s” deserves a geriatric wheelchair of its own.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 8 July
Dorfman Partner – Neptune Investment Management
rating three3 Meece Rating

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BUYER AND CELLAR Menier, SE1

SUBTERRANEAN STREISAND: SILLY AND SUBLIME
It’s a heady cocktail, the Hollywood Heartbreaker: tartness and syrup,  firewater and froth ,l served in the campest crystal with diamond sparklers.  Heady delusion meets hard dollars, and schmaltzy folksiness erects steel gates against the overpressing adoration of the faithful.  Rarely has this L.A. la-la land been skewered with such loving laughter as in Jonathan Tolins’ one-man play, a fantasy about Barbra Streisand.

That is, about her basement. He read, in her extraordinary vanity coffee table book “My passion for Design”, that as an avid hoarder of costumes, toys, antiques and curios the megastar actually built, in her Malibu basement, a row of old fashioned folksy stores .  He began to wonder how it would be if she employed a floorwalker to play shops with her, down there under the pink (flattering) light whenever she cared to wander down the spiral staircase.
Hence this 100 minute virtuoso piece, hedged carefully around with insistence that – with “a person so famous, talented and litigous” it is definitely all made up. Although apparently acquaintances of the real Streisand have cautiously admitted a certain truthfulness in the characterisation. Who knows? There are strong gates, and she is an actress born…Anyway, its too good a fantasy to spoil, and comes to the glorious Menier (directed by Stephen Brackett) garlanded with off-Broadway awards.

The performer is Michael Urie – known from Ugly Betty – as Alex, an actor sacked from Disneyland (“Mouseschwitz”as embittered ex-employees refer to it ). who takes the weird subterranean job. Urie is ,from the opening moments, an elfin delight: entrancingly entertaining word by word,  and controlledly camp. That control enables him to drop in and out another character, his boyfriend Barry who is thirty degrees queenier and has a typically schizophrenic and terrifyingly well-informed love-hate relationship with the Streisand legend .
Urie also gives us the cynical no-nonsense PA, and Barbra herself . She visits her deranged mini mall, playing improv shopping games with Alex: at this point it gets so funny you can hardly breathe. When he pretends to haggle there is “an almost erotic pleasure in denying this woman something she wants”. Then she begins to seem to show friendship: if it is ever friendship when the deal is so one-sided. Once , she demands that he stay on all evening in case she wants frozen yoghurt from her street’s candy store. Poor as a church-mouse, Alex mentions overtime and the diva cries : “It’s always about dollars and cents..why can’t people CARE as much as I care?” . Ouch.
The trajectory takes the story beyond mere sketch: Alex’s involvement torpedoes his real life by degrees, and ends in a lovely bit of disillusion.  And froth-light as it is, the play gently, affectionately teases out serious themes. It’s about fame, fortune and unbridled acquisition: the terrible glamour of the famous boss who seems for a moment to care, and the gap between rueful strugglers at the base of the showbiz pyramid and lonely deluded billionaires at the top, clinging with absurd pride to the hard-luck legend of their youth. It is about aspiration and perfectionism and the way, as Alex admits, that we are all “struggling to create our own perfect little world” and watching the stars’ lives for “the comfort of the totally impossible”.
But I would hate you to think it’s in any way a sober evening. Never stopped grinning all the way through…
box office 0207 378 1713 to 2 May
rating: four4 Meece Rating

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PLAYING FOR TIME Crucible, Sheffield

A GRAVE GRANDEUR, AN UNFORGOTTEN HORROR

Hard to overstate the impact, the sense of event, commemoration and bleak grandeur in this extraordinary evening. There is, in this 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, obvious solemnity in staging Arthur Miller’s “memory play” from the testament of Fania Fénélon. The Parisian chanteuse survived by forced membership of a rag-bag orchestra recruited for the entertainment of the SS officers and, horribly, to march fellow-victims to the gas chambers and pander to Dr Mengele’s experiments on music and insanity.

But add to that a central performance as Fania from Sian Phillips: eighty-one now, a war-baby with early memories of being taken outside at night to watch Swansea burning. We use some words too lightly in the arts, but Phillips’ wholly committed gently controlled performance is a marvel of fearlessness, sorrow and sincerity. It is one of those rare memorable nights when you come to believe you are not watching acting at all, but remembered experience: a necessary ritual.

It is a huge cast: fourteen women and three men, amplified with extras from Sheffield People’s Theatre. So shaven-headed women in rags are herded and surged around the big open theatre, edges of violence being glimpsed – as they were by the appalled, conflicted Fenelon – around a central area where for much of the play the hungry, fearful musicians struggle with ill-assorted instruments under the nervy, disciplinarian Alma Rosé. She was Gustav Mahler’s niece: the Jewess virtuosa violinist who with Fenelon’s orchestrating skills and grainy, Weimar cabaret voice somehow held them together.

Richard Beecham’s direction is supported by extraordinary lighting and design by Richard Howell and Ti Green, creating a darkness visible, a grey despair around the vivid individuals . It is further served by unobtrusively sinister sound design by Melanie Wilson – whistles, thuds, shouts, guard dogs barking, at last the distant artillery . And even more by the musical direction and some lyrics by Sam Kenyon, creating shattering moments. Here are the Commandant and Dr Mengele sitting splay-legged with imperial power, sentimental over the desperate gentleness of the scratch orchestra playing von Suppé, and saying approvingly “it strengthens us for this difficult work of ours” – that is, murdering twelve thousand a day.
At another moment, after playing marches as the prisoners head for the ovens and the smoke rises, Fania must sing Madam Butterfly’s hopeful song about “a thread of smoke rising on the horizon” from the ship bringing back her lover. Congratulated by the Commandant, she bravely denies her stage persona with “My name is not Fenelon. I am Fanny Goldstein”. A terrible silence.
But nothing is milked, nothing is sentimental, and Miller allows rein to the tensions between Jew and Gentile, Pole and French, the Zionist and the racially indifferent, the despairing and the defiant. Nor does he flinch from the brutalities that brutalized people pass on: the Polish women guards shoutingly bully the “Jew shit”. Marianne asks early on: “Why are they doing this? What do they get from it?” Unanswerable.

Sian Phillips is the powerful centre, but around her other performances rise too. Melanie Heslop is Marianne, moving from naive fear to greedy dissolution, whoring herself to the very executioner on the day her friend’s beaten body is left hanging dead in the rain until dark. Amanda Hadingue is stiffly Austrian as Alma, Kate Lynn-Evans is Mandel the officer whose half-humanity becomes, to Fenelon, the “problem”. A problem horribly reflected in her own honest conflict about using her art in collaboration, struggling to hold something back yet survive to testify .
And always the Beethoven and Puccini, the cabaret songs and accordion, remind us that this was Europe, this was recent. That savagery is not something alien and far away, for humanity can go downhill very fast and very far, without losing the superficial trappings of efficiency and aesthetic culture. As Fania says, “The aim is to remember. Everything”.

Box Office 0114 249 6000 http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk to 4 April
Rating five5 Meece Rating

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REBECCA – a study in Jealousy Richmond Theatre & touring

MANDERLEY AGAIN,  AND VERY WELCOME TOO 

“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” The famous opening is spoken from the sea-bed: a dim otherworld where a jointed lifeless body descends from far above, crushed beneath a wrecked boat. Which – as a vast chandelier descends in turn – becomes sometimes a table, sometimes floor, beneath the leprous plaster and high broken banisters of a grand ruined house above. So the set itself is the ghost of Manderley and of the rockbound Cornish bay where the first wife Rebecca met her end. Within this frame, between a dark past and a smouldering end, the story will play out. Fishermen intone the first shanty “Go down, you blood red roses”. Brilliant.
Kneehigh, and Emma Rice’s direction elsewhere, are generally original, quirky, larky, musical, a touch camp, prone to outbreaks of puppetry, but focused on storytelling and above all theatrically atmospheric. This touring production, I am happy to say, is their finest since Brief Encounter . It’s a glorious evening: both faithful to the spirit and shape of Daphne du Maurier’s chronicle of second-wife paranoia and Bluebeard dread, and mischievously subversive of it.

Perhaps the Cornish setting inspired the Truro company even more than usual. In folkish Kneehigh tradition it is interwoven with shanties (and that lovely Wilburn brothers ballad Give Them The Roses Now, sung by Frith the butler to cheer up poor Mrs de Winter after the ball débacle). Cast members casually pick up instruments – bass, banjo, fiddle, accordion – and deftly create interiors with props, often singing in hair-raising harmony. There are tweaks: Rice has made Maxim de Winter’s sister Bea and her husband a pair of rip-roaring, huntin-shootin’-shaggin’-drinkin’ County party-animals, at one point executing a spirited sand-dance routine in Arabic costumes and leading a vo-de-o-do outbreak as an Act 2 opener. Lizzie Winkler and Andy Williams give it their all, to general glee, Winkler seeming to channel a hypermanic Edwina Currie in her prime.

The footman Robert (Katy Owen) becomes an elfin, broadly Welsh lad, tearing cheekily around and, in opening scenes, startlingly discussing his mother’s menopause symptoms over the phone to the lodge-keeper (“bit of a dryness in ‘er tuppence”). She’s very funny too. Danvers – Emily Raymond – is perhaps not quite as terrifying as one would hope, possibly due to modern sympathies towards her plainly lesbian passion: but having her entrances heralded by a flapping puppet cormorant is grand. So is the puppet dog, especially when he greets the terrified new bride with a nose up the crotch.

Not that she is terrified by the end. Imogen Sage is a real find, as tremulous and cotton-frocked and virginal as you could wish, but hardening and sexing-up convincingly when she discovers the truth. It’s a genuinely striking transition. So, in its way, is the decline of Maxim – glorious Tristan Sturrock, who was the original lover in Brief Encounter. He has just the casual, haughty, scornful affability and moody hawkish demeanour of a romantic hero in the 1930’s mould. As they say, you would, wouldn’t you? Even though you’d definitely regret it in the end.

His bride doesn’t: even in the genuinely dark,shivery moment when the corpse is raised and laid to rest amid shifting suspicions. The school parties around us shuddered with pleasure. So did I.
Box office 0844 871 7651 to 21 March

then TOURING    Touring Mouse widenationwide to 19 Sept – Kneehigh tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/lqvo5jo

Rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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