Monthly Archives: April 2015



God is sweeping the big blank stage. We won’t know for a minute or two that Kate Duchene IS God, given she’s a weary grey-haired cleaner in a tabard. But in Carol Ann Duffy’s modern take on a medieval morality play, interpreted by Rufus Norris, that’s who God is: incarnate among us, char-ing for the orgiastic, coke-fuelled birthday bash of “Ev”: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Knowing all things (cleaners, like God, tend to) she predicts that she’ll be sweeping up condoms and worse by morning – “Don’t ask”.
At the party, crazedly choreographed by Javier de Frutos, we see that she’s right. Everyman is a high-living, bonus-fuelled party animal, surrounded by sycophantic friends bellowing “Happy fucking birthday!” (Duffy wins the palm as the sweariest poet-laureate yet). But, following tradition, Death comes for him. He falls off the balcony on his 40th, draped in police incident tape in a moment of staging which feels suspiciously designed to remind us of Norris’ London Road. Death, a drily funny Dermot Crowley, dons a white forensic suit and rubber gloves (no scythe in 2015) and warns Ev to render God an account of his life. So, as in the old plays, Everyman vainly seeks advocacy from his friends (“We’re well out of our comfort zone here, this is mental”), from the family he has neglected, including a gloriously grumpy Sharon D Clarke, and from the good deeds he never did.
Despite the stardom of Ejiofor and the always interesting Duffy as writer, it felt a risk for Norris to set out his stall as new Artistic Director with a 100-minute religious masque: given that the number of believers eager to take offence is now matched by equally offendable atheists. But with wit, panache, showmanship and the occasional earnestness of the verse offset with sly comic timing, he pulls off something both spectacular and serious. Hytner, remember, put Jerry Springer The Opera in his first season: more scatological, but with the same Judaeo-Christian theme of death and judgement. A nice symmetry.

And moments to remember. Ejiofor is its powerful core, swaggering, hungover, arrogant or terrified, learning humility before our eyes. Duchene, reappearing in his darkest hour as a fellow-tramp but still God, has a wisely underplayed strength. Tremendous projection expresses the global news and disasters which Ev has ignored; the ensemble in various guises moves kaleidoscopically and there is a wonderful mash-up score (William Lyons, with Paul Arditti’s sound) from disco to lament to the harsh choral beauty of The Lyke-Wake Dirge (“This ae nicht… fire and fleet and candle-licht, and Christ receive thy sawle!”).

That is sung by the ensemble startlingly disguised as 8ft-high walking rubbish tips; a huge wind-machine blows fake money and paper rubbish across the stalls as Ev laments in a plastic wasteland “I thought the world was mine to spend, a coin in space…”. Cue penance, apology, terror. But the final moments, when he learns to give thanks for the failing body and the world it shared, are strongest. Death’s rolling incident-tent (more police tape) sweeps aside his physical functions – personated by the ensemble, medieval style – leaving Ev alone. “I think I have a soul like this planet has a moon, my own soft light when there is only endless night. Let it go free of Time…In all humility, let it go free of me..”

Death is furious at this gentle resignation, and threatens the audience. “who’s next?” We laugh. Nervously. But not nervous for the new NT regime, not now. Offbeat but traditional, theatrical but heartfelt, it’s a triumphant night. There are £15 tickets, so get queueing.
box office 0207 452 3000

Sponsor, Travelex. In Cinemas 16 July via NT Live
Rating four    4 Meece Rating


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WAY UPSTREAM Chichester Festival Theatre


This is the play which flooded the Lyttelton stage and the National Theatre electrics in 1982. Of all Alan Ayckbourn’s massive oeuvre it is one of the rarest : not surprising given they tech demands. . Nadia Fall’s involves turning the Chichester stage into a segment of river with 65,000 litres of water, deep enough for several cast members to fall or dive into, surrounded by real towering trees and vegetation . On it floats a tubby 21ft cabin-cruiser which can be fired up, moved, moored, wobble underfoot and jerk its passengers around. Credit to designer Ben Stones, to Tim Mitchell’s lighting – sunrises, blackouts and odd semi-strobe interludes – and Fergus O”Hare’s sound with a storm scene, chirping crickets and some weird, tense passages of score. And technical co-ordinator Sam Garner-Gibbons deserves a palm for sheer nerve.

But goodness, it’s an odd piece, as if Ayckbourn in mid-career set out to give us one play and finding himself tangled in a sudden anger abruptly bolted on a different one halfway. With considerable success in the first act he gives us thoughtful observational comedy mining his characteristic vision of marital disillusion, temperamental absurdity and benign moral puzzlement at what fools we mortals be. Keith – Peter Forbes – has persuaded his indecisive business partner Alistair (Jason Hughes) to share a hire boat upstream to Armageddon Bridge. His wife June, a marvellously brassy and discontented Sarah Parish, can’t stand him. The other wife Emma (Jill Halfpenny) is sweeter, but disappointed in Alistair’s floppy temperament.
Keith fancies himself as skipper, but is both incompetent and unable to take his mind off his ailing factory, summoning his secretary (Nicola Sloane) to the riverbank; a botched mooring sequence is so technically and comically perfect that it got a round of applause, as the hapless PA in a neat lemon-yellow business suit is dragged skidding on the muddy grass amid confused shrieks and wrong instructions. When Alistair runs the boat aground they are rescued by an alpha-male in ripped denim: Jason Durr as Vince, who Poldarkily gets his shirt off. June immediately cheers up no end, and Keith is manipulated into subservience.

So far, so sitcom. And we all loved it (well, Chichester knows about boats and their delusional effect on chaps). One colleague complains it is dated, because now they would have mobile phones rather than make a secretary gallop along the bank: how little he knows of rural Vodafone-deserts, it could still happen.

But it isn’t dating that’s its problem. The name Armageddon hints that the second half turns darker, stranger, odder. Vince’s controlling behaviour, which starts with a funny if Orwellian ploy of claiming new names for parts of the boat – gaffters, weevildecks, piggles – becomes a fascist reign of terror alleviated by sadistic drunken orgies and the unnecessary arrival of an equally manipulative sexpot, Fleur. The bullying becomes very Lord of the Flies, and starts to stretch credulity. When a fake river feels more real than the behaviour on it, theatre has a problem.

So the final development never took me with it beyond the (certainly glorious) moment when June does a drunken cabaretnumber in black suspenders. By the time we get to the marooning, near-drowning and potentially fatal fight, not to mention the point when two of them may possibly be in heaven, I had lost it. Even if it is, as some say, a political allegory of Britain turning to the right or a reference to the medieval Ship of Fools. But until the last quarter it was entertaining all the way, the cast superb whether wet or dry, and the staging remarkable.

box office 01243 781312 to 16 May

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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The marvellous junk-shop set by Paul Wills comes into its own most gratifyingly when Damian Lewis finally loses control and trashes it. For most of the play it simply evokes the rubbishy oppression of heavyset, patient Don Dubrow’s “Resale Shop”, up some mean street in 1975 where gambling men and smalltime crooks gather for half-baked plots and guarded man-banter. John Goodman, NYC stage and screen veteran, is Don: longsuffering, paternal, the most potentially sane of the three, doing up his saggy cardigan on the wrong buttons at moments of stress but finally, both literally and figuratively, getting it right.
Tom Sturridge is Bob, a protegé of vague function, a shaven-headed starveling teenager with a menacing naîveté and dangerous pathos, looking to Don as probably the nearest thing to a father, though resisting offers of breakfast. Last to arrive onstage, to a little frisson of here-comes-our-star, is Teach: Damian Lewis, back on the London stage after a decade . Not the Homeland Damian, and certainly not Henry VIII: lanky and manic here in a plum-coloured suit, with drooping ginger moustache and sideburns and a permanent state of twitchy offendedness (at first by the unseen Ruth and Gracie, who seem in some mumbled way to have disrespected him).

There’s an exiguous plot in which the elder two plan to steal back a rare coin – the American Buffalo – from a buyer who may have bought it too cheap; yet the real action, as usual in David Mamet’s furious dialogue, is beneath the surface. They plan and spar and disagree, and Teach vents indignantly bravura, wordily eloquent self-justifying rants like a grown-up version of Just William. The most profound of his sayings is probably “Do not fuck with me, I am not other people”. Or maybe “According to me is what it is when it is me who is speaking”. The most alarming moment in the play is not his brief violence with a sink-plunger, but a fearsome five minutes when he waves a gun around, and you’re far from certain he has the wit to put the safety-catch on.

There is the deliberately slight coin plot. But if you just watch them – and these are stellar performances – and tune to the subtext, what they are really saying translates variously as “Do you trust me? More than other guys? Are you my friend? Am I a man? Do you respect me? Will you let me down?” In an extraordinary moment Teach blusters “I am not your wife!”. It’s the least homoerotic of duets, though. Director Daniel Evans writes in the programme that the buffalo motif is important – these animals being aggressive, endangered and prone to leaving their mothers at a young age to roam around with other males. He suggests that the new wave of feminism weighs heavy on them, as well as their failure in the American business dream (as in Miller’s Death of a Salesman). Not sure about the feminism : it can’t all be our fault. Though at times I rather longed to see Ruth and Gracie come in and sort them out.
The first half is slowish, the energy rising after the interval; re the play’s fault than the players’ or directors, and probably an American audience would tune in sooner than me. But in the end, though I am not as a rule a fanatically keen Mamettian , the pathos and truth of these lost boys’ plight became moving, and memorable.

box office 0844 482 5120 to 27 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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BOMBER’S MOON Trafalgar Studio 2, SE1


As the aged heroes of World War II slip gradually away, the urge to bear witness feels ever stronger. In Rattigan’s recently revived FLARE PATH (another production touring this autumn by the way) we were reminded of the surreal life of the young bomber crews, under fire over Germany at night and drinking in a quiet country pub near the base by lunchtime. Now screenwriter William Ivory draws on the memories of his late father – who died in 2008 – to give us a heartfelt, unsentimental evocation of an aged man, once a rear-gunner in war and now washed up, beached, trapped in a failing body in a warden-sheltered flat.

One tributes he pays is to demonstrate how funny, how deadpan, how salty such old men can be. James Bolam always brings a marvellous honest solidity to his acting, and drop-dead timing: he is wholly convincing both as an octogenarian grump who can barely get upright on his zimmer frame, and in flashback as the bright-eyed youth. Sometimes, movingly, he crouches holding that frame as he once held the machine-gun mounts. He catches the cheerful black-humoured obscenity of servicemen’s talk, and takes you momentarily into old long-suppressed fears.

The set is simple – by Laura McEwen – the bedsit kitchenette, chair and screened commode of planet eldercare; but the window in the door can become a full moon, the bomber’s moon, and the ceiling fan crossing the lights overhead suddenly evokes a plane in clouds as the soundscape (by Damian Coldwell) rises to a jet-engine roar mingled with urgent voices from long ago.

The story is just a few weeks’ interaction between old Jimmy and his new carer David – Steve John Shepherd. Jimmy is no soft touch: not unkind but sceptically cantankerous, irritated about “the big lesbian, Moira from Mobility” who keeps giving him wholemeal bread, and infuriated when the geeky, nervous Shepherd comes at him with God-bothering chat about religion and formulaic social-worker phrases. Jimmy’s mind is all there – even if his hand trembles, he recites his multiple medications with the rat-tat professional accuracy of the technical gunner he once was., when the only medication was the routine issue of amphetamines to keep men flying. And his mind is still haunted, with weary tolerance, by the last traumatic flight when his comrades died shot down over Nuremberg and he survived by a fluke and was captured in the snow.
There is gripping sincerity throughout , though it is only in the second half that we get a clearer view of the life-crisis which made David take this work, and which may yet destroy him as surely as it did some wartime comrades who capitulated to the great fear. There was a moment near the end when I feared Ivory might be going to get out of it a bit too pat, either religiously or otherwise. But he pulls it off, with the old man’s witness to the past moving towards healing for the troubled young man in the present. There’s fidelity to that World War 2 spirit, in it at the end, to that Rattigan restraint. And a small coup-de-theatre which I should have seen coming and didn’t. So the matinee audience rose to its feet, for an honest performance but as much for its grandparents , and the pity and gallantry of seventy years ago.

BOX OFFICE 0844 871 7632 to 23 May From £ 15

RATING:  FOUR  4 Meece Rating

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WHAT THE BUTLER SAW Emporium, Brighton


Joe Orton would have liked The Emporium. This deconsecrated Methodist church has been a theatre and café for a couple of years now. It was at the vanguard of the regeneration of an unloved part of the city. Gary Blair and James Weisz work hard at keeping it afloat with sharp and well targeted programming. Beckett, Pinter, Sondheim and Orton have all been staged here – modern classics aimed squarely at the central Brighton demi-monde. The venue is fashionably scruffy; the food, beer and coffee are good.

Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell went house-hunting close to The Emporium; their last trip together was an outing to Brighton ten days before Halliwell bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. Orton was working on the first draft of ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the time. In his diaries he relates breaking free from Halliwell one gloomy, damp Brighton night. In a borrowed mac he visits a Gents’ lavatory beside a church where he meets a tall aristocrat and a dwarf “skulking in the corner.”

His plays are hard to get right. Play him too broad and comedic and the lines fall flat. Characters must remain unaware of their absurdities leaving work for the audience to do. Kearns’ cast are note perfect.Once the ear tunes in to the epigrams there’s plenty to enjoy – one of the biggest laughs of the night went to orgasm-faking Mrs Prentice announcing to her husband, “My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time.”
Director and designer Patrick Kearns has assembled a powerful company. Brian Capron (beloved in his murderous role as one of Gail Platt’s husbands on Coronation Street) effortlessly takes the lead as the priapic shrink, Dr Prentice, Jenny Funnell plays his highly strung wife with a nice harmonic of hysteria. Special mention to the superb performance of Michael Kirk as the senior psychiatrist: his strutting around and Herbert Lom mid-distance stares give real weight to the character.
The action takes place in the consulting room of a psychiatric hospital. The drama ignites when Dr Prentice is caught in flagrante by his wife. To escape her wrath he declares his victim insane, cue a couple of hours of characters in various states of undress, distress and consciousness dashing in and out of the four side doors of the stage. Farce relies on the audience buying in to the unfolding logic of the circumstances and it’s a measure of the success of this production that the audience were hooked in from the start. The first act, before the pace becomes too frenetic, is more successful than the second but this is a fault of the play and a reminder that it was still a work in progress when Orton was murdered. A farce it may be, but in tackling issues of insanity one can’t help feeling that he was mining the material of his own life and the unravelling mental condition of Halliwell. He never saw his play performed. He’d have relished this Brighton production.

box office to 9 May
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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What do you do after a revolution? Tyrant toppled, lives sacrificed, people feeling entitled to reward, reformers aflame with rapidly diversifying ideas. Meanwhile things have to be organized, the starving fed, heroes re-examined, laws set up. We watch the factions and fanaticisms  of the Arab Spring and forget that it happened here once: our democracy was not born all at once , or easily.

Caryl Churchill’s play about the aftermath of the English Civil War draws on the pamphlets and movements of 1646 to 1660,   on Cromwell’s Parliament-men, on the factions of Ranters and Levellers, and the Diggers who moved onto St Georges hill and simply began digging it up because “True Freedom lies where a man finds his nourishment, and that is in the earth” .

Everything was shaken, even more than in the Reformation years. The idea of Divine Law was overturned by the defeat of King Charles I and his imprisonment; in the Putney debates of 1647 impassioned intellectual and religious questions were raised, resonant today in the age of Occupy protests and anti-globalization rallies. How can all men be equal if some have more property? Must all have the right to choose their representative, or only some? Is a person bound to obey laws he or she doesn’t morally approve of? “If a foreigner dwell here, shall he be content to be subjected to the Law?”. Meanwhile, out among the rabble and rant of dissent in the fields, wild-eyed starvelings declared that nothing was barred, not thieving or sexual freedom, because everything was new.
When Churchill’s knotty, impressionistic, tough-going play was last produced in London it was with a cast of six, switching roles. This one – launching Rufus Norris’ leadership of the NT and directed by Lyndsey Turner – has a cast of 19 plus a community ensemble of forty more. Es Devlin’s set is a vast table , at first loaded with meats and exotic fruits and surrounded by grandees, later a bare board around which white-collared Puritans sit scratching at documents. At one point the Diggers actually take it up plank by plank to start digging. Finally a ragged starving  remainder argues around a brazier, wondering why the Second Coming of Christ did not, after all , usher in the new Jerusalem as per plan.

The look of it is fine, the populace being clad in a nicely vague rural-timeless-modern manner by Soutra Gilmour . It does create a sense of eavesdropping on the far past. The moments of song are stirring and there are undoubtedly some excellent performances:  a headlong barmy Joshua James, an impressive Trystan Gravelle, Alan Williams as Gerald Winstanley and as a fine striking drunk, and Ashley McGuire immensely touching and restrained as a vagrant woman, Margaret Brotherton. And I have a pretty high tolerance, not universally shared, for 17c political prose: got a real frisson when Sargon Yelda as the Leveller Colonel Rainborough rises at the Putney debates with that great affirmation that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly Sir, I think it clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government..”
Tremendous. And you can see why Rufus Norris decided to programme it, his first show, in election season. But for all the fine execution and the unquestioned if oddball genius of Caryl Churchill, as a play it fails to ascend the heights. Too wordily dense, too much in love with the verbatim, and frankly a touch arrogant in its unwillingness to explain itself courteously to audiences short on homework. The birth of modern Parliamentary democracy deserved a more democratic approach.

box office 0207 452 3000 to 22 June
Sponsor: Travelex Rating: three

3 Meece Rating


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CLARION Arcola, E8


The Clarion is a newspaper which hates immigrants. And liberals, especially those on the hated rival Sentinel, a barely-disguised Guardian. Britain, it says, is going to the dogs: betraying Nelson and Churchill and Mary Whitehouse and the Methodists. And the Romans, who were clearly acceptable immigrants, since the editor wears a shining centurion’s helmet at weekends. He hates multiculturalism, bisexuals, Glastonbury, lattes , sundried tomatoes, the Met Office (“They’ve an agenda. I don’t know what but it’s there. Incubating”). Oh, and Elvis, whose music caused “sixty years of culturally sanctioned underaged rutting and the fucking polytechnics. None of which happened when everyone went to lunchtime recitals of Vaughan Williams”.

This is morning conference under editor Morris Honeyspoon, played by Greg Hicks with a craggy, vulturous, leathery aggression which makes Malcolm Tucker look like St Bernadette. His Clarion is “an issue-led newspaper”, and if you think you can work out which one – or a mixture of which two – you really would be safer keeping quiet about it. Not that the barks and eddies of laughter in the Arcola, the yelling of Honeyspoon, and the soundscape of apocalyptic howling wind round the Shards and Gherkins of London make for much quiet.

Mark Jagasia’s first play – he’s an ex-tabloid hack – delivers under Mehmet Ergen’s direction an unnervingly enjoyable evening. If you have ever worked for a newsroom “run like a North Korean death camp” or as a reader been exasperated by the British press, there is both joy in the caricature, and an undertow of seriousness if you care to admit it. In the early moments I feared it would not progress beyond a wicked sketch, but plot develops nicely: an incriminating document, a comradeship and a betrayal, a bomb, a death and two sharp twists at the end.
Partnering Hicks is the glorious Clare Higgins as Verity, a veteran foreign correspondent. Once “a ferocious little kitty with the morals of Caligula”, she clawed her way up to OBE fame, hit the buffers and the bottle, and now supports a dying husband by fiddling her expenses and enduring complicity with Honeyspoon’s toxic headlines : “Immigrants barbecue llamas at petting zoo…Paedophiles in burqas stalk our kids…UK swamped by foreign gays”. Having been in Rwanda, she says, “I know what people are capable of when they’re fed lies”; but once sold, a soul is expensive to buy back. Higgins is superb: dry, scornful, half-reluctantly decent, defeated by life, a limping ragged integrity draping her battle-hardened carapace.

Hicks himself gives even the irresistibly appalling Honeyspoon a vulnerable streak of pathos, since he is under the cosh from the proprietor, a “Cypriot dwarf” who owns a chain of topless burger-bars, and his money man Clive, a god-bothering pinstripe (Peter Bourke, sliming for England). Honeyspoon is at least a proper newsman, whereas the proprietor wants headlines about a starlet’s lost dog, last seen in a frilly skirt on Hampstead Heath . “Wandering round a homosexual wilderness surrounded by Keynsians!” cries the editor “England in 2015, a bulldog in a tutu owned by a whore!”. Only the possibility of pinning the dognapping on Romanians cheers up this Farageian Canute. That, and the financial difficulties of the liberal press…
It’s a howl of an England struggling without grace for identity, and a newsprint industry in decline. Supporting characters in the newsroom are beautifully sketched: the hopeless news editor yearning to get home to Braintree for Curry Club, the pretentious young novelist earning a despised crust as “Immigration Editor”, the lunatic astrologer welcoming the end of days. And Laura Smithers puts in a fabulous London debut as the intern: a masterclass in, yeah, like, infuriating youthful entitlement and vacuous ambition. “She’ll be the next editor” breathed a nearby real journalist. Oh dear.
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 |
to 16 May
rating : four

4 Meece Rating

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This is Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy: the moment when from his vortex of family addiction, illness, loneliness, romantic seaward longings and deep human empathy came a spurt of hope. It is set in the same East Coast seaside house as his fogbound, bitter autobiographical A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The title is from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou, beside me singing in the Wilderness–Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” Teenage Richard, aflame with calf-love and rebellion, has the poem by heart. It weaves through the play, together with the lush, lily-scented despairing eroticism of Swinburne and Wilde, references to Ibsen and the daring literary fin-de-siecle spirits of the author’s youth (remember the father’s disgust in the later, harsher play: “Baudelaire, Whitman Poe, Wilde, whoremongers and degenerates!”
For we are in O’Neill’s youth, idealized a decade later in 1933, yearning back to the passion of banned books, a new century’s revolt against the parental rigidities. Wonderfully cunning of the Young Vic and director Natalie Abrahami to have ‘60s Bob Dylan tracks playing as we settle: another age when youth was hopeful and despairing, embracing love and disillusion and rebellion and times a-changing.

Observed by a wandering, curiously ghostlike figure who steps into remembered characters and then watches intently, unseen in the margins , this is a portrait of the family O’Neill should have had. One in which adolescent angst and anger could clash against a partially dysfunctional household and run wild in brief dissipation, but be contained and accepted in final mellow moonlit moments by solid united parents. Martin Marquez and Janie Dee give them that solidity: he a local newspaper proprietor rooted and respected, if testy; she typically strong as Essie, who knows her duty to object to “corrupting” books and behaviour, but is perfectly aware of convention’s unimportance next to keeping the family together.

Sometimes brother Arthur – Ashley Zhangahza – sits at a battered piano and sings the gentle melancholy parlour-songs of a century past, underlining that sense of a safe if stale old world before all this new poetry stirred it up. Not that family life is smooth: Dominic Rowan is Uncle Sid, an amiable (and very funny) habitual drunkard who was once to marry aunt Lily (Susannah Wise) until she demurred at his incurable behaviour. There is real subtle pain here, though delight in the scene, nicely indicated as pretty routine, where Sid demolishes the family dinner.

But young Richard is the focal point, and George Mackay is marvellous: flouncingly adolescent, self-righteously wounded when his chastely hesitant girlfriend Muriel is persuaded to chuck him. He goes on to a low bar, where his first-time drunkenness and squirmingly embarrassed encounter with a predatory tart are quite beautiful in execution. He poses as sophisticated, tries to play cool when Muriel reappears, hurls himself flat on his face in a sea-pool to express thwarted embarrassed adoration. He is glorious.

But what keeps me haunted hours later is Abrahami’s drifting, gentle direction within a wonderful set by Dick Bird. Fresh from its annihilation under the gravel of Happy Days, the Young Vic stage is now under tons of finer sand: sculpted dunes and breakwaters beneath faded seaside clapboard, sands of time in which characters will suddenly burrow to haul out books, a table, a sea-pool reflecting the moon. Memories are as drifting and reshaped as a windblown beach. Charles Balfour’s lighting gives it a Hopper-like beauty of sharp-lit silhouette and shadow, a remembered dream. I can’t get it out of my head.
box office / 020 7922 2922 to 23 May
rating four     4 Meece Rating

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LOVE’S SACRIFICE Swan, Stratford upon Avon

You get plenty of cautionary tales in John Ford’s little-remembered 1633 play. For one thing, if you get three women pregnant at once with promises of marriage and then variously insult their appearance, age and morals they will take a nasty vengeance.  In front of a Cardinal, in masks, and with an anachronistic but weirdly brilliant use of 21st century ultrasound technology under their bodices.
Nor is it wise for a young courtier to spurn the Duke’s widowed sister, be she never so shrewish a cougar, claim a vow of celibacy and then get close to her beautiful young sister-in-law. No good will come of this. Especially if the spurned widow teams up with D’Avolos, a smooth, mutteringly poisonous Jonathan McGuinness. Such death-dealing intrigues are the lifeblood of vigorous, bloodthirsty 17c drama. But this play is curiously more thoughtful, and less randomly bloody, than Ford’s incestuous, murderous “Tis Pity She’s A Whore” (lately revived at the Wanamaker, (review, ).
Indeed Love’s Sacrifice is traditionally written off as a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with its sub-plots which only confusingly mirror the main action: T.S.Eliot said it had “all the faults of which Ford was capable”. And yet, and yet…it turns out in Matthew Dunster’s admirable and physically spirited production to be far more interesting than that: ambiguous and questioning and psychologically intense.
The triple-seduction-pregnancy sideshow is briskly treated – Andy Apollo in his RSC debut season playing Ferentes like a caddish Elvis, smoothing his quiff and hauling the women around like giggling potato-sacks. Another random branch of the tale involves Matthew Kelly as a ridiculous old man with a huge white wig, yellow stockings (very Malvolio) and an endearing servant gorgeously evoked by Colin Ryan. He introduces an exiled Lord disguised as a Fool and previously rejected by the noble (yet illicitly pregnant) widow . And so on. Fear not, though: the trademark RSC clarity keeps things as credible as is decent.

In the first hour Dunster gives it the full romp-and-rampage treatment, as hypnotic religious chant shatters into high anguished impassioned fiddle shrieks and the court scamper and lark among cathedral arches and across a high wrought-iron balcony. But that contrast, sacred and profane emotions and problematical vows clashing into disaster, deepens fascinatingly as it develops. Success depends strongly on central performances, and here we are richly served. Jamie Thomas King is the decent, conflicted Fernando; Matthew Needham as the Duke carries it brilliantly from a larky, jokesome and rather endearing alpha-male laddishness to real anguish, confusion, remorse and violence. Catrin Stewart, lately so fine in The Jew of Malta, is a delicate perfection as the lovelorn wife who confesses her adoration to Fernando but vows not to go beyond a kiss for the sake of chaste wedlock.
In the second half there are some quite remarkable scenes between these three victims of “lawless love” and impossible temptation: moments as powerful as Othello, not least in a long, intense confrontation between the heartbroken confused Duke and his wife, in which Stewart delivers crazy, taunting, extraordinarily modern sentiments of defiance: thrilling. Anna Fleischle’s design, with curious iron pillars within which hellfire seems to flicker through cracks, and Alexander Balanescu’s extraordinary score, create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere and serve both the ferocity and the dark comedy of the tale perfectly.
So long-lost concepts of chastity and honour spring back to life, nearly four centuries on, and shake us. As much, indeed, as one particularly shocking moment near the end which wrenched a sharp, unison gasp across the house. It involves white funeral wreaths. Say no more.

4 Meece Rating
box office 0844 800 1110 to 24 june
rating : four

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During the first half, parents of teenagers will cringingly hope that Jonathan Lewis’ play is fanciful: a comically exaggerated libel on a generation. Especially a generation of boys. Horrible, most of them they are: rackety, full of shouty toxic “banter” , contempt and their own dicks. In particular AJ Lewis as Zachir the Albanian Muslim is a courageously unsympathetic portrayal, as is Jack Bass as Aldous, the irritating prankster who has papered the entire room with identical gurning pictures of Nicholas Cage because it’s a room they will be “caged” in for Isolation between close-packed A level papers (a resort caused by timetable clashes, to prevent cheating).

The other boys, despite obvious nervy vulnerability in a couple of them, play along with the tone. Ugh: these are not the lively, affectionate, vulnerable children we know at home! The four girls are more civilized, contemptuous of the boys’ nonsense; but one is hunched in a corner with a misery not related to A levels, others selfie- and self-addicted, and a late arrival Twink (Elsa Perryman Owens) downright terrifying in her smudged aggression.

However, it is not really fanciful at all: Lewis workshopped the play with his son’s generation, and the eleven young cast are fresh out of school, non-professional. And my daughter, a co-ed close to their generation, reckoned the portrayal of group behaviour was bang on: to the point that I actually apologized to her in the interval for sending her to school and putting her through any such system of exams at all.

For that is the point of Lewis’ trilogy – which this opens – entitled “EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION” . It is a howl of protest about the dehumanizing, grade-obsessed, teach-to-the-test world of exams. As the play continues, the kids themselves alternate between clear-sighted cynicism and desperate buying-in to the A-star, Oxbridge dream . Entertainingly, there are brief freezes when each speaks the groomed, disingenuous language of the UCAS personal-statement “…and thats why I have a passion to study xxxx”. It helps, too, that the exam they are in the middle of is Politics.

What emerges – notably through the more eventful second act – is that they are, effectively, abused by the system and their high-flying school. This eventfulness is driven by the other thing parents will hope to God is fanciful – the fact that the school has messed up its arrangements, and the eleven are left unsupervised in the defaced music-room with no teacher even to remove their phones to prevent cheating. Hence the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere. Though when the teacher does arrive – Joe Layton a study in angry haplessness – and certain secrets emerge, things do not get better or quieter. Though often they are pretty funny.
And, in the end, touching. For these 18 year olds are not monstrous, just bent out of shape by what Lewis calls “the maniacal devotion to testing and prescriptive teaching, in which exams are not just a diagnostic part of learning but the sine qua non of an education based on conformity and compliance”.

The next two plays will have a different, less riotous tone as the same issue is expanded; first through the eyes of parents, then of teachers. As Lewis says, he has not pat answer: “I am simply sharing my despair at a system which seems so often to turn children with wonderful imaginations and joyous self confidence into depressed teenagers with appallingly low self esteem and a terrible sense of failure and hopelessness.” This one is sometimes hard going – the first half could be trimmed – but with Lewis’ skilled writing and pacing resolves into something valuable, angry, and (God help us) darkly entertaining.
box office 020 7287 2875 to 9 May
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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The best way to describe this play is as a sideshow. There is a performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen somewhere, and playing out around it are these connected lives. Think 2004’s Crash mixed with Shakespeare in Love. A mix of portraits, but with a master text to play with.
The Almeida, the West End’s cupboard cousin, has been stripped bare by designer Lizzie Clachan. Bare brick, exposed lights and no flats for the actors, yet delicate licks of red paint, gold detailing and ornamental lighting for the audience. We’re led to our seats through backstage – perhaps labouring a little too heavily the point that we’re peeling beneath the opera – past a dead, bleeding, but still breathing Bull.

I have no idea what happens in Carmen – I don’t know a thing about opera. You say ‘thrilling performance at Covent Garden’, I think man with a unicycle and flaming batons outside Boots the chemist. But thankfully this tension seemed to be in play. Michael Longhurst’s production – spare but madly theatrical – satisfyingly excavates the pop culture from the opera. In the ENO season-ticket holders, you could almost hear the Sauvignon curdling. Yes opera is about sex and death. But surely not in such a raw state as this.

In a way I’ve never thought possible, the lack of any real story, quite nicely made way for these character sketches. A business man, a rent boy, a disturbed singer, a troubled teen, a lost mother at first seem like the standard roll-call. But Jack Farthing – a latter-day Carmen as a witty Essex rent boy – and John Light – Escamillio of the square mile with sharp suits and semi-automatic delivery – were enrapturing. Carmen’s high power ejaculation about which it “is only fair to warn people” and Escamillio’s frantic defines of following people had us hooked. Their stories, perhaps linking in meaningful ways for the black ties in the crowd, were for the rest of us just masterfully told single stories.

However, these moments could be hit and miss. Katie West – as Micaëla, for the informed – had an absent unrequited love to battle with, into which she threw herself but which failed to move. And I never fully bought into Sharon Small – as ‘The Singer’.

A haunting chorus, with snippets from the opera, were for me were the only links. And eventually lost souls stumbling on the ‘chocolate box opera house’ Carmen, the curious lifestyles of opera singers, personal technology and ‘Europe’ were the playwright’s inspirations. I’m not sure all these were hit, but his skill in producing entirely entertaining and mostly crisp lives was an entertaining watch. Even if the Bizet did go straight down the bidet.
Box Office: 020 7359 4404  to 23 May

raing:  four   4 Meece Rating
Rating: four

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An old woman, cadaverous under harsh light, wakes fretful, remembering a war and shuddering at the Cuba missile crisis : it is 1962. We know that it will resolve, but it strikingly reminds us how that threat felt to the generation which endured World War 2. As the old woman springs up and sheds twenty years (good lighting moment!) we share Eleanor Roosevelt’s memories of 1942.
What memories they are too: even my generation is too little aware of the lady’s gallantry, gaiety and liberal passion; how admirable for Alison Skilbeck’s tightly researched, elegant monologue as the “world’s first lady” to come back to a young King’s Head audience. Especially in this VE-day anniversary year (and just as another Presidential wife, Hillary Clinton, declares her shot for the top job).

Eleanor, of course, never went that far, though after the death of her cousin-husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 she remained a force, instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But her intelligence, nerve and above all sheer driving goodwill had played no small role in that war, and in the emergence of the American liberal spirit. Orphaned in childhood, raised without much love, she found a husband who for all his qualities (and despite being crippled with polio ) was not above marital betrayals, needing, as she ruefully observed, always a woman at hand to admire him. She was more a harness-mate, a prodder and goader and inspirer. For her own emotional fulfilment there were the warm women friends.
But in 1942, at no small risk she flew over and toured blitzed Britain, with the stated intention of encouraging the women’s war effort but in effect offering wider cheer and encouragement. Not least – as an early cheerleader for racial justice – to the African-American servicemen in Liverpool, about whom she cheekily informed a Southern senator the white girls “do not look at with terror” . Franklin was not pleased about that note, or her sneered reputation as the “Negroes’ Friend”; he needed the Southern vote, and the Ku Klux Klan quite explicitly threatened the rebellious Eleanor.

There are light moments, as the Queen (our Queen Mother) apologizes for the freezing cold of Buckingham Palace with the windows blown out, and for the economy tide=ring painted round the baths; as she sits next to Churchill and finds him rather hard going, or notices how exhausted the reporters seem to be by her fierce itinerary of night-shift workers and whistlestop city tours. She sees Rattigan’s Flare Path, experiences rather too many brussels sprouts, Moments of memory enlighten us about her life and beginnings; Lucy Skilbeck (spookily, no relation) directs a spirited 75-minute evocation both of the woman and the nation she travelled through. Sometimes Skilbeck moves to a suitably retro microphone to deliver some of the speeches of the time; sometimes quotes from Eleanor’s real letters home.

It is a bit Edinburgh-fringey, and absolutely deserves to be done with more expense and a little expansion: projections, photographs, bits of film maybe, audio from the time. But I wouldn’t change the performer, nor the spirit. And am intensely glad to have seen and admired both the show and the late Mrs R.
box office to 9 May

rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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GYPSY Savoy Theatre, SW1

Is there any odder opening line to a big musical number than “Have an egg-roll, Mr Goldstone”? Is there any dryer account of the emotional tangle of mothers and daughters, showbiz and ambition than this Laurents / Styne / Sondheim show? Will Jonathan Church’s Chichester never give over turning out productions so fabulous that they transfer and bring London to its feet? Is three standing ovations even enough? And is there any actress more heroically accomplished, more vividly alive, more formidable in song , speech and silence, more superhuman yet more likeable than Imelda Staunton?

Questions, questions. Jonathan Kent’s production thrilled Chichester last year. It is, if anything, even more kaleidoscopically irresistible set in the Savoy’s weary gilt-and -velvet. Posh enough, yet retaining a tang of the ‘30s vaudeville houses through which Mama Rose pushes her troupe across Depression America, hectoring towards stardom the favoured daughter June and dogsbody Louise. From the moment Staunton storms up the aisle brandishing a lapdog and shoving other children away from blocking Baby June’s squeal ’n splits routine, we are there. Anthony Ward’s sets, swift-moving and unfussy, take us to squalid digs, looming backstage barrenness and luscious limelight. Stephen Mear’s choreography wittily evokes all levels of aptitude: baby June’s robotic precision and eyes-n-teeth smile, Louise’s willing awkwardness, the boy dancers’ romping amateurism morphing into their accomplished, balletic or tapping adult selves. Character blooms in every step of the jaunty desperate family dance when Mama’s strategy has stranded them broke in Texas with the “Toreadorable” troupe; there’s the glorious cow, and at last the three strippers. Especially Louise Gold’s Amazonian centurion, grumpily demonstrating how to bump it with a trumpet.

The joy of Gypsy is that, set in the dying throes of vaudeville, it can twist in a moment from some gorgeously entertaining absurdity or repartee to a bleakness of poverty, delusion and betrayal. All the cast give the serious emotion full weight: there are silences as memorable as the big numbers. There’s Rose’s utter stillness as she reads the letter from the defecting June, then Louise and Herbie frozen in turn as she rallies and turns the beam of her lethal attention on the remaining daughter. Lara Pulver returns as a fine-drawn Louise, touchingly quiet and tomboyish until her wild final blossoming – elegantly spanning four costumes and risingly glamorous locations – as Gypsy Rose Lee. Peter Davison is Herbie, giving the lightly written part real dignity and heft.
For all the glee, and our mass inability to resist leaping to our feet at the end of the two biggest Mama Rose numbers, it is not a show you leave without sober reflection. My daughter, fresh from reading Jung, quoted him – “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically…on children than the unlived life of the parent” . Its rueful insights are perennial; Rose’s determination to keep control rather than marry is pure feminism (“After three husbands it takes an awful lotta butter to get you back in the frying pan”). And her ultimate she-Lear rage, Staunton unforgettably vulnerable as she stands alone against blackness and shakes her booty in furious flirtation and storming at fate mirrors with sharp awkwardness an even more modern phenomenon. Women still wince at middle-age and missed chances, envy daughters, claw towards their own limelight. Even – as tiny Staunton looks up at the statuesque Pulver and appropriates her sable stole – deludedly purr how handy it is that they can wear the same clothes. Ouch.
box office to 18 July

rating   five  (of course. Again. Including a triumphant Imeldamouse. 4 Meece RatingMeece with mask tiny compressed

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THE TWITS Royal Court SW1


As Mrs.Twit wisely points out – children are horrible. Too many “family shows” forget that. Instead of sweetness, children want darkness. They’ll allow a happy ending but they expect plenty of misery, menace and thrills in the run-up. Just like, would you believe it, adults. Roald Dahl built a career on this intelligent approach.

This mischievous, glorious production is more an extrapolation than an adaptation by Enda Walsh. The characters are there, their sadistic motivation intact, but in between the familiar beginning and contractually obliged happily-ever-after is sandwiched a totally unexpected, but warmly welcomed invented middle.

Years ago Mr and Mrs Twit tricked a group of fairground folk out of of their livelihood. A dog was shot, a boy’s hope’s ruined and a tattooed fortune teller duped. Bored with their caged monkeys and looking for wicked entertainment, the Twits entice them back with the promise of reconciliation and the return of their fairground. Instead they are kept fin limbo for months; teased with performing monkeys, they are practically abused by a filthy Barbara Woodhouse (Mrs Twit,) and a rustic Santa Claus with a whiff of Yewtree (Mr Twit).

Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins are near perfection as the giddily evil pair: camp, slightly perverted and beautifully drawn, a real masterclass of comedic acting which instead of splashing in the surface froth, delves right to the depths of meaty, funny parts.
The accompanying cast are all excellent. But Aimée-Ffion Edwards as the daughter monkey – who is the highlight of the monkey family’s mini plays – took what might have been functional, and made it hearty and funny.

John Tiffany has directed not just a brilliant show for children – I heard genuine laughs and panicked drama-tears from the junior crowd – but also a solid play for adults. Every laugh from the script is successfully carried to us, with heaps besides. Skits from the monkey family, Mr and Mrs.Twit penchant for fancy dress and songs are all brought together with the kind of music and lighting cues you expect from a mammoth musical. This is a shipshape show.
The set, beautifully designed by Chloe Lamford, is a large blinking hamster wheel, a round face out a which a long tongue of a stage folds out. It is wooden, scuffed and dirty, but covered in bright circus lights. And it wasn’t a lazy set. It moved, twirled, rose and opened; all the genius whizzes to hold any child’s imagination.
This was darker than the book I loved as a child, and all the more satisfying for it. Children laughed with the adults, leading each other at different points. If it wasn’t jokes about ridiculous accents (Leeds, Wales), it was the murder of Rudolph. A certain hit, with West End transfer written in spit, shit and glue all over it. Hurrah!
Until 31st May
Box Office: 020 7565 5000

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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OLIVIERS NIGHT……. royal opera house

The list of winners is now widespread, but for theatrecat tolerators and friends, some review notes on how it was to be in the actual ROH seeing it happen:

– definitely the best production by SOLT so far: snapoily timed, Lenny Henry friendly, low key, every performance interlude directly related to a proper show, not pop offshoots.

– how they fit five whole musical casts into the ROH dressing-rooms is a mystery. But they do.

– there is a real beauty in the way the Steadicam TV guys skilfulky prowl the stage, red lights like pilot-launches circling a ship by night

– only two of the awards felt wrong to this critic. Which may mean I am disgracefully mainstream in my tastes. Though a few un-nominated ones make me sad.

– it is very perilous to tweet , Shenton style, as it goes along. I described Angela Lansbury as ‘bear supporting actress” not Best Supporting. The image remains hard to banish. Esp with that teddybearish hairdo.

– the ovation for her was a joy to join in

– the noisiest claque were from BEAUTIFUL, in the circle

– closely followed by the joyful mob from Sunny Afternoon. Three Oliviers! Go Hampstead!

– the moral that subsidized theatre enriches the ecosystem and makes the West End a powerhouse was proved over and over and over again…Almeida, Donmar, Y Vic, Hampstead, NT…

– dame Judi revealed that Kevin Spacey i troduced her to caramel macchiato and omce arrived at her door with a ping pong table on his head. This made us all very hapoy

– Sylvie Guillem claims retirement from dance may tuen her i to ‘a fat bumblebee with skinny legs’. I doubt it.

– Ivo van Hove deserved both his awards and is the coolest Belgian since Poirot, and then some

– i love how many winners thank their producers for trusting them.

– thrilling that the subversive spit n sawdust new-variety origins of La Soiree have brought them to the “legit” status of an Olivier, just as some years ago Green & Martinez got one for c’est Barbican. This is healthy.

– and finally – that moment when Kevin Spacey told us he loves the Old Vic more than anything and then took off his jacket and SANG Bridge over Troubled Water with the largest choir I have ever seen…well…

(Chokes, sobs, can write no more)

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CROUCH TOUCH PAUSE ENGAGE Watford Palace & touring


“I’ve known since you were seventeen” says Gareth Thomas’ exasperated team-mate. “When you said you wanted me to be your best man, why do you think we spent a whole afternoon walking up and down Treorchy High Street eating chips and fucking curry sauce? I was giving you time to reconsider…”
Hand on heart, I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy this National Theatre Wales play (with Out of Joint ) about the coming-out of the tremendous Welsh rugby captain, international and 100-cap star athlete Gareth Thomas. Rugby terrifies me, I am lukewarm about verbatim theatre (which this mostly is), and read some pretty h-hum English reviews when its tour began in Wales. And, after one particularly gruelling Edinburgh Fringe, I issued a personal fatwa against plays about young men discovering their sexuality: enough, already!

But Robin Soans’ piece is different. Thomas’ self-doubt and deceit was particularly painful, alpha-male team sport being a toxically tough world for gay men (remember poor Justin Fashanu, who died, and Robbie Rogers who felt he should retire rather than play on as gay.) It is also different because private anguish and shame at twenty years of lies and fear is interwoven with his hometown’s travails. Bridgend, whose beating heart was in hard manual work, family, community and rugby, was badly knocked about by the decline of the mines (there’s a verbose explanation from that now-affluent Brussels fatcat, Neil Kinnock). It also suffered a strange, heartbreaking series of teenage suicides
So we have Thomas’ story and his parents’ and teammates’ remarks on being told: we get extraordinary facts like the way the Sun had chapter-and-verse proof of gay sauna visits and the rest in 2001, the day of an International, but for some mysterious reason – compassion? – never ran it even after Wales went down 44-15 to England and they could have crowed as homophobically as they liked. Six months later, still trying to “melt away his gayness”, Thomas disastrously married a childhood sweetheart; their scenes together are agonizing.
But alongside his tale run the problems of two ordinary teenage girls, Meryl whose angry jobless father brutalizes her mother and kills himself; and her friend, Darcey. Who suffers from schizophrenic delusions and whose near-suicide coincides with that of the rugby star.
Under deft direction from Max Stafford-Clark, each of the six players at times speaks Gareth Thomas’ words , then with clarity reverts to their own persona (or one of several, including a nervous reporter ). Rhys ap William is particularly fine as the player, and Lauren Roberts’ Darcey is irresistible: she plays it big, slobbish, lairy, manically grinning and heartbreakingly at sea in her terrifying mental world.
It was a quietish matinee I caught, but the intensity, deep goodwill and the stark honesty of the piece made it feel greater than the sum of its parts. The aftermath of coming-out is particularly striking in its refusal to embrace the feelgood sentimentality of films like PRIDE. Thomas admits that the shame of having lied for so long lingered on, that some on the terraces still shout hateful epithets, that the new “out” career involves nonsesne like panto in Wrexham, giving his name to scented candles and enduring a coming-out party run by London PRs with no proper food fit for rugby friends.
But it’s out, it’s open, and it never truly mattered. The honesty itself buoys him up, and the other characters find their equilibrium too, sing a verse of Bread of Heaven (with the proper “Jehovah” not the mimsy C of E “Redeemer” word). In a final scene they train with him and we cheer the curtain-call scrum. Loved it. Still too scared to watch the Six Nations, though.
Box Office: to 11 April
then touring England till 20 June (reaches Arcola London 20 May)\   Touring Mouse wide
Rating four 4 Meece Rating

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No sooner do we get over Kristin Scott Thomas going murderously nuts as the original Electra at the Old Vic, than along comes April de Angelis with a sly, hilarious, biting and ultimately moving modern take on that primally perilous mother-daughter bond. Her wit (lately deployed in FANNY HILL at Bristol) now returns to the fertile middle-class territory we relished in JUMPY. This Theatre Royal Plymouth production certainly ought to follow it into the West End.

It begins with a classic what-if social situation: frumpy middle-aged Haydn, a grief counsellor with little cheer about her, visits her artist mother Virgie in a beautifully realized ramshackle Essex railway-carriage cottage (Malcolm Rippeth’s design). She is promptly informed that the glamorously boho 84-year-old plans to cap the party by drowning herself. “Not looking forward to the decrepit bit” breezes Mum. This, after all, is a 60’s free spirit, lately spotted at 76 in a nude peace protest, married to her art. Other visitors arrive for the terminal salad lunch: Tom the weary old RSC actor : “playing a variety of beards now, you never remember the names” carps his thwarted novelist wife Sonia. Kate Fahy and Neil McCaul give excellent glare as the poisonous couple. Then there’s Virgie’s sister Shirley, an overconfidently brisk OFSTED peer (“I was a headmistress, I”m used to controlling situations I know very little about”). And there is the alcoholic son Orrin, thrown out by his wife.
So with snorts of laughter and gasps of shock, off we go: and it’s more than a treat, de Angelis pacing her laughs neatly as surprises (Sam West directs, and I bet he enjoyed it). Marty Cruikshank is swashbucklingly enviable as Virgie, Rachel Bell a sharply smooth sister, so credible as a life peer that I almost looked her up in Hansard.
Veronica Roberts as the troubled daughter gives just enough hint of the real seriousness of the family situation and back-story, which are revealed in the second half, on the far side of Virgie’s stroke and her cantankerous near-recovery. There’s a Colchester cab driver too, a lovely gangling cameo from Michael Begley (“I picked a bloke up at Braintree once, thought he was Buddha. He wasn’t”). And finally, briefly, an art student, who matters.

The play continues to provide violent laughs, often at the expense of Tom the actor, a constant joy; but moves into darker territory with the unfolding of the question it really wants to ask: not about suicide or even really about female ageing – though there are some treasurable remarks on that subject, not least Sonia’s panicky conviction that Zumba and “West African drumming” will keep her young. Rather, it resolves itself into the starker question of whether a mother who is also an artist has a right to place her gift and her message higher than her duty towards her children.

For Virgie is a kind of Clytemnestra, though the husband she discarded was not actually killed and Haydn’s revenge is wreaked on her canvases, not her body. But what remains of this immensely enjoyable play is even more powerfully a joyful reminder of how sharp, how funny, diverse and stroppy older women can be. And how rebellious. I could quote it all night, but be satisfied with Virgie’s solution to the budget deficit: care-home denizens, she says, ought to be sent to war:

“Free travel to exotic places, no heating bills, stepping on a landmine, quicker than cancer. 80 years, shot by insurgents at Kabul while winching her mate’s wheelchair out of quicksand. Saves the NHS loads, no wasted life, no bereft mothers, no wobbly kiddie-writing saying Daddy we miss you – our kids have grown up and hate our guts. It’s a solution”….
My late Mum would have loved that. A lot.

box office 0207 328 1000 to 2 May
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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THE ABSENCE OF WAR Oxford Playhouse & touring

David Hare’s 1994 play reimagining the 1992 election – elegantly staged by Headlong and director Jeremy Herrin – has toured since February, doughty as a battlebus , energized and angsty as the doomed Labour campaign. On election night it’s in Bath, a brave place to affirm in swooping rhetoric that the Labour party is “the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good”.

So I caught it on the wing, and a fine night out it is. It was inspired by the situation of Neil Kinnock, who dragged the party’s left into a “pact with respectability” to try and end the long run of Tory triumphs. Hare writes a hilariously huffy programme note about how the Labour front-bench hated it because the hero George was not a red-headed Welshman with a wife called Glenys. Silly of them, since George (marvellously played by Reece Dinsdale) is six times more personally beguiling than Kinnock ever was: thoughtful, jokey, never eating anything at diplomatic banquets so as to save room for his own recipe scrambled eggs with chilli peppers. He’s a rounded autodidact rooted in old wisdoms, a theatre-buff who explodes in fury at wasting a Hamlet ticket because the crafty Tory leader calls a snap election (“The bastard’s going down the Mall!”). He’s wonderful. Vote Dinsdale!
But, as in history, they don’t. Hare is exploring the perennial problem of an idealistic, leftist Labour party finding it difficult to persuade a suspicious electorate that it is fit to govern. Historically, the play marks the divide between that kind of Labour (to which we seem to be returning under Ed Miliband) and the New-Lab, Blairy, relaxed-about-the-filthy-rich variety which did win five years later. George has surrounded himself with a clique of unelected policy-engineers and spinners – Cyril Nri splendid as Oliver, James Harkness a wincey Scot who eats croissants worrying that it betrays his Paisley roots: and a brisk Charlotte Lucas as Lindsay, the PR adviser.
This clique may improve his chances – so they think, as they crunch through polls about whether he is “thoughtful..downbeat..solitary..boring…” etc and beg him to say “fairness” not “equality” , to bang on about the NHS a lot, and never to mention the economy because that “reminds people he’ll be in charge of their money” . Yet at the same time this image micromanagement is imprisoning him, killing his passion and personality. So are the “whingeing backbenchers” the doughty old post-war idealist Vera (Helen Ryan, very funny in her brief fierce asides) and a treacherous shadow chancellor silkily played by Gyuri Sarossy. George flunks a nasty TV interview, punches Oliver, and faces election day with sad, steely dignity. There’s even a big rally – like the one which torpedoed Kinnock – with music of which someone immortally says “I didn’t know Hitler composed..”

So plenty of modern echoes from the distant far side of the Blair-Brown era, and plenty to reflect on, whichever is your party. Hare also skewers exactly (whether he intended to or not) the contempt rife on the political left for actual voters, who simply don’t understand what’s good for them.
One little dishonesty I could have done without: the cameo Tory PM is portrayed as an arrogant, entitled pinstriped Oxbridgey toff. Students outside the theatre were chortling about that. So I had to tell them with aged maternal sternness that actually, the Tory leader who beat Kinnock was a man who grew up with impoverished variety-artiste parents in two rooms in Brixton, and left school with three O levels, did more on his own as a clerk, and worked his way up.: John Major. So there!

0186 530 5305 to 11th
then touring to 8th May – Cambridge, Kingston, Bath
rating; four 4 Meece Rating

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CYRANO DE BERGERAC Royal, Northampton

Ah, Cyrano! Fighter, scholar, poet, maverick: ever since Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, set in an imagined musketeer-y 17c, he has been an archetype of reckless generosity. Last of the courtly-love serenaders, patron of all unrequited lovers who nobly plead their rival’s cause. No wonder stars from Jacobi to Kevin Kline have been delighted to slap on the rubber conk and do him honour.

Loving Roxane, but cursed with that immense red nose, Cyrano writes divine love-letters for the “comely but dumb” Christian , thus convincing her that her lover has a great soul. Cyrano brokers the marriage, and struggles with his feelings when (somewhat unconvincingly) she declares that the letters are so great she would love Christian for his soul even if he was ugly. He comforts her long widowhood, only to reveal accidentally in his lengthy, delirious, sword-waving death scene that the great soul was him all the time.
The play has become a musical and several versions. but this is the most famous: Anthony Burgess’ translation is partly in verse like the French alexandrine original and, unfortunately for us, is faithful to its extreme Gallic ornamental verbosity. The first hour of the 105-minute first half , despite the side-plot about Ragueneau the provisions man and the envious grandee Ligniere, provides nothing exciting except the ensemble of Gascon cadets in white fencing-gear shouting a lot. The word ‘gruelling’ should not occur to one in a theatre: if director Lorne Campbell irreverently took the Burgess by the horns and did some brisk telescoping, it might not do so.
It is set – play-within-a-play – not as per original in a hotel, but for some reason in a gymnasium where the ensemble put bits of costume over their white fencing-kit to express each part. I can’t say that the gym added anything: if you’re not going naturalistic, black curtains would do as well in such an excessively verbal and often static play. Comedy and feeling both improve, though , as Nigel Barrett’s Cyrano takes Chris Jared’s Christian in hand and dictates every swooning line for him to speak under Roxane’s balcony, saying her name swings like a brazen bell, etc. Christian wins his kiss and betrothal while the big distorted man sits grieving nobly in the shadow. At which point I must say that Barrett is absolutely tremendous in this title role: declamatory and dry by turns, physically commanding, every inch the warrior. No complaints there.
But despite the point well made in the programme about Burgess’ empathy with flawed, gallant extreme mavericks, there is something curiously out of tune about the play: more so than Shakespeare or Sophocles. The courtly-love trope, the idea of convincing a woman of your ‘genius’ by larding on intemperate praise, feels almost insulting even when filtered through French 19c cynical asides. Roxane’s eager demand that Christian’s stumbled “I love you” should be “embroidered with golden tapestries” is downright irritating.
Cyrano’s generosity – as evoked by Barrett – is moving, and the concept of the “panache” betokening his pure soul is well carried. We believe his “I am a tree, not high, not beautiful, but free”. Roxane is chirpily strong-willed and turns up on the very battlefield to join her lover; Cath Whitefield plays her very beguilingly in black tights, and achieves genuine dignity in the final fifteen-years-on scenes in the convent with sick impoverished old Cyrano. But a question kept rising in my head: “Do we need this play, in this style, here and now?” Not convinced.

box office BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 to 25 April
A joint production with Northern Stage; runs in Newcastle from 29 April

rating three 3 Meece Rating

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DEAD SHEEP Park Theatre N4


Klaxon alert! Outrage merchants , boots on, scramble! In an election season here are theatre types in North London doing a play about Tories! Written by a BBC reporter! With PM Thatcher played in drag by chap from Spitting Image!

No, panic over, at ease, chaps. Jonathan Maitland is not spitting left-wing venom or, indeed, bashing the late Margaret more than is mild and reasonable. His lively, closely researched account of Sir Geoffrey Howe’s long-suffering loyalty and final explosive demolition of her 25 years ago is in the tradition of James Graham’s determined, fascinated humanisation of politicians in the NT’s This House and the TV play Coalition. And while director Ian Talbot makes the most of playful brief impersonations of some of the more richly impersonateable characters of the 80s – notably Alan Clark – Howe himself emerges well. Here is a principled if unspectacular hero who gave up loyalty only after a struggle, and Ian Gow as a decent man struggling to hold together the pair’s fragile relationship after Howe’s cruel demotion.
As for the casting of Steve Nallon as Thatcher, it is unexpectedly effective: not least because with the sculpted perm, ultra-careful outfits and gimlet eye there always was something faintly drag-queeny about the Iron Lady. It creates a useful sharp contrast with the other woman in the story: Elspeth Howe, wife of Sir Geoffrey and chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council . Jill Baker, with casual hairdo and cheerful flat-shoed bluestocking liberalism makes a wonderful contrast to the menacing burnished-blonde clip-clop of her husband’s Nemesis . The PM patronizes her , calls her “dear” and evinces clear contempt for feminism (we are overshadowed by that vast Cabinet picture of her all-male retinue). At one point she purrs “I didn’t win two elections and a war by being nice to people”, to which Elspeth retorts ‘Imagine what you might have achieved if you had been…”
Maitland flashes backwards and forwards from the pinch-point in 1989 to earlier days – when Chancellor Howe rescued the new leader from a potential party revolt, and to the triumphant conference of 1983 when she demanded the opposition be “routed!”. As the years go by the sidelining and undermining of Howe is apparent: James Wilby gives our hero the hesitant credible decency of a clever thoughtful man steamrollered by a ruthless politician. Never pathetic or bumbling, he gives precise sad weight to lines like “ “I am not Heseltine, I can’t prowl the wilderness like a hungry lion” . Domcstic scenes with Elspeth are genuinely touching, Howe sweetly sporting a picture sweater of his beloved Chevening.

Around them four other actors nimbly, entertainingly narrate and take diverse roles: Graham Seed is a strong Gow, John Wark a mischievously lisping Brian Walden, and Tim Wallers a blustering Bernard Ingham and a gloriously camp, offensive Alan Clark, bringing whoops of delight from those with 25-year political memories. The PMQ moment and the denouement, the big cricket-metaphor speech, create a proper House of Commons atmosphere.
Plenty of nice touches: Howe visibly reddening as he heads for the backbenches after twenty-five years in office, grandees scoffing at John Major – “He doesn’t even go abroad for his holidays” , and a nice swipe when the PM is asked about arts subsidy and replies that they should support themselves “Trouble is, art is not about profit as much as about a statement. Usually a socialist statement”.
One point, more in sorrow than in anger: Lady Thatcher was ever a fastidious dresser, and someone in Wardrobe has really got to run an iron over that terrible houndstooth suit on Nallon. Or bin it for something smooth and blue. The hair is great, so is the walk and the glare and the voice. But he doesn’t half need an Ironing Lady.

Oh yes, one note.  Sir Stephen Wall, from Howe’s original staff  – played by John Wark – saw it on press night and said “Terrific. … a brilliant job at being true to the character of the main protagonists …characterisation of MT was spot on: gimlet-eyed and terrifying but also with a kind and vulnerable side” .
box office 0207 870 6876 to 9 May
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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DEATH OF A SALESMAN Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


The greatest plays keep their truth but strike you differently every time. I saw Arthur Miller’s masterpiece at twenty, then ten years ago was electrified by Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman in London. Now comes a different emotional hit in Gregory Doran’s RSC production, with Antony Sher as the failing, suicidal hero.
Different, not because any one production is more faithful, but merely because of one’s own attrition, life and loss as decades tick by. “Everyone cries at the end” said a confident voice in the tea-bar beforehand. But for some of us the most wrenching, releasing moments are earlier, and we are finally just glad Willy is out of the terrible race. Ah, the beauty of theatre: quiet private revelations in a public space.
Still, when he says “I still feel kinda temporary about myself”, who – at any age – does not shiver a brief “yes..”? Thoreau’s spoke of “’lives of quiet desperation…men who go to the grave with the song still in them.” The strength of Sher’s performance is that for all his grouchy hopelessness and enslavement to the big-man myth, when he plants his carrot-seeds, exults in his DIY or sees the moon between the looming towers we hear the faint flutelike song within him.

Set in 1949 Brooklyn, it is famously a condemnation of the business ethic of the time, the dream of a big desk in a big office for a big man. Yet it buzzes with topicality: we too are a culture where everyone must sell to live, “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”. Loman ‘off-salary’ is effectively on a zero-hours contract. His troubled son Biff took a wrong turn when he flunked one exam, didn’t get to university and has never settled to a job. Everyone’s mortgaged, and children fail to launch: “Ya finally own it and there’s no-one to live in it”. Topical all the way.
But Miller sweeps wider, more grandly through the human endgame. Willy protests “I am well liked..” but alone with his wife Linda admits “People don’t seem to take to me..I’m fat and very foolish to look at”. Tubby and square, grainy and growling, Sher takes the early scenes slow and querulous, almost singsong, rising to intemperate Lear-like wrath and bouncing back to optimistic fatherhood during the flashbacks to earlier times with his boys – especially Biff the sports hero (Alex Hassell, changing age brilliantly). Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set is ingenious: lighting turns the towering new blocks transparent in memory or brings the pitiless rackety New York streets and offices forward. The ghostly figure of Uncle Ben (Guy Paul) wanders white-suited under an eerie light talking of Loman’s missed chances.

At the heart of it Harriet Walter is Linda, loving a small man who “can be just as exhausted as a great one” and to whom, in that immense central speech, she affirms “attention must be paid”. There are layers of effort and fear and love in every folding of her arms, every, heroic, desperate encouragement of Biff’s hopeless business plans. Anything to cheer Willy enough to live. His business unravelling is painful to watch: Tobias Beer gives us the restless young boss sacking him while playing with his new wire-recorder(more topicality – today it’d be an iWatch). Joshua Richards is heavily, solidly decent as the only friend, from whom Loman can hardly help.

The tragedy is greater than Greek, simply because he is no king, never was. “A man has got to add up to something” he cries. But with a roar of engines and sad thread of flutes (another wonderful Paul Englishby score) he is gone.

box office 0844 800 1110 to 2 May
Sponsored by Interbrand

rating  five    5 Meece Rating

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