Monthly Archives: April 2015

EVERYMAN Olivier, SE1

THIS VERY NIGHT SHALL THY SOUL BE REQUIRED OF THEE…

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

SHIP OF FOOLS GOES AGAINST THE FLOW…

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 cft.org.uk to 16 May

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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AMERICAN BUFFALO Wyndhams, WC2

MEN UP A DEAD END…
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   http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk to 27 June

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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BOMBER’S MOON Trafalgar Studio 2, SE1

FROM BOMBER CREW TO ZIMMER DAYS: A TRIBUTE FAIRLY PAID

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 http://www.atgtickets.com From £ 15

RATING:  FOUR  4 Meece Rating

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WHAT THE BUTLER SAW Emporium, Brighton

GUEST REVIEWER CHRIS PALING SEES AN ORTON OEUVRE IN ITS TRUE HOME..

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 tickets@emporiumbrighton.com to 9 May
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE Lyttelton, SE1

THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION AND ITS END
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

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE. WITH TONGS. 

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 | http://www.arcolatheatre.com
to 16 May
rating : four

4 Meece Rating

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