Monthly Archives: May 2015

PETER PAN Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park W1


We’re in a World War I field hospital with iron beds and the corrugated-iron, battered detritus of trench warfare below. But young men will always leap and lark like the boys they were not long before. The opening moments , as a graceful Mrs Darling sings a lullaby blended with “Keep the Home Fires burning’ , see a blurring of the distinction between the nursery world Wendy, Peter and John and a ward of bandaged, shocked young men in khaki having a story read by a nurse to calm them.

Timothy Sheader’s imagining, part romp and part elegy for a lost generation, is not a conventional Peter Pan. Fair enough: the Llewellyn boys whose childhood inspired J.M. Barrie all saw action in the 1914/18 war: Edwardian children who played battles met real ones, and the eldest Llewellyn died near Ypres. Barrie’s novel – which came seven years after the sweet fantastical play – is full of darkness and loss. The theme of boys needing a mother’s comfort winds throughout: it gives an added edge to Barrie’s Lost Boys’ dredging up dim memories of lost family life as they play house with Wendy. Michael’s “Mother, I’m glad of you” is followed, as in the book, by the words “They were the last words she was to hear from him for a long time”. That, with the WW1 theme, pulls you up short.
So I did worry for a while that Sheader had pitched the production awkwardly, the historical frame too dark and puzzling for children and the larkiness too childish for adults. But its charm, energy and sincerity win the day. A bright child from eight up, especially if they vaguely know the story and are told about the war centenary, will be fine with it; as to adults, my daughter aged thirty grew up with boys, as I did, and identified straight away with the makeshift games. In Jon BAusor’s design the beds become walls and doors and an island, the khaki soldier ensemble are waves in the lagoon or puppeteers manipulating sinisiter gas-mask mermaids with a horrid suggestion of skeleton, and a nurse darts around with an Aldis-lamp-and-junk Tinkerbell. There is also, naturally, stepladder-and-corrugated iron crocodile, and an even better version of its jaws (no set-spoilers from me) to swallow Hook. Who is David Birrell, half Kaiser-Bill officer, half schoolyard bully.

And there’s flying. Oh yes. Peter Pan, at the centre of it all, is more than wonderful. He is Hiran Abeysekera, raggedly macho, gang-leader and rebellious child at once. He flies under the great gantries on lines whose visibility, oddly, makes his flight all the more miraculous – acrobatic, graceful, wild, joyful. The Darling children fly a little too: Kae Alexander’s thoughtful, gentle Wendy and her brothers comically clumsy as they hurtle off the beds. The players, all adult, create their childishness without strain or cuteness: Thomas Pickles’ Slightly is particularly funny and touching. The pirates have marvellously ramshackle dressing-up box outfits, from Viking and Knight to Saracen and D’Artagnan looks ,put together by Jon Morrell with gleeful loopiness. Beverly Rudd’s bespectacled Smee is particularly taking.

And as the game ends, deeper dusk falls under the trees, and the nurses are back in the field hospital folding the blankets towelcome peacetime, we know that Hook is gone, with his love of “the obliteration of youth – something grand in that!” . And though not all the boys come home, Barrie’s odd, plaintive tale ends as ever with the injunction that “The window must always be kept open” in case lost boys return. Gulp.
box office 0844 826 4242 to 15 June
rating four    4 Meece Rating


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TEMPLE Donmar, WC1


Above the table cluttered with  last-night’s paper cups, high windows show St Paul’s dome; the distant chanting is not of choristers but demonstrators, and the black-clad Dean looking out in weary despair is invaded by a dishevelled supply PA with her backpack hanging open – late because of a rail replacement bus. Thus within the first minute Howard Davies’ superb production establishes a clash: orderly ecclesiastical tradition meets the angry muddle of modernity.
Steve Waters’ play recreates an insoluble dilemma, imagining the final deliberations in 2011 when St Paul’s reopened after a fortnight’s closure. Would the Dean and Chapter co-operate with the City Corporation in injuncting against – and forcibly evicting – the Occupy protest camp? Ironically, that inchoate anti-capitalist demonstration was never meant to be there: it was the police who kettled it into Cathedral territory, thus providing Occupy with hot TV pictures and the Cathedral with a massive financial loss, a painful question of conscience, and countless sanctimonious remarks about moneylenders-in-the-temple. To make it harder the Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser, showily resigned at the idea of the Church seeming to condone violence.
The Dean, already under fire for closing a building which stayed open all through the Blitz, had to rule. For ninety theatrically gripping minutes we watch this lonely man beset from without and within, and played by the greatest actor of the day. For Simon Russell Beale gives him intensity, pain, fragility, fire and twinkles of unexpected wit : it’s a flawless, thrilling performance. Waters’ writing weaves absurdity, sincerity, personality and history into a piece sorrowfully perceptive , thought-provoking and necessary. And dares include some very, very good laughs.

For one after another, forces besiege the Dean as he tries to write his reopening sermon. The resigning Canon Chancellor, Paul Higgins all jeans and anorak and enfant-terrible vanity, prates of how “invigorating” and ‘joyous’ the protest camp is. The Dean’s confused horror at his colleague’s self-aggrandizing Twitter habit all through the agonizing day is cruelly demonstrated, their final reconciliation oddly touching. From the other direction comes a snakelike Corporation lawyer (Shereen Martin) urging brisk injuctions against the “scruffy, illiterate, unsightly” plebs.
Nor is our hero helped one whit by the Bishop of London, wickedly given orotund patriarchal life by Malcolm Sinclair. He refers to the occupation as “a gift” and urges some sort of washy PR campaign to please the vaguely distressed unseen figure of “Rowan”. But as the Dean observes with brief waspishness (Russell Beale managing always to convey the conflict of a man who wishes he wasn’t so provoked to sharpness) the Bishop of London is on easy street. “Without portfolio. No dragging a building around for him. No, he springs up here, there, a royal wedding, glamorous speaking assignment, at liberty to be endlessly visible”. Sinclair’s attempt at a reassuring man-hug of the stolid, appalled Dean is a comic moment to treasure. Though not, I suspect, if you are the Rt Revd. Richard Chartres.

Rebecca Humphries is beguilingly natural as Lizzie the PA (never sat her history degree, but did a thesis on “Witchcraft through the lens of Queer Theory”). She is pivotal both in argument and emotion, reappearing at every juncture. And so it goes: faeces and racket and earnest idealism and disorderliness outside, inside the Virger (a stiffly splendid Anna Calder-Marshall) talking of lacquering candelabras. And all the time, that impossibility of a right decision. For as the Dean says, St Paul’s has been there 1400 years and never asked to be the parish-church to Mammon’s towers. But since it is, it must keep the worship going and the roof on, try to be holy, somehow. The ending is graceful and profound: sad, human, gentle, honest.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 25 July
Rating: five    5 Meece Rating
Sponsors: Barclays / C & S Sherling

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Towering staircases and sliding panels transform the big stage from tavern to genteel house, with a pleasingly inexplicable intermittent folk-band lurking on the top landing. Here for two and a half frenzied hours Simon Godwin zingily interprets George Farquar’s Restoration comedy with a cast of 21, not one part a dud. It is farce bordering on panto, edged with songs, enlivened with scuffles, glorified with random absurdities and containing a hard nugget of feminist polemic. You get scheming London beaux chasing rich wives ,confused by equally artful Midlands villains, a churlish drunk, a daft and deadpan comedy butler (O, Pearce Quigley, what a joy you are!). There are spirited womenfolk, a bossy matriarchal herbalist, highwaymen robbers, a magnificent rumpus of a fight conducted partly in stunning 18c ladies’ underwear, a lost earldom, an amorous French officer bursting into Piaffesque song, a French priest exposed as an Irish spy,  lies and redemptions and a Deus-ex-machina in a periwig . And – here’s the polemic – the conclusion, so daring in 1707, that sometimes divorce is the only thing for it.
For it is not quite your routine Restoration romp ,in which a Lady Teazle must return repentant to her husband. Susannah Fielding is Mrs Sullen, fourteen months married to a man who ignores and despises her, and values only her fortune. He comes to bed drunk, all cold feet and snoring, but she longs for his love and schemes uselessly to make him jealous by flirting with the Frenchman. With difficulty she resists the more congenial advances of the rascally beau Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild, holding a delicate balance between opportunism and growing decency). Her cry to the audience after the interval gets applause; “In England – A country whose women are its glory – must women be enslaved?”. Fielding perfectly evokes an intelligent woman in an age without rights, her misery curdling occasionally into cynicism “London is the place for managing a husband…wheedle your booby up to Town!”. At her side, the single Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is equally spirited but not yet trapped, though Samuel Barnett’s pretty, fake Lord Aimwell is moving in on her.
The delight of Godwin’s production is that it gives proper weight to the nastiness of a bad marriage while letting rip with splendid nonsense . It revels in faints and fake fits, cries of “Unlace your stays! Unbosom yourself!”, Ealing-comedy burglars, cross-wooings, double-entendres, some rich Brummie accents and wiggling wench-work, and sudden interpolations like Barbara Kirby as a dotty old countrywoman seeking herbal advice from batty Lady Bountiful – Jane Booker in unforgettable lateral-sprouting hair. But even at its most Benny-Hill moments the core problem remains: as Mrs Sullen sadly says to her spouse “Have we not been a perpetual offence to each other?”. Thus Dorinda’s happy marital conclusion must be matched by an equally happy divorce for her friend. So when they all dance farewell (including the tied-up highwaymen, jerking and squabbling) there is a real sense of release both comic and moral. And it’s a Travelex: all yours for fifteen quid if you’re quick.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 to September Sponsor: Travelex broadcast live to 550 UK cinemas on 3 Sept

rating;  four   4 Meece Rating

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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


What an odd, stark, angry, intelligent Merchant this is! Wholly unlike the last RSC production, Rupert Goold’s spectacular Merchant-of-Vegas gameshow. Polly Findlay sets it modern dress, on a bare stage whose floor and backdrop are gold bars, mirroring the auditorium and making us visible witnesses to the case of Antonio, the shipowning speculator, and his deal with Shylock the Jew. A gilded pendulum swings constantly at stage level; the three caskets descend too, 65 feet from the grid on wires , bald as geometry diagrams – cube, cone, cylinder .
Jessica’s window is right up there too, high over the blank gold. Lancelot Gobbo, face-painted and inevitably annoying (not Tim Samuels’ fault, it’s the least engaging Shakespeare’s clown), makes his entry sitting among us and shouting up. The Prince of Aragon shakes hands with the front row with bonhomous posh confidence before getting the caskets wrong. Young Christian Venetians swagger like Bullingdon-boys , mock old Shylock, steal his daughter and his money , cringe when he turns on them and cheer when Portia’s chop-logic strips him of all dignity.
It is a production full of jarring unease, its text mined with sharp intelligence by Findlay (fresh themes sprang up from lines I had never noticed before). Antonio (Jamie Ballard) sets the tone, staring alone from the stage as we settle, confiding his neurotic, edgy depression to a fully lit house, a man in trouble. The coxcomb Salerio comes on with a cowlick quiff like a raven- haired Tintin to josh with him: street-boy Gratiano romps with “skipping spirits”. But it is Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s handsome Bassanio with whom, Findlay makes snoggingly clear, Antonio is in love. Ballard handles brilliantly the Merchant’s borderline-hysterical agreement to the loan which will take his lover away to chase Portia, pledging “my purse, my person, my extremest means”. Yet having warmed us to him in his loneliness and need for his preening bisexual pal, Ballard jerks us back to discomfort by spitting in the old Jew’s face even as he borrows his money.

Shylock, inspired casting, is Makram J.Khoury: Palestinian, patriarchal, heavily accented, standing out from the brash youngsters in Semitic appearance and venerable age. He makes them seem small, petulant, vicious: but we know what he is going to want with his knife and this jars against our sympathy. His “Hath not a Jew eyes?”, addressed to the jeering lads, is electrifying, a real plea; it is mirrored in the court scene by Portia’s directing ‘The quality of mercy” right at him. It is as if the play, the very audience, pleads with each to be human, and fails.

Findlay finds in her Portia, too, a troubling ambiguity. Patsy Ferran (last seen as Aharrrr-Jim-lad in Findlay’s NT Treasure Island) at first seems permanently set to “sprightly”, but with her transformation into lawyer finds a sharp authority and something oddly nasty in her shrill taunts. It gives a raw, undeniable depth of disillusion to that final rom-com conclusion which always sits so oddly. After the tense trial , Antonio’s dissolution into unforgettable moaning terror and Shylock’s“I am not well” , the sourness endures. Portia is the boss , and like us has little faith that Bassanio won’t stray. Even more strikingly, hearing that Lorenzo inherits Shylock’s remaining fortune makes his stolen bride Jessica flee the stage in distress. Convert she may be, but her father’s humiliation shadows any happiness.
Gobbo (reduced now to candle-monitor) dresses the stage with dozens of flames reflecting in the gold; dissonant religious chants sound above. We are not convinced that all is resolved, nor should it be. Findlay’s achievement is in making that unease clear, sharp and decent: where nobody comes out well, nobody deserves to be happy,
box office 0844 800 1110 to 2 Sept
Live in cinemas on 22 July   Rating :  four  4 Meece Rating

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In quiet England we stand in silence. In Australia, at least in this play, they shout it from the rooftops and down it from the bottle. ANZAC day – a day to remember Galipoli. A tragic loss. I had genuinely never heard an intelligent discussion on the purpose of remembrance until tonight.

Pride beams from father Alf – a slurry, sweaty, hilarious but not in the least bit cartoonish Aussie alpha male – but talk of ‘waste’ drips from his freshly educated son, Hughie. Deep-rooted pride and freshly-potted disgust – war years and university years – are pitted against each other with the arrival of a girlfriend. She has yachtING friends, pearls and, like all well-bred folk, a flagrant disregard for manners or feelings. ‘Ideas’ have been brought to the kitchen table for the first time. They saved all this money to send him to university and this is their superficial prize.

Mother and father (Alf and Dot), played with steamingly raw and touchingly real emotion by Mark Little and Fiona Press, see all the ambition and hope they transplanted into their son dashed. A family of ‘no hopers’ ,and their one sprout of hope has turned against them. Alan Seymour’s play struggles to get a grip of this argument at first. The dialogue slides past without you noticing as no one really says anything other than platitudes about class, family and ANZAC day. The set’s simplicity and the twinkly inter-scene piano music gives it the whiff of something to doze to.

But as the arguments start it takes hold, as pride and ambition’s tangible effect is rolled out. Hughie, played simply but very well by James William Wright, ties all this nicely together as the arbiter of argument and reconciliation. You see his frustration, but behind it his thanks as well. Some flatter lines persist, but feel fuller in this talented cast’s mouths. The director, Wayne Harrison, keeps it moving though, perfectly driving the shoebox space, trapping us as tensions rise. It is easy at first to mistake the play’s simplicity as spare padding from a slow week of Neighbours. It feels very kitchen-sink, but it has far more to say. A war-career that will never be topped is clung to, a lack of purpose realized, family support rediscovered , a history is properly appreciated. A beautiful and delicate knit.
Until 13th June. Box Office: 020 7244 7439
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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McQUEEN St James’ Theatre, SW1

“What is it about men with watching eyes…?” asks the ghost of Isabella Blow, she of the troubled soul and hilariously witty hats. One such man was the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who like his friend and patron finally killed himself. At one point in this fantastical, flawed, but sincere and spectacular play by James Phillips he demonstrates those watching eyes. He invites a crass journalist interviewing him (usual stuff – misogyny, violent perverse imagery, commercial priorities) to describe a nearby woman. She snaps “Thirtyish. Blonde hair. Five foot seven” but he goes off on a page-long riff, lovingly reading character, vulnerability, needs and dreams into the tilt of her head and the angle of her shoulder and leg. And suddenly you are moved to respect the eye of an artist who sees and imagines and wants to give that woman a transformation and a strength. The real McQueen’s sister – who has approved this evocation of the artist – says that he wanted people to be “frightened” of the women he dressed: he had, in childhood, seen her beaten up by an abusive man. Beauty to him was not fragility but power.

The play is not a biography but an imagining, based on the designer’s idea of a woman coming down from a tree in the garden and being empowered by a dress. It uses dramatic projections and marvellous balletic interludes of head-bandaged dancers who are sometimes alive,sometimes mannequins, creating very McQueeny tableaux of pompadours, shiny tutus, wrestling, skeletons, men in weird corsets etc (David Farley designs; Christopher Marney choreographs, and all the music is from the designer’s real shows). In ninety minutes Phillips whirls us through one night in London as McQueen remembers his tailoring apprenticeship, the moment when crazy, visually brilliant Isabella Blow bought up his entire graduation collection, and the experience of coming out front-stage to wave, spent and nervous at the end of his own spectacular shows , “A bloke in the worst clothes in the room, trying to stop his hand from shaking”.
At the heart of it is a very fine performance by Stephen Wight as “Lee” – McQueen’s real name : shaven-headed and booted, a tired, creatively blocked, drunk and druggy at a low point. The girl Dahlia (Dianna Agron from Glee) is less successful, which is not entirely her fault. Phillips has created her as American, gabby, self-absorbed, suicidal and, truth to tell, very annoying. Especially in the long opening scene: it takes great skill to write scenes where a kooky girl invades and challenges a troubled gay man: Breakfast at Tiffany’s it ain’t. There’s one funny line when she mocks him for responding to an intruder by ringing Philip Treacy (“a milliner?” – “He makes very aggressive hats” protests McQueen). But as Dahlia drones on about her loneliness and depression and how she “doesn’t get” Shakespeare and feels like Lee’s twin soul, you itch to slap her.

Things improve the less we see of this mouthy muse – a good scene with his old tailoring boss, and a moving, credible encounter with poor Isabella Blow. But Dahlia becomes central again when we learn that she is, in fact, suicidal and that it is his art (and a fabulous winged gold coat) which may save her, because “There is beauty..Survive the night!”.
The interlude with her, after Blow and being aware of McQueen’s final end, borders on the perilous territory of suicide-glamorizing. It only just dodges it, thanks to the solidity and sincerity of WIght’s performance. Not least in his encomium to his mother: “Brave like a lion. Faces life every day and doesn’t back down She is real. We should learn to live from people, yes?” Yes.

box office 0844 264 2140 to 6 June
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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FANNY AND STELLA Above the Stag, Vauxhall SW8

“The Unnatural History and Petticoat Mystery of Boulton and Park” cries the Victorian poster. “Men in Women’s Clothes – with Decision of the Magistrate”. In 1871, 143 years before Grayson Perry rolled up at the Palace to get a CBE dressed as “mother of the bride” they were a sensation: two lads of 22 and 24 arraigned for their habit of extending their rather ropey theatrical careers into cross-dressing in public places “with intent to commit a felony”.

To be honest, there s little doubt that the ‘felony’ was a part of their lives (cue a rousing opening chorus of “Sodomy On The Strand!” but intriguingly, a quarter-century before the Oscar Wilde conviction, they got off, after a year’s bail and six-day trial. And so did their more malely clad companions and lovers. Frederick, or “Fanny” Park’s father was a longsuffering judge (whose other son did hard labour for feeling up an unwilling policeman). And a combination of legal chicanery, skimmed-over medical evidence and dismissal of love letters as “boyish” meant that the jury spent less than an hour out.

Somehow, the pair slipped through the loophole between official Victorian propriety and the equally Victorian weakness for larky young men and music-hall romps. They were, after all, arrested in the Strand Theatre and appeared next morning in Bow Street Magistrate’s Court still in evening gowns. Irresistible. And a gift of a subject. Glenn Chandler (creator of Taggart on TV) attacks it with relish, writing the play-with-songs as if the pair are telling their story at a working men’s club, brilliantly hosted by Phil Sealey in a superbly curled moustache and sideburns. He is repeatedly forced into doing walk-ons as judge, aged solicitor, Scottish landlady etc. Mark Gee Finch, lanky and beaky, is Fanny / Edward; bouncily pretty Robert Jeffery is Ernie/ Stella. Both are competent singers and dancers as they break into a shuffle or belt out cod musichall numbers like “Has anybody seen my Fanny?”; and both are a delight to look at whether as elegant males or pie-frilled, bustled, oddly dignified laydeez. Alongside them James Robert Moore plays their dissolute protector, Lord Arthur MP and bankrupt; Christopher Bonwell is Louie, who loves Ernie but wishes he’d dress male and not embarrass him; and Alexander Allin the American consul, also in pursuit.

Jeffery and Bonwell are given most opportunity to express the genuine emotional difficulties of the situation before arrest: Stella particularly, pressed to get back in the closet and dress as a man, explodes “I want to be what I want to be!”. But you don’t go to this show in search of Cage-aux Folles sorrow and ambiguity, or the deep seriousness of The Act. Nor, really, even very much indignation. It’s done for larks, and the Above the Stag audience (next show, RENT BOY THE MUSICAL) whooped with glee at the discreet but explicit medical examination in the prison scene. The attempt of the MC to treat evidence as “of a medical nature and unfit to print” is undermined by a reporter howling out its precise nature.
The second act is best, after the arrest; the lads’ relationships being not that interesting earlier on, and the knife-edge peril of their daily excursions not clear until the actual arrest (Sealey springs into action as a detective). The two best songs by Chandler and composer Charles Miller come late too: a lovely alphabet riff on the Writ of Certiorari which saves them, and a rip-roaring praise of the mother’s evidence that her lad (Stella) is theatrical not – um – felonious. And it’s good to see Above the Stag relocated with a swish and a swagger to these arches in Vauxhall, and for this show decked out beautifully by David Shields’ design: it becomes an ornate music-hall in which characters enter and exit through huge wardrobes. Closets, geddit?
Box Office: to 14 June
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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We are short of good political playwrights: they tend to hail from the left and be either depressingly prosey or brainlessly ‘bouffon’ (ISLANDS at this very theatre is a memory to purge). But now we have James Graham. A self-described political ‘geek’, he does not start from partisan anger , though there is in his work great humanity and seriousness. Rather his shtick is fascination with ideas: how they grip people, and get them enmeshed in the complex political and pratical world and go awry. THIS HOUSE was set in the painful hung parliament of 1974; TORY BOYZ centred on a gay, working-class northern Conservative researcher; THE VOTE celebrated the oddity of the polling-station. This time he looks at 1971-2, and Scotland Yard’s hunt for the “Angry Brigade” anarchists. Marvellously retro (he’s talkin’ bout my generation – Mateus Rosé and grungy people in squats grinding on about how women having to do ironing is “The most violent act imaginable” . But in the modern age of Occupy and the Russell-Brand tendency, not to mention jihadis, it is also thrillingly topical.

Graham has researched and reimagined both the police operation and the lives, writings and ideas of the young bomb-makers who targeted banks, police, a minister’s home, the Post Office Tower and the 1970 Miss World pageant. The result, directed with vigour and toughness by James Grieve, is a marvellous play: as rich in ideas as a pudding in plums, compassionate and serious and dryly funny and fascinating. Produced by Paines Plough and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, it has toured and is reworked and cast for the Bush. Two acts use the same four players: first we meet a Scotland Yard unit led by an abruptly promoted DS Smith (Mark Arends) because the bosses feel that only young people can get into the mindset of the terrorists, who fit no familiar criminal template.

He is joined by Morris, snarky and bored (Harry Melling, always good value) and two WPCs who find difficulty not saluting (Pearl Chanda and Lizzy Watts). They read the rebels’ favourite tracts, listen to their music, at one point go into a surreal orgiastic dance of excitement as deduction gets close. Melling and Watts double as witnesses and suspects, and overhead projections show the printed, cardboard threats of the Brigadeers.
There are funny moments – as when “Camden” is breathed with horror as a place where dodgy types hang out – and good aperçus like Morris’ grasp that “the political spectrum is not a line from left to right, it’s a circle . When you go as far left as communism, which believes in equality and classlessness, the tyranny required to enforce such a change moves it all the way back to right-wing fascism” . An anarchist under questioning complains that the British police don’t fight back. “Other countries, we charge, they charge back. But you lot, you stand there rigid in your lines, smiling…the lines will hold. They’ve held for centuries, Nothing to see here’. (ah the nostalgia!)

After the interval the same four play the central Brigade group, holed up in an East London house, three middle-class and one – (Melling again) a working-class Northerner. Each is reacting to a different childhood rage. The interplay is tense, touching, mixing weakness, sincerity, anger, quailing doubt , arrogance, and anarchic nonsense (“Why do there have to be walls?”). No spoilers, but it moves towards an inevitable end when young lawbreakers and young enforcers must meet. Rising manic energy, a bomb-crashing of steel filing cabinets and wild careering through the auditorium are delicately interwoven with tenderness, doubt and sadness. It’s brilliant.

BOX OFFICE 020 8743 5050 to 13 June.
rating    four     4 Meece Rating

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Joe Stilgoe the piano man holds the stage as we settle, receiving a fusillade of unhelpful audience requests (“Bolero! Summertime! Pink Panther! Prokoffiev’s ninth!” – that last from Andrew Marr, cheeky monkey). Brilliantly, he delivers them simultaneously, singing Summertime over Bolero chords, and getting audience participation in Fever. Crafty to set a cabaret mood  before we get down to business with “Come see the rich of Oyster Bay / On this their daughter’s wedding day!” as the silver piano sinks ingeniously into the floor.

Some of us needed persuading: for all the glory of Louis Armstrong, Sinatra and Bing, I never enthused about the 1956 film : Grace Kelly draped on that yacht crooning True Love felt like being pelted with marshmallows. Didn’t even like the play The Philadelphia Story, one of Kevin Spacey’s first productions here. Caring about the romantic troubles of the East Coast plutocracy is not automatic: so what if Tracy is marrying the wrong man, misses her first husband and gets drunkenly entangled with an undercover reporter? Brittle high-society needs Coward wit or period distance not to irritate.

But this – Spacey’s last hurrah as Artistic Director – is a different beast from film or play: Arthur Kopit’s book has access to extra Cole Porter songs, with all their bitter-sentimental ambiguities and yearnings. Director Maria Friedman has cast it cannily and enlists Nathan Wright’ s athletic, joyful storming, whirling choreography and fabulous Tom Pye designs (I am a bit of a pushover for people tap-dancing on silver pianos, it’s a weakness). So once it gets going – the first act, to be brutal, still needs a trim – Friedman finds the real gold, an emotional reality in the wayward heroine, in the tough lovelorn girl reporter (Annabel Scholey) and even in the repentant adulterous paterfamilias. Above all, Kate Fleetwood as Tracy eschews all temptation to easy ingenue charm, evoking a tough egg who has been round the block a few times and is well on the way to being a discontented rich-bitch. So when she sings “Once upon a Time” and softens, melting into memory of sailing days with Dexter – the True Love – there is suddenly real feeling. He lean on the orchestra rail above, she watches a model cutter glide slowly across the floor (poor sail-trim, but pretty). And in the second half, Kopit brilliantly places Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me” as a serious dramatic moment.

All the singing is bang on: Rupert Young is Dexter, hampered by the essential dullness of any romantic hero, Jamie Parker has wicked fun with Mike, Jeff Rawle totters and taps gloriously as daft Uncle Willy and and Richard Grieve as Kittredge the wrong-groom looks pleasingly like Michael Howard, with an apt air of pained dignity. And the ensemble is tremendous, the formal maids and butlers a character in their own right.
The Vic is still “in-the-round’, a beloved Spacey innovation, and the arena – with cast dashing in from all directions – gives an unexpected warmth and immediacy . We are a circle of witnesses to a lantern-lit night by the pool, to awful hangovers (Fleetwood hilarious as a drunk, and even better as an appalled morning-after bride shoved anyhow into her wedding dress) . Most spectacular of all, we are sitters-out, enthralled, at the tremendous ball. That Act 2 opener is fifteen minutes of explosive, butterfly-bright spectacle not to be missed: what with the firework light effects, the tap routines, the multicoloured taffeta explosion, double-bass-twirling and crazy brush-percush, and what I can only describe as a bout of competitive homo-erotic piano duetting. Well, you had to be there. As Tracy says about the yacht, it’s designed with care, built with love, and emerges “easy to handle, quick on the helm”. Fit for Kevin Spacey’s last sail into the Old Vic sunset. We thank him.
box office 0844 8717628 to 20 August

Rating four    4 Meece Rating

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…Which is to say, the question of whether time-travel would enable you to change the past, hence the present, via parallel universes of possibility. Sir Alan Ayckbourn confected this odd , ultimately enchanting tale of thriller-noir skulduggery by a greedy financier and his murderous sidekick.  Thanks to a hotel-suite closet proving to be a portal into the past in twenty-year increments, doughty female practicality from two doomed wives and a leather-clad tart overcomes evil and safeguards the future. Except, naturally, for the preposterous baddie, played by David Bamber with a camp menace equalled only (Ah, memories!) by Kenneth Williams doing his send-up of Charles Boyer in GASLIGHT in Round the Horne.

In classic Ayckbourn mode it begins with a slow burn, establishing – by way of a dying man improbably hiring a dominatrix to witness his confession – a back-story which is destined to be disrupted by time-travellers from twenty and forty years earlier (pay attention there at the back! Actually, don’t bother: Lindsay Posner’s direction and Ayckbourn’s courteous clarity keep matters perfectly comprehensible, even once the time capsule cupboard starts rotating).

The play speeds up no end once scientific impossibility and determined women take over control: for it has three of the larkiest imaginable female comedy drama roles.
Rachel Tucker is the prostitute Poopay, condemned at first to be merely stroppy, baffled, horrified and nearly throttled. Not enough to work on at first, but when she meets wife no. 2, twenty years back from her own time, the glorious female interaction around which the play rotates can really begin. The catalyst is Imogen Stubbs as the middle-aged Ruella , fabulously scoutmistressy with an underlying warmth. This is the sort of formidably pragmatic Good Woman who on being invaded by a terrified whore from the future takes it in her stride with prison-visitor breeziness, and commands her to assist in preventing the murders. “None of this feeble attitude! Shape up, girl!”. Between them and the portal success seems achievable, but comes up against that philosophical puzzle about whether being dead in one time-frame necessarily means a chap won’t turn up in another one wearing leather murdering-gloves and a younger wig (grand barnet-work from Richard Mawbey the wigmeister, as men and women change decades in no time at all).

The youngest woman of the three is another incomparable dramatic comedienne, Lucy Briggs-Owen, a heroine of mine after lately lighting up evenings from Srtatford to St Martin’s Lane. Her second posh-airhead appearance is – well, nonpareil. I eschew spoilers, though there are at least four indescribable scream-and-giggle shocks and a magnificent three-woman physical cliffhanger not to be missed. No complaints about the men either: Robert Portal morphs over forty years from evil dodderer to dashing newlywed, and Matthew Cottle – also time-travelling – blinks and gapes for England as the hotel security man with a nervous dread of women and potential “lesbianity”. And talking of security, the 2020 bits are set in a London of gun battles on the Strand and precarious peace talks between warring boroughs. Sir Alan’s little joke, circa 1994: but hey, getting closer all the time…

Box office 020 7378 1713 to 27 June
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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WOLF’S CHILD Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk


Last time I went a Norfolk and Norwich Festival outdoor event, I had to spend the night suspended in a nylon flower-petal up a tree and get hugged by tree-kissing Belgians called “Starlight” and “Hummus”. The time before, it was Artichoke’s elegant Alice in Wonderland adventure-dinner-concert. So you never know. This time, they have recruited WildWorks, famous for the Port Talbot “Passion” with Michael Sheen, and set it in the deep woodland surrounding the 17c Felbrigg Hall.

So here we are, stumbling through chilly darkening woods, mocked by ragged giant crows for being human (“Queer little walkie-talkie-two-leggies! Driving dead machines! Craaaahh!). After gathering us round a smouldering fire and a ritual of “summoning the bones” they hustle us to and fro, 250 of us in groups led by crows with ragged umbrellas called Sorrow, Funeral, Birth, Mirth, Bone, etc. The dark harsh birds, often from up trees as we progress, need to tell us a story: a mythic tale of Rowan (superbly played by Kyla Goodey) raised in an authoritarian orphanage. Shamed, she runs away in the woods and gives birth among wolves. We follow her into the darkness, coming to scene by scene as the dusk falls, until like her we change sides and learn to look at human beings through the wary, judging eyes of beasts.

It’s a beguiling idea, and Bill Mitchell’s team (professionals and community together) approach it with a fierce theatrical dedication which – in the end – pays off to memorable effect. Vocal harmonies by Victoria Abbott accompany us: a Crow choir reappears at each scene with primitive raw sound, while the orphan “Maids”, neatly Edwardian in white dresses and corseted back-braces, ceaselessly chant the rules of constricting civilization under the authoritarian, white-haired “Mother” (given chill authority by Sue Hill).

There is some puppetry, notably wolf-skeletons pawing and leaping; there are flaming torches underneath the trees, but it is the human-animal players and tensions which create real silences, so you hear the breath of those around you and even the gits put away their smartphones. Even the fact that the ushering Crows (my boss was Mirth) repeatedly cry “Keep to the path!” for obvious elf ’n safety reasons gets incorporated into the sense of folk-tale danger.

Some scenes are unforgettable: a tiny golden child born among grey-clad wolves (the physicality is excellent) romps with them like family dogs until cruelly “rescued”. At this point we are called “back to civilization!” by the crows, to watch the infant grow up. I cynically thought “Yep, good call, Mr Mitchell, get the punters out of the stumbly tree-root darkness onto the nice manicured National Trust grass before the light goes”. Shame on me! WildWorks are not timorous about us. Minutes later it’s “quick, quick, into the woods!” and a ten minute scuttle up hill and down in the darkness, following the escaping child towards intensely dramatic final tableaux in a cathedral of tall trees lit by torchlight (and a single star above, that night).

By which point none of us has the slightest idea where we are or how far from the Hall, and we are entirely on the side of the wolves. The last vision, as they mournfully howl their loss, is of the child walking down a long, long dim avenue alone, empowered by her dual nature, free.

By then I was with it all the way. It took time – maybe the first of the two hours – but was well worth it. And the weather forecast is reasonably good. But wear something sensible. Wolves and crows always do.
box office 0)1603 766400 to 23 May. Details:
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE FATHER Tricycle, NW6


Devastating. No other word for it. Without sentimentality, in Christopher Hampton’s powerfully simple translation, the French playwright Florian Zeller leads us into the unknowable, all-too threatening realm of dementia. In a mere 90 minutes James Macdonald’s production shatters your peace and challenges your humanity as violently as a good Lear. For we are not only observers but partakers of mental chaos: the retired engineer André is the victim without pretension or Pinteresque brutalities Zeller simply demonstrates how it might be to live from minute to minute unsure. Not being certain of your closest family, of where you are, when it is, what is happening, why the furniture seems not to be there, why people are treating you strangely…

It happens in one room – so we think, or he does, though it isn’t – and jerks in short scenes separated by dead blackouts and a dazzling flashing frame (Miriam Buether’s design, simple but disorienting). Bright virtuoso piano at first mocks with its precision the confusion of André’s mind: but speeds, stops, jangles, mingles with unidentifable sounds in the blackouts.
Kenneth Cranham, in a performance whose humanity, power and control should in justice win many awards, is André: Claire Skinner his daughter Anne. We see her husband Pierre, Laura the carer, another woman, another man; but they are not always the same person. Even to us. The “who are you? Why are you here?” is at first generally clear : we are in a naturalistic world where Claire (deploying a fragile, thwarted, worried competence) confronts her father’s absentmindeness, short-temper and confused paranoia about his carer. Cranham creates an André who had, sometimes still has, wit and charm and bluff sense: able to turn the tables with a reproving “Why are you talking to me as if I was retarded?” or to explain to the carer “My daughter has a tendency to repeat herself , it’s an age thing”.

So we laugh. But when he stands baffled in pyjamas, searches obsessively for his watch or is confronted – as are we – by a different face claiming to be his daughter, unease grows. Worse, an unidentified man (Jim Sturgeon, truly upsetting in his confident shaven roughness) sometimes replaces the son-in-law and taunts him repeatedly “How much longer do you intend to hang around getting on everyone’s tits? Ruining your daughter’s life?”. He is slapped. We do not know whether this really happens or is in his head, because by now we are in there too, and hardly breathing.

As every familiar piece of furniture vanishes and the room becomes a care home, André is a child again, not knowing his name, but afraid, wanting to be fetched home, comforted by a strange nurse. “I’m losing all my leaves… the wind”. It is one of those performances you believe too much, too painfully, so that even the curtain-call doesn’t help you regain control. But it is brilliant, and necessary,. Honour to the Tricycle for bringing it up from the Theatre Royal Bath.

box office 020 7328 1000 to 13 june
rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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HAY FEVER Duke of York’s Theatre, SW1


Whenever I see this beloved play again I wish it was my first time. It should be seen in youth – when the dread of embarrassing parents getting emotional is at its height ; and again in middle-age, to empathize with Judith Bliss’ envy of the fresher generation.

For Hay Fever breathes a spirit of mischievous mockery, invincible youthful cynicism. This is the 1924 Noel Coward knocking off a deathless play in three days, playing with the idea of his own ideal tribe – charming, theatrically showoff bohemians – tormenting and confusing staid weekend guests with deliberately created dramas. Young Sorel and Simon (Alice Orr-Ewing and Edward Franklin) have each invited older admirers – she a stiff diplomat Richard, he the fortyish“self-conscious vampire” Myra (Sara Stewart). Their grumpy novelist father David (Simon Shepherd) has invited a flapper to “study the type” (Celeste Dodwell panics beautifully). But at the centre of the action is Judith Bliss: a diva who should never have retired from the stage and needs to live through scenes from the iffy melodramas of her heyday. Her admirer is a pop-eyed callow youth (Edward Killingback) As each family member contributes to Judith’s game, the visitors are in turns ignored, embarrassed, seductively flattered, manipulated, compromised, and driven to flight.

Lindsay Posner’s production for Theatre Royal Bath is set in period (the Howard Davies one a few years ago up the road gave the family more modern bohemian style, a messy studio-barn-conversion). Here Peter McKintosh’s s set is traditional, which permits an especially magical moment for Felicity Kendal in the second act finale, draped backwards over the banister in stage agony. Her Judith Bliss is a delight, even sharper and funnier than last year in Bath. It has sometimes been played as a Junoesque tragedy-queen, but is even funner as Kendal’s superannuated, shingled flapper, a menace who y has been overacting for years and now hurls herself opportunistically into any role the moment offers – vamp, matchmaker, self-sacrificing old mother, betrayed wife, repentant adulteress. Yet all the while she never quite drops the beady eye and sharp asides of a practised control-freak.

Every move Kendal makes is perfect, a masterclass in subtly acting the part of someone acting hammily. There’s a mimsy flailing of flirtatious fists when she asks the lunk Sandy about his boxing, a downward glance at “dreams trodden in the dust” and a cry of “I am growing old, and I must face it” coupled with a reassuring glance in a hand-mirror. Her seduction of the poor diplomat (Michael Simkins) is quite perfect, as is his gradual dissolution from senatorial dignity to clumsy flirtation and utter horror at Kendal’s fake emotional overkill. His demeanour the next morning , as the four visitors flee, has all the ratlike scuttling dissolution of a Cabinet Minister caught in a strip-club.
Coward intended only entertainment; but frankly, if from time to time in life you do get trapped in someone else’s “featherbed of false emotions”, phrases from the play are useful . I have, personally, used Sorel’s irritable “You are being Beautiful and Sad!” and David’s “Don’t be statuesque!” . It’s good to have it back onstage again.

box office 0844 8717623/ to ! Aug

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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A playwright’s work is never done. Not if politics are involved: Peter Morgan relates that once it became clear that David Cameron was back, he slept two hours and got up to rewrite the PM’s scene with HM Queen for that night. Seems that they were so surprised that Samantha had been “packing vans” already. Excellent.
I went on election night itself, to see how after a couple of years it felt to reprise Morgan’s imagining of the weekly audiences: twelve Prime Ministers over sixty years. I had loved it in its Helen Mirren incarnation: despite the humour and the respect there is little caricature or satire, nor too sentimental a royalism. I wrote “funny, truthful, good-hearted, spiky, full of surprises”.

That still holds. Cast changes are effective: David Calder as Churchill gives just the right elderly bombast in his exchanges with the young Elizabeth, and Sylvestra Le Touzel is a more convincing Thatcher, mastering the eye-flash and tripping gait. Nicholas Woodeson as Wilson returns, in Morgan’s best scenes as he and the Queen find joshing common ground . Stephen Daldry’s direction is fluid, filmic, making the most of the moments when Elizabeth talks briefly with her rebellious child self, warning her of a world of heavy reverence where “No one will ever call you by your name. Or look you in the eye”.
There are tweaks to the play: Tony Blair now makes a brief appearance, which helps to underline Morgan’s tart verbal paralleling of Eden’s Suez invasion and Blair’s Iraq venture (that “is it legal?” echoing down the decades). I am less enamoured of the zhoozhing-up of ceremonial with the Coronation moment, and two huge Life Guards stamping up and down during the interval, but the Americans nearby adored it, which I suspect is the reason. For me it clashed with the intimacy of the play’s tone.

And the new Queen? For Mirren has regenerated, Dr-Who style, as Kristin Scott Thomas. And yes, it feels different. Mirren has a warmer wit; her evocation of the Queen’s wry awareness of her powerless pomp, dutiful personality and deep religious faith convinced entirely. Scott Thomas is harder-edged, chillier. Morgan seems to have removed from the script the moment I found most touching in the Mirren version, when she is asked about the Duke’s health and suddenly almost chokes, speaking about the heart device“keeping him alive”. That’s gone; but it wouldn’t have worked as well with Scott Thomas. She can do huge crazy emotions (as in Electra) but not that delicate modest suggestion of suppressed depths. She is, on the other hand, perfect at delivering a sudden waspish “Are you wearing make-up?” to a Cameron fresh from the TV studio. And if you haven’t seen it before, do go. The play’s the thing.

Box Office 0844 482 9671 to 25 July       
rating four    4 Meece Rating

Box Office 0844 482 9671 to 25 July       
rating four

Comments Off on THE AUDIENCE Apollo, WC1

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This two-hour entertainment consists of squibs and sketches, five-finger exercises and amused imaginings by Michael Frayn. Who never really meant to make a book of them, he says, let alone stage them. Do not expect COPENHAGEN or DEMOCRACY; or even NOISES OFF or DONKEY”S YEARS. But it comes from the master’s hand, all the same: and from Frayn’s mental matchbox even brief flares, flashes and fizzles light up the world for a moment.
A sense of happy frivolity pervades the theatre, not least because Hamish McColl and designer Polly Sullivan reconfigure it as a giant, circular matchbox, a blank arena with a neat rising trap in the middle; the show opens with a spoofy request to “keep your mobile phones on, your call is important to us” (Hampstead audiences are brainy enough to know it is a joke) and an earnestly pretentious disquisition on the nature of in-the-round theatre.

Indeed the best of the 24 sketches , with a sharp six-strong cast, involve knowing theatrical mockery. There’s a marvellous TV news moment outside the National Theatre as the anchor questions the breathlessly hopeful reporter about what’s going on inside. “They’re still in there, and still talking…” he says hopefully, predicting “a joint communiqué” from Hamlet and the King and downplaying a reported fracas involving Queen Gertrude and a stabbing (denied). We return from the real interval to find a pompous memorial service led by the theatre’s “spiritual consultant” , head cocked patronizingly, telling us to Give Thanks for the late Interval, celebrate rather than mourn it, and hear tributes from tearful or grateful voices popping up across the auditorium remembering how great and life-changing dear Interval was. Another meta-theatre moment has a brutal interrogator and cowed subject all too aware that they are following a hackneyed formula. And best of all, there’s a hushed David-Attenborough commentary on those mysterious, rarely seen creatures of darkness, the stagehands, scuttling busily around, fearing the return of the light as the more aggressive actors reclaim their territory.

So everyone loved the in-jokes, and why not? Other sketches follow a Fraynian theme of miscommunication and marital exasperation. A grey stone couple on an Arundel tomb are woken by the youth disco-evensong in the crypt and do some 600-year bickering; a pair in a restaurant eavesdrop and are infuriated by the stupidity of fellow-diners; a woman enrages the council by wittering on the phone (great visual curly-flex gag), Lovers attempt a Brief Encounter farewell at an airport, interrupted by increasingly contemptuous flight announcements.
A few squibs misfire; sometimes Frayn’s gentleness feels a touch too soft for our harsh satirical age, and the final sketch about theatre funding feels a bit contrived. But there are enough bright flashes of genius to make it very well worth the ticket. I am still grinning about some of them.

Box office 020 7722 9301 to 6 June
rating three     3 Meece Rating

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THE VOTE Donmar, WC1

Election day, Tony Benn used to say, is the only time we are all equal. One citizen, one secret vote. And despite the short-sighted, corrupting Blair extension of postal and proxy votes to the merely lazy or self-important, most votes are still cast with a stubby pencil in a schoolroom or community hall. Here, for fourteen hours, (they get a special working-time-directive dispensation) polling clerks from the Council supervise a meticulous regime of privacy, integrity and, supposedly, dignity.
Before our eyes in drift the voters: daffy or drunk, frivolous or earnest, first-time kids, proud new-fledged citizens from the ends of the earth, the senile and the pompous, the committed or vague. Some you can hardly trust to hold a pencil, others are brisk and sure; lovers giggle, spouses snar, but they’re all equal. James Graham, author of THIS HOUSE and COALITION, set out to express the ordinary moment of voting, in which this preposterous, overblown lying campaign must end. Comic without cynicism, it is unexpectedly touching.

This Donmar undertaking is, as its director Josie Rourke explains at previews, “a weird television-theatre experiment thing”. Its official opening will actually be its last night – election night, Thursday 7th, when it goes out live on More4 TV. The audience arrives half an hour early to queue in the fake polling station and vote for fictional characters: good to see Ian McKellen, Nicholas Hytner, John Carey , Yevgeny Levedev and a host of notables meekly obeying. It runs precisely from 8.30 to 10pm, shadowing that weary last 90 minutes before polling stations close, boxes are whisked off to the constituency count and exit-polls announced. It has an improbable cast of 44, nearly a quarter being bankable stars (Judi Dench and Finty Williams, Mark Gatiss , Catherine Tate , Tim West ..!) It is set in a supposed London marginal, in a nicely evoked primary-school hall, with the council staff forced to sit on the vaulting-horse because nobody turned up to open it at eight as the law requires and unlock the chairs, so Kirsty the poll-clerk (Tate) took an axe to the door .) .

I won’t spoil it with detail – though the Russian lesbians with a selfie-stick and the shrieking teenagers shouting “Siri – who do I vote for?” are memorable, as are the pinstriped upper-middle bickerers, and Judi Dench’s cameo as a domineering mother of her (real!) daughter Finty Williams. Nor will I reveal the daft plotline which emerges concerning malpractice, Haribos, and increasing desperation. You really have to watch it. If only for the joy of seeing Mark Gatiss as a polling officer gradually overcome by events.


But for all the jokes – and they are many – for me it breathed a kind of awe. From the first moment when big Llewella Gideon crashes to the ground and demands that Timothy West (another great cameo) turns her voting-slip upside down without looking at it, the principle of individual privacy is stressed. As, for all the disasters and pomposities, is the idea of dutiful civic respect for rules: there is a grassroots glory in their petty, old-fashioned carefulness. “It has to mean something!” says Gatiss desperately, as ten o’clock nears in mounting disorder. Farcical it may be, but Graham catches something of the immensity of democracy which must descend to small simple places and embrace the dim and grand alike; petty protocol guards fragile freedom, and stubby pencils may put an end to power.
By the way, for those who believe all theatre to be rife with bilious bias, note young Mr Graham’s subtlety. There’s a poignant moment as the no-hope Tory candidate – young, black, of Nigerian parentage – chokes up with emotion at the sight of the ballot paper “I’m actually – a bit – seeing my name there…my parents would…”. Clever, and honest.

Rating four . The Vote is broadcast live from The Donmar Warehouse on More4 at 8.25pm, Thursday 7 May or available on demand on All 4 from Friday 8 May

4 Meece Rating

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NOISES OFF Mercury, Colchester


“Doors! Sardines! Getting them on, getting them off. Getting the doors open. And shut. That’s farce. That’s theatre. That’s life!” Ah, how bitterly true: how accurate a metaphor for life is the tale of a hapless theatre company, attempting the most technical of exercises in the company of fallible colleagues. Like John Morton’s 2012 and WIA on television, by showing us the detail of one human enterprise going wrong it illustrates all the errors and temperaments which beset human endeavours. And makes you howl with gleeful recognition; being removed just far enough from reality (it’s a play about a play and full of theatre jokes..) it allows us the cruellest of delights.
I hope Daniel Buckroyd’s Mercury production tours. Not just because it’s a good one but because the last national Noises Off tour (a recast version of Lindsay Posner’s starry Old Vic one) was four years ago, and there must be people who have never seen Michael Frayn’s masterpiece of farce: a reflection which grieves me greatly. At a moment when The Play That Goes Wrong (a humbler but worthy successor) has won an Olivier, it is grand to see it back.
For newcomers, a recap: the first act shows the final rehearsal of an awful farce called Nothing On (full, gloriously pretentious spoof programme provided); the two-tier set revolves (brilliantly here, do get back early from the interval to watch) so that the second act shows it from backstage. The play progresses out of view and the entrances and exits see rising fury and violence among the cast; the third act finds it on the last night of its tour, out front again, going terminally wrong. By which time we know the script, and the characters, all too well. Dotty, playing the comic sardine-loving charlady is getting on and has put her savings in the show; an unwise fling with the divinely dim leading man leads to furious rivalry with the morose, divorcing nervous wreck Freddie; Belinda mumsily tries to smooth things over, the bimbo Brooke keeps losing her contact lenses, and “Selsdon Mowbray” (great old theatre name), is an alcoholic wanderer. Nor does it help that the director, a frustrated Eng.Lit graduate reduced to touring farce, is sleeping with both Brooke and poor put-upon Poppy the stage manager.
I saw a late matinee preview, and they were already spot on, move for move, tumble for tumble (Louis Tamone does terrifying work on the stairs). Having seen it several times I was at first doubtful about the director – Hywel Simons playing it low-key, rather than theatrically shouty and camp as some do – but I warmed to him, and his downplaying makes identification with his frustration easier. Louise Jameson is quite wonderful as Dotty, and David Shelley gives Freddie a fine exasperating pathos. But they’re all good, and the timing bang-on, as it needs to be in this tricky farce. I wondered whether the joy would be as piercing as in the starry West End one. But actually, it was. And the whoops of glee – and surprise – around showed how well (unlike poor Selsdon) it has aged. It does what we need in this harsh election season, as required by the thwarted director’s cry “I didn’t come to the theatre to listen to problems. I want to be taken out of myself. And preferably not put back!”

box office 01206 573948 to 16 May
rating Four   4 Meece Rating

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