Monthly Archives: June 2015

ALL THE ANGELS Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

COMFORT YE! HANDEL AND THE FIRST MESSIAH

Handel’s Messiah is a phenomenon: written in three weeks in the composer’s most disappointed phase, to this day it plays as sublimely as a chamber piece with eight singers as with the four thousand of us who annually sing it at the Royal Albert Hall in The Really Big Chorus (I operate as a semi-competent alto). It gets treated with high professionalism or as a parish singalong, truncated at the Alleluia Chorus or recorded as a “best-of” with some of the most beautiful moments missing, is done with heavy Victorian pomposity or bright original instruments, speeded up and slowed down. Nothing dents its shine.
The story Nick Drake tells in this simple three-hander by candlelight, is the story of its first performance in Dublin in 1742. Illustrated with fragments by the Portrait Choir it brings the story to musical life. Sean Campion is a scuttling, busy scene-setting narrator. Sometimes he is a ragged Irish music-porter and nocturnal bodysnatcher Crazy Crow, who merrily throws a horrid sack-wrapped corpse into the pit at one point. Sometimes he is the affable Lord Cavendish who invited Handel to try it out in the Fishambles music hall, so crowded that “the fleas went to the ceiling for a bit of air”, which was a bit of a comedown for the composer who decades earlier had ushered the King up-Thames with the Water Music. Sometimes he is the grieving, religiously anxious librettist Jennen who commissioned it and chose the Biblical verses.

David Horovich provides a gruff , demanding, perfectionist Georg Frederic Handel, and Kelly Price his contralto soloist Susannah Cibber, Who was not an oratorio singer, but an actress in low melodrama, on the run from an abusive marriage and a scandalously intimate adultery trial. Plenty of drama there, and despite a few early clunks (the Jennen moments tend to the portentous) Drake and director Jonathan Munby gradually raise it to something genuinely affecting, sometimes funny, and with pin-sharp significant interludes of aria and moments of chorus (“You are the people, all the angels, the chorus drives the music forward”).

The emotional heart of the play, one not historically incredible, is the interplay between the old composer and Mrs Cibber. At first it is about style – her actress gestures infuriate him when she fruitily attempts “But who shall abide the day of His coming”, and he berates singers who “bark, or whisper, or bellow, or puff themselves up”. He’d hate the X Factor. At one point he threatens to bury her in a barrel of sand to keep her still. He also scorns her vain terrors about “competing” with the Italian soprano whose showy high arias echo from backstage (even in the chorus we altos always slightly regard the sopranos with suspicion, even when blending with and needing them. It’s human nature).

But as their conversations – Handel often grumpily bathetic – reveal her suffering, working towards the great aria “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” it deepens and relates to other tragedies in Jennen’s and Handel’s life. The redemptiveness, the great “Comfort Ye” and promise of salvation for lost sheep, grows in meaning. And though the effect on the cynical Crow fels a touch overwritten, a touch Blarney, you’d need a nasty heart of stone not to feel it too. Particularly if the Messiah has meant anything to you in the darker times of life.
So yes, let the trumpet sound for this curious, short-running, honourable candlelit curiosity. It deserves an afterlife.

box office Box office 0)20 7401 9919 Showing tonight, 27th June, and 3-6 July
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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THE TRIAL Young Vic SE1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES IS CONVEYED BY A DYSTOPIAN INJUSTICE
The auditorium is a coliseum, with a tremendous conveyor belt slicing it in half, flappy black curtains at either end. K wakes with strange agents at his door. He’s arrested. But what on earth are his crimes? Shrugs and evasion are the reply. It’s a frustrating, but gripping , pencil pushers, forms, magistrates, hookers and lawyers curdling into madness. Scenery, furniture and people are flung down the wooden and Guantanamo-orange stage with fine precision. Trials “build up” K is told early on. The only time the conveyer reverses is to take him to his death.

This adaptation, by Nick Gill (who all of a sudden makes sense when you realise he is also a composer), is frantic, funny, strange and incredibly difficult to settle with early on. The dialogue is fine, although K’s asides and monologues are written almost in fragments. “Am almost woke ee up one morn -like baby”, are his first lines. It’s hard to tune to, you’re hardly tapping your feet along either. But this aside, the rest of the dialogue is incredibly engaging with good jokes and juicy lines.

It drifts on, we pick fragments – things he might have done wrong, solutions to his crisis, idle conversation – usually with another layer of people speaking on top of this. But it clicks. It has a strange frustrating rhythm which winds you and K up as heaps of court forms rise, unbelievable injustice is done and little sense is made. The story is clear but neatly obfuscates the legality. Richard Jones has thankfully staged this to perfection: somehow my attention was drawn to exactly the right snippets, and as people whizzed on and off it all mushed into meaning in the middle. Miriam Buether’s set is a workhorse which deserves lashings of oats for mechanically driving all this.
“We can only hope that information of tangential relevance slithers its way down to us”. Sian Thomas’s gloriously vague lawyer tells K. Rory Kinnear is excellent at the frustration, but the monologues don’t sit in his mouth properly. He has to engage all his training to enunciate, giving us clipped when what we need is panic. The rest is powerful rage, neatly drawn.

It is Kate O’Flynn, however, who steals the show as a host of characters. In this straight laced, authoritarian world, her brand of wild giver-of-no-shits perks things up brilliantly. Where many have to remain almost robotic and scenic, her, Rory’s and Sian’s performances fill in with beautiful colour.
It is maddeningly strange, but it still clings to me and haunts me.

Box Office: 020 7922 2922 22nd August.
Rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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THE SEAGULL OPEN AIR THEATRE Regent’s Park W1

CHEKHOV UNDER THE TREES
Fortune favours the brave, and the meteorological riskiness of outdoor theatre sometimes pays handsomely. A great heron flew over, squawking doom, just as Irina screamed her frantic possession of the appalling Trigorin and Chekhov’s tragicomic household moved towards disaster. The moon rose over the card-players as beyond the window under a darkening sky Konstantin found a deranged, ruined Nina. The thunderstorm and sluicing rain from behind Jon Bausor’s strange mirrored canopy were false, but the intensity and brooding darkness of old Sorin’s struggling estate were no more or less real than the rustling trees of the real park. Perfect.

Its the first Chekhov play to be done here, and the most obvious: its first act in a garden as Konstantin attempts his ambitious philosophical play and (very avant- garde) rips up the painted scenery. The greensward, chairs, parasols and nicely surly servants pushing a mower or morosely clipping shrubs relate nicely to the real family picnics out in the audience. Though one hopes that the characters’ troublesome, bored, self-obsessed angst and ennui do not…

Chekhov’s opening scenes – once the disastrous play is over – always risk the pre-revolutionary bourgeois ennui becoming – well, ennuyeux. But soon his deadly comedy pace quickens, as Janie Dee,vain I-am-an-actress diva mother of Matthew Tennyson’s frail thwarted Konstantin does her bouncing, preening, frightful poses, and her lover Trigorin (Alex Robertson, comedically vile) gets helplessly drunk with Lisa Diveney’s glum lovesick Masha, and leads Nina astray. Nina is given a sweet naivete by Sabrina Bartlett, though does not quite convince in her Ophelia dementia at the end. Colin Hoult is cruelly funny as whining Simon the schoolteacher (one of Chekhovs most malicious portraits), a majestically gloomy Ian Redford is old Peter, and Danny Webb as the doctor is granted his melancholy description of the pleasure of city crowds , a ” mass of souls” bringing a  sense of fellowship. Which is is one of the rare redemptive glimpses in this bleak, witty, knowing portait of a decaying society. (I always remember coming out of a rather dull Cherry Orchard and the woman behind observing, Yorkshire fashion , to her man that “Those people really had that Revolution coming!”)

But even before the majestic tragic dusk, underscored by a perhaps over-menacing musical soundscape, Matthew Dunster’s production is engaging all the way. Dee and Tennyson, mother and son, break your heart: struggling against their bond and their mutual resentment as he hurls rage at her “shallow, shitty plays” and she screams “You’re a failure, a nobody, nothing at all!”.
The free verbal adaptation by Torben Betts is slangy and vivid: overhead, the great slanted mirror lets us look down on them all like seagulls ourselves, and marvel and the struggle and absurdity of human life. And the servants, by the way, deploy the best sullen-serf body language I’ve ever seen: Fraser James as the “whingeing dullard” trying to make the damn farm pay is a gruff delight, and Lisa Palfrey’s pissed-off Paulina, eating the plums Irina can’t be bothered to take away, offers a tiny moment to cherish. And above them the trees rustle, and the night-birds in the distant zoo caw contempt. What fools we mortals be.

box office 0844 826 4242 to 11 july

rating four  4 Meece Rating

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BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM Phoenix, WC2

BACK OF THE NET!  
Rejoice! In the midst of Fifa’s dismal doings musical theatre makes football beautiful again. Gurinder Chadha’s and Paul Mayeda Berges’ fable, of a British-Asian teenage girl longing to play football rather than cook dhal and live traditionally, was beloved on screen but emerges all the stronger for being driven by Howard Goodall’s music and Charles Hart’s lyrics. It’s a lovely show, with the rare quality in musicals of feeling all-of-a-piece: one solid creation by a team who understand one another and were allowed to get on with it.
It has comfortable specificity – the Sikh community in semis near Heathrow, Southall’s Asian high street, the local park and football ground all swiftly realized by Miriam Buether’s neat arc of revolving panels . Yet it is a universal fable about mothers and daughters, generational anxiety and teenage longings. We meet Jess “dreaming of somewhere where being other / Doesn’t incur the wrath of your mother”; teased for her tracksuit by her preening sister Pinky and her friends, but recruited by the footballing tomboy Jules, whose own mother (a hilarious blonde bombshell) is equally appalled by the athletic brawn of her daughter (“You’ll damage your girlybits!”).
All shine, but at the centre Natalie Dew as Jess is a new star: she has not only a friendly sweetness and lovely shy grin but sings like a bird and – crucially – can boot a ball into the coach’s netting bag from ten feet away, three times running across a West End stage. Lauren Samuels, lean and keen, is a powerful Jules, and Preeya Kalidas slinkily funny as Pinky. Jess’ gay friend Tony (Jamal Andreas) has a glorious number too, about how young people bend the truth to disapproving parents: again Hart’s lyrics hit the spot with “Don’t say your tastes incline to men – just say “have you met my flatmate Sven..?”. And Chadha is a playful director: up pops a token Sven, an instant blink and you miss it gag. Combined with Pinky’s temporarily ruptured engagement to the snobbish neighbours’ son and his surly rebellion (“She’s fit, init?”) it all adds to the lovingly anarchic celebration of teen spirit.
The last time a new musical felt this good was Legally Blonde, for in classic musical style every number pushes the story forwards: nothing ever stops it dead, even the Bollywood-style set-pieces at Pinky’s wedding. Though one moment of peacefulness, the wedding song by Shahid Khan and Rekha Sawhney, is breathtaking. Indeed what could have been a crude tale of teenage victory is fascinatingly balanced, musically and dramatically, between the exuberant footballing ambition and Jess’ parents’ anxiety to protect their girl within the community limits and not risk “shame”. It breathes a rare decency, and that likeable British-Asian willingness to mock itself without belittling. The ensemble of three censorious grey-bunned Aunties nipping up and down the aisle is pure delight, but there is seriousness in Tony Jayawardena as the father, singing baritone memories of his early days fresh in from Nairobi: best spin-bowler back home, but here never allowed to play: “People like us don’t join the clubs, jump the queues, get served in pubs…People here are decent enough. Till you call their bluff”.

Charles Hart’s words have a simple lyrical honesty, clever but never forced; Goodall gives us rising joyful tunes, melancholy conflict, duets and quartets and big choruses blending traditional Punjabi tunes with western familiarity. But oh, best of all is the ensemble dancing when the girl football team are on. It might be tempting to have choreographed them ballet-style, in tribute to those leaping moments when great players do hit a line of grace. But Aletta Collins eschews that to express, rather, the strain and sweat and grimaces of hard training: kicking, stamping, swerving, separating, pointing. Proper footballers, chanting “Girl Perfect! Keep on trying, even when you’re dying!”. It is the the least chorus-girly dancing imaginable: one big number rises to a real haka ferocity before morphing, with quick-change costumes, to a scrubbed-up celebratory disco. It is a hymn to the athletic female body, as the team in their baggy shorts and team shirts exult in effortful joy and great waves of exercise endorphins wash over us from the stage. We grin in delight, not just for Jess and Jules and the accommodation they reach with their parents, but for all girls in all communities who leap and run and laugh and won’t be bound and tethered and primped into submission. Yay..

box office 0843 316 1082  benditlikebeckhamthemusical.co.uk
Booking to 11 July but betcha it goes on and on..

Rating five5 Meece Rating  (see how they run!  Girl mice! Goal!)
box office 0843 316 1082  benditlikebeckhamthemusical.co.uk
Booking to 11 July but betcha it goes on and on..

Rating five

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THE MOTHER F**KER WITH THE HAT Lyttelton, SE1

NOW HERE’S THE ONE TO SEE.  DON’T MIND THE LANGUAGE…

If you worry about language, the clue’s in the title. More f’s and assholes than you can shake a reproving finger at. But don’t. Stephen Andy Guirgis’ play is about addiction, infidelity, drugs and a gun; it is also one of the funniest, most touching, most honestly moral things you’ll see all year. Its people are as exasperatingly sympathetic as Tennessee Williams’ characters, without the despair and with a vigorous comic poetry in their very frequent rants. They make disastrous judgements and bad calls, but reach out to us across their grimy, hooting, graffiti-ed New York struggle to demand and win our love.
Within Robert Jones’ elegant, unfussy set of revolving fire-escapes and neat sliding interiors, five flawed people enact a crisis which is neither the first nor last in their lives. Jackie – ex-con, recovering alcoholic – bounds in delightedly to his childhood sweetheart Veronica, full of hope at having seen his probation officer and landed a job. He promises “grownup plans, happiness plans, next step plans!”. But there’s a hat on the table. Some Motherf***er’s hat! He tasks her with infidelity: Veronica, however, is no meek Desdemona but a Puerto-Rican spitfire with a noseful of cocaine. She kicks off and turns the air blue. Scenes slide to posher environs, and Jackie is with his AA sponsor, Ralph, being plied with prayers, 12-step wisdoms and nutritional smoothies while Ralph’s furious wife hurls obscenities offstage and storms in to watch TV. Despite Ralph’s chirpy “No stinkin’ thinkin’, be more like Abe Lincoln!” Jackie does an unwise thing with gun and hat, and – sliding to a more recherché sceneset – throws himself on the mercy of Cousin Julio, a gloriously camp and dignified gym-bunny fiddling with empanadas and trichological advice.
I wouldn’t spoil the denouement: just know that they are all glorious, giving Guirgis’ inspired lines a rare balance of absurdity and poignancy as Indhu Rubasingham directs a US-UK cast with cracking pace. Texan Ricardo Chavira as Jackie is a solid hunk of decency, Yul Vazquez – who originated the part of Cousin Julio on Broadway – is deadpan funny and momentarily touching. Also from the US Flor de Liz Perez is a firecracker Veronica; they mesh perfectly with our own Nathalie Armin (fresh from both Dara and the Beautiful Forevers) and Alec Newman as the deceptively hip, yoga-and-smoothie Ralph.

Mesh, I say: but saying the play is an immaculate polished machine, right down to a risibly incompetent fist-fight, is the least of its. Relish the killer lines, barbed insults and almost accidental wisdoms; the complexities and rows and ambiguities and always beneath them a deep beating heart that accepts flaws and failures and rejects slick cynicism. Poor old Jackie may be a recidivist but he has his code: tempted by his mentor’s wife he pounces then retires with an anguished “What are we, Europeans or some shit?” . We earnestly wish him and barmy Veronica well on some future sunlit upland without drink, coke, or guns. Just maybe some more of cousin Julio’s disgusting green spirulina eggs. We emerge feeling strangely hopeful for the human race. .

box office 020 7452 3000 to 20 aug
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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hang Royal Court, SW1

VENGEANCE WITHOUT SATISFACTION

In a bleak neon office (design by Jon Bausor) a much awaited new play by debbie tucker green, always modishly lower-case in titles, takes no prisoners.Except that it is about one, unseen and awaiting a capital punishment decision by his victim in some unspecified but British dystopia. Directed by the author, it is a 75 minute study in unreconciled trauma and the awkward insensitivities of officialdom and protocol. And perhaps (to a sympathetic ear) a good evocation of the perennial inability of non-victims to understand the tearing ,incurable dislocation of personality involved in rape.
Well, we must assume it was violent intruder rape, since all the household members – husband, sister, children – are spoken of as alive, if damaged . The characters, unnamed, are three. Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza do rather well as awkward, witteringly nervous bureaucrats, fretting antiphonally about IKEA coat pegs and getting real glasses for the watercooler. Zaza has a particularly fine crass moment as he stamps the final document with ‘love this bit!’   And Rushbrook, slightly senior, a good defensiveness about how long it has taken the system to disgorge the  criminal’s letter to his victim

That victim is a shabby black woman on mid-life, nervous but defiant : Marianne Jean-Baptiste couldn’t be better.  The trio work round awkwardly to the point, the officials prating of decisions and offering time, supporters, literature etc, all by the book. Jean-Baptiste is uncommunicative until she breaks out into passionate testimony to her family’s utter lack of any recovery in three and a half years: the children’s terrors, neighbours’ shunning, marriage damaged.
As it becomes clear that she can choose his death, Tucker  Green goes into ghoulish execution-shed options and descriptions, of a kind tiresomely familiar to frequenters of “brave” theatre. The victim wants him hung, ideally by an incompetent who risks overlong twitching asphyxia or gruesome decapitation. Finally she reads his letter.  In the original playscript there is a moment of potential subtlety at the end as she does this: onstage only telling silence.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a great actress, and the author deft and verbally clever.  But not one of the trio is given full credible humanity: the two interviewers are merely symbols of officialdom ,  and the subject an avatar of bleakly ,determinedly pessimistic and vengeful victimhood.  Given any scope at all, Jean-Baptiste could have far better served a better play.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 18 July      Rating  two   2 meece rating

pessimistic and vengeful victimhood.  Given any scope at all, Jean-Baptiste could have far better served a better play.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 18 July

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WE WANT YOU TO WATCH NT Temporary Theatre, SE1

PORN AND PHYSICALITY
We’re all on the same page here, right? Online pornography is increasingly violent, graphically displaying real, abusive sexual acts devoid of tenderness. Rapist sex is perversely extreme, anatomically damaging and profoundly corrupting to the angry, the lonely, and – most alarmingly – schoolboys confused into thinking it normal. We despise porn-hounds, know perfectly well that the online stuffings are not the innocent ooh-Mr-Window-cleaner, stuff of old. We wish there was less of a sniggery-liberal, Chandler-from-Friends implication that it’s a harmless boy’s treat. We know how feeds a wider culture of objectifying young women: not least if we fondly remember Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant BLURRED LINES, an earlier 75-minuter in this red-plank theatre.

This is a different creature altogether, by Alice Birch with the physical theatre genii of RashDash – Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland, who also star . It pitches itself somewhere between Bouffon clown-theatre and expressive dance, with dashes of crypto- Beckettian dialogue jerking – aptly like porn itself – with interruptions and crossplay. There’s even a tramp Estragon-ing through at the end. At its centre are Goalen and Greeland, neatly bobbed, henna and raven-black respectively: they appear first as jeering police interrogators accusing a young man of a graphically described, disgusting murder because he watches such things online. (Actually, it is kind of awkward to see white police, however symbolic and female, accusing a black man they have just beaten up and providing no evidence beyond his computer record). He gets the first of a few striking counter-speeches, asserting that “Millions of people watch violent porn…and then do a fun run for cancer research and give up their seat on a bus and cry at Tristan and Isolde and kiss their children and make love to their wives”.

The pair then reappear – the design , lined with tins labelled SEX and rejoicing in blackouts, roaring sound, pace and razzmatazz, is engaging (Caroline Steinbeis directs) . This time they are naive persuaders trying to get the Queen (Helena Lymbery in crude parody, crown and all) to sign a law banning all porn. They explain it to her – in wild violent dance moves, Greenland hurling Goalen to the floor and abusing her – whereon HM says that sex isn’t like that, and does a wild dance of her own expressing its joyfulness. This is not going to go down well in some quarters, not at all. And to be honest, I am not sure that the shock-value and the giggles from the audience were entirely worth it. The Queen’s too easy a symbol, a powerless one at that, and the porn industry too global for any such fantasy to bite.
A more effective sequence is also the least contrived, as the pair look down from high above at a small boy, predicting how from the first naughty picture of fellatio on a schoolfriend’s phone he will go on to wreck his own real loves and beget a new generation to suffer the same fate. That works. But the heroines don’t stay still for long (blimey, these girls are gymnastically astonishing) as an orange-suited woman with a megaphone bullies them into crazed dance for demanding that she “stop the Internet” .

Flashes of argument, never carried through, tempt you towards thought; every time though it dissolves into mere spectacle, brilliantly executed but travelling nowhere. The girls’ cry of “end it , and begin again” only underlines the impossibility of doing just that. “We should have built something” they say. But they didn’t, not really, for all the bravura . We’re back round the circle to the bit we all agree about. I hope it starts arguments about porn in society. But they’re unlikely to be new ones.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 11 july
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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