GETTING ‘EM OFF FOR VICTORY
Never in the field of TR Bath’s excellent endeavours has so much flesh been displayed with such nerve to so many. Some were, in the interval queue for the Ladies, a bit gobsmacked. “Didn’t expect them to go all the way, dear!”. But it was happy surprise. This is a newborn musical incarnation of the true story made famous in the film with Judi Dench: how a doughty widow bought the Windmill Theatre to put on “Revuedeville” , with the legendary Vivian Van Damme as her manager, and decided to improve its failing fortunes by persuading the showgirls to get naked. She used her formidable respectability to persuade the Lord Chamberlain that it was going to be art not stripping, because once naked the girls wouldn’t move, but represent classical paintings under filmy light (“subtle lighting and a conscientious hairdresser” on the pubes).
So there had to be nudity. The first, longer and more frivolous act, taking us from the mid-30s to the war years, offers plenty, including a few male backstage backsides when the girls taunt manager and staff to go first. That first act ends with a particularly courageous and surprisingly moving moment as Emma Williams as Maureen, tea-girl turned star, breaks the rule and steps forward starkers as the bombs fall to finish the defiant anti-Hitler number “He’s got another think coming” after the male singer falters.
It is the warmest and most engaging of shows, the book deftly managed by director Terry Johnson to take in the comedy,the bleakness and the camaraderie as a leg-show turned into a kind of mission. Sharp dialogue helps dilute any tendency to the saccharine: when van Damm says “We must fortify London in a way that sandbags cannot” Mrs Henderson snaps “Mr Churchill will be so glad you’re on his side”. The lyrics are by Don Black, always a safe pair of rhymes (the moment Mrs H. sings to her gloomy Jewish partner that she is “Au fait with Oy Vay” this connoisseur sits back contented.)
There is great fun in the vaudeville auditions, even greater in Graham Hoadly as the Lord Chamberlain, very Gilbert-and-Sullivan beneath the Victoria Memorial. And some of the songs (composed by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain) are properly notable: plaintive or roistering but always neat, sharp and pushing the emotional line of the piece forward as they should. Mrs Henderson herself is the peerless Tracie Bennett: lately a memorable Judy Garland but here deploying a sharp, acid wit, convincingly aged as a patron saint for all women determined to get a bit of fun out of their latter years . “I can be anything I want – except young”. That’s an song which could last.
She is beautifully counterpointed by Ian Bartholomew as Van Damm, who has the difficult transition to make from cynical impresario to shock and depression at the invasion of his native Holland. But the balance of sweet-sour sentiment is always kept neatly: when up on the roof, firewatching in the Blitz, our heroine is told “You’ll catch your death” she replies “Oh, I think Death’s busy enough elsewhere”. Nice. This one’ll live on.
Monthly Archives: August 2015
GETTING ‘EM OFF FOR VICTORY
DRAMA AS REDEMPTION
From the first moments Nadia Fall’s production sets brutal, bullying humanity against a hot, strange, majestic Australian dawn. A lone aborigine watches, silent on a great dark bare plain , as the land heaves beneath him and becomes the deck of a prison-ship of half-starved, flogged inmates and resentful red-coated marines. Up comes the light, and we and the prisoners blink, half-afraid, as Peter McKintosh’s great red-and-gold diorama blazes at us.
I fell in love a few years ago with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s marvellous, passionate play (based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, about a real event of 1788 when a colony of deported British prisoners put on a play – George Farquar’s arch comedy The Recruiting Officer, under the direction of a theatre-loving lieutenant of Marines. That was Alistair Whatley’s shorter, less richly cast version at the Rose, with some deft cast-doubling (ten players, 23 onstage here). Love all over again, last night. The only thing I missed – as Gary Wood’s nimble, mysterious Aborigine speaks only once – was the plaintive questioning line on his first seeing the ship and its brutalized inmates “Is it a dream that has lost its way?” .
Which question encapsulates the whole theme: that a highly evolved, theatrically cultured 18c society still deported thousands for trifling thefts, some pitifully old or young, often girls sold in childhood.
Wertenbaker makes the creation of the Farqhar comedy a symbol of the possibility that well-ordered language and imagination can free and transform the most brutalized. ‘Theatre is an expression of civilization” is a fancy of the idealistic governor: Cyril Nri, nicely combining thoughtful liberalism with an arms-length detachment from the chaotic directorial and personal struggles of the ambitious, lonely Lieut. Ralph (Jason Hughes). At one point, insisting on the casting of the terrifyingly farouche Liz (Jodie McNee, spikily ginger, her whole body always seething with anger) he says that they must “make an example” of her. “By hanging?” asks Ralph, since there has been a lot of this for thefts of food since they arrived. “No. By redemption” says Nri.
Cerys Matthews’ music, drawing on folk, blues and aboriginal instruments, frames the action with yearning emotional power; the nobility of the text strikes with additional power when set, tightly, against fragments of harsh back-story and the horrible brutalities and humiliations meted out by the contemptuous Major Ross (Peter Forbes). But there is saving comedy in the rehearsals and the ensemble of prisoners is tremendous: notably AshleyMcGuire a memorable stroppy Devon wench as Dabby, and Matthew Cottle beautifully judged as Wisehammer, branded a criminal for his Jewishness. Small beautiful moments reaffirm the redemptive theme: the savage Liz suddenly quieting when the Lieutenant apologizes for interrupting her; the huge angry Arscott (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) clinging to his part because of the liberation it brings “I’m not myself, I don’t hate, I’m Kite and I’m in Shrewsbury”.
Prison arts, prison theatre, are forever under attack even today by panicking Home Secretaries. The timelessness of this play’s insistence on the value of “refined literate language,well balanced lines expressing sentiments they are not used to” is striking. From the pioneering days of the London Shakespeare Workout in Brixton and Pentonville to Inside Out and Clean Break today, the truth and the need for that go on.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 17 Oct
THE BARBED SHADOW OF AN OLD WAR
I’m late on the curve with this one – but it runs into September and for me, In n these WW1 anniversary years, fascinatedly collecting plays which reflect – better than any prosier or more historical media – the sense and effects of that long tragedy. Last year’s crop I wrote about here for the Telegraph – an account which may remind some regular theatregoers of how good it’s been . Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/11314343/Theatre-can-make-the-dead-walk-before-you.html .
It is the 1930’s plays, as well as earlier ones, which make unsparing points about the hard backwash of even a victorious war; and few are more devastating than Somerset Maugham’s portrait of a family – fourteen years after the armistice – apparently back to pre-war life in a tennis-party world, but scarred both literally and socially. The Ardsleys – Simon Chandler as a prim businessman and Stella Gonet as his wife – have four children. Sydney (Joseph Kloska) is a blinded naval offcer with a DSO and nothing to live for. Of his sisters , Eva lost her man int the war and devotes herself to her blind brother, Lois is still young and has little chance – as was the case for many women – of ever finding a husband or lover. Ethel rashly married a handsome officer who, back in civilian life , reverts to being a boorish, alcoholic tenant-farmer (“The king made me a gentleman but I don’t always want to be, I like a laugh”). Visiting them is the afflluent, twice-married boulevardier Wilfred (Anthony Calf, very suave) who has his eye on seducing Lois; and most poignantly, going quietly bankrupt is Nick Fletcher as Collie, for whom twenty heroic and bemedalled years in the Navy were a poor preparation for business life. “I may have to get a job driving a motorbus” he half-jokes: this a man who commanded a destroyer.
Fatheaded stupidities, selfish and desperately selfless behaviour, wilful blindness, heroic stiff-upper lips, suppressed passions and bitterness (chiefly from Sydney, whose blind presence is a constant reminder of reality) create a hum of unease and tension. To modern sensibilities, some problems seem crazy: why can’t the girls get jobs, why shouldn’t a woman help a man out financially, why should Eva sacrifice herself for a brother who is so rude to her, and indeed why can’t he play some part at least in the father’s business rather than stay at home all day being told he is useless? But you buy into it, as the the sense of period is strongly evoked and maintained in Howard Davies’ production (the Minerva’s intimate wraparound shape it really helps, we’re there; and William Dudley’s clever, bitter design has a rural backdrop beyond the window with haycocks and the shadow of old barbed wire).
And in these days of complaints about few good roles for women, note that Maugham has (admittedly in a cast of 11) five absolutely cracking female parts. Justine Mitchell’s Eva is superb- notably in the scene where she begs the over-honourable Collie to accept her help and her love , wrenching herself from convention to heroically humiliating frankness. Gonet’s Charlotte, watchful, maternal,resigned, deals brilliantly with the matriarch’s extraordinary response to a shattering revelation and then a scandalous one; Jo Herbert’s resigned Ethel and Yolanda Kettle’s bright, seductive, scared Lois are perfect; and Matilda Ziegler’s Gwen, aggrieved wife of wolfish Wilfred, gets her storming moment in the second act.
So at last, a shivering snort of laughter meets black irony as the blinkered father says “It’s very nice to be surrounded by one’s family”, impervious to the fact that – this need not be a spoiler – one is blind, one has gone embarrassingly mad, another is about to trigger a major scandal, one is dying, one alcoholic, and another mired in quiet desperation. “We have our health” he fatuously says. It’s a cruel characterization of middle-class obtuseness, even by Maugham’s standards : but Chandler does it beautifully.
box office 01243 781312 to 5 Sept
IN WHICH I AM EASILY AMUSED BY QUITE OLD JOKES. AND CLIVE MANTLE.
We are all urged by manically cheerful Bajan waitresses to sing “`We’re all going on a Summer Holiday” before the show. It’s winter 2001, Tony Blair’s in his second-term pre-Iraq heaven enjoying a freebie by Sir Cliff Richard’s guitar-shaped Barbados pool with Cherie, Carole, Carole’s boyfriend, and a sour-faced Alistair Campbell. Cherie has farmed out the kids to Sandy Lane courtesy of Michael Winner, and invited her fellow-Catholic rich mate Silvio Berlusconi. Tony and Alistair want them out of the way because of a top secret guest: POTUS himself, George W.Bush, whose helicopter may darken the sky any minute…
Had to see this: if you want the complete theatrecat-friendly sampler-set of Edfringe theatre you need at least one big starry one, a couple of tiny hopeful ones nobody much else will bother with, some edgy Traverse stuff and one like this: politically scurrilous, real-name, sue-me-if-you-dare stuff. Its a first play by the TV director Patrick Ryecart, and though woefully dated provides some good laughs. Despising the popinjay Blair will never entirely date, will it?
And Christopher Staines is a perfect Blair: the light-tenor voice , the hairline , the theatrical gestures and intermittent flicks of panic behind the eyes. He has borrowed Cliff’s guitar to sing ,rather badly, a number called Kosovo Dreams because Carole Caplin’s Aussie boyfriend (Douglas Hansell in tight budgie-smugglers) is encouraging him to write a musical about himself . His story would “fit like a bum in a bucket!”. Alistair is taking calls from Max Clifford about Robin Cook’s mistress (dated? archaeological!). Carole is blessing stones for some kumbaya-trocious tantric ritual with Cherie. Who is scoring free stuff at the Sandy Lane boutique.
Tony’s ghastly entourage of blingy shallow greed has been lampooned before, and I did despair for a while. But what heats it up into proper farce is a surreal nightmare involving Berlusconi and Bush – surrealism which, should the victims protest, be a defence: it was all a dream, m’lud, brought on by heatstroke and Red Stripe beer. For Silvio turns up in leopardprint trunks, beaming through facelift bandages, and Cherie makes him ring Pope Ratzinger (“I appointed heem! Is Nazi but long ago!”). She gets Tony converted – in German, by speakerphone – while Silvio blows kisses and Cherie crows “Now we can get the kids into the Oratory!”.
There’s an apparent corpse under a towel, and Silvio doing Benny-Hill chases upstage, but the real star is Clive Mantle as George W.Bush. It’s a wonderful , fully realized comic turn , making the most of Ryecart’s best bits of writing – an airy dismissiveness of Yo-Blair, malapropisms, bland ignorances, diversions about Mitt Romney and the Morons and some apple-pie-picket-fence people in Wisconsin who told him for sure that that Saddam zapped the twin towers as revenge on his Daddy, who used to play cro-kay with Maggie , remember, she knocked his balls over the place, where was I? Who is this Al Kida, never heard of him, we’ll just go in, blam blam, who cares about this Coffee Kebab guy and the United Nothin’…”
His looming dominance over an ever weedier Blair reaches the point that when Bush says “Tony, you gotta deal with my dick” while fumbling (for his phone) in his shorts, the PM very nearly agrees to…but phew, he means Dick Cheney. Crude but enjoyable. So I forgave it its datedness. And the local Bajans – especially David Webber as a Poirot-loving cop – are very good fun.
http://www.edfringe.com to 31 August
THE MAN WITH THE TAN
When Simon Cartwright came onstage, what with the bright orange tan and smooth hair and that nervy little mannerism of smiling at the punchline, I briefly panicked. Because this show , written by Alex Lowe, is directed by Bob Golding who himself performed as Eric Morecambe, I must have been half-consciously expecting to feel warm affection. I clean forgot that I never took to Bob Monkhouse. Of whom Cartwright is, voice and all, a horribly believable doppelganger.
But that’s the point of this unnervingly interesting 50-minute show, drawn from the comedian’s autobiography and using a few clips of the real man in interviews. It catches the period, especially the 80’s: the shiny-floor TV shows and smiley quips, long before Merton and Dee and the deadpan satire and surrealism of modern standup. Monkhouse always felt like a throwback, even then, though he had triumphed in the 60s at the Palladium, the Man with a Thousand Gags. But even then he was awkward: a southern middle class bloke lacking the warm working-class solidarity of Morecambe or Ken Dodd. Cartwright catches the nervy determination, the scribbling down of every idea and the crippling insecurity born both of his chilly relationship with his mother (she wore black to his wedding) and of cruel tabloid exposure. Migraines, stomach, the pallid vilitigo which meant the sunlamp hours and fake-tan, and always a fear of losing it. And of losing touch with mankind in general – “Ive learnt to pretend to feel…”
Lowe sets this session in the comedian’s study at one moment in 1975: two of his precious joke-books have been stolen and the police are on the phone, and he is preparing a funeral speech for his old collaborator Denis Goodwin. He roams about, talks to himself, thinks of his friend (quoting C.S.Lewis on friendship from The Four Loves, indeed.). He breaks into prepared routines, remembers his prolific affairs, his disabled son and the calumnies in the Sunday Mirror which made him cry. He mentions assorted showbiz figures including Larry Adler, who threatened to kill him. (“He said to me, I should read his book on how to tell Jewish jokes. I said, you should read mine in how to stick a harmonica up your arse”. And he does a quick turn as Dabber Davis the veteran agent, which thrilled me since I too have briefly worked for him. He shudders at an old Lynn Barbour interview, which like all thin-skinned comedians he has kept a copy of . It begins “You’ve got to like him, he wants you too so much…it’s like having margarine rubbed in your hair”.
The dramatic turn comes with a shocking moment when the police sergeant on the phone has not turned out to be an adoring, unquestioning fan. The cop’s casual remark about preferring a different cheesy TV show hurls Monkhouse into a surreal torment as a TV gameshow screen seems to flash up “words associated with Bob Monkhouse” and he sees SMARMY – OLEAGINOUS – INFIDELITY – INSINCERITY. He collapses, knowing that many of us thought exactly that. Which is where I came in….Oh dear.
So yes, there are the Monkhouse jokes. But we get inside the man who grafted to write them, too. Fair enough.
http://www.edfringe.com to 31 August
A VICIOUS AND GLEEFUL PLEASURE…
There is a particular kind of modern feminist who fixates on the Mexican painter and free-loving socialist and her endless self-portraits: two other plays in this very Fringe have superscriptions from Kahlo sayings, like “I was born a painter and born a bitch”. But Zoe, a quiet, cerebral, apologetic publishing assistant scared of life, explains Kahlo as “Interesting, if you like that kind of thing and don’t mind being a bit annoyed…like being hit with a sledgehammer of schoolgirl solipsism” . Her cuckoo flatmate, Ruth, is an unsuccessful actress, gripped by the idea of stuffing the patriarchy by doing a one-woman show. Once she disentangles Frida Kahlo in her mind from Frida from Abba, she sees her story – lame, boho genius, fiery lover – as a dream subject. “She shagged that Lenny Trotsky! When she wasn’t painting she was shagging, and when she wasn’t shagging she was limping! Take away the ‘ting’ and you have “pain!”. AND she was a cripple, and hornier than a dwarf on a stag night!”
In this achingly funny, now well-honed and successful comedy by Chris Larner, Kahlophilia is only one of the targets skewered, in sharp lines and wonderful body-language, by the two players, Olivia Scott-Taylor as the eternal mouse in awkward blouse and pleated skirt, and Cecily Nash as the appalling Ruth: toxically self-confident with chaps (“red lipstick, show him your tits, mean are eaaaaasy!”) and raging endlessly at the weaknesses of theatre. Oh, we do love in-jokes, and these are good ones. She turns people away from the RSC Box Office where she works disadvising them from a 500-year-old Croatian epic revival described in the Indy as visceral. “£20 seats you can’t see, £ 70 you see too much and pay later in booze and therapy…Angry people walking up and down shouting. And where are the WOMEN?”.
It’s wicked, contemptuous, striking with rattlesnake accuracy at ambition and pretension in theatre (“I will do the bus crash in dance”). But is also painfully accurate about the way one young woman persecutes another. And there’s a rom-com plot running under it, predictable but enjoyable.
They even give us some of the finished show – “My womb is a paintbrush” , including a remarkable turn as Trotsky by Scott-Taylor. It world-premieres (one always says that, even if it’s going to be a derriere after two nights) in a pub theatre so new that the compere announces no talking at the bar downstairs in the interval, because the regulars are watching the Chelsea match. Given the play’s wild success at the Rosemary Branch in London, there’s a nice ingratitude about that.
So it’s a gleeful thing, and should sell out, and launch Nash and Scott-Taylor as rising stars on their Edinburgh debut. As to the writing, in sharpness of script it knocks spots of most flatmate (and flattened) TV comedies of recent years.
http://www.edfringe.com to 30 August
A TAINTED HALLELUJAH
Hail a bracingly, triumphantly, intelligently unfashionable play, and Christopher Haydon of the Gate Theatre for directing and premiering it here. Lucas Hnath’s subject is religion: true believers, theologically agonized, submitting personal happiness and relationships to a deeper philosophical argument. Not in the 17th century, not in militant jihadism, but right now in modern America.
We are in one of those immense Pentecostalist churches, where a choir of 25 in purple cassocks sways to a boppy gospel opener, happy-faced, urging us to catch our soul on fire. It’s a community, a certainty, a shared life. Having grown from a storefront assembly to a vast thousands-strong church, they have just paid off the building debt.But Pastor Paul (William Gaminara) is a charismatic, commanding figure with a new message. Agonized by a colleague’s bland assurance that everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus goes to hell (even, notably, a heroic Muslim lad who gave his life to save his sister) he asked God for guidance and was told that there is no Hell. No Satan: it is the wickedness in humanity which must be challenged, with love and a promise of salvation. He says that the judgmental assumptions of his church only draws them apart from the love of their sinful neighbours.
To a sophisticate in religion, no problem: the concept of the virtuous pagan, and of damnation as a willed, determined self-separation from God, is common enough (read C.S.Lewis’ The Great Divorce). But to this simple-hearted faithful congregation it is dynamite, just as even thinner theological arguments ripped apart Europe five centuries ago. The associate Pastor (Stefan Adegbola) challenges the heresy and walks out; others follow. The rebel’s “You are not my brother” shatters like a falling icicle on the cheerful bright-lit podium where the protagonists debate on microphones. Out of church, an Elder casts doubt on the pastor’s wisdom in allowing the schism, not least for financial reasons; but he stands firm, rejecting the church’s old culture of “contempt” for non-members.
Is he a saint in his impracticality? Or is he something else? A congregant rises to ‘testify’ with a painfully personal speech. She is Lucy Ellinson, who astonished in the Gate’s GROUNDED: once again this remarkable actor demonstrates her ability to stand still and yet emit electrical pulses of emotion and meaning so violent that the world tilts around her. Sister Jenny is just a poor single mother, living on food stamps but still paying her tithes, needing her church community but agonized with sincerity over this frightening new concept that “even Hitler”, even a child murderer, might be saved from hell.
She has another accusation too, still more damning. A confrontation with his wife shakes the pastor even more, with her flung accusation that “you’re saying that absolute tolerance involves intolerance of the intolerant‘. Breezy modern atheists may scratch their heads at religious absurdity. I have no idea where the author himself stands. But the sincerity and intelligence of the production opens a window into a world too often mocked, too little understood.
http://www.edfringe.com to 30 August
It breaks your heart, an epic tragedy in miniature: two men, a couple of sacks and a crate, but their plight and their dreams rise before us in pathetic grandeur. Drilling into the heart of the famous John Steinbeck novella, Nigel Miles-Thomas’ simple staging fully evokes its bleak compassion and harsh unsparing humanity. The story of the itinerant farmworkers, clever thwarted George and big, dumb Lennie, is conjured up, a fleck of individual love and pain in the Dustbowl America in the ‘30s. It’s as strong and rough-edged as a Woodie Guthrie song.
Miles-Thomas himself, who adapts and directs, plays the huge, looming,battered Lennie: an amiable Frankenstein-monster of a man, with the intellect of a small child and the strength of a giant. Alongside him Michael Roy Andrew is a small, neat brisk figure: bright impatient, George, who has looked after him and travelled alongside him after his aunt Clara dies, comforting and pacifying the over and over again like a patient parent with the dream of one day them getting their own farm. Every time he is made to re-tell it, the picture rises more solid, more beautiful. The promise is that Lennie can help out and “tend the rabbits”, because of his childlike fixation with petting anything soft and furry.
But not understanding his own huge strength, he kills every mouse he handles, and his tendency to panic has had them thrown out of one farm for clutching a woman’s soft dress and not knowing how to let go. “God, you’re a lot o’trouble!” says the exasperated George, but resignedly. “You cain’t get rid of him cos he ain’t mean”. Lennie, dependent and willing, just fears the punishment of not being allowed to tend the rabbits on the imaginary future farm.
If you know the book you know what happens, and how the great soft dangerous man’s sweet proclivity will bring them to disaster. But what grips in this spare, perfectly judged production is the honest evocation of the characters and their relationship. Alarmed, appalled, we watch Lennie’s half-sly, half-confused grin and moments of panic, his clutching of a newborn puppy whose fate you wincingly apprehend long before he can (“why’d ya go get killed? I never bounced you hard, you ain’t so little as mice, I didn’t know you get killed so easy”.) Michael Roy Andrew’s George, carer and almost parent, perfectly evokes the daily fear and awareness of Lennie’s innocent dangerousness – “It ain’t bad people that raises hell, it’s dumb ones”. Other characters, the few needed, are sparingly evoked: a fight, a death, narrated in brief physicality. Nothing gets in the way of our contemplation of the central relationship, and the immensity of small tragedies. It shakes you, as it should
http://www.edfringe.com to 31 August
DARK COMEDY FROM A FRACTURED EUROPE. BUT WHERE’S THE BEAR?
Only in Edinburgh’s August are you likely to find an immense, patient queue snaking round the block for half an hour, unable to get to the bar, in order to see a Bulgarian playwright channelling Beckett, Pinter and Kafka in intense, wrist-slitting Mittel-European gloom about the human condition. Even if it does star John Hannah as a time-travelling, undead Harry Houdini, have the catnip word “Titanic” in the title, and be improbably acclaimed as “a madcap comedy of illusion”.
But Hristo Boytchev is a much renowned Bulgarian playwright and political satirist, and attention must be paid to this UK premiere. So what we have here is a group of tramps at a derelict railway station, living on rubbish that trains throw out as they go past, and dreaming of escape along the rails which link and envelop the world from which they are social exiles. Meto (Jonathan Rhodes) tries to organize them, as a theatrical director yelling “I can’t work in these conditions!”. Louko (Stuart Crowther) is solidly sullen, Finnish Heidi Niemi, the only woman, is depressed . Doko (played by Ivan Barnev from Sofia) is a heartfelt if rather overdone imbecile, mourning for his one love, a bear called Katya . She died, probably as the others unkindly say because he sold the last of her food for vodka. They all booze a lot, whenever someone throws a half-finished bottle from the train.
But what is this? Out of a crate emerges the dapper tail-coated figure of John Hannah, who is no sooner murdered for his yellow patent shoes than he returns to life and starts creating illusions, because he is Harry Houdini. Who, being Hungarian-American, presumably returns to this dour 21c Europe to sort it out. He magics up the illusion that Doko’s bear is alive, selling tickets and driving the train (no, we don’t see the bear, dammit). He conjures up more beer. and gets drunk. He explains that all life is an illusion because men need “bread and circuses, all the world’s a stage’.
In the one moment of the 80-odd minutes which is really emotionally engaging, the group sing the European anthem from Beethoven’s 9th and pick up old buckets and rubbish which become violins, to play through disaster like the orchestra of the title. To hammer the point home and flatten the nailhead, Houdini declares that “The whole world is the Titanic and we’re along for the ride. The only escape is through illusion…the seventh dimension of the world is inside you..dream of a world beyond that we carry within us”. When he does magic up a train, it all gets grimmer until Doko adds the further moral that we are each alone, the whole world being just “the dream of a sleepwalker”.
Hannah gives it all he’s got, which is a lot; Russell Bolam directs with some wit, Anthony Lamble and Giles Thomas set it physically with excellent sound and light illusions of passing trains. Mark Bell, one of our best LeCoq-trained physical experts, gets them all falling over a lot. But it feels derivative of too many similar strands, its absurdism tires, and it hammers home its messages too sententiously. If you love such plays, it’s for you. the gloomy Niemi says it all: “Harry, you be weird. We all like to get pissed, but you taking it too far”.
http://www.edfringe.com to 30 Aug
GENET GENIUS? Hmmmm
From time to time, the seeker for cultural enlightenment must deliberately book in to the works of some author he or she can’t see the point of. For some its Beckett, for others Sarah Kane, for many the excitement faded (forty years ago actually) for the knottier French existentialists. For me it’s Jean Genet , ragamuffin darling of the 1960s intellectual left and subversive prophet of the “beauty of evil”. So, in a spirit of hopeful generosity, I staggered off the Caledonian Sleeper for my first Fringe outing to see what All Bare theatre made of this, described once as “a poisoned pearl”, and revived a few years ago in New York with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, no less. It’s that sort of play: the kind actors challenge themselves with for intellectual credibility.
Genet took inspiration from a 1940s case where two maidservants brutally murdered and mutilated their employers. His black-stockinged maids – who clearly don’t have much housework to get on with – spend 75 gruelling minutes in role-play, switching names (one is Claire and one is Solange) and they each take random turns at impersonating the employer, who also briefly appears.
In eloquently contemptuous speeches – Martin Crimp translates -they play and taunt, one forcing the other to crouch spitting and polishing her patent shoes and then despising her very spittle. Sometimes Claire, or possibly Solange, gets overwrought about the rise and fall of the mistresses “ivory” breasts. Often they boast of being capable of murder. Bizarre statements of stoned poetic import are made – that the image in the mirror has a ‘stench’ , that objects accuse them. Neither seems fond of the other , or sounds much like a real woman, and both hate and revere the mistress. She despises them. Its socialist-capitaIst resentment of the servant relationship: none of your Downton Abbey stuff.
Crowdfunded, played with dedication by the three young cast, it is a waste: one of those determinedly academic exercises which never quite gets within striking distance of any truth or pleasure. Even as a curiosity of theatre history it is pretty dated: its appeal (Think Blanchett and Huppert) is faile social indignation and candy for the male gaze – French maids outfits, breasts, say no more . Si no, I still don’t get the point. But I did try. Honest.
to 22 aug. http://www.edfringe.com.
ENJOY BEING A GIRL? UM, NOT REALLY…
Stef Smith’s new play – after her acclaimed debut with ROADKILL – is skilfully written, elegantly performed, and curiously annoying. It is a portmanteau compendium of young urban 21c female angst and self-harm . There are three mainly soliloquizing, often antiphonal, occasionally interacting characters and a lighted panel which is sometimes a door. Director Orla O’Loughlin correctly describes it as “fragmentary, poetic, tonally diverse” and Smith herself cheerfully says that all of us wrestle with the “the chaos of deep dark hard things, behave badly, drink too much, sleep too little, punch walls”.
The risk she takes (and sometimes does temporarily evade) is that watching strangers have 85-minute nervous breakdowns, however beautifully scripted, can pall. The most determinedly loopy of the three, and mercifully the funniest, is Emily Wachter as Anna. She has spent over a year shut in her top flat in her pants, starving herself to the point of death, making bird-feeders out of tampons and granola. She is now destroying mirrors , clothing and furniture (“God bless hammers!”) before moving on to rip up the floorboards. She actually is quite entertaining, her demented gung-ho busyness about her flat not unlike a dark version of the character Miranda Hart plays. Or perhaps Bridget Jones gone tonto.
Wachter is as usual, superb. But as it darkens into a somewhat tiresome intensity, Smith gives Anna one long self-absorbed riff about her guilt for everything from 9/11 to Auschwitz, whereon my compassion-fatigue went nuclear, provoking a reprehensible urge to slap the spoilt tilde kid for grandstanding on real misery. The author does at least feed in a line to indicate that someone is paying the rent for her solipsistic suicidal lifestyle, though the landlord is going to put in a stiff bill one day for those floorboards.
Downstairs – we learn – is where Rebecca lives (Anita Vettesse). Her husband has left her, provoking her to cut her own face open with broken glass, shout “Fuck off!” at the doctors treating it, and smash the telly (more hammer work, though the set is starkly bare and we must imagine it) . She gets repeatedly drunk, though in a passing moment of realism we learn that she does have a job, as “a paralegal”, which may explain why conveyancing always takes so long these days.
The third, most sympathetic and fully rounded character, is Samantha (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who works in a care home and wants to change sex and live as Sam. Her/his gender dysphoria is the most convincing of the three problems; a disguised brief fling with Rebecca is properly affecting. So, in another interaction, is Rebecca’s attempt to find out through the letterbox what is wrong with her invisible neighbour . That it has taken her over a year to wonder about the crashing and smashing is, I suppose, part of the urban-alienation theme.
Anyway, Smith does allow us a redemptive ending, thanks to the kind of visitation which only happens in this kind of play: a possibly imaginary injured pelican who can fly through closed windows. Oh, and it snows, and something else sentimental happens in the ceiling too.
http://www.edfringe.com to 30th August
THE COMPUTER COUNTESS
It’s a topical, Tim-Hunt-tastic moment to celebrate one of the forgotten women of science, and the Edinburgh University Theatre companyhave hit on a cracking good story. Ada Lovelace (her married name, she was a Countess) was Lord Byron’s daughter, his only legitimate child, by the clever and mathematically gifted Anne Milbanke. Who, understandably, left him, what with the sibling-incest and the philandering. She raised Ada to be a femme serieuse: the child’s daring imagination may have come from the absent Dad, and she fought her mother over the idea of “poetical science”, but her hard gift for mathematics led her to collaborate with Charles Babbage, first father of computing. He was working on his huge clattering cog and wheel “Engine” (nicely evoked here in huge noisy projections) and dreamed of a still bigger Analytical Engine .
Ada brought her skill to his work, but also that poetical imagination about its possibilities: she is credited with creating the first algorithm, and with pushing the idea that in the future, computers might be able to work with things beyond mere numerical calculation. He called her “ a fairy who cast a magical spell over the most abstract of sciences’. She said “My intellect will keep me alive!”. What Lady Lovelace would make of the age of Instagram yoga selfies and click-porn doesn’t bear thinking of.
But it was a hell of a life, cut short at 36, and there is gold in her writings, from childhood dreams of flight to a fiery correspondence with Babbage (“I cannot stand another person to meddle in my sentences!” – yep Ada, I know the feeling.) He and she apparently started a horserading syndicate late on, victims of the common delusion that there is a System, and lost money at it. In this production’s rareish moments of clarity – either biographical or computer science lecturettes – it becomes fascinating. The six- strong student group, however, unfortunately opt for a sour, pretentiously ‘devised’, black-clad, mimetic- symbolic interpertation, full of showy lifts and fallings to the ground. It is a theatrical idiom which only works at the very top of its game. Not here, alas. The show claims itself to take the form of an algorithm, but …no. . So while I am immensely grateful to have learned of the lady, and have looked her up like mad ever since, the show barely gets off the starting block. But what a cerebrally adventurous story, what a feminist pioneer yarn! I was going to say, bring on a Frayn or Stoppard to do a less drama-schooly version; but hey, the old boys have done their time. Give the story to James Graham. Or Lucy Prebble. Use more of the contemporary letters. Shine a light on Ada the Algorithm lady, not on outworn theories of theatrical form. http://www.edfringe.com to 30 aug rating two
GRIEF, ILLUSION, PLAY…
You can’t label this extraordinary two-hander by Tim Crouch as “experimental” theatre, even though it uses a different – wholly unprepared – second actor every time, involves secret audio and audible muttere briefings and a handing over of scripts by the author-performer to his colleague; even though it drops in and out of levels of reality including moments when Crouch asks solicitously whether the second actor is OK, and that it plays recklessly with time, probability, meaning, the concept of hypnosis, and the philosophical idea that all of us perform our lives perilously unscripted.
But it’s not experimental any more, given that Crouch has been doing it for ten years with multiple awards. Whatever it proved, the piece continues to prove it to seat-edge audiences far wider than the cognoscenti who rejoice in novelty and metatheatre. So stand by: this is the moment to bring along a friend whose wariness of tricksy modern theatre usually makes him or her swerve to the bar for an hour, pleading headaches.
This imagined friend will be converted, though shaken. Crouch has humour, sincerity, belief and gentle humanity, and his topic is grief. He plays (when he is not being the writer-director leading the other actor) a scuzzy showbiz hypnotist who, three months before, was driving a car in the dusk and killed a girl of twelve on her way to a music lesson. He is stuck in trauma, blocked, hesitant, losing his grip on his act and his life. The other actor (in the show I saw, Aoife Duffin, young and slight and female) plays the middle-aged father of that child, himself stuck in grief, who improbably volunteers from a pub audience to go onstage.
And that’s it. The rest is their interaction, both during the show before the hypnotist realizes who the father is, and after it when the supposed pub audience have left, shocked. Beyond that, description will not help or enlighten you: just say it is one of the strongest, strangest, truest evocations of grief I have ever seen. The grief that traps, that deludes, that leads you in circles, fuels desperate magical thinking and can estrange one mourning parent from the other and rip families apart. There is guilt, too: a guilt transferred helplessly between the driver and the father, united in the narrowing trap of a fact neither can get past. It is the grief, brilliantly written, which can become a kind of synaesthesia so that words from a policeman fall “like concrete blocks in black” and lodge under your ribs, and in which your lost child seems to lurk in every space and crack in every object in the house and the world.
It is shocking, grippingly moving in moments but momentarily funny: it is held together by the sincerity of Crouch and the acceptance ,and unease, of the other actor. When, near the shining end, the creator drops out of character and turns conversationally to his colleague he asks “Don’t you think it’s a bit contrived?” . We laugh. It is that cathartic moment of theatre when, having been shaken into a community of pain, we breathe and realize that it was all in play.
Take that sceptical friend, do. But probably not if his or her own grief is recent. It’s strong stuff.
http://www.edfringe.com to 16 August
DINOSAUR-TING OUT FAMILY LIFE..
A school backpack suddenly yawns like the jaws if a Tyrannosaurus Rex, devouring an actor’s head. A toy helicopter overflies three herding brontosauri. Human velociraptors hop and hiss: a sudden umbrella is the menacing crest of a Spinosaur. And as an unseen patient lies heaving laboured breaths, a ukelele and xylophone lament gently murmurs “Bye bye ceratops, dont cry cry ceratops, i will try, triceratops to get byee…” And at that moment, a show of whimsy and masterly, LeCoq-trained mimetic physical daftness slides into something with real heart. Eccentric, oblique, but real.
Superbolt Theatre – Maria Askew, Frode Gjerlow and Simon Maeder – play a Dorset family of three – Dad Terry, geeky son Noah and splendidly stroppy teenage Jade. They are preparing, in a community centre in Lyme Regis on the Jurassic coast, to show us an old VHS of the first Spielberg film in memory of their late Mum, who was a palaeontologist, and after separating from Terry has died. This leaves him an incompetent fulltime custodial Dad who buys time with takeout curries and the toy helicopter. The teenagers flash back at times to their childhood and the confusion of that early separation, but – someone having lost the video cassette – Noah draws the others in to re-enacting highlights of the film, right down to the trembling glass of water and the electric fence.
It is adept – the sight of Maeder playing both parts as a velociraptor chasing himself is remarkable – and amiable in tone, as when the three storm the auditorium trying, confusedly, to explain chaos theory to individual audience members in a babbling hurry. And, of course, it has good physical jokes as when the men appear as DNA strings, or one becomes Richard Attenborough in seconds, courtesy of a glob of shaving foam.
But its chief appeal is in simple heart: a slanting portrait of a family in the confusion of grief, holding itself together with a takeaway curry and the consoling memory of a film they used to watch together, raptly obsessive. That strikes a chord, in a sweet and funny hour.
http://www.edfringe.com to 30 Aug
THE RHINESTONE COWGIRL RIDES AGAIN
I first saw this cabaret-theatre character here in 2002, drawn by curiosity because the theme was “Tina C’s Twin Towers Tribute”. Under a year on, it could have been the car-crash acme of Fringe tastelessness. I stayed to admire. The occasional metamorphosis of writer-performer Christopher Green into a glitzy Nashville diva is up there with Dame Edna for calculated, needle-sharp humour and party-time rapport with an audience. Born on the gay-cabaret scene and honed in many a pub, marquee, inflatable cow and festival, it even flowers intermittently on Radio 4 – no mean feat for cross-dressed satire in a rhinestone miniskirt, and proof that Tina doesn’t depend only on her (not inconsiderable) physical glamour .
It’s sharp, that’s the thing. The swipe at American showbiz grandstanding after 9/11 was if not exactly harmless, pretty well deserved. The idea was that this steely, self obsessed C& W star woke from anaesthetic after cosmetic surgery to find everyone emotional, distressingly learning that for once, everything wasn’t about her. So while every other country star was lucratively emoting patriotism and revenge, she was helpless in hospital with a face like a baboon’s bum.
Over a decade since I have kept up with Tina’s shows: the lifestyle guru insulting the audience with elegant patronage, the claims of entertaining troops in Eye-rack, her explanation of the banking crisis, her Presidential candidacy. Like Edna’s the legend grew: “First I was a girl, then a woman, then a brand, and now – (chokes with emotion) I’m an ideology”. In this show, disguised as a book launch event with songs (“Does Margaret Atwood do that? Does Jane Austen?”) the story told, with several new songs and lines and some beloved old ones. The spoof country lyrics grow ever more delicately filthy ” It aint easy being easy” and ” No dick is as hard as my life” – as he skewers the glitzy feminism, blingy lifestyle, early years poverty tales bulging into marble-and-onyx consumerism , and the soupy religiosity (“Make it pretty for Jesus!). And, of course, the country pain,: Tina explains that the deal between beautiful famous people and us oiks is that you must pretend to suffer.
To parody so well you have to be half in love with the genre and its people, and Green is: the music itself (he plays guitar well and keyboards superbly) disgracefully carries you away. Tina’s “I am America, my body is this land” is both rude and strangely inspiring, and there’s an awful stir in her Iraq war anthem (“Shock and Awe! Sexier than internnational law! I am America, hear me roar”) . Even in the inaptly arid lecture-room environment to which Underbelly have daftly moved her, the whole audience succumbed to Tina’s iron control, and not only did a brief line-dance but sang along to her hyper-Republican campaign song Tick My Box (she makes Sarah Palin sound mild).
Green has other strings of work – Ida Barr, a coming book on stage hypnosis, theatre events – but it seems that Tina is not yet being pushed over the Reichenbach Falls with her cowgirl silk fringes flying behind her. She may not be an ideology, but she’s still an event. Hell Yeah!
http://www.edfringe.com to 17 August
HOLMES AND HOKUM, FRIENDSHIP AND GRIEF
Good to start the Fringe-blitz with a winner . (Not that it was the first one that hit me as I lurched off the Caledonian Sleeper, but more of that later). I would rather rejoice in a fabulous return to form by writers Tom Salinsky and Robert Khan, whose COALITION I loved, but whose KINGMAKER last year, a Boris-fable, didn’t quite ring the bell.
This one abandons modern politics to dive back into the 1920s, with such thematic sharpness, entertaining brio and artfully strong production values – all neatly contained within an hour – that it gets my first Edinburgh-Five. Hurrah. From the moment when we all settled down to a backdrop of archive film – magic-tricks, muttonchop whiskers, old Sherlock Holmes clips of Basil Rathbone – the mood was set; in the opening scene a séance promised a pleasing ghostly Edinburgh creepiness, which is then neatly subverted by the actual story, which is not without seriousness.
It draws on the real friendship of the American Harry Houdini, great magician and escapologist, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini, realized by Alan Cox with gorgeous energetic suavity, is a showman to his fingertips, seen doing one of his own fake seances with his wife Bess (Milly Thomas), talking of “beyond the morbid veil” etc. But Houdini knew it was hokum, and that there was nothing supernatural in his magic tricks and escapes either: only graft, practice and skill. But he hugely admired Conan Doyle for the rationality of his Sherlock stories; and when the great man comes backstage – Phill Jupitus gloriously auld-Scottish and orotundly admiring – they become friends.
But Doyle, who has lost a son, believes in spiritualism, frequents mediums including his own wife (Deborah Frances-White) , and lectures about it . He also of course was taken in by the “Cottingley Fairies”, also dramatized here a couple of years back.
Houdini is horrified, stops doing his fake seances onstage, and artfully exposes one of his friend’s pet mediums , beginning a mission to expose others as mere conjurers like himself. But Doyle is muttonheadedly convinced of communication with the netherworld, even believing that Houdini himself has a secret supernatural gift and dematerializes in his water-tank performance. The friendship starts to crumble. A deeper question slants through, relevant to eccentrically religious people and sceptics today: is it right, asks Bess Houdini, to try and disabuse someone of a comforting belief? Should grief outrank rationality? In a painful scene Doyle sets up a seance for Houdini to talk to his late mother, and the showman angrily debunks it; opening the other question of the morality of faking conversations with people’s dead relatives at all.
It’s neat, sharp, brief, entertaining and full of well imagined lines, especially as Houdini gets aggravated by Doyle’s stubbornness (“And half of his Holmes stories he cribbed from Edgar Allan Poe!”). A shocking (real) event changes the mood, no spoilers for those who haven’t read about Houdini’s life. It opens the way for Khan and Salinsky to create a really spooky shock ending. A temptation which, praise them to the skies, they utterly reject. They end on a very, very good joke. I’d love to see this play grow longer, and live on.
to 31 August http://www.edfringe.com
A LOST LADY RETURNS, SAD AND BEGUILING
Theatre loves to eat its own history, and fair enough: if you want intensity, volatile emotion, hope and heartbreak and impossible yet irresistible characters, there are few richer diets. Especially looking back at the age of star-cursed star marriages and a pre-permissive intensity of scandal. Only lately Southwark gave us ORSON’S SHADOW, with Adrian Lukis as Laurence Olivier, taking up with his third-wife-to-be Joan Plowright during an ill-fated collaboration with Orson Welles. In that play Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) was mentally disintegrating gradually, but in the background to the clash of Titans.
Now that divorce moment of 1960 is examined from another angle, and this time it is the full Vivien: the remarkable Susie Lindeman sits, roams, clambers, collapses, emotes and flirts, alone onstage for 75 minutes in Donald MacDonald’s play fresh from Paris. It chimes with a BFI season and exhibition at the V&A, marking fifty years since her final performances; and in its own right does much to remind us that there was more to poor Vivien than being Scarlett O’Hara and a discarded Lady Olivier.
Lindeman is physically perfect in the role: birdlike, fragile, a wayward waif, eagerly intense in profile. Her voice is deceptively wispy until it hardens into sudden determination, her studied actressy flirtatiousness suddenly falling away as the rages and despairs of her bipolar mental instability take hold. Her plaint that the ‘condition’ has condemned her to a life of apologizing for behaviour she can barely remember is unbearably touching. “Suddenly I seem to be standing outside myself and I can’t get back in”.
The title indicates that the monologue, in direct speech or recreated flashbacks over twenty years, is addressed to her lost husband, during the divorce and his remarriage to Plowright. At first , and in flashes thereafter, it is the kind of imaginary conversation anyone jilted in love can recognize: appealing, pleading, insulting, claiming. But as she remembers, she carries us back into their key moments: courtship (when both were married to other people), her convent childhood, a beauty’s steely conviction that she could always get what she wanted – “but then of course, you have to keep it..”. She remembers the misery of her ECT treatments, her miscarriages, the affair with Peter Finch, how Olivier’s look of love turned over years to intolerable pity. She flashes out the suddenly steely realization after Gone with the Wind that ‘I was better on film than you!”.
Every gesture and line is immaculate, thought-through, elegant and telling, and it becomes mesmerizing. Cal McCrystal directs – away from his normal comedy beat, but taking pains to keep it moving and surprising, not least with some brilliantly simple but effective video projections by Mic Gruchy : sea-waves, clouds, Notley Abbey’s ancient windows , and Sardi’s where the nervous Olivier agreed to meet her, his new woman at his side to guard him. It transports you to a lost time, and a lost individual’s rare, sad, starry career.
Box office 0207 287 2875 to 22 august
A PIG TALE TROTS ITS STUFF
Strike day in a hot pedestrian London, and a surreal opening matinee for Stiles and Drew’s new family musical (fresh from the Singapore Rep’s Little Theatre and knocking out a couple of shows a day before The Commitments takes over with moodier night music). Pop meets nursery, as squads of excitable children and toddlers are ushered with difficulty through crowding paparazzi: for these are bankable pigs, with Saturday TV and boy-band credibility.
Simon Webbe of Blue (and Strictly) is a Big Bad Wolf in Elvis quiff and lamé biker-jacket, Leanne Jones from Hairspray is one bouncy piglet, the ripped and street-cool Taofique Folarin from the Lion King another, and Daniel Buckley of Loserville racks up his second Piggy-related role after a Lord of the Flies tour. As for Mummy Pig, it’s Alison Jiear, Olivier nominee fro Jerry Springer the Opera (never, never forget her “I just wanna dance!”). She spiritedly throws the trio out to make their way in the world, in a fine belting aria which might catch on in the age of boomerang kids. Especially as the ousted offspring respond with cheerful optimism and a chorus of “Big Wide World – perfect for a pig!”
There was talk of Gareth Gates playing pig 3, the sensible one with the bricks, but vocal problems we are told prevented it. I must say that he is missing a fair bit of fun in not climbing into the rather fine fat-suit dungarees and curly tail and oinking along. For a 55-minute children’s show, this packs in all the musical-theatre elements in miniature: a short but ferociously jolly overture, genuinely witty choreography, a little bit of recitative, the necessary jeopardy, a basic but effective set reveal when the three houses appear, and a few big numbers causing adults in the stalls to go “whoooop!”, to the puzzlement of their more decorous young companions. Very educational.
Anthony Drewe has respected the famous tale (even giving us the exchange with “Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin” but made the straw-building pig (Jones) worry about ecologically sustainable materials, the stick one (Folarin) a nicely feckless and games-mad badboy, and Buckley a thoughtful bookish nerd whose particularly lovely voice soars in his dream of building a brick house where they could all live together. Including Mum. The Wolf does his huffing to good effect, with visible string-tugging effects to bring the roofs off : visible is good, children like to feel they could do the show again at home after tea, and Webbe the Wolf’s resort to an asthma inhaler when his huffing fails will also strike a chord in the modern primary classroom. He gets his comeuppance in the cooking-pot, despite the more earnest piglet’s attempt to save him and “hand him over to the police” and the eco-sow’s fret about wolf culls not being environmentally sustainable.
But such asides are for the parents, and for all its good heart this is not one of those cloyingly responsible middle-class educational shows. Just a good lark: jolly theatre with an arful twist of street cred to keep the older brothers and sisters onside as well as the small, wondering theatre newcomers. Clever.
box office 0844 482 9677 to 6 sept
rating three (think of them as pigs, OK?)
BEHIND THE PALACE WALLS: A CHILLING MODERNITY
Peter McKintosh designs cold, skilful dictator chic: above a shining marble floor, the majestic Mittel-Europa chandelier dims to a blood-red aurora or to surveillance-camera pinpoints. A wide dark window looms beyond two silver-gilt audience chairs. We are in a Presidential Palace anywhere on the grim modern globe. The Leader himself is never seen; we watch, in fragmented, fugal snap-scenes, four women waiting for him through a long afternoon and evening. Outside, a denied revolution is brewing beyond the river as the despised “Northerners” take revenge.
Trapped in the arid magnificence of the great room, the women do not invariably understand one another’s language and often speak their thoughts and memories to us, or to themselves. At first Abi Morgan’s jerky structure, repeated lines and flashback variations of dialogue jarred, but I should have trusted the Donmar and director Robert Hastie. Because that early discomfort rapidly becomes part of the necessary experience, echoing and amplifying the dreadfulness of such a milieu. It makes an intense 95-minutes into one of the creepiest and most accomplished new plays of the year.
A smooth, scornful Western photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), has come to take a picture of the dictator. His wife Micheleine or Misha plays hostess: a Pradafied figure in zebraskin stilettos and piled coiffure . With her over the chilli-vodka shots — we eventually learn why – is a drab depressed friend Genevieve (Michelle Fairley). Her late husband painted a picture on the wall, described by the various viewers looking at us through its imaginary expanse in terms which become ever more significant.
The fourth woman, the journalist’s interpreter , is Zawe Ashton, shabby in ankle-boots and market-stall skirt, mistranslating, beadily observing, and artfully pinching glassware and videos at every opportunity. With her dark quirky look like an elf gone to the bad, Ashton creates a frighteningly recognizable evocation of what can happen to denizens of a crushed land: a creature sly, desperate, ignoble, mendacious, denying her own tribal roots, enviously hating and desiring both the splendour of Micheleine’s world and the chill sophisticated freedom of the journalist’s.
But at the heart of it, in a performance which should whisk her straight onto a Best Actress shortlist, is Cusack as the wife: an Imelda, Asma, Elena Ceaucescu or Mirjana Milosevic. All brittle poise from eyebrows and aubergine nails to marble-clattering heels, Madame moves between smalltalk and sentiment, dry observation (not least of the interpreter’s light fingers) to brief naked despair and a final strange nobility of resignation as to what will happen when rougher boots mount the Palace stairs. O’Reilly, impatient and dismissive in her neat trousers-and-waistcoat, gives the sarcastic, brittle professionalism of the journalist; and Fairley rises from quiet mousy beginnings to evoke exactly how it is when you live smilingly alongside lies. “Thirty-five years is a long time to despise your best friend”.
The gradual unpeeling of who they are, what they have seen and betrayed, holds you tense and scared. Outside are hints of fleeing and firestorms, gunfire and looting; inside dark histories and rotting compromises. And who is not a parasite? The wife, once a lovelorn girl, who forgives her master all horrors? The needy greedy interpreter? The best-friend who learned to ignore the fate of her husband and court power? Or the journalist heading back to her clean white sheets and contact-sheets of award-winning atrocity shots? Nobody is clean. All, in moments of spoken honesty, are to be pitied.
A FATHER AND A SON, WHEN THE TIMES WERE A-CHANGING…
Old army jokes get readopted by every generation. I suspect that one of the most slyly placed laughs in this ultimately charming evening falls into that category. The Sergeant-Major thunders “Recruit Mortimer! I didn’t see you at camouflage practice!” “Thank you very much sir..”. Pause, a gale of mirth as the audience gets it. Nice.
But beyond such punchline moments, the play’s strength is elsewhere, born of personality, affection and an acknowledgement which gradually grows on you: of wider truths about parental love and the deep, alarming generational change (my own generation…) when a 20th century cut itself rudely adrift from postwar austerity.
A portentous reaction? Well, better that than the irritability which marked my first half-hour watching this two-hander: frankly repelled by the cocky self-absorbed delinquency of the younger protagonist and narrator. Jack Fox is Charlie Mortimer, plays alongside his real-life father, the veteran James Fox as Roger Mortimer – ex-Coldstream Guard, racing correspondent, wit, and longsuffering parent. He was nicknamed Lupin in honour of Pooter’s awful son in Diary of a Nobody. The real Charlie kept his father’s letters spanning thirty years: letters to Eton, to various hippyish foreign retreats, to his brief spell in army training and his sadder time in rehab after long abuse of alcohol and drugs. In middle age he published them as Dear Lupin; the late Roger’s voice entranced Radio 4 with its dry, caustic humour and fearless commentary on life with a heavy-drinking wife, neighbours and random racetrack encounters. Not to mention the glorious vituperations (many, I must say, about women: Yoko Ono described as being “as erotic as a sack of dead ferrets” ). The book took off, and now Michael Simkins deftly shapes it into this two-hander, directed by Philip Franks in a nice cluttered Adrian Linford set.
It adds a lot more narrative from Charlie about his own life, which is what caused my early irritability. Jack Fox is not yet charismatic enough on stage to create an emotional hinterland and sympathy: when his father calls him “an unrepentant spiv”, he is not far off, even when Lupin is still only bunking off from Eton and being rescued from expulsion by his friend’s godfather, Montgomery of Alamein. As he spirals into idle random jobs, boozing, overspending, showing-off and every kind of drug, sympathy drains away. But not from his father, whose exasperated love breathes in every line, offering advice on foreign visas and shady hats and French police, enclosing cheques and relating his own life – a hardworking one in contrast to Lupin’s – without complaint or comparison right through into his declining years. By which time Lupin has HIV and a damaged liver, and hardly notices his father’s growing weakness.
It’s a toughly unsympathetic role, and young Fox does his best. But the glory of the night is his father James: whether being Roger in mulberry cords and tweed jacket, or slipping deftly into character parts – headmaster, elderly tart, Montgomery, Jobcentre official, assorted army officers, a wide-boy dealer boss and, best of all, an utterly perfect Brian-Sewellesque fine art auctioneer. That keeps audience affection flowing; and when Lupin after the interval is getting his comeuppance and realizing what a mess he made of thirty years, the relationship becomes a touching tribute to the rock-solid and wise affection of a funny, perhaps sometimes lonely, maverick father for his classically ‘hopeless’ son.
So yes, it chokes you up in the end. In his last days Mortimer said he wanted no memorial service “just a quick fry-up”; and asked only for Lupin to remember some of his jokes. The play serves that cause magnificently; and by the end becomes a memorial any parent could be proud of.
Box Office: 0844 482 9671 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com
to 19 sept
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GOES HAPPILY DEMENTED AT THE ALMEIDA
“Cleverness is not wisdom,” warn the Maenad chorus, as king Pentheus determinedly resists the rise of new god Dionysos’ cult in Thebes. Euripides’ Bacchae tells how the young god returns to his mother Semele’s home city to visit her grave, only to wreak terrible vengeance on Thebes’ young and arrogant king Pentheus, who refuses to respect his godhead. The Greek term for divine power, daimon, becomes a touchstone of Anne Carson’s new version for the Almeida: even the spelling of Carson’s title, Bakkhai, proclaims her intention to stay closer to the original texture of Greek. Euripides’ formal structure remains intact, lyrical choral odes alternating with intense scenes, and while Carson’s clear, crisp language (which retains ancient Greek cries of Euoe! Euoe!) mainly inhabits a timeless poetic world, she touches the contemporary from time to time: “Shall we call a cab?” elderly patriarch Cadmos asks the blind seer Teiresias as they set off in Bacchic regalia to join the revels. “It doesn’t sound very Dionysian,” Teiresias ruefully replies.
Carson’s commitment to authenticity is echoed in the Almeida’s classically-driven production, directed by James Macdonald. Our three leading actors double (and even triple) the principal roles, just as they might have done in ancient Athens, and we have a superb Chorus whose strong, graceful sense of movement and burnished singing tone regularly infuse a sense of the sacred on stage. Composer Orlando Gough mixes tribal, almost Native American sounds with soaringly Medieval harmonies and contemporary dissonance to give each Choral ode a wild, beautiful air. Consonants become percussion: describing how the god “has stung (Cadmos’s daughters) out of their minds”, the Chorus hold a nasalised “ng” until it sounds like a bee trapped in music. Elsewhere, the Chorus yelp, whisper, sigh and scream, or chant speech in unison with mesmerising slowness and clarity. While their choreography isn’t so original, the discipline of their group movement constantly impresses, rapping their thyrsi on the ground with gunshot-sharp timing to add a primal beat. Having changed their contemporary clothes on arrival for soft and ragged fawnskins, the Chorus steadily become more enraptured as the play progresses, rocking and shaking when possessed, smearing their faces with warpaint before Pentheus’ gruesome downfall: Dionysiac frenzy is certainly fun, but it’s also definitely frightening.
Antony McDonald’s design takes our contemporary world (Pentheus in suit and tie, Cadmos in dressing-gown and slippers) into the ancient, played on a flat dark stage surrounded by low hillocks of black soil. The sense of time and place is pleasingly mellow, though Pentheus does get a classic Chanel suit for his fatal Mount Cithaeron adventure. Ben Whishaw plays Dionysos as a whimsically gentle, long-haired cult leader whose many parallels with Jesus are enjoyably obvious: but Whishaw’s menace is very much hidden behind serene confidence, and sometimes this god does need more rage, more viciousness. Bertie Carvel is a nicely uptight, prurient Pentheus, but entirely outshone by his excellent, demented Agave to close. Kevin Harvey’s Cadmos quavers delightfully but lacks the gravitas, the sense of spent fire that would make him finally tragic.
– CHARLOTTE VALORI
At the Almeida Theatre until 19 September. Box office 020 7359 4404