Monthly Archives: September 2015



You won’t see this show again, nor the other Showstoppers’ evenings I have loved in Edinburgh. If you weren’t there tonight you’ve missed a medley of Daily Mail headlines in the style of Fiddler on the Roof, a Mamma Mia finale, a Gypsy Kings’-style stamping love duet, a corgi chorus, Shakespeare rap, West Side Story rumble at the Cereal Cafe to a backing of “Snap Crackle and Pop”, and a moody Kurt Weill number. But don’t worry. Get down to the Apollo, shout a few suggestions at random, tweet some more dodgy suggestions in the interval, and watch your most feverish, late-night musical-theatre fantasies come true.
I adore the Showstoppers, because few sights are more enlivening than consummate, long-trained skill giving itself to the service of pure frivol. The runaway success of Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong proved that: do silliness well enough, and Britain will sit at your feet. This one may well follow it. The crowd-funders who have brought this musical improvisation company to its first West End run were right to believe in it: the tickets are cannily priced (it’s fine up in the circle, and under-25s get terrific half-price deals). As a way to spend a couple of hours with your mates just down the road from dreary old Thriller, it beats a lot of full-fledged musicals. Devised and perfected over eight years by Dylan Emery and Adam Meggido, with Duncan Walsh Atkins as musical guru and director, the group each night deploy seven out of the twelve players, men and women, and three of the five musicians in the tight company. They are all so well-accustomed to picking up off one another musically and verbally that a crazy, patchwork, but oddly satisfying musical results.
What happens is that the MC (Emery) on the side of the stage pretends to be cobbling up a pitch for a Cameron Mackintosh on the phone, and canvasses the audience for settings and titles (“The Daily Mail office” was the set this time, the title “The Lying King”). Other demands are randomly met: in this case the Cereal Cafe, the Queen’s corgis giving birth, and Jeremy Corbyn. The team take every theme up and run with it, occasionally freeze-framed by the MC taking an audience vote on the next development.
Sudden chorus lines appear, devising appropriate dances; two-player scenes flow naturally until one actor attempts to wrongfoot the other, who recovers magnificently; whole new musical genres are thrown to the musicians and created on the hoof by the singers. At one point on this particular night the MC demanded of us “some typical meaningless Cockney saying” and someone on the floor shouted “Up your bananas, Daddy!” . Seconds later, a riotous dancing Chas ’n Dave chorus was in full swing.

Always – each time I have seen it – the nonsense builds into huge, harmonic choruses which remind you why even quite lousy musicals jerk the heartstrings if you let them. Actually, you could acquire a full education in the styles and abilities of musical theatre by going every night . One is tempted. And this review, let me finally tell you, comes from someone who as a rule, really dislikes improv comedy. Must be the music that lifts it to something special.

box office 0844 4829671 to 29 November
rating Five. The fifth is for sheer nerve.  They deserve the cheese for courage.   5 Meece Rating

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TIPPING THE VELVET Lyric, Hammersmith

At last. The question tormenting many a fretful middle-aged man – what do lesbians actually DO? – is answered. Aerialism! When the giddy moment comes, in Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ picaresque-erotic novel of Victorian lowlife, the participants are hoisted ten feet above the bed, still in their corsets, to swing acrobatically entangled. From silk slings – if romantically and innocently in love – or if involved in a more vicious encounter, from a chandelieresque iron frame above a cupboard-ful of strap-on leather dildos. Think Fifty Shades of Gay. However, if the encounter takes place in a worthily socialist community in Bethnal Green it is more basic and just involves a blanket over the head to facilitate tipping of the more homespun Corbynite velvet. So now you know, gents. Rest easy.
Sarah Waters’ novel made a sensation and a TV series for the good reason that it treated female same-sex love as having always been with us, absolutely natural albeit annoyingly disapproved of by the mainstream. It tells of Nancy the simple Whitstable oyster-girl, drawn into a music-hall career and downhill from there – transvestite rent-boy, Mayfair sex slave – until socialism saves her . It is not Waters’ best fiction (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger, The Paying Guest, infinitely better and more credible). But it is, as Wade and director Lyndsey Turner demonstrate, ideal for a rompy, pantomimic show (there’s even a songsheet for a massed ukelele version of These Boots Are Made for Walking. You slightly expect the trousered heroine to slap her thighs and cry “Twenty miles from London and still no sign of Dick!”.

Turner, under whose authority Mr Cumberbatch is still being and not being over the river at the Barbican, lets rip with all sorts of merriment. There are singing beef carcasses with xylophone ribs, a seaside-type cutout of clients receiving masturbatory attention through groin-level holes which are bells and whistles on which Nancy plays the National Anthem. And a nice cameo from Ru Hamilton as a be-tighted Soho renter called Sweet Alice.

The adaptation – starting with a lovely joke about the 1895 Lyric itself – takes the music-hall format of a tophatted MC – David Cardy – narrating young Nancy’s romantic intitiation, banging a gavel to speed up scenes to the interesting bit, and alternately relishing and deploring her activities. And if you suspect it is a leeeetle bit creepy to have a middle-aged man jovially supervising the first sexual encounters of a teenage girl, you’re not wrong. It is. Though we get a redemptive moment at the end where she takes the gavel off him, accepts the worthier of her lovers, and becomes “empowered” . But sometimes yes, creepy all right.

It romps along, with Sally Messham making a creditable debut as Nancy (though her singing voice is not yet firm enough to hold the songs for long) and Laura Rogers as her first love, the swaggering male-impersonator Kitty, a Burlington-Bertie in tails and topper. I say Burlington Bertie, but the play does not use – or pastiche – musichall songs, preferring a sort of early rock-n-roll approach, which usually (not always) works.

The psychology of Nancy’s decline into prostitution – boy-clad, tending to the gents in Soho Square – and her instant capitulation as kept sex slave to Madam Diana is wobbly, though her final conversion to the socialist-feminist cause is fairly convincing, with a perceptive sequence in which every serious question from her girlfriend causes her to grow a spotlight and rattle off a series of standup jokes. And anyway, in compensation for any flaky psychology we have sketches like Diana’s evil posh-tweedy-lesbian club, which is funny if a bit tiresome with its clitoris-fantasies, and a magnificent riff in which Nancy explains how to eat an oyster with such slimy, salty eroticism that the tweedy ladies collapse into chairs.

Well, you get the idea. It’s a big sprawly picaresque novel rendered into a pantomimic, polemic, ironic- erotic, hurrah-for-the-gay-girls night out, about half an hour too long. And the biggest laugh of the evening, given which week it is, is not about sex. It comes when the Bethnal Green Municipal Socialists panic that there aren’t enough sandwiches, and heroic Florence (Adelie Leoncie) cries “It’s a socialist rally! People will SHARE their sandwiches!”. Yeah, right.
box office 020 8741 6850 to 24 Oct
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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NELL GWYNN Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

Charles II came to the throne (in a fabulous wig, surrounded by fabulous spaniels), with England in a mood to throw aside Puritanism and party. The theatres reopened, and for the first time that Restoration put real women on the stage, wearing as little as they could get away with. Charles had a series of mistresses, most famously the Cheapside orange-seller turned actress, saucy Nell Gwynn. Who deserves deathless memory, if only for the famous occasion when she was mistaken for the King’s (politically necessary) French mistress and barracked in Oxford; leaning out of the coach she cried “Good people, be civil, I am the Protestant whore!”.
The gag is used in Jessica Swale’s play, to good effect if out of context, and Nell’s is certainly a fine story to tell, Christopher Luscombe’s direction of it well suited to the rumbustious familiarity of the Globe. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perfect in the role, larky and witty and credible as an Eastcheap lass whose straightforward cheek refreshed the King. He, as Swale also reminds us, saw his father beheaded and knew the fragility of monarchy as well as its pomp. Nell must have been a breath of sanity to him. She is spotted while heckling and wooed by Charles Hart, the leading actor at court (Jay Taylor); after singing a splendidly rude song, with gestures, as an audition she is brought on as an actress by him and Killigrew, to the entertaining disgust of Kynaston (a camply gorgeous Greg Haiste in fake boobs and skirts) who regards women’s roles as his private domain. Meanwhile Dryden scribbles nerdily away in the corner (Graham Butler in what I hope is another extreme wig) and various rival mistresses hiss at Nell.

It is rompingly entertaining, ferociously feminist (she thinks men should want a woman “with skin and heart and sense in her head!”) and she was right: she lasted right to the end, bore him sons and had them given titles, and clearly stayed dearer than any of the other women. In the first part the show is full of jokes: rather more knowingly Blackadderish at times than my own taste, but the audiences loved them all. Great cheers meet Charles II’s affirmation that “Playhouses are a valuable national asset!”, and soppy aaaahs greet the inclusion of a proper woofing King Charles Spaniel at his side.

It moves perhaps too swiftly towards the denouement: the King’s illness, Nell banned from his side, his dying words “let not poor Nelly starve!” , her illness and her brief return to her friends in the company (Lord, how sentimental is theatre about itself! and with good reason..). But it’s fun, it’s a squib, a light bright entertainment founded on a bracing truth.

It doesn’t match up to Swale’s last Globe production in this “Herstory” vein: Bluestockings was a five-star triumph, a thing of both tremendous laughs and profound seriousness telling the story of the 1896 struggle of Girton College, Cambridge to have its scholars allowed to graduate. That one ought to play again, in many theatres. This is a Globe lark, fun for a while but less nutritious. And OK, David Sturzaker is an amiable and handsome king, though I must confess to a secret conviction that by law, only Rupert Everett should ever play Charles II.

box office 020 7401 9919 to 17 October
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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HECUBA Swan, Stratford upon Avon

We are having a spate of grisly classicana at the moment, brutal old tales of curses and murders and doom spinning down the unforgiving generations. A brace of stage Oresteias, a scorching Elektra, Bacchae everywhere you look. Here, though, is another take on the ancient horrors of the Trojan war.
Marina Carr, admirably uninterested in male heroics and subtly channelling present-day brutalities, centres her re-telling on Hecuba, wife of King Priam and queen of the ancient civilization ravaged by the Grecian invaders. Taking Euripides, Homer and other ancient variants, Carr delivers something unutterably bleak but strangely beautiful. Not least in the restraint of Erica Whyman’s direction and Soutra Gilmour’s design: no silly gross-out spectacle or property rubber limbs here. The story is told mostly in narration by the various characters, each recounting conversations, sometimes relating one another’s lines: a tactic which at first slightly alienated me, but whose poetic distancing grew more powerful by the minute, reminiscent of Synge and Yeats in Deirdre of the Sorrows.
But oh, the pity and horror and blunt stupidity of such war! We meet Hecuba on her dead husband’s throne, describing the torn bodies of her sons lying around her, Priam’s chopped-off head seeping on her knee, her baby grandson’s body flung among them, his head crushed. Her gentler daughter Polyxena weeps and the tougher less loved one, Cassandra who foresaw it all, sneers “Don’t you just love war. Sexy!”. Derbhle Crotty is a marvellous Hecuba, mature and enduring, proud. “Three thousand years of breeding in that pose” says the conquering Agamemnon, who strides in gleaming with barbaric warrior pride . The admiration is not mutual. “You came as guests, reeking of goat-shit and mackerel, saw our fields and palaces..”. The Greeks here are marauders, aggressors, imperialists, who know no rules of war. Outside women are being ravaged, old ones killed, babies thrown on pyres. “Different rules now” says Agamemnon “Everything is in my gift”.
Ray Fearon’s Agamemnon plays brilliantly against Hecuba. Here is a Spartan boy soldier who led troops at thirteen, never learned to read and write but sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia on the strand to get a fair wind. The brilliance of Carr’s characterization is her indication of the man’s intelligence, blunted by violence, and the vulnerability which Hecuba – still assured, though defeated and grieving – can raise in him. He cuts her own daughter’s throat for a fair wind to get his rabble of Grecian tribesmen home, knowing perfectly well that the superstition is “all shit” , and afterwards tends the hungry, ragged queen and takes her in his arms, needing her comfort not only physically but asking her how to run a country.
“Our laws” she says calmly “Were ten thousand years in the making”. That his army has destroyed them in mere hours is, Agamemnon perceives miserably, a less proud thing. In an extraordinary, arresting scene the child Polydorus, last son of Priam and knowing he is to die now, sits on his father’s throne. On press night it was Luca Saraceni-Gunner, a child of devastating dignity. His calm nobility leaves the immense Agamemnon muttering “I am humbled, reduced..”.
Hecuba is doomed, enslaved, defiled, bereaved, begging on her knees. But never reduced. Agamemnon speaks of her having “a kind of horrific grace”. The phrase  sums up the play. Can’t get it out of my head.
0844 800 1110 to 17 October

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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HENRY V Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


This is the crown, the final flourish of Gregory Doran’s magnificently rendered history cycle. We have seen preening emotional Richard , troubled Henry IV declinging as his roistering son hits the whorehouses with Sir John Falstaff ; seen that Hal – Alex Hassall, who carries on the role here – fighting off Hotspur and at last attaining the “polished perturbation” of the crown. Poor Falstaff is gone now, babbling of green fields on his deathbed; his band of rogues join young Henry V in the battlefields of France.
It is a troublesome play in some ways, famous for the great Agincourt speeches and feeding (as a mischievous programme-note by Jeremy Paxman observes) a warlike patriotism, a legend in which England forever stands alone, outnumbered and gallant. Technically, it flits from place to place with a Chorus figure between scenes. It is often fiercely cut. But not here: in three hours of crystalline intelligence and thoughtful detail, Doran and his cast give us something marvellous, not macho but both mocking and understanding of the timeless terrible business of war. His Chorus is Oliver Ford Davies, grandfatherly modern in drooping cardigan, wandering through scenes which freeze into ghosthood as he tell us the story and enjoins us to imagine a dim heroic past for ourselves.

The production’s pace is judged to a hair, combining sharp comedy with a deep seriousness, turning from one to the other in half a breath sometimes. For instance as the bloodstained, exhausted young King hears that the battle is won and the day is ours, a thread of birdsong brings tears to his eyes as he sinks to his knees in prayer. And the Welsh braggart Fluellen (Joshua Richards) allows barely a second before starting to prattle about his countrymen’s valour and contribution, as Hal rolls his eyes tolerantly. Nonsense about leeks nudges alongside a great choral Te Deum; on the very battlefield, when we have just seen the young King steeling himself, alone, to “imitate the action of a tiger”, there is a meeting of officers in an absurdity of accents: a huge farouche Irish McMorris with a heavy brogue and Fluellen with his Kinnockian verbosity each staring nervously at the incomprehensible barks of the Scot Jamy (Simon Yadoo, take a bow).

To home in on such detail is not irrelevant: a great beauty of this production is Doran’s retention of many moments often cut, right from the start where the Archbishop discourses tediously on Salic law for five minutes to justify the English claim to France. Here, its sly usefulness is in allowing Hassell to show in his face how very new this kingly, political responsibility is to him, and how unsure of it he still is. “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” he asks, almost hopelessly; but his laddish pride tips over when the Dauphin sends him tennis-balls and pop-up mailed fist making a V-sign.

The story, through all the pathos, comedy, martial moments and heroic legend, is a coming-of-age one. At first I was concerned that Alex Hassell, so beguiling as Prince Hal, was less comfortable with the language and manner of kingly formality. But then, a new King would be, fresh from Falstaff’s party world: and as the war develops Hassell gives usa real and moving sense of a young man struggling to become a leader. A young man burdened, too, with the inherited remorse of his father’s usurpation of the crown from Richard: Doran gives us absolute acceptance of the religiosity. This Henry prays, and means it, and fears doing wrong. His scene in disguise among the soldiers makes your neck-hairs stand on end: a deep felt chilling silence ensues as he recognizes his responsiblity for the blood of common soldiers. The St Crispin’s day speech is stirring, authoritative rising to oratory, as ever; but more moving still is his moment of lonely prayer, like Nelson’s, to the God of Battles.

Details, grace-notes emerge every moment from a strong ensemble: Robert Gilbert as a foppish blow-dried Dauphin wickedly contrasts with the battered Hal; Antony Byrne’s oafish Pistol throws a surprise punch and is battered by a leek; odd understage uplights in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ bare beautiful set create subtle shifts of mood. And the merry political coda, the wooing of Katherine by a Hal grown young and unsure again, sees the women matching up to it: Jennifer Kirby playful and icy by turns as the princess, and Jane Lapotaire drily, grievingly, resignedly queenly. It’s the hardest of the history plays to do well. And this is done magnificently.
0844 800 1110 to 16 nov (then to Barbican in Dec)

rating   FIVE 5 Meece Rating

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It’s the least likely setting imaginable for a farce, even a black one. We are in Baghdad, in the Alawai family’s kitchen and dining-room on the 19th of March, 2003: the hours before the American Shock and Awe bombardment. But for a while, we might as well be in any domestic sitcom. The set (by Tim Shortall) is recognizably modern-suburban with just an Arab twist in the windows, which helps; the opening scene is almost Life with the Lyons, as the exasperated wife Samira (Shobu Kapoor) stumps in with the shopping after a frustrating search for basics, and berates her idle husband Ahmed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) who has done nothing about digging the well for when the water gets cut off. Student daughter Rana (Rebecca Grant, the straightest of the characters) quarrels with her father about his plan to marry her to her awful wealthy cousin Jammal. A geeky comedy plumber (Ilan Goodman) has sneaked in, who is actually Rana’s disguised real boyfriend.

There are some sharp lines and laughs; so far, so rom-com. But Anthony Horowitz, creator of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and numerous novels, has thrown real political fury at his first stage play. Chancing upon the curious fact that the dictator Saddam Hussein had a faux-democratic habit of calling on ordinary families – albeit surrounded by heavily armed guards – he supposes that on this perilous night the dictator would have left the palace (of which the USAF missiles would have co-ordinates) to descend on the Alawais. The terrifying, eye-patched faintly camp security chief Colonel Farouk turns up (the splendid Ilan Goodman again, for good reasons which become clear). Farouk is a man reputed to have pulled out his own eye with a corkscrew for a bet, and announces that Saddam is on the way and the neighbours have duly been arrested, just in case. Some plot devices are neatly planted – a mis-labelled jar, two identical bags in the fridge, a too-tight suit – and these duly cause increasing mayhem. Bhaskar does a good Cleesian line in manic-panic, the lumpen fiancé Jammal the traffic policeman is given full comedy revoltingness by Nathan Amzi, and as the first act ends Saddam is among us, with a steel-lined trilby and two armed guards.

At which point Horowitz’ motive starts to pay off. Steven Berkoff, for it is he, is a truly terrifying Saddam: giving him glimpses of affable humanity and plaintive self-exculpation in between executions remembered – and in two cases ordered on the spot. Quite apart from the chaos sometimes going on in the next room, and a scatological interlude with Jamal’s tummy-trouble (this author has written a lot of teen fiction), the focus is on this terrifying giant baby, this killer buffoon. One long and startling riff from him must have given director Lindsay Posner a few hard moments, since it stops the farce action dead: but it does hammer home the points which Horowitz is fizzing with furious determination to make. That the West supported, praised and armed Saddam Hussein for decades; that Britain extended Iraq’s export credit a mere week after the Halabja massacre of Kurds; that Western sanctions killed more children than Hiroshima, depriving Iraq of necessary medicine, sanitation and nutrition. And, not least, that the American ending of the first Iraq war for fear of homecoming body-bags gave the monster dangerous confidence. “Their tears are their weakness” he says, bragging that his own casualties have no names or faces being just soldiers of Iraq. He cites with scorn the list of failed US overseas interventions ever since Vietnam.
All true – as are picaresque facts like Saddam’s early career as a bus conductor, and the fact that you could be thrown in jail for spilling coffee on his photograph. And as the farce resolves – the Alawais survive, pretty much – you cannot leave without sad sour reflection. Not least on Saddam’s line “In a country of so many sects and ethnicities it is essential everybody agrees on one thing. That they don’t want to be tortured”. It isn’t a classic farce, despite some fine laughs, and could do with pacing up a little before it transfers, which I bet it will. But goddammit, it’s a handy prelude to Chilcot, which alone earns it the fourth mouse. Wonder whether Sir John will report before the run ends? Or, indeed, book a ticket?

box office 0207 378 1713 to 14 November
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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MR FOOTE’S OTHER LEG Hampstead Theatre, N1


“Sex and the 18th century” said Brigid Brophy, quoted by the playwright Sam Kelly, “are the two most interesting things in the world”. The fiery, subversive free spirits of the time certainly kicked at religious, scientific and social barriers with glee: Georgians are never boring. And Kelly dramatizes and telescopes the career of one of the ripest: Samuel Foote. Actor, dramatist and theatre manager, whose “mimicry and audacious pleasantries” got him thrown out of Oxford , he found celebrity, clashed with censors and rivals, sparred with friends – Garrick, Peg Woffington, Prince George himself – had a leg amputated after being thrown by a royal horse, rallied, got a royal warrant as compensation, and used his wooden leg as a comedy prop, often while wearing a frock and bonnet. Oh, and he was tried for homosexual assault of a footman.

Kelly gives us this irresistible figure as a very modern character: a satirical celebrity who admits that he has “something wrong in my head, I never knew when a joke went too far” . A man living on the edge financially and professionally, never ceding to prudence or decorum, whose decline is both inevitable and wrenchingly sad. Who better to play it than the matchless, the twinkling, the deep-feeling, unassailably truthful, woundedly human , energetically rageous and intermittently dead camp Simon Russell Beale. What a treat.

The play kicks off with giddy comedy in a flash-forward , as Foote’s faithful servant the freed slave Frank (Micah Balfour) searches Dr Hunter’s anatomy store for his dead master’s old wooden leg, assisted by the old stage-manager Mrs Garner (Jenny Galloway, dropping tart lines with killer precision as she searches the specimen racks – “Cocks in bottles, best place for them”). It whips back twenty years, and on Tim Hatley’s fine backstage set we find our hero taking elocution lessons backstage under Charles Macklin, alongside a Brummie-accented David Garrick (Joseph Millson) and a still almost incomprehensibly Irish Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan). Foote himself , looking like a truculent Mr Toad in a periwig, has learnt the part of Titania. So we don’t stop laughing for the first ten minutes, even through a fatal onstage accident and a backstage pisspot intervention.
And the laughs go on, as Foote ,Garrick and Woffington start a rival theatre, running skits in the Haymarket until Garrick peels off to be more respectably Shakespearian. While Foote perversely decides that Othello could be played as a comedy, it leads to a scene unique in drama when two Othellos, blacked-up in identical tunics, brawl violently in the dressing-room where Woffington in her petticoats and the black Jamaican, Frank, try to separate them and the new King George III (Ian Kelly himself) appears in the doorway.

The loss of Foote’s leg, and his descent through deeper disinihibition and recklessness, darken the second half; sweetened by the ultimately touching reconciliation of the three friends in Woffington’s final illness (Kirwan is superb as the gallant, sexually free trouper). Above all there is Russell Beale’s gift for simultaneously conveying Foote’s personal despair , heroic flippancy and – beneath the latter – a genuine and important conviction that comedy, subversion, drag and satire are high moral forms. Raging against Garrick’s sacred-Shakespeare pomposity he cries “The theatre is a knocking-shop , always was..laughter means the audience is rubbing up against something they thought was right”.
Woven in with this is Dr Hunter (Forbes Masson) and his medical questing, alongside Benjamin Franklin to debate the mystery of consciousness in the brain with both chemical and electrical impulses, with a metaphor of thoughts hovering in

themselves in a communal zero-gravity suspension. It is all, as Frank joyfully says of London, “inebriating”.  Though there are moments in the second half when it needs a bit more soda in the tipple, as theatre, censorship, medicine, brain science, Abolitionism, American independence, the rotting effect of celebrity and the capturing of lighting with kites all jostle for attention, and Foote becomes a lost Lear in a huge feather bonnet crying “We do not know we have a mind until we begin to lose it”. It’s a rich plum-pudding , and maybe could have done with the omission of a nut or two. But wow.

Box office 020 7722 9301

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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