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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HANGMEN Royal Court SW1


Grotesque. Morbid. Hilarious. Dark, absurd, evocative.
Start with the last one. This is a period-conscious piece, even more than Martin McDonagh’s Irish-set works (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, both recently and brilliantly staged). I affirm the atmosphere, because being twenty years older than Mr McDonagh I was a teenager in 1965, when Britain abolished the death penalty and closed down the condemned cells and execution sheds. No more would hangmen peer through spyholes to gauge the victim’s weight for a quick efficient drop: no more would cell doors swing open on the knell of 8 a.m. with doctor and Governor standing by.   We knew about these things from childhood, from adult whispers and black headlines – Hanratty, Allen and Evans… Hangings got into our nightmares and into comedy: remember the opening frames of Dennis Price in the condemned cell, in Kind Hearts and Coronets? Later, I interviewed Albert Pierrepoint, most famous of hangmen, when he wrote his memoirs and admitted his doubts about the trade.
In period-perfect black comedy, Mcdonagh evokes that dowdy postwar world , assisted by Anna Fleischle’s designs – bricky condemned-cell, bleak seafront cafe, and the cosily grim Oldham pub hangman Harry runs (very Rovers’ Return: think of it as Execution Street). Pierrepoint, of course, ran a pub himself. The half-prurient, half-righteous comments of the regulars acknowledge how the noose haunted us. As did the dread of miscarriages of justice, innocents hanged.
In the opening cell scene Harry – David Morrissey, stridingly and stroppily Lancashire with a John Cleese moustache – has arrived to execute one Hennessy, who fights and protests his innocence and offends him by snarling “They could’ve at least sent Pierrepoint!”. Two years later we are in the pub on the day hanging is abolished, with behind the counter Harry’s wife (Sally Rogers) and plump, shy, mopey teenage daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James, in an endearing début) . A stranger turns up, Mooney: Johnny Flynn, again pitch-perfect as a long-haired 1960’s southerner, with a flippant menace in his manner calculated to wind up Harry. Indeed many of his lines sound as if Pinter had collaborated with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. He may or may not be the real murderer in the Hennessy case: the first anniversary of the hanging, we learn, saw a similar death in Lowestoft and today we fear something else will happen. Maybe to Shirley.

McDonagh’s is gift for rising menace and jagged, violent moments punctured by lines which make us bark with shocked laughter. For obscenity, cruelty, vanity, and insult can be – and here are – hilarious. Like the line about murders of women in Lowestoft because there’s nothing else to do except clock golf, or the dismissive “He couldn’t rape mud”. Dear oh dear. But we laughed, a lot. So no spoilers as to what happens, or who dies and how nastily. Morrissey is excellent as a man whose macho professional pride in killing with “dignity” conflicts with his vanity and love of fame, then cracks into terrified rage. Reece Shearsmith is a marvellously creepy Syd , assistant hangman and part-time perve. McDonagh actually introduces Pierrepoint himself during the climax, as an immense pompous bully, a rival cock-of-the-deathwalk: which is a wholly imaginary characterization, since the real man was quiet, thoughtful, and small.

It’s splendidly done under Matthew Dunster’s direction. But unlike McDonagh’s greater works, I’m not sure what it’s for. As a satire on judicial murder and wrongful executions it’s a bit late; as a reflection on male professional rivalry in the grisliest of trades it is darkly funny. As a cliffhanger ending in violence, it’s effective. But above all, it catches a moment in history, and a period. Maybe that’s the point. And OK, maybe it’s time the new generation was told that the ’60s weren’t all Mary Quant and psychedelia.

box office 020 7565 5000 to 10 October
Rating three

3 Meece Rating

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SO HERE WE ARE Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh


You grow up with your mates in a dead-end town, and you’re a solid gang – five a side footie team, in and out of each other’s houses since you were all six – but some of you start to grow away. From the same street and school some lads will be builders or roofers, like Pidge and Smudge and Frankie, but some will get on and out. Like Dan, who went to “uni” and is headed for a job in Hong Kong, in a suit.

Today they’re all in suits, mind, because they’ve come from Frankie’s funeral. Three are perched on a Southend dockyard container, bantering , farting, quarrelling like so many Likely Lads. Dan is on the ground, not joining in. Maybe he knows more about Frankie’s death than they do. Any minute the lost boy’s girlfriend Kirsty will turn up, to do a ceremonial loosing of black balloons in his memory.

Luke Norris’ 2013 Bruntwood prizewinner – on its way to the Royal Exchange in Manchester next week – is beautifully staged under the festival’s director Steven Atkinson, with the looming scruffy container delivering a fine coup de theatre halfway through its 90 minutes as we flash back to Frankie’s last day alive. We see him and learn more about what drove him to that “accident”. After the banteringly uneasy opening – often very funny – Norris leads us smartly through the pressures and doubtfulness of growing up as a young man whose education and chances are cut off, and whose yearning for an outer world will always be at the expense of the safety that lies in what he knows.

Daniel Kendrick is wonderful as Frankie: eager, doubtful, confusedly fascinated by the immigrant Latvian workmate only he pays attention to, and struggling emotionally with the need to escape more than Southend itself. His girlfriend Kirsty, Jade Anouka, is a fulfilled busy primary-school teacher and doesn’t see it; no more do the three team-mates, Mark Weinman the calmer of the them is engaged, an endearing Dorian Jerome SImpson is the pie-eating Smudge, nicely combining apparent dimness with a fiercer emotional intelligence than the rest; and there’s a rackety, cracking debut from Sam Melvin as the motormouth PIdge.
Each of them has in some way misunderstood Frankie, though they loved him. Dan (Ciaran Owens, broodingly present in his silence through the banter) knows better than anyone why it broke down. Comedy and sadness melt together. And as word-of-mouth is particularly interesting in these festival moments, I can report that members of the Aldeburgh audience, inhabiting quite another sort of East Anglian town, class, and outlook, spoke afterwards with real empathy, real sorrow for the world’s Frankies. Which is as it should be. transferring to Royal Exchange, Manchester 24th.

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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HARROGATE and BRENDA 2 plays at Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh

Human beings sometimes – disastrously – get erotically fixated on one phase of their sexual history. In the case of Patrick (Nick Sidi) it is a teenage moment. He met and adored his wife when she was fourteen or fifteen; she is now a confident, busy, sharp-tongued doctor, but their daughter looks dangerously like that young love, and he can’t keep his mind off her. Not his hands, he’s done nothing (we think..). But he makes a prostitute dress in the daughter’s current school uniform, talk to him about GCSEs, her boyfriend Adam and schoolfriend Carly, and drink Bailey’s while promising not to tell her mother.
In the first act we find him conversing with that substitute, telling her off for wearing make-up, showing the letters she wrote when she was eight. There is a shrill tightness and controlling authority in his manner, which makes us uneasy; the girl’s teenage mannerisms are perfect, though, so it is perhaps slightly too late that we work out that this is not a real daughter. That creates a confusion in an innocent audience, because since she doesn’t know the flat well, I thought for a while that he was a divorcee access-Dad.
In the second act – out of school uniform, casual in tracky bottoms and cheekier towards him – we see her as the real daughter; school anecdotes are at first scornfully casual, later comes a revelation about the mother and a tormented account of a crisis in school. In the third act she’s the mother, striding in from work and being asked by Mr Creepy for a piece of role -play, of which which she abruptly and rather tardily realizes the significance.
The Hightide festival is known for sharp, risky new writing and has had some magnificent successes; Al Smith’s taut, troubling 70-minute play in the Pumphouse deserves (and has not yet got) a London transfer, though with a few adjustments I could absolutely see it in the National’s Temporary Theatre. The dialogue is brilliant, the father’s edginess and bossy control with the fake daughter, easier, tricky closeness with the real one are well judged, as is the riskiness of his colloquy with the impatient, doctorly professional wife in thie last section.
Richard Twyman directs , with some startling touches like the man’s sudden sense of electric shocks through the furniture (it’s set in blank whiteness). And the two actors are remarkable: particularly Sarah Ridgeway, who plays all three versions of the object of desire, convincingly both as teenager and mother. It is a stunning performance, and stays with me still. In the central section there is a searing breakdown moment when she admits her loss both of virginity and of her boyfriend (in Harrogate, hence the title) and more painfully the collapse of an over-teased male teacher by her and her friend. This sub-theme – of the power of teenage girls and their inability to understand its dangers – dovetails really interestingly with the father’s obsession.
Ridgeway, in proper teen style, is roaming round the stage eating Hula-Hops at this point, and in the show I saw she nearly choked. I am told later that it wasn’t planned, but at the time I honestly thought it was part of the distress, and rather brilliant. What a trouper. And I now suddenly remember how glorious she was as Eva in James Dacre’s The Accrington Pals, a few years back in Manchester. Right onto my favourites list, this lady.

Up the road, in a Church Hall (which makes it very site-specific) E.V.Crowe’s BRENDA showcases another good young actress, Alison O’Donnell, in another two hander alongside Jack Tarlton. But I can’t enthuse about the play, a gruelling business of long silences, moody wanderings around, and much fiddling with microphones and cables in the conceit that the pair are about to do some kind of public speech to their Scottish community about her difficulty finding a job.
The first fifteen minutes has the lights on us and them – or just her – roaming in gloom at the end; there’s a brief baffling bit of dialogue about someone having a “ball of consciousness”. Gradually we gather that the man wants Brenda to say her name and assert herself as an individual, but that she can’t because poverty and joblessness have deprived her of any sense of identity. “I am not a person”. It is fifty minutes in before we get this point. Which is a good and topical one; and O”Donnell , in her long wordless passages, body language and face, expresses a sadness and bafflement and passive suicidality which, in a better play, would serve the message well.
But the dearth of drama, the arrogant moody slowness of it, mainly made me think that it was not entirely a good thing when serious theatre audiences developed their present level of attentive, respectful reverence and an attitude of “Better not yawn or fidget, it might be the new Beckett”. It isn’t. A few walkouts and yawns would ginger up the makers of plays like this no end. And the psychological disintegration of the recession’s rejects is too important a theme to be made boring. But what do I know? This one does have a transfer booked, to the Yard Theatre in London.
rating: HARROGATE three   3 Meece Rating
BRENDA two  2 meece rating

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USHERS Arts Theatre, WC2

I had been wanting for a while to catch up on this fringe squib about the lives of front-of-house theatre workers, and with devilish cunning Max Reynolds’ production, sharing the Arts with American Idiot, runs four matinees a week – tues, Weds, two on Friday and one on Saturday. Thus not only us theatre anoraks with too many booked-up nights, but actual ushers themselves can go.

And should. From Yianni Koutsakos’ and James Oban’s musical (book by James Rottger) I expected larks, and I got them. Not least from Alexandra Parkes in a stonking professional début as big Rosie the usherette-cum-stalker. She does a riotously raunchy, fabulously fearless number in a basque, about stalking Michael Ball, and crowns it with a very, very slow-motion performance of the splits.

I expected pastiche and joyful in-jokes and got them too: a fine Billy Elliott joke, some clever parody numbers, often half-hidden references, and plenty on the imaginary big man himself, Sir Andrew MacTosser, Most Powerful Man In Theatre. I relished the cracks about the ways of audiences: tourists, critics, tiger Mums and brats, stagies, husbands dragged along unwillingly, snogging lovers, and the awkward tardy bumbling pests who cavil at programme prices and insist that there is no spoon in their ice-cream when there is. Under the lid. I nodded at the central conceit of the villainous Theatre Manager Robin (a basso profundo Harry Stone, mugging like a more heavyset James Dreyfus, urging upselling and spend-per-head. It was nice that the show these downtrodden ushers are working on is “Oops I did it again – the Britney Spears Musical”, complete with tacky merchandise – “if it got any cheaper, Bill Kenwright would be touring it”. I like the set too, the back view of the kiosk.
All good fun. But I had not expected it to be so touching: a lightly taken, cheerfully poignant reflection on unappreciated lives and private dreams. The action takes place in the half-hour before the house opens, during the interval, and after the end of the invisible show, with occasional video-training screen moments from the evil Robin. Rosie, loves all leading men and hates actresses, new girl Lucy is fresh out of drama school and hoping for a break, handsome Stephen has toured as Joseph but yearns in a high tenor for character parts (“I want Phantom, not that random? Bloke who gets the girl in the end!”). Above all there is Gary (Ben Fenner) who has a chance to work in Austria but may have to leave his lover Ben behind. Poor Ben has suddenly realized that nobody wants to be an usher, nobody trains three years to sell ice-cream “always watching, never participating”. Gary’s aria about love and choice has one of the best couplets ever in a musical: “Once in a world of ice cream and joy / At a kiosk of wonders, a boy met a boy…”. Lovely.
And of course there’s a happy ending, a big reveal, and an OTT tap-dancing curtain call. Eighty minutes well spent, and a grin from the real ushers as you leave. Small budget, big heart, lovely show.

Box Office 020 7836 8463 to 18 Oct
rating: four    4 Meece Rating

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Sequins, feathers, glitter, two and a half hours of hurtling from one noisy shining set-piece to another, this is more of a gig than a drama. If you’re fine with that – and why not – here’s your big night out. It’s less earnest than Made in Dagenham, less romantic than The Bodyguard, far less human than Once, or The Committments, or Memphis. But it is very, very Broadway: slick shiny, flicking the emotional buttons with economical briskness (being a Real Man, living up to your Dad, all that). Garlanded with Tonys, after Broadway and LA, Harvey Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper’s musical comes home with a British cast to the nation it’s about.
For the original movie – based loosely on some true events – is about a failing shoe factory in Northamptonshire saving itself by making specialist high-heeled footwear robust enough for the heftier drag queen. It was one of a slew of films – from The Full Monty and Brassed Off right through to the recent Pride (bound to end up as a musical, betcha) – whose theme is the late 20c decline of British industry, coupled with a rousing sense that hey, we’re warm-hearted people who love cabaret and gays so it doesn’t matter that we don’t make much any more.
Am I being cynical? Suppose so. But entertainment at this level is quite cynical itself. The story of Charlie (Killian Donnelly, as likeable and tuneful as ever) reluctantly taking on the factory and forging an unlikely partnership with Lola the drag queen is briskly narrated, big songs designed more as showstoppers than emotional plot-drivers. Likewise the collapse of his engagement to Nicola and his rapprochement with Lauren from the shopfloor . The homophobic horror of the conservative workforce, important in the film, is reduced to one thuggish dissident, Don, and resolved in another showpiece of a slo-mo boxing match between him and Lola. The glorious moment when George the veteran shoemaker overcomes his unease in the fascination of the technical demands of a stronger heel is pretty much thrown away between big belting X-factor-y numbers.
But hey, who cares? the showcase drag pieces are acrobatic, speactacular, breathtaking, glittery and funny (Jerry Mitchell directs and choreographs, asking feats of his stilettoed chorus-men way beyond what is probable, logical or wholly safe). David Rockwell ’s factory set is nicely adapted to the choreography, especially the moving conveyor-belt dance: a unique bit of staging if ever there was one. Donnelly is delightful as ever, deploying a wider emotional range than the script really deserves; Jamie Baughan is pleasingly gruff as homophobic Don, and as for Matt Henry as Lola, he’s a revelation: a spectacular cabaret artiste, queeny and showy but able – like Donnelly – to conjure up real feeling and a touching insecurity in between the big explosive numbers.

As for Amy Lennox as Lauren the factory girl who falls for the boss, her Northampton-accented lament, especially in The HIstory of Wrong Guys – is the funniest, freshest comic turn in a musical since Sheridan Smith burst on us in Legally Blonde. So though the sequins and unthreatening drag acts are pretty whoop-de-doo, and the two stars immaculate, for me it is Lennox – and the ensemble and the bonkers Gregg Barnes costumes – which overcame the cynicism and won the fourth star.
Box office 0844 412 4651
rating four    3 Meece RatingCostume design mouse resized (that last one is the customised costume-director mouse for Mr Barnes)

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PHOTOGRAPH 51 Noel Coward Theatre, WC2

Nicole Kidman, an Oscars star descending again on the West End, is the “story” here; so begin by saying that as the half-forgotten 1950’s Jewish scientist Rosalind Franklin she gives a quite wonderful performance. She’s restrained, fine-judged, tensely weary and luminous in stillness or crackling with energy as the prickly, driven, brilliant biophysicist whose work getting images of infinitesimally small molecules led directly to a blazingly important breakthrough: Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double-helix structure and functioning of DNA.

They and her colleague Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel prize in 1962; Dr Franklin herself died four years earlier, at only 37, her tumours possibly caused by exposure to X-rays in long days and nights in the lab. Kidman has said that this new play by Anna Ziegler attracted her because her own father was a biochemist, giving her a sense of scientific dedication. But any woman would burn a little with desire to record female pioneers in a time when, as at Kings College, even brilliant doctoral a woman wasn’t allowed in the senior common room. And would be – as here – automatically assumed to be an assistant not a prime mover, irritatingly addressed as “Miss” rather than “Doctor”, and dismissed as “a right old hag” when she asserts herself.

Ziegler’s play, told in short scenes and direct narrative by her and the posse of men around her, is a fiction based squarely on fact and memoirs. Under Christopher Oram’s toweringly macho, half-ruined postwar set of Somerset House looming over the bleak underground KCL lab, it gives Kidman some wonderful opportunities: sharp dry ripostes, sudden ferocities, and sour comedy as she fences with her lab partner (Stephen Campbell Moore oddly touching as the shy, defensively arrogant Maurice Wilkins). Her “I don’t want to be your friend” and scornful reference to his bad marriage when he clumsily attempts to win her over could alienate but oddly doesn’t: because by then we believe utterly in this woman’s focus. The work is everything, and the higher the mountain “the further I get to go”. Only in dealings with the amiable American PhD student Don Caspar (Patrick Kennedy), who shares her romantic joy in “shapes..endless repetition, the nature of the world” does she unbend. In a beautiful, sudden moment Ziegler gives her an imagined internal monologue, a yearning “to wake up without feeling the weight of the day pressing down, to fall asleep more be kissed, to learn how to be ok being with other people…to be a child again”.

There were moments when I worried that it would become a history-of-science lecture, and in its exposition of bickerings , rivalries and technicalities would curl up its own back end like a failed helix itself. But Will Attenborough’s crazy-haired arrogant young Watson and Edward Bennett’s sardonic Crick are an energizing double act, their blokey tesing relationship with Wilkins a painful contrast with the isolation of the clever “Rosy” who can’t talk things over in the SCR bars with them. And in the last third of its 90 minutes (Michael Grandage’s direction always spare, elegant) it lifts off, the metaphor of the double spiral which without touching feeds itself into life is replicated in the interaction of the pairs of humans.
That is moving, as is the ‘failure’ of the isolated Rosalind to see the extraordinary truth revealed in Photograph 51. Her photograph: the one that broke the intellectual dam and swirled the men to global fame. You leave reflecting on a neat irony: for in opposition to the cliché about emotional women and rational men, it was excited scribbling intuition which gave Watson the road to the answer, and meticulous insistence on irrefutable evidence which made the woman delay…

box office 0844 482 5130 to 21 Nov
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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GUEST CRITIC LUKE JONES (genuine 21st century school leaver..)  ENJOYS THE MENTAL MUMS

3 Meece Rating RATING  THREE
With the news we’ve been having this week, a play about education policy may seem a little lightweight. For most of the first half it was. But the play pulls that neat Love Actually trick. Tedious for the most part, yet satisfying in the end. Little sense, little structure, little point, but plenty of character and warming comedy. Its arguments are highly worn, but it has wheeled out engaging and intriguing characters to tell them to us again.

Education is the primary concern of the play, although curiously there are no children. Instead the Tamsin Oglesby’s play gets lost in the fringes, separate side shows. We see only one character, who is an actual child, being educated. Nikki Patel, who, I am surprised to hear, makes her professional stage debut, gives a mightily strong and funny warmth to Alia, a young Pakistani girl breaking through to Oxbridge against the odds. A part that could be trite is witty and eventually moving.

The rest is extremely well played, peppered with top gags but largely directionless and inconsequential.

Three sections. Teacher, mums, education policy wonks.

The first, Rob Brydon’s bit, is fine. But he barely appears. Most of his scenes, despite being set in a bustling classroom full of rowdy, cheeky and undoubtedly (we’ll never know) witty school children, is played solo. Just him. Talking to student-sized gaps in the air. The little he is given echoes around the lonely stage, lacking dynamism in spite of the reasonable performance. Too late into the 2 hours he’s given dialogue, and it finally comes alive.

A diverse range of mental mum is fully on show. A playground plagued by desperate attempts to get the best school place for their kids. Most scream, one drinks, the other pretends to divorce her husband to move him out into a better catchment area. In this, Lucy Briggs-Owen, the stand-out star, gives a jolly masterclass as the frantic, posh, Scottish mum driven to obsession. Her performance , as usual, is detailed, hilarious and completely recognisable (sorry mum).

The final bunch – a gaggle of policy wonks, is the dullest. As it cuts between its three parts, with Alia peppered across a couple, I felt my shoulders droop and my eyes drift as I recognised their flipboard being wheeled on. The dialogue, save for a few jokes at the chubbier one’s expense, is entirely made up of cutouts from newspaper leaders, prit-sticked together into a make-your-own argument collage.

I would have thought Matthew Warchus’ first play as head honcho would have had more bite. It is a good comedy, with sharp, colourful design. But perhaps we needed something shocking. Not something which is on the one hand this and on the other hand that. Not something we nod along to and moments later forget.

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Until 3rd October

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BRAVE NEW WORLD Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Hot on the heels of Headlong’s obliquely brilliant treatment of 1984 comes a rival dystopia: Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, eighteen years before Orwell and before the second war: the comparison is fascinating. Orwell saw ordinary people, recognizable but crushed by brutality and surveillance, thoughtcrime punished and history denied by violence. Its science is basic – telescreens, shredded newsprint and photos. Huxley – whose brother Julian was an evolutionary scientist and eugenicist – in envisioning his hyper-controlled society saw the future’s horrors as technological, humanity itself turned into a man-made biological hierarchy from Alpha to Delta. Embryos and infants are conditioned to their destined planned occupations, the freely available “soma” drug, controlled consumerist leisure and universal promiscuity keeps everyone happy and prevents the subversiveness innate in family, intimacy and poetry.
Dawn King’s adaptation, under James Dacre’s stark, tight direction, sticks thrillingly close to Huxley and demonstrates enough recognizable 21c phenomena to bring on nervous laughs (not least, early on, at the Hatchery’s director explaining that the trickiest embryos to condition are Betas, middle managers: because you have to make them efficient but not ambitious to be Alphas). We have IVF now, and a prospect of genetically engineered foetuses; we are moving towards considering Huxley’s brisk “end-of-life facilitators”, and also have a cadre of high-consuming and promiscuous alpha-betas. Some of the skycopter-riding workers on their way to electromagnetic golf or the “Westminster Abbey cabaret” are indistinguishable from modern city traders at play. The scornful writer Helmholtz, bored with writing prolefeed “dramedys” and feelie-movies would be quite at home with the modern screen. We have throwaway clothes, too, and high-consumption leisure: World Controller Mond is female in this adaptation, a scornfully masterful Sophie Ward, and explains that they brought in countryside-aversion conditioning because country walks don’t encourage the buying of enough expensive equipment.
There is a lot of explanation, as in Huxley’s novel, which could have torpedoed it as drama but doesn’t because it remains so creepily fascinating a vision. Skilful robotic ensemble moments upstage hint at the toiling, happily drugged Deltas and the use of sexuality as a bonding, tranquillizing group experience. The story itself concerns Bernard Marx – an Alpha who is chippy because he had some Epsilon blood by mistake (Gruffudd Glyn is perfect, just that bit smaller and geekier than fellow-Alphas like James Howard or David Brunett). He takes Lenina, the pretty Beta, to a “Savage reservation” where unaltered humans live wild tribal lives as a control group.

They bring home John (William Postlethwaite) a noble savage whose mother (this being a dirty word in the test-tube society) was from the manufactured world but got lost and lived on, grey and raddled, in the reserve. John has found an old volume of Shakespeare, and lives by quotations: Huxley, unlike Orwell with his proles, had to telescope the idea of a primitive noble savage with that literary and poetic sensitivity, so he could attack both aspects of the main society – its philistinism and its science. Abigail McKern has great fun as the mother, disgusted with her exile into a primitive world without soma and disposable clothes and where babies come out of the “poor quality storage” of the womb.
But Lenina, unsatisfied by the multiple partners of convention, wants Savage John. Her frank (very modern) advances send him into a frenzy, Hamlet-cum-Romeo, ranting of the rank sweat of an unseamed bed and vowing that she shall not melt his honour into lust. So the second half is darker, more urgent, tragic.
And for all the necessary exposition, it works; Dacre knows how to keep things sharp and tight, and Huxley’s vision still carries the same scorching unease, the same powerful demand for “the right to be unhappy”, to love and yearn and dream and fail .

box office 01604 624811 to 26 sept
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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HERO’S WELCOME Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Suns decline, new stars rise. This is Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play – not among his best, but when did genius ever run level? But it is also, under the author’s direction, the moment of a really lovely professional debut for Terenia Edwards, the youngest cast member and an innocently luminous presence. She plays “Madrababacascabuna”, the young wife of indeterminate nationality brought home by the bemedalled Murray (Richard Stacey). He is fresh out of khaki in some equally indeterminate war zone, having braved snipers and rescued children from a burning hospital. Returning to a civic welcome in his Yorkshire hometown after 17 years, he dreams of reopening the derelict family hotel (his Dad drank most of it near the end).

But his reception is not universally warm. Even grumpier and more vile to his wife than usual is the posh, lecherous Brad, Murray’s old schoolfriend and rival (a nice villainous turn by Stephen Billington, looking uncannily like a young Simon Williams) . Frozen-faced with rage is the Mayor Alice, who he left pregnant at the altar when he fled. Now, as Council chief and property-developer, she wants only to pull down the hotel for apartments and high-end retail. There are, of course, two versions of what actually happened between Alice, Brad and Murray all those years ago.
So it’s a play about lies, and bitter memory, and smalltown jockeying for advantage, and the pitfalls of marrying-up or marrying-down, and the idea of a hero. And the ingredients don’t really meld together as well as they should. Plenty of nice Ayckbournian middle-class awkwardnesses, like the moment when joshing about the tricky ring-road makes Alice snap that “hours in committee” were devoted to getting it right; and there’s a touching performance by Emma Manton as Brad’s wife, brightly reconciled (until the crisis) to a contemptuous and imprisoning marriage in a semi-stately home. (“A prison where you can at least decorate your own cell”).

Most of the comedy – tinged with a ruefully dark explanation – comes rom the glorious Russell Dixon as Derek, the cheery downmarket mayoral consort, the husband Alice settled for; he infests the whole house with a vast train-set (we see the kitchen bit, and hear the rest hooting and rattling offstage from lounge to bedroom). Derek is an innocent who means well and lets cats out of bags; for Brad he is the necessary loser, just as Murray is the unwelcome winner (they shoot clays together, and yes, Sir Alan obeys the first rule of theatre – that if you have a gun lying around in Act 1, it had better go off in Act 3.)
But the greatest pleasure is Terenia Edwards as “Baba”, at first barely speaking English, but growing in vocabulary and confidence to become the strongest and most decent of them all: “goodness writes white” they say, and actors often dislike attempting it; but she makes the most of the innocent’s perception (“Murray, why they all hate you?”) and of the eccentric appositeness of her vocabulary acquisition (“Me-na-cing… o-mi-nous…pre-da-tory” when with Brad, but then “Endure. Con-flict. Hosti-lities. Action!”).
There are more problems than is comfortable. I don’t quite believe in a sudden woman-to-woman rapprochement between Alice and Baba; nor am I sure why Alice collapses, or of what illness. The ending is – for two protagonists at least – a gentle and soft landing, though offstage lies death, arrest, and a deeply unwelcome refinement of the train-set. Still, I was never bored.
Box office 01723 370541 to 3 october
rating : three
rating three    3 Meece Rating

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It always seems unfair when particular delights, best-comedy Olivier winners like this, are reserved for the West End, even if they do run a whole year and do bargain ticket offers. On the other hand a touring cast can find itself unfairly considered – well, a bit second-rate, after starry names took turns up West. But the Goodale brothers’ fabulous treatment of P.G.Wodehouse, in which Bertie attempts to put on a play about the eventful cow-creamer weekend at Totleigh, more than survives its transfer to the open road . From Crewe to Colchester,and Aylesbury to Inverness you have a treat in store.
The play itself is gorgeous – my London review here gives the general idea – – but in some ways, tweaked a bit and performed with a ferocious brio which endures all the way to a jitterbugging curtain-class and whoops from the audience, this felt even jollier. The friend I took actually got pains from laughing too much.

Having talked to the new cast – Joseph Chance as Jeeves, Matthew Carter as Wooster and co-author Robert Goodale as Seppings – being just up the road I sneaked in to the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds on its second night out. A bit unfairly, as reviewers aren’t yet invited, but I can report that it is a riot. Sean Foley’s original direction is now taken over by David Goodale – brother of Robert and co-creator of the play – and Alice Power’s set and costumes are even more gloriously, vaudevillishly ingenious and silly than before. Joseph Chance, new to the company, is sternly impassive as Jeeves but hurls himself alarmingly (sometimes simultaneously) into roles as diverse as Gussie, Stiffy Byng, Madeline, and Sir Watkyn Bassett, and Matthew Carter is the most gormlessly endearing of Berties.

But I have to say that the greatest glee of the night comes from the hurtling performance Robert Goodale himself, as Seppings the decrepit butler of Aunt Dahlia’s household, roped in by Jeeves to fill in the other parts. He plays his employer, the pleasingly gung-ho and intermittently violent Aunt Dahlia, plus Constable Oates and the 9ft tall Roderick Spode (on a dangerously rolling rig with Dahlia’s skirt showing underneath ). And also takes on a number of props and special effects, including a loudly applauded turn as a level crossing on Bertie’s painstakingly staged drive to Totleigh.

They’re having a riot, these chaps, and so were we. And yes, the surprise bicycle, savage terrier and rubber duck bath scene are still there. Gruntled? You bet.


RATING   four 4 Meece Rating


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FLARE PATH Richmond Theatre and touring

In 1941 young Terence Rattigan was creatively blocked, gloomy after an early success then a relative failure. He joined the wartime RAF as a tail-gunner in a Wellington bomber, and in a crippled plane, on a dangerous landing, snatched a torn draft from his notebook. The play, fresh from his own experience of comradeship, duty and fear touched audiences deeply: one fellow-airman said there was “shock, that he had seen so deeply into us”. Their world after all was new in the history of wartime: aircrews in rural England would stroll the lanes by day and meet their wives and girlfriends – in pubs like the one where the play is set – and that night fly missions over Germany amid flak and flames. Soldiers in the field can retreat into a supportive military world: these boys, often still in their teens, lived half their lives in an idyllic England, knowing they might lose it forever in a few hours time.



The play fell out of use for decades, in the postwar queasiness about the civilian cost of bombings over Hitler’s Germany. But Trevor Nunn’s West End revival in the Rattigan centenary reminded us what a terrific play it is: perfectly constructed, emotionally intense, suspenseful, a model of courteous clarity in its vignette of a single night with one set of aircrew and civilians. That clarity is important, and old-fashioned in its skill: my companion, not having grown up like me with air-minded brothers, knew nothing of RAF routines and bantering culture, but understood it all. It is good that this Original Theatre Company production is going to tour, and bring back that unforgotten interlude of duty, debt, skill and stoicism.
Justin Audibert directs what is in the main a strong cast, notably Alastair Whatley as the puppyish, larky pilot Teddy Graham, morale-boosting joker of the base: his emotional collapse in the dawn is truthful, sharp and shocking. His glamorous wife Pat – on the verge of running off with a more glamorous old flame from the movie business – is played also with particular fine judgement by Olivia Hallinan, conveying with proper Rattiganesque pain the conflict between her romantic passion and the gentler, maternal and dutiful feelings that Teddy awakes in her.







Meanwhile the night and morning of the older, more battered, angrier Polish airman and his ditzy, decent barmaid wife Doris (Siobhan O’Kelly, caricaturish at first but getting far, far better as it goes on) is moving. Those who know the play will find, once again , the letter scene and redemptive final twist just as they should be. Though the Pole, I think, is not given quite all Rattigan’s unsparing lines about his desire to flatten all Germans.





But the play’s the thing, a memory and a message from a real past, and this company do it decent credit in taking it on the road again. It has rom-com sweetness, but the lethal reality of the times sharpens it: Rattigan took care to debunk romanticism. As the Wing-Commander “Gloria” Swanson says “I hate that patriotic bilge in the newspapers, but we do owe these boys…”. Seventy years on, we still do, and it is good to see an honest rendering like this.


box office 0844 871 7651 to Saturday touring     nationwide to November

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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Acting is a useful metaphor (one man in his life plays many parts, etc), and in this portrait of addiction, therapy and recovery author Duncan Macmillan squarely – and a bit riskily – makes his central character, an alcoholic and drug addict, an actress whose problem includes not being sure who she really is. We first see her skidding off-piste as Nina in a production of The Seagull. Ushered incoherent off the stage, in Bunny Christie’s uncompromising white-tiled tunnel of a transverse set she finds herself at the reception desk of a rehab institution, shouting “Cunt!” down the phone at her mother.
In arrogant exchanges with a doctor (Barbara Marten) Emma says that she just wants a quick fix, a “tune-up” and a certificate that she no longer presents a risk to employers. She vents petulant, shuddering boozed-up benzodiazepine rage when told that it will take weeks if not months, and that she will have to join group therapy and follow an AA “twelve-step” programme, accepting both responsibility and weakness, calling on “a higher power”, . and making amends.
She derides the idea of higher power, spouting jumbled defiance of the therapist she considers her intellectual inferior, citing Derrida and Foucault and generally being vile. Her room rises spookily from the floor: director Jeremy Herrin in Headlong tradition pulls no punches in visually and aurally involving us in maelstrom of hallucination and withdrawal. But our heroine won’t co-operate with group therapy, and the risk of making her a self-absorbed actress – rather than someone from an unglamorous life, who also might get addicted – lies in the possibility that away from the earnest Dorfman audience, her thespian posing and showy scraps of Streetcar and Fukuyama might drain all sympathy.

It nearly did even for me, and I revere actors and understand the reality of addiction. Denise Gough gives a storming and courageous performance, a draining and career-making turn; but Macmillan’s unflinching evocation of a person chemically hollowed out into a deluded, self-obsessed, lying, treacherous, greedy ball of rage is so strong that you hover between pity and revulsion. Still wincing from compassion-fatigue after Stef Smith’s “Swallow’- where the self-harming heroine blames her behaviour on everything from 9/11 to Auschwitz – I lost empathy when this Emma cited global miseries and distant war zones yowling “Self-medication is the only way to survive in a world that is broken”. Even though she claims her brother’s death as excuse, it later transpires that she was so well away even before it that she didn’t get to the funeral.
On the other hand, Emma’seloquence is such that once or twice you switch sides and wonder whether the author’s target is actually the pious , “boredom and shame and fucking orange squash” culture of the rehab industry (it’s never explained who pays, by the way). Marten, doubling as the doctor and group leader, has exactly the kind of fuzzy grey hairdo which makes normal people fear therapists; and the sharply played ensemble group, once launched into antiphonal fragments of glum back-story, hover between pitiable and plain depressing.

But take heart. The second act, in which after a fresh crisis Emma capitulates, is far more engaging. And there is a harsh, truthful and rather brilliant twist at the end when we are reminded that the slightly cultish role-playing and warm mutual support of group meetings is not necessarily a realistic preparation for confronting the family your addiction spent years destroying. Overcoming addiction is indeed something to celebrate and praise: but not everyone has to join in straight away.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 4 Nov

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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