Monthly Archives: October 2015

THE HAIRY APE Old Vic SE1

FROM THE FIRES BELOW,  O”NEILL’S  ACCUSING VOICE 
From the opening moments of Richard Jones’ stunning, nightmarish production of Eugene O’Neill’s early play we have both the shock of expressionist newness – it can still disconcert, a century on – and a powerful sense of period. Both are profoundly right. The ships’ stokers, black with smoke and filth, are figures frozen in the angular energy of 1920’s socialist realism, lurching in robotic concord as if hit by the ship’s roll in their yellow steel barred cage. They come to life to quarrel and brawl and sing and stamp, or listen to Irish Paddy (Steffan Rhodri) declaiming O’Neill’s passionate threnody for the real days of seafaring. Days when “there was clippers with tall masts touching the sky, the clean skins and clear eyes of the men, free men…work, but work under the sky with skill and daring in it..”. All the baffked anguish of industrialisation rolls through it.
Only Bertie Carvel’s Yank, alone and moody at the end or suddenly erupting in caged, stamping energy, is inwardly struggling to make sense of life. It is to be his journey and his doom, this proud aloneness: his story could not be more stark and simple. On the great deck above the spoiled young heiress of the Douglas Steel empire bickers with a stiff aunt , the face of her father the tycoon adorning the shining bulkhead. Young Mildred has persuaded the Engineer to let her see the stokehold and “how the other half live”. When they descend to the fires and men who keep the liner moving smoothly, she sees Yank looming diabolic and dark against the flames . “Oh, the filthy beast!” she cries, and faints in her pristine white frock.

Yank does not get over it. His pride is shattered. In dock, he roams Manhattan half-coherent with revenge . Nightmare, puppetlike masked figures of the wealthy swirl around him; he lashes out and ends in another cage, a prison cell. Carvel’s angry Bronx is sometimes only half-coherent in the dodgy Old Vic acoustic (it’s back in proscenium mode now) but it doesn’t matter. The anguished reiteration of words and themesgrows in power: steel becomes his preoccupation, the bright metal which brings weary captivity to some and wealth to others. Prison shouts echo from every corner of the theatre. An innocent radicalized, he finds the IWW, the Workers’ Union derogated by the newspapers as “a dagger to the heart of America”. But Yank’s enthusiasm for dynamite over leafleting has him thrown out as a suspected spy.

His weary dusk is spent slumped alone against the barley-sugar of the proscenium edge (an almost accidental poignancy, so rich does the Old Vic paintwork look against his shabbiness) . A great balloon moon whose face is the Douglas Steel logo hangs smug above; finally comes the zoo scene where he envies the gorilla because it does not have to think. It is not, like him, trapped in a reflective, feeling, remembering human brain within a world which ignores it and makes him a commodity. All he can do is force open the cage.
The gorilla itself, his merciful executioner , is remarkable. All the physical ensemble work is: expressionistic without pretension, deft, frightening. Stewart Laing designs, Aletta Collins choreographs, sound and light draw its ninety minutes tightly together. A time to remember.

box office 0844 8717628 to 21 Nov
rating five   5 Meece Rating

Principal sponsoring partner: Royal Bank of Canada

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PIG FARM St James’ Theatre SW1

OINK! SWIPE! SNOG! STAB!

“Ohhh Tim, you beautiful filthy boy!” cries Tina the pig-farmer’s discontented wife, succumbing drunkenly to some pan-banging draining-board sex. Filthy he is indeed, though not in the sanitized Fifty-Shades manner: the 17-year-old “work-release” farmhand from the local penitentiary is head to foot in pig-slurry.
Soon her nightie is, too. In fact, at numerous points in Greg Kotis’ play all four characters are liberally besmeared with “faecal sludge” from the fifteen-thousand pigs on a grim rural unit which can’t quite cope. Tom, the husband (Dan Fredenburgh) is living on the edge, beleaguered by torrential rain and Federal government paperwork. Speaking as a former farmer’s wife, I can vouch for that realism. He devotes his evenings, though, to illicit sludge-dumping in the Potomac River while the thwarted Tina thinks he should be home making babies. Worse still, the Environmental Protection Agency inspector is coming tomorrow and requires an accurate audit of their pigs. There are too many for comfort, but as Tom repeatedly mourns, when America wants bacon, and pork prices keep dropping, numbers have to go up for a small, panicking farmer to survive.
Kotis last hit this stage with the unpromising but successful and West-End-transferred URINETOWN, a dystopian water-shortage dictatorship fantasy musical. Clearly he’s by no means through with excretory themes and sustainability worries. Or with violence: this story of country folk generously deploys a rolling-pin, a slaughtering-knife , a handgun, several offstage truck-crashes and an acoustically spectacular though invisible “pig run” when young Tim proves his manliness by crashing the West Pen open during the inspection and allowing Ole’ Bess the herd mother to lead thousands in a charge for freedom.
That this is black comedy rather than Chekhovian rural tragedy is signalled by the alliterative casting: Tom and Tina, Tim the farmhand, Teddy the EPA official preparing a report for DC, and offstage there’s neighbour Tony, Toby the feed-meal man, and Teddy’s colleagues Trevor, Tyler, Theo… well, you get the idea. This is, surprisingly, funny at the time. So is most of the violence, and the repetitive revivals of the two bloodstained corpses near the end is pure Python. You expect them to break out in Spamalot’s “Not Dead Yet” chorus.
Tom’s desperation and nostalgia for a simpler time in their life is both laughable and, at moments, immensely sad: Fredenburgh does it beautifully, and there is real depth of confusion and affection in Charlotte Parry’s Tina. Chuck in some nice Pinterish menace from Teddy (a brilliantly odd Stephen Tompkinson) and a remarkable turn from American Erik Odom as Tim, all adolescent longing and spurting violence. So the two hours, briskly directed by Katharine Farmer, are certainly watchable. As to the author’s political point about unmanageable, wasteful oversupply , disgusting industrial farming and resentment of Federal regulatory jobsworths, they are discernible, but not really central. Top marks for Carla Goodman’s credibly rundown kitchen set, though, and sound designer John Leonard’s spectacular thunder, porcine stampedes and pop radio.
box office 0844 264 2140 to 21 Nov

rating:   three   3 Meece Rating

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HUSBANDS AND SONS NT Dorfman, SE1

THE PEOPLE OF THE PITS
Tender, fierce, intelligent and humane, this superb production reminds us that D.H.Lawrence was at his best a great interpreter of 20th century change. Years before the showy hysteria of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, (heaven knows why the BBC chose the worst of his works to dramatize) he wrote plays about his Nottinghamshire pit village, vivid with understanding humanity, humble observation and pity. Here are themes of marriage and pride, trapped lives and rich communities, possessive fearful mothers and feckless endangered sons. Here is class and money and the yearning for art and the painful the rift between generations when education takes the young out of manual work. Here too, noted with generosity, is the increasing independence of women.
Three separate plays are superbly sewn together by Ben Power and presented in the round, village households lying before us schematic but detailed in another fine Bunny Christie design complete with fires and candlelight and washtubs and kitchen tables. The families’ lives weave through lanes and kitchens a pattern of light and shade. The oldest play, the 1909 “A Collier’s Friday Night” is more of a sketch, with Lloyd Hutchinson as an ageing curmudgeon supping tea from a saucer in his pit-dirt and berating his wife (Julia Ford). Her eye is on their son , home from college talking of Rimbaud but forgetting to take the bread out of the oven; at one point he interrupts the father’s snorting wash-down with the announcement “Fancy! Swinburne’s dead!”.
A still more possessive mother is up at the Gascoignes: Susan Brown magnificent as the contemptusous mother-in-law of prim Minnie (a finely tuned Louise Brealey) who is annoyed at the infantile helplessness of her handsome new husband Luther, not to mention the fact that he’s got the neighbour’s daughter up the duff. Finally, up the road is Anne-Marie Duff electric in the most troubled role as Lizzie Holroyd, victim of a drunken husband she cannot stop loving and hating.

With unobtrusive skill, Power and director Marianne Elliott weave it together, occasionally letting the families meet or refer to one another without diluting the individual stories (Hutchinson’s grumpy patriarch brings home the drunken Holroyd, who stays asleep on their outside lavatory during the other family’s latest row). The intercutting and counterpoint of emotional tides and themes is reminiscent , in a very good way, of the best soap opera direction (Excavation Street, perhaps) . But pure theatre are the moments when all the emotions gather silently against a scratchy plaintive record they all might hear, or a Lawrentian poem from lonely clever Ernest in the dusk.

Flashing rattling indications remind us of the mine that dominates their lives; the accents, thee’s and tha’s and nays and nivers, are pitch-perfect (my Mum was from thereabouts, and did it sometimes). A lost world rises before us, every voice in it ringing true with the sad, sweet music of humanity.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 10 Feb
co-production with The Royal Exchange Theatre

rating four

4 Meece Rating

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ROOSEVELVIS Royal Court, SW1

THE PRESIDENT OR THE POP STAR? CHOOSE YOUR ROLE MODEL, GIRL!

It’s a portmanteau of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. And, one must sorrowfully surmise, was lit upon by The Team, a collaborative group, mainly for the sake of using that gamesome centaur of a title. Not too bad an idea, though, to have the spirits of two national heroes competing to hearten a shy, depressed citizen of today on a road trip. As if we were to portray a struggle between Churchill and John Lennon to offer life-coaching on the A 14 .

The heroine here is Ann (Libby King), meat-packing factory worker in South Dakota, who holds imaginary conversations with her alternative persona as Elvis, longs for lesbian love, and welcomes to her apartment the more adventurous ourdoorsy Brenda (Kristen Sieh) who she has met online and who is a bit Roosevelt. There’s an introduction in which they run us through a few details of their alter egos’ lives , in full drag including Brenda in sidewhiskers and bucksins. Then we find them on a middling-unsuccessful romantic campervan weekend to Mount Rushmore.

Brenda finally reproves Ann for being “unbrave”. In this sequence, and others, they spend a lot of time passive, watching bits of pre-created location film of their own activities on screens around the stage: theatre for the selfie generation. It does at least give them time to hop in and out of the costumes of their personae: Elvis’ is simple enough given Ann’s macho outfits and “dude underwear”, but Sieh has some sharp quick-changes into buckskins and sidewhiskers.
For most of the 95 minutes Ann is alone, going crosscountry to Graceland to show she is not unbrave; we gradually work out that the sidewhiskered Brenda now exists only in Ann’s head, ever at her side leaping around punching video-screen buffalo or delivering inspiring Roosevelt quotes. Conveniently, the real Elvis did love the President’s line about “great and generous emotion, high pride, stern belief, lofty enthusiasm”. Finally they fall out, Roosevelt calling Elvis “degenerate” and lazy, Elvis snarling “Rich kid!” and whining that he couldn’t have done any better with his life after coming from a family of “dirt farmers”. The message, unsubtly and repeatedly hammered home, is that there are two kinds of America, and that each of us as Whitman says “contains multitudes”.
Oh, and part of Ann’s problem is that she’s ashamed of being gay. The real Brenda, reappearing on the phone at Ann’s lowest moment, turns out to be a chilly cow anyway, telling her she’s “depressed” and that no, she never gave her much of a thought after that camping weekend. One finale inevitably references them as Thelma and Louise going over the Grand Canyon, the other has Ann glumly reaching Graceland.
The laborious whimsy wears thin, and there’s a a skill deficit. Ann’s voice and body language simply do not change enough between being herself and being Elvis, though the script needs her to do it moment to moment. Sieh as Roosevelt has created an accent so bafflingly odd (an idea of late-19c American Toff) that it grates into irrelevance. . She is, though, at least physically adept, spurting with energy and a good comic mover in the imaginary Roosevelt’s odd dance sequences. King, though more real, offers only a sweet one-note melancholy with underpowered Elvis moments. In the end, she has a speech of proper strength. But only the one.

box office 020 7565 5000 to 14 Nov
rating two   2 meece rating

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ROOSEVELVIS Royal Court, SW1

PRESIDENT OR POP KING?  WHO HOLDS THE SECRET OFLIFE?

It’s a portmanteau of Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley. And, one must sorrowfully surmise, was lit upon by The Team, a collaborative group, mainly for the sake of using that gamesome centaur of a title. Not too bad an idea, though, to have the spirits of two national heroes competing to hearten a shy, depressed citizen of today on a road trip. As if we were to portray a struggle between Churchill and John Lennon to offer life-coaching on the A 14 .

ThE heroine here is Ann (Libby King),  a shy gay meat-packing factory worker in South Dakota, who holds imaginary conversations with her alternative persona as Elvis, longs for  love, and welcomes to her apartment the more adventurous ourdoorsy Brenda (Kristen Sieh) who she has met online and who is a bit Roosevelt. There’s an introduction in which they run us through a few details of their alter egos’ lives , in full drag including Brenda in sidewhiskers and bucksins. Then we find them on a middling-unsuccessful romantic campervan weekend to Mount Rushmore.

Brenda finally reproves Ann for being “unbrave”. In this sequence, and others, they spend a lot of time passive, watching bits of pre-created location film of their own activities on screens around the stage: theatre for the selfie generation. It does at least give them time to hop in and out of the costumes of their personae: Elvis’ is simple enough given Ann’s macho outfits and “dude underwear”, but Sieh has some sharp quick-changes into buckskins and sidewhiskers.
For most of the 95 minutes Ann is alone, going crosscountry to Graceland to show she is not unbrave; we gradually work out that the sidewhiskered Brenda now exists only in Ann’s head, ever at her side leaping around punching video-screen buffalo or delivering inspiring Roosevelt quotes. Conveniently, the real Elvis did love the President’s line about “great and generous emotion, high pride, stern belief, lofty enthusiasm”. Finally they fall out, Roosevelt calling Elvis “degenerate” and lazy, Elvis snarling “Rich kid!” and whining that he couldn’t have done any better with his life after coming from a family of “dirt farmers”. The message, unsubtly and repeatedly hammered home, is that there are two kinds of America, and that each of us as Whitman says “contains multitudes”.
Oh, and part of Ann’s problem is that she’s ashamed of being gay. The real Brenda, reappearing on the phone at Ann’s lowest moment, turns out to be a chilly cow anyway, telling her she’s “depressed” and that no, she never gave her much of a thought after that camping weekend. One finale inevitably references them as Thelma and Louise going over the Grand Canyon, the other has Ann glumly reaching Graceland.
The laborious whimsy wears thin, and there’s a a skill deficit. Ann’s voice and body language simply do not change enough between being herself and being Elvis, though the script needs her to do it moment to moment. Sieh as Roosevelt has created an accent so bafflingly odd (an idea of late-19c American Toff) that it grates into irrelevance. . She is, though, at least physically adept, spurting with energy and a good comic mover in the imaginary Roosevelt’s odd dance sequences. King, though more real, offers only a sweet one-note melancholy with underpowered Elvis moments. In the end, she has a speech of proper strength. But only the one.

box office 020 7565 5000 to 14 Nov
rating two

2 meece rating

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GASLIGHT Royal, Northampton

‘I MUST CLING TO MY HUSBAND!”  OH NO YOU MUSTN’T…  HE’S IN THE ATTIC…
James Dacre’s leadership of this twin theatre is certainly lively: a dark Oklahoma, King John in Magna Carta year, Arthur Miller’s forgotten The Hook (cheekily, since then Radio 4 has been claiming the “first” production). Add a powerful Brave New World, and now to ring the changes, a preposterously melodramatic , delightfully nasty neo-Victorian melodrama by Patrick Hamilton. Who is better known for bleak 30’s and 40’s novels like Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.

GASLIGHT itself is famous for the 1940 adn 1944 films, with Anton Walbrook and then Charles Boyer as the husband who convinces his fragile wife she is going mad, by hiding her things and fiddling with the gas pressure in a secret attic when he’s supposed to be out. It gave the psychiatric profession the term “gaslighting” for manipulative creating of self-doubt in another. The film crept so deep into the national psyche that a memorable pastiche in Round The Horne had Kenneth Williams in Armpit Theatre as the villain.
But this is the original play, realized with gleeful relish by director Lucy Bailey, and a quite brilliant set by William Dudley . It’s a gloomy drawing-room with uneasily slanted doors, intermittently transparent walls, and a ceiling which flares upwards at an angle to reveal horrid stairs and attics whenever necessary. The story is markedly different from the film: not least because the hapless Bella knows from the very start, that her husband is upstairs, and it’s him fiddling with the gas pressure. His emotional manipulation over her “madness” is more overt and harshly verbal; from the opening moments poor Bella (beautifully played straight and poignantly wounded by Tara Fitzgerald) is clearly a tormented victim of a Jonathan Firth who as Jack feels more like something out of Orton or Pinter in their nastier moods. It’s chillingly realistic, and very true to Hamilton’s novelistic vision in its uncompromising portrait of emotional bullying.
Rather less realistic is the arrival of a curiously stilted old police inspector (Paul Hunter) who reveals the husband’s brutal back-story and fiddles about forcing desk drawers: one could wonder by Bailey didn’t cut a bit of his repetitive and dated character-act wittering, and if it gets a transfer (which it 75% deserves) I hope she does.
For a time Bella nobly says “I must cling to my husband!” like a proper old-style missus, and refuses to co-operate; but once assured that he is not only a murderer but “has an interest in unemployed actresses” she goes right off the clinging idea. A very Patrick Hamilton woman: murder fine, adultery not so much. By the end of Act 1 the jocose old copper has informed her that she is married to a “tolerably dangerous” man; thereafter expect no modernistic volte-face to change that judgement.
Yet for all the clunkiness, and some slow passages, Bailey’s production has proper grip and power, rising to a final twisted revenge from Bella , superbly done by Fitzgerald, which had the matinee audience giggling with relief. And then a design moment which made us gulp. Hokum, yes: but Reader, I swallowed it…

BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk to 31 Oct

RATING three  3 Meece Rating

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DARK TOURISM Park Theatre, N4

CELEBRITY CULTURE DECODED – FURIOUSLY

I’m a bit late on the curve catching this, but it runs all week with two more matinees, so Roll up! Shudder as you savour the freakish world of celebrity PR agents, tup’n tell journalism, fake reality-shows, slut-shaming, and career dieting . Meet some of the most topically revolting of contemporary male characters: all but one equipped with seriously wrong beards, from the Mark Thompson Bristle to the Russell Brand Silkie. Applaud the author’s creation of four cracking female parts, alongside and agin these monsters.
Daniel Dingsdale, in his first and furiously eloquent full-length play, is a bit too discursive in the characters’ rants against (and for!) the cult of vapid fame, the cynical construction of narratives fed to media, and the general decline of culture, taste, kindness and modesty. But they’re very fine rants. He says in his notes that these people are heightened and bastardized amalgamations of reality, but it’s my world too, and some are credible verging on libellous…
It begins on air with two comedy DJs  – Milton a loghorreic druggy sex addict  smartarse with long hair (Huw Parmenter) , the other, Rob (Tom Maller)  a thuggy oaf. Decode that if you will. Parmenter and Maller are so accurate in tone that I actually started hating them (a few in the matinee audience booed the curtain call, which is a tribute). They riff an ooh-arent we-naughty revelation about Milton’s night with childrens TV presenter Becky, who as a result gets headlined BECKY BUMLOVE in the tabloids, is suspended and humiliated. Milton’s PR agent is Rick (Damien Lyne),  whose wolfish devotion to the dark arts is allowed, interestingly, to waver and develop into self-disgust as the disaster rolls on. His assistant Max, however, is pure, venomous manic evil, and the author plays the part himself with a sinister Brylcreemed hairstyle I devoutly hope is for stage-use only.
They set up a meeting in which, with a tabloid vixen at hand, Milton is to apologize and Becky forgive. It goes violently wrong (Dingsdale likes a showdown every ten minutes. – tiring but usually exciting) . Wronger still when some sex tapes emerge and the second act twists begin.

What I like is the author’s skill and intelligence in presenting four distinct types of young female fame, each falling foul of prurient misogyny.  Becky (a sweet Josie Dunn) is clean girl-next-door CBBC type, not looking for tabloid fame, but expected to be sexless: she loses her job and more.  Jenny is a serious actress, stalling in her career, fearing invisibility and using Rick as helpmeet: Carol is a fearful Fleet Street cynic who despises the other women and Gemma, a pout-perfect, brainlessly cunning X- for-Essex autotunie, is beautifully played, down to the last toothy smile and skip, by Tamaryn Payne: a born comedienne of whom we shall hear more.
Not a perfect play, it could do with a trim and less glee in its own eloquence, but I hope it finds bigger stages.  The author certainly will: not least because his willingness to work up narrative twists is refreshingly rare in a play so furious in its message.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 24 oct
rating three     3 Meece Rating

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