Monthly Archives: October 2015

JANE WENHAM, THE WITCH OF WALKERN Touring

Touring Mouse wide

TOURING NEAR YOU;  RICH DARK OOZING EVIL AND FEMINIST DEFIANCE

A fierce bleak play, this. Set in 1712 but, taking the wider world as it is, not un-topical: hangings, tortures, religion turned into a sour power-trip. Here are superstitious dreads and demonization of anyone different, whether homosexual, eccentric or just female. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ reimagining of one of the last witch-trials in England gives us a stimulatingly nasty picture of a village suffering from an oppressive, sly, sadistic hysteria, whipped up by bad sexual secrets and the neurotic, unhinged virginal zealotry of the vicar. The devil hangs over it, and not only in the imagination of hunched crones fantasising over a fire-pit about demonic carnality: rather like the book-group from hell which can’t move on from Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s strong stuff, and Ria Parry’s stark direction serves it well (though some scenes go on a shade too long, and the opening could be clearer. We need to know what has just happened: the hanging of a “witch” whose young daughter Ann (a touching, troubling performance by Hannah Hutch) is grieving her, while the locals chunter prurient satisfaction and blame the dead woman for all the local evils, notably a wife’s repeated miscarriages.
Cut to a strong scene with an elderly Bishop (David Acton), an educated man who dismisses necromancy as “tricks of the light” and nonsense, versus the worryingly stiff young vicar (Tim Delap) who prates“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. He has his eye on Jane Wenham, a reclusive elderly herbalist he thinks is next up for the witch-pricker and the gallows , because she has a pet cockerel which might be Satan. The Bishop wearily tries to dissuade him. But lest we canonize him too soon, it appears that he himself is taking advantage of Kemi Martha (Cat Simmons) a freed slave-woman who is his housekeeper and bedmate.
Meanwhile in the village the husband of the miscarrying woman is having a fling with the tavern-keeper, and poor lonely Ann has been giving herself unjoyfully to all comers in the barn. But she confides in the seemingly kindly Jane Wenham that her sexual desire is actually for women, and is furiously shooed away as “misshapen”. So when a child drowns, and the sly old demon-fantasisers (Judith Coke brilliantly sinister as Priddy) help the vicar to close the net round Jane, Ann vengefully joins the accusers. The final scenes with Amanda Bellamy as the tormented but defiant Wenham are fast, powerful and important.

It’s a rich dark mix : I can see why Lenkiewicz threw in the lesbianism, not to mention the vicar’s sudden burst of lust and the bishop’s ex-slave. It does paint a complete picture of sexually driven hysteria and exploitation, but these elements make it veer off-piste for a while. As for the references to child abuse and Blind Priddy’s robust description of the devil’s “kingo like a broom handle” in either a dream or a memory, it pulls no punches. As a result of which, I am sorry to say, one of its rural tour dates, the private Ipswich High School for Girls, was panickily cancelled on the pretext of bad language and “safeguarding”.
But you know what? If ever there was a show that GCSE and sixth-form girls needed to see – this being both the Twilight fiction generation and one bombarded with both online porn fantasy and news footage of Iranian hangings – here it is. Yes, you’d need decent thoughtful teachers to run serious discussions and analyses straight afterwards. But to ban it altogether feels worryingly early-60s. Even then, I hope and believe my convent school would (with a gulp) have let it through.

bookings and tour dates http://www.outofjoint.co.uk
rating four  4 Meece Rating

Co- production by Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola, touring in association with Eastern Angles. I saw it at Woodbridge: next up, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 21-24 Oct, then Liverpool Everyman, Bristol Tobacco Factory, Salisbury, and Arcola from 5 Jan.

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A WOLF IN SNAKESKIN SHOES Tricycle, NW6

SINS OF A PREACHER-MAN 

Admit it, ladies. Within the most modestly-clothed and lipstickless of us pale white matrons, there lurks a sneaky wish to be – just for an hour or two – poured into a tight snakeskin dress, rechristened “Peaches”, and able to snarl “When God made me She broke the mould – put an earthquake in the sway of my hips, a hurricane in the curve of my stride and a tornado in the whip of my hair…Even when I’m a disaster, I’m a natural disaster,! This body is a gift and I will unwrap it as much as I see fit. I am a prize! Uh-huh!”. So thank you, Adjoa Andoh, for the brief fantasy. You did it for all of us.
And thanks to Sharon D.Clarke for the other female role model, the majestic pastor’s wife, first drumming up support in a rich gospel contralto for her venal fraudulent husband (“The preacher who can reach ya and teach ya..”) and then defying him. Oh yes, the women win all right in Marcus Gardley’s poetically eloquent, often peculiar, farcical-satirical echo of Moliere’s Tartuffe tale of a hypocritical cleric exploiting a bourgeois family whose head is dying and fears hell .
A problem is that this burst of manic female energy – and the full enslavement and rebellion of the family against Apostle Tardimus Toof – doesn’t happen until the far more interesting second act. There is some pleasure earlier on, not least because Toof is the magnificent Lucian Msamati – the RSC’s black Iago, no less. He does the villain proud in pointy shoes, hellfire sermons, weasel charm and correct terror of his majestic wife. He inveigles himself into the household : there’s Wil Johnson as the ailing Organdy, a gay son, the mistress Peaches, and a tribal-hip daughter, born Britney but self-styled “Africa Adewunme Wakajawaka X’tine. It means she who laughs like the hyena, bathes like the hippo, hunts like the lioness and walks like the dodo bird in the nighttime”. Good black-on-black mockery, though it doesn’t contribute much to the actual story.
The problem with that first act is that many such terrific lines and jokes are – despite the director being the normally savvy Indhu Rubasingham – half-buried under far too much shouting. And, once the Mexican maid joins in , under an overly intense outbreak of comedy accents at full volume. The seduction plot gets buried , as do the financial issues (which Moliere so cherished). Msamati gives his lines plenty of light and shade, but Wil Johnson needs to take the volume down six notches, as do several others in that section. I kept wanting to love the show for its exuberance, and just failing.

Until the second act. The duel and reconciliation of Peaches and the pastor’s wife is splendid, and there is an unmissable, satirically ferocious attempt by Toof to exorcise the son’s gayness with an exorcism banishing “ponytails and painted nails, muscle tees, and Elton John CDs. Except the LIon King. I dispatch angels” – he cries “ to uncross your legs, make you sit through Saving Private Ryan and break things for no apparent reason..”
See? I’m off again, quoting, because Gardley writes like a good angel. And the second act really is a treat. Not least because – no spoilers – there is not only a full-on farcical eavesdrop sequence, but a climax: a genuinely shocking, perilously cynical, ferociously political and dismaying Arturo Ui moment. Which nobody expected. And which works.
box office 0207 328 1000 to 14 November
rating three

3 Meece Rating

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THE FIRST MAN Jermyn St Theatre, SW1

EUGENE O’NEILL,  EARLY AND IMPASSIONED…

Well, God bless the little Jermyn. Director and AD Antony Biggs, an unwearying ferret of lost drama, has dug up another barnstorming early 20c number: a UK premiere, no less, from lEugene O’Neill. The author, it seems, didn’t much rate it in 1922, and went on to success with more famous The Hairy Ape (about to run at the Old Vic). But on this smaller stage, with an impressive cast of 12 , the forgotten work flares into savage, passionate life.

Opening with a familial “unfortunate tea” in a Connecticut front room, it hurtles rapidly into scenes so emotionally violent, visceral and verbally shocking that you hang onto the arms of your seat. After a brief interval, a looming firelit tension punctuated by eerie wolf-howls of anguish fractures in turn into jagged fury, before a final funeral scene puts the lid on it with the hero repeatedly seeming to charge like a maddened bull at an unnerved group of relatives wincing in unison. Unsayably shocking things are said, enormous dependencies and betrayals hurled around as a smalltown earthquake rips up family decorum.

It may be this intensity, growing too fiercely and fast, which made O’Neill shove it back in the drawer after early outings. Or it may have been that Curtis’ worst remarks had too much echo in his own family life. But it’s a pity, because it has all the furious vigour of its decade: a postwar loosening of gender expectations and a hysterical pursuit of science. Against a clever impressionistic set of curtains daubed with Lascaux cave drawings Adam Jackson-Smith is Curtis, a Post-Darwinian anthropologist off to search the Gobi desert for the Missing Link between ape and man. His wife Martha, played with dignified, humorous authority by Charlotte Asprey, usually travels with him as “a chum, a comrade…more efficient than a whole staff of assistants and secretaries”.
After losing two small children years before, they have agreed to seek what he calls “a more difficult beautiful happiness” than mere family life, which is suspiciously convenient to his ambitions . But his friend Bigelow (Alan Turkington) is a widower with children, and Martha at 38 now longs for a baby. The scene where she tells Curtis she is pregnant – after the awful tea-party with his stifling family who hate her for being a “Westerner” – has him rivetingly losing all decent control and shouting “I cannot understand! I depend on you! Treachery! Ruining our life!” “YOUR life” she says reasonably, and he goes wilder still with “There are doctors….”. Asprey and Jackson-Smith strike violent sparks off one another in furious, incompatible mutual need: it’s electrifying.

Then we meet the family again (a very fine ensemble, with flares of salty character for every one of the eight) lurking by a dim fire hearing the keening howls of a proper Victorian-style obstetric horror-labour, brilliantly sound-designed by David Gregory to be not quite human. There’s even the looming presence of an old Aunt Elizabeth in black bombazine in the corner ( Lynette Edwards. and she gets her moment too).
The smalltown muttonheads have decided that Curtis’ weird attitude to the baby is not just because it sabotaged his work, but because it’s not his. He is unaware that they think this, and it feeds a fearful melodramatic showdown after the ultimate disaster. The gulf between Curtis’ enormous – and creditably believable – agonies and desire for a “fine free life” and their smalltown worries is something nobody feels more strongly than him: “Your rabbit-hearted emotions! bread and butter passions!” he shouts.

And it is to the credit of this vigorous production – and the beautifully directed panic of the family – that pig as he is, you rather side with Curtis. Though if there’s an actual hero, it is definitely Martha. A name , I’d suspect, artfully chosen to echo Martyr. Epic stuff. A nugget of theatre history in two sharp, unflagging hours.

Box office 0207 287 2875 to 31 October

RATING   FOUR   4 Meece Rating
rating four

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MEASURE FOR MEASURE Young Vic SE1

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FEELS THE NEED FOR A SCRUB

Sex is at this play’s core. But it’s not sexy in the slightest. It’s a means of leverage, abuse, it’s a crime, a threat. Each of the 50 or so plastic sex dolls strewn across the stage make you want to stew in hot bleach. You can taste the immorality of this Vienna.

So potent, the Duke withdraws and leaves his pious deputy in charge. In his ruthless clampdown – and via an acrobatic twist of logic – he attempts to rape a nun,   a young woman desperate to spare her brother from execution.

Like the best of Shakespeare, though, this is a feat achieved through fierce dialogue, and deft delivery. For the seasoned actors in this production, its disturbing sexuality and combative dialogue are its greatest asset. Not the ludicrous, childish, unoriginal and baffling production.  The sight of Isabella (the outstanding Romola Garai) r fending off of the maddening holy gropes of the puritanical Angelo (terrifyingly meek and quietly vicious Paul Ready) is a great gun-battle of Shakespearean acting. Every ludicrous train of perverted thought beautifully conveyed. Likewise Tom Edden (off of One Man Two Guvnor’s, here as Pompey) revives even the stalest of Jacobean gags and Zubin Varla (Duke Vincentio) nicely marries the camp and the dramatic (perhaps largely due to having a voice like Kenneth Williams doing a Larry Olivier impression?)

This play’s woeful undoing, however, is its director.  Joe Hill-Gibbins appears bored by the wicked story, the handful of thrilling performances and black humour. Just has he did in Edward II at the National.  Key moments of the play are delivered backstage, or just ever so slightly out of view. Our saving grace is a member of the cast with a camera hooked up to a baffling projection system.   For large tracts of the play, nothing happens on stage, and the entire auditorium is just watching a basic projection. A screaming, furious performance from Romola Garai is essentially skyped* to us from backstage for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. If you’ve never seen a camera or a video, this might tickle you nicely. Otherwise it proves to be an absolute shafting of the theatrical experience.

The staging is at its best when simple. Two actors, in dialogue, with nothing but the quiet stage. Brilliance is conjured. The flinging of sex dolls, flickering video streams and messy direction are nothing compared to the unobstructed power of the central performances.   It’s a dark and murky play – a success, despite the best intentions of its director.
*I’ve also, incidentally, seen better camerawork from a 4 year old.

4 mice (just)   4 Meece Rating

Until 14th November
Box Office 020 7922 2922

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TEDDY FERRARA Donmar, WC1

QUEER ON CAMPUS,  THE 21c BLUES

Welcome to our college! Meet the students, America’s future. Or, as depicted in Christopher Shinn’s new play, a selection of the most sexually rampant, morally confused, smartphone-addicted and emotionally immature, so that as Matthew Marsh’s fed-up college President observes, “These kids are f—ing infants!”.
They also variously tend to suffer from a touching belief that the answer is tequila shots, random blow-jobs in the car park, opting for 20c literature because “the books are shorter so there’s more time to look at porn” and outbreaks of intense student politics by committee, campus journalism or loudhailer. Ah, college days! It’s Catcher in the Rye for Generation Porn.
But although Shinn’s characterization veers towards caricature at times, none of these poor kids deserves to be made more miserable than they naturally make themselves, and the inspiration of the play was serious: several suicides in US colleges, notably that of Tyler Clementi whose gay encounter in his college dorm was secretly filmed on a webcam and put online by his nasty git of a roommate.
Here, the victim of a parallel intrusion is Teddy Ferrara, played with inspired runty, weirdo geekiness by Ryan McParland. He spends a lot of time – before the real filmed encounter – assuaging his frustration by unzipping his flies and going for it on exhibitionist chatrooms. Meanwhile, ambitious Gabe (Luke Newberry) is running the LGBTQ group to |”create a community outside of partying”, and is touchingly in love with Drew ( a dark, intense Oliver Johnstone) who runs the news-sheet and is doing a splash claiming that last year’s suicide was secretly gay, so it’s not just a youthful tragedy but a political issue about the college being “deadly” to the diverse.
This is the belief of the ferocious lecturer Ellen (Pamela Nomvete, a sort of Diane Abbott on speed) and campaigners like transgender Jaq and disabled Jay. The campus, to them is rife with “heteronormative micro-aggressions”, which in English means that gay, lesbian, transgender or gender-fluid students – even when not actually bullied – are repeatedly upset by indications that they are in a minority. The body renames itself the Social Justice Committee because the word diversity is “too ocular”, and demands a “safe” syllabus free of anything which might upset anyone ever (some universities are getting to this point in Britain, so stop giggling). They want an extra set of gender-neutral lavatories throughout campus because transgender or variant students feel “unsafe in binary spaces”.

There’s a lot about that word “safe”: it adds to the general sense that decent, reasonable tolerance can shade into voluntary infantilism and victimhood. ln the funniest scene of an earnest evening, the College President tries to lead a meeting about it and digs himself helplessly into a hole. Marsh does it superbly: but while in the US the character was seen as satirical, the awful thing is that the middle-aged UK heart rather warms to the poor devil.
The plot is driven by emotion ,sexual energy and constant texting. Gabe is friendly with the big, straight, handsome Tim – Nathan Wiley, gleaming with dumbo-jock health. So Drew is jealous. He is desired by Nicky, his chief reporter (Kadiff Kirwan) who when the real lovers break up, chases Gabe, while Drew gets straight Tim to unbutton. There’s a demo in memory of Teddy, who dramatically bows out at the end of Act 1 (Dominic Cooke’s direction melds in Donmar-classy style with Hildegarde Bechtler’s bleak EveryCollege set).

The cast skilfully balance touching pained youthfulness and infuriating daftness, with Newberry in particular growing through the play. And the closing moments, with a disingenuous canonization of Teddy, throw a bracing gloss of cynicism over the whole farrago. But there are limits to how much time you can spend with self-absorbed nitwits, and Mr Cooke is wise to keep it half an hour brisker than it ran in Chicago.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 5 December
Supported by the John Browne Charitable Trust, I & C Sellars and Kathleen J Yoh, with Principal Sponsor Barclays.
Rating three    3 Meece Rating

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THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH Mercury, Colchester & Touring

A FROLIC…

This is an artful wheeze. Take the story from the sunniest of films, a 1957 cheer-up British Lion starring Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles. Bolt on some classic Irving Berlin songs, and you’ve jukeboxed a stage musical. Director-writer Thom Sutherland has done this – fresh from a London success with Grand Hotel – for a cheerful touring show with a six-piece band. I saw it at the Mercury, which produces it, before it squares its shoulders and toots off round the country. A thin Monday house was hard to stir, but the frolicking energy of the cast and the sheer good-humoured Ealingness of the story got us going. Hard not to, with so much help from the Berlin tunes and lyrics.
The story sees a struggling screenwriter and his wife – Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford (so glorious lately in Seven Brides) – unexpectedly inheriting from disreputable Uncle Simon a fleapit cinema in Sloughborough (“the Venice of England, if Venice had fewer canals and more lino factories”). It has an ageing ticket-lady Mrs Fazackalee, her nerdy son Tom, and the drunken projectionist Percy. The blustering owner of the big rival cinema wants to buy it as a car park, together with his scheming wife Ethel (Ricky Butt, a born show-stealer). Their daughter Marlene rebels and joins the Bijou lot, who restore the cinema’s fortunes and honour its past as a music-hall by doing burlesque in the interval.

The scope for tap breaks and leaping ensemble choreography (by Lee Proud) is obvious, and done with ferocious verve from the very first scene in the Railway Arms, with Mrs F. on the piano and Uncle Simon drinking himself to death on a yard of ale while the rest of the cast leap on tables. There are explosions of energy all through, notably a fabulous cleaning-up scene (the set by David Woodhead is a gorgeous thing of barley-sugar-pillars, red velvet, portable townscapes and a neatly revolving staircase). A charming romantic tap shows off Tom and Marlene : Christina Bennington and Sam O”Rourke, the latter endearingly singing about stepping out in top hat and tails while actually wearing a duffle-coat with his woolly gloves on strings through the sleeves. And there’s much carolling of “Always” from the leads: Pitt-Pulford’s voice is pure honey.

As for the interval performances Matthew Crowe, having somewhat overdone the overemphasis as the dopey trainee solicitor, suddenly comes into his own as a full-on drag artiste in a bustle. And Bennington turns shy Marlene into a high-octane belter leading a spirited fan-dance with fans made, naturally, of celluloid film strips.

But as in the days of Rutherford and Miles it’s the oldies who walk off with it: Liza Goddard turns the ticket-seller into a middle-aged but game blonde mourning her boozy husband and doting on a pampered cat (“He can’t chase the rats, he’s allergic to animal hair”). Her “How deep is the Ocean” is genuinely affecting, properly cracked in character. And Brian Capron – completely unrecognizable as my all-time favourite Coronation Street villain – is a grand Percy Quill.
Regarding musical form, it can’t make the top table: Southerland and musical director Mark Aspinall use the old songs skilfully, with well-crafted dialogue breaks and attention to character, but in the first half songs tend to stop the action dead rather than move it on. The second half moves far better: and as the show moves on and grows, the first half will sharpen. And you can certainly go home whistling it. It’s Irving Berlin. You have to.
box office 01206 573948 to 10 Oct

then touring http://www.thesmallestshowonearth.co.uk/    Touring Mouse wide

rating three    3 Meece Rating

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EVENTIDE Arcola, E8

THE GREATNESS OF SMALL LIVES

We are in a pub garden in rural Hampshire, where landlord John is gathering logs for the fire (in high summer, “it’s part of what people come for”), and telling a joke about a ferret and a blow-job to cheer up Mark, a lanky, sad youth. Along comes Liz the bravely prattling church organist. They talk. A year later, they meet again. That’s all. But it is immense.
Sometimes a new playwright emerges bringing not only skill, but a determination to offer a perspective and preoccupation outside the mainstream of dramatic, and indeed national, discourse.  Barney Norris’ theme is unregarded lives in rural communities: villages hollowed out by alien money, agribusiness and a hypermobile world.   But his concern is neither agitprop nor nostalgia, simply an exploraion of how people inwardly navigate the rolling waves of life.
Norris first full play, Visitors, was a quietly, beautifully, tragic reflection on loss and memory, with an old farm couple at its heart. This time the three protagonists are on the face of it less vulnerable  as they  confront the universal problem of how life plods or races past you, unstoppable, unseizable except in fragments. It is also about the consolation of mere human interaction: chats in a drab pub garden with a semi-stranger.   But by pretending to no grandiosity Norris reaches out further and deeper – as Jez Butterworth did in the more swashbuckling JERUSALEM – into tradition, belief, identity, love, and the immense question of how anyone finds a place on a fast-turning uncaring globe. All this through jokey boozing John, young Mark the road-mender and odd-job labourer, and nervy Liz, who drives two hours to play the moribund church organ because it’s the only gig she can get.
The trio are variously likeable, and wholly believable (I find it hard to think of them as actors cven now, but they are James Doherty, Hasan Dixon and Ellie Piercy, perfect casting by director Alice Hamilton). They talk in the pub garden – first over a morning and evening, then a year later. At one point, two of them remember a verse from “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and tears rise; but Norris turns the mood in seconds to a shock laugh and a crassness and breach. It is not without outside incident : it’s the landlord’s last day, he having sold to a chain after his wife left: the same morning sees the funeral of young Mark’s old schoolfriend, which he is missing because he needs the council work of repairing the war memorial she crashed into. “It’s for the centenary” he says; and skinny in his work boots, fresh from sleeping alongside motorways in the van he seems an modern heir of those WW1 recruits. In the second act Mark has sorted out his life, John returns just for a day, still lost, and Liz is giving up organ playing.

None of them are yokels: John’s conversation, when not ferret-based, is sharp, literate, poetic and aware, and Mark has a restless wish to know more of the world and “fill up his bookcase from down at the Sue Ryder”. Both have travelled: indeed a sidelong delight of the play is Norris’ beautiful debunking of the great modern god Travel. John went to Nepal but “there’s only so many hours a day you can spend being fascinated by how foreign everything is”. Mark – now humbly learning FIlipino words off his work colleagues – came home from India after only a week having given his money to beggars. He was repelled in a proper, decent spirit by the filthy poverty. “I just thought, you cunt – coming over here like it’s an adventure, when it’s these people’s lives..Disrespectful, to be there staring at everything’. Superb.

box office 0207 503 1646 to 17 OCT then tour: Bury St Edmunds, Oxford, Salisbury, Bristol.
http://www.upinarms. org.uk
rating five

5 Meece Rating

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