Monthly Archives: November 2015


“Where else” says an exasperated Sir Henry Irving , asked at the gates of Heaven to justify the profession which estranged him from his religious mother and cost him a wife and children, “Where else could a stuttering, sickly, bandy-legged boy from Somerset play kings and heroes?”. Fair enough. And he goes on to point out that his contribution helped to make the profession more respectable in a society still too prone to regard players as riff-raff.
Cards on the table, I nipped up the Piccadilly line to the Park theatre’s smaller studio, and Andrew Shepherd’s play partly because my own great-grandparents in family legend shared a stage with Irving once (no doubt somewhere near the back). My Granny, on her wedding night, was told by her upright spouse that it was lucky she remained “pure” in this low theatrical world and she must never speak of The Theatre again. Even after the knighted Irving, suspicion hung around it.
So what with the swagged red curtains and the fact that Shepherd, playing his hero himself, adopts a weird (though sadly accurate) prim Edwardian accent (“I will play Hemlet!”) it was one for me. It’s double-billed with an hour-long version of the melodramatic hokum which made his name – The Bells – but I saw only the 90-minute biographical piece, directed by Lucy Foster with many a flourish.
From his first entrance with a cry of “It is I!”, Irving is taken through his life’s highlights and disasters by the prim heavenly clerk (Simon Blake). His mother preaches hellfire on finding his volume of Shakespeare, he stutteringly forgets his only few lines as a “walking-gentleman” at the Sunderland Lyceum, slogs through twenty-plays-a-month rep, meets his various women, and marries one who disapproves, so he walks out on her and his unborn child when she snaps that he’s “Making a fool of himself” just after his big night emoting through The Bells.
He meets Ellen Terry, played as an appallingly actressy showoff by Angela Ferns (though she shows proper quality when she does an Ophelia scene). Most importantly, Shepherd gives us glimpses – though not enough – of what real novelties of quality Irving brought to the stage: his quieter-than-Kemble Hamlet, his controversially dignified Shylock, his reluctance to boom for booming’s sake. There are some nice lines (“If Shakespeare was meant to be farted you’re using the wrong hole”) and a good indication of the ongoing insults he received from George Bernard Shaw.



It’s not the first time this landmark late-Victorian moment in theatre has been material for modern imagination: Michael Punter’s spooky squib STAGEFRIGHT at Bury St Edmunds saw a petulant Irving and his house manager Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame) locked in the Lyceum overnight, and the same GBS tension was referred to there. Shepherd’s piece is interesting for lovers of theatre history , but becomes a bit too narrative “and-then-and-then”, and could profitably leave out one or two incidents.
But it’s Christmas, a time to call up ghosts and remember what lies beneath and behind the age of Rylance and McKellen (and indeed of Brian Blessed, when it comes to booming). And you get The Bells for the same ticket, if something even spookier, more retro and darkly murderous is your bag. to 19 Dec
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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Under a bleak black mountain panorama, this is a shattering play about selfishness, mismatched love, and how grief and guilt can make you monstrously cruel unless it redeems you. It is not Henrik Ibsen’s best-known (though Antony Biggs at the Jermyn did a fine revival a few years back with Imogen Stubbs). But Richard Eyre, following his Hedda Gabler and a still-haunting adaptation of GHOSTS, brings the same deep sorrowing intelligence to bear in adapting and directing this.



He runs it (as before) straight through in eighty fine-balanced, emotionally gripping minutes. The same design team: Tim Hatley, with Peter Mumford’s vitally important lighting design, take a spare white stage from an opening sunrise beyond the peaks to the final starlit hope. Ibsen was an old man when he wrote it, well versed in its themes: inadequate marital love, the “law of change” which makes all things crumble and re-form, and the terrifying emotional vacuum of fin-de-siecle atheism. But here his catalyst is rawer and deeper: an innocent death.



Geeky writer Alfred (Jolyn Coy) has never quite meshed with his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard) ,a blazingly sexual, unsatisfied ball of need. He is still babyishly close to his half-sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby, touchingly conflicted beneath a sensible exterior). Rita resents her, and Asta herself finds it difficult to surrender to an adult love of Borgheim (Sam Hazeldine). As a practical road-building engineer the latter is the only sane and happy one – “the world is wonderful!” to him and he wants to share it.


Rita’s is desperate for Alfred’s embraces: needy, prowling in a thin wrapper, at one point she opens it to him hurling her desire like weapon, while with superb tiresomeness he chunters of packing up writing his vapid philosophy book about the nature of human responsibility and devoting his life to education their small lame son Eyolf, who alone can “Fill his life with purpose”. She, with shocking openness, cries that she wishes Eyolf had never been born, because she can’t share Alfred. “I want to be everything!”


He backs away from her advances. Coy and Leonard make this properly excruciating. “We had a love that wrapped us in flames!” she cries, and he “I wasn’t wrapped in flames”. We learn that he married partly for her money, to give his orphan half-sister security; later, that the child is only crippled because he fell off a table as a baby while they were making love.



Into this tangle of discontent falls a real thunderbolt, after a very unsettling visit from the Ratwoman : Eileen Walsh a horribly matter-of-fact Irish crone, the travelling pied-piper whose art is to lure to their drowning the “squeakers and rattikins, crawlers and creepers that scamper and plop into the milk-pails” . She gleefully says “Bite the bitter apple, little master!” as she leaves. And while the adults variously vent their anger and delusional ideas, Eyolf drowns in the fjord, watching her row away.



The rest is grief, a working-out of horror and cruel accusations, and realization that the cruellest thing of all when a child dies is that banal, whats-for-dinner life will go on. “We are stuck on this earth, both of us”. For all his bleakness Ibsen does usually offer a glimmer of dawn, and here Eyre and his cast serve it with delicate, unemphatic precision. Rita is the one who finally sees that even in the last horror, life may, if you can look outward, still be conducted with “something a little like love”. No flames, but a dim, flickering starlight hope.
box office 0207 359 4404 to 9 Jan
Sponsor: Aspen
rating five   5 Meece Rating

box office 0207 359 4404 to

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PERICLES Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

Another flickering evening in the candlelight of the Globe’s Jacobean theatre: engrossing, melodramatic, comic, epic. Ben Jonson was disparaging about Pericles – c “a mouldy tale” . And even compared to A Winter’s Tale with its “gap of time” in the interval, this is diffuse and episodic. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, ricochets round the ancient Mediterranean and Aegean between kingdoms: fleeing for his life from the incestuous riddling Antiochus, saving a land from famine, being shipwrecked, finding his armour washed up and winning a fight , marrying Thaisa, losing her in childbirth in a storm at sea, casting her coffin adrift, enduring his daughter’s apparent death while he sails home to duty, roaming long years in his grief, growing his hair till he resembles Ben Gunn.


Meanwhile the wife’s and daughter’s fates in nunnery and brothel must be related too, plus the treachery of trusted friends and some random necessary pirates. Then the three must be reunited, with slight assistance from the Goddess Diana descending from the roof in a dream sequence. To keep the audience on-track it has a narrator, speaking as the medieval poet Gower. Add to that the fact that Shakespeare pretty certainly didn’t write the first eight or nine scenes (his colleague George Wilkins is mainly responsible for those, and indeed the early verse does rather plod along in comparison with later glories) . And all this adventure, rom-com, tragedy, romance and redemption must fit in tiny theatre required to be many shores and seas.



But Dominic Dromgoole’s production has wit, pace and beauty. Three hours fly past in suspense and not infrequent interludes of laughter. There is perfect atmospheric music by Clare van Kampen and a surprising degree of spectacle. Dromgoole – and designer Jonathan Fensom – positively relish the Jacobean challenge of sails, ratlines and ropes descending amid the flickering candelabras, thunder-effects, an altar fire and portable tree, and the creation of an instant brothel with rude picture and naff bead curtains. The Gower narration is, brilliantly, given to Sheila Reid as a diminutive crone, relishing the ancient story as if at a fireside, wandering in and out excited at each new development, scuttling out of the cast’s way to let them do a scene. And the offstage joust, startlingly, happens behind us in the circular corridor as the shutters fly suddenly open to the light.

James Garnon is Pericles, journeying from boyishness to manhood and on to Lear-like despair; Jessica Baglow a dignified, soberly virtuous pragmatic Marina: her scenes with her would-be rapists and her shaming of Lysimachus are done with defiant fire, and her trembling revelation with a hysterical father is properly moving. The play’s themes pulse through: hope, endurance, chastity and fatherhood (Simon Armstrong plays both the incestuous Antiochus and the hilariously jolly King Simonides; Fergal McElherron enjoyably doubles the decorous honest Helicanus and a hawking, spitting priapic brothel-keeper) .



The Shakespearian beauties of language multiply – “Born in a tempest where my mother died” says Marina sadly “The world to me an everlasting storm”. The magic intensifies. And for all the foolery, asides and absurdities, Dromgoole never lets us lose sight of the central strange beauty: amid late Shakespeare plays this is unique because Pericles is innocent. No tragic flaw: this is not an arrogant Lear or Cymbeline , jealous Leontes, nor even a plotter of vengeance like Prospero. He is just tossed by fate like his ships in the sea-storms, grieving but unblaming, pure in loving sorrow. So when the redemptive resurrections come, high emotion dissolves into laughter at the absurdity of his delight, pure relief without remorse. “New joys wait on you” says old Gower, signing off with satisfaction. Beautiful.


box office 0207 401 9919 to April
rating four4 Meece Rating

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The last American import Rufus Norris brought to the National – The Motherf—-er with the Hat – was a five-mouse delight, a bold choice which rightly just won a Best Play award. Less welcome is this Wallace Shawn premiere, with the author himself bagging the weirdest and probably the most rewarding role, as a moribund old has-been TV actor , Dick.

He doesn’t turn up for the first fifteen minutes, which are occupied by a long narrative monologue by Robert (Josh Hamilton) who explains that it’s a ten-year reunion of the team from his play “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars”. It was convened by Ted, who wrote the music and now does occasional advertising jingles, and includes Annette the wardrobe mistress – large , glum, and broke – and Bill the producer, now a “talent agent”. The only other one who is still successful is Tom (Simon Shepherd in matinee-idol mode) as the hero of Robert’s ongoing TV soap. Robert now feels, and smugly announces, that theatre “came to seem a rather narrow corner”, and that the 30-minute TV show is the thing. Coming to this endless monologue cold, you muse that the man is a right prat, and worriedly hope that this is deliberate. Then Dick (Shawn himself) materializes, pretty drunk and lately “beaten up by some friends, a short battering, informal” , and finally the rest of them arrive.



And indeed they are all pretty frightful, endlessly and circularly discussing (in a sort of Beckett-and-soda manner) who liked who, who was a good actor, and which of their acquaintance has dropped dead. Some relief is offered by the landlady (Anna Calder-Marshall, playing it just sufficiently odd) and the maid, the wonderful Sinéad Matthews, always a treat. The tedium of the men’s conversation – mostly woefully static, despite being directed by Ian Rickson – is relieved a bit by Shawn’s surrealism: there is a government somewhere which is doing a universally approved “programme of murdering” people who “pose a threat to us”. Topical, at least. It transpires that the maid has just got back from a murdering job “mainly in Nigeria and Indonesia”, and Matthews’ account of this – and her final meltdown- provide the few streaks of arresting sincerity in the piece.



It’s all too artfully knowing and nudgingly self-referential to engage you much, despite the best efforts of a fine cast. It would help, perhaps, if he went the full horror-movie,  and had Calder-Matthews poisoning the lot of them with her Emerald Surprise punch.


At one point, at least, it is properly confirmed that Robert is indeed a prize prat , with Dick doing a reading from his celebrated play. It is pure Game-of-Thrones or sub-Tolkien nonsense, full of names like Beltramidon and Queen Ameldra of Garmor, and warriors eating “the meat of the golden antelope” after defeating some Marmidons.

Shawn’s play lasts 105 minutes. It is more than enough.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 30 March
rating one. 1 Meece Rating Just. For Sinead Matthews. Otherwise,  verging on  Dead Rat

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I get the itching feeling that if anyone else had written this play we’d call the police. But they didn’t – Harold Pinter wrote it – so we won’t. Like all the best thrillers it is absolutely outrageous. Prostitution, death, perversions of every aspect are indulged  and laughed at and we’re all 100% complicit.



Teddy has been away for a number of years (in America , being a Professor in Philosophy of all things) but has returned to visit his family, new wife by his side. And what an awful place to bring a woman. His father hates women, his uncle has  an aversion to them, both his brothers are boasting rapists and one is a pimp. The poor dead mum is a conversational vigil and punch bag – all very Freud.


For all its chilling flights of lunacy, Jamie Lloyd has compacted this troubling, tense, intriguing, sexist and furiously crackers play into something incredibly lean and precise. Everything is incredibly measured, making the flashes of anger even more terrifying.   Soutra Gilmour’s brilliant set is a deep, abstract room which zooms backwards as if looking down the barrel of a gun. A single door gloomily stands at the end. Home sweet home.


Ron Cook as the furious father Max gives the kind of terrifying performance only someone under 5ft could. He’s planted in the middle of the empty living room, sitting in the only armchair, spitting about sluts, hatching disgusting plans and presiding over his perverse family. The dialogue between him and his brother Sam (Keith Allen) is where Pinter’s lines really get cooking. Both have that excellently distracted, hauntingly calm  Pinter delivery, without sounding like actors doing Pinter. Keith Allen is camp as tits, and nails every gag.


Gemma Chan is thankfully one of the sturdiest performances on stage. Everything in the play is geared to make her the victim but with the few lines she’s given she chills the rowdy male atmosphere in a brilliantly icy fashion.Gary Kemp as her odd, odd husband (Teddy) and John MacMillan as his younger, simpler, brother (Joey) slice through the comedy and the darkness well. John Simm as the third of the boys (Lenny) has moments of sheer perfection, but occasionally slips into ‘I’m speaking Pinter lines’ mode.



Despite a distracting interval (they should just run it 1h45 straight through), Jamie Lloyd has pulled of yet another tightly wound and wildly chilling Pinter revival. The duller moments are quickly glided over and the awful sexual and jealous tension is fully indulged in. We all felt at risk.


Box Office 08448717615   to  13 Feb  (alas, a day too early for a Valentine’s Day outing for the brave…)

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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Mid-life, an insurance salesman who will never be a big enough man to fulfil his big dream. Better to pretend- plan, to deny daily reality in the glow of an imaginary future and sanctified childhood memories worn meaningless by retelling. An anxious wife strives to hold on to her affection; there are two increasingly disaffected teenagers, an uneasy home atmosphere: ordinary failure and banal tragedy. Small wonder that Robert Bolt’s 1957 play was compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.



But the comparison does it no favours: Jim Cherry is less self-aware than Willy Loman, and in a way more grimly tragic. Where Loman can reflect “I still feel kinda temporary about myself.. a man has got to add up to something”, Cherry suppresses his awful self-knowledge in drink and bluster, stretching his wife’s tolerance to the point where at one startling moment the neat split set – a sliver of garden alongside the suburban kitchen – sees them momentarily separated, each speaking. He is overacting, declaiming “O for a Muse of Fire!” and saying he has resigned to start an orchard in Somerset. She, outside the back door, is repeatedly praying for strength, just for long enough, for a mere moment of strength to leave him…



It is a wrenchingly sad slice of life, a portrait of the damage wrought by fantasy and bombast. Liam McKenna is Cherry (the part first taken by Ralph Richardson) , fuelled by a kitchen barrel of scrumpy ever more fortified by gin, poring over nurserymen’s catalogues and farm advertisements, chunkily eloquent in his memory and dream of an apple-orchard down West. The blossom, the harvest suppers of bread and cheese and bacon, the strong men, real men… To his modest, bumbling old colleague (beautifully evoked in appearances fore and aft by Benjamin Whitrow, who also direct) he brags about handing in his notice, but cries wolf once too often. At the heart of the play, in a restrainedly fine performance, Catherine Kanter is Isobel, 1950s everywife in a printed pinny, driven beyond endurance by the fantasy and pretences and discontent but in one final, dangerous throw willing to call his bluff and back his vaunted new life.



Whereon, of course, he shrinks back. During the gradual endgame it transpires that his daughter is afflicted by the same tendency to falsity, and his son , driven by the family atmosphere to get out at all costs, longs for his call-up. Into this mix comes the most hard-headed and hearted of catalysts, the daughter’s idolized friend Carol: Phoebe Sparrow wonderfully poisonous, young, calculating, amused, lethal. It’s another Finborough rediscovery, as relevant to the midlife dreamers among us still as to those of sixty years ago.



box office 0844 847 1652 to 20 dec

RATING  four 4 Meece Rating

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ROBIN HOOD Chipping Norton Theatre


It is, famously, the local panto for the Cameron family, though the paterfamilias PM himself might want to avoid swivelling heads and accusing stares when Robin, robbing the rich to give to the poor, chucks the last handful of chocolate coins out and sneakily mentions tax credits. The even better joke is when Denis the tax-gatherer opens the Sheriff of Nottingham’s filing cabinet to find , as the late Coalition’s treasurer did, a note saying There Is No Money left.

But never mind that: Ben Crocker’s latest is an absolutely cracking, proper pantomime, directed with gleeful inventiveness by Abigail Anderson in storybook sets (Russell Craig designs) and with fine songs ranging in style from nonny-nonny folk to music-hall. No stupid smut (well, one child-friendly poo-joke), no weary pop songs , no bought-in megastars doing their standard ‘turn’. Just wit, storytelling, enough participation to keep the young happy, and all the traditional elements – songsheet, water-fight, spotted bloomers, damn good female legs in tights – woven in without any exhausting overkill (“Behind you” occurs just once, neatly, as part of a door-joke).



There are four children onstage, and very good too; the villainous Sheriff (Andrew Piper) is all one could ask for, a failed Richard III with personal issues. And its pacy: before you’re through your first ice-cream, ten minutes have seen a song, a chorus of sarcastic pop-up puppet rabbits , Marian in shapely tights, a stave fight (girl-on-girl with Rosanna Lambe’s gender-changed Little Joan) ; plus all necessary back-story and the explosive entrance of Dame Connie Clatterbottom.



Ah, the Dame! Astonishingly, it seems that this is Andrew Pepper’s first outing as Dame, and he is a joy: of the rangy rather than tubby variety, which is handy when forced onto a giant swivelling archery target, but exuding warm flirtatious absurdity and effortless stage presence. He’s pure music-hall in his big numbers, and as schoolmistress saying “No-one needs a machete or a pump action shotgun in class” to the disguised villains he-she has fine authority. And in the magnificent bedtime strip sequence, some fifteen layers down to the bloomers, he must have brought tears of joy to costume designer Emily Stuart: few gentlemen can flick a pantaloon across the stage with more brio.



So yes,we three adults loved it, and so did every child in earshot (they were all in earshot,as well they should be. By the way, Crocker also respects the Robin Hood legends, down to Alan A’Dale’s lost love and the outlaws’ dismay at Robin’s cockiness in contesting for the silver arrow and landing himself in prison. Go for the big rackety starry spectaculars if you must; but this is a fine start to Christmas. And even better, it confines its nod to the season to one tuneless joke version of Jingle Bells, and spares us a premature Santa. Joyful .


box office 01608 642350 to 10th Jan
Sponsored by Kingham Hill School
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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