Monthly Archives: December 2015

QUEEN ANNE Swan, Stratford upon Avon

A HALF-FORGOTTEN QUEEN RISES…

 
School history was terrible. Terrible! We got the Tudors, and a bore-in about the Thirty Years War, but a fog of confusion and a sense of 1066 And All That has long surrounded the Glorious Revolution, Willamanmary, the Spanish Succession, Whigs versus Tories, and why Blenheim mattered. Shamed but invigorated, I now owe much enlightenment to the RSC; this time to playwright Helen Edmundson, whose marvellous The Heresy of Love threw light on Spanish religious despotism.

 

Now she turns her attention to Queen Anne, associated previously by us ill-taught ignorami mainly with fine square brick mansions. Poor Anne – heir of William of Orange, daughter of the deposed Catholic James but herself a staunch Protestant – reigned only from 1702-1714, weakened by her duties and by seventeen pregnancies resulting in only one survivor; a son who grievously died at eleven. The Georges succeeded her and “Georgian” became an era of fame. We do not speak of the Age of Anne.

 
Yet this fascinating, strongly based reimagination of her years acknowledges a woman who, on the face of it far feebler than the great Elizabeth, held the balance in difficult times and through painful personal relationships, not least with her beloved friend Sarah, wife of the Blenheim victor John Churchill, first Earl of Marlborough. Cannily, Edmundson has us meet her first (and several times again) via satire – rampantly rude skits, songs and droopy false breasts deployed by Tom Turner as a hawkish sneering Swift, Carl Prekopp as Defoe, and Jonathan Christie as the pampheteer MP Maywaring. Her friendship with Sarah is mercilessly guyed; so we are primed when we first see her (Emma Cunniffe) dumpy and sad in a nightie as she recovers from the latest miscarriage, suffering the manipulation and power-play of her glamorous Sarah (Natascha McElhone). Future Queen and subject are more like the needy friendless schoolgirl with a crush on the dashing Head Prefect.
The development, and collapse, of this unequal friendship is the backbone of the play, with a third and equally interesting (and historically real) woman in the background: Beth Park as Abigail a poor relation introduced to the new monarch’s household as a personal maid by the scheming Sarah. Her genuine care and gentleness finally rival Duchess Sarah’s influence, to the latter’s intense rage. Some marvellous snarling insults unveil Sarah’s shallowness: excoriating Anne’s “dumb stupidity..a grub! A lump!” as she sides with Whig pamphleteers against the influence of the unprepossessing but artful Harley (Jonathan Broadbent). Emma Cunniffe’s determined, stolid dutiful growth in stature is immensely moving to watch, duty and faith oddly, poignantly recognizable even in the happier life of our own Queen.

 
It is thrilling and always gripping, Natalie Abrahami’s direction wonderful in pace and variation. As in The Heresy of Love, Edmundson brilliantly creates a sense of an older, historic world by using an old rhythm – a great deal of iambic pentameter – without selfconscious archaisms of speech. So these early 18c people spring violently to life before us, in their rows about money, the cost of wars, scandal and blackmail and political finagling and the fragile Act of Union (“What mean the Scots? What irks them now?” got a laugh). There is pathos, danger, character, fury (not least from McElhone when foiled). It pays tribute to an overlooked woman with Abigail’s defiant final riposte to Sarah’s mockery of the determined little Queen. “She’s kind, she’s wise, she prays and tries to do right” .
Fourteen more performances. Hope it transfers. Might go again…
http://www.rsc.org.uk to 23 January
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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THE TALE OF MR TOD Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

DARK DOINGS IN THE BURROW

 

 

I hope that the great Beatrix Potter, out of copyright just last year, would be pleased at the pointing, bouncing, giggling and gasping in Red Rose Chain’s little theatre. At the sharing, too, of jokes between the smallest children, their big siblings, and the parents at their side. For of all “nursery” authors, this sharp-eyed and mischievous illustrator, author and naturalist is one of the most rewardingly dramatic. Peter Rabbit – orphaned by Mr McGregor’s pie habit – escapes, as does Tom Kitten from the awful roly-poly-pudding fate: but even the most innocent of children know, and want to know, that there are real dangers and fates out there.

 

 

Joanna Carrick’s roistering, artfully pretend-improv adaptation launches with relish into one of the more thrilling ones. Tommy Brock the badger feigns friendship with daft old Benjamin Bunny in order to steal his helpless baby-rabbit grandchildren, and gets banished from the house by tearful Mummy Flopsy (we’ve all had relatives like that). Brock breaks into Mr Tod’s fox-earth to use his batterie de cuisine for rabbit pie, but falls asleep with his boots on; the fox comes home indignant (but nervous, for badgers have bigger teeth), and makes such a mess of his revenge that under cover of their brawling, two heroic rabbits rescue the babies from the oven. Dramatic? Star Wars, eat your heart out!

 

 

It’s a three-hander, with hasty costume-switches which amused the children greatly. Carrick frames it as two disgruntled urban kids exploring their new attic in the countryside: Lawrence Russell and Kirsty Thorpe kick around old dust-sheeted toys, cookpots and random furniture and find the old books “Baby stuff!”. The ghost of Beatrix Potter appears – Rachael McCormick – grumbling at their bleeping, rackety modern ways, and counters their scornful “nothing ever happened in the olden days” with a few hair-raising Victorian headline tales – kidnappings, a baby set afloat in a cradle, a woman buried alive, dogs boiled up for margarine. That made the older kids sit up a bit.

 

So they all set out to act the Tale of Mr Tod, and great fun it is: plenty of physical jokes, pratfalls, unexpected props (an epidiascope, for heaven’s sake, projecting shadow-pictures) and inspired improvisation: the rabbits’ tunnel needs front row co-operation, which I was proud to join, holding up the wall. Some knowing gags too: the wicked badger turns TV presenter of “Baking with Brock”, Russell as Mr Tod is rather camp and preoccupied with the state of his soft furnishings, and McCormick does a saucily twerking Mrs Tiggywinkle. Nor does Carrick shy away from Potter’s grand vocabulary : Tommy Brock is still ”an incurably indolent person, snoring industriously”.

 
So we all had a grand time. And most strikingly, this being Ipswich, and only 90 minutes, many parents (including our local MP Ben Gummer with his alert small Wilfred ) had brought technically too-young children, a few under two. And they probably didn’t get the whole drift, but crowed and pointed and laughed and stared at the capering adults and daft hats. Result.

 

box office 01473 603388 http://www.redrosechain.com
to 3 Jan
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES Donmar, WC1

A WHIFF OF SULPHUR UNDER THE BROCADE…

 

There are certainly crinolines, but Quality Street it ain’t. How smart of Josie Rourke to offer adults, worn down by fairylights and panto duties, a tart, sour and thrillingly unwholesome morsel. It is Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of a 1782 shocker, an epistolary novel of high society and low sex by Choderlos de Laclos, his only work. As is the Donmar habit, it is faultlessly and unfussedly set: characters stride diagonally across the space moving props as scenes change, and until the final cruel dowsing of flames and merciless daylight all the intrigue happens below flickering real candelabras, amid Louis XV chaises-longues and big 18c landscape paintings (plus one small canvas, briefly and chillingly carried before her belly by a particular character).

 
Despite the costumes, Rourke wisely directs her cast without ‘period’ stiffness, so they spring into appalling, modern life: I did wonder whether the ideas of sexual corruption and détournement de jeunesse could still work in our age of commonplace sexual exchange, but the whiff of sulphur is still there all right. Particularly in Janet McTeer’s smoothly alarming performance as the prime conspiratrice: a voice like poisoned velvet, eyes glowing with an elegant malicious despair which deepens as the more violent second Act develops. Dominic West is Valmont, convincingly charming with an edge of savagery: the classic bad-boy who makes women think they can change him, and whose moral emptiness can sometimes ring like a summoning bell.

 

 

For those who never saw the various film adaptations (the classic Vadim with Jeanne Moreau, the Frears one with Glenn Close which was based on this play) the plot is simply, arrestingly damnable. At its heart former lovers Valmont and Mme Merteuil, bored and discontented, play sexual games with innocents. He wants to bed the famously chaste and married Mme de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy, whose resistance and succumbing are both superb). To Valmont, though, it will only be truly satisfying if by doing it she feels she is betraying her principles rather than discarding them. Sulphur? Oh yes.

 
At the same time Merteuil has challenged him to take the virginity of her friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter Cecile, fresh out of a convent, to spite the girl’s intended husband. Since Cecile herself fancies the music-master, Valmont finds it easy to cast himself as a trusty messenger and get hold of her bedroom key “to deliver letters”. The scene where he overcomes the frightened teenager with blackmail and a hand thrust up her nightie is genuinely, nastily uncomfortable (young Morfydd Clark as Cecile plays it with awful sincerity). Worse is the faux-maternal satisfaction of Merteuil telling the shocked girl that it’s all good “education”, and Valmont’s laughing boast that he has trained the child to do “services one would hesitate to ask of a professional”. Then just as you think he is going to get his comeuppance by finally falling in love with the surrendered Mme de Tourvel, the fatal dominance of Merteuil, even more powerful in her dissolution, takes revenge on them all.

 

 

The alarming thing, well served by fine performances, is the psychological acuteness of Laclos and an underlying sense almost of feminism: outrage at the inequality of sexual power in that society and the consequently nasty tactics women may adopt to even it out. There are comic moments – not least Valmont writing an earnest seducing letter to Mme T, using a courtesan’s bare bum as a desk as she sprawls on the harpsichord. But nobody, innocent or not, ends well. Brrrr!

 
box office 0844 871 7624 to 30 Jan
Rating: four   4 Meece Rating
Principal Sponsor: Barclays
Live cinema transmission http://www.ntlive.com on 28 Jan.

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THE LORAX Old Vic SE1

THNEEDS MUST WHEN CONSUMERISM DRIVES…

 

It’s a heartfelt welcome. The Old Vic, for a long while fiercely grownup, throws its arms open to children under Matthew Warchus’ leadership with a fabulous pre-curtain soundscape (25 minutes of it as they settle) . Whooshes, bangs, tinkles, hisses, crashes, buzzes and cracks echo all around, followed by an avuncular announcement from “Old Vic” himself about turning phones off and behaving reasonably well.
And when the show does start, in Max Webster’s production there is immediate evidence of something close to love. Dr Seuss’ less-known rhyming fable of the Lorax is slight enough. The protective, yellow-moustached purply-orange blob of the title is a creature who “speaks for the trees’ and the wildlife among them. He tries to stop the Onceler from chopping them down; but the latter discovers that he can make their fronds into useless but heavily desirable Thneeds – sort of ragged knitted nothingnesses – and builds an arid, polluted industrial empire where once was paradise. The environmentalist moral is so sharply and unforgivingly pointed that I was tempted to buy a novelty Lorax-‘tache in the interval (so much for condemning consumerism) and post it straight to George Monbiot.
HOWEVER – the wit, absurdities and extra dotty rhymes of David Greig’s adaptation , combined with some great songs by Jon Clark (especially the protest song, very Les Mis) , the fabulous design (Rob Howell), headlong ensemble work and enchanting puppetry by Finn Caldwell of Gyre and Gimble all together make up for the tale’s moralistic simplicity. Great multicoloured trees grow from the stage, fabulous golden swans flap over the stalls, big-bottomed loopy bears dance with comedy fish. I could watch it for hours. And there was a good bit when the lawyers turn up to back the villain, with barristers’ wigs and sparkly pink cocktail dresses, and the nice five year old next to me asked “Mummy, are they actual real lawyers?”. Alas, no..

As to character, a brilliant Simon Paisley Day as the Onceler holds a share of sympathy, being no cartoon villain. Thrown out by his green-haired industrial family of Moof Mufflers (no idea) to earn his own living far away, at first he realizes that his knitted Thneeds are pointless, and accepts a rebuke from the baggy but authoritative Lorax. Which has a highly expressive moustache and a fine baritone singing voice (respect to Simon Lipkin who has to produce this while in the awkward position of a puppetteer bent double over a wonky 3ft moustachioed flourbag). When greed takes over the Onceler and he builds the dark Satantic factory, all dustbin-lids and pipes and smoke) we see where he’s coming from. When he delivers a sermon of regret for the pollution and advises us all to give up buying stuff and go back to the stone age, he follows it with a roistering product launch of Thneed 2.0 , a very fine gag indeed.

 

And in his final exile, reduced to two baleful yellow eyes and green-wooly paws peering from a dark tower, he has a near-tragic pathos. And so has the child who plants the first new seed of hope in the bare soil. Lump in throat. Didn’t expect that.

 
box office 0844 8717628 to 30 Jan Principal Partner: Royal Bank of Canada
rating four    4 Meece Rating

 

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THE DAZZLE Found 111 WC2

SUICIDE BY THINGS...

We are up 71 concrete steps in the old St Martin’s School of Art, eccentric creativity soaked into its grimy plaster and echoing down its grim old Hitchcock-ish iron lift-shaft. Our rickety random chairs surround a domestic interior: piano, junk, a chaise, the litter of a never-tidied hideaway. Andrew Scott, farouche and “méchant”, a man-child oddity with a painfully fastidious musical ear, is the concert pianist Langley Collyer: David Dawson, already haggard with care and half-infected with his brother’s impossible mentality, is Lang’s brother Homer. We will watch their deterioration: not without laughs but ultimately with a disturbing pity.

In America the Collyer brothers are a legend: recluses and hoarders at the turn of the century, both found dead in 1947 amid 140 tons of collected objects and rubbish, having set up tripwires and booby traps to fend off (not without justification) the persecution of their neighbours after the area went downhill in the Depression. The author Richard Greenberg blithely says that his award-winning play – a dark, disturbing imagination – is based on the lives of the brothers “about whom I know almost nothing”. Yet there is a compelling truth in this odd claustrophobic evening, the latest enterprise from the Michael Grandage Company directed by Simon Evans. Convincing truth, that is, about the sort of damaged psychology which does grow into hoarding and – you must conclude – in Lang’s case a condition well into the autistic spectrum.
For Andrew Scott is extraordinary: part childlike, often sharp, with repetitive gabbles and pauses he clutches for sameness and clings to the very tassel he first saw from his cradle; but adult too, and suffering a poetic yearning for normality. A speech about his seven o’clock evenings, looking out at the blowing curling leaves and the slow happiness of homecoming businessmen, breaks your heart. He is reaching out too, though jerkily and unreliably, towards the wholly imaginary character of Milly (Joanna Vanderham), a rich Fifth Avenue heiress who has taken a fancy to him, and who Homer feels Lang should marry, to move their stuck lives on and pay some bills rather than rely on the pianist’s “policy of caprice with booking agents”.

Vanderham – whose awful home back-story emerges, terrifyingly, in the second act – plays it wonderfully: Lang insultingly speaks of her as being “like an unremarkable narrow body of water” which it would be tranquil to live alongside, and initially her socialite psychobabble and politeness are cruelly ludicrous. But Homer’s plan, a bit like a rather madder Henry James novel, collapses in chaos due to her inclination for “a renovation” . The interval sees the prop team fill the room to the ceiling with sitll more junk – cooking pots, suitcases, drifts of paper, a birdcage, a lacrosse stick, a softball jammed in a typewriter. And Vanderham’s return in the second act is startling, alarming and tragic.
All three performances are shattering at times: the first half belongs most to Scott, with his social impossiblity and savant concentration on remembered detail (“Nothing is ever lost on me, nothing ever leaves”) . In the second, Dawson rises to a truthful grief for their isolation and co-dependence, addressing us through the fourth wall, lunging for normality, falling back, wanting “a tiny thing to happen”, anything. Scott nw becomes his albatross, simian, angry, insistent and needy; Vanderham speaks the slender hope that “We might have a final time, we three…”
Disintegration, trapped lives, slow suicide by Things. I never want to see it again but am glad I did. And glad, too, that our own too-cluttered house-move with its sentimental clinging and discarding was over before it opened.
box office http://www.thedazzle.co.uk to 30 Jan

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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THE DAZZLE Found 111 WC1

SUICIDE BY THINGS…

 

We are up 71 concrete steps in the old St Martin’s School of Art, eccentric creativity soaked into its grimy plaster and echoing down its grim old Hitchcock-ish iron lift-shaft. Our rickety random chairs surround a domestic interior: piano, junk, a chaise, the litter of a never-tidied hideaway. Andrew Scott, farouche and “méchant”, a man-child oddity with a painfully fastidious musical ear, is the concert pianist Langley Collyer: David Dawson, already haggard with care and half-infected with his brother’s impossible mentality, is Lang’s brother Homer. We will watch their deterioration: not without laughs but ultimately with a disturbing pity.

 

 

In America the Collyer brothers are a legend: recluses and hoarders at the turn of the century, both found dead in 1947 amid 140 tons of collected objects and rubbish, having set up tripwires and booby traps to fend off (not without justification) the persecution of their neighbours after the area went downhill in the Depression. The author Richard Greenberg blithely says that his award-winning play – a dark, disturbing imagination – is based on the lives of the brothers “about whom I know almost nothing”. Yet there is a compelling truth in this odd claustrophobic evening, the latest enterprise from the Michael Grandage Company and Emily Dobbs Productions,   directed by Simon Evans. Convincing truth, that is, about the sort of damaged psychology which does grow into hoarding and – you must conclude – in Lang’s case a condition well into the autistic spectrum.

 
For Andrew Scott is extraordinary: part childlike, often sharp, with repetitive gabbles and pauses he clutches for sameness and clings to the very tassel he first saw from his cradle; but adult too, and suffering a poetic yearning for normality. A speech about his seven o’clock evenings, looking out at the blowing curling leaves and the slow happiness of homecoming businessmen, breaks your heart. He is reaching out too, though jerkily and unreliably, towards the wholly imaginary character of Milly (Joanna Vanderham), a rich Fifth Avenue heiress who has taken a fancy to him, and who Homer feels Lang should marry, to move their stuck lives on and pay some bills rather than rely on the pianist’s “policy of caprice with booking agents”.

 

 

Vanderham – whose awful home back-story emerges, terrifyingly, in the second act – plays it wonderfully: Lang insultingly speaks of her as being “like an unremarkable narrow body of water” which it would be tranquil to live alongside, and initially her socialite psychobabble and politeness are cruelly ludicrous. But Homer’s plan, a bit like a rather madder Henry James novel, collapses in chaos due to her inclination for “a renovation” . The interval sees the prop team fill the room to the ceiling with sitll more junk – cooking pots, suitcases, drifts of paper, a birdcage, a lacrosse stick, a softball jammed in a typewriter. And Vanderham’s return in the second act is startling, alarming and tragic.
All three performances are shattering at times: the first half belongs most to Scott, with his social impossiblity and savant concentration on remembered detail (“Nothing is ever lost on me, nothing ever leaves”) . In the second, Dawson rises to a truthful grief for their isolation and co-dependence, addressing us through the fourth wall, lunging for normality, falling back, wanting “a tiny thing to happen”, anything. Scott nw becomes his albatross, simian, angry, insistent and needy; Vanderham speaks the slender hope that “We might have a final time, we three…”
Disintegration, trapped lives, slow suicide by Things. I never want to see it again but am glad I did. And glad, too, that our own too-cluttered house-move with its sentimental clinging and discarding was over before it opened.
box office http://www.thedazzle.co.uk to 30 Jan

RATING   four   4 Meece Rating

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS St James Theatre, SW1

A LORDLY FOGG  WITH  UNDERSTAGE COGS AND A  FAITHFUL FROG…

 
If you can’t face another panto (oh no you can’t) but want to share a treat with the young, this is one to head for: classic yet daft, constantly playful, even faintly educational if you insist (well, you could discuss Victorian Britain afterwards), and directed with holiday relish by Lucy Bailey. Whose designer Anna Fleischle has taken crafty advantage of the ultra-steep rake of the St James to create a glorious view into a pit in front of the stage: here are Heath-Robinson contraptions, bike wheels, cogs, brass levers, a piano, a kettle and innumerable small trapdoors through which hands of unseen workers briskly pass up – or take away – props.

 

As the auditorium darkens there is even a violent hissing and a steam whistle going POOP! on top of the proscenium. Thus the whole stage is a machine, with a stretch of treadmill for running along city streets. Later , with equally jolly home-made-looking adjustments, the framed stage becomes a train, various ships, and an elephant (big flappy sheet ears, flexible tubing, sound-effects). In a nicely pointed manner the Reform Club card-players who challenge Phileas Fogg to the high-speed (for 1872) circumnavigation sit right outside this vivid little rectangle, perched in high club chairs on the wall beyond the wings.

 
It is pointed because Laura Eason’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is at pains to mock the mechanistic exactitude of the hero’s affluent clubman life: he sacks a valet in the first scene for delivering his tea three degrees too cold, thus enabling Passepartout (SImon Gregor, neatly nimble, every inch the French acrobat) to get the job. The fact that Fogg’s life is underpinned by others’ unseen efforts is indicated by the hands rising through trapdoors from below; sometimes the engineers on ships and trains huff visibly below him. Eason is also, the programme anxiously says, keen to point out that such Victorian Englishmen had an armour-plated sense of Imperial entitlement, and little respect for foreign cultures.

 

 

One’s PC alarm goes off at this, but in the event it gives Robert Portal, who looks very fine in snow-white spats, a lot of opportunities to be ludicrously stiff. These he takes with relish (I specially like his refusal to go and see the Pyramids because “I have seen it all in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society” and has a date to play whist. The gradual unfogging of this semi-autistic savant (he has Bradshaw railway timetables by heart) is surprisingly touching. And one of the best laughs (not in the script, I notice) is when he has hijacked the tramp steamer and the skipper growls “there’s something of the docker about you” and Portal replies “Sweet of you, but I think not”.

 

The journey itself becomes increasingly fun, as he is pursued by Tony Gardner’s gloomily deadpan policeman who thinks he is a bank robber, and encounters foreigners and rescues the glamorous Indian widow (Shanaya Rafaat) from suttee, in a stiff dutiful Baden-Powell spirit which she gradually melts. It reaches a crescendo in the second act with a stormy, noisy struggle across the Atlantic; there’s even a moment of cast clambering through the stalls (Passepartout panhandling afte rhe misses the ship home after being stuck an opium den), in which Gregor climbed over me in the matinee pointing to the notebook and shouting “Une critique! Une critique! Zey can close shows! Zis never closes!” .

 

But the physical comedy and the small supporting cast’s quick-change characeters t make it most fun and playful (children love shows which they think they can go home and do themselves, with sheets and an upturned kitchen table) . The various interludes on swaying decks are done with great precision and there are some priceless moments of deliberate upstaging , especially by Eben Figueiredo and Tim Steed, who are hilarious. It’s all just far over the top to reassure you that yep, it’s Christmas…
box office http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk | 0844 264 2140
to 17 Jan

rating four4 Meece Rating

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